Oppression at Cultural Level

I read “Chapter #4: Oppression at the Cultural Level” in Challenging Oppression and Confronting Privilege by Bob Mullaly and Microaggressions and Social Work Practice, Education, and Research by Michael Spencer, and thoughtfully explored all questions posed. Several concepts stood out in the readings. My goal is to explore cultural expressions of oppression through what I think are a couple of relevant and personal examples:

1. The Power of Language & Discourse, E.g. Minimum Wage Debate

I recently had a conversation with my Aunt Laura via email. She sent me an article about minimum wage trends. In many cities across the U.S., minimum wage has increased. However, in St. Louis, Governor Eric Greitens announced this summer that minimum wage would drop from $10.00/hour to $7.70/hour.

This brief conversation is one of many examples that reminds me of the importance and power of language and discourse, especially in politics. In my opinion, part of the problem is republicans seem to think poor people are lazy, and that if the poor just worked harder, they would be okay economically. But part of the problem is also that democrats continue to let republicans define and control these issues.

Instead of talking about what the minimum wage should be, we should be talking about making sure that people who work 40-hours/week can make a livable wage. If we think that small businesses cannot afford to pay people a livable wage, then we need to provide a decent safety net so that those who aren’t earning a livable wage can have sufficient funds for housing, food, heat, clothes, etc. Anyone who doesn’t care that someone working 40-hours/week is unable to afford housing, food, heat, clothes, etc. is mean and selfish.

Democrats also need to be saying that the economy is stimulated more by spreading economic spending among large numbers of people at the lower end of the economic totem pole than by concentrating economic spending and wealth accumulation only at the top. You rarely hear democrats say anything beyond that minimum wage should simply be higher. Again…the importance of language, power and context!

2. Language Continued + Dominant Culture, E.g. Higher Education

“Educational institutions, churches, the mass media, the publishing industry, and other [cultural] agents serve as conduits of cultural reconstitution, by continually reproducing the language and symbolic universe of society” (Adam, 1978, p. 98).

“Language reflects culture, particularly dominant culture, and if the culture is oppressive, then one of the ways of changing it is to avoid words or language that reflect and/or reinforce the oppressive elements of that culture” (Mullaly, 2010, p. 115).

“…conscious and unconscious acts that reflect superiority, hostility, discrimination, and racially inflicted insults and demeanors to various marginalized groups” (Spencer, 2017, p. 1).

Until beginning at SSW this fall, I served as Assistant Director of Admissions at a liberal arts college in Ohio. My primary responsibilities included managing an assigned geographic territory, analyzing hundreds of applications, and corresponding with prospective students, families and counselors. I regularly conducted interviews and participated in recruiting events on and off-campus. My goal was to make all students and families I worked with comfortable and help them navigate the complex college search process.

My time in higher education was rewarding, exciting and frustrating. I was privileged to meet many incredible students from all walks of life. As I did the readings for SW504, I was reminded of a specific event:

It was spring of my second year working full-time in the office. Throughout the year groups of high school students would arrive from across the country to tour campus, meet with admissions officers and learn about liberal arts and the college search process. On this particular day, I was asked to help set-up for the arrival of twenty students and a handful of counselors from the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago. Noble’s mission is to prepare “low-income students with the scholarship, discipline, and honor necessary to succeed in college and lead exemplary lives, and serves as a catalyst for education reform in Chicago.” I met and interviewed many Noble students in the past but had never helped with this program. I went to the library to prepare for their arrival, greeted them and quickly got the group situated and out on tour. I returned to my office to catch-up on email while they explored.

Later that day I returned to the library. I quietly sneaked towards the back of the room where one of my bosses was giving a presentation about the college application process and financial aid to our guests. (A presentation I had heard dozens of times.) I grabbed a seat next to one of my colleagues to observe and listen. What I heard was shameful and shocking. I saw my boss – a higher education professional who is responsible for working with diverse populations of individuals and preparing them to become leaders of character in a global community – further marginalizing and talking down to people who were financially and educationally disadvantaged. I felt extremely uncomfortable, and that feeling has never left me.

