Oppression, Privilege, & Resistance edited by Lisa Heldke

The following article is adapted from “Five Faces of Oppression” by Iris Young. The article was originally a
chapter in Oppression, Privilege, & Resistance edited by Lisa Heldke and Peg O’Connor (published by
McGraw Hill in Boston, 2004).
In addition, the portion of this article that refers to the “Culture of Silence” is adapted from a chapter written
by Paulo Freire called “Historical Conditioning and Levels of Consciousness” in his book The Politics of
Education translated by Donaldo Macedo (published by Bergi & Garvey in London, 1921).
What is Oppression?
In its traditional usage, oppression means the exercise of tyranny by a ruling group. Yet,
oppression creates injustice in other circumstances as well. People are not always
oppressed by cruel tyrants with bad intentions. In many cases, a well-intentioned liberal
society can place system-wide constraints on groups and limit their freedom. Oppression
can be the result of a few people’s choices or policies that cause embedded unquestioned
norms, habits, and symbols. These societal rules can become an restrictive structure of
forces and barriers that immobilize and reduce a group or category of people.
No matter which definition you use, oppression is when people reduce the potential for
other people to be fully human. In other words, oppression is when people make other
people less human. This could mean treating them in a dehumanizing manner. But, it could
also mean denying people language, education, and other opportunities that might make
them become fully human in both mind and body.
People should be free to pursue life plans in their own way. Oppressive forces seek to
diminish those plans and thus those people as well.
What the Different Types of Oppression?
According to Iris Marion Young, there are five “faces” or types of oppression: violence,
exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, and cultural imperialism.
Exploitation is the act of using people’s labors to produce profit while not
compensating them fairly. People who work in sweat shops are exploited. Although they
are paid for their efforts and toils, they are not paid a fair wage considering how much
money they make for the company. Miners in Africa are also exploited when they have to
rent their mining tools everyday. If these miners find nothing of value on any given day, then
they owe for the supply rental and are not paid for their efforts.
Exploitation uses capitalism to oppress. The economic theory of capitalism states that
people are free to exchange goods freely. Yet, whenever this has happens throughout
history, it has created different classes of people: wealthy and poor. Karl Marx, the father of
socialism, said that capitalism creates “haves” (those that have wealth) and “have-nots”
(those that do not have wealth). Typically in a capitalistic society, the “haves” end up
exploiting the “have-nots” for their hard work. Therefore, exploitation creates a system
that perpetuates class differences, keeping the rich richer and the poor poorer.
Marginalization is the act of relegating or confining a group of people to a lower social
standing or outer limit or edge of society. Overall, it is a process of exclusion.
Marginalization is in some ways worse than exploitation because society has decided that it
cannot or will not use these people even for labor. Most commonly, people are
marginalized based upon race. One prominent example is the Aboriginal communities of
Australia that were excluded from society and pushed farther and farther away from their
homelands as cities grew. The marginalization of Aborigines happened when society met
the needs of white people and not the needs of the marginalized themselves. Thus,
marginalization is closely linked to the idea of whiteness.
In the U.S., most marginalized groups are racially marked. Yet, this racial exclusion also
occurs in countries outside the U.S.—Blacks or Indians in Latin America, and Blacks, East
Indians, and Eastern Europeans, or North Africans in Europe.
Yet, marginalization is by no means the fate only of racially marked people. In the United
States a shamefully large proportion of the population is marginal: elderly people who are
fired from their jobs; young Blacks or Latinos who cannot find their first or second jobs;
many single mothers and their children; other people involuntarily unemployed; many
mentally and physically disabled people; and American Native Indians, especially those on
Marginalization expels a whole category of people from useful participation in social life. As
a result, these groups are subjected to severe material deprivation (they don’t have access
to basic resources) and even extermination (such as genocide).
The idea of powerlessness links to Marx’s theory of socialism: some people “have”
power while others “have-not”. The powerless are dominated by the ruling class and are
situated to take orders and rarely have the right to give them. Some of the fundamental
injustices associated with powerlessness are inhibition to develop one’s capacities, lack of
decision making power, and exposure to disrespectful treatment because of the lowered
In the U.S., the powerless do not participate in basic democratic processes because they
feel that they can’t or that their participation won’t mean anything. In most cases, it means
not voting or participating in any decision making process.
