So, the second type of “invisible” oppression that I mentioned in my last post was oppression that we participate in largely unknowingly because it is structural.
I hope that you have encountered the term “structural oppression” before, but if not, then let me explain. The term refers to practices or policies that cause oppression even without an individual choosing or intending to cause oppression.
An example: Imagine a factory owner in the late 1960s needs to hire a new manager for one of the floors of the factory. Up to this time, Black workers have be explicitly excluded from managerial positions, but this factory owner is decidedly in favor of equality and supports the Civil Rights Movement, so he wants this new management job to be open to everyone, regardless of race. The hiring committee understands, however, that in order to ensure that the new manager is as effective and successful as possible, they should select the most qualified (re: most experienced, aka person who already has managerial experience) person for the job. This seems reasonable, but upon reflection we see that this means that they will not be able to pick a Black person for this job because a Black person without managerial experience will never be as qualified as a white person with managerial experience. So, even though the owner, and perhaps the hiring committee, were explicitly anti-racist, they still had to participate in a structure (re: capitalism) that included inherent racism.
The same story can be told about contemporary college admissions decisions. While the admissions committees are not explicitly racist (and in fact many are explicitly “equal opportunity”), if they are forced to choose the “most qualified” applicants, that may mean they only admit the people with the best high school grades and highest SAT scores…. which means that they are admitting the people who had the best teachers, the most resources, most access to tutors and SAT prep classes…. which means that they are admitting wealthy and largely white applicants. The structure of society means that access to resources is inherently racist, class-ist, and sexist, so choosing “the most qualified” is almost always an unfair form of evaluation.
So, how do we intervene in/stop perpetuating structural oppression? Well, in some ways, we can’t. The structure is much larger and more powerful than any individual, and in order to function in society, we must function within those structures. But we shouldn’t give up hope entirely.
Instead, we can continue to ask questions and have conversations about the impact that various structures (re: institutional policies, cultural practices, etc.) have on individuals from different backgrounds. Do wealthy white men experience college admissions differently than poor black women? Probably. But why and how? And what can be done to make their experiences seem more equitable? Asking those questions is powerful.
Strides have been made to address the structural oppressions that have been identified, but these strides often inadequate and/or ineffective. Affirmative action is an example of a attempt to fix some of these problems, but as we have seen, it was an imperfect solution. But an imperfect solution is still something, and I believe that with continued dialogue and reflection we can reach more adequate and more effective methods.
Can you identify any forms of structural oppression at work in American society? Do you participate in those structures? Can you think of any ways to interrupt those structures?