Rebel Girls: Mapping Power, Privilege, and Oppression

feature image via Shutterstock

Header by Rory Midhani

Header by Rory Midhani

This is the second part of our lesson on privilege. Peep the first part if you feel a little lost!

What We Know Now

We know now that privilege and oppression are social systems. Power, prejudice, bigotry, discrimination, and inequality are both the building blocks and the consequences of these systems, and when they play together they create its structure.

As a refresher, here are the big definitions you’ll need to know for this lesson:

Privilege is a set of unearned benefits, rights, and access granted to people based on their membership in certain groups (i.e. white privilege, male privilege, class privilege). Privilege can include benefits all people ideally should have access to, like basic human rights, but can also encompass “bonuses” that nobody necessarily needs to survive but some folks are granted nonetheless. Nobody can actively rid themselves of their privilege, even if they work against the systems that grant it to them.

Oppression is the heady mix of power and prejudice that is often defined through privilege as its “losing end.” It’s the marginalization of people due to their membership in a certain group or, more accurately, the exclusion of people from systems of privilege due to their lack of membership in a social group (i.e. people of color not having access to white privilege, women not having access to male privilege, and poor people not having access to the privilege of wealth).

“Mapping” Privilege

Within the origins of today’s mainstream feminism, “patriarchy” was a central target. Male dominance, after all, is what kept all women — regardless of other factors — down. (Or so they thought.) Newer thinkers have pushed “kyriarchy” into the world, a term coined by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza in a 2001 book to identify “multiplicative intersecting structures of domination,” or how our different memberships in oppressed and privileged groups play into and off of each other to create our place in society. Women of color and queer women have been spotlighting their unique struggle at the intersections of race and sexual oppression for eons, giving us “intersectionality” — a concept invented by Kimberle Crenshaw that makes kyriarchy easier to see that has roots in the Black feminist movement that sprang up in the 1970’s.

The concepts of kyriarchy and intersectionality are key to understanding how privilege and oppression actually work. There is no silo of male privilege that gives all men the same universal experiences and paths in life, nor is there a silo of women’s oppression which grants that we all suffer to the same degree. Instead, you, me, and everybody we know are experiencing relative privilege and oppression at any given time, which is borne out of our intersecting, connected, and overlapping memberships in different social groups.

We started this conversation by observing a “matrix of power” — let’s dig deeper into that to illuminate what I mean about these intersections and overlaps.

Let’s start with what a matrix is. Like, from math class. It’s a series of variables that define one value when they’re all put in this adorably huge bracket with each other:


Let’s say our lives are matrices. Mathematical equations. We’re solving for X instead of C(a), a variable for who you are, unique to all that you are, that equals you. 

So let’s say I am X, for this working example’s sake. The matrix that defines X has three columns, each with three values, all bouncing off one another like crazy. (Robin, Autostraddle Contributing Editor and this week’s Guest Mathematician, assures me that this analogy is accurate. Be gentle.)

Column one can be my racial identities: I’m light-skinned, Latina, and Italian.

Column two can be my gender and sexual identities: I’m cisgender, a woman, and I’m a huge lesbian.

Column three can be class-related stuff, education and citizenship status: I’m college educated, I’m an American citizen, and I’m gainfully employed.

When I put all this stuff inside the bracket, the values representing the different groups I belong to interact with one another: my gender, race, and sexuality multiply my disadvantages, and my biracial status and ability to “pass” subtract from my racial disadvantages. You see where I’m going, right? Things smash together, take away, add to, multiply, and divide one another when they meet inside the crazy equation that is me. Outside of the equation, all of those interacting values can stand alone, as numbers will, but when they interact, it can become impossible to parse out where they begin and end. And then, there I am. X. My own little matrix.

Take that, Keanu Reeves.


Another good way to visualize this concept is to imagine a venn diagram of yourself. All of your characteristics and your sociological group memberships — your gender, race, age, class, employment status, national origin, and more — are in there. You are the core, an overlapping series of those characteristics and categories. But your characteristics can also impact you as in isolated ways, just like the individual parts of that massive math equation up there can exist without one another. It’s just that things are different when your circles overlap or your matrix becomes an equation.

When your memberships meet one another, your specific place in this universe is what they produce.



(If this is all way too much, try doing what Peggy McIntosh has folks do in her workshops: fold a paper in half, list your privileged identites and disadvantaged or oppressive ones on different sides, and then contemplate them and how they minimize or multiply one another.)

Understanding Agents and Targets

When the systems of privilege and oppression play out or are perpetuated on an individual level, the process involves two key players: an agent and a target. (Oppressor, meet the oppressed.) An agent is a member of a privileged group who exerts power and often prejudice over a target, who belongs to one or many disadvantaged groups. In the cycle of power, privilege, and oppression, smaller events within the larger umbrella of structural oppression are occurring and helping to further the system: within the dominant group, granted privileges encourage internalized supremacy, and constructed oppression makes target groups feel deserving of their own disadvantages via internalized oppression.

