Discrimination and Oppression

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).

Thus Discrimination:

  • can be unharmful or even positive;
  • is not necessarily far-reaching in scope; and
  • is something that can be done by ordinary people.

But Oppression:

  • 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.

3 Replies to “Discrimination and Oppression”

  1. Dear Miranda,

    I am taking the liberty to write to you in the hope that it will not seem too odd, although writing directly to a stranger is a fundamentally odd thing to do.

    About a year ago, I was made aware of the violent debate between a part of the trans community and radical feminists. Being a bog-standard, white, heterosexual man, I’ve always thought I should leave this debate for women and transwomen to have amongst themselves. That said, I can’t help observing from the sidelines because, being human, I care about the issue of gender; it affects so many people I love and care about.

    I have a lot of problems with the mindset of people who identify as feminists, yet who also identity as ‘sex/porn-positive’, and who assert that womanhood is a claimable identity rather than a lived experience. Unfortunately, this brand of feminism seems to be the popular one at the moment, which I think is a terrible shame. It’s a current of thought that I don’t see helping any of the women in my life, or women anywhere for that matter.

    Through your blog and Twitter I have found a lot of information that has been very formative and helpful. I can’t tell you how refreshing it has been to read your writing, and the writings of the people whom you recommend.

    I have also seen that you are a waging a tireless battle against some very vocal, violent people who throw a lot of abuse and hate your way. It is incredibly inspiring that you maintain such a steady course through all the rubbish people throw at you.

    For all this, I would like to express my sincere gratitude and admiration. For what it’s worth, please accept this opinion of a stranger, and keep fighting the good fight.

  2. As a black transman, I can’t tell you the number of times that people who may (or may not) experience discrimination refuse to understand that oppression is NOT discrimination. They think that when they say that to me, they are justifying not understanding that they are in the very class of people who are oppressing us, as black people in the U.S. It makes them feel better than they attempt to relate to my experience, while making me feel invalidated, my struggles invalidated, and infuriates me to the point of never thinking then an ally, but an enemy of my people. We’re all human, but we are not living the same experience, and it just makes me sick that the privileged class always throws that at me. I experience discrimination at times, but oppression 24×7, because it is embedded in this society! UGH

    1. Couldn’t seem to edit my comment, but the sentence 3rd sentence should say, “It makes them feel better THAT…”

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