Privilege and Oppression

Why We Must Address Institutions of Oppression Inside and Outside Our Activist Spaces

Photo: Avant mobile via Wikimedia (Creative Commons)
Photo: Avant mobile via Wikimedia (Creative Commons)

I can still vividly remember one of my first Anti-Oppression (AO) workshops, where I first went into depth about my male privilege and how it completely changed my perspective of my activism.

This workshop, at the Sierra Student Coalition grassroots organizing Summer Program (SPROG), led me to continually think about how I could incorporate an AO approach into all of my organizing work.

I started out slow, but eventually I felt fairly comfortable (or at least willing to be uncomfortable) bringing up issues of oppression (e.g. heteronormativity, ableism, etc.) in the activist groups I was a part of.

While many of our social justice movements have a long ways to go in terms of grappling with entrenched structures of power and injustice (e.g. the need to confront intimate violence within activist communities), I know there is a growing conversation already happening.

We actively need to encourage those discussions, and create spaces that show oppression as something far more than just interpersonal privilege, but also deeply intertwined with nearly every part of our lives.

However, we have to do more than “create dialogue” or “raise awareness.” This means we need to address language and individual actions yes…but we also need to address our political, educational, and economic systems.


Taking action in activist and non-activist spaces


Whatever occupation we may be involved with, we need to find ways outside of our activist spaces to transform the oppressive elements of our society (e.g. Seattle’s citywide effort to end institutionalized racism).

While this may be more challenging for some (e.g. having a tenuously-held job and needing to support a family), those of us with the privilege to be able to speak/act out against injustice, must make sure to be persistent and not slide into being neutral.

In particular, this “naming” of oppression outside of activist spaces often seems to be something those with privilege do less frequently than we need to. From my own life experiences, one reason for this is we often have the choice to separate our activism from our daily lives (which I still have to work hard to resist). However, we cannot keep waiting for the “right moment” to speak/act out since it will never come.

As many changemakers have illuminated, privilege remains invisible unless we take the initiative to expose it. Thus, the more you are immersed in the dominant culture and power system (e.g. serving as a manager or executive in an organization, being part of a group with a high percentage of male leaders, etc.), the increasing importance it is for you to break that cycle of silence in the face of oppression.

I know for myself I often have to spend a significant amount of time building up my own confidence and talking to those who support me, in order to know how I should start the process of addressing institutions of oppression within my organization (e.g. contributing to the prison industrial complex or the widening U.S. wealth gap).

Too often, it is only those most impacted by oppression’s effects who speak/act out against it. We have to change that imbalance so that all those with a high degree of privilege, and want to be committed to justice, actually put themselves in a position to reduce the silence around oppression.

It may not be easy to do, but I know whenever I am able to speak/act out against injustice in any of the more privileged organizations I have been involved with, I always can feel my growing ability to continue highlighting oppression and privilege no matter where it comes forth.

What are your stories of addressing oppression and privilege in your organizations? Leave a comment below!

By Drew Serres

Drew Serres began working on Organizing Change to combine his dedication to showing impactful organizing practices with his passion for learning. Find out more about him at the About Page and see his updates on Twitter and Google+