Defining ‘Oppression’

To me, oppression conjures images of slavery, of suffragettes and of Assata Shakur. Oppression and the eventual revolution were always, in my mind, closely linked. Its existence and relevance to my life ironic in the sense that I knew I was oppressed but I didn’t know how deeply I was oppressed.

Oppression is defined in the Merriam Webster dictionary as (1) prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or control; (2) the state of being subject to unjust treatment or control; and (3) mental pressure or distress. I personally find the ideology of language fascinating, especially when you deconstruct with historical contexts. So when you look at how our society understands “oppression” it is absolutely mind-blowing.

Firstly, we have to agree that language and our understandings of the concepts presented by the language we use, are all social constructs. (google: social constructionism, social concepts) Basically this idea makes the claim that the dominant society created a language to interpret the world around us, for us. That seems reasonable, right? Look at how language has evolved since the dawn of the evolution into homo sapiens sapiens and you can see how the concept evolved with each of the major civilizations.

Okay, so if our dominant society in America created our understanding of how we interpret the world around us, then how does that affect us? Who is this dominant society anyway? Why does it matter? Great questions. Well, even if you ignore the statistical data of the majority race in America, and you look at the data that says which group of the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, economic status and religious affiliation has the most social, political and economic power in America, you will see that the white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, wealthy Christian/Catholic man is literally the most powerful group in the country. We all know that those who have the power to make decisions are the ones that control their playing fields; while the coach is on the sidelines calling plays it’s up to the team on the field to carry them out. And if your coach and your team are all of the same dominant group? Well, that means there won’t be a lot of diversity in the plays. And since science (and history) says that humans are naturally self-interested; you put a bunch of white men in charge of a nation and they will, unconsciously or consciously, protect their own.

Why does it matter that a bunch of rich white men run the country? Well first of all, let me ask you this – are you a rich white man? No? Do you think that the rich white man understands what it’s like to be something other than a rich white man? I don’t. That’s not a critique – I just know that I don’t know what it’s like to be anything other than a black woman so I doubt sincerely that the average rich white man knows what it’s like to be something that is labeled as non-conformist in our society. A social other. The problem is that when you build a country, both consciously and unconsciously for rich, educated white men by rich educated white men (like our founders), that social others are excluded, quite literally, in the very fabric of our society. The reason the constitution does not protect us–“us” being social others–is because the founders never even conceptualized that there would be a time where we would be seen as equals. Thomas Jefferson wrote a critique on the Negro race in Notes on the State of Virginia, saying:

“I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications.”

He also says that:

“Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one [black] could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.”

This is the man that reportedly married a Black slave. If he, who historically viewed Blacks humanity more highly than others during that time, kept these views on “the Negro race” then why would anyone else consider them in the constructions of this new country?

So back to oppression. The problem with this definition is that it is constructed through a white lens. Your understanding of the Civil Rights Movement was probably introduced as a struggle that peaked in the 1960s and was led by mainly Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and after Black people were given rights everything was solved. The common rhetoric we receive in our communities is that there’s no such thing as racism anymore… unless it’s against white people.

Let that one sink in.

An oppressed group defines what oppression is in order for that definition to enter society. What am I talking about? Well think about it; all oppressed groups throughout history had to revolt in order to have their perceived oppression to be acknowledged. Slavery is not wrong when those you enslave are still seen as animals by the dominant society. The dominant society constructs language, and in order for that definition to be built it has to be introduced and adopted by the dominant society. I can say I feel flabbergasted but until the definition is constructed within the the understanding of those around me, no one will know (or probably care) what I’m talking about.

So what happens when your oppressed group does not collective have the fundamental knowledge of sociological concepts to better define their oppression? The definition stays inconclusive. The oppression itself is never fully, truly resolved. The dominant group continues to oppress, unconsciously and consciously and builds the oppression even deeper into the societal norms, so that as time goes back and the systemic ideologies continue to maintain and evolve deeper into institutionalized oppression. And that, my dears, is the greatest challenge of our generation – rewriting the definitions, reconstructing our language so that we and future generations may build a better society.


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