Oppression: There are Levels to this....

The Art of War: How The Masses Are Convinced to be Complicit With Oppression

Oppression: There are Levels to this....

In order to become effective agents of social change, Social Workers and other advocates need to be able to recognize the manifestations of social problems on an individual level, as well as the ways those problems connect to patterns that are representative of larger, more complex systems of oppression.

In the text Racism in the United States: Implications for the Helping Professions, authors Joshua Miller and Ann Marie Garran highlighted four essential elements that are typically in place which work to justify anti-immigrant racism.

Although Miller and Garran point out the presence of these elements to demonstrate how their use contributed to the involuntary detention of Japanese Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in the past, they have been, and continue to be used to justify the promotion of some groups at the expense of others.

The Art of War

The complexity of oppression works to sustain the dominance of those in power, and sustained dominance is dependent upon complicity with inequitable rules.

I share those four elements here; not so we can use them to harm others, but for us to be able to recognize them for what they are, and to find ways to interrupt the complicity with them in others, as well as within ourselves.

As you go through them, think of personal and societal examples of how these elements can be used in tandem to support systems like:

Structural Racism




Transgender Oppression

Religious Superiority/Religious Oppression



Ageism/Adultism and others.

How The Masses Are Convinced to be Complicit with Oppression


Launch a public media campaign with hateful images that targets, and scapegoats the oppressed group as the reason for any number of problems or “undesirable” elements in society.

One of the goals of this method is to put as much distance between the dominant group and the oppressed group as possible. It’s easier to justify violence, discrimination, and other forms of mistreatment after the “good” folks have been convinced that the targets of the propaganda campaign are somehow immoral, inferior, less human, and deserving of their mistreatment.

Think television, movies, books, games, and other forms of media that can be actively disseminated, yet passively consumed by large groups of people to condition some to believe they are superior, while others are inferior.


Have “everyday people” (think “joe the plumber”, “next door neighbor” types) warn the majority about the dangers of the other culture with narratives that rely on stereotypes to demonstrate the targeted group’s untrustworthiness.

Because it must be true if it’s coming from someone who looks like us and values what we value. You know, someone we can trust.


Convince other groups of people who are already feeling marginalized to direct their frustrations at the target instead of challenging the inequitable, unjust system.

There are plenty of examples here, but a couple that come to mind for me include:

  • Claims that immigrants or undocumented workers are taking the jobs of “down and out, hardworking everyday Americans”, or

  • Anger and frustration aimed towards fast-food workers who organize to advocate for a livable wage.

This element is important because the dominant system is dependent on capitalizing on the frustration of people who already feel as if they are at the margins to garner their support for marginalizing others, under the premise of self-preservation.

Think of this element as a smokescreen.

If the folks on the margins are fighting amongst themselves, they will be far too busy to question the unfairness of the system they are in.

Exploratory disruptive questions in this scenario could be;

“Instead of focusing your frustration on the fast food workers advocating for $15/hr, have you ever stopped to consider the possibility that your current wages may also be inadequate to fulfill your needs and the needs of your family?  

Have you considered the possibility that maybe you’re not being paid a livable wage either?”


Have local and national leaders publicly express their support, providing further legitimacy for oppression.

Messages that come from our favorite politicians, actors, athletes, and other public figures with large public followings that benefit from oppressive systems can be used to give extra credibility to those systems, and present them as being a part of the natural order of things.

“Because oppression is seen as systemic, we tend to absolve ourselves of blame, but unless someone chooses to identify themselves with institutions and systems, the act of honest confession will never take place”–Author unknown


We are all implicated somehow in the web of power, privilege, and oppression.

Although it is an ongoing journey, the more we work to discover how we are manipulated into complicity with oppressive systems, the more empowered we will become to learn how to interrupt the status quo, resist, and work toward real social change.


From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins-Jones, MSW, LLMSW



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Written by

I'm a Social Justice Educator and Aspiring Humanitarian who is interested in conflict resolution, improving intergroup relations, and building more equitable and inclusive communities. "Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian" is my blog, where I write about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice. By exploring social identities through written word, film & video, and other forms of media, I hope to continue to expand and enrich conversations about social issues that face our society, and to find ways to take social action while encouraging others to do so as well in their own ways.

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2 Responses

  1. JaeRan says:

    Excellent post Relando!

    • Thanks JaeRan! It’s all about encouraging us to recognize the patterns used to justify oppression. The more we study them the harder it is to prove that the social problems are a part of the natural order of things, and the easier it is to understand that oppression is systematically created and maintained.

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