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  • Writer's pictureLex Enrico Santí, LCSW, MFA

There is no hierarchy of oppression

I want to share with you a system of looking at the world, which when explained to me, fundamentally changed the way that I understood everything around me. It is from a course that I took, and then taught and trained others to teach over 20 years ago. I am sharing this now because the information is vital for the current conversation happening in America and unfortunately, there is a gap between many who are well-intentioned allies and those who have this information already or parts of it.

As Americans, we understand oppression more from an emotional and intellectual standpoint. We see a white police officer and a black man and we can point to it and think, "this is wrong" or "well, there must be reasons." but we don't really process past that. We think

When we are talking about opression, these are the core categories. This is a pre-lesson. Image: © NMAAHC. Data Source: Christopher Hughbanks, Oregon State University

in terms of it being bad or justified. We make excuses for oppression that, "the world can't change overnight." Or we are complacent and say, "what can we really expect?" We make platitudes that are infuriating when you have deal with oppression. "everybody can't always to be treated with fairness." Yet, even these statements by themselves, are part of a larger fabric of understanding how oppression works as the dialogue of justifying alienation is part of our ingrained need to survive and oppression pits every group against one another to do just that. Instead, if we understood oppression from a systematic approach--if we studied it like we study a science in school, we may be able to increase awareness of when it is happening around us. We may be able to identify it in front of us when we see it around us. I'll give you an example a funny one.

I was watching Parks and Recreation the other day. It's one of my favorite shows. There's this one episode from Season 6 episode 8. The Cones of Dunshire episode.

In this episode Ron, white, wants to sell one of his cabins, of which he has four. Tom, from Indian heritage, and Donna, the only reoccurring African American woman in the show, decide to help him sell the cabin if they can split the commission. Hilarity ensues for the entire episode. Ron, who is an interesting character, a libertarian and otherwise stand-up character who talks a lot about his word and doing right by people. First, Ron is ok with the deal and then eventually, because the people who want to buy the cabin are goofy liberal types, he decides that he backs out on the deal. At the last minute, when Donna shows Ron the offer, one that is above asking price he decides he won't sell it unless they can find someone like him who wants it only for peace and quiet. April, who is biracial (Latinx) andthe closest in character type to Ron, and he treats like a surrogate daughter in the series, says to him that she will give Ron the money in her purse, $8, some cough drops and someone else's inhaler if he gives her the cabin. Donna and Tom are besides themselves. Ron, who we are to later find out is already a multi-millionare, then turns to April, agrees on the sale. Now the scene is funny but it is at the expense of the two people of color in the show.

To add insult to injury, Ron then goes into his pocket and then hands Donna some change, of which Donna then slides over the remaining change to Tom and says, "here's your share, mogul."

When I first saw this episode I never saw it as a racial moment. It was just a moment. Now, in the context of Black Lives Matter, the episode stinks of racial inequity, white privilege and stereotypes. The point is not to ruin the episode under the guise of liberal affectations. The point is to expand our thinking and understanding of how race plays out in front of us in the mass media and to at least be able to turn on that lens. And if that upsets you, wait till you rewatch the "Flu Season" episode in the CoVid world we live in.


Today, the national conversation is about with racism. Two years ago it as rich with sexism and the #MeToo campaign. When Joe Biden was uttering, :This is a Big Fn' Deal," to President Obama, it was heterosexism. Each 'ism works under the same systems, they have patterned responses, systematic systems of abuse and trauma. We are taught that each "ism" is a different sort of oppression. We believe that one is worthy of working on or we are farther along the road of another. For as long as we have one form of oppression we will have another, they work together to identify and marginalize parts of our society, creating winners and losers.

As long as you have anti-semitism, you will have ableism because they work together to undermine your sense of why one group of people are favored over another. As you Go farther in your study you see how they are linked together. For example, ableism is linked heterosexism as the American Psychological Association up until 1973 considered it a mental health condition.

To get into why this all is so common place and confusing, we have to understand that ever since we were born we've been trapped into thinking in two ways which are detrimental. a) we think in terms of binaries: you're either black or white, male or female, straight or gay and so on and so on. b) we think in terms of subject/object.

The former, has begun to be dismantled as our understanding of race and gender have become more complex but we have a long way to go and there will always be those not interested in unlearning this work. The latter, describes how we treat sentient beings around us often. When we are working with beings on an object level we see them only as their identities. Let's use an example, I had a client once who asked me what I meant by subject object, I asked him if he ever leafed through Playboy magazine.

​"Of course," he said.

"Okay, when you looked through the magazine were you wondering what the life stories of the women were, what sort of experiences they had in their life, or were you just looking at their bodies?" He got it then. Unconsciously, we do this with everyone, our brains are quite used to processing information and then deciding what information to let go of. Subject/Object is the primary system that allows oppression to exist and fester and grow in our minds, when we don't attempt to understand the depth of people, we allow our hearts to shut down towards others--even entire groups.

Systems of oppression thrive under us picking and choosing which one we want to work on. At various times we will see this play out in the media. For example, after Black Lives Matter began gaining steam, Lana Del Ray came out with this tweet:

So this is a complicated one but I'll just go there. We begin to fall into a trap when we decide not to go deeper into the intersectionality of racism and sexism. That's what this post gets into and most of the media didn't do much exploring of it. There is incredible privilege of a white woman, addressing a group of black woman and saying that what they write and sing about is privileged. See how messy it gets? She's trying to address her own sexism and yet she brings out race instead as she needs to use the African American women as a prop to address the issue of sexism. No matter the relative power of individual, they can fall into this trap.

This is why understanding that there is no hierarchy of oppression is essential. You cannot use another 'ism in order to get equality for your own ism. This is how oppression remains in place. This ends up causing groups to be pitted against one another and used by included groups as distractions.

Summed up by Aurdre Lorde in her poem, There is No Hierarchy of Oppression, articulates a passionate and beautiful way of articulating how it is impossible it is to respond from one identity: I was born Black, and a woman. I am trying to become the strongest person I can become to live the life I have been given and to help effect change toward a liveable future for this earth and for my children. As a Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, poet, mother of two including one boy and a member of an interracial couple, I usually find myself part of some group in which the majority defines me as deviant, difficult, inferior or just plain “wrong.”

What this sets in place is infighting between isms, setting about a desire to prioritize one ism over the other. This is where your lesson on intersectionality becomes vitally important.

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