Look, a chart showing just that!

Special thanks to OpenSource Leadership Strategies for creating this visual!

Special thanks to OpenSource Leadership Strategies for creating this visual!

When male CEOs pass women over time and time again for promotions and instead decide to give pay increases and new opportunities to the douchebags who can’t even make their own dinner at home, they are acting as agents of privilege. The targets of these actions are women, because they suffer. But to identify this as a personal issue is wrong, because we know from data and research that this is a systemic problem. There is an entire culture built around making these agents feel good about their choices and telling the targets that it’s up to them to solve it or that it’s not a problem at all, and the current state of nondiscrimination laws in this fucked-up country make it nearly impossible for women to prove that this problem stems from gender discrimination instead of, say, workplace demands, environmental preferences at the senior level, or personal qualifications. When their male boss acts this way, he is protected by power and is also exerting his privilege over them. Based on what we now know about matrices and intersectionality, we can also see that interactions like this are impacted by different kinds of oppression from different axes — if the woman in question is black and trans, and her supervisor white and cisgender, these discriminatory practices become even more likely, and it becomes less likely that they’ll be recognized as discriminatory.

The fact that oppressive practices often aren’t recognized as such by the people who enact them is why people get hostile and defensive about privilege — because being granted privileges, sociologically, makes it harder for you to recognize them due to internalized supremacy. That man we talked about before who won’t promote any women isn’t necessarily thinking to himself, “I HATE ALL WOMAN AND WILL MAKE THEM SO UNHAPPY EVERY DAY UNTIL I DIE, AMEN.” More likely, he has internalized supremacy after growing up in communities that believe women are less capable and intelligent, watching so many women get pushed out of the workforce and hearing sexist diatribes in board meetings to a point where he actually subconsciously sees men as being more fit for leadership. When he promotes them, he’s playing into a vicious cycle that produces most of the world’s most overrated thinkers and also politicians in general.

This is also a reminder that privilege is what happens when systemic oppression is wrought on a group of human beings. Even though privilege and oppression can be witnessed on an individual level and can impact our experiences moving through the world, it’s the systems that make them what they are. Marilyn Frye’s depiction of oppression as a bird cage that we talked about last time illustrates how oppression is different than, say, simply facing a challenge in life. It’s not just that the bird feels it can’t bypass one wire; it’s that a system of wires was created to keep the bird in place. Frye writes:

The experiences of oppressed people is that the living of one’s life is confined and shaped by forces and barriers which are not accidental or occasional and hence avoidable, but are systematically related to each other in a such a way as to catch one between and among them and restrict or penalize motion in any direction.

Systemic oppression is the combination of cultural, personal, and institutional ideologies, and customs resulting in the widespread marginalization of a group. One white dude being a jerk isn’t how white privilege came to be: a ton of historical events, laws, individual actions, and cultural teachings went into creating racism. That’s why racism is a systemic form of oppression, and it’s easy to see how it plays out across cultural, institutional, and personal lines — people of color are excluded from the powerful groups that make decisions that affect their lives, face obstacles when trying to enter educational institutions, and face harassment and violence from white people whose privilege insulates them from social or legal consequences. Because the system maintains their oppression, there is often little or no recourse for people of color to recoup all they’ve lost.

Special thanks to OpenSource Leadership Strategies for creating this visual!

Special thanks to OpenSource Leadership Strategies for creating this visual!

Why It Only Works in One Direction

Marilyn Frye wrote about the concept of oppression and its definition because she was tired of men saying they were “oppressed” by the challenges in their lives or the victories of feminism, to which I say huzzah sister. It’s key to remember that privilege and oppression aren’t just about “nice things” and “shitty things,” or people being nice vs. people being mean — they’re systems of domination, dehumanization, and perks. Only a dominant group can oppress, and an oppressed group can never exert the same kind of oppression back because they, by nature of the concepts, don’t have the power or privilege to do so. This is an undeniable fact. So are these:

Women and people of color were forcibly excluded from higher education for a number of years, which I touched on in my historical overview of the Women’s Studies field. Because of that exclusion, women and people of color today suffer from a continued lack of access to these institutions, a persistent lack of respect once they get there, and an inability to see themselves or be recognized for their skills in their desired fields. That’s why women’s colleges, affirmative action, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities aren’t sexist or racist. Rather, they’re efforts to ensure that the years of damage done to gender and racial equity in academia eventually even out. They don’t give marginalized groups special access to anything that privileged groups don’t have; instead, they function as a corrective, providing some limited access to what privileged groups have had all along.

