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Understanding Oppression

Generally speaking, oppression is a concept (idea), technology, policy or system that violates human rights, restricts access to basic needs, or marginalizes or excludes an individual or group. Oppression prevents human beings from reaching their own unique highest and fullest potential, and often limits the ability to thrive. Understanding the full context of oppression, how it gets rooted, and how to end the cycle of oppression is important for human rights advocates when serving their clients and communities. 

What is Oppression? 

Oppression is defined as a set of thoughts, beliefs, actions or human-built systems or policies that prevent a person from reaching their own unique highest and fullest potential by: 

  • Harming, damaging, or negating a person’s dignity, worth, self-respect or self-awareness; 
  • Interfering with the autonomy of a person’s body, mind or soul; 
  • Interfering with a person’s inalienable rights to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness; 
  • Restricting a person’s access to basic needs; 
  • Preventing learning, growth or free will; or
  • Solidifying an “other” within the human species. 

Who Can Oppress Who?

Oppression is a human occurrence and can be inflicted on anyone by anyone. As human beings, we can oppress ourselves, we can oppress others, and we can be oppressed by others. Common examples of oppression may include: 
  • Negative self-talk and labeling, such as “I’m not good enough” or “I’m not worthy”;
  • Name calling, bullying, permanently labeling others, or picking on someone;
  • Systems, policies or laws that inhibit a person’s inalienable rights to life, liberty or pursuit of happiness, particularly when that person’s expression of those rights do not have an impact on other people (i.e. laws against gay marriage, personal use of marijuana by adults, etc.); 
  • Restricting a person’s access to basic human needs, such as clean air, employment, housing, food, life-saving medical care, etc.;
  • Lying or omitting access to the complete truth in an effort to control someone’s decisions, actions or responses; and
  • Permanently “othering” or grouping people, particularly in a way that results in different actions or beliefs towards them. Manifestations include racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and religious or politically-based discrimination. 

The Roots of Oppression

Generally speaking, oppression is rooted in a person’s individual belief system. These beliefs can come from things they were taught, experiences they’ve encountered, or systems and policies they’ve interacted with. Specifically, the person may be unaware of – or even reject – their own human rights and their entitlement to basic human needs. They might also lack a clear understanding of the negative and harmful impacts of marginalization and exclusion on themselves or others. But more commonly, a person hasn’t even been exposed to the idea that they and all others:

  • Are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect;
  • Have inherent rights;
  • Are deserving of having their basic needs met; and
  • Should be free from all forms of marginalization and exclusion.

As a result, that person might not be as forthcoming in affording those same entitlements to others. While oppression can be intentional and inflicted with intent and malice, in most cases, oppression is unintentional – The person is unaware they are oppressing themselves or others, and would very likely end the cycle of oppression if provided tools and information to transform their thoughts and actions. 

Cycle of Oppression

When a person experiences a human rights violation, restriction of basic human needs or has been marginalized or excluded from the community, they may suffer from short- and long-term physical, mental and emotional trauma, up to and including death. Unhealed trauma caused by experiencing oppression can lead to challenges in forming healthy relationships, securing and maintaining financial independence, difficulty engaging in the community-at-large, and developing a healthy and empowered sense of self. Long-term effects can include a persistent damaged sense of self-worth and respect, lashing out at others, self-harm and neglect, and an overall feeling of being dehumanized. While oppression can manifest in many forms – such as violence, bullying, rape, racism, sexism, homophobia, religious and political discrimination, discrimination against people based on their income or housing status, and general “othering” –  the impact of oppression-based trauma is often similar. However, the level – or severity – of traumatic impact often correlates directly to a person’s:

  • Level of exposure to oppression;
  • Their own sense of resilience; and
  • Their sense of support and empowerment built up prior to, during or after the oppression.

In many cases, victims of oppression can benefit from:

  • Exposure to diversity, accessibility and inclusion; 
  • Positive people, experiences and environments that challenge fears, biases and beliefs that result of experiencing oppression; 
  • Trauma-informed counseling;
  • Social supports designed to empower both independence and community engagement;
  • Affirmation of their entitlement to being treated with dignity and respect; 
  • Affirmation of their inherent human rights and entitlement to basic needs;
  • Opportunities to create relationships and environmental or systemic change that afford basic respect of human rights, basic needs, diversity, accessibility and inclusion; and 
  • Learning how to become an advocate for themselves and others.

Many – if not most – victims of oppression can and do overcome and heal from trauma. However, when a victim of oppression does not receive appropriate support and intervention, it can lead to the internalization and acceptance of human rights violations, restrictions of basic needs, and marginalization for themselves and everyone else. 

In the shortest of terms, the bullied can become the bully – The victim can become the perpetrator. The victim of racism can become racist, and the victim of sexism can become sexist. The victim of religious or political suppression can become the religious or political antagonist. 

This known as the cycle of oppression.

Institutionalized Oppression

Human rights advocates also need to understand institutionalized oppression. All human beings are creators. We create our own identities and beliefs about ourselves, and we create concepts or lenses for how we view and interact with the world. We also have the ability to develop tools and technologies, form relationships with other people, and develop simple and complex systems. Our biggest and largest creation is an institution – like a business, nonprofit organization or government – where we combine all of these things into a single structure to achieve a common goal. 

