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California State University- Monterey Bay
Dynamics of Oppression:
Standing in for the Enemy
Global Studies 350
Dr. Kathryn Poethig
4 May 2015
“Happiness and personal well-being are intrinsic elements, guaranteeing a fullness of life.”
-Ada María Isasi-Díaz
Through the eyes of a hegemonic masculine society, patriarchy is non existent. Gender
violence is a myth and people only receive the direct treatment for their individual actions. The
existence of oppressive structures in society is a creation that people use to rationalize bad
decisions. This way of viewing the world stayed with me for the longest of times. Ignorant of
any minority struggle or suffering, I believed all people were equal. This naive approach to the
world that surrounded me, manifested in my own identity and the way I projected my privilege
on that world.
When humans are born, they begin to inhabit an identity. Rather than a biological fact,
identity is constructed by society.1 Learned through interactions from when we are born, we
develop relationships with the environment and people around us that epistemologically
determine our views and our social reality. Through this reality, we gain consciousness of a
societal structure that benefits some while hindering others. Kupchan sees this inherently
reflected in one's culture as well.2 Culture refers to the practices, significations, and symbols that
arise from ethnicity, race, and religion. Depending on one's identity, one can be expected to act
in ways that further engenders humanity. When these lines are drawn, a consciousness is formed
where only one's own views and opinions are correct while all others are wrong. This way of
thinking creates divisions between people that formulate how individuals feel about each other.
Historically, people are easily able to befriend those who have cultures similar to their own.
Cultural commonality follows social selection.3 When looking for friends, former adversaries
who share a similar culture are more likely to share similar views or ideological perspectives.
Ricky Lee Allen and César Augusto Rossanto,“Does Critical Pedagogy Work with Privileged Students,” Teacher
Education Quarterly 36, no. 1 (2009): 174
Charles Kupchan. How Enemies Become Friends : The Sources of Stable Peace. (Princeton: Princeton University
Press. 2010), 62.
From the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire identifies the minority and majority struggle.
He notes that the struggle between majority and minority exist due to dehumanization.4 This
decrease in evolution is something that takes us back to primordial way of thinking. This
distortion of human lives, is the result of of an unjust order that engenders violence in the
oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed.5 Freire notes that oppressed people often
inhabit the world of the oppressor. Once this world is inhabited, the oppressed peoples begin to
accept the world of the oppressor. This often manifests in an acceptance of the dominate culture
and even the defense of its existence.6 Because the oppressor often generates the mode of
thought and what is able to be thought, many oppressed people are oblivious to the oppressive
structures at work. (i.g. Women Against Feminism) When women enter a political space, they
are often unable to affect change from their position. Cynthia Enloe explains why women are
often powerless to do little, even when they are in positions of power.7 Men often occupy
positions of power for their own political gain, where they’re able to determine social orders with
the use of their resources. Unlike men, women are measured by their intellectual acuity and how
they inhabit spaces of intelligence. They are seen in the eyes of their (male) colleagues as women
who have earned their position. This position is justified only if they embrace the silence of the
global gender gap. Managing to put forth a direct feminist discourse in the dominated society
that women inhabit further risks their positions of power.8 The irrefutable gender violence that
Enloe presents demonstrates a myriad in which women are constantly refuted in politics.
When constituting equal political efficacy, it's important to adhere to three main segments
of the social order. Distributing political power among social classes is critical to developing an
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 2000), 44
Cynthia Enloe, Gender, Conflict, and Peacekeeping (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005) 281
equal voice to make sure diverse opinions are heard and respected. Distributing political power
among ethnic, racial, and religious groups guarantees that minorities are apart of the majority
discourse. Kupchan identifies the last segment to organizing principles of economic production
and commercial activity.9 When people have similar ideas within social groups, the interests of
that group are advanced and suitable legislation may follow. However, when two social groups
have adverse economic interests, societal integration dictates that the more privileged group will
have their needs heard and legislation will reflect that of the dominant group.
Looking at the identification of gendered states shows us to what extent patriarchy
permeates every aspect of life. Patriarchy directly affects the ways in which a majority is created.
