Teaching Oppression

An exploration of the unexpected ways cause and effect show up in social justice education.

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One of the perils of doing social justice education is you can inadvertently teach someone oppression – even their own oppression.

Back in 2011, I was performing one of my shows and talking about stereotypes with the audience. In an effort to make up an inane stereotype so we could talk about the idea in the abstract, instead of using a “real” example (which might become a distraction), I said, “It’d be like if we had the stereotype that, say, Native people really loved playing, I don’t know, lacrosse.”

In my mind, this was perfectly safe. I picked a marginalized group that most people can’t list a litany of stereotypes about and a sport that I 100% mentally connected to privileged, boarding-school-attending, White people.

To my surprise, someone near the front of the crowd shouted out, “That’s a real thing! There’s actually a stereotype about Native people and lacrosse.”

“What? Are you serious?” I replied. Thinking maybe they were just trying to be funny.

“Yeah, I’m a Native woman. It’s a thing, trust me.”

Then, from the other side of the crowd of about 1,000 university students, we all hear, “Aw shit. I’m a stereotype.”

Everyone turns to see the speaker is another Native woman, who is apparently sharing my confusion – on her face is a mix of hilarity and shame for not knowing the stereotype. For different reasons – mine professional and hers personal – we both obviously felt dumbfounded we didn’t already know this, and we were now learning about it, publicly, in front of a thousand people.

The crowd laughed as me and this person covered our faces in shame, and I said, “Okay – let’s try a different example.”

Learning Outcome: “I’m Oppressed”

The general format of social justice education involves the following:

  1. We point out an disparate outcome in society. For example, this could be a disparity in wages, housing, nutrition, education, representation, or more. Basically any situation where certain groups have more access to a thing than other groups.
  2. We connect the dots between that disparate outcome to disparate access. That is, we say that power and privilege (or marginalization and oppression) are responsible for the difference in outcome between groups.
  3. We explain how that power structure came to be, or what allows it to continue operating in that way. For example, we look at history (e.g., laws, trends, norms), the law (e.g., as its written, enforced vs. unenforced), social norms (i.e., the informal laws that govern our behavior), and systems (e.g., governments, corporations, legal systems, medical systems, educational systems).
  4. We (usually) propose a solution, or a way to balance the power. That is, we say, “This is how we might do things differently, for a more equitable outcome in this regard.”

Sometimes educators only focus on one of those things, or skip a step (e.g., skipping #2 and assuming it as a given). But that’s the general make-up of a lot of the social justice education that happens in classrooms, workshops, conferences, trainings, and retreats.

It works because it (1) introduces people something they might not have known; (2) helps them see the connection between that thing and social injustice; (3) makes the invisible visible; and (4) gives them steps toward alleviating that injustice, if they feel so motivated.

It’s powerful. You’ll often hear things like, “I had no idea things were so bad. I’m going to be signing up for that thing you mentioned as soon as I get home. Thank you!”

But there’s another outcome this format often produces, a thing you’ll often hear in social justice education spaces: “I had no idea it was this bad for my group. I didn’t even really think of us as ‘oppressed’ in this way.”

You’re welcome?

The Wheel Turns on Oppression

Sometimes that same thing will come up, but in a different, more gunky (and potentially explosive) way.

I’ve been in workshops where the facilitator was actively arguing with a participant about whether or not that participant was “oppressed.”

And I don’t mean the participant was saying, “Hey! You’re ignoring this aspect of oppression that I’ve experienced. Please reconsider!” That’s also a thing that I’ve seen countless times and it doesn’t gunk things up, it greases the wheels of this social justice education format.

What gunks up the works is when a participant holds a marginalized identity that the education is focusing on, and they say that they don’t experience oppression – either in the way it’s being discussed, or, more troublesome, at all.

(If you’re noticing the irony of me labeling a marginalized person not experiencing oppression as “troublesome,” I encourage you to linger on that feeling for a moment, then hold that thought. We’ll get there.)

