What about social justice? I suspect that if I were to ask each of you to define what social justice means to you, I would get a wide variety of answers. For most of us a definition will encompass many factors, including personal history, political beliefs, and religion or lack thereof. There will even be a few of you who believe that social justice is not achievable in society. So, it is agreed that a mutually acceptable definition of social justice will be hard to reach and even harder to put into practice. For the purpose of this article social justice will be defined as equality in all aspects of society. It is the striving for equal rights and opportunities for all people.
Traditionally, the inequalities within society have been examined and explained from the viewpoint of the victimized. During my undergrad years studies of classism, discrimination, racism, nationalism, and other forms of discrimination focused mainly on the act of oppression, specifically those who suffered from oppression. Discrimination means treating people differently and less favorably, knowingly or otherwise, because of characteristics that are not earned or required for gainful employment. These include, but are not limited to, race, color, sex, religion, political opinion, and social origin. Other kinds of discrimination occur as a result of one’s assigned gender, age, disability, and sexual orientation.
Lately, I have been reviewing research directed toward the experience of whiteness and privilege in an attempt to further understand the dynamics of systemic inequality.
Through my previous articles it is my hope that you have gained an understanding of the multiple levels of oppression that exists in society and how each is linked to a system of privilege or domination. As a review, social location is defined as one’s status in society based on their membership in a social group. Inclusive in this are the numerous social locations we all hold (race, class, age, gender, ability, social orientation, and so on).
For each of us, based on our social location, we experience both oppression and privilege. It follows that for every incidence of oppression there is an act of domination that usually confers an increase of status or privilege to the individual or group engaging in the act of domination. If this is clear, then you can move on to understand how our different social locations can and do interact with each other — meaning how race, gender, class, and so on work together to privilege or oppress each of us on multiple levels (individual, social, and institutional).
So, in order to fully understand how our societal systems of privilege and oppression work we have to consider all aspects our social positions because they all affect how we see ourselves and our interactions with others.
In conclusion, exploring oppression and privilege in society can be difficult, but eye-opening. It can help us to understand others experiences with oppression and privilege and aid us in gaining insights as to how we treat others in society who may be different in some way. My final hope is that we can begin to view individual differences with compassion and appreciation.
Debbie Rockefeller M.A., R.R.P.
Tl’azt’en Health Center