There are many aspects to who we are as people. This determines how people view us and how we see others. Many of these factors are born with us, and we have little control over them. Through socialization and society we view people based on many things we have learned to be “right.” In an anti-oppressive framework, these views are broken into six main lenses; racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, and class oppression. Many of the biases we have as workers enter our practice without us being aware of them. The purpose of this article is to define and explain the critical components of an anti-oppressive framework of practice and how they apply to the work we do. The framework offers a model to challenge the basic beliefs of the dominant and powerful society through the empowerment of those who are oppressed. Through the elimination of societal-imposed barriers such as race, gender, orientation, abilities, and age, we can confront and eradicate the class system in which we currently live and continue to support.
As a worker in Canadian society, I would be remiss to think that we live in an anti-oppressive society. People are excluded on a regular basis because of the colour of their skin, their gender, their sexual orientation, their abilities, their age, and their class. Many of these oppressions do not stand in isolation of each other and clients suffer the wrath of being multi-oppressed. They are linked by a common origin, economic power and control, and by common methods of limiting, controlling, and destroying lives (Pharr, 1997). Social work, residential work, and workers by history and nature are oppressive in that they (we) hold power over their clients. Anti-oppressive practice means recognizing power imbalances and working toward the promotion of change to redress the balance of power (Dalrymple & Burke, 1995).
The purpose of this article is to define and explain the critical components of an anti-oppressive framework of practice. These components are anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-heterosexism, anti-ablism, anti-ageism, and an understanding of class oppression. In explaining these, I will draw from both theory and experience in trying to understand the nature of this oppression. As part of the understanding and healing of these issues, I feel that I must acknowledge my position of power in this society – white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-aged, and middle class. Through experience and knowledge, I hope to gain more insight into the oppressive workings of society and social work in order to move closer to adopting a blueprint as part of my own anti-oppressive framework of practice.
One of the most visible ways that discrimination occurs is through the use of colour to group people together. Race is defined as the groupings of people rather than biological differences. White is the dominant colour in Canada and most western countries. It is also believed that the dominant class also represent the truth in society. Therefore, everyone who does not fit this colour pattern is not dominant and does not represent the truth, and thus, is oppressed. Canada prides itself on being a multicultural mosaic where diversity, equality, and harmony are valued. The truth is that despite attempts to address inequalities related to race, ethnicity, and culture, many people have been and continue to be oppressed, marginalized, and excluded from full meaningful participation in Canadian society.
We need to look no further than our workplaces as testimony to this. The white middle class has been over-represented in the workforce of the child welfare system. Directly in my workplace only 1 of approximately 34 people is Black (2.94%). Within our agency, 3 of 75 staff (4.0%) are Black (Moore, 2000), and there is little other racial representation present. I can count on one hand the number of non-whites that are present, Blacks included. Affirmative action policies have helped minority workers to realize employment in areas that have been closed to them in the past, but is this merely tokenism? I echo the caution that tokenism and assimilation are tools of the dominant class to block solidarity within groups from ever occurring (Pharr, 1997).
As workers and members of society in general, we have to stop seeing just Black and begin to recognize the white that is around us. We have been conditioned to see only difference and are not able to recognize those who are the same as us – the dominant in society. I believe that I have made an effort to do this with clients, but seldom with others. In reports that I have written for the agency and court, I acknowledge the whole person by describing them as “... Johnnie is a 13-year-old white male... “ Similar statements would be written about non-white clients. For some reason, however, I have never thought about my friends and colleagues in the same way as I have described clients. In describing a worker, I would say that “She is a Black female that works at the Centre,” yet I would not say that “He is the white male in the Sydney office.”
I have begun to challenge my own social norms by recognizing the whiteness that is all around and the issues of power and truth that are an unspoken and unrequested privilege of belonging to the “White Club.” I will continue to sharpen my senses toward my oppressions.
A second form of oppression is through the use of sexism. Sexism is the practice of male privilege or the acting out of male power. This is based on and supported by the beliefs and stereotypes of male theory. The clearest way that this is portrayed is through the differentiation of gender in society – male and female. Gender, however, is not defined as biological sex differences, but the ascribing of patriarchal social significance to the sex and biological differences and allocating of roles accordingly. Biological sex differences are used to justify and legitimate the inequalities that are inherent in sex differences and gender (M. MacDonald, personal communication, 2000).
In western societies, many roles have been delegated to society and family members based on gender (Hepworth & Larsen, 1993). Each person in the group carries numerous roles that are integrated into the structure and represent certain expected, permitted, and forbidden behaviours. Children are socialized with these roles from birth in the way that they are dressed, the colours they wear, the toys they play with, the friends that they associate with, and the style of their play. Males are socialized to become doctors, females nurses; males managers, females secretaries; males bread winners, females housewives.