However, the deeper forms of powerlessness are far more insidious. Brazilian educational
philosopher Paulo Freire believes that powerlessness is the strongest form of oppression
because it allows people to oppress themselves and others. It is easiest to explain by
making a connection to Harriet Tubman, a famous freed African American runaway slave
and abolitionist. Tubman once wrote “I would have free thousands more, if they had
known they were slaves.” In these words, Tubman conveys that some slaves felt so
powerless, thought so little of themselves, and were so indoctrinated by the mindsets of
their slave masters that they didn’t realize that they were slaves. In fact, its quite possible
some slaves didn’t even realize that something was wrong with society and that they were
being treated unjustly.
This is an example of powerlessness that creates what Freire calls a Culture of Silence.
According to Freire, oppressed people become so powerless that they do not even talk
about their oppression. If they reach this stage of oppression, it creates a culture wherein it
is forbidden to even mention the injustices that are being committed. The oppressed are
silenced. They have no voice and no will.
Of course, there are still varying levels of silence. A surface level of silence is when the
oppressed know they are being oppressed but cannot talk about it or voice their suffering
or concerns. African American slavery in the U.S. provides a prime example. Slaves were
forbidden to talk to one another about their horrid situations and many lacked the words
to communicate their thoughts and feelings. Yet, slaves were extremely resourceful and
would find hidden ways to voice themselves.
A deeper level of silencing occurs through indoctrination. At this stage, the oppressed
actually believe that they are “naturally inferior” to the ruling class. They are taught by
oppressors that their inferiority is normal and a fact of life. They do not know that they
have a voice. In addition, education and literacy are withheld so as to prevent them from
gaining knowledge about themselves and stop them from finding means to communicate
their thoughts and feelings.
According to Freire, one of the main means of indoctrinating the oppressed is to give them
negative images of themselves. The oppressed are dehumanized and taught to believe the
negative perceptions as fact. The most dangerous part of this process of indoctrination is
when these negative images are internalized and become a part of the oppressed person’s
own beliefs. At this point, the oppressed aren’t silent because they are forced to be; they
are silent because they choose to be.
The only way to fight against powerlessness and the Culture of Silence is to gain a greater
consciousness. Oppressed people throughout history have gained a greater understanding
and consciouness of themselves and others through education, literacy, and self-reflection.
It is through the act of using their voice and gaining a critical perspective of their oppressors
that the oppressed are able to free themselves of indoctrination and (eventually) free their
bodies from oppression as well. Freire calls this process of gaining critical consciousness
Cultural Imperialism involves taking the culture of the ruling class and establishing it
as the norm. The groups that have power in society control how the people in that society
interpret and communicate. Therefore, the beliefs of that society are the most widely
disseminated and express the experience, values, goals and achievements of these groups.
American culture is built upon the Judeo-Christian belief systems coupled with an Anglo
culture derived from Britain. As a result, America’s fundamental beliefs and values are the
same as Christian beliefs and values and Anglicized/White beliefs and values. While
America does not have an official language, it is no surprise that English is the dominant
language and other languages are looked down upon.
Cultural imperialism has persisted over time. Modern India is a good example. India was
colonized by the British Empire. Their language and some of their belief system was taken
over by the language and belief system of the British. Therefore, modern Indians speak
English and have many mannerisms of the British generations after their enslavement by
Britain has ended.
Across the world, sexuality is a common example of cultural imperialism. The dominant
group in society is heterosexual, so all other types of sexuality are grouped as Others and
viewed as inferior or abnormal. Culture and education systems reinforce the notion that
heterosexuality is normal and better (a social phenomenon called “heteronormity”). Those
who have different types of sexuality are told to become heterosexual.
Those who are oppressed by cultural imperialism are both marked by stereotypes and
made to feel invisible. The stereotypes define what they can and cannot be. At the same
time, these same stereotypes turn these people into a mass of Others that lack separate
identities. The White male can have a distinct identity and be an individual because he
holds the most power. All other groups are just “groups” of Others.
Violence is probably the most obvious and visible form of oppression. Members of some
groups live with the knowledge that they must fear random, unprovoked attacks on their
persons or property. These attacks do not necessarily need a motive but are intended to
damage, humiliate, or destroy the person.
In American society, women, Blacks, Asians, Arabs, gay men, and lesbians live under such
threats of violence. And in at least some regions, Jews, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, and other
Spanish-speaking Americans must fear violence as well. All forms of sexual violence and
hate crimes are prevalent examples of violent oppression. Most, if not all, violent
oppression is the direct result of xenophobia (an intense and irrational fear of people, ideas,
or customs that seem strange or foreign).

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