Written by Dr. Christopher J. Owen
June is Pride Month, a month to not only celebrate and validate LGBTQ+ people and their right to exist, but also a month to commemorate a violent protest. In June 1969, when police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in New York City, the patrons rioted. Led primarily by trans women of colour, drag queens and homeless LGBTQ+ young people, these riots became the catalyst for the LGBTQ+ liberation movement. One year later, the first ever Pride march commemorated the Stonewall Riots. Since then, we have celebrated Pride in resistance to shame, in resistance to erasure and discrimination, and in resistance to a system of heteronormative and cisnormative oppression.
And the fight isn’t over. This June, we’re seeing two key issues rise to the surface, both of which require urgent action. The first, sparked by the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in America, is of course the important fight against racism around the world. The second, brought on by MP Liz Truss, are significant threats to trans rights in the UK, especially for trans young people.
In order to resist issues of both racism and transphobia, it may be helpful to first understand how systems of oppression work. Far too often people frame this as bigotry and hate, as ignorant people who are backwards-thinking and act in ways that are uncharacteristic for contemporary Western societies. But systems of oppression are significantly more complicated than that, and to effectively resist them we need to understand them as best as possible.
While this post is longer than most, it is written with the hope of supporting those unfamiliar with the complex nature of systemic oppression. This post is not designed to tell those with lived experiences of oppression, or those with years of experience in activism, how to better resist. Hopefully this post will improve education, and help prepare allies to join in this very important work in ways that are active and intentional in bringing systemic change.
What is Systemic Oppression?
Systemic oppression is complicated but not too hard to understand once you break it down. As bell hooks explains in her book Feminist Theory, ‘Being oppressed means the absence of choices’ (pg. 5). In essence, it’s all about how easy or difficult it is for someone to access opportunities, which can range from the opportunity to have your pronouns respected, to the opportunity to get a job, to the opportunity to walk down the street safe from police violence. These are all different kinds of opportunities with different levels of danger, but they are all forms of systemic oppression.
Drawing off the work of Black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins, let’s dive into the four key areas of oppression, and how each of these can be resisted in different ways. This exploration will be discussing the structures of oppression, rather than the experiences of oppression, and should hopefully provide a framework for thinking critically when we work toward resisting these oppressions.
Interactions (The Interpersonal Domain)
‘That’s so gay!’ You may have heard it a million times, so often that it’s lost all meaning. But the truth is these words imply that being gay is negative in some way. The way we talk to and about one another, even in really common ways, can often be a part of a bigger system of oppression that shapes our daily lived experiences.
Patricia Hill Collins explains this as ‘The Interpersonal Domain of Oppression,’ a term to describe the ‘day-to-day practices of how people treat one another’ that are ‘so familiar that they often go unnoticed’ (Black Feminist Thought, pg. 287). According to racial justice scholar Ian F. Haney López, these behaviours that come to define normal interactions help create a sense of ‘this is the way things are done and have always been done’ when in reality these behaviours work to insist that ways of being white or male or straight (etc.) are better than ways of being anything else (“Institutional Racism,” pg. 1723).
Oppressive interactions come to create something called ‘cognitive biases.’ These prejudices are unconscious, meaning that we’re not always aware of them, but they still impact our behaviour and how we treat one another. Examples might include assuming a person’s gender or sexual orientation, refusing to share an elevator with a Black person, not taking women’s ideas as seriously as men’s ideas, talking down to young people, or treating disabled people as pitiable inspirations. All of these kinds of interactions may not be intentionally harmful, and you may not even notice yourself doing any of them, but they all contribute to a larger system of oppression.
Patricia Hill Collins argues that those who are ‘actively engaged in changing the terms of their everyday relationships with one another’ resist the oppression of the interpersonal domain of power (Black Feminist Thought, pg. 288). This doesn’t mean that if you have a Black friend you’re not racist anymore, it means being intentional in the way you treat other people to break away from those oppressive ‘day-to-day practices.’ This includes understanding your own privileges, calling people out when needs be, affording opportunities to others who you might not have considered, and empowering other people to take lead when you can. Creating new and more positive ways of interacting with others is a powerful first step in resisting systems of oppression.
