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. Note that in many cases, these categories overlap in such a way that one person can potentially deal with multiple forms of oppression.

Please note that these categories describe patterns of behavior, and not necessarily belief systems. You can have all the right beliefs about social equality and still practice oppression through your actions.

Sexism

Sexism, or the belief that men are superior to women, 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 of them do not want, and to force men into dominant, competitive roles that many of them do not want.

Heterosexism

A subcategory of sexism, heterosexism describes the pattern in which people with clearly defined genders are assumed to want to have sexual relationships exclusively with members of the opposite gender. Since not everybody does, the outliers can be punished with ridicule, restriction of partnership rights, discrimination, arrest, and even possibly death.

Cisgenderism

Cisgender refers to people whose gender identity matches the sex they were born with. Cisgenderism is a form of oppression that assumes, or forces, everyone that is born male identifies as male and everyone that is born female identifies as female. Cisgenderism does not take into account the people who do not identify with their assigned gender roles or who do not have clearly-assigned gender roles.

Classism

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 or not and under what circumstances members of one class may cross over into another class, say via marriage or work.

Racism

Whereas bigotry means having an intolerance for people of other races, religions, etc., racism assumes that those from other races are actually genetically inferior human beings. Racism has prevailed throughout human history as a justification for a host of oppressive actions.

Colorism

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 African 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

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

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

Sizeism 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 slender build are considered more attractive than people who are heavy.

Ageism

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 for them to get work because they are no longer young and/or attractive. 

Nativism

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

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.