Invisible Oppression: The Hidden Destruction of Minority Groups

An essay arguing that it’s the majority group’s responsibility to dismantle oppression.

What forms of oppression have you experienced? When thinking about an answer to that question, I’m sure you can think of a time you were bullied, called a name, or maybe even physically harmed due to your affiliation with a subordinate group in society. What you probably didn’t think about, however, are ways in which you’re oppressed invisibly. It’s the invisible oppression found throughout society that is more detrimental to a subordinate group’s oppression than the visible name-calling and bullying. What is invisible oppression? Invisible oppression includes structural and institutional discrimination, usually based on traditional ways of life, or the “way things are”. For the sake of this paper, I will focus on one subordinate group in the United States: the LGBT population. The LGBT community suffers more greatly from the societal norms and forms of invisible oppression in our society. There is still a long struggle ahead for LGBT citizens living in America. Yes, LGBT citizens in the United States are better off than those living in Russia, but that doesn’t mean oppression doesn’t exist.

LGBT individuals encounter some form of heterosexism or heterosexual privilege everywhere they turn in the United States. There’s either a law, tradition, or a mind-set that stymies further tolerance and acceptance of subordinate groups in the United States. In the journal The Diversity Factor,author Ana Perez writes, “Preferential treatment of heterosexuals is not only mandated by law, it is upheld by many governmental, cultural and religious institutions.” The dominant culture dictates what is “acceptable, beautiful, and appreciated.” Heterosexuals in the United States hold the power to define what is tolerated. On an institutional level, heterosexuals have written policies, laws and codes of conduct to reinforce their values and beliefs. It is very difficult for the oppressed group to change these societal norms, and therefore makes this invisible form of oppression much more difficult to eradicate. As discussed in my first paper, the responsibility to dismantle oppression lies with the majority group and allies for the minority.

Many argue that visible oppression — bullying, name-calling, or physical harm is more detrimental to minority groups. However, it’s our language, laws, mind-sets, traditions, and wide-range of values/morals that continue to further oppression… it’s the little things that go un-noticed that contribute to the continued existence of oppression. Physical harm and bullying stem from a larger institutional or structural precedence that has instilled ideas and stereotypes within people about the minority. Think about this scenario as an example: A junior in high school living in a rural area of the country gets verbally abused and teased when his classmates find out that he’s gay. Now at first glance, one might say that the verbal abuse and bullying is the worst part of this situation. However, upon greater reflection, you may wonder why the student was teased. It is very likely that the students who bullied the gay child were socialized to believe that being gay is wrong. The institutions and structures in America, including laws, traditions, and their parent and community’s views are what influenced the bullies to take oppressive action. Therefore, it’s these invisible forms of oppression that are more harmful because they are what lead to the visible oppression. Perhaps, if we eradicate the invisible oppression, the visible/physical oppression will cease to exist.

In Arizona, lawmakers recently passed a bill (later vetoed by the governor) that would allow businesses to refuse to serve homosexuals on the grounds that it is against their religious beliefs. Laws like this further oppression. In an article published in the Journal of Criminal Justice Education, the authors write, “Although criminal justice has made strides to incorporate issues of race, ethnicity, class, and gender into both research and teaching, the same cannot be said about issues of homosexuality. Prior research indicates criminal justice students are more homophobic than their peers in other majors and that bias against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) persons continues in the criminal justice system.” We’re failing to train and socialize our future judges, lawmakers, lawyers, and public-policy leaders to be inclusive of homosexual and transgender individuals. Socialization, norms, and teachings like this are causing more harm than we realize. This example is not only found in criminal justice schools, but also in social work education. In an article published in Social Work Education, author Julie Fish writes, “Despite social work’s commitment to diversity and social justice, anti-oppressive practice in relation to sexuality is afforded little attention in key texts. In comparison to other social divisions, there appears to be little theoretical analysis of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) oppression and few practice models.” Both of these are great examples of how invisible oppression is more harmful than visible oppression. We’re affecting generations of people and instilling values in them that are not tolerant of minorities. These are the future professionals and decision-makers of society. We’re missing opportunities to socialize our social workers and prosecutors to be inclusive of LGBT people and educate them about equal rights for all sexual minorities.