In response to this majority, some “other” group will also develop. In such a situation, this
“other” is more likely to learn that they are part of a particular group. Through perceived
aggressions and microaggressions, members of an oppressed group will become conscious of the
discrepancies at play. To contrast that, the oppressors will will be numb to the effect of these
aggressions and they are taught that they are normal or simply human.10 Oppressive peoples
often overlook criticisms from the oppressed groups. For example, white people believe they are
nice, caring, and conscientious people; that they have worked hard to obtain their wealth and
status. Whites are often unaware of their day-to-day privileges, let alone what was done
historically to procure the privileges that come with being white in a society built by white
racism.11 Only with a critical look at oneself and the surrounding structures at play can they
realize the privileges they have. Men often reject the idea of gender inequality. Inhabiting the
identity of a white, patriarchal identity shows women as different to men but equal none the less.
Allen, “Does Critical Pedagogy Work,” 174.
Allen, “Does Critical Pedagogy Work,” 175.
Humans have an inherent need to validate the way in which they’ve suffered. Because
humans are more in touch with how they are oppressed than how they oppress, humans often
compare their violence narratives.12 Although useful, its important for those who benefit from
the system that further oppresses others to legitimize the oppressed narrative and give it validity.
Instead of doing this, oppressive groups will often become hostile toward the oppressed group as
they are ignorant of the full spectrum of forces at play. Allen also identifies how important it is
to understand that one can be the oppressor as simultaneously as being oppressed.13 While being
conscious about their own oppression, they should also be conscious of how they further oppress
others. Just as a black man is oppressed by a white man, he could also be oppressing a black
woman. Because of the distinguishable levels of oppression, being conscious of the spectrum is
important to the way one treats different people and responds in different situations. Knowledge
of the existing cyclical structures of oppression are simultaneous with the inability of urban
youth to escape their environment. This simple realization further demonstrates the need for the
knowledge of this critical pedagogy. Ada Maria Asasi Diaz critically notes that the oppressed
peoples are not completely without their own defining structures. Oppressed peoples are not only
living in the world of the oppressor but also able to influence the existing structures that are in
place.14 Diaz’s critical view of the oppressive structures in place attempt to empower the
oppressed to breaking out of the realm of the oppressor.
Suffering is imperative in life. Functionally, oppression is domesticating.15 This
oppression further dehumanizes individuals and alienates them from the communal goal of a
shared experience of equality. It is apparent in every life and endowed with tribulations, trials,
Allen, “Does Critical Pedagogy Work,” 171.
Ada Maria AsasiDiaz, "BURLANDO AL OPRESOR: MOCKING/TRICKING THE OPPRESSOR: DREAMS
AND HOPES OF HISPANAS/LATINAS AND MUJERISTAS," Theological Studies 65, no. 2 (2004): 346
and a struggle. This struggle is often perceived, from an ideological standpoint, to harm the
minority group. Once the minority has been so broken down, they will no longer attempt
retribution; having been beaten down time and time again leaves them with one simple path:
obedience. James H. Cone utilizes the spiritual song developed during the period of slavery in
the US, “Nobody knows the Trouble I’ve seen, Nobody knows my sorrow.” 16 A statement like
this heard by the uninformed, ignorant, oppressor directly challenges the way they have also
suffered. This need to empathize with and internalize the sufferer’s experience. (not a complete
sentence) This example (although broad) is inherent among most humans. The need to be apart
of suffering, to have a voice within the circle of suffered individuals, is a mistake that most
individuals make. True, if one has not experienced the violence that is being spoken about, they
are still able to be within the circle. However, they should not be offering advice as if it affects
them directly. Taking a first person narrative to violence that didn’t directly affect one's life only
further upsets those who have actually experienced that violence. Just as I would not advise
alcoholics on the importance of staying away from alcohol, (Why not? Maybe just word that
differently. It’s ok for anyone to tell an addict to stay away from their vice. Say you would not
tell an alcoholic HOW to overcome his addiction. Your 2nd example about a victim of sexual
violence is good.) I would not tell a sexually violated individual how to overcome their suffering.
If one has been through violence, they are entitled to speak upon the violence they have been
through. They are entitled to speak to others who have been through similar forms of the same
violence but must be careful to what extent they sympathize their violence with that of others.
That’s not to say that they shouldn’t be a part of different narratives of suffering; they must
simply realize their place in that circle is to listen and acknowledge the struggle that the
James H Cone. “God and Black Suffering: Calling the Oppressors to Account.” Anglican Theological Review.90,
no. 4 (2008): 712
individuals have been through. Often privileged people will attempt to enter these circles of
suffering and share their own experience; a space that is not conducive to receiving that
oppressor’s narrative of suffering.
In the US, most live a relatively privileged life.17 Privilege in the US manifests through
being white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual, christian, middle-class, and English speaking.
