Fearless Futures Podcast Episode 1: What is a System of Oppression? [Transcript]

Cleo Bergman
Nov 6, 2020 · 15 min read
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This episode can be found on Apple, Spotify and Spreaker.

Hanna Naima McCloskey: Hi, you’re listening to the Fearless Futures podcast. I’m your host Hanna Naima McCloskey, the CEO and founder of Fearless Futures. And this is the show where we unpack and interrogate mainstream methods for equity and inclusion. I’ll be sharing new perspectives as well as alternative approaches we have developed and deployed working in daring companies across sectors around the world. Each week, we will explore a new angle you won’t want to miss, so stick around.

What is a system of oppression? Across all of our Fearless Futures podcast episodes, you’ll hear us talking about oppression. We’ll be using this term a lot. We think it’s really important in our work in companies and in the programs that we facilitate that we have a shared definition and understanding of this term. This episode will be precisely about that. We’ll be describing the ingredients, if you will, of a system of oppression. The reason why this is extremely important is that it really informs the analysis that we have of what’s going on in our companies, and we know that having a really powerful and robust and rigorous analysis is essential for what we seek to do when we’re thinking about building inclusion inequity in to our organizations. It’s really important to have this rigorous and robust understanding of what oppression is. This might be an episode that you want to come back to over and over as you’re reflecting and interrogating your practice internally in your company, as well as sharing some of your thinking and your new insights with peers in your organization.

There are three key parts to a system of oppression. It’s really important that in order to use the term ‘oppression’ that we know that the context and the situation that we’re describing has all of those three constituent parts. If any of those are missing, it means that the criteria for what the system of oppression is has not been meet. And therefore, we might need to use other words and other language to describe the phenomena in question.

Words do matter, and this is something that you’ll hear consistently from us at Fearless Features. Making sure that the words that we’re using are precise and particular is essential as we seek to think and do — inclusively and equitably — in our companies and organizations. Without a really strong and robust hold on the language that we’re using, we can end up with things moving in the wind, we won’t have a strong hold on what we’re talking about, and we can get taken down all sorts of peculiar rabbit holes by people who might not be invested in the same outcomes as us.

At the root of any system of oppression is what you might call a negative idea, or a negative idea about a group of people. These negative ideas aren’t valid. They aren’t real, though their consequences are material and their consequences are real as we’ll soon see as we work this through. But there’s a negative idea about a group of people that is socially determined. It might be that the groups of people are deemed to be dangerous. It might be that they’re deemed to be irrational. It might be that they’re deemed to be lazy. And what we see is that there are particular, although sometimes similar negative ideas held about certain groups of people who then become the subject of this system of oppression. By that I mean there are negative ideas that exist about women, for example. There are negative ideas that exist about people of color, disabled people, working class people, and so on and so forth.

Everything starts with this negative idea that is constructed and developed in order to create the justification for everything that follows thereafter. Now, negative ideas about a group of people in and of themselves aren’t ideal, they are definitely suboptimal. But this is why we need the next part of the ingredients of a system of oppression to exist in order for the criteria of an oppression to be met. In our work and the work of other social theorists and social policy and sociologists, the next thing that’s needed is what we call ‘structures’. Structures are the enforcement arm, if you will, of a system of oppression. Structures are what give the negative idea, at the root of that system, power. They enforce it. So, where do we find or what are these structures?

Structures, broadly speaking, are laws, policies and institutions. Structures take us out of the terrain of the interpersonal where negative ideas can sometimes keep us at (‘I think so and so isn’t a good person’ or ‘I think they might be bad’ — whatever it might be). Sometimes if we just remain at the negative idea level, we can just see everything as an interpersonal phenomenon. But what structures do is: they take us out of just the interpersonal, of ideas we might have, or indeed might not have about certain groups of people. Instead, these structures produce negative outcomes en mass for the group in question for whom the negative ideas exist.

You might want to think (in another kind of way that might be useful) of the negative idea and the structure combined, negatively targeting a particular group of people. The combination of that negative idea and that structure produces negative outcomes en mass for the group in question. A negative outcome is often expressed as a proportion, or percentage, or ratio, or rate that distinguishes the differences between the experiences of different groups of people.

