Competing Oppression: A Diversion for Divisions

According to social justice activist and political-philosopher Iris Marion Young, there are five faces of oppression that an oppressed social group can experience: exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, violence, and cultural imperialism.

  1. Exploitation looks at how wealth is unequally distributed and is persistent in institutional structures;
  2. Marginalization is the exclusion of people or social groups from economic or political systems;
  3. Powerlessness refers to people who lack the “authority, status, and sense of self that professionals tend to have;”
  4. Violence refers to systematic violence and violent threats based on one’s identity;
  5. Cultural imperialism occurs when “the dominant meanings of a society render the particular perspective of one’s own group invisible at the same time as they stereotype one’s group and mark it out as the Other.”

Young stated, “…with these criteria one can plausibly claim that one group is more oppressed than another without reducing all oppressions to a single scale.” The resulting comparison would deem that social groups experiencing more faces will be more oppressed and more salient than groups experiencing fewer faces.

One can argue that creating a hierarchy of oppression might be an objective way to determine where the bulk of social justice and resistance initiatives should be targeted; and by engaging in this ranked process, we are exhibiting natural human behavior according to social dominance theory, which explicates that there is a “general tendency for humans to form and maintain group-based hierarchy.” While this theory is often used to explain the origin of oppression, in this context, it can be applied to the desire to rank levels of oppression.

Native Americans are an oppressed group and arguably experience all five faces of oppression. Native Americans are a marginalized group, with many people being unaware that Native Americans are still alive today. Additionally, Natives were and continue to be exploited for their land and the natural resources on their land; a present-day example is the Dakota Access Pipeline which plans to run through Indigenous lands and an Indigenous cemetery. Native Americans are powerless in terms of political and social capacity as the U.S. government continues to ignore them and impose policies that reduce their viability. For example, in the 1950s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs implemented a policy to relocate Indians from their reservations to urban communities in an attempt to “destroy tribal communalism.” Natives also faced violence in the form of massacres and forced relocation (i.e. the Trail of Tears). Lastly, colonization in and of itself is a comprehensive example of cultural imperialism as colonists forced their European way of life on Indigenous peoples by converting them to Christianity and forcing them to attend European-style schools. Although Native Americans have experienced all of Young’s five faces of oppression, one of these faces by itself would be sufficient for Native Americans to be considered an oppressed group.

Another example of an oppressed social group are rural Americans, but this group only clearly exhibits two of the five faces of oppression. Rural poverty, concentrated in Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, and other places across America, have generational impacts and can easily be interpreted as marginalization due to the increasing lack of opportunities in rural economies. As of 2016, a quarter of children raised in rural America were poor, this rate reached 36% in Arizona, and rural (nonmetro) poverty continually beats urban (metro) poverty, especially in the South. Empty villages with few jobs, closed schools, rural-urban migration leaving behind only old or poor people, plagues of meth abuse—this is not the American Dream anyone envisions, yet this is the reality for many Americans living in rural areas. Exploitation is also seen through the monopolization of agribusiness and offshoring of manufacturing jobs from corporate America that exacerbates the lack of economic opportunities in rural areas.

Source: USDA

According to Young’s faces of oppression, Native Americans are more oppressed than rural Americans as the former experiences all five faces compared to the latter’s two. Although they are both oppressed, often Native Americans and rural Americans are at odds aligning themselves on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Individuals belonging to oppressed rural America might also support a sports team that racistly charactiturizes Native Americans. You could even reference the sensationalized Cowboys vs. Indians dichotomy that, although is not relevant today, still effectively illustrates how these groups don’t typically operate on the same team. This lack of cohesion can be exacerbated by the desire to outcompete for oppression points.

This comparison of oppression is problematic in that oppressed groups can feel further marginalized and unheard in the decision-making arena as their oppression is delegitimized in comparison to the oppression faced by others. This can facilitate unproductive hostile relations, albeit towards the system or “competing” oppressed groups. Angela Davis and Elizabeth Martinez coined the term “Oppression Olympics” to refer to the possibility that social groups would compete for being the most oppressed. This lack of cohesion among oppressed groups prevents the unification of oppressed groups and stalls progress towards achieving justice. Audre Lorde states:

…it is a standard of right-wing cynicism to encourage members of oppressed groups to act against each other, and so long as we are divided because of our particular identities we cannot join together in effective political action.”

We saw this with the rise in the alt-right blaming immigrants for their lack of economic opportunities. The oppressors above all benefit from this hostility as blame gets thrown at the bottom rungs of the social totem pole (excuse me for the appropriated metaphor) and fails to accurately blame the oppressors, e.g. corporations outsourcing manufacturing jobs or monopolizing agribusiness. The desire to be heard and the presence of a listening leader blaming other groups for their oppression was a large contributing factor in the election of President Trump.

What if instead of utilizing the top-down societal divisions of Cowboys vs. Indians, Unemployed vs. Immigrants, Gay people vs. Black Christians, we focus on the reality of Oppressed vs. Oppressors. As Martin Luther King Jr. had stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

In an increasingly polarized society, we need to be wary of who our opposition actually is and who is working to propagate societal divisions, so we can come together as a nation and fight the oppression at its root rather than its diversion. United we stand, divided we continue to be oppressed.


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