For example, the myth of reverse racism can’t be true, because while racism is backed by generations of institutional power in white communities, the same isn’t true of individual actions that people of color might take that white people don’t like. Racial slurs were invented to remind people of color of their place — their basis is in a time when violence against people of color was even more permissible than it is currently, and they work as a threat and an attempt to disempower the listener. No derogatory word applied to white people, no matter how angrily it’s delivered, can ever have the same significance. When white people question why they can’t say words that harken back to slavery or Jim Crow and/or try to equate that to saying, um, “cracker” in casual conversation – that’s not the same. There’s a history behind every racial slur, and it’s a hateful history of prejudice and power, and to reinforce the history is to reinforce dominance.

When religious zealots claim that gay marriage is a “special right,” they’re wrong. Having access to a legal process that everyone else has access to in a secular state is not a “special right.” It’s the righting of a glaring Constitutional inequality. Similarly, being held accountable for views or opinions isn’t a violation of free speech; it’s just what happens when more marginalized groups exercise their right to speak freely as well.

When “men’s rights activists” claim that there are no safe spaces for men and get frustrated with women-only spaces, they’re forgetting that the entire planet is a safe space for men, literally — that women often face extreme violence in the presence of men, and they’re just accessing a space that’s free of that threat, much like men do every day. Women need women-only spaces because our stories, voices, and experiences are historically undervalued, misrepresented, and misunderstood. We need women-only spaces because men’s access to all spaces is what’s made it hard for us to break into the rest of the world.

Privilege isn’t a zero-sum game. Women don’t “take jobs away from men” when they demand entry into the workforce; instead, all jobs are now being distributed among all people. Queer people aren’t demanding “special rights” when they ask for hate crimes legislation and anti-bullying efforts; they’re simply asking for the same experiences heterosexual and gender-conforming folks have growing up and going out as the rest of us and the same legal recourse as them should they feel threatened. Redistributing the special rights and access that comes with privilege is the only way to destroy the systems that oppress us, and don’t let anyone stand in your way crying about how hard they worked or how far they pulled their bootstraps into their own ass to make it happen.

Now that you know what privilege and oppression really are and how they operate, my deepest hope is that you’ll smash them. Don’t worry — you can map your venn diagram first. I’ll wait.

Rebel Girls is a column about women’s studies, the feminist movement, and the historical intersections of both of them. It’s kind of like taking a class, but better – because you don’t have to wear pants. To contact your professor, email carmen at autostraddle dot com.

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Carmen spent six years at Autostraddle, ultimately serving as Straddleverse Director, Feminism Editor and Social Media Co-Director. She is now the Consulting Digital Editor at Ms. and writes regularly for DAME, the Women’s Media Center, the National Women’s History Museum and other prominent feminist platforms; her work has also been published in print and online by outlets like BuzzFeed, Bitch, Bust, CityLab, ElixHER, Feministing, Feminist Formations, GirlBoss, GrokNation, MEL, Mic and SIGNS, and she is a co-founder of Argot Magazine. You can find Carmen on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr or in the drive-thru line at the nearest In-N-Out.

Carmen has written 919 articles for us.


  1. This is the first time I’ve seen social justice issues being explained with math – which is awesome. I think it will help reach out to a lot of people who don’t necessarily grok academic theory of the social studies kind but can understand mathematical concepts.

    One of my close friends is a math Ph.D. who is also a passionate social justice activist (hey Quirk!!). I sent her this link – hoping to hear back soon :)

    • i’m glad you liked it! sorry that i am not a doctorate in math. but hopefully, the idea of it still helps!

    • Hey, I read this a while ago but didn’t read the comments, sorry Tiara. I have to say I agree about the “internalized supremacy” comment, especially concerning a lot of the Metafilter comments.

      My reaction to the math in here is to want to see more of it, although it has limitations, in particular something I first of all missed about intersectionality. The Venn diagram is nice, though I like the original multi-dimensional idea of axes of oppression better.

      For the matrix thing: the problem for me is that my math-brain immediately wants to know precisely how you model something, and won’t accept the analogy until that’s specified. Because to me as a mathematician, a precise definition is the only one that lets me think of things in simple terms. I don’t get that from the description here; and I’m not sure if the matrix C(a) there is just a “picture of a matrix” or if the a_x, a_y and a_z mean something in particular. I can think of uses of matrices that follow the sense of what the author is saying here, though, and I want to see more like this.