For example, an expression of a negative outcome within the system of racism is that 1 in 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised. A rate more than four times greater than that of non-African Americans. Over 7.4% of the adult African American population is disenfranchised compared to 1.8% of the non-African-American population. That is a negative outcome en mass for African Americans that is produced by the negative ideas at the root of this system of anti-black racism. That informs and then is enforced by historical processes and structures that are both historical and that feed into and are lived out in the present (laws, policies and institutions) that then produce this negative outcome for this group of people.

Let’s take another system of oppression, say: cissexism, which is a system of oppression that negatively targets trans and non-binary people in service of cis people (Cis people being those whose gender identity aligns with what they were assigned at birth). A negative outcome that impacts trans and non-binary people is that according to the Fundamental Rights Agency in Europe, one third of trans jobseekers encountered discrimination, and the rate of trans people in paid employment is only 51% compared to 68% of the general population. So, we see that trans and non-binary people are disproportionately unemployed. Let’s work this through using our system of oppression framework.

The negative ideas that exist about trans and non-binary people might include: that trans and non-binary people are pretending, they’re tricking people, they aren’t normal, they are deviant, or that they are spreading a dangerous ideology. Now, I want to be clear that these negative ideas don’t exist if we personally adhere to them or believe them. They are an idea that exist at the root of a system, out with an external to our own personal or individual views — but it’s an underlying logic that’s embedded within the system. You personally don’t need to subscribe to that particular negative idea about a group who experience oppression for that to still be a reality in which that group are living, and that exists and is perpetuated within that system of oppression — and that’s really important.

So, those negative ideas exist within this particular system. What are some of the structures that exist that enforce and give power to these negative ideas? Structures include the fact that conversion therapy is permissible across many countries in Europe, including in the UK. For most countries in Europe, for example, mental health diagnoses are required in order for trans and non-binary people to have that gender recognized by the state. During the pandemic, transition related health care was deemed non-essential and non-urgent. In Hungary, for example — again during the pandemic, and the status of a state of emergency that was implemented — it became impossible for trans people to have their gender recognized. That was implemented during the pandemic and remains in place in Hungary. In Sweden, for example, going back a little further rather than the present, sterilization was a requirement for Trans people to have their gender legally recognized — and that was the case between 1972 and 2013.

These are the laws, policies and institutional dynamics that are the structures that enforce those negative ideas that are at the root of the system, and creates and produces the conditions that mean that trans people are disproportionately unemployed across Europe. The structures that I’ve just touched upon are just a fraction of the number that exists historically and in the present that produced this negative outcome for trans and non-binary people — and it’s important that we recognize that.

Something I think that’s really important for us to flag and to highlight: is that a person can be subject to multiple systems of oppression simultaneously. That overlap and compound of multiple systems of oppression produces particularistic negative outcomes for that person. When multiple systems of oppression overlapping compound, the term that is used to describe that phenomena or to analyze it (or the tool that we might introduce to explore that phenomena) is called intersectionality. This is a term coined by Black feminist legal scholar Kimberly Crenshaw. This episode won’t be exploring this analytical tool at all in any detail. It’s important that we recognize that that phenomena of experiencing multiple oppression simultaneously does exist. Kimberly Crenshaw’s writing and theorizing was rooted particularly in what it means to experience both anti-black racism and sexism simultaneously. She coined the term in the late 1980s, and it’s a term that has been widely popularized much more recently. But at its root, it’s an analytical tool that enables us to explore, excavate and interrogate the particularistic ways in which systems of oppression come together to produce new realities for those who exist at that intersection.

Which takes us to the next dimension of a system of oppression, which is that while a system of oppression has to have these components (these three components of the negative idea), the structure (that is the laws, policies and institutions) that is enforcing on that gives power to that negative idea that in turn create the negative outcomes en mass for a group of people. While that’s happening, there’s a simultaneous system happening, if you will, that is positively targeting a group of people who are defined as the binary or the opposite of the negative ideas associated with the group in question.