Then we have the facilitator saying some mix of:

  • You don’t speak for your entire group, and lot of other people experience oppression in these ways;
  • You probably hold other privileges that are making this experience invisible to you; or
  • Yes you do, you just don’t realize it.

For example, here’s a scenario that I got to witness one time:

Facilitator: “One example of racism is that Black people get followed in stores and treated like potential criminals.”

Black participant, raising hand: “Excuse me! I’ve literally never had that happen.”

Facilitator: “Okay, but for darker-skinned Black people, this is a daily reality.”

(If you noticed my saying “got to witness one time”, instead of “painfully witnessed”, then it might be because you didn’t know the facilitator in this case was White. As a social justice educator, seeing this play out second-hand felt like watching my stunt double take a hit for me. What ensued was a whole lot of “Oof!”)

While I’ve never been that facilitator, I sympathize with them.

I’ve certainly been in similar roles, working to convince people that a certain aspect of oppression is real, even if they don’t feel it.

I should say that never feels good, as an educator. At least to me. I find no joy in teaching people about oppression, particularly “their” oppression. And I’ve always had mixed feelings about it when it was happening, and wished there was a way to avoid doing so altogether. But in the end, this has always been part of what we do.

Because we have to. It’s a necessary component of the vehicle of social justice education. Without oppression, the thing just can’t go anywhere.

Road Tripping

When you take this vehicle of social justice education on the road, you can’t help but notice these feelings again and again, that by teaching people about oppression, we might also be teaching them oppression.

Nowhere has this feeling of teaching people their own oppression been more palpable to me than in the work I’ve done around the world with justice-oriented NGOs.

Through online resources, curricula, in-person trainings, and lots of town-hall type gatherings in cities, towns, and villages, I’ve helped organizations help members of communities in developing nations recognize just how mighty the brunt of oppression is. Just how downtrodden they really are. Just how many “-isms” are driving their behavior, and structurally infesting their communities, that before they didn’t see as “-isms” at all, but as tradition, or merely “how things are.”

Mind you, we didn’t call it that. That wasn’t the goal of our work, or even one of the named intended outcomes. But characterizing it in that way isn’t inaccurate. And it’s certainly been an outcome – sometimes the outcome.

For example, educational efforts to point out structural sexism to women in Central Africa; or heterosexism (and homophobia) to men in Northern Africa and the Middle East; or cissexism (and transphobia) to transgender, third gender, and/or gender non-conforming people South Asia; or racism to aboriginal people in Oceania.

And I’ve regularly been struck by the double-edged sword of the work we were doing. Here’s a conversation I’ve had several dozen times, with other social justice educators who have done work in these areas:

“Now that we’ve made these women aware that something they were totally used to and that seemingly didn’t bother them, is actually sexism – sexual violence – and not something present in other cultures… Do you think that their lived experiences, day to day, are better or worse now?”

“Better, right? It has to be.”

“Yeah, of course. I mean – but do you think they’re happier now? Or do you think it’s possible we’ve made them miserable? Is ignorance bliss?”

“Even if that’s true, isn’t it worth it to maybe make them unhappy now, to enable them to be happier later, after dismantling the sexism?”

“Yeah yeah yeah. Of course.”

To put this a different way, if we were measuring suffering points, it often feels like we’re taking someone who believes they are a 3, and is living their life as a 3, and showing them they’re actually a 7 or an 8. And we’re doing this so that they can do a lot of work, individually and as a society, to create the possibility for them, somewhere down the road, to be a 2, and eventually – Maybe! Ideally! – a 1 or 0.

Identities as Indicator Lights

The salience of identity within the social justice movement can be easily traced to the prominence of education as our vehicle for change.

In response to the centrality of identity, we’ll often hear, or wonder ourselves, “Isn’t the goal to move beyond labels? Or to not factor in who someone is, and treat them well, and have society not discriminate against them, regardless of their identities?”

