Jamel Debbouze as Lucien in Amelie
Jamel Debbouze in Amelie

When I saw Amelie in 2001, I loved Jamel Debbouze’s character, Lucien. He overcame the barriers presented to him, and ended up running the fruit and vegetable stall where he had previously been abused and oppressed by the owner for being disabled and for being of a different race. It nearly made me cry, when he was being slapped by the manager. Lucien found a friend in the painter in Amelie to help him name and claim the oppression that was going on. I found a friend at a former nonprofit who helped me do the same.

It occurred to me recently that if I had known more about the dynamics of oppression when I first started out in the nonprofit world, I would have known a lot better about what to do in various conflicts. I would have been able to name and claim what was going on. And then I could have addressed it.

If you’ve grown up in a society that doesn’t seem to value women, or value the contributions of people of color, or the contributions of people who are poor, or who are older, or are differently abled, it may seem natural to you that your contributions would not be taken seriously, or acknowledged or implemented.

If you’re just starting out in a nonprofit, or even if you’ve been there for a few years, you may not know what to call the power dynamics that are going on and how it can affect you.

I want to arm you with this vocabulary. I want to arm you to stand up for yourself, your contributions, your rights, and your voice in your workplace.

Here is the continuum of oppression.
Actively Participating-At this level, the most overt oppression goes on.
Supporting Oppression-Racist, sexist, classist or ableist jokes, upholding the status quo.
Denying, Ignoring-Pretending that they can’t see the oppression.
Recognizing, No Action-Acknowledging it exists, but doing nothing.
Recognizing, Action– Acknowledging it, and then starting to stop sexist jokes that you make, for instance. Learning different jokes.
Educating Self-Finding out what oppression is across the spectrum.
Educating Others-Telling other people what you’re learning about.
Supporting, Encouraging-Supporting people who have been oppressed, helping them empower themselves.
Initiating, Preventing-If you see someone putting someone down, or discriminating against someone, saying something.
Confronting Oppression-Interrupting oppression. Telling other people you will not tolerate oppression in your presence. Protesting. Taking legal action.

An Individual’s Responses to Oppression
* Withdrawing from people, places and situations when discrimination is evident.

* By refusing to recognize or discuss issues related to discrimination.

* Feeling upset and off-guard to the extent that we don’t know how to react.

* By accepting an unjust stereotype as an undisputed representation of the truth.

* Convincing ourselves that the situation is something other than the obvious.

* By attacking the individual, or organization we think is responsible.

* By using knowledge to understand and identify the behavior.

* By initiating a dialog with others involved in or promoting oppressive practices.

* By actively pursuing changes that will help to eliminate the oppressive beliefs.

Individual, Institutional and Cultural Forms of Oppression

Individual – (People acting on their own beliefs)
* Conscious – Individuals who openly display oppressive attitudes and behaviors.
o A man who uses racial epithets to insult a member of a minority group.

* Unconscious – Individuals who fail to remember or recognize a personal bias that adversely impact target groups.
o An executive who claims to believe in woman’s rights but consistently hires males that are less qualified than female applicants based on his subjective ‘impression’ of the men’s abilities.

Institutional – (Organizations and social networks that act to influence cultural norms)

* Conscious – Rules and regulations specifically targeting disadvantaged groups.
o State laws that prohibit the legal recognition of gay and lesbian relationships.

* Unconscious – Unspoken rules or circumstances that fail to recognize the needs of disadvantaged groups.
o Employers that allow for the observance of Christian holidays but neglect to include provisions in company policy which would allow for the observance of other religious holidays.

Cultural – (Generally accepted Norms that point to acceptable behaviors)

* Conscious -Rules and practices specifically targeting disadvantaged groups.
o Extended maternity leave laws which suggest that woman are expected to stay home and tend to their newborn, while men are excluded.

* Unconscious-Unspoken rules or circumstances that fail to recognize the needs of disadvantaged groups.
o Standards of behavior and beauty are based on western European standards.

Social Mechanisms Resulting in Discrimination

Vertical Oppression:
* When agents enforce subordinate status upon target groups.
o Employers who resists promoting individuals based on sex, race, or religious preference.

Horizontal Oppression:
* When members of an oppressed group discourage other members from defying the unjust norms of the dominant culture.
o An African American that chastises a co-worker for acting too “Black” at work.

Internalized Subordination:
* When target groups accept the oppressive group’s ideology as deserved.
o A woman who believes that she cannot make it without a man.

Internalized Domination:
* When agents accept their group’s belief in their superior status as deserved.
o An executive who discriminates against, and denigrates women because ‘they just don’t think rationally.’

* When people act in concert with the system to perpetuate oppression and social inequity.
o Citizens from upper class neighborhoods that fight against desegregation, but refuse to work for equal funding for schools in less affluent communities.

* When members of oppressed groups refuse to accept the dominant ideology and take actions to promote social justice.
o Women who protest for equal opportunity and equal pay in the workplace.

* Members of the dominant group who reject the dominant ideology and take action to promote social justice on the grounds that it benefits all.
o A man who objects to sexist jokes being shared in the workplace.

Avenues for Promoting Personal and Institutional Change

* Self-awareness – By monitoring our own behaviors and by checking in with others to be certain that we are modeling respect and tolerance.

* Education – By seeking out information, and by striving to understand individual, cultural, and institutional factors that perpetuate oppressive practices so that we are in a better position to confront them.

* Reframing – By helping others to understand the effects of oppression in order to facilitate their search for more constructive alternatives that are equally beneficial to everyone.

The next time you hear someone being ableist, ageist, racist, sexist, classist or misogynist, how can you interrupt and reframe the discussion?

Did you find this useful?

I got this resource from UCSB’s Dynamics of Oppression Handout.

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