The concept of oppression has been written about by scholars and educators in various fields. Oppression has been defined as a system that allows access to the services, rewards, benefits, and privileges of society based on membership in a particular group. Oppression involves the abuse of power whereby a dominant group engages in unjust, harsh, or cruel activities that perpetuate an attitude or belief that is reinforced by society and maintained by a power imbalance. It involves beliefs and actions that impose undesirable labels, experiences, and conditions on individuals by virtue of their cultural identity.
In the counseling and psychology literatures, the term oppression is often discussed in relation to privilege. Privilege refers to attitudes and behavior that reinforce the notion that one group’s beliefs and standards are superior to those of other groups. Systems of privilege and oppression operate in the workplace, education, housing, media, and the legal system, which perpetuate inequities for some and unearned advantages and opportunities for others. Social inequities, cultural imposition of a dominant group on minority groups, and cultural disintegration and re-creation of the oppressed groups characterize systems of oppression. Oppressive systems are manifest in prejudicial attitudes and discrimination in areas such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender, class, and sexual orientation.
Fred Hanna, William Talley, and Mary Guindon describe two modalities of oppression (oppression by force and oppression by deprivation) and three types of oppression (primary, secondary, and tertiary).
Primary oppression refers to overt acts of oppression, including oppression by force and oppression by deprivation. Secondary oppression involves individuals benefiting from overt oppressive acts. Individuals involved in secondary oppression do not actively engage in oppressive acts but also do not object to others who do engage in overt oppressive acts and benefit from the aggression. Tertiary oppression, also referred to as internalized oppression, refers to the identification of the dominant message by members of the minority group, often to seek acceptance by the dominant group. Like secondary oppression, tertiary oppression can be passive in nature.
Paulo Freire’s writings on oppression have significantly influenced the fields of education and counseling. He is considered a major founder of liberation pedagogy and based his theory on his experiences with teaching peasants and disenfranchised persons in Brazil. In his best-known work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire discussed the “banking” concept of education in which a knowledgeable teacher projects an absolute ignorance onto others, who are passive recipients of information, as an instrument of oppression. Such education attempts to control thinking, promote passivity, and stifle creativity. Oppression is described as any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry. Human beings are viewed as alienated from their own decision making. In contrast, the revolutionary educator uses problem posing or liberating education in which students become critical coinvestigators who are in dialogue with the teacher. Freire introduced the term conscientizagdo, or the process of developing a critical consciousness, advocating for the development of awareness of oneself within one’s social context. According to Freire, a crucial component of critical consciousness is helping students understand how they learned to define themselves as their oppressors viewed them.
The study of oppression is prominent in the field of postcolonial studies (see, e.g., the writings of psychiatrist Frantz Fanon). This entails the study of the interactions between European nations and the societies they colonized in the modern period and, more specifically, the deleterious effects of European colonization on various cultures in the world. Research in post-colonial studies is growing, as postcolonial critique allows for a wide-ranging investigation into power relations in various contexts. Topics in the field include the impact of colonization on postcolonial history, economy, science, and culture; the cultural productions of colonized societies; agency for marginalized people; and the state of the postcolony in contemporary economic and cultural contexts.
Feminist scholars have described the complexity of multiple intersecting identities. Depending on the context, one may be an oppressor or be oppressed. For example, a man of color may be the recipient of racism, but he may exploit women. Similarly, a White woman may oppress people of color and simultaneously experience oppression, or sexism, in relationships with men. The work of feminists of color such as Angela Davis and bell hooks has also informed understandings of multiple oppressions. They describe the “double or triple jeopardy” of racial and ethnic minority women who often experience oppression associated with race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. Chicana feminists such as Delores Degaldo Bernal, Chela Sandoval, and Paula Moyahave have discussed the survival skills needed for managing multiple oppressions and experiences of marginalization, such as those associated with language issues, immigration and migration, generation of residence in the United States, and religion.
