Anti-oppression

Date of Origin

A draft of this anti-oppression statement was created on Thursday, December 19, 2019.

Contact

Clayre Sessoms (she/her/hers)

Mail: 460-1231 Pacific Boulevard, Vancouver, BC V6B 0E2, Canada

Phone: 778-302-3187

Email: info@clayresessoms.com

Introduction

I recognize the historical and institutional injustices towards groups of people based on ability, class, age, skin colour, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, residency, migratory status, language, ancestry, size, and faith. As a direct descendent of settler colonizers, I recognize that the original peoples of what is now known as North America have been subject to land theft, invasion, and genocide. I recognize that this document is one small step towards holding myself, my peers, and my profession more accountable.

Creating this decolonization and anti-oppression statement helps me to develop an understanding of oppression and anti-oppression work. By sharing this statement with you, I affirm my commitment to recognizing my role in oppression, educating myself, and, ultimately, building a safe, welcoming space for LGBTQ2S-affirming counselling.

I hope this statement will help me to become a more culturally sensitive practitioner, as well as introduce critical ideas to those in my LGBTQ2S-inclusive circles, my queer communities, and society as we each seek better ways to learn the practice, and champion valuable anti-oppression work. I invite you to hold me to this statement.

My knowledge of anti-oppression work is continuously evolving, and, as a result, this statement may be revised over time. It’s a living document. I welcome concerns and questions. I value your feedback. Complete and submit my contact form.

Oppression

My personal understanding is that oppression is any behaviour that harms, marginalizes, silences, or threatens a group or an individual. Oppression occurs with support of cultural dominance or institutional force. Oppression comes in a plethora of forms, such as interruption, murder, physical abuse, seemingly harmless humour, threats of violence, unwanted touching or rape, and verbal abuse. Some forms of oppression are more extreme and irreparable than others, and it’s important to note that microaggressive behaviours—gatekeeping,, profiling, stares, stereotyping, and unconscious negative preconceived notions—can be just as traumatizing over time.

Oppression is a systematic phenomenon that operates through power and privilege. An individual who experiences discrimination while in a position of power isn’t necessarily oppressed because society grants that individual both the expectation and capacity for recourse. Those who are oppressed experience discrimination within a context of culturally imposed powerlessness. This may lead to situations in which they don’t see their own oppression, creating a culture of stigma, shame, and acceptance.

My examination of oppression is rooted in the understanding that individuals have intersecting identities and are capable of both experiencing oppression and perpetuating the oppression of others. This is sometimes referred to as intersectionality, and the implications for anti-oppression work are significant. For example, white women who experience oppression on the basis of gender have a different experience than black women who experience harm on the basis of both gender and race. If I fail to account for the latter’s intersection of identities, I might wrongfully conclude that police and prison system are an effective tool for the rehabilitation of gendered violence; however, they perpetuate the destruction of racial minorities, including persons of colour, indigenous persons, and recent immigrants.

If only part of an individual’s identity is acknowledged, they may experience erasure, preventing them from bringing their full self to a therapeutic space, an individual therapy session, or a group session. If I do not recognize and respect all aspects of a person’s identity and what they can bring to our work together, I end up replicating systems of marginalization. This often occurs if I make assumptions about others’ lived experiences and the assumed ways in which they experience power or powerlessness.

As a counsellor and an art therapist within capitalism, I recognize oppression even within this counselling practice. I can recognize the imbalance of power between therapist and client, but I cannot easily escape the larger economic forces that compel me to sell my labour for survival. Every interaction between therapist and client has an effect, whether positive or negative, on our survival. Although I operate with peer supervision rather than a management team and strive to minimize the presence of hierarchical structures in this oppression-informed setting, an inescapable baseline of powerlessness may magnify other forms of oppression experienced within my work.

My business pushes back against the mechanization of labour, ranked labour, managerial coercion, and competition between workers by operating transparently, basing all decision-making on informed consensus, paying all labour equally, and refusing tip-based compensation. This structure expands access to knowledge and power while breaking down internal divisions. In spite of this I experience many power dynamics typical of therapeutic environments, and some of the dynamics I diligently work to eliminate may be replaced by others unique to my therapeutic space structure.

