"invisible" oppressions (part 1)

So, when I say "invisible," I don't mean oppression that is totally unobservable; instead, what I mean to highlight here is forms of oppression that people perpetuate inadvertently. I believe this happens it two main ways: 1) we may individually perpetuate a form of oppression because, as a result of our culture, we are blind to the harm that the practices cause & 2) we may be complicit in forms of oppression that are structural. And, as we will see, these two ways are not really that separate. For this post I will stick to describing the first type of invisible oppression (blindness due to culture), then I will post next week about the second type (structural).

In particular contexts around the world, girls often undergo a procedure that alters their genitalia. This procedure may be called Female Circumcision, Female Genital Mutilation, or Female Genital Cutting, depending on the perspective of the person speaking. Whatever you decide to call it, this procedure is generally performed on these girls by or at the request of their mothers. These mothers are convinced--by the form of religion they have been taught, by social pressure, or by the traditions they were raised with, etc.--that this procedure is necessary for their daughters to be successful and respected women in their society. It would therefore be a dramatic misunderstanding to assert that the mothers who have these procedures preformed on their daughters are purposefully harming/oppressing them. These mothers are simply doing what they believe is required for their daughters' success and happiness. Whatever harm these procedures cause their daughters, they believe that it is worth it. Furthermore, the identities and self-respect of the mothers themselves has been formed within this context. The mothers themselves probably underwent the procedure and understand themselves to be respectable in society because of that. In this way, the culture "forces" (I use quotes to suggest that this term requires negotiation) the women to have their daughters undergo the procedure at the same time that the women-forcing-their-daughters-to-undergo-the-procedure produce the culture which "forces" them to have their daughters undergo the procedures; it is a simultaneously co-productive cycle. (That sentence is purposeful, so it is seems confusing, please re-read it.) Standing at a distance from that practice, we might quickly say that this is oppression. It is fairly easy, and I think reasonable, for us to assert that no amount of improvement in social standing merits the intense pain and lifetime of medical complications that these procedures cause. The UN has even established a "International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation" which is to be observed on February 6 each year. So, while the term oppression itself remains in constant negotiation, I think we can agree that "forcing" girls to undergo this procedure is a type of oppression. But the mothers of these girls do not see the procedures in this way at all; if they did, I believe that they stop the practice. The way in which these procedures might be oppression is made invisible to them by their social/cultural context.

Within the American context, these types of invisible forms of oppression may be harder to identify because we are already ingrained in the culture that perpetuates the practices. However, one example might be the way that our society forces women to meet certain expectations of beauty. Our culture teaches us that women must be thin, wear high heels (In Sexism & God-Talk, Rosemary Ruether says you can tell the status of women in a society by their footwear.) and makeup, and dress and behave in feminine ways in order to be attractive, well liked, and successful. We learn these lessons from society in a thousand different ways. We learn those lessons when the media discusses what Hilary Clinton or Michelle Obama are wearing instead of what they are saying. We learn those lessons from Carl's Jr. commercials, America's Next Top Model, and fashion magazines. But we also learn those lessons from each other. When we tell a little girl that her dress is pretty instead of asking her about her favorite book, we perpetuate the oppression. When we compliment a woman (or man) for losing weight by saying that they "look thin" (instead of focusing on health), we perpetuate the oppression that continually defines women (and increasingly men) by their ability to conform to expectations of appearance. While these small actions don't feel like oppression when we do them (they may even feel like we are being nice), I contend that they are oppression, or at least that they might be oppression and therefore deserve further reflection. We individually perpetuate these harms on each other because the harms that these "compliments" cause is made invisible to us by our society/cultural context.

To give further examples:

  • In a context where women have never had leadership roles in government, the women may say that they are not oppressed because their fathers & husbands speak for them in politics, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't encourage those women to question those practices.
  • In a context where a certain group of people has never been taught to read, they may not articulate that as oppression because they may not know that they have the ability to read and are being denied access to the resources necessary to allow them to gain that skill. But, after being taught to read, these people would likely look back at their illiteracy and understand it as oppression.
  • In the context of extreme poverty, employing children in sweatshops may be experienced by the families as an opportunity, not oppression. But I am still against the practice.
  • In the context of a religious group that convinces LGBT individuals that they can, through therapy, become straight, these individuals may see this therapy as hope and freedom. But I would want to ask these people to consider finding hope and freedom through less painful alternatives (re: acceptance, etc.).

What these examples demonstrate is that oppression may exist even when people (both those in power & those without it) do not recognize it as such. Oppression can even exist when the oppressed people themselves do not articulate their experiences as oppression. We have to be suspicious of the way that people articulate their own experiences, because their experiences are experienced through their own cultural location. [See Ann Stoler's Race & the Education of Desire for more on this.] However, this also does NOT mean that we can go around telling anyone who doesn't live like an elite American that they are oppressed. That would be a whole other type of oppression. Instead, my point here is that oppression is a term that must be constantly negotiated. Oppression looks different in different contexts and to different people. It is slippery-- constantly changing, hard to grasp, and often nearly invisible. Therefore, we must be constantly questioning the ways that our own actions may be inadvertently oppressing others, and we must be alert for ways that others' actions may be subtly oppressing us. It is only by keeping the term oppression in flux that we have any hope of being able to address it.

Can you think of other examples of contexts where a group of people may not articulate their own experiences as oppression even though you believe they may be oppressed? How would you go about addressing that situation?

Do you participate in any behaviors that may deserve further interrogation regarding potentially being a form of invisible oppression?

What do you think about the possibility that all oppressions are at least partially "invisible"? If a form of oppression weren't at least partially invisible would people still perpetuate it?

How do you feel about leaving the definition of oppression in constant flux/negotiation?