The United States and its Five Faces

Iris Young’s The Five Faces of Oppression provides a rubric to identify oppressive situations, rather than a fixed definition. The five faces are exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence. Considering that Young was inspired by oppression in all of its forms in this country specifically, it is no stretch to claim that all of these faces exist in the United States today, and it will only be reduced or full-on disappear with significant changes in institutions, labor division, and cultural practices.

Exploitation refers to the transfer of one group’s labor to benefit another, particularly in a capitalist society where power is held over others. Examples of this include menial labor and jobs with low pay that are disproportionately held by minorities who face racial discrimination.

Marginalization involves material harm to people who cannot participate in the system of labor. Young notes an increase in marginalization in the United States, where a large portion of the population are marginal (people of color, young and old people, disabled individuals, etc.) Even if said marginalized groups do participate in the workforce, it is usually at a much lower price, as it has been proven that workers of color are far more likely to be paid poverty-level wages than white workers. There are welfare programs in place to attempt to combat this, however, these policies do not fully address the material deprivation faced by marginalized groups.

Powerlessness distinguishes the middle and working classes in the United States, with non-professional workers facing greater oppression due to their lack of authority, status, and sense of self. Professional workers have more power and respect, as they have more education and connections, which marginalized groups do not have access to.

Cultural imperialism involves the dominant social group in the United States establishing a distinct culture, with anyone who does not fit being labeled as “the Other.” This forces marginalized groups to assimilate, but even when they do, they are still seen as “the Other” due to stereotypes set by the dominant group. This face of oppression is one I have experienced first-hand, and I know many others have as well; as long as these stereotypes still exist, there is going to be no progress when it comes to combating cultural imperialism.

Violence is the most overt form of oppression and is increasing in the United States. Systemic violence is often a result of untreated xenophobia and a desire for superiority from the dominant group. Police brutality is one example, where Black Americans are 3.5 times more likely to experience violence, with many deaths being misclassified or unreported. The fact that minority groups are more subject to violence is a root of oppression.

The problem is not just the existence of these faces of oppression, but the lack of recognition and solutions from those in power, who are mostly from the dominant social group. Unless there is a significant shift in power and the institution, the oppression contained within the United States borders will continue.

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