Understanding Oppression

All systems of oppression are different but have some commonalities. All are hurtful. Since different forms of oppression are connected, coalition building between the affected groups can erode the power of oppressors and bring about significant positive change. That is why the Positive Space Network supports and encourages affiliates and Resource Persons to be involved with other inclusive organizations on campus and in the community. The PSN also welcomes opportunities to partner with other organizations in sponsoring and hosting events, fundraising, etc.

All forms of oppression involve a dominant culture that suppresses others. There is often a hierarchy of victimization in which some groups are perceived to be of less value than others. Stereotypes are often used to rationalize this domination and to label or demonize people. Oppression in any form can be manifested at the personal, institutional or societal levels.

The Positive Space Network focuses on supporting people and their allies who experience systemic and intersectional oppression because of marginalization, bias, discrimination, phobias, assumptions, and violence. One way to explain how oppression is perpetuated in society is by defining the following terms and showing their linkages and the momentum that keeps the cycle going.


It is impossible to talk about oppression without acknowledging power. Power — the ability to exert control and influence — is the underlying thread common to all forms of oppression. We are shaped by the culture around us. We learn about the “isms” directly and indirectly and store these messages and experiences as stereotypes, biases and recordings.

If we are part of the dominant group, we may accept many of these stereotypes as the norm and define all others in relationship to that norm. For example, heterosexual-identified people don’t have to come out. This internalized dominance is an assumption made by those with power that everyone shares their reality; they then operate as if their perspective were universal.


Oppression is the systematic control of a group of people by another group of people with access to social power. This results in benefits for one group over the other and is maintained by social beliefs and practices. Because oppression is institutionalized in our society, target group members often believe the messages and internalize the oppression.

Intersectional Oppression

Intersectionality holds that the classical models of oppression within society, such as those based on race/ethnicity, gender, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, class or disability do not act independently of one another; instead, these forms of oppression interrelate creating a system of oppression that reflects the “intersection” of multiple forms of discrimination.

The fluid and shifting nature of our social identities may place us as either the target or the agent of oppression depending on the circumstance. Where we are placed rests on who has the power and whose experiences and knowledge are shaping the “norm.”

At a systemic level, it is important to attempt to understand and take informed action that addresses the links between (for example) gender, family status and race. At a global level, when we challenge such issues as violence against women and children, prostitution, pay inequities, aboriginal self-governance and land claims it is vital that we look at the interlocking systems that enable the various forms of oppression to continue and thrive.


A stereotype is a preconceived or oversimplified generalization about an entire group of people based on some observed or imagined trait, behaviour or appearance without regard for individual differences. While often negative, stereotypes may also be perceived as complimentary. However, even positive stereotypes can have a negative impact simply because they are broad generalizations. The stereotypes we hold form the basis of our prejudice.


Prejudice is a conscious or unconscious negative belief about a whole group of people and its individual members. When the person holding the prejudice also has and uses power to deny opportunities, resources or access to a person because of their group membership, there is discrimination.


Discrimination is prejudice plus the use of power. Discrimination can take many forms, including ageism, racism, classism, heterosexism, anti-semitism, sexism, ableism, ethnocentrism, etc. Many acts of discrimination build up over time, perpetuated against one relatively less powerful social group by a more powerful social group, leading to a group of people being in a state of oppression or marginalized.


Marginalization is the social process of being relegated to a lower social standing. Being marginalized refers to being separated from the rest of the society and forced to occupy the edges. Like all forms of oppression, this can happen to an individual, a community and through institutional barriers.

Phobias and “Isms”


Sexism is the belief or attitude that one gender or sex is inferior to, less competent, or less valuable than another. It can also refer to hatred of, or prejudice towards, a gender or sex as a whole.  The application of and pressure to conform to stereotypes of masculinity or femininity can also be part of sexism.  This can effect not only women, people of all genders.


Is the system by which heterosexuality is the assumed norm. Heterosexism is so pervasive, it is often hard to detect. For example, heterosexual norms are reinforced by parents, teachers, and the media. Heterosexism forces many LGBTTIAQQ people to struggle constantly against their own invisibility and invisibility of their relationships, and makes it much more difficult for them to have positive gender and sexual identities.


Can be defined as the irrational fear of, and aversions to homosexuality and LGBTTIAQQ people. Homophobia can range from negative beliefs and attitudes towards queer/trans individuals and those perceived to be, to verbal and physical violence against them. Sexism, Homophobia and Heterosexism are interconnected and reinforced by a rigid understanding of human sexuality and gender roles.


The irrational fear or hatred of, aversion to, and discrimination against trans folk. There is a strong connection between sexism, homophobia and transphobia based on heteronormativity and rigid understanding of gender roles.


The irrational fear or hatred of, aversion to, and discrimination against those identified as bisexual. There is considerable overlap between biphobia and homophobia, and bi people often experience the effects of both. They may also experience biphobia within the queer community.

Internalized Oppression

When marginalized group members internalize the stereotypes they are taught about themselves. This may reinforce the prejudice and perpetuate the cycle. This may result in low self esteem, depression, and isolation.