Freire notes that the existence of the dominant group is essential. As a benefactor of oppressive
group membership, it’s important that “enlightened” oppressors be a part of change that needs to
happen. When one is a part of the oppressor group, it is their duty to work toward an active
world where the suffered minority feel empowered and is conscious of the factors in play. It is
also the job of existing structures to work toward inclusive legislation.
Freire notices that if the system manages to flip, it is important for the oppressed to not
then begin to oppress the previous oppressors but instead restore the humanity of both. Robin J.
Crews notes that violence is learned, as is nonviolence. 18 To begin unlearning, the dominant
narrative is a long and arduous process. The oppressed must rise up with those who are are
solitary with their efforts. Because the oppressed understand best the effects of a dominative
society, it is imperative that they assert a humanity over people that is just and inclusive. The
pedagogy of the oppressed as a liberating idea must unveil the world of oppression and commit
themselves to changing that oppressive state. Once the violations have been realized by all
people, the reality of the oppression will be blatant and change the oppressive regimes will
become a priority for all people.(Not sure this sentence makes sense.) 19 Freire simplifies the
dichotomy from the oppressed and oppressors far too simply. The way he outlines his work
Allen, “Does Critical Pedagogy Work,” 165.
Robin J Crews, Teaching for Justice : Concepts and Models for Service-learning in Peace Studies (Washington,
D.C.: American Association for Higher Education, 1999) 23.
doesn’t take into account the implicit structures that fight against the oppressive ideology.
Restoring humanity can only be done utilizing something that is inherent to humans: compassion
and love.20 Warren Reich identifies the need for compassion in the face of suffering. Compassion
is the virtue by which we have a sympathetic consciousness of sharing distress of another person
and on the basis that are inclined to offer assistance in alleviating the suffering.21 Once one has
been compassionate, they often enter into empathy where they will begin to feel themselves the
violence that the oppressed have always felt. The internalization of a suffered narrative is
dangerous and one must approach these stories with caution and tenacity.
Derek Rasmussen wrote something that, I thought, was far more applicable to assisting
the oppressive groups in society. He states that oppressors should not only ask what they can to
help but also what they can do to stop hurting.22 I think this is applicable to every narrative of
oppression. What is so groundbreaking here is the way that this reflects on contemporary conflict
and peace strategies. When looking at US foreign policy, if we focus not on what we can do to
assist other countries, but instead focus on what we can to stop harming those countries, our
foreign policy would change drastically. Similarly, when approaching those who have been
oppressed, we must also focus on what we can do to stop being part of the problem. Isasi also
agrees that agreeing one is part of the problem is important to making any effective change in
this world.23 The most liberationist24 way to take responsibility for the problem would embrace
this recourse and strategize further from this mindset. We must also not distort the narratives of
suffering that are given to us from those who are oppressed. Because there is no single way to
Warren Thomas Reich, “Speaking of Suffering: A Moral Account of Compassion,” Soundings:An
Interdisciplinary Journal 72, no. 1 (1989): 83.
Derek Rasmussen, “Qallunology: A Pedagogy for the Oppressor”. (Canadian Journal of Native Education.25,
no. 2 (2001): 85
Isasi Diaz, 345.
I’m hesitant to use this word as it connotes that we as oppressors are needed by the oppressed to be liberated.
suffer, it’s important that there is no universal creation of suffering. Because each community
and cultural values different qualities and signifies different modes of experience, pain is
perceived and expressed differently. 25 Once individuals begin commodifying experience,
cultural representations of suffering are being remade, distorted, and undervalued. To globalize
suffering would undermine the subjectiveness of those who have suffered through different
events. Distinctions may be made between those who have suffered different crises but
comparing and evaluating them against one another can prove dangerous to ensuring each voice
feels heard and understood. Kleinman goes a long way to pointing out the disparities between the
need for change with the way that change should be carried out. Kleinman and many others
realize that those in power are doing more harm than necessary. Once those in charge realize
they are the normally respond to human problems. (Doesn’t make sense) The efforts of the
professional experts must be held responsible to define how the effects of the institutional change
can be controlled. This due diligence is imperative to actually solving the problem and not
creating a false sense of generosity that further adds to the problem. Isasi understands the need to
have a critical gaze at the litigation that is attempting to change discourse.26 It is critical to
identify how effective the litigation is, and how effective that is to making the final goal a reality.
