As a worker in Canadian society, I would be remiss to think that we live in an anti-oppressive society. People are excluded on a regular basis because of the colour of their skin, their gender, their sexual orientation, their abilities, their age, and their class. Many of these oppressions do not stand in isolation of each other and clients suffer the wrath of being multi-oppressed. They are linked by a common origin, economic power and control, and by common methods of limiting, controlling, and destroying lives (Pharr, 1997). Social work, residential work, and workers by history and nature are oppressive in that they (we) hold power over their clients. Anti-oppressive practice means recognizing power imbalances and working toward the promotion of change to redress the balance of power (Dalrymple & Burke, 1995).
The purpose of this article is to define and explain the critical components of an anti-oppressive framework of practice. These components are anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-heterosexism, anti-ablism, anti-ageism, and an understanding of class oppression. In explaining these, I will draw from both theory and experience in trying to understand the nature of this oppression. As part of the understanding and healing of these issues, I feel that I must acknowledge my position of power in this society — white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-aged, and middle class. Through experience and knowledge, I hope to gain more insight into the oppressive workings of society and social work in order to move closer to adopting a blueprint as part of my own anti-oppressive framework of practice.
We need to look no further than our workplaces as testimony to this. The white middle class has been over-represented in the workforce of the child welfare system. Directly in my workplace only 1 of approximately 34 people is Black (2.94%). Within our agency, 3 of 75 staff (4.0%) are Black (Moore, 2000), and there is little other racial representation present. I can count on one hand the number of non-whites that are present, Blacks included. Affirmative action policies have helped minority workers to realize employment in areas that have been closed to them in the past, but is this merely tokenism? I echo the caution that tokenism and assimilation are tools of the dominant class to block solidarity within groups from ever occurring (Pharr, 1997).
As workers and members of society in general, we have to stop seeing just Black and begin to recognize the white that is around us. We have been conditioned to see only difference and are not able to recognize those who are the same as us — the dominant in society. I believe that I have made an effort to do this with clients, but seldom with others. In reports that I have written for the agency and court, I acknowledge the whole person by describing them as “... Johnnie is a 13-year-old white male... ” Similar statements would be written about non-white clients. For some reason, however, I have never thought about my friends and colleagues in the same way as I have described clients. In describing a worker, I would say that “She is a Black female that works at the Centre,” yet I would not say that “He is the white male in the Sydney office.”
I have begun to challenge my own social norms by recognizing the whiteness that is all around and the issues of power and truth that are an unspoken and unrequested privilege of belonging to the “White Club.” I will continue to sharpen my senses toward my oppressions.
In western societies, many roles have been delegated to society and family members based on gender (Hepworth & Larsen, 1993). Each person in the group carries numerous roles that are integrated into the structure and represent certain expected, permitted, and forbidden behaviours. Children are socialized with these roles from birth in the way that they are dressed, the colours they wear, the toys they play with, the friends that they associate with, and the style of their play. Males are socialized to become doctors, females nurses; males managers, females secretaries; males bread winners, females housewives.
There has been a trend toward the dismantling of these stereotypes, but the biggest fight is still within. Internalized oppression is the oppression that we put on ourselves due to social norms. The oppression is internalized from the dominant society’s message through the media, schools, religious institutions, and other forms of socialization (Turner, 1999). An example of this oppression is the pressure put on working moms to run a tidy house on top of their day at work. Further, in the case of stay-at-home mothers, their day does not end after they put in their eight hours even when their spouse arrives home looking for supper.
An anti-oppressive theory challenges these myths and traditions. The main element in this fight for true equality comes from consciousness raising. This is done through the process of breaking through the theories that women’s problems are strictly personal problems and are born from individual flaws. It is also aided through backing away from the idea that the professional knows best, even better than the client (Greenspan, 1993).
For me this raises the question of a male practitioner using a feminist framework. Criticism has been leveled that males cannot do feminist practice because they do not understand the experience that females have had. Lowenstein (1983) argues that some male workers expect women to conform with traditional role expectations and that women clients fall into familiar and unproductive dependence patterns with male counsellors. Lowenstein feels that male workers should only work with males who oppress women. As a male worker, I hope that my practice will not echo the feelings of this author. I attempt to practice an anti-oppressive, feminist model working with both male and female clients. My approach recognizes that the listening is most important. This provides the information that enables me to gain a fuller understanding of the issues.
