Unlearning Oppression

Unlearning Oppression

July 10th, 2008 by waynemellinger

I am teaching Racism and Sexism in America at Antioch University Santa Barbara this summer quarter. I call my class “Unlearning Oppression” because I deal with the interconnections of class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, ability, immigration status, etc.  My goal is to create a climate in which students can both deal with their own issues as people who are oppressed and deal with their issues as people who are oppressors. 
To unlearn oppression and to dismantle the foundations of our “dominator culture”, we must acknowledge our everyday oppressive practices.  Moreover, we must engage in critical self-reflection, get the correct information, deal with our negative emotions, gain insight into our own passivity and become actively anti-oppressive.
Oppression is the acts and effects of domination, including ideological domination and institutional control.  Ann Cudd (2006, p. 52) defines oppresion as “the existence of unequal and unjust institutional constraints”.  These constraints involve harm to at least one other group on the basis of a social institution that serves to the benefit of another social group.  This harm comes about through coercion, or the use of unjustified force.
There are many systems of oppression in the US, including racism, imperialism, patriarchy, heterosexism, ageism, ableism.  These are interlocking societal, economic, moral and religious values that keep many people down to ensure the power and advantage of a few groups of people.
There are three different forms of oppression:
  1. institutional oppression–which occurs through the ‘normal’ ways that society operates.  No individually-motivated hatred needs to be in operation for institutional oppression to work.  It is often the hardest to see, but is the most prevalent and damaging;
  2. interpersonal oppression–which occurs between individuals and is usually based on personal prejudice;
  3. internalized oppression–when members of an oppressed group oppress one another and their own group.

My theoretical approach is informed by the writings of Patricia Hill Collins, Ricky Sherover-Marcuse, and Anne Bishop.  I supplement this theoretical model with prominent readings from the sociological literature on social stratification, ‘race relations’, gender inequality, LGBT studies, etc.

Through reading Paul Kivel’s “The Power Chart Revisited“, we learn that we are all potentially both oppressors and oppressed. We deconstruct the categories of those “with power” and those “without power” to see that a dualistic logic that underlies our Western thinking on these subjects that often hides the complex realities.

Learning Oppression as Children
We learn oppression through our own oppression as children. Several authors point to early childhood experiences as central to developing “power over” mentalities.  As Sherover-Marcuse states:
“People hurt others because they themselves have been hurt.  In this society we have all experienced systematic mistreatment as young people often through physical violence, but also through the invalidation of our intelligence, the disregard of our feelings, the discouraging of our abilities.  As a result of these experiences, we tend both to internalize this mistreatment by accepting it as ‘the way things are’, and externalize it by mistreating others.”
Adultism and the oppression of children are at the heart of my understanding of the nature of oppression in modern society.

The Matrix of Domination
Patricia Hill Collins urges us to reconceptualize race, class and gender as interlocking systems of oppression, what she calls the “matrix of domination“.  As she states:
“Placing African-American women and other excluded groups in the center of analysis opens up possibilities for a both/and conceptual stance, one in which all groups possess varying amounts of penalty and privilege in one historically created system. In this system, for example, white women are penalized by their gender but privileged by their race. Depending on the context, an individual may be an oppressor, a member of an oppressed group, or simultaneously oppressor and oppressed.”