When a person or group of people who have internalized a form of oppression for themselves is in the role of creating a concept, technology, relationship, system, policy or institution, that form of oppression is likely to become embedded within that creation. Again, sometimes this is with malice, but many times it is not.

For example, a person who doesn’t understand the importance of privacy in healthy human development might create a technology that allows people to take pictures of others in public and post them on the internet without their consent or knowledge. Or, a person who has had limited exposure to people who use mobility devices might plan a community event in the basement ballroom of a facility without an elevator. On the other hand, however, a person who believes homosexuality is a sin might intentionally create policies that restrict LGBTQ people from accessing local homeless shelters. 

Indicators of Institutionalized Oppression

Human rights advocates can tell oppression has been institutionalized or embedded within a concept, relationship, technology, system, policy or law, when it:

  • Devalues the unique experiences or potential of each human being;
  • Creates a permanent “other” or “enemy”;
  • Uses unnecessary or unhelpful categories of human beings;
  • Accepts or rationalizes exploitation, coercion, manipulation, or other forms of oppression as “acceptable” or “that’s the way it is”;
  • Dismisses the rights to life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness;
  • Accepts the denial or restriction of basic human needs and experiences,
    including food, water, shelter, love, affection, etc.;
  • Enshrines oppression as an acceptable way of obtaining basic needs, including fraud, price gauging, theft, etc.;
  • Allows for lying, deception, misdirection or omission of truth;
  • Promotes or enforces “false options”;
  • Fails to uphold basic human rights, including bodily autonomy;
  • Fails to acknowledge basic human bodily and emotional needs (i.e. systems that prevent people from using the restroom, or policies that prevent time off for caring for sick children or parents);
  • Fails to acknowledge natural human instincts;
  • Fails to acknowledge the diversity of human bodies and experiences, including physical abilities or mental, cognitive and emotional capacities;
  • Exploits vulnerable people;
  • Damages the inherent dignity, worth or self-respect of individuals;
  • Does not work for everyone it is intended to serve;
  • Intentionally inhibits life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness (designed to control, track or kill people);
  • Seeks to assert control, ownership or manipulative influence over the body, mind, soul or general free will of individuals;
  • Enables the ability to infringe on basic human rights, such as privacy rights;
  • Prevents access to education or information; or
  • Destroys the environment or other essential human needs.

Ending the Cycle of Oppression

Many people assume that those who have been victims of oppression are more likely to be more compassionate and understanding of others. However, it’s important to understand a specific distinction. People who have experienced oppression, have overcome oppression, healed from the trauma of oppression, and know how to reject oppression, are more likely to be compassionate and less oppressive towards others. In fact, those who have yet to reject oppression within themselves and for others, are more likely to continue to cycle of oppression, though often unintentionally. 

For example, let’s consider a person who was continuously called “fart-head” in a belittling way as a child. Unless the person was taught otherwise, the person might come to internalize the belief that it is okay to not only be called “fart-head”, but to belittle and call others “fart-head”, too. 

When we encounter this person as an adult, we may see this person as an “abuser,” “bully” or even cruel. But understanding where the oppression began can help us change the pattern. In this case, the root of this form of oppression is a belief that it is okay to be belittled and therefore, to belittle others. Human rights advocates would see this as a violation of a person’s right to be treated with dignity and worth. 

Rejecting Oppression

Generally speaking, the cycle of oppression is likely to continue until there is an impetus or cause for change. A person is most likely to reject oppression and begin to alleviate the cycle of oppression when: 

  • There is an awareness that a concept, technology, system or policy is oppressive to oneself or others;
  • There is a recognition that oppression has caused (or is likely to cause) an intolerable result, such as physical, mental or emotional harm to a loved one, the end of a relationship, financial loss, political upheaval, imprisonment or death; 
  • There is a new awareness and understanding of the indicators and impacts of oppression on oneself or others;
  • There is an opportunity to do something a better way; and/or
  • There is an intent to reject oppression and address it. 

For many people, the first step in rejecting oppression starts with a simple awareness and acknowledgement that is often expressed by an internal thought or by saying out loud: This is not okay. For human rights advocates, it’s important to understand they are not fighting a specific individual or even an organization – They are ultimately working to end the cycle of oppression.

If the person in the previous example was taught that they have inherent dignity and worth – and that being called a “fart-head” is not okay – it’s likely the person would not engage in belittling others or calling others “fart-head”, either. When we meet this person later, it’s now more likely they have continued to reject oppression for themselves and others. As importantly, new victims were not created along the way. 

Similarly, if the person who created the technology that violates privacy rights was taught about the emotional and mental harm that is caused by the use of their technology, they may be more likely to utilize a more human-centered policy approach.

As mentioned above and more in detail in the Strategies Topic, providing affirmation of human rights and basic human needs, as well as education and opportunities for growth also important to rejecting and ending the cycle of oppression. Understanding and teaching others about oppression and its impacts on human beings is one of the most important roles and strategies of human rights advocates. 


Understanding oppression and its impacts can help human rights advocates be more effective in creating change. You can answer these questions in your head, say them out loud, or type them in. If desired, you can also print your answers, and/or enter your email address to have them sent to you for future reference.