Understanding oppression and “isms” as a system

There are levels to oppression that make it a system.

When talking about racism, sexism, classism, ableism, heterosexism and other forms of oppression or “isms,” it may be difficult to see these issues as an interlocking system operating at the personal, interpersonal, institutional and cultural levels. Much of this may stem from the fact that many individuals only see or hear of examples at the personal level (an individual tells a racist joke or makes a homophobic slur) or at the interpersonal level (a teacher expects lower academic achievement from their African-American students or a man is hyper critical of his spouse’s appearance). Broadening our understanding of these four levels can assist in understanding oppression as a system. 

Personal Level

The personal level is associated with our values, beliefs and feelings about individuals different from us and ourselves. Growing up, we are given direct and indirect messages about our values and in many cases the institutions that we interact with as children and adults, such as our schools, faith communities, judicial systems, etc., support those values. If we are in the dominant groups based on race, gender, class, religion and other identities, we are also getting subtle and not so subtle messages of superiority or being the norm that others need to be measured against. Interestingly, I may never share my values or beliefs about others, but they can influence my interactions. For example, I may never share that I believe that “poor people are poor only because they make bad personal choices,” but I can carry this in my mind and heart as I interact with people from a lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Interpersonal Level

At the interpersonal level, the focus is on our actions, behavior and language as we interact with individuals different from us. If I believe that “poor people are poor based on bad personal choices, I may try to change these individual’s thinking through shaming them for their choices, lecturing them on making better choices to improve their life outcomes or not taking into account the complexities of living in generational poverty. I may also struggle with understanding and acknowledging the importance of the language and names that people use to identify themselves and see this solely as a way to force me to be politically correct.

Institutional Level

The institutional level includes the rules, policies, procedures and practices, which are written and unwritten, within an institution that define who is welcomed and can fully participate or those that may be excluded or discriminated against full participation. A written policy may state that only individuals with certain degrees or formal education can apply for certain jobs, directly or indirectly, excluding individuals who may have informal experiences or other wisdom that could be considered as valuable for the position. An unwritten policy may be that as a male you need to keep your hair well groomed to be considered for a leadership role within the organization, possibly excluding men who grow their hair long for spiritual or religious reasons.

Cultural Level

At the cultural level, our focus turns to how we define what is right, normal, the truth or beautiful. In short, the social curriculum that inundates us with on a daily basis in the media, in our textbooks and in our daily interactions across differences. It is a national leader saying, “All Mexicans are drug dealers, rapists and criminals,” and then national conversations and policies being informed by this “truth”. These cultural messages and norms can be direct and indirect and serve to maintain power and privilege for those in dominant groups (i.e., men, middle/owning class people, white people, people without disabilities, etc.).

As we develop a critical consciousness and work to help address and dismantle racism, sexism and other forms of oppression, it is important that we apply a systems approach to our work and begin to analyze, uncover and change that ways that oppression is operating at the personal, interpersonal, institutional and cultural levels. 

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