12 Types of Social Oppression

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In a social justice context, oppression is what happens when individuals or groups of people are discriminated against or otherwise treated unjustly, whether by the government, private organizations, individuals, or other groups. (The word comes from the Latin root "opprimere," which means "pressed down.") Here are 12 different forms of oppression—although the list is by no means comprehensive.

The categories describe patterns of behavior and not necessarily belief systems. A person can have strong beliefs in favor of social equality and still practice oppression through their actions. In many cases, these categories of oppression overlap in such a way that one person can potentially deal with multiple forms of oppression and privilege at the same time. The experience of multiple and differing forms of oppression is described by the term "intersectionality."

Sexism

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Sexism, or the belief that cisgender men are superior to cisgender women on the basis of sex, has been an almost universal condition of civilization. Whether rooted in biology or culture or both, sexism tends to force women into subservient, restrictive roles that many do not want, and to force men into dominant, competitive roles that many do not want.

Heterosexism

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Heterosexism describes the pattern in which people are assumed to be heterosexual. Since not everybody is heterosexual, the outliers may be punished with ridicule, restriction of partnership rights, discrimination, arrest, and even death.

Cisgenderism or Cisnormativity

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Cisgender refers to people whose gender identity is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. Cisgenderism or cisnormativity is a form of oppression that assumes that everyone who is assigned male at birth exists as a man and everyone who is assigned female at birth exists as a woman. Cisgenderism discriminates against and does not take into account people who do not identify with their assigned sex at birth, and the gender roles associated with them or those who do not have clearly defined or binary gender roles (binary transgender people or nonbinary transgender people).

Classism

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Classism is a social pattern in which wealthy or influential people congregate with each other and oppress those who are less wealthy or less influential. Classism also establishes rules about whether and under what circumstances members of one class may cross over into another class—for example, via marriage or work.

Racism

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Whereas bigotry means having an intolerance for people of other races and religions, racism assumes that those from other races are actually genetically inferior human beings. Racism acts on this belief with political, systemic, social, and institutional power. Power is necessary to operationalize racism. Without it, beliefs of genetic inferiority are simply prejudice. Racism has prevailed throughout human history as a justification for a host of oppressive actions.

Colorism

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Colorism is a social pattern in which people are treated differently based on the amount of visible melanin in the skin. A number of studies show that lighter-skinned Black Americans or Latinos receive preferential treatment over their darker-skinned counterparts. Colorism is not the same thing as racism, but the two tend to go together.

Ableism

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Ableism is a social pattern in which people who are disabled are treated differently, to an unnecessary degree, than those who are not. This could take the form of either not accommodating those with physical or mental disabilities or treating them as if they are unable to live without assistance.

Lookism

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Lookism is a social pattern in which people whose faces and/or bodies fit social ideals are treated differently from people whose faces and/or bodies do not. Standards of beauty vary from culture to culture, but just about every human society has them.

Sizeism/Fatphobia

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Sizeism or fatphobia is a social pattern in which people whose bodies fit social ideals are treated differently from people whose bodies do not. In contemporary Western society, people with a slender build are generally considered more attractive than people who are heavy.

Ageism

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Ageism is a social pattern in which people of a certain chronological age are treated differently, to an unnecessary degree, than those who are not. One example is Hollywood's unspoken "expiration date" for women, a date beyond which it is difficult to get work because a person is no longer considered young and/or attractive. 

Nativism

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Nativism is a social pattern in which people who are born in a given country are treated differently from those who immigrate to it, to the benefit of natives. 

Colonialism

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Native American advocate Russell Means at a press conference at Boston University in 1971.

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Colonialism is a social pattern in which people who are born in a given country are treated differently from those who immigrate to it, usually to the benefit of a specific identifiable group of powerful immigrants. This involves a process of powerful immigrants overtaking the country and holistically exploiting its resources.

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Head, Tom. "12 Types of Social Oppression." ThoughtCo, Feb. 26, 2021, thoughtco.com/types-of-oppression-721173. Head, Tom. (2021, February 26). 12 Types of Social Oppression. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/types-of-oppression-721173 Head, Tom. "12 Types of Social Oppression." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/types-of-oppression-721173 (accessed April 10, 2021).