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"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"
Dr. Martin Luther King

Introduction to Systems of Oppression

Systems of oppression are complex frameworks that subtly but powerfully shape our society by dictating the distribution of power and resources. These systems operate by embedding inequities in the very fabric of our social, economic, and political institutions, influencing how we think, behave, and interact with one another.

 

As we navigate these entrenched structures, it becomes crucial to reflect on our roles—whether as bystanders, upstanders, or those directly affected by oppression. By understanding these roles and the pervasive impact of such systems, we can begin to challenge our assumptions and take active steps toward dismantling the barriers that divide us, paving the way for a more just and equitable society

"Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." - Frederick Douglass

 

Key Systems of Oppression Explored

 

Anti-Semitism

  • Defining the Hatred: Anti-Semitism is a profound form of hostility that has targeted Jewish communities through religious, ethnic, or racial discrimination. It is both an ancient malaise and a persistently modern threat that surfaces in various forms across different societies.

  • Characteristics and Manifestations: This system of oppression manifests through a wide range of behaviors and practices, from pervasive harmful stereotypes and socio-economic exclusion to acts of vandalism and violent assaults. Anti-Semitism’s resilience is evident in its adaptation to contemporary mediums, where it proliferates through online platforms, spreading misinformation and fueling hate speech that perpetuates discrimination.

"The road to Auschwitz was built by hate but paved with indifference." - Ian Kershaw

White Supremacy and Anti-Blackness

  • Understanding the Ideology: At the core of white supremacy and anti-blackness is the doctrine of racial superiority and inferiority, respectively. This ideology supports a socially constructed system of racial categorization, underpinning economic and social oppression that is intricately linked to the belief in inherent racial differences.

  • Systemic Impact: The impact of these ideologies is profound and pervasive, influencing everything from legislative frameworks to individual interpersonal interactions. They manifest in discriminatory policies such as racial profiling by law enforcement, unequal educational and employment opportunities, cultural erasure, and perpetuation of racial violence. These mechanisms reinforce a cycle of oppression that systematically marginalizes Black individuals and upholds white dominance in societal structures.

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. - Dr. Martin Luther King"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gender Discrimination

  • Recognizing Inequality: Gender discrimination is the unequal treatment and outright discrimination against individuals based on their gender. It transcends cultural, economic, and geographic boundaries, making it one of the most pervasive forms of oppression.

  • Visible and Invisible Barriers: The manifestations of gender discrimination can be observed in wage disparities, where women often earn significantly less than men for equivalent work. It extends to the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles within businesses and politics and is further compounded by societal norms that enforce traditional gender roles. These barriers not only restrict the professional growth of women and gender non-conforming individuals but also limit their personal development and societal contributions.

"If you are standing in the path of multiple forms of exclusion, you're likely to get hit by both." - Kimberlé Crenshaw

 

 

 

 

 

 

               

 

 

The Roles Within A System of Oppression

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Psychological Impacts of Oppression and Trauma

Cognitive Biases 

Survivors of trauma and oppression often develop cognitive biases as coping mechanisms, which can hinder healing and perpetuate victimization. These include confirmation biases, anchoring bias, and bandwagon effect. These biases can shape one's view of the world in a way that continuously affirms their sense of victimization. In particular, confirmation biases can manifest in a pervasive perception of racism and white supremacy, which may impact the ability to engage with differing perspectives.

Confirmation Bias

  • Definition: The tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses.

  • Impact on Decision-Making: Discuss how confirmation bias can lead to poor decisions because it involves only acknowledging information that confirms what we already believe.

  • Examples:

  • Media Representation: Media outlets might disproportionately report crimes involving racial minorities, reinforcing public stereotypes and biases.

Anchoring Bias

  • Definition: The common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the "anchor") when making decisions.

  • Impact on Decision-Making: Explain how initial information, prices, or estimates can heavily influence subsequent thoughts and decisions.

