CN: Mention of serious effects of oppression, specific to race, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, physical and mental ability, class and religion.
There are a number of traits for which people are oppressed, and these traits fall into a number of categories. To be involved in social justice work, you must first understand who is marginalized. This article breaks that down.
A crucial idea in understanding the premise of social justice is that for each category, there is a group that our society currently considers “default,” “normal,” or “neutral” and anyone outside of that group is the “variant.” Anyone who can be categorized as the “variant” is often considered “abnormal” and can be subject to oppression. This isn’t a statement about how things should be but about how they are.
If you are a member of the default, you’re likely to have plenty of media representation, representation in government and legal institutions, and your group is likely to have more financial resources than the variants of your group. In other words, if you are a default, your demographic has more social, institutional, and financial power than a variant of your group in the same life circumstances. In addition, if you are a variant, you are likely to encounter problems unique to your deviating trait. People who are defaults will never encounter these problems and possibly aren’t aware of their existence. This phenomenon is called privilege.
In light of the recent election and as our new federal administration transitions into power, we will see all variants, or marginalized groups, feel negative effects. It seems like a good time to go over who these groups are, what terms are used to refer to them, and the ways in which they are marginalized.
Note: The lists of problems that each demographic face are in no way meant to be representative of the extensive and complicated ways oppression affects each of these groups. This most will be subject to updates in the future.
Default: In the U.S. and much of Europe the default race is “white”.
Variant: Anyone who is not white. The phrase, “people of color” or PoC for short, is the current term used in social justice circles to describe people who are not white.
Societal problems: People of color have higher rates of poverty, higher rates of incarceration (but not of committing crimes), and are disproportionately victims of police brutality. Currently in the U.S., black, latinx, middle eastern, and native american people are particularly at risk, but anyone non-white qualifies.
Default: Heterosexual, otherwise known as being attracted to someone of the “opposite” gender, or straight.
Variant: Gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, questioning, asexual (sexually attracted to very few people or no one) all qualify as variants from the norm. This group is often referred to as LGBT or LGBTQA and I will frequently use this short-cut when talking about this group. However, it should be noted that the T stands for Transgender which is not a sexual orientation.
Societal problems: LGBT folk face civil rights battles over the right to marry, the right to adopt children, and protection from discrimination in seeking jobs, housing, or other services. LGBT teens face high rates of homelessness and suicide.
Variant: Women, femme folk (people who don’t necessarily identify with the term “woman” but tend to have a feminine presentation and be read as women by most people), and everyone else.
Societal problems: Women and femmes are faced with increased rates of sexual assault, street harassment, and domestic violence. They have increased societal scrutiny of their physical appearance and sexual expression. They also have civil rights battles regarding access to birth control and abortion.
Included in the gender category is gender identity: the words you use to describe your gender and how it relates to who you are. In our current society, gender is assumed to line up with what genitals you have and/or your secondary sexual characteristics like breasts or facial hair. It is currently considered normal to assign a gender identity at birth based on the genitals present.
Default: Cis-gender or cis for short, which refers to having a gender identity that “matches” your genitals or matches society’s gender assignment for you.
Variant: Transgender or trans for short, which means that your gender identity does not match society’s gender assignment for you. The term “trans” can also be used as an umbrella term for any non-cis person, including trans men, trans women, non-binary, gender queer, gender fluid, and even agender people.
Societal problems: Trans people face societal wide dismissal of their gender and identity, difficulty accessing medical care relevant to their transition and in general, legal and social obstacles in accessing public bathrooms, high rates of homelessness and suicide particularly in teens, discrimination in pursuing jobs and housing, and high rates of homicide.
Another Variant: Intersex people, people who have a mixture of male and female primary and secondary sexual characteristics and reproductive organs. Intersex people are frequently assigned at birth one of the two genders considered options, sometimes at random. They face regular denial of their very existence and regular shaming for their bodies. They also see many of the same issues trans people face if their doctor or parents assigned a gender that doesn’t match their identity. Intersex characteristics are separate from gender identity and sexual orientation.
