We were given a prompt in my feminist philosophy course: define oppression and discuss how one or more groups are affected by it. I decided to write about the general oppression of black people in the United States, and also went a bit deeper into how black women, especially, are affected by stereotyping, biased media, Eurocentric beauty expectations and more, culminating in misogynoir. You can read my thought under the cut, and my sources are cited and can be found in the Reading Material part of SJExchange.
Oppression is when a group of people is “other-ed” in society, and then that “other-ness” is used to repress them, to limit their opportunities and access to social institutions, and to control the ways in which they communicate and interact with the world. Usually, when a group is oppressed, it can even become internalized, creating things like internalized homophobia, misogyny, and racism. We can call this “psychological oppression (Bartky),” and say that these people are “the master’s tools (Lorde).” These people who are psychologically oppressed start to give into the mindset of the oppressors.
In terms of blackness in our society, oppression has been based on not just big picture things like government policy or socioeconomic status, and even things like hair texture, eye color, nose shape/size, and even shade of skin color. This oppression runs so deep in the black community, and especially in black women, that those who are darker are othered within their own community. Oppression like this can also be seen in the media and in pop culture, where some black male rappers will make music videos that objectify women, but also specifically use either white, latina, or light-skinned black women. Up until very recently, it was very difficult for darker black women to land big roles in TV shows and movies despite being immensely talented. Even then, those who were chosen to act usually ended up portraying certain harmful characters and archetypes, or “controlling images” of black women such as the mammy, the welfare queen, or the bossy black woman. This “controlling images” idea was presented by Patricia Hill Collins. If we look further at her theory, we see more problems than just the idea of harmful stereotypes.
The controlling images not only create harmful stereotypes, but reduce black women to these roles within the real world. “Scripts” are created for them to follow in the world, both in the media and in everyday life, and if they choose not to follow the scripts, they are ridiculed. But, this is actually a double bind for black women, for if they choose to fall into one of the scripts given to them, they are still ridiculed regardless.
Black women also have their bodies policed and objectified differently than white women do, and this is also oppression. Black women are seen as exotic and animalistic. Their bodies are looked at as promiscuous because they may have more curves than their white counterparts, even when they have no control over it. Leslie Jones, from Saturday Night Live, constantly has her body scrutinized by people online who say she looks like a “monkey” or a man because of her facial features, height, and broad shoulders. This plays into the overall belief that women shouldn’t take up space- they should always attempt to be as small as possible, as quiet as possible, and as absent as possible. As a black woman, Leslie Jones was also scrutinized for the way she spoke- not just her word choices, but also her volume and pronunciations, were torn apart. She would be deemed too obnoxious, too loud, too “ghetto.” These ways in which black people are analyzed in society are really just tools used to make them seen uneducated, ill-mannered, and biologically uncivilized.
The big picture oppression definitely affects the oppression done through media/pop culture and on the person-to-person level, though. Public policy affects the ways in which black people live. We can look at this through Maria Lugones’s “world-travelling” theory. Black “worlds” are vastly differently from white worlds. The world of a black person is fundamentally oppressive. It is built on being geographically locked out of access to the political and higher social arenas through things like districting and gerrymandering. Black people are blocked from getting people into power who are willing to help their community, or are in areas that are split purposely to give them less of a voice. Their children go to schools that end up having less funding because of property taxes that are affected by racial steering in the real estate industry. They have higher rates of obesity and heart disease because their communities tend to have less fresh, healthy food and more fast food, thus leading to lower life expectancy rates. In a white person’s world, there is hardly ever a thought to how skin color may have factored into where your child goes to school, or which neighborhoods you can have access to, or what your political power is, and that can be seen as white privilege. Because white people choose not to tap into the black experience, they sometimes even say that it is the fault of black people that they don’t have equality and view their own status as something they’ve earned rather than a predetermined worth society has placed upon us based on something as arbitrary as skin color.
This constant pressure that is placed on the black community to both be and defy the stereotypical, to be complacent in the face of social and economic inequality, to fight for a voice but not be given access to one, and much more, are all attributes of oppression.
Bartky, Sandra Lee. “On Psychological Oppression” In The Feminist Philosophy Reader, edited by Alison Bailey and Chris Cuomo, 51-61. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2008.
Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” In The Feminist Philosophy Reader, edited by Alison Bailey and Chris Cuomo, 49-51. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2008.
Lugones, Maria. “Playfulness, ‘World-Travelling’ and Loving Perception” In The Feminist Philosophy Reader, edited by Alison Bailey and Chris Cuomo, 69-80. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2008.