Challenging Oppression and Promoting Social Justice
Did you know that colorblind approaches to diversity—making statements such as “I don’t see color” or “we shouldn’t discuss racism or sexism because it will just further highlight our differences”—actually lead to more prejudice, a lessened ability to identify discrimination, and resentment and diminished trust from minority members?
We need not take an anxious, avoidant approach to diversity where we pretend that we are all the same. It is helpful to acknowledge and appreciate our differences. Organizations that take a multicultural approach to diversity—recognizing and valuing differences between people and actively engaging with inequality and identity issues—have lower levels of prejudice and more member engagement, satisfaction, and learning.
Many social psychologists and sociologists study bias, prejudice, and discrimination and have developed scientifically-proven best practices for promoting social justice in organizations.
The most effective strategies for challenging oppression and promoting social justice include:
- Adopt pro-diversity policies and practices
- Tackle the root causes of oppression
Adopt pro-diversity policies and practices
All schools, workplaces, co-ops, and social movement organizations should have multiple policies and practices that promote diversity and inclusion and discourage discrimination and harassment. The research is clear: there is no one magic bullet that prevents all forms of oppression, but adopting a range of efforts aimed at promoting social justice leads to very positive results.
Scientists have identified a number of policies and practices that help foster social justice and prevent inequality. They include: policies against harassment and violence, reporting and assessment mechanisms for discrimination and oppression, multicultural and inclusion training for staff and members, support groups for marginalized members, and supporting or hosting multicultural events and art.
Institutions and organizations that take an active approach to adopting some of the policies above have lower levels of discrimination, lower levels of bullying, lower levels of sexual harassment, more positive work experiences, more feelings of safety, and lower rates of suicidality.
The importance of leadership also needs to be emphasized, as those in leadership roles have the power to either help promote and encourage social justice or contribute to unhealthy and hurtful cultures. High-power leaders who endorse colorblind ideologies lead their workers to be more prejudiced. In contrast, diverse leadership and staff help contribute to a trusting and safe environment for minorities, and also help minority groups speak up more in classrooms and meetings. One study found that in classrooms with male instructors, male students talk 2.5 times longer than female students, while female instructors led to more balanced classroom discussions.
Does your organization use group decision-making models in order to promote member engagement and reduce power imbalances? One study found that one-fifth to one-third of the variation in group decision-making can be attributed to facilitators, even when groups are democratically-run, as members will censor themselves to appear in agreement with facilitators. This does not bode well for organizations and groups that lump facilitation roles in with high-power, high-status roles, which are often filled by outspoken and opinionated white males. Rotating facilitation to different members at every meeting, choosing facilitators based on their ability to encourage every member to talk (instead of their own ability to talk), and training members on democratic facilitation can help prevent group dynamics from being hijacked and swayed towards the opinions of a small number of individuals.
Overall, protecting the safety, comfort, and rights of your members is extraordinarily important and powerful.
Tackle the root causes of oppression
While following all of the previously mentioned tactics can reduce prejudice and oppression levels and foster social justice within an organization, they are insufficient to combat oppression in the world at large.
individual acts of oppression are largely due to social structures, norms, culture, institutions, and society at large. When researchers manipulate these conditions as part of a study, individuals change their behavior. Even when people are randomly assigned to arbitrary groups by a coin toss, those who are assigned to a high-power group tend to exhibit discriminatory behavior towards the randomly-assigned low-power group.
The conditions that scientists have found produce the most prejudice and individual acts of oppression include separating people into high- and low-power and high- and low-status groups and invoking perceived or real competition for resources.
Sound familiar? These conditions are actually baked into our society. Think about currently oppressed groups, such as women, people of color, or low-income individuals. These are all groups that have historically been given low power and status as compared to white, wealthy men. Our society and culture also breed anxiety about oppressed groups competing for resources—narratives about immigrants “stealing” our jobs and affirmative action giving “unfair” advantage to people of color and women are rampant. Thus, given the structure and culture of our society, scientists have proven that is expected that children raised in our society will be prejudiced and engage in oppressive acts.
The same could be said about the vast majority of issues activists are working to address. Our society is set up to reward those who find the cheapest way to exploit and profit off of the least advantaged, and so it is expected that companies will treat their workers poorly, harm the animals they are using for their products, and degrade the environment. By looking upstream at the root causes of issues, we’re better able to understand how to prevent problems from occurring.
When we continue to live in a society set up to breed prejudice and inequality, individuals will always come into our lives and organizations with years of oppressive baggage to unlearn. We cannot only apply band-aid fixes; we must also tackle oppression at its root. Planning campaigns for creating social change, as described previously in this guide, will help you address the root causes of oppression—harmful policies, institutional practices, and broad social norms.
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