Tools for Social Change: The Five Faces of Oppression

We see the work of ending educational inequity as being about dismantling systems of oppression.

When you think of the term “systems of oppression” what words or images come to mind? 

For me, it’s an image and a feeling of being held back—unable to break away. It’s unequal pay for women, disproportionate numbers of Black and Brown students suspended from schools, and limited access to healthy, affordable food in my community. And so much else.

In working on issues of equity in our schools and communities, it's critical that you can identify the multiple ways in which oppression shows up or persists for students, communities, and ourselves, and begin to identify how you can take action to interrupt or change this. We can only identify how power plays out when we are conscious and committed to understanding racism, sexism, classism, ableism, heterosexism and all other systems of oppression that affect each one of us.

Once we understand how oppression is showing up, we can better identify actions we can take to interrupt or combat it. There are many ways to define oppression, and the purpose of this framework is to serve as a lens to help determine how oppression may be happening in any given space.

In Justice and the Politics of Difference (1990), feminist and political theorist Iris Marion Young explains:

“In its traditional usage, oppression means the exercise of tyranny by a ruling group...In its new usage oppression designates the disadvantage and injustice some people suffer not because a tyrannical power coerces them, but because of the everyday practices of a well-intentioned liberal society...Oppression in this sense is structural, rather than the result of a few people’s choices or policies. Its causes are embedded in unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutional rules and the collective consequences of following those rules.”

At LEE, we define oppression as a system that maintains advantage and disadvantage based on social group memberships, and operates, intentionally and unintentionally, on individual, institutional, and cultural levels.

Young’s essay, “Five Faces of Oppression,” provides a framework with categories for the various types of oppression. Let’s take a look at these categories and how they are showing up in today’s society:


Refers to the act of using people’s labors to produce profit, while not compensating them fairly. This form of oppression perpetuates that there are “haves” and “have nots.” 

Research reveals a pay gap for LGBTQ workers and the cost of exclusion [FastCompany]

“The wage gaps that exist between men and women and between white and black people have received a lot of attention in recent years. But there’s another wage gap that tends to be overlooked—between heterosexuals and LGBT+ people.”

Read more


This is the act of relegating or confining a group of people to a lower social standing or outer limit or edge of society (i.e. exclusion).

Tennessee Gov. Lee Signs Anti-Transgender ‘Business Bathroom Bill’ into Law [The Human Rights Campaign]

“Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed House Bill 1182 (SB 1224) into law, a discriminatory bill that aims to prevent transgender people from using restrooms aligning with their gender identity by requiring businesses with “formal or informal” policies of allowing transgender people to use the appropriate restroom to post offensive and humiliating signage.” 

The playing field: Anti-trans bills purport to address “fairness” in sports. But sports have never been fair. [Vox]

“The law will bar trans students attending public schools in the state from participating in sports according to their gender identity and mandate that they do so according only to their gender assigned at birth.”


This form of oppression refers to how some in a society are relegated to be powerless and are dominated by “the ruling class.” They are situated to take orders and rarely have the right to give them.

How Florida’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout is leaving essential farmworkers behind [PBS NewsHour]

“Florida opened up access to the COVID-19 vaccine to all adult residents on April 5. But the stringent proof of residency requirement has created a significant obstacle for undocumented workers, many of whom hold seasonal agriculture or food industry jobs and have helped keep Florida’s economy afloat during the past year.” Read more

Cultural Imperialism

This is the taking of culture by the “ruling class” and establishing it as the norm, defining other groups as deviant and/or inferior.

Businesses Are Victims of Gentrification, Too [Bloomberg CityLab]

“Before the pandemic, small businesses in gentrifying neighborhoods in U.S. cities like Oakland, Miami and Washington, D.C., faced many of the same pressures as residents. Black and Latinx businesses were at particularly high risk of displacement and closure, as their traditional clientele were pushed out of the neighborhood, and residents with different tastes and preferences moved in, along with large chain stores with which small businesses had to compete.” Read more


This form of oppression looks like when members of some groups live with the knowledge that they must fear random, unprovoked attacks on their persons or property.

Man Arrested In San Francisco Stabbing Of 2 Asian Women [NPR]

“Two older Asian women were stabbed on Tuesday while waiting for a bus in downtown San Francisco, authorities said. The attack occurred amid a spate of anti-Asian violence in the country since the start of the pandemic.” Read more


  • What stood out to you while reading through these faces of oppression? What can you imagine/do you know to be the real impact on people?
  • How do the five faces of oppression show up in your community? What are some of the ways you have/have seen others interrupt a form of oppression in your school or community?
  • How might this be used in helping you understand dynamics of oppression and build strategies for changes individually or with others? 

Now more than ever is the time to take a stand against oppression and create systemic change.

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