      Though final ramble, which got long (sorry), and mostly in response to various people’s criticism of the math: when I think about social justice, I am usually wary of trying to make things too mathematically precise. That’s not because I don’t like it–I like this article quite a bit, would love to see some explicit models, and would love to see more mathy social-justice stuff in general–but because for any mathematical model, no matter how flawed, so many people will seize on that and never allow anything else into their definitions. Like the gender binary, or talk of one kind of oppression while ignoring others. Each are mathematically simple concepts, that many people want desperately to hold on to. So is the idea of “minority” = “oppressed”, i.e. whichever group is the majority in whatever context, is the one capable of oppression. Actually people don’t think this in a lot of examples (hello 1% vs 99%, sorry I’m USA-based here), but you still get lots of white Americans who think that being outnumbered by people of color means they have no power to be racist. And then you have the “Genderbread person“, whose popularity frustrates some people I know, because it’s a start at how to think of different components of gender, but then too many cis people think they have it all sorted out and will just ignore people’s actual lives, presentations and so on.

  2. There’s been some strong criticism of the math in this being faulty:


    I don’t believe the author of that article understands matrix mathematics very well. The elements of her matrix are all bouncing off of each other like crazy? I get where defines the column vectors to be racial, gender/sexual, and class, but she loses me when she says the column vectors interact. I wonder what would happen if she took the transpose of her matrix.

      • yeah, someone else on the Mefi thread says much the same thing later on – that it’s meant to be metaphorical.

    • I feel like a lot of the criticisms are getting hung up on the “bouncing off each other” phrasing, which to me is a cop-out critique?

      In either case, I think the analogy works pretty well if we were to think of taking the determinant of the matrix, which would require all the elements of the matrix to interact with each other in diminishing and magnifying ways, to resolve into one unique external value, X. ys? Sunshine and accord?

    • Yo, I’m two.some years into a physics Ph.D. and I actually think the math in this is pretty legit – you just have to limit it to Hermitian matrices (which describe physical systems, energies, time evolutions, etc) and think of it from a perturbation theory point of view. In that framework, you would absolutely need the column vectors that ‘bouncing off of each other’ – i.e., the off-diagonal terms of the matrix – to have a decent understanding of the system. Off-diagonal terms describe interactions – for example, between race and gender in this framework, or between two different electron energy levels, for a more physical example – and they’re totally necessary to accurately describe the system. If you want to better, more accurately understand the system, you bring in EVEN MORE interactions between more and more terms AT ONCE. And basically you tune your understanding from that.

      Which is a too long-winded, too technical way of saying that I think that the mefi commenter quoted should take more physics courses, because column vectors interacting (inner products!) is actually super super important. And also I’m a huge nerd that really would love to see more science-analogies for queer theory on Autostraddle because this article hit all of my loves.

  3. Oh wow an actual parsing out of the ~matrix~ of oppression!! How do I get everyone I know to read this? XD This is oh so accessibly and accurately articulate; I want to squeeze it like an adorable small animal. <3

  4. The matrix thing is spot on, and actually there’s room to grow the mathematical analogies.

    A scary nuance to the “women and people of color have been excluded from higher education” thing is that now fields where women and people of color do more work and carry more leadership are devalued. My university is, as it should be, trying to get more women and people of color into Computer Science, but no one is trying to get more men to do Comparative Literature and Anthropology where the gender balance is actually worse (in the other direction) than in STEM, or more white people to even take classes (let alone major) in African and African American Studies, or Chicano studies, etc. . . because it doesn’t disadvantage men or white people – as self-interested individuals – to miss out on those fields.

    • i love this point – totally true. nobody’s encouraging men to take women’s studies, after all. (funny truth – in one of my first women’s studies classes, a pro-life frat boy on the first day of the class, with much contempt, told us he “was told to take the class by his advisor, who felt he was too conservative.” weeks later, he had a breakdown to us about gender parity and totally made the jump to kind-of feminist. good times.)

    • It’s really interesting that you mention anthropology and comparative literature as disciplines that turn away men because it’s hard to find two disciplines in which sexism is more institutionalized. Evolutionary anthropology is still trying to naturalize women’s oppression and throughout the 19th and early 20th century anthropology sought “scientific proof” of women’s “biological inferiority” to men. The process through which comparative literature established itself as a “serious” academic discipline is also closely tied to sexism. When comp lit programmes and departments were starting to pop up they defined themselves as a “masculine” discipline – in opposition to English literature which had more female students. Moreover, in some early comp lit programmes, female students were simply not allowed even if they were qualified if they made up too big of a proportion in the class.

      In other words, these disciplines were built by men specifically to exclude women. Now that women have fought against institutional discrimination and entered these fields in fairly large numbers (although senior staff in most departments are still mostly men), men no longer like these disciplines because they’ve become feminized and feminized work is devalued. But the real problem here is not the need to go back to 19th cen models and man up anthro / comp lit again, but fighting against the devaluation of women’s work.

    • Shhhh no keep the men away from anthropology, I thrive on the knowledge that 85% of the people I have to deal with are progressive women.

  5. I think you’re onto something good with this rhetorical approach but the details of your analogy need work. I urge you to team up with someone more mathematical to rewrite and expand upon this idea.