Something that often hampers individuals who wish to change the bad things they see is the
simple will to do good. Often, individuals are content with the good intentions they put forth
toward ending the oppressive structures at work. Essentially, this bystander approach is not
enough to affect common discourse and their good will is wasted. To successfully change the
marginalization of particular groups, it is important to be realistic and honest about the reality of
Joan and Arthur Kleinman, “The Appeal of Experience; the Dismay of Images: Cultural Appropriations of
Suffering in Our Times.” Daedalus 125, no.1 (1996): 2.
Isasi Diaz, 355.
a goal.27 If one is simply compassionate, loving, and educated about the truth of oppressive
structures in society, one may reach a desired level of conscientization. One must work further
to then actively try to change litigation of common oppressive regimes in society.
In a hegemonically masculine society, people like me don’t see the myriad of injustice in
the world. Because I inhabit the identity of a supremely privileged individual, I have never had to
entertain the notion of the oppressive structures at play. Being a white, able-bodied, heterosexual
male has awarded me the ability to ignore and benefit from the way society is structured. From
this vantage point, I was always complicit with the structure of life. Like Allen said, I thought I
was merely average; that my normal life had many tribulations and I had suffered more than
anyone had known. My suffering manifested with the death of my mother when I was 10. I had
always known that my struggle was invisible and I also benefited from that. When I was first
introduced to the oppressive culture of patriarchy, I fought it. How could this world that I came
from cause many of the problems with domination in society? I saw my flaws in stark contrast to
the way I had been raised from a young age. Of all the ways that people can benefit from society,
I have been given the most. I had always wanted to compare myself with others struggles.28 I’ve
learned that suffering can not be as simple as singular events that happen at one point in life; that
some people exist in a constant place of suffering. This violence manifests in the everyday
relations with those one interacts with. Because I don’t know the day-to-day trials that members
of an oppressed structure inhabit, giving feedback is not the appropriate response for me. Instead,
I exist to create a safe space for these people. Existing as the contradiction to the problem helps
Isasi Diaz, 363.
When I was a first year, my roommate was a heterosexual black male from inner LA. We had many arguments
around our mutual suffering and we were always at odds.I believed that I was “colorblind” and that race only
mattered to those who wouldn’t let go of the past. How could I have been responsible for anything my ancestors
others change their opinion of how privileged peoples are received in circles of oppressed
Allen, Ricky Lee, and César Augusto Rossatto. 2009. Does Critical Pedagogy Work with
Privileged Students?. Teacher Education Quarterly. 36, no. 1: 163-180.
Bury, Mike. 2001. Illness Narratives: Fact or Fiction?. Sociology of Health & Illness. 23, no. 3:
Charmaz, Kathy. 1999. Stories of Suffering: Subjective Tales and Research Narratives.
Qualitative Health Research. 9, no. 3: 362-382.
Cone, James H. 2008. God and Black Suffering: Calling the Oppressors to Account. Anglican
Theological Review. 90, no. 4: 701.
Crews, Robin J. 1999. Teaching for Justice : Concepts and Models for Service-learning in Peace
Studies. Washington, D.C.: American Association for Higher Education 1
Enloe, Cynthia. 2005. Gender, Conflict, and Peacekeeping. Lanham, MD: Rowman &
Freire, Paulo. 2000. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Isasi-Díaz, Ada María. "BURLANDO AL OPRESOR: MOCKING/TRICKING THE
OPPRESSOR: DREAMS AND HOPES OF HISPANAS/LATINAS AND
MUJERISTAS." Theological Studies 65, no. 2 (June 2004): 340-363.
Kleinman, Joan, and Arthur Kleinman. 1996. The Appeal of Experience; the Dismay of Images:
Cultural Appropriations of Suffering in Our Times. Daedalus. 125, no. 1: 1.
Kupchan, Charles. 2010. How Enemies Become Friends : The Sources of Stable Peace.
Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Leaven. 2003, “Doing Our Own Work: A Seminar for Anti-Racist White Women”Visions, Inc.
and the MSU Extension Multicultural Awareness Workshop
Reich, Warren Thomas. 1989. SPEAKING of SUFFERING: A Moral Account of Compassion.
Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal. 72, no. 1: 83-108.
Roberts, S J. 2000. Development of a Positive Professional Identity: Liberating Oneself from the
Oppressor Within. ANS. Advances in Nursing Science. 22, no. 4: 71.
Rasmussen, Derek. 2001. Qallunology: A Pedagogy for the Oppressor. Canadian Journal of
Native Education. 25, no. 2: 105.