As with other forms of oppression, people who have found themselves in the majority do not see anything beyond their own experience. Language can be a large determinant of heterosexist attitudes. A heterosexual male counsellor often asks his male clients, “Do you have a girlfriend?“ There is no consideration given to the possibility that the client may be gay. This simple question alerts the client to the possibility that the worker is at best heterosexist and at worst homophobic. The possibility of exploring other issues hinges on this question. The client may not feel safe disclosing any further information at this point.
An anti-oppressive model must develop an understanding of the societal oppression that is supported by heterosexism. As with white and male, heterosexism is dominant in the culture, and difference is not supported or encouraged. The change has to come from within the power structures that support heterosexism. In our workplaces we must ask questions like:
If these questions seem strange or a if person has never thought about them, then one can assume that the workplace is heterosexist. The lack of thought about these questions reflect the presence of the dominant culture in our society.
In an anti-oppressive model, I would not take these things for granted. I would share my spaces with people who have different abilities. The bathrooms would have larger stalls, the sinks at higher levels, the doors wider. I would work side-by-side with people who were hired based on their abilities, not discriminated against based on their disabilities. I would be comfortable sending my children to a day care that hired employees with AIDS. I would be comfortable going to a restaurant that employed mentally challenged individuals. I would encourage the diversity and avenues of learning that are realized in inclusive classrooms. “Blue” parking spaces would not be limited to two spaces in front of department stores, and they would be respected by those who use them out of convenience at the expense of those who use them out of need.
Society must challenge the way that the needs of the dominant influence the opportunities of those who possess different abilities. We should not feel pity for this group, nor fall into tokenist hiring policies, but instead realize their potential as valued members of society who make valuable contributions to the world.
Despite the aging population and the gains that they have made, society places little importance on this group. Suffering from double jeopardy in this group are aging women. The aging society is primarily a female society. It is well known that women generally outlive men and that ageism and sexism combine to produce a socially constructed dependency in old age in which the feminization of poverty is a key feature (Whittaker, 1995). Social workers often work with older women whose well-being is threatened by poverty, multiple chronic ailments, and increasing social isolation, yet these older women also exhibit undetected strengths. The other common threat that is present to this group is elder abuse.
In a feminist context, elder abuse is not the product of a pathological family but of a patriarchal family in which men have access to and power over those less powerful and more vulnerable than themselves and regard them as their property (Whittaker, 1995). Men are protected by societal norms that uphold the privacy of home despite it being the prime site of women’s oppression.
Unlike the call from child and sexual abuse victims, the voices of survivors of elder abuse have not as yet been heard. The difficulties in helping victims to talk and tell their stories due to fear of stigma, institutionalization, or physical and mental frailty can be overcome by validating the feelings and experiences of old women. Feminist policies for tackling abuse are therefore concerned with advocacy and empowerment and with increasing the resources old women have available to them to empower themselves and help them resist male violence (Whittaker, 1995).
The term "empowerment" describes a spectrum of political activities ranging from individual resistance to mass political mobilizations that challenge the basic power relations in society. A feminist conceptualization of empowerment can thus be summarized as the process of liberation of self and others, as a life force, a potential, a capacity, growth, and energy, where one works toward community and connection responsibly as opposed to working primarily toward one’s individual good (Browne, 1995). Feminist theory must develop an analysis of elder abuse which acknowledges the social and cultural construction of abuse and locates causation outside of the personality traits and characteristics of either abuser or abused.
To do this we must challenge the basic
beliefs of the dominant and powerful society through empowerment of
those who are oppressed. Class empowerment, like individual empowerment,
has to challenge the basic power relations in society and includes the
process of liberation of self and others, where one works toward
community and connection responsibly as opposed to working primarily
toward one’s individual good. Through the elimination of
societal-imposed barriers such as race, gender, orientation, abilities,
and age, we can confront and eradicate the class system in which we
currently live and continue to support.
This feature: Moore, P. (2001). Critical components of an anti-oppressive framework. Journal of Child and Youth Care. Vol.14 No.3 pp 25-32