So, when we’re thinking about racism, for example, we might also think about the ways in which white people are positively targeted by the very same system of oppression. Instead of a negative idea that’s at the root of that system, it actually has and requires a positive idea to exist about white people that they are valuable, that they are productive, that they are useful, that they are moral, and so on and so forth. Structures simultaneously enforce those positive ideas that exist about white people through laws, through policies and through institutions. Those structures that enforce and give power to those positive ideas also simultaneously produce positive outcomes for white people. We don’t just see this in the case of racism, which produces positive outcomes for white people — but this is the phenomena of what happens across all systems of oppression.

In the case of Islamophobia, or anti-Muslim racism as we might call it, the positive outcomes come and accrue to those who are non-Muslims, or those who are not racialized as Muslim people. The same again, just to reinforce this point in the context of disablism, for example: the positive outcomes of the system of disablism accrue and are produced for those who are constructed as non-disabled. The design to purpose of a system of oppression is, of course, to produce this alternative positive reality — for those who are not subject to that system in its negative targeting — to afford those who are positively targeted by this system: freedom, and power, and control, and possibility, and legitimacy, and dignity.

It’s only possible to have those things within the framework of a system of oppression if they are denied explicitly to others — and of course, implicitly to others by virtue of creating negative ideas about this other group — in order that a subgroup can be seen as positive. Also, by enforcing those negative ideas in structures, again: those are laws, policies and institutions that indirectly and directly create the conditions of what’s possible for one group in the positive and in the affirmative (and very much for the other group) within that binary understanding of the system that [creates] negative outcomes en mass for that group.

When we’re in the space of analyzing systems, therefore, we’re taking ourselves out of the equation as individuals. It’s no longer about what we as an individual may or may not subscribe to as an idea, or a belief about another group of people — that’s largely irrelevant. While it obviously does have certain implications at some point (obviously, in our relationships and our interactions with people), what a system of oppression does is: it creates the conditions for our interpersonal relationships. Our interpersonal relationships therefore simply reproduce the dynamics that exist within a system of oppression. For those who are positively targeted by a system of oppression, the system of oppression creates the default ways of being and doing with people who are also positively targeted like oneself and those who are negatively targeted by that very same system of oppression.

When we think about the reproduction at an interpersonal level, we also might want to think about the reproduction in the present of the historical structures that the system of oppression has generated and been generated by. So, we might not think of ourselves as just existing and inhabiting this one particular moment. Instead, what’s really useful and extremely powerful is to acknowledge the ways that structures (historically developed and designed) are reproduced, and also get mutated through time to inform the present, and the present structures that we’re existing within.

A structure can both directly contribute to the negative and positive differential outcomes for the groups of people who are on either side of this system of oppression, and a structure could do this indirectly. It can produce certain conditions about what is permissible, or what is acceptable, within our societal context. That might be through what it silently endorses, hence the term ‘indirect’ rather than perhaps what is directly inscribed into a law or a policy, for example.

Now, what’s really important here is: not everything meets the criteria of a system of oppression. This is something that can be an area of contention because people either want to really use the word or they don’t want to use the word, and that lack of precision either way is really unhelpful (in terms of what we do in our companies and organizations) when it comes to building inclusion and equity. Within the Fearless Feature schema (and not just our schema but our understanding and the kind of scholars whose shoulders we stand on understanding), ageism, therefore, is not a system of oppression. This is something that’s really an area often that people can find confusing.

When we say something isn’t a system of oppression, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a legal requirement in our companies to prevent the phenomena from existing. Within the UK or the US for example, age is a protected characteristic. It means that we cannot discriminate against people on the basis of their age, i.e. we can’t use it as a reason to diminish their opportunities, whether they’re young or old or anywhere in between, or any basis because of their age. So: age is a protected characteristic and it’s something that we need to pay attention to (and also prevent people from being discriminated on the basis their age). That is something that is in the law that should be attended to in your company and in your organization — It doesn’t mean that ageism meets the criteria of a system of oppression.

I’ll quickly run through why that is the case. The first thing we need to be able to establish: if ageism was to meet the criteria of a system of oppression, we would need to have a very clear and specific direction to the negative idea or the negative ideas that exist for one particular end of the age spectrum. Now when we look into this, it’s really difficult to have that level of clarity. We couldn’t possibly determine that there are negative ideas about young people that outweigh the positives. Simultaneously, there aren’t negative ideas about older people, wherever we might cast that distinction of who is old, that is consistently held onto societally.