Beliefs (The Hegemonic Domain)
Every society has its own belief systems, culture and agreed ‘common sense’ ideas. While these may not seem inherently oppressive, they all contribute to what Patricia Hill Collins calls ‘The Hegemonic Domain of Oppression,’ also known as ‘hegemony.’ Hegemony is a rather complicated concept, and has roots in theories of Marxism (critiques of capitalism in relation to social class), but ultimately it comes down to how the way we think as a society creates certain hierarchies and exclusions that justify systems of oppression.
Let’s start with hierarchies (the belief that some people are better than others.) We see these all the time, such as the belief that men make better leaders than women, that Black people are more violent than white people, or that Christianity is the most civilized religion. None of these beliefs are accurate, but they all exist very strongly in our society, and have created hierarchies that position white Christian men above any other group. That doesn’t mean that white Christian men are bad people, just that society has unfairly placed them at a top of a social hierarchy.
Hierarchies are created in three key ways: contribution value, biased perspectives of history, and us vs them ideas.
- Contribution value: This has to do with measuring the value of a group of people based on how we understand how much they’ve contributed to society. A person is more valuable if they are recognised for creating things that society prizes. But not in a way that is fair or accurate. Society needs food, but we do not put farmers at the top of a hierarchy. Instead, we prize films, and so movie stars are seen as offering a really valuable contribution to society. From here, if you look at the list of Academy Award-Winning actors, we’ll see that white people have won far more than any other race. This creates the false belief that white people contribute more than Black, Asian or other minority ethnic groups, rather than admitting that the Oscars are racist in their selection of winners. And this isn’t just with movies, we see this everywhere. For example, we can see this with how company CEOs are usually men, creating the false belief that men are better business-people than women, when in reality men are just given the opportunity to be hired as CEOs more frequently and more easily than women.
- Biased perspectives of history: History is told by the winners. How we understand history is not without its biases. Take, for example, the phrase ‘Canada is a country of immigrants.’ While a lovely idea of diversity, it misses two key points: first, there are people who are indigenous to Canada, and whose families never immigrated there; and second, the British and French colonised what is now known as Canada, it wasn’t immigration, it was mass genocide. The way we remember this history places the white ‘pioneers’ as brave adventurers discovering new lands, rather than as thieves and murderers who stole Indigenous Peoples’ lands. And this isn’t just true of Canada’s history, we do this all the time in the UK too. Beliefs like ‘trans identities didn’t exist until recently,’ or ‘the greatest athletes have all been men’ ignore real histories that often aren’t taught or spoken about in order to maintain an unfair social hierarchy.
- Us vs them ideas: ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.’ These ideas of distinct differences between groups are often used to suggest that one group of people are better or more normal, while another group of people are inherently worse. This then leads to generalisations about certain groups, such as ‘all women are emotional,’ or ‘Black men aren’t trustworthy.’ The most horrific result of this is that it can often lead to us struggling to see other groups as equally as human as we are. This isn’t just about seeing ourselves as better than others, but seeing others as so much less that we don’t necessarily do anything to make sure they don’t come to harm. This means that when Black people are disproportionately imprisoned in the UK, we can feel comfortable turning a blind eye to this problem.