I know that capitalist systems of power and privilege will never be absent. For this reason, the continual naming and acknowledgement of existing and shifting power structures is essential to my work. If you would like to speak about this, contact me.

In my effort to create a welcoming therapeutic space, I seek to encourage meaningful anti-oppression discussions normally avoided because of fear, lack of representation, or shame. This LGBTQ2S-affirming counselling practice, I believe, is key to liberation of all parties as self-advocating individuals able to build a movement capable of contesting oppressive behaviour and working together towards equality and equity.

Spaces of encounter are inherently conflictual. While I see potential value in the creation of safe space, that is, designed to maximize the comfort and security of a marginalized group, I know that the homogeneity required of safe spaces is incompatible with the radical inclusivity of encounter. This isn’t to say, however, that I am resigned to passivity. As an occupant of this space, I have an obligation to act as ally to those targeted by violence and harassment. This means naming and challenging oppressive behaviours that occur inside and outside of this counselling practice.

I recognize that systems of power and privilege that define mainstream society also permeate the LGBTQ2S-focused milieu from which my work arises. These dynamics are expressed in various interlocking systems of oppression, such as racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, speciesism, etc., which prevent equal access to resources and safety; disrupt healthy communities and movement building; and severely, often irreparably, harm my allies, my friends, my loved ones, and myself.

Within both my education and my profession, a history of oppressive behaviours have caused harm to marginalized queer identities, the work of addressing LGBTQ2S- focused mental health, and the reputation within the radical milieu of inclusivity. Assumptions of horizontality serve to obscure the patters of power and privilege experienced internally. A lack of clear policy disempowered participants from raising their voices or seeking support from my profession in the face of disrespect, crossed boundaries, and harassment. Over the course of my education, these dynamics have caused oppressive behaviours to persist and have isolated marginalized persons.

It isn’t my expectation that the use of this anti-oppression statement will erase this history or ensure a future unburdened by oppressive social relations. I understand that anti-oppression work must be ongoing with commitment represented not only in written statement but also in the living culture of my work, my practice, and my profession. I hope that this statement will provide a foundation that inspires change and welcomes LGBTQ2S persons and allies to draw from it for the same purpose.

Anti-oppression

Individuals may be accountable when they respond to oppression by seeking to understand their role in intersectional systems of power, acknowledging their responsibility and then changing their behavior to prevent future harm. I aim to provide an atmosphere of accountability, where earnest efforts are made to evaluate and change the ways this counselling practice responds to oppressive behaviours.

I know that being held accountable isn’t easy. It challenges me to operate outside my comfort zone, making me feel vulnerable and defensive. But accountability is crucial to the project of interrupting oppression because I have been imprinted by the logic of power. Even with good intentions, my internalization of discriminatory assumptions and hurtful patterns of behavior will make me oppression’s collaborator if left unchecked.

To be an ally is to dismantle systems of oppression through advocacy for and support of the oppressed. Part of practicing allyship includes educating each other, promoting a supportive atmosphere and confronting oppression as it occurs. When I act as an ally, I understand that I come from a position of power and work to remedy my own oppressive behaviours, as well as systematic oppression that surrounds me.

I believe that good allies seek to add their voices to the struggle for liberation rather than speak on behalf of those whose voices are being systematically silenced. Allyship isn’t an identity, but rather a practice meant to lift up and empower those who experience oppression. Acting in allyship, I expect to make mistakes and learn from them, but I won’t give up when things become discouraging or uncomfortable.

Accountability requires critical thought about the ways in which behaviour, individually and collectively, plays into larger systems of power. Questions individuals must ask:

  • What is my relationship with the person or group I’m engaging?
  • What systems of power might be present in our relationship?
  • Am I speaking with authority? If so, is it necessary? Why?
  • Am I talking down to someone? Am I making them feel powerless or unsafe? • Am I making assumptions about someone? If so, what are they? Why?
  • Would I feel differently in someone else’s shoes? If so, why?

