A white wall, with graffiti saying 'If not us then who, if not now then when?' and 'Act now'

Part 1/2: Language and power structures. Anti-oppressive thinking vs inclusive thinking. What anti-oppressive content looks like. (Part 1 of 2)

*Note: the original version of this resource presented the concept of antiracism as the opposite to racism without attributing its origin to Black scholar Ibram X Kendi. This was a mistake, for which we apologise. The updated version below includes full reference to Kendi's work.

Language is part of liberation. When we take racism, sexism, ableism, cissexism, heterosexism, classism (and other interlocking -isms) out of our content, we’re helping to create a more equal world. 

We often call doing this 'using inclusive language' (or inclusive content). While being inclusive is a valuable aim, we actually need to go further. 

In part 1 of this article, we’ll look at:

  • Why language reflects power structures
  • The problem with inclusive thinking
  • How anti-oppressive thinking expands our ambition
  • Why inclusive thinking doesn't tackle oppression
  • What anti-oppressive content looks like

In part 2 we share 12 practical ways to create anti-oppressive content.  

But to start, let’s look at why language matters.

Language reflects power structures 

“Because old white dudes have ruled our culture for so long” writes Amanda Montell in Wordslut, “And language is the medium through which that culture was created and communicated, the time has come to challenge how and why we use language the way we do, and how we think about it in the first place.”

Language reveals and reflects power structures. When we question words, we question the power dynamics buried beneath them.  

As Montell says, “something as simple as an address term or curse word might be reinforcing a power structure that we ultimately don't agree with.”

The problem with inclusive thinking

Inclusive thinking can make us more likely to:

  • see society as a club, and ourselves as gatekeepers ‘allowing’ some people inside the club
  • try to let more people inside, instead of rewriting the membership rules, or dismantling the club completely
  • focus on individuals and interpersonal behaviour
  • aim to tolerate difference, instead of rewriting the standard for who’s ‘normal’ or ‘different’
  • imagine discrimination as an inside/outside binary, so we forget the complex interlocking systems of oppression that structure our lives.

Kat Holmes calls this the 'shut-in-shut-out mental model' of inclusion.

Holmes compares inclusion to a circle. On the inside, there is mainstream society. On the outside, people of marginalised genders, races, disabilities, religions, language, and other traits.

“In the shut-in-shut-out model, what is the goal of inclusion?” asks Holmes. “Is it for the people inside the circle to graciously allow people outside it to join them?”

Many scholars, like George Dei, see inclusion as “making a new space, a better space for everyone.” That goes far beyond the shut-in-shut-out model of inclusion. But it’s not easy to actually do. 

In my experience, we tend to default to the shut-in-shut-out model of inclusion. Language can shape our thoughts, after all. When I think about inclusion, I think about children’s games, clubs or conversations. I don’t think about rewriting the rules of the game, dismantling the club itself, or changing the conversation into something else, like a dance. 

Inclusion should mean more than shut-in-shut-out, but it’s hard to keep that meaning in our minds. 

How anti-oppression expands our ambition

Focusing on anti-oppression, rather than inclusion, is the way to keep our inclusion efforts in the right place. 

To develop this more radical, anti-oppressive approach to content, we need to understand systems of oppression. 

Inequality is created and sustained by intersecting systems of oppression. There isn’t one club we can be inside/outside, but countless intersecting ones, created by systems like racism, ableism and heterosexism. 

bell hooks called the overlap imperialist white-supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza calls it kyriarchy

Whatever you call it, we live in an unequal world. That inequality was created by systems and policies. And we can change them, just as we can change our language and our mental models.

Inclusive thinking doesn't dismantle systems of oppression

Inclusive thinking can soften our ambition, encouraging us to be a bit kinder, a bit more welcoming. But it’s not going to dismantle centuries-old oppressive systems.

We have to challenge them directly.

“The opposite of racist isn’t not racist, it’s anti-racist”, says Ibram X. Kendi. 

Kendi’s scholarship tells us that if we don’t name, challenge and dismantle racism, we’re complicit in it. 

We can extend Kendi’s thinking to other systems, too. We could say: 

The opposite of sexist isn’t not sexist, it’s anti-sexist.

The opposite of ableist isn’t not ableist, it’s anti-ableist.

The opposite of classist isn’t not classist, it’s anti-classist. 

Anti-oppressive content can help us break free from these interlocking -isms.

What anti-oppressive content looks like

Anti-oppressive content encourages us to:

  • Give up harmful words and phrases, and also the concepts attached to them,
  • Stop perpetuating bias, and also rethink how bias is created in the first place,
  • Stop centring dominant groups’ needs, and also rethink our ideas of who’s neutral, normal and important.

Anti-oppressive content:

  • Names and makes visible systems of oppression,
  • Re-positions marginalised groups (the people we’ve been made to think are marginal, irrelevant or low status),
  • De-centres dominant groups (the people we’ve been made to think are good, normal or important)
  • Exposes and resists stereotypes, discrimination and exploitation,
  • Removes moral judgements, so people can get what they need, without stigmatising or blaming them,
  • Shows hope and possibility, to create a world that welcomes and celebrates difference. 

So how do we do it?

In part two we’ll explore: 

  • tools and tips to help you figure out whether something is anti-oppressive,
  • resources to help deepen your knowledge, 
  • concrete actions you can take right now to create anti-oppressive content.

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

Our Catalyst network - what we do

Support & services

Our free services help you make the right decisions and put you in touch with the right agencies to make digital happen.

Resources

FREE resources to help you take control of your digital challenge.