There has been a trend toward the dismantling of these stereotypes, but the biggest fight is still within. Internalized oppression is the oppression that we put on ourselves due to social norms. The oppression is internalized from the dominant society’s message through the media, schools, religious institutions, and other forms of socialization (Turner, 1999). An example of this oppression is the pressure put on working moms to run a tidy house on top of their day at work. Further, in the case of stay-at-home mothers, their day does not end after they put in their eight hours even when their spouse arrives home looking for supper.
An anti-oppressive theory challenges these myths and traditions. The main element in this fight for true equality comes from consciousness raising. This is done through the process of breaking through the theories that women's problems are strictly personal problems and are born from individual flaws. It is also aided through backing away from the idea that the professional knows best, even better than the client (Greenspan, 1993).
For me this raises the question of a male practitioner using a feminist framework. Criticism has been leveled that males cannot do feminist practice because they do not understand the experience that females have had. Lowenstein (1983) argues that some male workers expect women to conform with traditional role expectations and that women clients fall into familiar and unproductive dependence patterns with male counsellors. Lowenstein feels that male workers should only work with males who oppress women. As a male worker, I hope that my practice will not echo the feelings of this author. I attempt to practice an anti-oppressive, feminist model working with both male and female clients. My approach recognizes that the listening is most important. This provides the information that enables me to gain a fuller understanding of the issues.
Heterosexism is the system by which heterosexuality is the assumed norm. It is so pervasive, it is often hard to detect. Heterosexual norms are reinforced by parents, teachers, and the media as well as our governments, schools, churches, businesses, and the organizations that all presuppose that everyone is heterosexual. Heterosexism forces lesbians, gays, and bisexuals to struggle constantly against their own invisibility, and makes it much more difficult for them to integrate a positive sexual identity. This, of course, impacts the ways in which our community treats its members and the ways in which we, as individuals, interact with one another. These are known, respectively, as systemic heterosexism (the heterosexist practices of institutions) and personal heterosexism (our behaviors as individuals) (Heterosexism Enquirer Magazine, 2000).
As with other forms of oppression, people who have found themselves in the majority do not see anything beyond their own experience. Language can be a large determinant of heterosexist attitudes. A heterosexual male counsellor often asks his male clients, “Do you have a girlfriend?” There is no consideration given to the possibility that the client may be gay. This simple question alerts the client to the possibility that the worker is at best heterosexist and at worst homophobic. The possibility of exploring other issues hinges on this question. The client may not feel safe disclosing any further information at this point.
An anti-oppressive model must develop an understanding of the societal oppression that is supported by heterosexism. As with white and male, heterosexism is dominant in the culture, and difference is not supported or encouraged. The change has to come from within the power structures that support heterosexism. In our workplaces we must ask questions like:
Does your workplace have anti-discrimination or anti-harassment policies?
Does your workplace offer sensitivity/awareness training on human rights issues such as sexism/racism in order to ensure a harassment-free, inclusive workplace?
Would you be uncomfortable working with someone who was gay, lesbian, or bisexual?
Has anyone in your workplace ever experienced personal harassment or violence as a result of their sexual orientation?
When significant others are invited to work-related social events, how are the invitations written/spoken?
When getting to know a new employee, are you sensitive to the possibility that they may be gay, lesbian, or bisexual by asking questions about their personal life that are inclusive (i.e., questions that do not apply exclusively to heterosexuals)?
Are jokes about lesbians, gays, or bisexuals accepted at your workplace as just another way of releasing tension and having fun?
Does your benefit package acknowledge same-sex relationships? (Heterosexism Enquirer Magazine, 2000)
If these questions seem strange or a if person has never thought about them, then one can assume that the workplace is heterosexist. The lack of thought about these questions reflect the presence of the dominant culture in our society.
If you are a member of the dominant society, you may find it hard to imagine a world that is inaccessible to you because of physical and mental barriers. For those who have challenged abilities, this is an everyday world. As I sit at my computer to type this article, I notice the things that are around me: my office chair – not a wheel chair; my keyboard, screen and books – not in Braille; my basement office – not handicapped accessible. These are the things that I take for granted.