So we’ve explored the problems in our education and legal/prosecution systems, but there are also many occurrences of invisible oppression due to societal rules (not necessary legal limits) of which one should be aware. In an article entitled How Homophobia Hurts Everyone, author Warren Blumenfeld speaks about different ways homosexuals are oppressed. He defines as cultural homophobia as “the social norms or codes of behavior that, although not expressly written into law or policy, nonetheless work within a society to legitimize oppression.” Oppression doesn’t necessarily have to be something that someone does to a group of people; it can be something that isn’t done to a group of people. For example, society tends to exclude images and notions of gays, bisexuals, and transgender people from commercial advertisements and history books. You don’t have to show them in a negative-light to be oppressive, just the fact that society “hides” sexual preferences and identities other than heterosexuals is a form of oppression. Additional instances of oppression include conspiracy to silence, and denial of culture. American society informally tries to prevent LGBT people from holding high profile, public positions in the education, corporate, and political sectors (among others). Another form of oppression is the creation of defined public spaces. We have neighborhoods, restaurants, bars, and even entire professions set aside for LGBT people. These ostracized citizens gravitate towards these areas to feel connected with one-another and to find refuge and relief from oppression. LGBT people have been, and continue to fight for equality and heterosexual allies, whose support is critical to eradicating oppression, join them. We’re working in the right direction, but it takes tremendous, collective effort to end homophobia, heterosexism, and oppression.

A collective effort to end invisible oppression seems like an impossible task, but it is one that we can all start working towards accomplishing now. Education is a critical starting point in the battle to end oppression. Too many minorities are likely not educated in or thinking about these forms of invisible oppression. Subordinate people feel powerless and hopeless. One way to change those feelings is to educate them about programs like the Human Rights Campaign that can help them fight for their rights. Other things we could do include integrating issues of sexuality into diversity curriculum in not only law schools but also all public universities, and suggest private universities do the same. We need to be educating all students, especially our social work and criminal justice majors, not only about LGBT rights, but also about these forms of invisible oppression that infest our society. The last way I would suggest ending invisible oppression includes forming allies. A social movement can only be effective if the supporters and advocates are made up of more than just the oppressed subordinates. White and black people came together as one group to protest and advocate that a person’s character consists of more than their skin color. Both men and women united to advocate for the right to vote and make women’s voices heard, showing that your gender, just like your skin color, should not confine or define you. LGBT individuals need to find heterosexual allies to help end their oppression. These allies have the power to invoke change on the institutional and societal levels by seeping their inclusive views throughout public offices and decision-makers.

When you think about oppression, I hope you now realize that there’s so much more that harms subordinate groups than bullying and name-calling. Societal norms, laws, language, values, traditions, mind-sets, and the other things we can’t see are the critical pieces that further the oppression of subordinate groups. On an institutional level, heterosexuals have written policies, laws and codes of conduct to reinforce their values and beliefs. It is very difficult for the oppressed group to change these societal norms, and therefore makes this invisible form of oppression much more difficult to eradicate. Many times, it’s the invisible oppression that influences the visible oppression. Bullying occurs because of stereotypes and traditions and preconceived ideas that are apart of an individual because of the socialization that is allowed by our inability to eradicate institutional and structural discrimination. If we were able to work towards, and successfully eradicate invisible oppression, perhaps bullying, name-calling, and other forms of visible oppression would cease to exist.


Blumenfeld, Warren. 2010. “How Homophobia Hurts Everyone.” In Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, Second Edition. New York, NY: Routledge.

Fish, Julie. 2008. “Far from Mundane: Theorising Heterosexism for Social Work Education.” Social Work Education 27 (2): 182–93. doi:10.1080/02615470701709667.

Fradella, Henry F., Stephen S. Owen, and Tod W. Burke. 2009. “Integrating Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues into the Undergraduate Criminal Justice Curriculum.” Journal of Criminal Justice Education 20 (2).

Perez, Aria. 2005. “Internalized Oppression: How It Affects Members of the LGBT Community.” Diversity Factor 13 (1): 25–29.

Uloop. 2013. “Why Straight Allies Are Critical to the Gay Rights Movement in College.” Huffington Post.

Windsor, Liliane, Eloise Dunlap, and Andrew Golub. 2011. “Challenging Controlling Images, Oppression, Poverty, and Other Structural Constraints: Survival Strategies Among African-American Women in Distressed Households.” Journal of African American Studies 15 (3): 290–306. doi:10.1007/s12111-010-9151-0.