  6. As someone in a physics PhD program, this article is going in my arsenal (right next to the video game analogy) to explain feminism to nerdy men.

  7. OMG I’m excited about math, for the very first time in my life.

    You, Carmen, have accomplished what many many teachers in elementary school, high school, and college have failed at.

  8. As someone who thinks about mostly everything in terms of systems, I’m very excited about this article and hope to see more like it! One questions though: Is it possible that there are sub-systems within the main system that work according to different mechanisms? For instance, in a closed group dominated by members of an oppressed group, wouldn’t some of the privileges of the corresponding oppressor group fall away within that particular context? I get that internalized beliefs are capable of perpetuating the system even under such conditions, but on the other hand, wouldn’t negative reactions to the main system be just as significant in determining the power structure of a subsystem?
    In my personal experience, the most efficient tool in solving systemic imbalance (which most conflicts can be boiled down imo) has been to make sure I’m aware of all options available to me. Very often, we perceive conflict as a choice between two outcomes when in fact, there are several better courses of action available. This is perfectly expressed by the first law of cybernetics, which states that “The unit within the system with the most behavioural responses available to it controls the system.”Of course, this ties into the whole field of strategy as well, but I think I’ll stop my rant here :-)

    • Hi (this is my first AS comment ever. ohgodgettingstagefright).

      Okay so the way I’m thinking about it, the systems analysis (a common one in academic feminist conversation) is simultaneously productive and misleading in this context. Misleading because it can lead you to think about these things in almost mathematically absolute and clearcut terms, when, in reality, they’re anything but. BUT productive because it means something quite specific in the language of sociology, anthropology and other social sciences (a system of power relations is different to just a set of power relations; the power imbalance between certain groups, e.g., cis men and women & gender minorities, is systemic not particular, etc etc blah blah).

      Anyway. I think you can get a reversal of the ‘status quo’ in particular ‘subsystems’ but, because it isn’t as clearcut in reality as the language of ‘systems’ makes it sound, that doesn’t mean that those who are typically oppressed by systems are absolutely not within certain subsystems. To use an example: you can get subsystems/institutions that prioritise or defer to women (or other gender minorities); R. W. Connell’s Gender and Power talks about how many families actually see a certain degree of dominance by the mother/matriarch within them because of numerous different and complicated factors – many of which actually emerge from the wider system of patriarchal/kyriarchal forces. But, of course, a woman who basically runs the show in a paradigmatic nuclear family most likely doesn’t have that level of power outside of that subsystem (in fact, Connell talks about how often women can have the power in the household only because of their exclusion from more typically masculine areas more widely and within the house). So, as soon as the wider context of the overarching system is taken into account (as it must always be, because nobody exists within only within subsystems), the status quo of the power balance is still there. As a result, the unusual power balance in the subsystem hasn’t conferred equivalent privileges on the typically marginalised person(s) but, rather, suspended a number of particulars of their oppression in one small context. But that’s a given, because oppression isn’t just a specific set of things that everybody undergoes but, rather, a complicated set of forces that are differently negotiated by every individual.

      Basically, if a subsystem is taken to be an institution (in terms of the sociological unit), i.e., a midway level system, rather than a macro one (such as the state) or a micro one (such as a one-on-one relationship), then it is impossible for the power balance (in terms of feminist analysis) to substantially shift. However, we can speculate about whether this would still be the case if the subsystem were, for instance, a macro one (e.g., a whole country/society). As it stands, there are no examples of countries where the gender order is substantially reversed from that which Carmen describes in the article. It is obviously different in every context but – globally – women and gender minorities are consistently disadvantaged compared to (cis) men.

      tl;dr: if you belong to a subsystem, you still belong to the wider system, which dictates the parameters of the subsystem and means that you cannot substantially reverse the rules of the overarching system.

      However, I’m not sure about how this all stands with regards to other intersections, such as race. Have had people tell me that there are countries where white supremacy doesn’t have the same hold but I haven’t read enough to really know. Would love to hear if anybody else knows/has opinions on this though?

      (Did any of this even make sense?)

      • p.s. I really fucking love this series. It’s da bomb. I keep spamming everybody on my facebook with it.

        • oh no I accidentally liked my own comment and now it’s there forever. I thought I was good at internet.

      • However, I’m not sure about how this all stands with regards to other intersections, such as race. Have had people tell me that there are countries where white supremacy doesn’t have the same hold but I haven’t read enough to really know. Would love to hear if anybody else knows/has opinions on this though?

        Yeah, I’d think, for example, Japanese citizens of European descent would be an example of that.

        • YES!

          Malaysia is constitutionally a Malay Supremacist country. It’s right there in all their official documents that Malays get special rights, like access to property and exclusive university spaces and so on. Think of it as if in the US affirmative action only went to White people.

