Power and oppression on a continuum

Power and oppression exist from our birth, but can be combated.

The problems of privilege, power, and oppression are ones that were present at our birth — a birthright that we inherited from previous generations.  It is not something that we have to fault ourselves for, but because it does exist we have to make some tough decisions as to how to best deal with this issue so we don’t pass it on to successive generations.

For this to occur in a meaningful manner we must make a commitment to listen, respectfully disagree, and engage in meaningful dialogue.

To begin any discussion on this topic it would be helpful to understand: (1) that we all have a social location; and (2) how our social locations interact.  More to the point, how elements like class, gender, and race intersect to create privilege and power or oppression in our society.

In order to understand this, try to imagine our society as a pyramid where at the top of the pyramid there are those who have (dominants) and at the bottom are those don’t have (subordinates).  In order to get a full picture of the systems of privilege and oppression in our society, it is important to take all aspects of one’s social locations and human characteristics on a continuum into account.  They all affect the impressions we make on others as well as how we view ourselves.

You might ask what a continuum is.  Picture a long line with two poles or concepts at either end.  In between these two poles or concepts are the possible values between them.  As you move from one pole to the other you move toward the other concept and have less ownership of the concept you are moving away from.

For the purpose of this article we will be considering continuums based on oppression/anti-oppression and power/privilege where both material and non-material benefits are allocated to parties based on their identities.  As individuals we are all differently located or situated along a continuum for many reasons including societal constructions.

Therefore, when we begin to consider the oppression/anti-oppression and power/privilege dynamics we can begin to question the myth that we are all created equal and recognise that class, ability, disability, ethnicity, gender, race, sex and so on can create advantages and disadvantages and unequal access to societal resources.   For example, consider oppression as occurring on a continuum (see below).  You will note there are many ways to oppress others.  The continuum demonstrates that oppression, no matter what form it takes, can be harmful.

By oppressing others we privilege ourselves.  For example, white privilege includes the ability to: (1) not have to educate our children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection; (2) be assured that our children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race; (3) turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of our race widely represented; (4) believe that people of our color made this country what it is; (5) do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to our race; and (6) accept employment without the suspicion that we got it because of our race.

Male privilege includes:  (1) being far less likely to face sexual harassment at work compared to female co-workers; (2) the ability to choose not to have children without your masculinity being called into question; (3) not having your masculinity called into question if you do not provide primary care for your children; (4) being praised for extraordinary parenting even if you are only marginally competent as a parent; (5) having children and a career and not being viewed as selfish for not being a stay-at-home parent; and (6) not having to worry about the message your wardrobe sends about your sexual availability.

In closing, anti-oppression work is consciously working towards the development of strategies, both personal and political and at the micro, mezzo, macro and levels, that attempt to confront and eradicate the consequences created through oppressive tactics along the continuum.  How can we as individuals work toward this?


  • Engage in active listening and respect others when they are talking
  • Remember we each have a right to have an opinion
  • Speak from your own experience making use of “I” statements
  • Have an open mind
  • Freely explore other’s ideas, values, and opinions, and examine your personal beliefs and attitudes
  • Realize that when only certain members enjoy societal privileges, it creates inequities
  • Once we all enjoy the same privilege, it is no longer a privilege, but an equal right for all.

Debbie Rockefeller

Tl’azt’en Health Centre