For example, we know that in some cases to be seen as older — again, wherever we might draw that line — is to be more mature, more experienced and to have skills that people value. On the other side, we know that there are ideas about young people being entitled and lazy, and not knowing which way is up. We see that there’s a pendulum there. We also see simultaneously in some contexts, for example in the technology sector, where youth is seen as dynamic and innovative and fresh, whereas older people are seen as past it — ‘can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ and other such ideas. If we go even further down the age spectrum, we might even see some really damaging ideas about the elderly. As we’ve seen during this global pandemic (for those who are listening: we’re currently situated in 2020), ideas about the elderly being people that we can discard and dispose of is obviously an extremely toxic and dangerous idea — connected very much to ideas and practices that are eugenics and disability at their core. The negative ideas piece goes both ways. It’s really difficult to have the clarity that we might have with other systems of oppression that is a requirement.

The next thing we need to be able to determine with a system of oppression — if we were to see ageism within that category — is: we need to be able to establish structures. Those laws, policies and institutions that negatively targeted one group of people on one side of the age spectrum over another. Here, it’s also a really tricky arena to get a handle on.

So, I’m thinking about the fact that when we look at voting age — ages of consent — we actually see that it is young people who are disenfranchised. On the other hand, we see that our lawmakers are disproportionately older. You don’t have 19-years olds making decisions by and large in our governing institutions, whether that’s in Parliament or in the Senate or the House of Representatives. So, we have a skew in that direction.

In the UK, there’s an also different level of hourly wage at a national minimum standard if you’re young or if you’re old where it’s lower if you’re young. Again, that’s another way of potentially exploiting or extracting value from young people in service of older people. So, it’s really difficult to see structurally the ways in which older people (which is typically how the term ageism is used) are negatively targeted in both negative ideas and at a structural level in order for the conditions of ageism to be met.

When we look at issues like unemployment, for example, we actually see that young people are disproportionately unemployed and that’s a negative outcome that emerges if we were to work through the “negative idea plus structures [turns] into negative outcomes” process that is required for a system of oppression to be met. When we look at it and around — where you could end up is that young people are those who experience ageism. And if we were to see ageism as a system of oppression, it would be young people who would be negatively targeted by the system of oppression in service of older people, because that’s the way in which the criteria enable us to come to a conclusion. That obviously isn’t how the term is generally used in conversation or in workplaces. When people say, “Oh my God, that’s ageist!” They typically mean, “Oh my goodness, somebody saying something mean or unpleasant about an older person.”

I want to emphasize that it doesn’t mean just because something doesn’t meet the criteria of oppression, that it isn’t something we need to have an eye on and focus on under the equality law, for example in our particular jurisdiction. That is really, really important no matter what. What it does mean is that the leaders that we are required to pull in order to shift outcomes are going to be very different when it’s an oppression, [compared] to when it’s simply a prejudice or just a negative idea that might exist about a group of people. The kind of resource that is required, the level of analysis, the mode of intervention is going to be really different to build equity for a group of people in your company who experience oppression versus those who experienced negative ideas alone without the additional structural reinforcement and power that we’ve described that comes through the historical process, into the present of laws of policies, and that [of] institutions that produced those negative outcomes en mass for a group of people.

Thank you for listening to the Fearless Futures podcast. If you like what you hear, be sure to subscribe rate and share this episode with a friend. If you’re interested in learning more about the work that we do at Fearless Futures, please visit our website fearlessfutures.org. ’Til next time.

Fearless Futures

Unlearn inequity. Transform the world.

Fearless Futures

Fearless Futures serves daring organisations ready to actively challenge inequities by addressing their roots, intersections, and lived realities. We facilitate transformative learning experiences & partner with our clients through consultancy to design equitatable ecosystems.

Cleo Bergman

Written by

US Corporate Programs Coordinator @ Fearless Futures

Fearless Futures

Fearless Futures serves daring organisations ready to actively challenge inequities by addressing their roots, intersections, and lived realities. We facilitate transformative learning experiences & partner with our clients through consultancy to design equitatable ecosystems.