          This has caused endless racial tension in Malaysia, especially after the riots of 1963. The Ruling Party keeps using Malay Supremacy as their main tool/weapon. The Opposition isn’t necessarily that much better: they are very anti-Bangladeshi, much to my horror (as a Bangladeshi).

          There are a couple of things that make this complicated:

          1. Malays, in the Malaysian constitution, are defined partially by their adherence to Islam. Your religion is on your ID card and if you were born Muslim (Muslim parents) or converted into Islam you’re stuck with it. It is near impossible to convert *out* of Islam officially; you get sent to “counselling” instead. Some vindictive divorced parents used this to get custody of their children – “oh, the dad converted to Islam so now the kids have to be his”. So non-Muslim Malays end up being in this weird twilight zone where they don’t really get any rights at all, because technically they’re not even Malay. So you’d see a lot of officially-but-not-personally-Muslims (like me) go stealth to avoid trouble.

          2. Non-Malay Muslims, like my parents, also end up in a weird twilight zone – because the Powers That Be have no idea what to do with us. Do we get special rights or not? This dilemma was best exemplified in Form 4 (Grade 10) meetings for Head Prefect, which were divided between the Malays and the non-Malays. I was the only one to be able to attend both. (This did not allow me to be Head Prefect, alas. Never let the Bangla girl do better than you.)

          3. Another factor in the racial tension is that the Chinese tend to hold a lot of *economic* privilege – they don’t get the same special rights Malays so, but they overwhelmingly own and run a lot of the big private businesses. This is cited as a reason for why Malay special rights should continue.

          White people tend to be in Malaysia on a more tourist/temporary basis; it’s only been in the last few years that you see more White people move to Malaysia longer-term, and even then it’s rare for them to live outside the expat enclaves. So it remains to be seen how they get treated in Malaysian racial politics – they’re more an oddity than anything.

          For most of my life growing up in Malaysia I identified more with White people race-politics-wise simply because in Malaysia they were more likely to share the same social position as me (they were similarly villified in society, but White migrants were usually rich while Bangladeshi migrants were usually poor labor; my family were rich-ish Bangladeshis which confused EVERYONE).

          tl;dr this exists in Malaysia and this is why a lot of anti-racism politics frustrate me when they assume White supremacy is universally the same, and then try to gloss over “intra-POC” racism when the term “POC” doesn’t even apply in quite the same way.

    • “One questions though: Is it possible that there are sub-systems within the main system that work according to different mechanisms? For instance, in a closed group dominated by members of an oppressed group, wouldn’t some of the privileges of the corresponding oppressor group fall away within that particular context?”

      in short, not really. there are a ton of women-owned and operated businesses, women’s-only colleges and primary schools, etc. – but cultural norms still dictate how those women are expected to act, teach other women to act, and interact with other women. there’s really no escaping the impact of what our sociological place in the world has taught us, and even when we actively reverse it, temporary placement in a space where the oppressor cannot be found doesn’t actually end their ability to oppress us. after all, who decides on funding for those schools? who makes up a probable chunk of clientele for the women-owned business?

      if we wanna get into separatism, well, that’s something lesbian theorists have posited for a while as an actual solution despite some of the biological shortcomings of its sustainability. but unless an actual world is built on equity instead of inequity, women will be oppressed in the world. no matter what their temporary situation.

      does that make sense?

      • Thank you all for the interesting comments! I guess I tend to be optimistic about our individual and collective abilities to reject the lessons handed down by culture. Personally, I’ve found that the conditioning I’ve been subjected to is only really efficient as long as it’s working through subconscious beliefs. Once you discover those internalized beliefs, a whole number of choices become available as to how you deal with cultural expectations. You can go along with them, reject them or choose an entirely different approach. Of course, as long as certain groups enjoy power privilege, those possible choices may not be ideal but at least it’s not a matter of a predetermined or dictated outcome.
        I also believe strongly in the power of creating alternative subsystems, much more than I believe in separatism, unless the situation is completely beyond repair and escape is the best option. This at least makes a certain sharing of resources among the oppressed possible, instead of these resources being drained by oppressors. Similar ideas have been described by “dual power” theory (although I don’t sympathize much with the contexts in which this strategy has been executed). I find that the alternative subsystems approach resembles the ideas behind holistic medicine- that a sickness in one part of a system affects the others and vice versa, so that ultimately, a plenitude of healthy subsystems will have the power to transform the main system from the inside. Of course, this is not the only way, but might be a good alternative when dealing with the main system continues to provide frustrating results.

  9. When “men’s rights activists” claim that there are no safe spaces for men and get frustrated with women-only spaces, they’re forgetting that the entire planet is a safe space for men, literally — that women often face extreme violence in the presence of men, and they’re just accessing a space that’s free of that threat, much like men do every day.

