Workshop Wednesday: The Oppression Triangle

[Image made using Canva. The poster is in colours of midnight-blue/indigo, mustard yellow, and lemon yellow. The top of the poster is yellow on blue, with the text “THE OPPRESSION TRIANGLE” and “Based off of Judith H. Katz’s framework in her book “White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training” (1978)”. The middle part of the poster is blue on yellow. There is a large triangle facing downwards. On the top side of the triangle is the word “INSTITUTIONAL”. On the left side is “CULTURAL” and on the right side is “INDIVIDUAL”. In the centre of the triangle is the word “HISTORY”.  There is a faint yellow speech bubble with the words “CULTURE is shared belief and practices” on the left side. On the right side is a faint yellow speech bubble with the words “INSTITUTIONS govern your life and have their own spaces, terms, and policies”. At the bottom of the triangle is a faint yellow square introducing the next section in blue, with the title: “Forms of violence:”. Each form of violence is in a yellow rectangle with blue text on a blue background. The three forms of violence are “BULLYING = Individual level”, “DISCRIMINATION = Cultural & Individual levels”, and “OPPRESSION = Institutional, Cultural, Individual”. Below these rectangles are yellow text on blue: “We separate these different forms of violence by level because the RESPONSE to each level is different.” At the bottom of the poster are the links: “” and ““.]

“The Oppression Triangle” is a visual tool that can be used for sighted folks in the form of a handout or a poster to explain what oppression is and why anti-oppression is a different form of response to violence compared to anti-bullying and anti-discrimination methods.

This Workshop Wednesday, we’re covering the following:

  • the different sides of the triangle
  • what each side of the triangle has to do with violence, and specifically the three forms of violence called bullying, discrimination, and oppression
  • how someone can tell the difference between oppressive bullying and non-oppressive bullying, and oppressive discrimination and non-oppressive discrimination
  • why we need to know the different levels of violence by describing the typical anti-violence responses to each
  • group work activities
  • the original photo of the poster

The Sides of the Oppression Triangle

The level of the individual has no explanation on the poster because it’s hoped that participants understand what individual interactions are, which are usually one-on-one in nature. Examples of this would be people having a conversation, or one person helping another person cross the street.

Given that I define “culture” has “shared beliefs and practices”, the cultural level is when a group of people with shared beliefs and practices interacts with another group of people that has a different set of shared beliefs and practices– or a group to an individual. Examples of this would be “alternative lifestyle” cultures like goth and punk, where members of this culture have a shared belief in the concept of “goth” or “punk” (though they can argue exactly what that concept is) and have common practices. Other examples can be a culture based on geography (like Haligonians who are born or reside long-term in Halifax) or based on ethno-religious grounds (like Jewish culture).

When you get to explaining Western institutions, you can either list the institutions first and ask what they have in common (and ask them not to look at the answer on the poster) or you can ask them to try to name institutions. Common ones are commerce/business/economic, government, military, legal, educational, medical, media, and certain religious institutions. I always add that not all religion is an institution, because not all religions govern your lives. Some religions can fall under culture instead, because it’s a shared belief and practice, but you can choose to opt out of it easier, unlike many of Western society’s institutions. I specify Western, but you can also say Westernized, as there is a possibility that other institutions outside of the West can work that way while others that are not Westernized do not work that way– for example there can be local tribal governments that only meet when needed and there is no permanent location for their meetings.

History is in the middle of the triangle because in order for something to be all three levels of power (individual, cultural, and institutional), it would have had to take time to get there, thus, there would be a long history of it existing.

Bullying, Discrimination, and Oppression

When I talk about violence, I mean all kinds of violence– physical, verbal, social exclusion, negative messaging in images and misrepresentation/lack of representation, emotional, spiritual, etc.

Bullying is largely regarded as a form of violence that is peer-to-peer and chronic, where a power imbalance between usually two people is created. Sometimes a power imbalance already exists and is used as a reason to bully. Generally regular bullying is on the individual level of violence.