Now let’s talk about exclusions (or the belief that certain social groups do not or should not exist.) Take for example the following description: ‘a man has two arms, two legs, and a penis.’ A lot of people would agree that this defines all men, when in reality it excludes those without particular limbs and trans men. Exclusions include the way that disabled and queer people are often forgotten about and erased from society. This is why queer people have to ‘come out’ and straight and cis people don’t. We’re all automatically assumed to be straight and cis because of a belief system that excludes being queer as an automatic possibility. And so asking a man if he has a girlfriend may not seem hateful, but it is an act of excluding the possibility that he may instead have a boyfriend or a non-binary partner. According to queer theorist Michael Warner in the introduction to his book Fear of a Queer Planet, these exclusionary systems testify ‘to the depth of the culture’s assurance (read: insistence) that humanity and heterosexuality are synonymous’ (pg. xxiii). Furthermore, there is an ‘assumption that this group [queer people], far from constituting one status among many, does not or should not exist’ (pg. xxv). Exclusions often have to do with three key ‘common sense’ belief systems: what is natural, moral and immortal.
- What is natural: There is a false belief that being queer is ‘unnatural.’ This leads to a belief system that there must be something physically or psychologically wrong with queer people. Likewise there is a belief in what a natural human body should do and look like, and so when disabled people do not meet these standards they are seen as defective and less than.
- What is moral: There is a long history of understanding queer people and relationships as perverted and dangerous. Likewise disabled people have often been characterised as uncivilised, and are often kept on the outskirts of society (or locked in institutions) so as to be kept out of the way.
- What is immortal: Many people are pretty freaked out by their own mortality. Having children is often understood as a way to prolong the human species, and so many queer people, in the false assumption that they cannot reproduce, seem like a threat to our species’ longevity. Likewise, disabled people are a reminder to us that our bodies can be harmed or changed. The fear of losing the ability to walk, see, hear, etc. creates a deep disgust and fear of disabled bodies.
Patricia Hill Collins argues that resistance to hegemony involves two key steps: first, learning to ‘not believe everything one is told and taught’ and second, ‘constructing new knowledge’ (Black Feminist Thought, pg. 286). Educating yourself and others is one of the most important things you can do as an act of resistance. Learning about your own country’s racist history, about women in leadership, about queer charities, about disabled researchers, and so on and so forth can help break down what we think is ‘common sense’ and help establish new belief systems and ways of understanding each social group. When a friend or family member says something racist, sit down and have that difficult conversation with them and try to educate them. When someone makes assumptions based on gender or sexuality, call them out and encourage them to be more open minded. When someone shares an article that critiques a particular group, fact-check it before sharing it. Insist that everyone gets to exist as equals in every space, even if it feels awkward, and hopefully, eventually, you won’t need to anymore.
Institutions (The Disciplinary Domain)
Not only do we have hierarchies based on belief systems, but we also have literal hierarchies in the way our institutions work. For example, in many schools there’s a ‘head teacher’ and then a ‘deputy head teacher’ and then there’s the ‘head of year’ and ‘head of department’ followed by the rest of the teaching staff. There’s a hierarchy, and almost every institution (from hospitals, to police stations, to the government), has hierarchies just like this. And while these just seem like a ‘chain of command,’ they are also used to manage systems of oppression, which queer philosopher Michel Foucault argues functions to train people into being more obedient (Discipline and Punish, pg.170). Patricia Hill Collins calls this ‘The Disciplinary Domain of Oppression,’ which she defines as ‘a way of ruling that relies on bureaucratic hierarchies and techniques of surveillance’ (Black Feminist Thought, pg. 280). There are four key areas to this form of ruling: policies, surveillance, ranking and punishment.
- Policies: policies are like rules that each company has to follow. Usually when you engage with a company, you have to follow their policies as well. Policies are often set up to seem like a way to make things safe and fair, but sometimes they can (intentionally or accidentally) contribute to oppression. For example, a policy that says that a school uniform means ‘boys wear trousers and girls wear skirts’ is inadvertently oppressive to trans students who may want to wear a different uniform than for the gender they were assigned at birth. Or a policy that says ‘workers must have professional hair styles’ may be used to deem traditional African or Caribbean hairstyles as ‘unprofessional’ and thus be a way to discriminate against Black people with dreadlocks, for example.
- Surveillance: This doesn’t just mean security guards and cameras; we actually all tend to watch one another and may tell someone off if they’re not following the rules. Negatively commenting on someone’s outfit may be a way of telling a queer person not to express their queer identity in the workplace, or questioning whether or not a disabled person is suitable for a particular task may be used to limit their opportunities.
