A View on the Dynamics of Oppression

Clarifying the Terms often used in Diversity Work

The list below is not exhaustive

Adultism The oppression by adults of children and young people.

BlackRefers to a person with Black skin colour.

Culture – A way of being and relating that is shared to some extent by social, regional, religious and sometimes racial groups of people.

DiscriminationThe actioning of prejudice to the detriment of those discriminated against. Prejudice can at time be held but not put into action; however, this is questionable.

EqualityNo person intrinsically having more worth than any other person; providing all people with equal access to power and resources regardless of their ontological identity and/or being. If equality were to truly come into force, then society would need to ensure that any ‘starting blocks’ were made equal. However, to begin with we need to understand and adjust to the fact that whilst all people may be ‘born equal’ not all people have had an equality of experience/opportunity within the status quo of our society as it currently exists.

Ism/s – Any exercised and actioned prejudice manifested through oppression in which one group of people gain benefit or prestige from the inequality experienced by another group of people. Major examples are Racism and Homophobia.

Minority Group - A group/groups of people within society that are not members of the majority demographic. Such groups of people often experience inequality and/or discrimination. Personally (the author) I do not like this expression, as it seems to me, the very terminology itself labels groups of people as ‘lacking’ in some way and further places group members in a default position.

Ethnic - The racial and/or cultural identity of people. We all possess ethnic identity regardless of our race, creed or colour - but this term is often used in Britain to define that which is, or people that are non-English or non-white in origin; such usage is a misnomer.

Ontological IdentityThe nature and origin of a person’s physical, racial and/or cultural being.

Ontological InsecurityAn irrational fear that the nature of one’s ontological identity is under threat from others who are ontologically different; a prime example of such insecurity is a belief in the need for white supremacy.

Oppression The systematic mistreatment of one group of people (either individually or collectively) who hold the access to power and resources over another group of people (either individually or collectively), who do not have equal access to power and resources.

Inherited OppressionThe learned attitudes and behaviours introjected consciously or unconsciously by members of an oppressor group.

Internalised OppressionThe attitudes, values and beliefs held by an oppressor group introjected by a member/s of an oppressed group, to the detriment of the oppressed person and/or their ontological group.

Person of Colour Refers to a person with a skin colour on the spectrum between Black and white; this terminology can often give the impression that white is not a skin colour.

PrejudiceA preformed opinion or belief, usually disparaging, about diverse peoples based on limited knowledge, irrational feelings or inaccurate stereotypes.

Race Genetic and biological characteristics of a person identified by skin colour, blood grouping, hair texture and face/body features.

Mixed Race/Dual or Mixed Heritage A person whose ontological identity originates from parents of two (or more) races.

WestocentricAny attitudes or theories derived from the way of being, values, beliefs and cultural experiences of the western cultures. Psychotherapy is a prime example of a profession that is rooted in Westocentricity.

White Refers to a person of white skin colour. The use of this term often denies that white is a skin colour in and of itself.

Working with Difference: Cross/ Trans/Multi/Inter-Cultural Are all terms used when working with people who are ontologically different from one’s self.

The text that follows has been, in part, developed from the work and views and with the permission of, Jacob Holdt and Tony Harris (Holdt and Harris, 2014).

The Base Line:

Oppression is present in all societies throughout the world and comes in many forms. Oppression works through attitudinally and behaviourally creating stress and distress; people who belong to an oppressed group are disempowered, systematically denied equality and are often ‘trapped’ in oppression by being treated primarily as what they are, not who they are by the oppressing group.

Adultism; the primary experience:

We have all experienced Adultism; it is the primary oppression. ‘Good’ parents exercise management of child care. However, a sense of danger and powerlessness is often instilled in us as children, if not by our ‘good’ parents, then by our initial experiences of the way society operates. Neglectful or abusive parents leave us without love or protection in a complex, confusing world that we must somehow learn to negotiate without guidance.

As children we can only exercise our personal power to the degree, we are allowed to by the adults in charge of us. Most often children are required to comply with rules and values they have had no input in making. As children we also gain direct and/or subliminal information about worldly dangers and ‘norms’ from the adults we live with or along side.

In the above ways patterns of distress/societal conditions of worth are set in motion.

Such conditions of worth, in relation to prejudice and/or ontological insecurity, often results in inflexible, illogical beliefs, feelings and behaviours akin to those held and exercised by the adults around us as we grew.

Case Example

Freda grew up being told her father’s cousin, who had moved to Australia, was “mad and dangerous because of her diagnosed dopiness”. This cousin’s “madness” was frequently used as means to control Freda’s behaviour, “You’d better stop yelling and crying or you’ll turn out like Cousin Beatrice”, was a typical threat she remembers hearing. In her teens Freda had a number of psychotic episodes but did not seek help, even though she knew “something was not quite right”. She became very unwell and was sectioned under the Mental Health Act when she tried to commit suicide. She was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. Whilst Freda now lives successfully and effectively with her illness, she divulges this to no one in her personal acquaintance. She lives without intimate relationship because she does not want to disclose her “insanity” to a potential lover, lest she be rejected or treated badly. She also has a deep seated dislike of associating with anyone who has a Mental Health Disorder. It appears Freda has both inherited her family’s prejudice for she fervently avoids others with Mental Health Issues, and has also internalisedtheir bigotry for she expects to be abandoned or avoided if she were open about her condition.

The patterns of distress/societal conditions of worth that emerge/become introjected early in our lives and the felt experience of oppression, exercised through adultism, prime us to accept, allow and exercise the other oppressions we subsequently encounter.

Holdt and Harris (2014) write:

No person would ever agree to, or submit to, being oppressed unless a pattern of oppression had been installed, first by the oppression of adults in early childhood. Only the distress patterns left by adultism allow other oppressions later to be accepted and make it possible to force a person to continue to function as oppressed.”

The above statement also applies to our ensuing functioning as either an overt or ‘unaware’ oppressor.


We welcome all enquiries

Please complete all fields