What is Anti-Oppression?

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What is Anti-Oppression?

Oppression is the use of power to disempower, marginalize, silence or otherwise subordinate one social group or category, often in order to further empower and/or privilege the oppressor. Social oppression may not require formally established organizational support to achieve its desired effect; it may be applied on a more informal, yet more focused, individual basis.

Anti-Oppression work seeks to recognize the oppression that exists in our society and attempts to mitigate its affects and eventually equalize the power imbalance in our communities.

Basically there are certain groups in our society and communities that hold power over others based on their membership in those groups. For example, if you were to look at the demographics of the CEO's of any major corporation, city council, parliament etc. you would notice that most if not all of these positions of great power are populated by white (publicly straight) males. On the flip side, if you were to look at the demographics of janitorial staff or fast food workers you might notice that these positions are populated largely by persons of colour, specifically women of colour. When studying the statistics of those receiving social assistance or state aid you would also notice that the vast majority of those in our communities living in this poverty are folks with disabilities and the elderly.

Where is the power imbalance?

Can you think of the social differences between these groups? What types of jobs do they usually occupy? What power do they hold? Do they typically experience oppression-if so by whom?

Women | Men | Queer folks (gay/lesbian,transgendered etc) | Seniors | Folks with disabilities | Low income folks | Straight people | Adults | Children | Middle income families | High income folks | Folks with mental health issues | New immigrants | ESL folks | Christian folks | Islamic folks | People of colour | White folks | People of Indigenous ancestry | English speaking persons

  • Can you think of other examples? How do they play out?
  • What are some examples of things you can do to prevent accidentally assuming the role of an oppressor?

Personal Responsibility

Practicing anti-oppression work in real terms is not only confronting individual examples of bigotry, or confronting societal examples, it is also confronting ourselves and our own roles of power and oppression in our communities and the bigger picture.

Though you may be a person that would never think to ever say anything racist/sexist/classist etc., by not realizing the power that you hold, and how your actions affect other people you will inevitably fall into sustaining and contributing to a larger system of oppression.

Intersectionality of Oppressions

The theory of Intersectionality is that individually we are all oppressed while we are all oppressors. While you may be a person who is historically marginalized (a person of colour for example) you may also have a role and be a member of a group that is oppressive to others (while you are a person of colour, you may also be a man, an able bodied person, upper/middle class, straight etc). The idea is that no single oppression holds more weight than another but that we all have a role in combating oppression and unequal power dynamics.

So what can you do?

This first step is recognizing the ways in which you are oppressed and the ways in which you are an oppressor. Try to think of the ways in which your group oppresses others on a societal and individual level while honestly evaluating your own actions. When you are addressing a group member that your group has historically and systemically oppressed be conscious of questioning your words and actions.

  • Are you speaking with authority? Why? Do you deserve that authority?
  • Are you talking down to that person? Are you making them feel emotionally safe or belittled/uncomfortable?
  • Are you intimidating? How can you be less so?
  • Are you making assumptions about that person? What are they? Why?
  • Are they acting differently than you would in their shoes? Why could that be?

Internalized Oppression

Internalized oppression is the manner in which an oppressed group comes to use against itself the methods of the oppressor. For example, sometimes members of marginalized groups hold an oppressive view toward their own group, or start to believe in negative stereotypes of themselves.

For example, internalized racism is when members of Group A believe that the stereotypes of Group A are true and may believe that they are less intelligent or academically inferior to other groups of people.

Any social group can internalize prejudice.

An awareness of the issue of internalized oppression is necessary when attempting to take the lead of an oppressed group, or simply understanding how oppression is deeply socialized into each of us.

Being aware of how many of us, by internalizing our own oppressions, may seek power in other forms and in fact stand as oppressors towards other groups. For example many women in high level business positions may be seen as 'bulldogs' because they are acting in a way that is not typical of their socialized role. These women may feel the need to overcompensate for the oppression they have internalized and actually become aggressive in ways that may oppress and intimidate other groups (ie. racism, ablism, classism). She may even subordinate her own gender by claiming that her strength and straight forward nature is sourced in masculinity, that she is strong because she is like a man, because women are inherently weak and inferior.

