Welcome to the “I Didn’t Want To Ask What That Word Meant” series with your friendly host/Queer Union Treasurer Zev Alexander. I’m not much of a writer of articles or creative thinker, I mostly just go to school and fill out paperwork. So I’m just going to lay down working definitions of common terms in the social justice/queer theory world. It’s scary to ask for definitions of words that people throw around, and sometimes the academic texts can be daunting. So hopefully these will be good jumping-off points. But remember: words mean different things to different people, and everybody’s experience with a word is different. Never be afraid to ask “what do you mean when you use that phrase?”
The definition of oppression goes hand-in-hand with the definition of privilege: one is usually defined in terms of the other. A privileged identity is one that is treated in society not only as superior, but as default, as “normal.” Whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, and upper-class backgrounds are commonly named privileged identities.
Oppression and privilege are complicated and come in many forms. Oppression can be as clear and violent as a hate crime, or it can be about black waitstaff receiving noticeably smaller tips than their white counterparts. Privilege, likewise, doesn’t mean that life is perfectly simple and easy, rather that struggles do not exist in the same way across society. These stances in society are hard to name and untangle, but it is often easier to understand one’s own oppressions than to understand one’s own privileges. It is important to intersectional feminism and queer theory to understand that a person isn’t wholly privileged or oppressed- one might carry white privilege despite the challenges they face as a queer person, or carry male privilege while encountering racism as a person of color. This way of looking as oppression as multi-valent and intersectional is strongly rooted in Black Feminist thinkers such as Audre Lorde, The Combahee River Collective, bell hooks, Cherrie Moraga, and many others.