    I’m a bit confused by this statement. By a number of measures that I could find in the US, for example, it seems that the safety of women is considerably higher than it is for men (e.g. if you compare the gender of victims of murder, assault, robbery, incarceration rates, etc.). To me, what’s absurd is the idea that a men-only space would somehow provide additional safety to men. Seems like it would probably be a much more dangerous space since almost all of the above mentioned violence is committed primarily by men.

    • “…the entire planet is a safe space for men” means there’s essentially no spaces in which men are oppressed by another gender, which is what “that threat” is referring to. Cis men are at the top of the gender food chain in our society, so there are no spaces where they would feel potentially threatened with violence by the presence of other genders. No one is saying they can’t or aren’t threatened by other men.

      • “…the entire planet is a safe space for men” means there’s essentially no spaces in which men are oppressed by another gender

        So you’re saying that the word “safe” here means “not oppressed?” That seems problematic because safety and oppression are such different concepts. I feel like I’m missing something in the terminology. I understand that a number of words take on meanings that are different from everyday usage in the context of feminism and other anti-oppression movements (privilege, oppression, etc.). Is ‘safe’ generally used as an antonym for ‘oppressed’ in these fields?

        • You are absolutely correct in that certain words “take on meanings that are different from everyday usage in the context of feminism and other anti-oppression movements”. We’re engaged in a sort of feminist discourse here, not a casual discourse. So no, I was not saying that safe=not oppressed. Your asking that tells me you’re not familiar with the term “safe space”. That seems to be the terminology you’re missing.

          • Oh geez, sorry. You’re right — I was not familiar with that term. Here’s the definition I found on the Geekfeminism Wiki:

            Safe space is a term for an area or forum where either a marginalised group are not supposed to face standard mainstream stereotypes and marginalisation, or in which a shared political or social viewpoint is required to participate in the space.

            So yeah, from context, Carmen must be referring to the first half of the definition, and then obviously every space is a safe space for men because they are not a marginalized group.

            Thanks for the help!

    • It’s not just about how many men vs women get killed, it’s about how many situations each person can be in that may get them killed or assaulted, sexually or otherwise. Women are often unsafe not only in our usual routes in public to work and necessities, but (for many) in our own homes. And, how easily can one appeal to protection if one believes one is in danger; women are often not believed, in the situations that threaten us.

      Your point about incarceration (in the USA?) is important, but it’s disingenuous or naïve to ignore that this is about specific racism against Black men and some other men of color.

      Anyway, lots of facts here that should give you straightforward answers.

      • hm, I didn’t see the replies until I’d already replied myself. Autostraddle n00b problems, carry on.

        • No worries! Thanks for replying to my comment. I’m also new here — I just discovered the block quote tag and very excited about using it. :)

          Excellent points, BTW. It does seem likely that male victums of violence tend to be concentrated more in particular places, and that certainly men are safer in their homes than are women.

          Regarding incarceration rates, I agree that part of it is related to racism, but even if you just compare white men to white women, for example, there is pretty big difference. I wasn’t trying to use this in any kind of argument that men are oppressed — just that men could reasonably be concerned for their safety in certain places.

  10. This is amazing, thank you. Bookmarked for future reference. Another time in which Autostraddle articulates my semi-formed thoughts perfectly – while educating me on an entirely new level at the same time. I feel like you are making us all better people <3


    When I try to describe privilege, like when I’m talking about it with my friends, I feel so inarticulate and clumsy and like I really can’t convey what I mean (esp since the scenario is usually a middle-class white cis girl talking to others same).

    Thanks so much for providing so many useful phrases, arguments, pieces of research and more to help me articulate this stuff and help others (and myself) to understand better….especially the ‘doesn’t work in reverse’ stuff.

    And anyone finding fault with the maths needs to really just go away and think on ‘internalised supremacy’ for like just a few seconds.

  12. For my very first comment on Autostraddle, I’d to like to raise the question of a life-threatening situation that at first glance might not seem to involve any obvious oppression, or institutionalized and one-directional privilege-disadvantage — but invites us to look at the surrounding social context and search out what might be some relevant oppressions. This ties in very much with what Sophie and Liv have said about “sub-systems,” here in the example I’m about to suggest at the micro-level of domestic violence.

    As we know, the prevailing kyriarchal patterns of domestic violence and rape culture favor man-on-woman victimization. So, as bell hooks puts it, “if you’re in a domestic situation where the man is violent,” then “patriarchy and male domination” marks “what is most important” at that “given point in time.”

    But as women on AS sometimes tell us as survivors, woman-on-woman domestic violence and sexual assault also occur. Suppose that we have two women in a Lesbian relationship which for whatever reasons has gone disastrously dysfunctional, and one is beating the other. It happens that they come from similar racial, class, and academic backgrounds. Let’s say that neither is notably gender nonconforming in expression (apart from Lesbian orientation), and neither is intersex or trans. Of course, in the real world, we’d doubtless find differences in the Venn diagrams of these two women for privileges and oppressions — but maybe not so readily explaining the dysfunction and violence.

