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.