“There is no hierarchy of oppressions”
— Audre Lorde

From Homophobia and Education
(New York: Council on Interracial Books for Children, 1983)

[bhr-blurb-gen-top] equality

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Race, gender, and class are major areas of oppression that are much discussed, but less so are ability, language, size, and more. We cannot all agree on these issues, but it is appropriate to ask others to consider them seriously, and not dismiss criticism without some deep reflection. Too many have forgotten this self-reflexive habit of mind.

Building Equality Through Analyzing Systems of Oppression

by Chip Berlet

Adapted from: Chip Berlet. 2004. “Mapping the Political Right: Gender and Race Oppression in Right-Wing Movements.”
In Abby Ferber, ed., Home-Grown Hate: Gender and Organized Racism. New York: Routledge.

So called “hate” groups do not cause prejudice in the United States–they exploit it. What we clearly see as objectionable bigotry surfacing in Extreme Right movements, is actually the magnified form of oppressions that swim silently in the familiar yet obscured eddies of “mainstream” society. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, and antisemitism are the major forms of supremacy that create oppression and defend and expand inequitable power and privilege; but there are others based on class, age, ability, language, ethnicity, immigrant status, size, religion, and more. These oppressions exist independent of the Extreme Right in U.S. society.

In Racism, Sexism, Power and Ideology, Guillaumin argues that the great irony of the rise of modern egalitarianism and democracy was the ascendance of the idea that “human groups were no longer formed by divine decree or royal pleasure, but an irreversible diktat of nature.” This “served to justify the system of oppression which was being built at the same time. By proposing a scheme of immanent physical causality (by race, colour, sex, nature), that system provides an irrefutable justification for the crushing of resourceless classes and peoples, and the legitimacy of the elite.”

In analyzing the oppression of women, she calls for consideration of the material fact of the power relation between men and women; as well as the ideological effect of the idea that nature “is supposed to account for what women are supposed to be.” It is in the teasing apart of the ideological and material practice that Guillaumin finds the most revealing critique of the essentialist naturalism that is the bulwark of many oppressive ideologies:

[I]t is very necessary to do this, for naturalism is the only mode of thought that allows the binding together in an intangible way of characteristics which if analysed–that is, forcefully dissociated–would as a matter of fact cause their relationship to become obvious. In other words, the fact would become obvious that they have a history, that they are born of specific relationships, of the links which exist between mental activities and material activities; between slavery (a material practice) and skin colour (a mental practice), between domestic exploitation (a material practice) and sex (a mental practice). From the moment that the mechanisms which create the one (mental practices) from the other are made visible, these revealed links make obvious the syncretism which merges the relationships into the deeds and shatters the affirmation that the deed and the discourse on it are one and the same thing.

According to Guillaumin “introducing the wedge of doubt into this tight block of ‘law immemorial’ is no small matter.” She says we must “shatter the notion of instinct” that creates the syncretism of “body/slave/property” named “black” and the syncretism of “body/domestic work/property” named “women”. When we look at the densely interwoven forms of oppression, subordination, and exploitation in the United States our task is to explore the links between the ideological and the material practice, not merely as an intellectual exercise that increases the subtlety of our analysis, but as a way to rip away the curtain to reveal the unfair power and privilege hiding backstage.

When analyzing oppressive systyems that undermine full equality for all we must move to a more detailed and sophisticated level of work, where the establishment of boundaries, categories, and terminology that map differences of degree allows us to increase the nuance in our analysis. Blee makes a similar argument about studying the racist movement: “We need to go further, to lay aside untested assumptions” about beliefs and attitudes of activists and ideologies of groups “and begin to systematically catalog the ideological frictions” so that “we can discern – and exploit – its weaknesses.”

This challenge awaits us, whether we are studying the supremacist groups of the Extreme Right; the anti-elite anti-government conspiracism of the Patriot Movement and Tea Parties; or the gender-driven campaigns of the Christian Right. It also awaits us when we study “mainstream” centrist notions of equality, as well as those on the Political Left who claim to be fighting oppression.

In doing so, we must always recognize that theories, acts, and systems of oppression based on gender, race, sexuality, class, ethnicity, (and much more) exist throughout our society, not just in dissident or insurgent movements of the Political Right.

Notes and Sources

My research in this area would not have been possible without the support and assistance of my colleagues over the years at Political Research Associates, especially Jean Hardisty, Margaret Quigley, Surina Khan, Mitra Rastegar, Nikhil Aziz, Palak Shah, and Toby Beauchamp. In addition, I have benefited from conversations over many years with Matthew N. Lyons, Sara Diamond, Fred Clarkson, Russ Bellant, Suzanne Pharr, Loretta Ross, and Paul de Armond.

Major Sources:

Guillaumin, 1995; Goldman, 1996; Pharr, 1996a; Fraser, 1997; Wing, 2000; Rothenberg, 2001; Blee, 2001

Thanks to a discusion on Emma Rosenthal’s Facbook page for stimulating revisions to this page