December 22, 2023

Unlearning Oppression

Wayne mellinger author photoBy Wayne Martin Mellinger

Instructor, Antioch University

No child is brought into this world as a racist or sexist or homophobe.  Oppression must be learned through our childhood socialization processes.  While the home environment provided by our parents is crucial to learning both oppressive and anti-oppressive behaviors, cultural institutions such as schools, religious institutions, and mass media also play a central role.

For many years I taught classes at local colleges and universities I called “Unlearning Oppression.”  While the formal titles of these classes were typically “Race, Class and Gender in American Society” I insisted on dealing with ageism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of oppression too.

In these classes my goal is to create a climate in which students can both deal with their own issues as people who are oppressed and deal with their issues as people who are oppressors. 

My title derives from the pioneering work of Erica Shereover-Marcuse, a critical philosopher and educator who became well-known for leading workshops on “Unlearning Racism” in the Bay Area during the 1970s.  Shereover-Marcuse was the third wife and student of Herbert Marcuse, the German-American philosopher associated with the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. While I never took part in one of Shereover-Marcuse’s workshops, her compact and insightful lecture notes formed the pedagogical core of my classes.

To unlearn oppression and to dismantle the foundations of our “dominator culture” we must acknowledge our everyday oppressive practices.  Moreover, we must engage in critical self-reflection, get the correct information, deal with our negative emotions, gain insight into our own passivity and become actively anti-oppressive.

Oppression is the acts and effects of domination, including ideological domination and institutional control.  Oppression operates through unequal and unjust institutional constraints which bring harm to at least one other group and which serves to the benefit of another social group.  This harm comes about through coercion, or the use of unjustified force.

There are many systems of oppression in the US, including racism, imperialism, patriarchy, heterosexism, ageism, ableism.  These are interlocking societal, economic, moral and religious values that keep many people down to ensure the power and advantage of a few groups of people.

There are three different forms of oppression:

  1. institutional oppression–which occurs through the way that society operates.  No individually-motivated hatred needs to be in operation for institutional oppression to work. Example: A white real-estate agent shows a young Black couple houses in parts of town he feels they’d feel most comfortable, thus enforcing racial segregation.
  1. interpersonal oppression–which occurs between individuals and is usually based on personal prejudice. Example: a man continually interrupts a woman while she is speaking.
  1. internalized oppression–when members of an oppressed group oppress one another and their own group. Example: a group of gay men pick on another who is more feminine.

We are all potentially both oppressors and oppressed. While we often have a dualistic logic imagining that there are those “with power” and those “without power” the reality is much more complex.

We learn oppression through our own oppression as children. Early childhood experiences are central to developing “power over” mentalities.  Essentially, we hurt others because we have been hurt ourselves. 

In our society we often experience mistreatment as young people—through physical violence but also through invalidation and disregard of our feelings. As a result, we tend both to internalize this mistreatment by accepting it as the way things are, and externalize it by mistreating others. Thus, adultism and the oppression of children are at the heart of my understanding of the nature of oppression in modern society.

Depending on the context, all individuals possess varying amounts of penalty and privilege. Because all of us have been children we have all been potentially oppressed.  Because all of us (presumably) are adults we can all be oppressors of children. But age is just one system of oppression.

The interlocking system of oppression in which penalty and privilege vary by race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability, etc. is called the “matrix of domination” by Patricia Hill Collins. Intersectionality identifies the multiple overlapping sources of penalty and privilege. So, someone may be disadvantaged by being African American and gay, but privileged by being male and able-bodied.

Everyday oppression refers to those practices which, while so much a part of our everyday lives that they seem normal and thus go unquestioned, discriminate against members of some “minority” group. This routinely occurs within interactions and includes all actions, verbal and nonverbal, which result in negative consequences, regardless of intentionality. Thus, oppression does not have to be blatant, conscious or deliberate.  Therefore, many well-intended people are unaware that their actions are oppressive.

Everyday oppression sometimes occurs through inaction rather than through overt actions. The passivity of well-meaning people, fueled by ignorance and indifference, is critical to the operation of dominator cultures. We often live in denial, refusing to acknowledge the consequences of our behavior.

Types of Everyday Oppression

  • stereotypes are faulty generalizations that we make about groups of people;
  • misinformation about group differences (ethnic groups, genders, sexual minorities, ability groups)
  • discomfort dealing with cultural and social differences;
  • apprehension about different groups;
  • taking privileges (as whites, or males, or temporarily able-bodies);
  • paternalistic attitudes (“we need to help those poor people”);
  • self-righteous liberal pride (“but I’m color blind,” “we have gay friends”)

Many people, deeply engaged in the liberation of their own group, seem not to be able to see their role in oppressing others, and how that comes full circle and perpetuates their own oppression. In my classes I urge students to become “allies”—people who stand with all marginalized people, speaking out against acts of oppression wherever and whenever they happen.


The article adds depth to sociological perspectives on everyday discriminatory practices and emphasizes critical self-reflection.


Sometimes I do feel strange why some people will say like 'my gay friends' with pride. Now I know it is also a kind of oppression.

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