Anti-oppression is a perspective, a life approach and a prerogative for anyone who cares about equality and justice. It involves recognizing and deconstructing the systemic, institutional and personal forms of disempowerment used by certain groups over others. By examining things like social structures, group dynamics and patterns of oppression (like racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, etc) we can begin to work towards equalizing the power imbalance in our communities. Through this, we bring each other strength by recognizing the interconnectedness of our struggles while deepening our understanding of our own roles, power and privilege in society, as well as the varied and valuable experiences of others.

To understand anti-oppression, one must also understand the multi-faceted and expansive term ‘oppression.’

“Oppression is customarily experienced as a consequence of, and expressed in, the form of a prevailing assumption that the given target is in some way inferior. Oppression is rarely limited solely to formal government action. In psychology, racism, sexism and other prejudices are often studied as individual beliefs which can lead to oppression if they are codified in law or become parts of a culture. By comparison, in sociology, these prejudices are often studied as being institutionalized systems of oppression in some societies. In sociology, the tools of oppression include a progression of denigration, dehumanization, and demonization; which often generate scapegoating, which is used to justify aggression against targeted groups and individuals. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the concept of Human Rights in general were designed to limit oppression by giving a clear articulation of what fundamental freedoms any system should allow to all of the people over whom it has power. Transnational systems of oppression include colonialism, imperialism, and totalitarianism. (wikipedia)

Throughout history, the oppression of virtually all minorities (women, people of color, indigenous people, LGBTQ people, immigrants, disabled people, low-income people, children, the elderly, to name a few) has been insidious, if not legally enforced and brutally prevalent. When certain groups are oppressed by government action, war, policies and laws, inequities are clear, and then other times these inequities can be subtle and systemic.

For example, when African people were stolen and forcibly brought to America as slaves; ripped from their families; not counted as human beings; victimized, mutilated and murdered; systematically disenfranchised and segregated; denied access to education, services, and legal protections – oppression was clear. Today, because people of African descent have equal rights under the law (something achieved less than 50 years ago with the ‘Civil Rights Act’ and ‘Voting Rights Act’)), many people (especially white people) are reluctant to acknowledge the way that this terrible history of oppression continues to play out in our society. This happens for many reasons, some of which are:

  1. Being labeled a racist is seen as an embarrassment in our society, so white people reject the notion that they could be, before they consider what it means (beyond its most elementary definition).
  2. Dominant groups do not usually sympathize with oppressed groups – to do so might mean that they have to change their behavior or give something up. (This ‘something’ represents the false notion that one side has to lose in order for the other side to gain.)
  3. People do not like to share power or privilege. (Again, the fear of having to give something up, in particular, one’s established position of power.)
  4. It makes white people feel guilty or like they might ‘owe’  something to people of color.
  5. Many white people, usually unaware of their unearned social advantage and economic advantage, do not want to encourage giving anyone else an ‘advantage,’ (ie. equal opportunity employment or diversity quotas) by acknowledging disparities.
  6. Most people simply are not very good at taking responsibility for things they have done personally, let alone for things that their ancestors have done, or wrongs that have happened throughout history.
  7. White people are often threatened by (and strangely resentful of) the anger and pain of people of color.
  8. On a governmental level – politicians do not want to acknowledge the horrors of the past, or inequities of the present, because that acknowledgement could be used in the case for reparations (a.k.a. the government may have to take financial responsibility for theft of labor and land, and the resulting systemic financial inequities).

We see many similarities when we examine the history of women. Hundreds of thousands of women have been executed and continue to be subjugated in the name of religion, by every major religion (and therefore governments) worldwide. Tens of thousands of women were executed in the Christian witch hunts of the early modern period alone. Worldwide, women have been generally viewed as property, subjected to physical abuse, rape, disenfranchisement, denied access to education, services and legal protections and were victims of financial repression and control. In the USA, in 1920, the 19th amendment to the Constitution gave women the right to vote, and while today it is opined by the general population that women have obtained equality with men, the Equal Rights Amendment has never been signed, women do not make equal pay for the same work, women do not have reproductive rights nationwide, and sexual violence is an epidemic.

And yet why do men (and some women) deny that disparities exist? Moreover, why do so many men aggressively reject the notion that women face inequities? It is for many of the same reasons that white people deny the existence of racism and the system of white supremacy.

In the case of the LGBTQ civil rights movement in the United States, there is a similarly long and terrible history of oppression. Additionally, this oppression is currently legally enforced by the denial of equal rights, protections and responsibilities to that specific part of the population, by the dominant majority. LGBTQ people simply do not have equality in the United States and worldwide. LGBTQ people face hardships, discrimination and violence in every level of life within society, from individual prejudices to state sponsored acts of aggression and repression.

LGBTQ people are a branch of the anti-oppression-approach umbrella because heterosexism and transphobia puts LGBTQ people into the category of oppressed, but many LGBTQ people carry the weight of overlapping oppressions, such as classism, racism, ableism or sexism. While establishing a hierarchy of oppressions is generally an unproductive approach, unless one has experienced racism, sexism, classism, ableism, etc. – one cannot know what it feels like and it cannot be declared an entirely equal experience. Acknowledging intersecting oppressions and parallel struggles within any movement is important, and so it is for the LGBTQ movement. The systems of white supremacy, patriarchy, classism, heterosexism, transphobia, ableism, ageism, etc., create a terrible force that negatively affects all in its path – both the oppressed and the oppressors. The great diversity of the LGBTQ community is a cause for strength and an opportunity for unification through learning, recognition and respect – if we work with an anti-oppressive approach.

Anti-oppression is something that we start to understand through thinking, learning, unlearning, self-awareness. It then needs to be put into practice, which is truly a beautiful and fulfilling life long effort of action, education and commitment to equality and to being the best human beings that we can possibly be.


Here are some amazing anti-oppression resources:

‘the benefits of being male’ by paul kivel

the anti-racism resource center

colorlines magazine

tim wise ( white anti-racist educator)


an anti-racism classic – White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, by Peggy McIntosh The Spoon Theory by Christine Miserandino

anti-oppression principles and practices from Rant Collective

SOA Watch Anti-Oppression Resources

‘what is white supremacy’ by Elizabeth Martinez

a call to men‘ ( video) Tony Porter on TED, co-founder of nonprofit, A Call to Men: The National Association of Men and Women Committed to Ending Violence Against Women

Amnesty International – violence against women