  • Examples:

  • Media Coverage: Initial reports that unjustly link Jewish individuals or Israel to negative events can anchor public opinion, which then colors the interpretation of subsequent related news.

Availability Heuristic ​​​

  • Definition: Overestimating the importance of information that is readily available to us.

  • Impact on Decision-Making: Discuss how this bias can lead to a skewed view of reality based on recent memory, leading to overestimations or underestimations of the frequency or likelihood of events.

  • Examples:

  • Gender Wage Gap: Prominent discussions and frequent reporting on the gender wage gap may lead to an overestimation of its uniformity across all professions, neglecting the nuances in specific sectors or roles.

Bandwagon Effect

  • Definition: The tendency to do (or believe) things because many other people do (or believe) the same.

  • Impact on Decision-Making: Highlight how this bias can prevent critical thinking, leading to groupthink where the decisions and opinions of groups are not evaluated critically.​

  • Examples:

  • Legislation: The introduction of anti-transgender bathroom bills in one jurisdiction may lead to a rapid spread of similar legislative efforts elsewhere, not based on evidence but because lawmakers perceive a shift in public opinion.

Conclusion

Systems of oppression intricately structure societal interactions and institutions, creating imbalances that consistently benefit certain groups while disadvantaging others. These systems, entrenched in every facet of social life, operate through clearly defined roles: the dominant, who hold power and influence; the non-dominant, who are marginalized; bystanders, who observe but do not act; and upstanders, who actively challenge and seek to dismantle these oppressive structures.

The psychological impact on those who are oppressed is profound and multifaceted. Being continuously subjected to systemic inequality can lead to a pervasive sense of helplessness and diminished self-worth, which are compounded by societal messages that reinforce their marginalized status. This environment fosters confirmation biases among the oppressed, where individuals may unconsciously accept and integrate negative stereotypes and societal judgments into their personal identity. Such biases are not only psychologically damaging but also reinforce the cycle of oppression by skewing the perceptions and expectations of the oppressed about themselves and their potential.

Overcoming these biases requires conscious effort and systemic change. Education plays a crucial role in illuminating the roots and realities of these oppressive systems and the biases they engender. Critical thinking and awareness can challenge and counteract the acceptance of distorted views imposed by systemic oppression. Moreover, fostering environments that promote and support upstander behavior can lead to meaningful social change. These environments encourage individuals to challenge oppressive norms and advocate for policies that address and dismantle systemic inequalities.

Ultimately, the journey to overcoming systemic oppression and its psychological impacts is continuous and requires a collective commitment to justice and equity. By understanding the roles within these systems, recognizing the deep psychological impacts, and actively working to counteract and overcome biases, society can move closer to a reality where equity is not just an ideal, but a lived experience for all.

Subordinated Group

The Marginalized 

Religious leaders, business leaders, government officials, experts, and influencers who manage the image and reputation of the group and benefit from the status quo. They have the ability to move through the system in other roles and shape the system by either reinforcing or challenging existing norms.

Wealth Gap: Control significant wealth, e.g., 748 billionaires in the US (Statista, 2024). Power Imbalance: Dominate key industries, contributing to wage stagnation (Kellogg Insight, 2019).

Dominating Group

The Gatekeepers

Individuals who suffer from a power imbalance from members of the dominating group that results in oppressive behavior, policies or programs that produces systematic disparities.  

Systemic Inequalities: Lower access to healthcare, education, and employment opportunities. Higher rates of incarceration and poverty.

Bystanders Group

The Watchers

Individuals who witness oppression but remain on the sidelines, their inaction often serving to perpetuate the status quo.

Inaction: Demonstrated by the bystander effect, where presence of others discourages intervention.

Upstanders Group

The Agents of Change

Individuals who actively fight against oppressive behavior, policies or programs, using their voices and actions to advocate for equality, safety, and wellbeing.

Impactful Advocacy: Non-profit leaders drive significant changes in policy and social awareness.

Role

Description 

Example of Traits 

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