Discrimination is usually defined as when a person or group of people is violent towards a group, or a person belonging to a group, based on their skin colour, gender, disability status, sexual orientation, or other physical or social aspects that they cannot control. Discrimination is on the individual and cultural levels of violence. Discrimination manifests on the individual level as discriminatory bullying, when someone is chronically targeted by a peer for belonging to a specific group based on an aspect of themselves they can’t control.

Oppression is institutional violence. This is when an institution, like, for example, the police, consistently targets groups of citizens because of an underlying logic that they are less than human, and so can be treated that way. Oppressive discrimination can manifest in the police force by masculine officers having a separate lounge that does not allow feminine officers (cultural level). Oppressive bullying can manifest in the police force by a cisgender police officer chronically harassing a transgender police officer (individual level). For a specific violent logic to get to the institutional level, there would already be a long history.

Non-Oppressive Bullying and Non-Oppressive Discrimination

Folks usually get stuck in trying to figure out what bullying looks like if it’s not discriminatory or oppressive, or what discrimination looks like if it’s not oppressive.

If we consider bullying as peer-to-peer and chronic, but take away the existing power imbalances of institutions, or cultural groups, or aspects of oneself that you can’t control, then we have bullying that creates a power imbalance. These power imbalances can be based on what sports team people like, or whether they like Stars Wars versus Star Trek. People can choose whatever they want to be violent towards you on a regular basis, but it’s not discrimination or oppression without that cultural or institutional level of power.

If we consider discrimination that is executed without the historical support of institutions, then we are looking at violence towards people solely based on aspects of themselves that they cannot control. In this regard, it is possible to racially discriminate against folks with pale skin or are considered white, as well it is possible for a group of women to discriminate against men.

Anti-Bullying, Anti-Discrimination, and Anti-Oppression

So why should we make all these distinctions that just seem super nit-picky? Well, for one, it helps to lay them out for folks who believe reverse-racism or reverse-sexism is a thing– it’s not. Let’s break this down in the anti-violence responses.

When regular bullying happens in a school yard or at an office or in a neighbourhood, what would be the courses of action? To stop the violence, usually we’d go to an institutional authority figure– a teacher in the school, the human resources department at work, or the police officer from the nearest precinct. Anti-bullying measures are then put in place by the institution.

When discrimination happens in those same settings from our peers, we can go to those same authority figures. If they don’t do anything, we can go to legal institutions, such as the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal if the discrimination happened in the province of Ontario. Anti-discrimination punishments are then put in place by the institutions.

But when bullying and discrimination are oppressive, appealing to these institutions don’t workbecause it’s these very institutions that have the history and current practice of bullying and discriminating against the group that’s being targeted. That’s why common forms of anti-oppression involve collective organizing among oppressed groups and their allies to give alternate services that these institutions should be providing to the oppressed, protecting the oppressed from these violent institutions, and/or exposing and opposing the violence in these institutions through direct action.

Let’s return to the dilemma of reverse-racism and reverse-sexism. When people get into arguments about this, what’s actually happening is one person is trying to talk about racial and sexist oppression via institutions while the other person is talking about racial and sexist discrimination from groups. If it’s an honest misunderstanding, maybe going through The Oppression Triangle infographic might help them out. However, sometimes these arguments are rooted in the emotionally-based belief that institutions can do no wrong or that these institutions can’t possibly influence people on a social and individual level, which, at best, makes the oppressed sound like they are complaining for no reason, and, at worst, makes the oppressed look like terrorists that are exposing and opposing benevolent social mechanisms. In that case, I would suggest folks conserve their energies for those who truly want to learn once they realize a person refuses to look deeper into history and how institutions are operating in the present day.

Group Work Activities

Yikes! This was super long-winded. How are you going to get folks to even stay awake through all these definitions? Here’s some ways to do so by group work activities! Pro-tip: Give space to have groups present via music, dance, art, and theatre, not just by talking!

Want to have access to the rest of the article, the larger full colour updated poster, the original photograph of the hand-drawn poster, and other anti-oppression related teaching tools? Click on the link below and subscribe for as little as $2/month. By becoming a patron, you support healing work among my communities, and the indigenous Elders that mentor me.


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