Questions that I as a counsellor must ask myself include the following:

  • Is our counselling practice supportive during meetings and in our work?
  • Does our private practice reflect the identities present in our community? If not, howmight this impact our perspectives and priorities?
  • Do our policies or their application create a double-standard for access, respect, orparticipation? If so, why and for whom?
  • Do our policies or their application reinforce or contradict systems of power at play insociety? Is so, how?
  • How can we better connect with those who have become culturally isolated orsilenced? Why have we not been able to do this in the past?

The most effective way to respond to oppression is to clearly and calmly explain what about an individual’s behavior was offensive and why it was offensive, providing as much specific information as possible. As a space with a therapeutic focus, we can support these conversations through facilitated discussions on power and privilege.

Individual and collective responses to oppression that must be avoided include:

  • Ignoring or denying the behavior in question;
  • Justifying or excusing the behavior;
  • Prioritizing the feelings of the individual responsible over those harmed;
  • Insulting or shaming the individual responsible;
  • Alienating or expelling the individual responsible without dialog or opportunity for reconciliation.

While stressing the need for personal accountability, I also recognize that I have been socialized into intersectional systems of power and privilege and are capable of acting as oppressor or oppressed. Although this does not absolve me of responsibility, it does highlight the need for effective anti-oppression strategies. My goal is to create space for oppressive behavior to be acknowledged and unlearned without rejecting anyone. This change-oriented approach to oppression is referred to as restorative justice.

When someone’s oppressive behavior is identified and brought to their attention, it’s often said that they have been “called out.” Responding to being called out can be difficult, especially when one feels that one’s identity or values should fool-proof one against crossing others’ boundaries. When this happens, it’s easy to feel caught in a complex tangle of shame, confusion, anger, and embarrassment. This only increases when those calling one out aren’t doing so gently; however, I believe that even in this challenging emotional state, it’s my responsibility to respond in a way that promotes healing for those harmed while cultivating empathy and personal growth for ourselves. If I respond otherwise, how can I truly say I am committed to anti-oppression work? I firmly believe that responsibility to understand how I am causing pain must be more important than my desire to protect my self-image or restore my good reputation.

Individual responses to being called out for oppressive behavior to avoid include:

  • Acting dismissive or trivializing the significance of oppression;
  • Acting defensive or insisting on a mitigating context;
  • Redirecting blame;
  • Arguing over the details; and
  • Acting hurt or guilty in a manner that distracts from the harm caused.

I believe that it’s most effective for individuals being called out to listen patiently and attentively to the perspectives of marginalized folks and their allies, take responsibility by apologizing or making amends, and engage in further self-education and reflection. Of course no response to being challenged is sufficient without a commitment to change the problematic behavior in question, but the simple act of acknowledging you’ve hurt someone and intend to think more about your behavior is a great start.

I believe that it’s most effective for individuals being called out to listen patiently and attentively to the perspectives of marginalized folks and their allies, take responsibility by apologizing or making amends, and engage in further self-education and reflection. Of course no response to being challenged is sufficient without a commitment to change the problematic behavior in question, but the simple act of acknowledging you’ve hurt someone and intend to think more about your behavior is a great start.

Commitments

When myself or others engage in a pattern of oppressive behavior, directed either at each other or towards others in our greater community, I seek to address those behaviours through an appropriate collective mechanism, including direct feedback, outside mediation, and/or re-evaluation of participation in this counselling practice and space. Any process for confronting oppression must be guided, when possible, by the affected individual(s) and primarily concerned with their needs for dignity, healing, and safety. If the needs of those affected cannot be met through mediation, reconciliation, and accountability, or if the responsible person does not sufficiently participate in these processes, then expulsion of the oppressor may be the only recourse.

In situations where persons participate in this counselling practice or interact with this space are not willing or able to take responsibility for their behavior, transformation isn’t possible and they will cease to be welcome, here. Unless an individual is particularly hostile or is engaged in extremely problematic behavior, this will normally be preceded by a conversation explaining the nature of the space, the commitment to anti-oppression work, and any resulting expectations. It’s my desire not to exclude anyone from this space without giving them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and work on their relationship to power and privilege and role in oppression.