I want to believe this behavior was unintentional and non-malicious; nevertheless, it is an example of microaggression. This behavior, language, tone and delivery would have never been used or tolerated in a room full of members of the dominant culture.

3. Miscellaneous Notes

When I think of language and dominant culture, it is also hard to ignore conversations surrounding women’s reproductive rights, and mass incarceration and the U.S. penal system. I am not going to go into greater detail here, but would welcome others’ feedback in the comment section below.


5 thoughts on “Oppression at Cultural Level

  1. I very much enjoyed reading your post. In regards to the section where you mention the debate about minimum wage, it was interesting when you not only noted the microagressions that republicans have against poor people, but how democrats are letting the republicans define and control theses issues, almost as if democrats are accepting the microagressions. I am not too political savvy, but I do agree with you, and I feel that this is an issue not only in politics but in other areas too. Especially in regards to myself, I often find myself complaining about things and getting upset, instead of taking action to try to fix the problem. I believe this something that we all can work on in society.

    Lastly, I really enjoyed reading about the Noble program at the University you use to work at. Thank you for sharing this story. It is quite sad when people are suppose to be put in charge to help impact change, but instead they’re hindering it.

    Thank you again for sharing! I really enjoyed your post!


  2. The wannabe linguist in me is endlessly fascinated with the linkage between reality, or just… what we perceive and understand to be real, and language. Sidestepping and dialogue about linguistic relativism and linguistic determinism, it’s useful to note that Noam Chomsky, critical political intellectual and Nobel Prize winning linguist who theorized that there is a sort of core language somewhere in our minds, waiting for us to flesh it out via culture, made an appearance at Google a few years back. While there, he made two profound assertions about the future of linguistic studies. The first assertion was that human language itself doesn’t really refer to actual objects in reality, but instead asserts meta-objects into reality via a subtle projection, and we end up interacting with those meta-objects via causal reality, a pretty profound assertion from one of the foremost linguistic scholars alive, with deep implications, but it was the second point that sticks out to me as perhaps a bit more poignant to our current discussion, that language, in its most fundamental form, is less about communication, and more about working out what is real. That is to say, that Chomsky recognized that, in language, the sharing of ideas, or communication itself, nearly always takes a back seat to conceptual exploration and formulative experimentation, aka, working stuff out. So language, according to Chomsky, is first and foremost a tool for exercising out our understanding of reality, and mapping out that understanding in a very basic way, and not necessarily belonging, solely, to the realm of communication.

    When we link in the the aggressive language of oppression, it becomes pretty obvious how damaging the world of micro-aggression becomes. I believe in the power of gradual conditioning, that 10,000 small steps in one, consistent direction, are far more powerful that one BIG leap, and that they produce a lasting change that will be more stable and efficient over time. This is in harmony with my fascination and love of meditation, the idea of 10,000 imperceptibly gradual improvements, filling the bucket of equanimity one tiny drop at a time, eroding away at the conditioning that we have been subject to since we first drew breath, and since we first understood language at all. Another part of the reason for this appreciation of the power of gradual conditioning is the well known power of habituation, aka, why it is so difficult for people to quit smoking. It requires an abrupt change, but the real work comes in replacing the habitual pattern of grasping for a smoke at different trigger moments throughout the day. Habituation and repetitive conditioning is powerful, so attacking language, or cultural dialogue, in a conditioning fashion, habituating the “micro-aggression” tendency to alter someone’s perception of themselves and the world that they live in, this, in a certain view, is far more powerful than one, overt aggressive statement or action, and will result in more lasting damage over time, and I think that most people understand this intuitively.