The writings of such scholars, educators, philosophers, and social justice advocates have influenced the field of counseling and psychology. Psychologists such as Beverly Greene and Lillian Comas-Dtaz have discussed the clinical implications of multiple oppressions and intersecting identities. In fact, the fields of counseling and psychology have moved from a focus on intrapsychic factors to an analysis of the interplay between intrapsychic and contextual forces, such as oppression, and its impact on psychological functioning. “Internalized oppression” is a central theme in minority psychology. Internalized oppression is seen as common to many colonized or formerly colonized individuals, and has also been discussed with respect to sexual minority populations. Internalized racism and internalized homophobia are two forms of internalized oppression. Internalized oppression refers to a condition in which oppressed individuals and groups come to believe they are inferior to those in power. The oppressed eventually comes to believe an identity that is consistent with the oppressor’s stereotyped perceptions of the oppressed. The internalization of oppression leads to a devalued self-worth among the oppressed. Internalized oppression can lead to self-hatred, self-concealment, feelings of inferiority, isolation, and powerlessness. Fanon described the self-doubt and identity confusion in colonized persons that results from the continuous denial of their humanity. Racism is seen as a form of colonialism in which oppressors inscribe a mentality of subordination in the oppressed. Oppression has been linked to a range of psychiatric problems, including depression, anxiety, posttraumatic reactions, identity confusion, substance abuse, domestic violence, and eating disorders, as well as physical ailments such as high blood pressure. The high rates of suicide, alcoholism, and domestic violence among Native Americans have been linked to a history of oppression and its internalization.
Internalized oppression has also been discussed in the counseling and psychology in relation to identity development. The identity development process varies according to specific aspects of identity. Identity development is often characterized as an individual’s movement from internalized oppression or privilege, lack of awareness or salience with regard to a particular identity, toward increased awareness of societal oppression and/or privilege, cognitive flexibility, and internal standards of self-definition. Racial and ethnic identity development theorists such as William Cross and Janet Helms have argued that internalized oppression may lead oppressed individuals to highly value the dominant racial and ethnic group and devalue their own. The development of a critical consciousness regarding one’s role in perpetuating racism and oppression is a significant aspect of achieving a nonracist White identity. Feminist identity development also involves a recognition and understanding of internalized sexism and its effects.
Application to Counseling
Given the interrelatedness of oppression and privilege, the multidimensional and complex nature of both these constructs, and their relationship to mental health issues, clinicians must be able to identify and understand the complexity of clients’ multiple identities and address issues related to the various forms of oppression and privilege. Oppression in the form of racism and discrimination has been identified as a stressor that affects psychological functioning, adjustments, social adaptation, and physical health. Clinicians’ misdiagnosis of individuals from oppressed groups is common, as majority norms are often used as the standard against which all clients are compared. In addition, clinicians may mistake trauma-like reactions to oppressive circumstances for intrapsychic pathology. Culturally and contextually influenced expressions of distress may be misunderstood.
The Multicultural Counseling Competencies, a self-assessment form developed by the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development and endorsed by both the American Counseling Association and the American Psychological Association, offers guidelines for becoming a culturally skilled counselor, which includes a commitment to self-awareness and knowledge of various types of oppression. In addition to the Multicultural Counseling Competencies, there has been an increased focus on social justice and social action related to multicultural counseling. In this context, therapists are not only aware and knowledgeable about oppression but take action against the causes and conditions of oppression. Guidelines for psychotherapy with girls and women; guidelines on multicultural education, training, research, practice, and organizational change; and guidelines for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered clients continue to be developed.
Educators and therapists as social justice agents must address issues of oppression and privilege at the training level and the practice level. Studies support the importance of exploring oppression and privilege issues within coursework (i.e., facilitation of multicultural counseling competency) and suggest that not addressing these constructs may in fact obstruct the therapeutic process and compromise the client’s identity, as well as lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the client’s perspective and actions. In fact, social activism has also been viewed as an important aspect of identity development for members of marginalized groups. The literature suggests several strategies for addressing oppression and privilege issues at both training and practice levels. These strategies involve liberating both the oppressor and the oppressed and include awareness of self, establishment of empathy, and building of coalitions. Specifically, educators and therapists encourage students and clients to explore their cultural identities, become knowledgeable about the sociocultural and historical backgrounds of their students and clients, and apply this awareness and knowledge to inform culturally relevant practice.
Conceptualizations of oppression in the counseling literature have evolved over time. More recent perspectives have moved from a dualistic approach and pointed to the complex dynamics of oppression and privilege that vary across contexts. This position considers the impact of multiple social identities and situations.
More recent research has focused on the development of inventories that assess awareness of and attitudes toward oppression and privilege, the effects of multiple oppressions on individuals’ mental health, and counseling interventions designed to decrease the deleterious effects of oppression on mental health.
- Ancis, J. R. (Ed.). (2004). Culturally responsive interventions: Innovative approaches to working with diverse populations. New York: Brunner-Routledge.
- Arredondo, P. (1999). Multicultural counseling competencies as tools to address oppression and racism. Journal of Counseling & Development, 77, 102-108.
- Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder & Herder.
- Hanna, F. J., Talley, W. B., & Guindon, M. H. (2000). The power of perception: Toward a model of cultural oppression and liberation. Journal of Counseling & Development, 78, 430-141.
- hooks, bell. (1984). Feminist theory from margin to center. Boston: South End Press.