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Oppression Does Not Have 'A Look'

Updated: Apr 30, 2022

Gatty, Few and Gurley
Sheri Few (center), president of Parents Involved in Education, says on Lean to the Left podcast that co-host Dr. Pamela Gurley (right) did not "look" like someone who is oppressed. Host Bob Gatty is at left.

I have been on several podcasts as a guest (and most recently as a cohost on the Lean to the Left podcast), and I have been told by White people several times, "you are not oppressed…." And every time this has been said to me, I always ask, "what does oppression 'look' like?"

In their eyes, I am not oppressed because I have had successes OR because of what I have achieved. Apparently, there is a popular misconception that oppression has a "look." And while it is true that there are certain signs of oppression, such as poverty or violence, it is also important to remember that oppression can take many different forms. It can be subtle or overt, direct or indirect, physical or psychological.

First, oppression is a system of inequality that can target anyone, regardless of their appearance, ethnic group, gender, or social class.

Second, it is important to remember this when talking about social issues to avoid making harmful or inaccurate generalizations about a person or groups of people. If we are to combat oppression, there needs to be an understanding of what it is. And perhaps that is the problem – the assumption that oppression has a "look."

These comments were prompted by a remark by our Lean to the Left podcast guest, Sheri Few, founder and president of of US Parents Involved in Education and a leader in conservatives' effort to stop the teaching of critical race theory-related topics and comprehensive sexuality education in our public schools. During our discussion, she commented that as a Black woman, I did not "look" like someone who was oppressed. I took issue with her comment, much along the lines of this commentary. The episode will stream Monday. To listen, click on the Podcast tab above.

If oppression had a look, it would look like sexism, racism, homophobia, heterosexism, classism, nepotism, ageism, religious bias, or any highly interconnected system of marginalization and inequality. And let's be honest, all of those things are more about the use of power and privilege, either by ruling groups exploiting those who are less powerful or by privileged groups denying the rights and needs of those people.

Whether through blatant discrimination or more insidious means, oppression holds people back and prevents them from achieving their full potential or having equal and equitable opportunities.

So, NO, oppression is not factored by people's titles, how well they dress, materialistic possessions, or any physical appearance. Hell, if you go in the hood, you will find some of the best dressed Black and Brown people in every name brand you can imagine who are also the most oppressed. They may have all the external appearances of success, but they lack the power and ability to control their own lives - a state of oppression.

On the other hand, let's talk about successful women in male-dominated industries still facing discrimination, sexual harassment, and equitable pay.

The bottom line is that oppression is not about what somebody "looks" like on the outside. It's about power dynamics and the ways in which certain groups are disadvantaged within society. Whatever form it takes, oppression has adverse outcomes for those victimized by it.

Oppression impairs their physical, mental, and emotional well-being and psychological health. It also limits or inhibits their opportunities for education and success. Ultimately, it is crucial to recognize the many faces of oppression to end these destructive practices.

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1 Comment

Dr. Gurley, this is so powerful and thank you for writing it! I think people use words many times, without understanding the true meaning of the word. I actually decided to look up the word "oppression" in the Miriam Webster online dictionary. The definition is " prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or control" as well as " unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power " and you are so right! Oppression cannot have " a look". I loved your commentary.

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