I have pulled this brief post together to try to explain the difference between discrimination and oppression.,I will, in a later post, attempt to demonstrate the application of both of these concepts to both women and to trans individuals. This piece is, however, intended to be descriptive and to set out the difference between discrimination and oppression.
Undoubtedly, discrimination and oppression can be difficult to separate, and many situations may contain elements of both discrimination and oppression.
Discrimination is the treatment of a person specifically based upon their (perceived) membership of a certain group. It can, itself, be fairly innocuous and free from any prejudice, to being positive. For example, many types of ‘affirmative action’ involve positive discrimination, even if discrimination has the purpose of redress the balance in favour of an already oppressed group. Discrimination can also be blatantly evil.
An innocuous example of discrimination would (one would hope!) be a woman’s request to see a female doctor over an intimate matter. An example of damaging discrimination could be given as the Jim Crowe Laws, which operated in the Southern USA until just 1965, and led to the segregation of black citizens from the rest of the population.
Oppression differs from discrimination in that oppression is always negative. It is also exercised by one more powerful group (class of people) over another, and is often long-lasting; for example the slavery of African people, as permitted by many governments at many points over the last few hundred years. It can even extend to the oppression of a country’s entire population, as in North Korea or the Stalinist USSR.
As an example, consider the Jews interned by the Nazis from the 1930s to the end of the last war. The victims were selected for internment because they were Jewish (which is discrimination) and they were then made to live in appalling accommodations and lost their businesses and valuables (which is, of course, the oppression).
- can be unharmful or even positive;
- is not necessarily far-reaching in scope; and
- is something that can be done by ordinary people.
- is always negative;
- is always far-reaching in scope; and
- is exercised by a dominant group of people over a less powerful group.
Oppression is cultural, or systemic, and is based on power. It is justified or legitimised through the proclaimed superiority of the oppressor over the oppressed (or subjected class) and this superiority becomes self-justifying. and so there is a distorted, unequal relationship between the ruling class and the oppressed class.