- Ranking: Perhaps there is no better version of this than getting graded in school. By knowing if your grades are great, average or poor, you get a sense of where you rank among your peers. This can also happen in workplaces, such as who makes the most sales or who gets to be ‘employee of the month.’ This kind of ranking ignores things like the barriers a student might have from doing their homework if their family can’t afford a computer, or the difficulty a worker might have in selling products because customers are uncomfortable with them being in a wheelchair.
- Punishment: Those who do not comply with this system are punished. Maybe they get in trouble at school, maybe they get fired from their job. However they are punished, the punishment is designed to not only harm the oppressed individual, but to motivate everyone else to be as unlike that individual as possible.
According to Patricia Hill Collins, in order to resist the oppression of the disciplinary domain of power we need to work from inside institutions in order to keep the institution itself under surveillance, in turn working to ‘find innovative ways to work the system so that it will become more fair’ (Black Feminist Thought, pg. 281-2). Reviewing your company’s policies and re-writing them so they cannot be used to hurt people, hiring people from marginalised communities, or calling out surveillance practices that could contribute to oppression, are all important forms of resistance to systemic oppression. Students can do this too, organising together to call for an end to particular policies and demanding improved inclusivity training for staff.
Networks (The Structural Domain)
No institution works alone, they are all connected in the networks that shape our society. The way institutions all work together functions to organise systems of oppression. Patricia Hill Collins calls this ‘The Structural Domain of Oppression,’ which involves the way large-scale social institutions are organized to maintain the subordination of oppressed social groups over time (Black Feminist Thought, pg. 277).
This video shows an excellent example of how institutions work together in order to organise oppression, showing how the combination of the institutions of housing, government (taxes), education, and banking all work together to ensure that white people have easier access to opportunities than Black people. While the video is specific to America, these problems exist in the UK as well and are what Anne E. Cudd describes as ‘the fundamental injustice of social institutions’ (Analyzing Oppression, pg. 20). What we can also see from this video is that these networks of institutions are grounded in a long history and work to support false and harmful beliefs about Black people.
According to Patricia Hill Collins, resistance to these networks of institutions involves wide-scale social movements, revolutions, wars, and social reforms that result in system-wide upheaval (Black Feminist Thought, pg. 277-8). This includes protesting, rioting and large-scale social media campaigns. This form of resistance is about saying ‘enough is enough’ and calling for a change to the entire way of doing things in order to create a more fair and equitable society. Protest demands may include things like improved funding for schools in low-income neighbourhoods, improvements in police de-escalation policies and training, investments into charities and organisations working to support marginalised communities, investing into healthcare for marginalised groups, the banning of predatory loans, and more. So when we see riots like those at Stonewall or by Black Lives Matter, remember that this is part of a system-wide upheaval. It may be scary and messy, but it’s important for wide-scale social change.
Whether you are spending time checking your privilege and/or calling people out, educating yourself and others, reviewing and rewriting policies, or protesting in the streets – all of these are important contributions to social justice activism, and all of these are necessary in order to resist systemic oppression on every level. This Pride month, let us remember that oppression is intersectional, and that we are all in this fight together. In our resistance, let us work together to make our society a more fair and equal place for everyone.
Cudd, Ann E. Analyzing Oppression. Oxford University Press, 2006.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 2 ed., translated by Alan Sheridan, Vintage Books, 1995.
Haney López, Ian F. “Institutional Racism: Judicial Conduct and a New Theory of Racial Discrimination.” The Yale Law Journal, vol. 109, no. 8, 2000, pp. 1717-1884.
Hill Collins, Patricia. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2000.
hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. 1984. 2 ed., Pluto Press, 2000.
Warner, Michael. “Introduction.” Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory, edited by Michael Warner. University of Minnesota Press, 1993, pp. vii-xxi.