In an anti-oppressive model, I would not take these things for granted. I would share my spaces with people who have different abilities. The bathrooms would have larger stalls, the sinks at higher levels, the doors wider. I would work side-by-side with people who were hired based on their abilities, not discriminated against based on their disabilities. I would be comfortable sending my children to a day care that hired employees with AIDS. I would be comfortable going to a restaurant that employed mentally challenged individuals. I would encourage the diversity and avenues of learning that are realized in inclusive classrooms. “Blue” parking spaces would not be limited to two spaces in front of department stores, and they would be respected by those who use them out of convenience at the expense of those who use them out of need.
Society must challenge the way that the needs of the dominant influence the opportunities of those who possess different abilities. We should not feel pity for this group, nor fall into tokenist hiring policies, but instead realize their potential as valued members of society who make valuable contributions to the world.
It is generally accepted that we are living in a society that is getting older. The largest population growth was after World War II with the group that has been referred to as the “baby boomers.” The baby boomers themselves took their future in their own hands through the vast amount of research and development in the past 50 years that has aided in the increase in life expectancy in the western world (Statistics Canada, 1996).
Despite the aging population and the gains that they have made, society places little importance on this group. Suffering from double jeopardy in this group are aging women. The aging society is primarily a female society. It is well known that women generally outlive men and that ageism and sexism combine to produce a socially constructed dependency in old age in which the feminization of poverty is a key feature (Whittaker, 1995). Social workers often work with older women whose well-being is threatened by poverty, multiple chronic ailments, and increasing social isolation, yet these older women also exhibit undetected strengths. The other common threat that is present to this group is elder abuse.
In a feminist context, elder abuse is not the product of a pathological family but of a patriarchal family in which men have access to and power over those less powerful and more vulnerable than themselves and regard them as their property (Whittaker, 1995). Men are protected by societal norms that uphold the privacy of home despite it being the prime site of women's oppression.
Unlike the call from child and sexual abuse victims, the voices of survivors of elder abuse have not as yet been heard. The difficulties in helping victims to talk and tell their stories due to fear of stigma, institutionalization, or physical and mental frailty can be overcome by validating the feelings and experiences of old women. Feminist policies for tackling abuse are therefore concerned with advocacy and empowerment and with increasing the resources old women have available to them to empower themselves and help them resist male violence (Whittaker, 1995).
The term “empowerment" describes a spectrum of political activities ranging from individual resistance to mass political mobilizations that challenge the basic power relations in society. A feminist conceptualization of empowerment can thus be summarized as the process of liberation of self and others, as a life force, a potential, a capacity, growth, and energy, where one works toward community and connection responsibly as opposed to working primarily toward one’s individual good (Browne, 1995). Feminist theory must develop an analysis of elder abuse which acknowledges the social and cultural construction of abuse and locates causation outside of the personality traits and characteristics of either abuser or abused.
If there is one theme that ties all other oppressions together, it is probably that of class. Many oppressed people find themselves acted upon by several or all of the oppressors – yet linked together by class. No one oppression is greater than another, nor can one be held in isolation of the other. The multiple simultaneous oppressions faced by diverse people make for vast differences in their problems and the remedies they require.
Even within the classes, there are struggles of division. In the early days of the social work movement, there was a division of the needy based on the deserving and undeserving poor. Today there still are guidelines that continue to divide those like social assistance recipients within a class into able-bodied (who are undeserving of assistance) and those who qualify. I have heard numerous testimonies from Social Assistance (SA) workers who tell of “ratting” by SA clients on other clients. There is a feeling that someone is getting ahead of them: “there is only so much to go around, so if someone else gets it, I won't.” Similarly, those with disabilities vie for the small piece of the economic pie (funding) that is available for the groups. Rather than sharing the resources, many put in proposals that makes each slice too small to “feed” any one project, thus splitting those in the class of ableism.
Paulo Freire (1990) advocates that society must make an effort to come together as a society rather than factions thereof. Social work is about education and education is about the permanent transformation of the world (Freire, 1990). Therefore, we must educate the masses to work toward the elimination of oppression.
To do this we must challenge the basic beliefs of the dominant and powerful society through empowerment of those who are oppressed. Class empowerment, like individual empowerment, has to challenge the basic power relations in society and includes the process of liberation of self and others, where one works toward community and connection responsibly as opposed to working primarily toward one’s individual good. Through the elimination of societal-imposed barriers such as race, gender, orientation, abilities, and age, we can confront and eradicate the class system in which we currently live and continue to support.
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Whittaker, T. (1995). Violence, gender and elder abuse: Towards a feminist analysis and practice. Journal of Gender Studies, 4(1), 35–46.
This feature: Moore, P. (2001). Critical components of an anti-oppressive framework. Journal of Child and Youth Care. Vol.14 No.3 pp 25-32