Oppression Bias and the Struggles of a Black Sociologist

Social science as it has developed in the western world has it as its goal to develop, catalog, understand, and organize human behavior. Sociology, Political Science, Psychology, Philosophy, Anthropology, Communications, and all the other social sciences seek to make sense of the social world human beings have created for themselves over the past million years of our existence. For myself, I chose to study Sociology, the study of  human interactions. Much like many of the other social sciences, it has its roots (in the western world, other societies have their own forms of all these fields hundreds or thousands of year before Europe) in the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Because the period that Sociology came into being along with other social sciences its focus was on Europe and interactions between European people, to the detriment of other societies and groups of people.

Europe’s barbanistic and imperialistic interactions with the rest of the world over the intervening 200 years influenced the social sciences in a way that is classist, sexist, and racist in both their theories as well as the professional practice of these fields. Examples of racism for instance infecting these fields is the “culture of poverty”, eugenics, functionalism (or at least some applications of said approach), the entire field of Anthropology, and Democratic Peace Theory.

Although in recent years, the influence of the Civil Rights/Black Power, Women’s Rights, LGBT*, Anti-Colonial, and Anti-Capitalist movements have influenced a new generation of social scientists who have not been as influenced by these oppressive circumstances, problems still remain. I can only speak for myself as an African in Sociology, but there are still great and many barriers to having the oppressed voices heard in the social sciences. especially for those of us who are practitioners of those social sciences like myself. One of the most important and basic of these barriers is what I would like to call the “Assumption of Oppression Bias”.

I don’t know if I have seen this concept in other writings or pieces but I think its something that anyone from an oppressed background will immediately recognize. The basic dynamic of Oppressed Bias is more or less the same as all other forms of bias, that because of one’s connection to a particular idea, people/persons, or institution said person can not or will not make an objective scientific analysis of X issue. Oppression Bias is then the idea that because one is part of X oppressed group they can not or will not make an objective analysis of the conditions of that oppression, the oppressed themselves, or the oppressors involved. This is a very serious issue that I believe in many circles has and is stifling the voices of those of us who come from oppressed backgrounds.

Speaking for myself, I got involved in Sociology not for the simple purpose of learning and studying human behavior. I got involved in the field to study human behavior  for the purpose of using it (or someone else using it) to dismantle oppressive systems in our world and help build better systems of human interaction. Sociology especially has been split largely between those who feel our field’s only legitimate purpose is to catalog and organize information about human behavior while others, such as myself, argue that Sociology is only relevant in relation to its usefulness to fighting oppression, furthering human society, and building better institutions (regardless of political persuasion). For those of us from oppressed communities (of a racial, class, gender, or sexual nature), we have two imperatives for getting involved if we’re on the “interventionist” side of the divide. The first is because since most Sociology through its history has been done by people of privileged backgrounds, we feel that we can better understand the social circumstances related to our backgrounds than someone who has no real life interaction with them. The other reason is explicitly to contribute to information base that can further the liberation struggle of those who share our oppressed social position. Unfortunately for those two reasons people of privilege often ignore our world assuming the oppression bias.

The Oppression Bias language can be seen in many ways. One is the discouragement by Sociologists in the classroom for people to speak from anecdotes. We all know that anecdotes don’t constitute scientific information by itself but when you’re the only one in the classroom who remotely has any engagement with a certain social phenomena you would assume that people would give some deference to you on that point. Unfortunately often comments referring to life in the projects, coming out of the closet, or being from a rural town is met with silence and/or little engagement with the point or worse the student/scientist is reminded that their anecdote isn’t a scientific snapshot. Both of these responses discourages oppressed individuals from speaking from their lifetime of experience with X issue that I believe is relevant even if it didn’t come out of a research journal.

Another form of this bias that also happens in classrooms often is when an oppressed person  thinks of a writer who is not a social scientist who said or wrote something that they feel is relevant to the discussion. An especially common example of this is when a working class or poor student/scientist brings up Marx’s theory of revolution and change. We can argue all we want about whether its right or not but its interesting to always see the weird looks one gets when they reference him and one would assume that the looks reflect thoughts that resemble “commie…” It also happens when racial minorities mention revolutionaries of their people in conversation. There’s an assumption that often goes through the person who’s about to speak head that these people will dismiss this writer’s point because they aren’t a “scientist” like they are.

Assumptions of Oppression Bias of the above mentioned forms and others (“they have an “agenda”” accusation is another one) stifles voices of students, social scientists, and laypersons alike and contributes to a weird Catch-22 that all oppressed people in the social sciences have to face, or will face. You come into the field wanting to study “your people” because the current crop of people and studies have failed to do so in a decent way (or at all) and indeed there is almost a responsibility to do so because no one else will. The problem is that because you do that, you are assumed to have an agenda and much of your writing is proving the worth of either the topic of discussion itself or super reinforcing your logic to make sure NO ONE can question your work. This is a very uncomfortable position to be in and for many of us, it wears us down…a lot.

For Sociology and other social sciences to move forward towards a more fair and equitable picture of the social world, we will have to confront professional/psychological forms of suppression such as the Oppression Bias Assumption. If we don’t our fields will continue into the far future to be too heavily weighted in favor of the interest, logic, and perspective of the privileged to the disadvantage of  the oppressed. That is a field I’d rather not be a part of.

Have you seen real oppression bias in your work? Have you seen the undue assumption of this bias used against you or anyone you know? What do you think we can do to fight back against this?

William Richardson is a 2nd year MA student in Sociology at the University at Buffalo (Department of Sociology. He is currently writing his Master’s thesis on how communities racially essencialize space and its contributes to continued residential segregation. Outside that he has interests in race/racism, intersectional stratification systems, and the integration of language into systems of domination.


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