Topic Paper: Intersectionality

CJ Trowbridge

SOC 110: Intro To Social Justice


Topic Paper: Intersectionality

The authors of reading #4 state “from our perspective, no one form of oppression is the base for all others, yet all are connected within a system that makes them possible.” (pg. 23) Referencing your readings and our class discussion/lecture, discuss the impact of the ‘defining features’ of oppression and the three levels of oppression on the intersectionality of identities and the experience of oppression. Include critical analysis and detailed examples in your discussion.

Oppression is a complex topic. The reading for this week breaks its essential definition into six categories. These categories hold true throughout the various types of oppression, or systems of privilege and disadvantage which exist across three main levels throughout society.

Oppression is pervasive. This is important to understand. Oppression is not a single interaction, it is a ubiquitous feature of society. It is present consciously and unconsciously every day and in most (if not all) interpersonal interactions on one level or another.

Oppression is restrictive. It prevents people from having the same opportunities as others based on some characteristic which separates them from the people with power. It means they do not get the same treatment and advantages as others. It means the government responds differently when they are in trouble. It means they do not get to have the same full life
that other people do.

Oppression is hierarchical. It puts some groups above or below others. Importantly, it puts certain intersections of groups below or above others. A famous example is prison populations. Though black people are a minority in America, they are a majority in our prisons. This is because of many factors which work together to form what we call oppression.

Oppression features complex, multiple, cross-cutting relationships. Here
intersectionality is key. An upper-class black man has several forms of privilege which others do not. Despite being part of at least one marginalized group, this person is upper-class and male. These are both important sources of privilege, despite oppression this person endures as a
black person. Here we see intersectionality at play, illustrating complex, multiple, cross-cutting relationships.

Oppression is internalized. Black people who take standardized tests perform worse if they are asked their ethnicity on the test. This is an example of stereotype threat. When people hear a constant message that they are below another group, they start to act that way.

In our culture, we have many biases based on differentiating characteristics for groups of people. This gives rise to what the reading calls, “Shared and distinctive characteristics of ‘Isms’.” We have a culture and a social order which perpetuates and expands this constant propensity to classify and hierarchically rank groups of people based on often random characteristics. The reading describes this issue thus, “all [systems of oppression] are connected within a system that makes them possible.” We are so used to lumping people into categories and making assumptions about them, that we do this without thinking. This leads to many forms of prejudice, and indeed to ongoing systems of oppression in our culture.

Systems of oppression are individual. Both the oppressed and the oppressor are participating in oppression on a daily basis. Microaggressions and unconscious or conscious biases form the bulk of what becomes oppression, and the people who are targeted with these acts are subject to them on a daily basis. No evil deed is done to a group, it is always done individual by individual. What we think of as statistics are actually the amalgamation of individual experiences. This fact opens the door for justice by allowing individuals to become informed and change these behaviors, leading to improved conditions.

Systems of oppression are Institutional. From the freedmen’s bureau after the civil war to the prison system today, choices have been made at the institutional level which impact marginalized groups in negative ways. This leads to systemic institutional oppression. There are so many examples from sharecropping to the convict lease system over a century ago, to the modern predatory housing system and associated predatory lending systems, as well as the bail bond industry. These institutions systematically target, exploit, and oppress marginalized groups.

Lastly, oppression is Social/Cultural. It’s impossible to talk about the ubiquitous actions of individuals without talking about the culture they are a part of. The actions of groups of individuals could be seen as the definition of social behaviors and culture itself. The problems we face on an individual level with issues of oppression converge into a culture of oppression. This is a primary concern of social justice, and the only way to address these large aggregate issues is by examining them at the social/cultural level in addition to the individual level. Systemic oppression is an en masse cultural issue, made up of the aggregated interpersonal interactions of members of privileged and marginalized groups. In the words of Bobby Fischer, “In order to improve your game, you must study the endgame before anything.” This is as true in sociology as in chess. With an accurate understanding of the world as it is, both on the group and individual level, we can prescribe change which will positively affect these issues both at the interpersonal and cultural levels.