Why is this relevant for Free Geek?

Free Geek has almost 4000 volunteers in its database, some of whom have volunteered to receive a free computer because they are unable to afford one. Some just because they're geeks to the core, and others because they are interested in learning more about computer technology and haven't had access to such resources previously.

It may be surprising to veteran geeks, but computers and technology can feel very intimidating to a lot of people. Like most high paying industries, the computer industry in North America is like a pyramid. The higher up on the pyramid you look, the denser concentration of white, able-bodied males you see.

Free Geek seeks to make technology more accessible to the larger community. By providing a space that is safe, inclusive and comfortable for everyone to learn we are meeting our goals. Understanding why and how computer technology can seem frightening & intimidating is important in your role as a teacher.

Barriers to accessing technology

There are multiple barriers preventing some folks from accessing technology.

To name a few:

Class: Computers are expensive! They are also most used in higher paying jobs and post secondary education.

Gender: Many jobs in our society are gendered. For example women are not often seen working at construction sites, while men aren't often seen waiting tables at diners. The computer industry is no different, women are often left out, as the industry is assumed to be for men.

Literacy: Folks with lower literacy who are ESL (English as a Second Language) or otherwise, miss out on improving these skills with computers. A whole world of communication moves on without them. Many of our stations at Free Geek are also literacy dependent.

Age: Some persons later in life have missed out on the computer technology revolution. As a result, many may feel intimidated by these complicated looking gizmos.

Ability: Some folks with physical or mental disabilities have multiple barriers to accessing technology. For one thing, many of these folks are on income assistance and are unable to afford computers. Many also do need a little extra assistance or encouragement in learning these tools.

Race: Like all areas of western society, perceived race plays a part in defining the demographics of the computer industry.

Free Geek attempts to help make technology more accessible with our volunteer program & thrift store. However, as someone who in the past did not have access to computer resources you may feel uncomfortable and out of place in an environment with other folks who seem like experts. Not knowing basic terms or names of equipment may be a reminder of the fact that this is a world you were traditionally left out of. An environment that doesn't make the effort to make it OK to ask questions and not know things contributes to a feeling of inadequacy and inferiority. Free Geek should be a place that empowers people to use and access technology! Not a place that further alienates people unintentionally.

  • Can you think of other folks that might be especially intimidated by technology?
  • What are some things that can contribute to some geeks feeling alienated at Free Geek?
  • When someone is having trouble with a task they are doing, can you think of methods of helping that might disempower someone instead of empower them?


You are volunteering at Free Geek and notice a young woman having a little difficulty crushing hard drives. You want to help out, so you offer to take over her task and then do so.

  • What's wrong with this picture? What could you have done instead?

You see two volunteers in a conversation. One is trying to explain to the other how to dismantle a certain piece of hardware but is having a little difficulty because English is not his first language. You want to help, so you step in and teach the other volunteer instead.

  • What's wrong with this picture? What could you have done instead?

Power dynamics between those that hold and receive knowledge

At Free Geek a big part of what we do is teaching folks about computers.

Anyone in a teaching role is naturally in a position of power over the person they are teaching. As an instructor, it is imperative that you understand how your role as a teacher is situated in a larger societal context. Understanding how you can be an oppressor and can be oppressed, and how the person you are teaching is also an oppressor that is oppressed assists you in becoming a better teacher. A good teacher empowers students rather than disempowering or undermining their efforts to learn.

  • What are some ways that you think a teacher could intimidate or make someone feel insecure while learning?

Being positioned in a teaching role does not necessarily mean you are in a position of all-assuming power, or that you are immune from experiencing oppression as well.

  • What are some ways a teacher can experience oppression?
  • What should you do if you feel you've experienced oppressive or discriminatory behaviour at Free Geek?
  • What will you do if you witness this sort of behaviour between others?