When oppression has been identified, it triggers an immediate response. This could take the form of a priority agenda item at an already scheduled meeting or a dedicated meeting with the sole focus of understanding and identifying the harm that has occurred. It’s my intention to never bury response to oppression within business-as- usual or divert it into one-on-one conversations as both of these approaches can further marginalization and preclude strong and lasting positive outcomes. I seek to empower those who name oppression by providing space to articulate personal and shared experiences. By centring those who have experienced oppression in the process, I hope to restore agency where it has been taken away.

In addition to strategies for responding to oppression after it has occurred, I am committed to develop tools, such as agreements and meetings, that nurture a counselling practice where oppression is infrequent or can be interrupted quickly.

I know that the ideal resolution, in which an individual takes full responsibility for their actions and is able to meet the needs of those they have hurt, isn’t always possible. As a small LGBTQ2S-affirming private practice with limited mediation resources, I cannot invest unlimited time and effort into every relationship and, in some situations, I may decide that working with an abusive individual is beyond my capacity.

The frequency of people moving and traveling between communities has weakened the ability of communities to seek accountability from those with a history of oppressive behavior. Although I recognize that the current model of accountability in use by many activists is deeply flawed and often fails in its aim to address patterns of abuse and privilege, I believe that it’s important that our stance towards the policies and processes of other communities be one of respect and affirmation. My LGBTQ2S- focused counselling practice isn’t a space that is welcoming to individuals who are seeking to avoid accountability for their behavior. If someone participates as client, intern, therapist, or volunteer, has a background of abusive behavior and is required by a survivor, community or accountability process to reveal their background to those that they work with, then that person is expected by us to honour those requirements.

Glossary

  • Accountability is about taking responsibility for your actions, always ensuring you are competent to do the activity you’ve been asked to perform, and always putting clients’ interests first.
  • Anti-oppression is the work of actively challenging and removing oppression perpetuated by power inequalities in society, both systemic oppression and individual expressions of oppression.
  • Decolonization is the work of supporting indigenous sovereignty and land repatriation, abolishing slavery, and dismantling imperialism.
  • Discrimination is the treatment or consideration based on class or category rather than individual merit and that can be used to privilege or disadvantage another.
  • Intersectionality is the interconnected nature of social categorizations, such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of oppression.
  • Oppression is the use of power or privilege by a socially, politically, economically, and culturally dominant group to disempower, marginalize, silence a minority group.
  • Settler colonialism is the relationship between colonizers and indigenous peoples, where the colonizers are convinced of their mandate to rule and desire the indigenous population to become a minority and/or vanish by doing acts of genocide, violence, and biological warfare.
  • Systemic oppression consists of practices, policies, laws and standards that disadvantage a particular group or category of people.

References

Canadian Council for Refugees (September 2010). Talking about refugees and immigrants: a glossary. Retrieved from: https://ccrweb.ca/sites/ccrweb.ca/files/ glossary_en.pdf

Crass, Chris. (2013). Towards collective liberation: Anti-racist organizing, feminist praxis, and movement building strategy. Oakland, California, USA: PM Press.

Désil, J., Kaur, K., & Kinsman, G. (8 October 2009). Anti-oppression politics in anti- capitalist movements. Published in Upping the Anti, v. 1. Retrieved from: https://uppingtheanti.org/journal/article/01-anti-oppression-politics-in-anti- capitalist-movements/

Firestorm Collective (19 January 2014). Anti-oppression statement. Retrieved from: https://www.firestorm.coop/anti-oppression.html.

Bibliography

Bishop, A. (2015). Becoming an ally: Breaking the cycle of oppression in people. Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada: Fernwood Publishing.

Cannon, M. J., & Sunseri, L. (2017). Racism, colonialism, and indigeneity in Canada: A reader. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Mandell, N., & Johnson, J. (2016). Feminist issues: Race, class, and sexuality. 6th ed. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Pearson Canada.

Mullaly, B., & West, J. (2017). Challenging oppression and confronting privilege: A critical approach to anti-oppressive and anti-privilege theory and practice. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Tomlinson, D., & Trew, W. (2005). Equalising opportunities, minimising oppression: A critical review of anti-discriminatory policies in health and social welfare. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Wehbi, S., & Parada, H. (2017). Reimagining anti-oppression social work practice. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Canadian Scholars’ Press.