Indigenization Guide: Anti-oppression Theory and Your Personal Role, Responsibility, and Agency

The following is an excerpt from Pulling Together: A Guide for Curriculum Developers by Asma-na-hi Antoine, Rachel Mason, Roberta Mason, Sophia Palahicky, and Carmen Rodriguez de France. 

In the Foundations Guide,[1] you learned about the many tactics that have been used throughout history and into the present to reinforce the oppression of Indigenous Peoples in Canada by settlers. Some examples include the creation of reserves and the theft of Indigenous lands; the residential school system, and other efforts to promote assimilation; social and economic restrictions created by the Indian Act and other federal and provincial laws and policies; personal racism toward Indigenous Peoples that resulted in denied opportunities and exclusion; and the omission of Indigenous history and knowledge in education systems. These acts of colonization are instances of how systemic oppression against Indigenous Peoples has been practiced since Europeans first arrived in the Americas.

In this section, we will seek to understand different forms of oppression as they apply to Indigenous Peoples. Anti-oppression theory is important because it provides a framework for understanding the world and your own place in it, questioning and challenging your practices, and creating new approaches that counter oppression and lead toward reconciliation and decolonization.

What is oppression?

Oppression is exploitation based on perceived difference of a group of people who share a social category (such as race, class, cultural background, religion, gender, sexuality, age, language, or ability). Characteristics of oppression include:

  • Systemic: It is systemic and societal. It is not just individuals with prejudiced beliefs and actions, but rather is embedded within the structure of society.
  • Power imbalance: It involves a dominant or more powerful group exploiting a less powerful group based on perceived differences between the groups. There is always a power imbalance at play.
  • Denial: The powerful group often denies that oppression exists or accepts it as being normal or right.

Forms of oppression

There are multiple ways in which oppression can manifest. Oppression can be categorized into personal, cultural, and structural or systemic. In our society, all three of these forms are operating at all times in an interconnected manner (Thompson 1997).

Personal oppression comprises the thoughts, behaviours, and actions that constitute a negative judgment or treatment of an oppressed group. Here are some examples:

  • A student raises her hand during a class discussion of a book by an Indigenous author and asks, “Why are Aboriginal people so screwed up?”
  • After a faculty meeting about the university’s Indigenous plan, a professor comments that he doesn’t understand why “Indigenous people always get special treatment.”

Cultural oppression includes shared societal values and norms that allow people to see oppression as normal or right. Here are some examples:

  • It is considered “normal” that an English course would include only white, male authors, but it is considered something special when non-white or female authors are included.
  • It is assumed that everyone celebrates Thanksgiving in Canada. (Some Indigenous people do not celebrate the holiday because of its colonial origins.)
  • It is expected that all Indigenous people are spiritually wise experts in Indigenous culture and protocol.

Structural (or systemic) oppression is manifested in societal institutions (such as governments, religions, education systems, health care, law, and the media). Here are some examples:

  • Indigenous people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system and child welfare system. Meanwhile, Indigenous people are underrepresented in positions of power within government.
  • First Nations schools receive less per-student funding than provincial public schools (Drummond & Rosenbluth, 2013).
  • Indigenous reserves are located in isolated areas with few job prospects, contributing to poverty and dependency.

Oppression can manifest in different ways. It may be conscious or unconscious. Unconscious oppression is especially hard to tackle, because it is less visible and overt. However, both conscious and unconscious oppression can manifest in one’s attitudes and beliefs or in one’s behaviour. For example, an employer may be less likely to hire an Indigenous employee because of preconceived beliefs that the employer may or may not be conscious of. Or a professor may have different expectations for Indigenous students because of an unconscious bias.

Activity 1: Examples of Oppression

Type: Individual

Time: 15 min

Make a list of some instances of oppression that you have witnessed within your workplace or in your life. Try to think of examples of personal, cultural, and structural oppression. Next, take each example and identify whether it manifested through attitudes and beliefs or behaviours (or possibly both). If possible, reflect on whether the oppression was conscious or unconscious, although it may be difficult to tell as an observer.

Activity 2: Locating Yourself

Type: Individual, Group

Time: 15 min

Oppression affects each individual in a complex and unique way. Most people are part of a more powerful group in some aspects of their identity and part of a less powerful group in other aspects. The Wheel of Diversity[2], adapted from Loden and Rosener (1991), helps individuals reflect on aspects of their identity. As you do this exercise, think about how your gender, age, family structure, socio-economic status influence the ways in which you see the world.

  • Identify the aspects of your identity that help you situate yourself and relate to components of your worldview. Which of these elements of diversity are the most influential in your life in the way you make decisions, relate to others and the environment, appreciate connections, follow protocol, and so forth?
  • Have you experienced, in some aspect of your identity, what it’s like to be a part of a dominant group? What does that feel like? Can you think of examples in which you’ve received privileges or avoided problems based on your membership in that group?
  • Have you experienced, in some aspect of your identity, what it’s like to be part of an oppressed group? What does that feel like? Can you think of examples from your life in which you’ve experienced disadvantages or been treated less respectfully based on your membership in that group?
  • How does your own experience of privilege and oppression help you to empathize with or be curious about others’ experiences?

Be honest with your answers. If possible, share your responses to this exercise with a colleague and discuss what you have learned from this reflection.

Activity 3: Your Personal Indigenization Journey 

Time: 30 – 60 minutes

Type: Group, Self-Reflection

Write a journal entry, blog post, or editorial explaining why it is important to you personally to Indigenize the courses you develop. Be specific about what kind of action you plan to take and what your role is in this work. If possible, share your writing with others and engage in discussion with them about their own role in Indigenization.

  1. Foundations Guide: 
  2. The Wheel of Diversity: 

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