“Privileged” ≠ “Oppressor”: why these two concepts should not be conflated.

So, to start this post off, I’m including a quick rundown of oppression/privilege terminology as i understand and prefer to use it. A very quick 101 rundown of those terms might go something like this:

1. “Privileged” refers to a group whose members have certain social advantages in the given context. [1]

2. “Oppressed” refers to a group whose members have a certain social disadvantages in the given context.

3. These two groups are considered for the most part to be mutually exclusive. [2]

Now, while I may not be the biggest fan of this terminology, I understand it and at least mostly agree with the underlying principles.

However, there is one thing that certain social justice circles do that does not work for me at all: the conflation of “privileged groups” with “the oppressors”:

ex. “women are the oppressed, men are the oppressors”, rather than “women are oppressed, men are privileged.”

I can see how people get there – privileged is the opposite of oppressed, and oppressor is also the opposite of oppressed, so they must be the same right? It’s an understandable thought process – but that doesn’t mean it’s right.

There are two big problems that I see with this:

1. It implies that oppression is the work of individual actions, rather than greater social and institutional forces.

2. It implies that members of an “oppressed” group are incapable of perpetuating oppression.

See, the thing about oppressive dynamics being institutionalized is that they are built into an entire culture. “Oppression” isn’t about the actions of any particular individual or individuals – it’s encoded into the laws and social mores and traditions and attitudes of an entire culture. And it’s pervasive – anyone who grows up or is exposed to that culture is both affected by it an perpetuates it, willingly or knowingly or not.

The truth is, we are ALL oppressors – oppression works on a societal scale, and all it’s members are actors, whether they benefit or suffer from it in the long run. “Privileged” people don’t go through some secret “how to be an oppressor” initiation that the rest of us are never exposed to. “Oppressed” people don’t get a free pass on their own oppressive actions.

But, surely that can’t be true! you say. Well, let’s look at a real life example of privilege/oppression dynamics in action: let’s look at women in science. Overall, women are drastically underrepresented in most “hard science” fields, esp. in graduate studies and career positions, and recent studies have found that there is very clear bias against female candidates for scientific lab positions – for an example, I’m using “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students” (Moss-Racusin et al. 2012) [3].

In this study, the authors submitted sample resumes for science positions to several faculty members in science departments, and asked them to rate them on competence and hireability, and to propose a salary level and an amount of career mentoring. The key? All the resumes were identical – except that some had typically male-gendered names and some had typically female-gendered names.

“In each case, the effect of student gender was significant (all P<0.01)…faculty participants viewed the female students as less competent and less hireable than the identical male student. Faculty also offered less career mentoring to the female student than to the male student, and the mean starting salary offered to the female student was significantly lower than that offered to the male student.”

So, here, right off we have pretty firm evidence that women in scientific fields have a disadvantaged (oppressed) position and men have an advantaged (privileged) position. Now, if the claim that “oppression” is a function solely or even primarily resulting from the actions of the privileged group is correct, then we should find a difference in the way that male and female faculty members rated student. So, let’s take a look at those results too:

“The effect of faculty participant gender and their interaction was not [significant] (all P>0.19)…female faculty participants did not rate the female student as more competent or hireable than did the male faculty. Female faculty also did not offer more mentoring or a higher salary to the female students than did their mail colleagues.”[4]

Well. As we can see, this idea that oppressive systems [in this case, sexism] are merely something perpetuated by the privileged [men] against the oppressed [women] is incorrect – sexism is being perpetuated by everyone, most of the time without even realizing it.

As a corollary to this – when someone objects to statements like “all men are oppressors”, that’s not the same as denying that men have a privileged position, or that this advantaged position means that their acts of oppressive behavior may sometimes have greater results. What it’s objecting to is the idea that sexism/racism/bias in general is something perpetrated uniquely and solely by the privileged group. Nor does it necessarily come from an ignorance of privilege/oppression terminology and theory – often it comes from having been exposed deeply to such discourse and finding it lacking. Critiquing the way that privilege/oppression discourse is sometimes structured isn’t the same as denying that any kind of privilege or oppression exists.


[0] if you follow tumblr, you may have noticed that this is sort of reaction to this post over at ace advice, though it’s meant as a more general criticism of this kind of terminology overall rather than any particular post. This was just the particular one that triggered me to write this up.

[1] I say ‘in a given context’, because privilege/oppression dynamics are not universal constants – they are heavily dependent on the social culture of a given time or place. For the purposes if this post most examples will be coming from the context of mainstream US culture, and I’ll mostly be discussing male/female privilege/oppression discourse because it’s the first example that came to mind.)

[2] of course, when you start getting into perception vs. identity and all that things get a lot blurrier

[3] Available free to the public here: http://www.pnas.org/content/109/41/16474.abstract#aff-1

[4] The authors also note: “It is noteworthy that female faculty members were just as likely as their male colleagues to favor the male student. the fact that faculty members’ bias was independent of their gender, scientific discipline, age, and tenure status suggests that it is likely unintentional, generated from widespread cultural stereotypes rather than a conscious intention to harm women. Additionally, the fact that faculty participants reported liking the female more than the male student further underscores the point that our results likely do not reflect faculty members overt hostility toward women. Instead, despite expressing warmth toward emerging female scientists, faculty members of both genders appear to be affected by enduring cultural stereotypes about women’s lack of science competence that translate into biases against student evaluation and mentoring.”

[5] Final note, this does get more complicated when you get into A. groups which are largely in seperate social/cultural spheres and thus exposed to different social attitudes and biases and B. situations where you have more than two relevant subgroups. (Male/Female is the most simplistic structure, since nearly everyone is raised in a mixed-gender environment and there are (for the most part) only two major groups at play. Race would be an example of a much more complicated situation, since there are many more than just two groups, and since members of various groups may be distributed much more unevenly among different social/cultural spheres.


About Sennkestra

I'm an aromantic asexual and a bit of an [a]sexuality nerd, recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in linguistics. When I'm not reading stuff on the internet I like to cook fancy food, watch anime, and make costumes and other arts and crafts projects.
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One Response to “Privileged” ≠ “Oppressor”: why these two concepts should not be conflated.

  1. luvtheheaven says:

    This was a really good post. I’ve been thinking about this kind of thing for a while now but couldn’t articulate it nearly as clearly as you did just here. :D

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