Un-Design

Un-Design

Un-masking the five faces of oppression in Australia

Five faces of oppression and Tony Abbott. Elizabeth Tunstall with images drawn from Wikimedia.

In this moment, we are in “the struggle”.

When I first moved to Australia nearly six years ago, I thought it was a more progressive place than the USA. Issues that seem intractable in the United States such as universal healthcare, active labour unions, bans on assault weapons, even an apology to the Indigenous communities had been addressed, designed into policy, and implemented, or at least funded, in Australia.

But now I see I was wrong – so wrong about Australia. What we in historically and contemporarily oppressed groups call “the struggle” continues.

What do I mean by the struggle? The recently departed African writer and Nobel Prize winner Chinua Achebe explains it best in his paraphrase of African American writer, James Baldwin:

He wants to lift from the back of Black people the heavy burden of their blackness, to end the oppression which is visited on them because they are Black and for no other reason … To define the struggle the way he does, Baldwin has to see it from a whole range of perspectives at once—the historical, the psychological, the philosophical, which are not present in a handful of statistics of recent advances … Most important of all, Baldwin has had to wrestle to unmask the face of the oppressor and, seeing him clearly, call him by his proper name.

I have never been naïve about Australian history. Before I arrived, I read up on Australia’s Indigenous genocide, use of convict labour, gender discrimination, and xenophobia of Asian, Middle Eastern, and now African immigrants. Yet in 2009, it felt like the many communities engaged in the struggle had become effective in making their daily conditions better.

But it seems that with the current Abbott government policy proposals in relationship to Indigenous communities, women, migrants, and refugees, the struggle is serious. The question is how do we engage in the struggle against the faces of oppression.

American feminist philosopher, Iris Marion Young lists five faces of oppression:
- Exploitation, the theft of a group of peoples’ labour through unfair compensation
- Marginalisation, the relegation of a group of people to lower social standing or the edge of society
- Powerlessness, the domination of a group of people by ruling groups who prohibits their participation in decision making or their ability to change the conditions of their lower status
- Cultural imperialism, the establishment by the ruling groups of their cultural practices as the social norm; and
- Violence, the threat of harm to a group of peoples’ bodies or property as a means of control.

For each face of oppression, there are often different targets, institutional oppressors, and effective forms of resistance. I have outlined some of them in the chart below:

Table of five faces of oppression. Elizabeth Tunstall

Yet, I will focus my discussion on exploitation and marginalisation.

Exploitation is often the broadest face oppression shown to groups. It targets the other 98% who are not of the high social and economic ruling group. With a pay gap of approximately 17%, women are probably the largest group exploited in Australia.

The main institutional oppressors are business groups, whose interests thus sway government policy to the point where Australia’s parliamentary democracy is transforming to an oligarchy.

Forms of resistance range from production-side strikes and slow downs to consumption-side boycotts and divestments. Protests are the main form of civil disobedience.

The difference between Qantas’ 2011 strike action and 2014 threat to strike show the waning effectiveness of strikes and slow downs in Australia.

At the same time, boycotts and calls for divestment are proving more effective. The challenge is that boycotts work well when domestic consumption drives the industry. In the case of mining, which is driven by overseas consumption in China, it is more difficult to have impact.

Marginalisation is the face of oppression most shown to Indigenous communities today. Government, who provide its institutional legitimacy, is the main driver. The media tells the negative stories that enable the rest of society to accept the small group’s marginalisation.

The announcement of the closure of up to 150 communities in the Western Australia and Prime Minister Abbott’s “lifestyle choice” comment is the most recent expression of the government’s relegation of Indigenous communities to lower social standing.

Hugh Jackman shows his support for Indigenous communities through social media. Hugh Jackman/Facebook

As a result, coalitions of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples are protesting as an act of civil disobedience. Social media, through #SOSBlakAustralia, is raising awareness of oppositional positions to the closure. Indigenous elders call for cultural revitalisation in remote communities as a way to protect country.

These activities by Indigenous peoples and their allies give me hope. As long as we recognise that we are in the struggle against oppression by any face, we shall overcome one day.