Or people will paraphrase MLK: “What happened to the whole ‘contents of our character,’ not ‘color of our skin’ idea?”

Different social justice educators have different responses to these questions, or the general pushback they represent.

Like with a lot of pushback to big themes in social justice, one response is simply to toss it out. And a lot of people take that route. It’s certainly the SJD-approved response: “If you’re asking that, you’re part of the problem. Byeeeeee.”

Other people rationalize this focus now as a lily pad to a different future. “Our goal isn’t for identity to always be salient, or something we have to focus on and draw a lot of attention to, but we can’t get to a socially-just future without this step.”

And other people double-down on identity as an end goal of social justice. This line of thinking doesn’t see us moving away from the prominence of identity, but instead holding on to it – suggesting that, for example, a future that’s “colorblind” will inevitably be racist. In this argument, “identity doesn’t matter” is something that will always uphold oppression, and a socially-just world will be one where identity is always central.

The way I’ve always responded to this question is different still. I’ve said that identity is a useful indicator of oppression, and a way for us to identify (uh oh – is a dad joke incoming?) systemic bias, barriers, and flaws in our society (nope – no joke, of any identity, just a coincidence of phrasing).

If you took your car to a mechanic, it wouldn’t be useful to say “My car’s broke.” The more specific, detailed insight you can provide, the quicker they can fix the problem.

Much like how indicator lights on the dashboard of your car can help you pinpoint a problem (“Oh, my tires air pressure is low”), identity can help us remedy and fix problems in society (“Oh, so this a gender thing.”).

But sometimes the indicator lights aren’t helpful, and we have to take a different approach to solve the problem.

“Check engine? Oh… the engine. Yes, of course, let me check the engine.

To Keep Going, We Need [More] Oppression

Social justice education happens in a million different ways today. It’s not just in formal settings (like the workshops and trainings and classes I mentioned earlier), but something that happens interpersonally, via social media, and even (especially?) at family gatherings.

Increasingly, within the social justice movement, there is a feeling of pressure that every space should be a space for education. And social justice dogma (SJD) inflates that pressure into an ultimatum: if you don’t turn every moment you notice something oppressive into a social justice teachable moment, you’re a bad person.

“Sorry to be that person, but…” is something you hear a lot. Something you might find yourself saying.

Sometimes, you feel how sorry they really are. It’s like they’ve been shouldering a burden, weighed down by it for days or months or years, and they know how it’s about to feel when it gets dumped on you. Where before you were weightless, enjoying that thing or saying that thing or doing that thing without a care in the world, now that thing comes with a bag of emotional concrete. Lift with your knees.

Sometimes, it doesn’t feel like they’re sorry at all. In tone, delivery, facial expression (in person) or length of message (in social media), it seems like they’re very not sorry to be that person. Like they were going through their day (or scrolling through their feed) as a predatory listener, looking for exactly the opportunity to be that person, to pounce.

In either case, That Person is the effect more than they’re the cause. They’re the exhaust of the well-oiled engine of social justice education as much as they’re driving the vehicle.

If it feels like you’re running into That Person everywhere nowadays, you’re not necessarily wrong. But I’d bet the reason you attribute that to isn’t what I’m about to say. It’s not because we’re more connected because of social media, or because we’re more polarized politically than any other point in our lives, or even because the world feels like it’s on fire (and big parts of it literally are!) and everyone is suddenly pulling the alarm. All of those things are true, and I don’t think they’re the cause of That Person popping up everywhere.

Because as social justice education has become more interpersonal, the need for there to be more things for us to educate people on has increased commensurably.

Before, social justice educators really only had to have a few big hits, and we would play them audiences everywhere (e.g., “Power and privilege,” “Systemic oppression,” “Freebird”). We might have gotten sick of saying the same words, but because the audiences changed every time, they didn’t get sick of hearing them. So we didn’t need more words.