    The violent domestic abuse is what Andrea Dworkin would call the “primary emergency” of the woman suffering it; or “what is most important at a given time” in the intersectional practice of bell hooks.

    At one level, maybe the concept of oppression (vertical or institutionalized with one-directional privilege-disadvantage) in feminist theory is a bit like the concept of work in physics. Strictly speaking, carrying a heavy suitcase at a constant height while walking at a constant velocity dpes no “work” on the suitcase, yet it can rapidly take a toll on one’s arm.

    At another level, though, the abusive relationship between these two women is not a closed system, as Liv has noted about family situations. For example, might the abusive woman have internalized violent patriarchal/kyriarchal values, even if she gets little if any privilege from this in the larger society?

    Also, maybe we could focus on oppressions that make it harder for the battered partner to escape and find the supports she need to heal and rebuild her life. Sexism and homophobia could be obvious factors here.

    Further, if she runs into problems finding support because of widespread denial of the reality or significance of Lesbian domestic violence, then might we analyze the larger patterns of oppression and stereotyping behind this denial?

    What I’m seeking out in what can seem rather intricate theoretical questions is the very concrete and practical wisdom of a Harriet Tubman or bell hooks that addresses a sister’s need at hand, whatever vertical oppressions (or horizontal harms) may be involved.

    And I’m really interested in how different ways of relating sub-systems to larger oppressions might help us better live the feminist ideal: “No sister left behind.”

    • in terms of domestic violence overall, i think so much of that is about living in a culture where violence is rewarded – AND where violence against women is normalized. man or woman or whatever someone’s gender, we are all constantly inundated with the message that women deserve and enjoy violence, as well as that those who commit it are powerful. so i think that’s part of the oppression of women, for sure, even if the person internalizing and acting on it isn’t privileged as a male. i also think the abuser in this hypothetical situation still doesn’t have privilege, though she has a form of personal power over her partner. it’s important, in the case of what we’ve been talking about, to recognize that. we all have power. we could all be violent and exert power.

      the reason DV resources, and especially LGBT DV resources, are so so slim is also sexism and heterosexism. there again, oppression rears its ugly head. the fact that a survivor of woman-on-woman domestic violence may not easily “convince” people that what they went through was “real” adds another layer of oppression on it, too. these are all the result of a culture which fundamentally caricatures, silences, and devalues women. (if the abuser is a college-educated, white, middle-class or wealthy lesbian, it could be even worse – her privileges could cause people to believe her, to trust in her, rather blindly.)

      where you lie in the spectrums of oppression and privilege – your disadvantage, your access, your power – those things don’t control who you are. i just wanna stress that, too. someone with my exact matrix could be a total dick who supports right-wing candidates, believes deeply in capitalism, and denies the importance of feminism. hell, i could have a twin sister attached to my hip who does all those things. it’s not impossible to imagine two women from similar backgrounds being involved in DV – but it is easy to see how their relative oppressions and privileges feed in.

      did this answer your q? i hope so! feel free to follow up if not!

  13. Carmen, thanks for a great answer that clarified lots of what I was searching for! And your point is ever so important that our privileges and oppressions define some aspects of where we are in the social system; but who we are depends on our choices, with feminism as the art of informed and responsible choices.

  14. This is so great!!!! I need to print multiple copies and just give it to everyone I know. I am part of a social justice class that I take all four years of college to fulfill my gen ed.s, we have to cover similar information as other gen ed.s but it is supposed to be through a social justice lens. My class is the first year of the program so it is pretty shaky what we are actually doing sometimes. Last year, the first year, was great we learned a lot of social justice concepts and touched on some of this. So far this year we haven’t really discussed anything social justice related which is very frustrating. I wish I could bring this article to class to just remind everyone of what we learned last year and that we need to continue discussing issues using this framework.

  15. This article is so great! I wish social justice was taught at the high school level or earlier as a manditory part of the curriculum. Even though it is important for everyone to know about, I find the people that need to learn the most usually do not seek out social justice education. It would be nice to reach those people… It would yield a generation with less assholes!

  16. You’re going to keep doing this, right? I didn’t get to take gender studies or anything in college, so all I know about feminism and systems of oppression is from a very socially conscious French professor. What you’re doing here gives me a framework to express my discomfort with instances of systematic oppression…and since graduating I really need some more critical thinking in my life.

    Anyways thanks and don’t stop!

  17. What do you mean by “huge lesbian?” I’ve likewise heard men say they are “hugely gay”. Um, you are a homosexual, period. :-P

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