15 Oct 08

In the legal industry and in ALA we talk a lot about diversity and discrimination, but I was recently reintroduced to the word Oppression.

A couple months ago I interviewed at Lambert House (a GLBT youth center) to become a volunteer for the agency. During the interview we discussed Oppression. I was asked, “Richard, how would you define Oppression? How do you see Oppression in our society? How do you think we overcome Oppression?

I hadn’t heard the word Oppression in YEARS! And it sent shivers up and down my spine to internally define what I thought Oppression was and how it still lives in society. My initial gut reaction was the in the legal industry and in ALA (and perhaps business in general) we more often think in terms of Discrimination rather than Oppression. Discrimination is just a loaded legal term for “what can I get away with”. So, expanding on that, Anti-Discrimination policies (as many of us have) would mean, “we’ll do our best not to get away with anything”?

My original response to them, on what I believed Oppression was: “The first thing that comes to mind when I think about Oppression is Discrimination. This is probably because we more often use the word Discrimination in our workplaces. But the more I think about it, I see Oppression as being very different from Discrimination. I see Oppression being the silencing of the minority (or circumstance). I see something like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell as more Oppression than Discrimination. After all, stifling the voices of the oppressed is the requisite outcome. On a more personal basis I could see Oppression as people not acknowledging their differences and not encouraging honest discussion. As a matter of fact, the feeling or sense that it’s not ok to talk about your ‘status’, be it racial or gay/lesbian etc., is the root of any workplace Oppression.”

Wikipedia defines Oppression as: “the act of using power to empower and/or privilege a group at the expense of disempowering, marginalizing, silencing, and subordinating another. Oppression does not need established organizational support; it can be rendered on a much smaller individual scale. It is particularly closely associated with nationalism and derived social systems, wherein identity is built by antagonism to the other.”

What does the word Oppression mean to you?

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