    In the light of this, I really appreciate how you focused in on the Republican art of “Getting Shit Done,” or owning the frame of the dialogue, and the Democratic party’s epic failure of ever being competent at owning the dialogue. Look at where we are now, the charlatan in chief is really only accomplished at one single thing, and he does it pretty well: Branding, the art of framing dialogue. He’s an unabashed racist, a verified narcissistic liar, a misogynist, an anti-patriotic exceptional-ist zealot, a xenophobe who plays the politics of fear and aggression, he’s an exploitative con, a salesman of the lowest rank, he’s very easily all of those things, but he won the presidency on one skill alone that out shined all of that: he’s a damn skilled marketer, a savvy brander who knows how to control the dialogue, who knows how to construct the frame.

    I think that there may be many reasons why the left sucks so bad at framing the dialogue, but I think that a key factor is in how effective the dialogue of xenophobia, of fear and aggression, of ego-maniacal exceptional-ism is, it activates a very primal part of the brain, the ancient and fast acting so called lizard brain. This is the reactive, emotionally tumultuous and not necessarily logic driven fight or flight part of our brains, the part that floods us with cortisone and makes us feel like gods when we’re drunk and looking for a fight. The intoxicating and primal nature of what this part of the brain does makes it seem really difficult to get past, and since it’s pretty much the default operating system of the mind, good luck getting messaging past after it’s been turned on. Anybody wishing to combat that has to be much more intelligent and skillful, maybe even therapeutically trained, and the Dems just don’t know how. They still seem to think that intelligently defined messages will work, but they need to keep it simple and cut it down to 140 characters or less that send a message that will easily export to the default operating system.

    The fact is that, until we can somehow comprehensively teach people to exercise the slow moving, but potent regulatory pre-frontal cortex, this will be the way things are. Luckily, there is an evidence based practice that can both combat the toxic internalized effects of micro-aggressions, and exercise the pre-frontal cortex all at once, working on both sides in order to promote a better linguistic reality: mindfulness meditation! Here’s an article that goes into how the brain is changed by a mere 8 week program at 20 minutes a day


    A little bit better, every day…


  3. Hello, Jonathan.

    I really enjoyed reading your post. Thanks for sharing your ideas!

    I especially like your point that Republicans tend to view poor people as lazy and irresponsible. I think this labeling process is a method that a dominant group usually uses to marginalize and universalize cultural imperialism, which oppresses minority groups.
    To share my experience, yesterday, I talked with a friend of mind. He believed that racism and discrimination have disappeared that everyone enjoys the same opportunities and receives equal rights. What he does not realize is that there are microaggressions that people, even including me, unknowingly use language that hurts and discriminates others. Moreover, institutional discrimination is an invisible monster that seriously oppresses people and makes them powerless and marginalized.
    I am confused now what the best solution is to solve this problem. I thought the solution would be trying to decolonize myself, yet it is not easy at all. Thus, I hope I could find a way to decolonize myself at the end of the semester and then find the possible solution.

    Thanks again for sharing your personal experience!


  4. Johnathen,

    Minimum wage is such a tough topic to discuss and I think you did a really good job expressing your views. I think its difficult because people on both sides have strong viewpoints on the issue. And when that happens, instead of wanting to work together to come to a common understanding you have individuals caring about who’s right and who’s wrong. What makes it worst is that the ones arguing over the matter aren’t impacted whatsoever. The ones who feel the burden are everyday Americans working 40 + hours just to get by.

    Another thing that stood out to me was when you were listening to your boss give a presentation. Like you, I have worked with low income youth (although not on an admissions level). I was a counselor for a week long camp and some of the participants were from the inner city. On one occasion I remember waking up to a counselor yelling at the kid and openly calling him the N word. I was shocked. We were at this camp to help these kids and in fact we were doing the opposite. What makes the matter worse, is that the counselor was unaware that he had micro aggressions to begin with. Since serving as a counselor I have moved up to an administrative role for the same camp. Every year I have to tell the counselors that if I ever catch you using that word, you’ll never be allowed to come back. Its unfortunate that I even have to say these things to begin with, but since that waking up to counselor that night. That moment has never left me.


  5. Thank you for addressing living wages rather than minimum wage. An important topic. I really appreciate the example with your boss. I’m curious what triggered you and why? What did you do about it? How might you have addressed this differently?


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