What Are Systems of Oppression?

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There are multiple systems of oppression that can be at play.

A system of oppression is any system designed to hinder a group of individuals (usually a minority) from accessing the resources and privileges available to individuals who are not part of that minority. Five common systems of oppression are described below.


Sexism is prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination on the basis of someone’s sex or gender expression. Sexism is usually expressed against women, and is seen in everything from the pay gap to microaggressions in the workplace. Sexism is displayed when women are questioned about what they were wearing during a sexual assault, when they are expected to be the primary caregiver of children, and when they are cat-called on the streets. 


Racism is prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination on the basis of someone’s race or cultural identity. Racism is often thought of in broad, antiquated strokes, such as segregated drinking fountains and “no blacks allowed” signs. Unfortunately, despite the Civil Rights movement, racism is still alive and well today. There are many negative attitudes and stereotypes toward racial minorities ingrained in our culture, which can hold people in these oppressed groups back from opportunities and resources that are more easily accessible to those in the majority. For example, there are still significant wage gaps between white and non-white workers, and the criminal justice system tends to be far more lenient in its punishment of white defendants compared to non-white defendants.


Classism is prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination on the basis of someone’s wealth or social standing. Classism often comes about when the wealthier members of a society consolidate their resources and influence to exercise power over the less wealthy. This can make it more difficult for those of a lower class to access resources and opportunities that would allow them to improve their position, and it often results in pervasive, inflated stereotypes of people based on their class. For example, in a classist society people might view richer, upper class citizens in more positive terms - ambitious, deserving, dignified - while they view poorer, lower class citizens much more negatively - lazy, jealous, worthless - regardless of other factors.


Heteronormativity is prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination on the basis of someone’s sexual orientation or preference. In a heteronormative society, people assume that everyone is or should be straight and cisgender (conforming to the gender they were assigned at birth), and they will punish and oppress anyone who expresses a sexual orientation or gender identity that does not fit those expectations. Examples of oppression due to heteronormativity can be as broad and cultural as a lack of representation of LGBTQ+ people and themes in media or as specific and personal as parents physically abusing or disowning their children for coming out as gay or transgender.


Ableism is prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination on the basis of someone’s physical or mental capabilities or wellness. A common and widespread effect of ableism is the way that societies tend to organize in a way that is not easily accessible for people with disabilities, from buildings that are difficult to access via wheelchair to movie theaters that are ill-equipped to assist people who are Deaf or hard of hearing. In addition, employers might discriminate against people with disabilities in their hiring and labor practices, making it difficult for them to find and keep work to support themselves.

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