But that changed as social justice education moved from happening mostly in formal spaces to being done everywhere, by everyone – at least anyone who isn’t part of the problem.

I read an example in a Seth Godin book about the popularity of a website that sells magic tricks that comes to mind here. Here’s a terrible paraphrase of it: professionals don’t need to buy a lot of magic tricks, but amateurs do. Why? Because an amateur only has the same few people in their life (their friends, family, coworkers, and other victims) to do magic for, so they need to keep changing up the tricks.

In social justice, the trick of “not realizing you had White privilege is an aspect of White privilege” exhausts its “Tadaaa!” the first time you perform it. To get that same reaction again, you need a new trick. And there are no shortage of tricks on offer.

If you follow the right Twitter feed, or Facebook page, or social-justice-oriented blog, you’ll get a new trick you can perform every day.

What I’m saying is there is no shortage of new oppression to point out. What I’m not saying is that sites – or us as a movement – are “manufacturing” this oppression. Nor am I really saying it’s “new” – but it’s new to you, and once you see it, it’s hard to unsee it, and you’re bound to see it everywhere.

On an average day, you might stumble upon 7 New Ways You Didn’t Know You Were Being Oppressed before lunch. And another two dozen ways you’re perpetuating it.

Then you’ll see one of those thirty-one things in the wild (which won’t take long, because the world is an oppressive place, and you have thirty-one new ways of noticing that), and you’ll be hearing SJD on your shoulder saying either “Point this out or you’re a bad person” or “If you point this out you’re a good person!”, and all of a sudden you’re That Person.

It’s a Thing

I never looked into whether or not it was “a thing,” the stereotype that Native people play lacrosse.

I joked with the crowd after that interaction that they were teaching me oppression. We laughed about that, and moved on to talk about other things, other examples.

Not that I’m doubting that person in the crowd, I’m not. I’m sure it’s a thing for her. But more broadly, I never researched it, or tried to better understand it. I didn’t go home and google “Native people lacrosse stereotype,” and I haven’t run it by Native or Indigenous activist friends of mine to vet it. “How do you think I should have responded?”

These are things I’ve done so many times before. After an instance like that, when I learned about a new way oppression showed up in society, I’d dig into it.

While doing anti-oppression (or liberation) work, you end up learning a ton of different forms oppression takes, the oppressive backstories to otherwise innocent things, and the million little ways we enable global systems of oppression every day in our individual decisions.

After awhile, after you see enough examples of oppression, you hit a point where nothing surprises you. Where “What?!” is no longer a reaction you can muster, and “of course that’s a thing” slips out like an exhale.

But as a social justice educator, you want to better understand the oppressive thing in case it comes up again. So you think “Of course that’s a thing,” then you still dig into it. To be able to answer questions about it. To be able to teach others.

Like I said, however, I never dug into the Native people lacrosse stereotype.

At the time I couldn’t have known this, but throughout the entire decade that followed it would never come up again for me. I was never in a situation where I needed to understand the origins of that stereotype, or know the historical connection, or cultural misconception, or whatever it was that led to it being a thing.

Had I dug into it, I bet whatever I learned would have been interesting, and might have felt important (and might be important), and I would have likely shared all the things I learned with countless other people over the years.

And maybe I would have taught more people about the stereotype, in order to unravel it. And pushed back when people (even Native people) said it wasn’t a thing. Whatever I learned would have, undoubtedly, been connected to bigger things, like White supremacy and genocide of Native people, so I would have helped others make those connections. And in that way it would have seemed like a necessary puzzle piece in creating a future that was equitable and just for Native people.

Because here’s another perilous thing about social justice education:

Once you know about an oppressive thing, it’s hard not to think, on some level, that everyone in the whole world needs to know it, and understand it, before we can move past it, before we can accomplish the goals of social justice.

And when you set the bar that high, it’s impossible to fail, because it’s impossible to succeed.

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