Structural Oppression 101
Let’s start with the basics. What is structural oppression? Structural oppression refers to the way that social, political, and economic structures systematically oppress and discriminate against particular groups of people. Structural oppression works across multiple, interlocking axes, including race, gender, and class—these different forms of oppression are called racism, sexism, and classism, however there are also many other forms, such as ableism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism, and so on. I will focus on race here for the sake of brevity, but keep in mind that the same sort of arguments can be applied to other structures of oppression.
In a racist, white supremacist society such as ours, people who are identified as white will be granted certain privileges over those who are not white. These privileges are not things we have much control over, since they are a product of the relation between us and our environments, and while we can try and correct for them, most of the time we can’t make them go away, at least not on an individual level. In fact, most of the time we aren’t even aware that they exist, because privilege works by being invisible. It constitutes all of the things that we don’t have to worry or think about, because of who we are, where we live, what we own, and how we were raised.
To understand why white supremacy and racism exist, you will need to understand the history of European colonialism and the social and economic imperatives of slavery and colonization. The concept of race and racism as we know it today is a modern invention, coinciding with the colonization of the Americas and India in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the establishment of the transatlantic slave trade. This imperialist expansion, which was necessary for the growth and development of early capitalism, was justified, in large part, through the emerging belief that European peoples and civilizations were biologically, technologically, and culturally superior to other peoples and civilizations, who were often considered subhuman. While this was the overarching idea, racism also adapted to suit the needs and pressures of different locations and time periods.
For example, racism against people of African origins in the United States and Canada arose in response the need to maintain separation between European indentured servants, and African slaves (see Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States for more on this). The plantations in the South in particular were a huge moneymaker, first for the British Empire and then, after the War of Independence, for the United States. However, such an overt system of oppression was very unstable, requiring extreme levels of violence to maintain it. Rich plantation owners, politicians, and other elites were constantly worried about slave revolts and the possibility of an alliance forming between poor Europeans and African slaves, both of whom shared an interest in overthrowing the ruling class.
The categories of white and black were invented as a convenient means of distinguishing between the two, while also uniting poor and rich whites on the basis of their skin colour. Small privileges were granted to poor whites, such as higher pay (than free blacks) and the right to carry weapons, reinforcing their sense of loyalty to the establishment, while also fostering resentment between the two groups. Over time these distinctions became embedded in legal, political, scientific, and cultural institutions, many of which were funded and controlled by the white upper class. During this period, the social construction of “white” and “black” changed substantially. For example Irish immigrants were not initially considered “white.” However as the number of African slaves grew, it became more important to incorporate Europeans of different ethnicities in order to form a white majority.
Systemic racism was not a plan, but rather something that was subtly encouraged and accepted because it suited the interests of the powerful. Racism against Indigenous peoples was encouraged for the same reason; the rich wanted access to the land occupied by Indigenous groups, and needed the general population to fight for it, while poor whites wanted access to any land at all, since most of the available land was concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy families.
The liberal understanding of racism largely ignores this history, instead painting it as an individual moral problem—the idea is that if people just acted less racist, racism would go away. But this obscures the fact that racism is constantly reproduced through legal, social, political, and economic structures. For example, a study from 2011 suggests that racialized Canadians (meaning those who are identified as non-white) earn an average of $30,385 per year compared to $37,332 for other Canadians, or 81 cents to the dollar. First generation racialized male Canadians earn 68.7 per cent of what their white counterparts make, and second generation racialized males make 75.6 cents for every dollar earned by white men. This reduced generational wealth, combined with economically motivated practices like redlining and predatory lending, the criminalization of people of colour, and the exploitation of migrant labour, ensure that racialized people will continue to suffer from discrimination and oppression despite our best intentions.
This is why it’s important to understand that racism is not a “natural” fear of the Other, but a result of systemic, social pressures and institutions. At a fundamental level everyone is different from everyone else, yet racism only applies to certain kinds of groupings. If difference were the only criteria, we would assume that racism against one’s own race would be an anomaly, if it existed at all. And yet these experiments, like many others, suggest that racial prejudice against oneself (also known as internalized racism) is surprisingly common for racialized people, resulting in self-hate, depression, reduced self-confidence, and so on.
These unconscious biases against people of particular races are the subjective effects of structural oppression (if you don’t believe you have these biases, try taking the implicit association test for race). While racism has subjective, personal effects, racism itself is not an individual, moral problem; it’s a structural one. Taking actions or behaviours out of context and calling them racist, or sexist, diminishes our ability to understand the system as a whole, and further disempowers oppressed groups.
This is really important: when you accuse someone of being “racist” against white people, you are contributing to racism. Why? Because you are removing one of the few vehicles that racialized people have to fight against their own oppression by erasing the historical rootedness and specificity of that oppression, and diminishing the ability of racialized individuals to communicate their own lived experiences.
As a racially privileged person entering into a conversation about race, you may not realize how much your inclusion can hurt or silence others, because this is how privilege works. Trying to force oppressed people to cater to your needs, accusing them of being overly angry or hostile (i.e. tone policing), or instructing them on how best to conduct their movement, only further marginalizes them, regardless of your good intentions. If this is something you wish to avoid, then make sure you do your research, and respect their decisions. Before you accuse them of being divisive or exclusive, consider that you may not be the first white person to try and enter that space, that they may have heard the very same criticisms a hundred times before, that this may have resulted in or been preceded by harassment and abuse, and that this may be why they appear angry and distrustful in the first place. Remember that everything, including anger, has a context.
To repeat: something is only racist if it is drawing on and further contributing to racist systems of oppression. This is not to say, of course, that white people can’t be oppressed in other ways, say on the basis of class, gender, sexuality, or ability, but these are different forms of oppression, and need to be recognized as such. They overlap, and often reinforce one another, but they are not identical: men are not oppressed on the basis of their gender, straight people are not oppressed on the basis of their sexuality, able-bodied people are not oppressed on the basis of their ability, upper class people are not oppressed on the basis of their class, and white people are not oppressed on the basis of their race.