Oppression is the unfair or cruel use of power to control another person or group. The term is often used in a political context to refer to the oppression of minority groups such as women and racial minorities.
What Is Oppression?
Oppression occurs whenever one person exercises authority or power in an unfair, abusive, cruel, or needlessly controlling way. For example, a parent who locks a child in the closet could be said to be oppressing that child. Slavery, the refusal to allow women to inherit and own property, the denial of equal rights to people with disabilities, and the involuntary commitment of people who deviate from social norms are all examples of oppression.
Oppression and Politicsfeminists, civil rights activists, disability rights advocates, and prison abolitionists arguing in favor of rampant oppression.
A feminist, for example, might view high rape rates in the United States as indication of systematic attempts to control and oppress women, while another person might argue that rape is an opportunistic, individualistic crime not related to oppression.
Oppression and Mental Health
Chronic oppression can have serious consequences on a person’s mental health. Statistics repeatedly indicate that racial minorities, impoverished people, and women are more likely to experience mental health challenges than members of powerful groups such as white men. Oppression lowers self-esteem, reduces life opportunities, and can even put people in danger of rape, abuse, and other forms of violence.
Members of an oppressed group that experience oppression for sustained periods of time may also begin experiencing internalized oppression. Internalized oppression is a term used in psychology and sociology to describe when a member of an oppressed group begins accepting the views of the oppressors as reality. The person experiencing internalized oppression may allow their oppressors to shape their worldview, begin to hold an oppressive view toward other members of their same group, or a combination thereof.
Examples of internalized oppression may include:
- A woman who does not speak up in work meetings because she feels her contributions are not as important or are incorrect in comparison to those of her male counterparts.
- A young person from an oppressed group who avoids leadership opportunities because they feel as if their leadership style does not fit in with traditional leadership models.
- A person with an accent who avoids making friends with others, feeling as if those from other cultures would not want to be friends.
- A female construction worker joining male coworkers in putting other women down because they are perceived as not being strong enough for construction work.
- An immigrant parent disciplining children in an overly-harsh manner so the children will “fit in” better.
Therapy can help those experiencing oppression or internalized oppression by helping the person in therapy recognize it and the ways it can affect life. Cognitive behavioral therapy, for example, may be applied to help the person in therapy change self-defeating cognitions, attitudes, or behaviors associated with oppression.
- Cry for help. (2009, April 20). PBS. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/cryforhelp/episodes/resources/minorities-and-mental-health/23/
- Cudd, A. E. (2006). Analyzing oppression. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- David, E. J. R. (2009). Internalized oppression, psychopathology, and cognitive-behavioral therapy among historically oppressed groups. Journal of Psychological Practice, 15, 71-103.
- Frye, M. (n.d.). Oppression. University of Georgia. Retrieved from http://www.terry.uga.edu/~dawndba/4500Oppression.html
Last Updated: 08-2-2016
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