Professor Sarah Stein
Vocabulary Entry: Oppression
15 January 2013
Oppression in its strictest sense is defined as the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner. However, the meaning of this term is quite broad and can apply to a wide variety of settings.
Oppression can generally be categorized into four main sections. The first kind is social oppression, which is systematic and socially supported mistreatment and/or exploitation of a specific group.
The second type is institutionalized oppression, which occurs when laws, customs, and practices systematically reflect and produce inequities based on an individual being a part of a targeted social identity.
Systematic oppression is the formal or informal institutionalization of oppression. Unlike institutionalized oppression itself, systematic oppression can be found within sociology, politics, and other areas not necessarily categorized as institutions. It can also be used to target specific groups or individuals through more informal means of oppression such as dehumanization and prejudice.
Lastly, internalized oppression occurs when members of an oppressed group begin to accept and internalize the oppressive attitudes of others toward themselves. Sometimes members of marginalized groups will hold an oppressive view of their own group, or will begin to believe in negative stereotypes. Examples of this include internalized sexism, internalized racism, and internalized homophobia.
Throughout the course of American history there have been many different cases of oppression. For example, the Jim Crow laws were state and local laws in the United States between the 1870’s and 1960’s. These ensured racial segregation in public facilities in Southern states by claiming a “separate but equal” status for African Americans.
However, conditions for African Americans tended to be inferior to those of white Americans, which constituted institutionalized and systematic oppression. An image demonstrating the racial segregation of public facilities, in this case drinking fountains, can be seen to the right.
Another example can be found in the fight for women’s suffrage, when laws in America forbid women from voting. These laws were a function of institutionalized oppression because this systematic inequality was based solely on the sex of the individual. The image to the right shows women suffragists in the early 20th century.
In the novel Herland one of the characters says:
“To the woman, growth, the securing of a husband, the subordinate activities of family life, and afterward such “social” or charitable interests as her position allows (Gilman 87).”
This quote is describing the role of women in Victorian society and is an example of the social oppression of women at the time. The sexual politics at the time consisted of the widely held belief that women were supposed to be “subordinate” to men; therefore placing them as the inferior sex. The last part of the quote is the most revealing; the statement “as her position allows” implies that a woman was limited in some aspect of her life due to her social status.
In the novel Angels in America one of the characters is named Roy Cohn. Roy is a homosexual man and he states:
“[H]omosexual is what I am because I have sex with men. But really this is wrong. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout (Kushner 52).”
This demonstrates internalized oppression; Roy has accepted the oppressive attitudes towards homosexuals, and refuses to label himself as one because doing so would marginalize him. He goes on to state, “Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, Henry, who fucks around with guys.” Roy believes that if he were to call himself homosexual we would lose his power and authority in law because of the heteronormative nature of the society he lives in.
Overall, we can see oppression manifested in many different forms and is quite prevalent in the literature we have read in class.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1979. Print.
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. New York: Theatre Communications Group. 1993. Print.
Jim Crow Laws. Digital Image. Weasel Zippers. Web. 15 Jan. 2013.
Women's Suffrage. Digital Image. Finding Dulcinea. Web. 15 Jan. 2013.
Oppression. Digital Image. Students for Liberty. Web. 15 Jan. 2013.
"Jim Crow Laws." Wikipedia. Web. 15 Jan. 2013.
"Heteronormativity." Wikipedia. Web. 15 Jan. 2013.