I’ll be honest: When I start to read about oppression of a particular culture – whether it is race, ethnicity, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, disability, sexuality – my immediate response is typically a roll of my eyes. I am white, middle-class, and heterosexual, which often puts me in the role of the “Oppressor”. But I am also a woman and I have a mild disability, which puts me in the role of the “Oppressed”. And I do not feel like I am either of those things. In my daily life, I do what I can to legitimize others’ feelings, and I think others I encounter do the same thing. So often my first reaction when reading articles or blogs about a particularly oppressed group is to roll my eyes because it’s not something I encounter personally.
As I read through these articles, journals, and books, though, I found myself starting to shift my paradigm. I am a school psychologist so I actually see some forms of oppression on a pretty regular basis. It’s my job to advocate for children with disabilities; not just to make sure they get the special services they need, but also to take their perspective and share it with the adults in their lives. Frequently, this happens after a student has gotten in trouble for something. I process with them and get to hear their side of the story. Even when they have a really skewed perception of what happened, I help legitimize it to others.
For example, a few years ago I was working with a 5th grader, “Rob”, who had a fairly mild form of autism. He was academically gifted and verbally bright, but really struggled with social skills and coping strategies. On one occasion, he was in trouble because he got into an argument with another student, “Phil”. In processing with Rob, I realized he felt Phil had been picking on him. Phil had said something three or four days earlier in a joking way, and Rob had been stewing about it since. He finally couldn’t take it anymore and said some really nasty things to Phil. To all the witnesses, it looked like an unprovoked attack. But because I was able to get Rob’s side of the story I was able to be his advocate with administration. He obviously handled the situation poorly, but at least the principal understood it wasn’t completely unprovoked and was also able to follow up with Phil.
Often it isn’t just what happened that is important, but the person’s perception of what happened. I may not feel like I encounter or participate in oppression, but if someone else feels it, then it is real.
As I was reading these pieces I realized: when I rolled my eyes and scoffed, I was becoming the Oppressor. I was becoming the one who wasn’t listening, who was delegitimizing another person’s point of view. That’s not who I am! So I started to read as a psychologist, as someone who not only fights against oppression but more importantly fights for the person hiding underneath.
In Medicine Stories (Morales, 1998), the author talks about restoring global context to history. She encourages the reader to think about what was happening in the entire world during a particular time, not just what was happening in Europe. Last summer, I was enthralled with a YouTube channel, Crash Course: World History, hosted by John Green. In several episodes, John Green steps outside Euro-centric history to explore what was happening elsewhere on the globe. Some of the connections I had previously made, but so many were brand new to me! As I move forward in my research on school mental health, I want to be cognizant of progress being made in places beyond America, and to use that progress to help here.
In another vein of the same thought, Garcia and Orbitz (2013, p. 43) discuss the researcher as an insider and an outsider in the groups they are researching. Whether because of my own mild disorder or because I have consistently fought for the rights of those with mental illnesses, I consider myself an insider. However, as I move into action research, I need to be aware that not everyone will recognize me in that role. I will need to earn their respect and trust before I am seen as someone to come alongside them as fighting against oppression.
Garcia, S. B., & Ortiz, A. A. (2013). Intersectionality as a Framework for Transformative Research in Special Education. Multiple Voices for Ethnically Diverse Exceptional Learners, 32-47.
Morales, A. L. (1998). Medicine Stories. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.