Everyday Oppression
Everyday oppression refers to those practices which, while so much a part of our everyday lives that they seem normal and thus go unquestioned, discriminate against members of some “minority” group.
Everyday oppression occurs within interactions routinely and includes all actions, verbal and nonverbal, which result in negative consequences, regardless of intentionality.  Thus, oppression does not have to be blatant, conscious or deliberate.  Therefore, many well-intended people are unaware that their actions are oppressive.
Everyday oppression sometimes occurs through inaction rather than through overt actions.  The passivity of well-meaning people, fueled by ignorance and indifference, is critical to the operation of dominator culture.  We often live in denial, refusing to acknowledge the consequences of our behavior.
Types of Everyday Oppression
  1. stereotypes are faulty generalizations that we make about groups of people;
  2. misinformation about group differences (ethnic groups, genders, sexual minorities, ability groups, etc)
  3. discomfort dealing with cultural and social differences;
  4. apprehension about different groups
  5. taking privileges (as whites, or males, or temporarily able-bodies, or…..)
  6. paternalistic attitudes (“we need to help those poor people”);
  7. self-righteous liberal pride (“but I’m colorblind”, “we have gay friends”,….)
In her book On Becoming an Ally (2001), Anne Bishop is concerned for “how many people, deeply engaged in the liberation of their own group, seemed not to be able to see their role in oppressing others, and how that comes full circle and perpetuates their own oppression”.  She has created a guidebook for would-be allies, underscoring the complimentary processes of both becoming aware of one’s own oppression and one’s possible roles in being an oppressor of others.  There are six steps in becoming an ally:
  1. Understanding oppression, how it came about, how it held in place and how it stamps its pattern on the individuals and institutions that continually recreate it;
  2. Understanding different oppressions, how they are similar, how they differe and how they reinforce one another;
  3. Consciousness and healing;
  4. Becoming a worker for your own liberation;
  5. Becoming an ally;
  6. Maintaining hope.

Bishop rejects the notion that there is a hierarchy of oppression.  Oppressions work as an interconnecting web, reinforcing one another.  “All oppressions are interdependent, they all come from the same worldview, and one can be solved in isolation.”
At the root of modern oppressions are “power-over” elites who take over other societies and accumulate resources for their own use that were formerly used to maintain life for most of the population.  Class, Bishop argues, “is both the result and the foundation of all other forms of oppression”.
No one chooses to be an oppressor–”we do so unconsciously out of our scars”.
Most people have experienced both the roles of oppressed and oppressor.  We must draw on our experiences as both to step out of the monination worldview.
To understand different forms of oppression requires a deep exploration of difference.  We must understand the visible and invisible forms of difference and the varied histories of diverse people.  We must learn to appreciate the similar ways in which oppression operates through power and hierarchy, stereotyping, violence and desire to separate and distinguish.

Learning about ourselves as oppressors is difficult because, by definition, some of the information we need to overcome the role is hidden from us.  “Part of the process of becoming a member of an oppressor group is to be cut off from the ability to identify with the experiences of the oppressed.”
Related to learning about ourselves as oppressors is to be able to acknowledge our own privileges.  A “both / and conceptual stance”, as Professor Collins calls is, requires us to see all groups as possessing varying amounts of penalty and privilege.  A central goal is to raise our consciousness about penalty and privilege in our own lives.  Consciousness raising can be a process of see these often taken-for-granted aspects of social life.

Unlearning Oppression and Critical Interactionism
Throughout this blog I have advocated a critical interactionist (CI) perspective on social life, which links close inspection of the everyday life to critical theoretical concerns for domination.  I have described critical interactionism as “the microsociology of domination”.  Living in a world of gross inequalities, various types of oppression, and ideological hegemony, I am interested in exploring how that world is produced and reproduced through concrete instances of social activity in the mundane moments of everyday life. 
Applying the critical interactionist framework to the concepts of “unlearning oppression” several interesting research topics emerge:
  • how exactly do we learn oppression in moments of our everyday lives?
  • how exactly is it unlearned?
  • what does “becoming an ally” look like in terms of how it managed in the instances of daily life?

I have already advocated using CI to examine “doing inequality“–that is, paying close attention to the social processes through which inequality is produced and reproduced.  I have also advocated studying resistance to oppression and domination, as well as how “consent” is manufactured.

Wayne Martin Mellinger 07-10-08


  1. I do truly agree with you. Meanwhile i would like to add that it is really very important for a one to Unlearn the harmful stuff and forget the memories which does nothing but hurts.

  2. How have you unlearned oppressive beliefs and practices in your life? It is do easy to be blind to our own complicit actions.). Forget? I'm ambivalent about that. Remembering does perpetuate stuff but forgetting can be dangerous.


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