Yet Another Variant: Gender presentation, which refers to the clothes you wear, your accessories, your body language, and even your vocal inflections. Gender presentation is separate from gender and from sexual orientation. It is considered the default for “feminine” gender presentation to be associated with women and “masculine” gender presentation to be associated with men. But both feminine and masculine are subjective traits and people present with a broad range of combinations of the two. People too far outside of the default range are considered weird, attention seeking, and sometimes mentally unstable.
Within the ability category, there are two basic types: physical and mental.
Default: Physically able, or able-bodied, meaning to be generally free and limitless physically in your everyday activities.
Variant: Disabled or chronically ill. The ADA defines disability as a condition that prevents a person from performing an activity that the average person would be able to perform without much difficulty, such as climb a flight or stairs or speak on the telephone. Chronic illness simply means that you have a type of illness that continues for a long period of time, that must be managed rather than recovered from.
Societal problems: Physical disability and chronic illnesses cover an enormous range of limitations and afflictions associated with just about every aspect of the human body. As such, people with physical disabilities face a very wide range of societal difficulties. Included in this list is difficulty receiving proper accommodation needed in the work place or at school, difficulty receiving adequate medical care or medical coverage, barriers in transportation and navigating in, out, and around buildings- otherwise known as problems with mobility, inadequate sources of income to support themselves, and high rates of physical and sexual assault.
Default: Mentally healthy people or people lacking significant limitation in their cognitive ability
Variant: Cognitively disabled or mentally ill. These two states of mental ability vs. cognitive disability can also be referred to as neurotypical and neurodivergent. Cognitive disabilities include down syndrome, autism, dementia, but also include colloquially termed “learning disabilities” such as dyslexia and ADHD. Mental illnesses include depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Societal problems: Similar to people with physical disabilities, people with mental illnesses and cognitive impairments also struggle with receiving proper accommodation and accessing adequate medical care, but they also deal with social stigma around medication, dismissal due to the invisible nature of their disability, stereotypes of dangerous and violent behavior associated wth mental illness, and high rates of homelessness due to the difficulty of accessing care.
Default: In U.S. culture, the default religion is Christianity
Variant: People who are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or who practice one of the many other religions in the world.
Societal problems: Non-Christians face difficulty having their religions accommodated in school and in the work place (such as getting religious holidays off), they face increased rates of assault, and also suffer many of the issues associated with racism, such as the recent Immigration Ban that targets primarily Muslim practicing countries, because religion is frequently (falsely) associated with race.
Also included in the religion category is whether you are religious or non-religious.
Default: In the US, it is default to believe in God or practice some kind of religion
Variant: Atheists, agnostic, or other non-religious people
Societal problems: Non-religious people are frequently characterized as lacking any sense of morals or ethics, are considered unfit for governmental positions, they face battles over divisions between church and state including about whether religious content should be taught in schools, and they suffer general social ostracization, particularly in communities with high numbers of religious people.
Default: Skinny, fit, or “attractive.” In US mainstream culture, traits like clear smooth skin, long straight hair, blonde hair, blue eyes, long legs, very little body hair, and an hour glass figure are considered attractive among women, where muscled and trim body, bold or “chiseled” facial features, tall height, and blond hair, and blue eyes are considered attractive among men.
Variant: Overweight, not physically fit, or “ugly.” There’s a very wide range of what is considered ugly in our society: Atypical body shapes, non-symmetrical facial features or limbs, large amounts of body hair, uneven or bumpy skin, and prominent birthmarks are all traits often associated with unattractive or ugly. Incidentally, traits from some of the other variant groups I’ve already mentioned are also associated with our culture’s idea of “unattractive” such as dark, thick or course hair (extremely common among people of color), devices such as visual or hearing aids, canes, or wheelchairs (tools used by disabled people), an unhygienic or unkempt appearance or wearing old and worn clothes (associated with low income populations) or stereotypically masculine features among women and feminine features among men (sometimes common in LGBT communities).
Societal problems: People in this variant group face increased scrutiny and shaming for their appearance, lack of representation in media, social de-sexualization, social ostracization, and increased rates of abuse. Large or plus sized people face particular struggles in finding clothes offered in common stores that are their size, decreased options in seating in places like airplanes and theatres, and difficulty accessing medical care due to doctors focusing on their weight alone.
Class and Income
Default: What is default for income tends to be a bit subjective; however, I’ll say that middle class is considered default, or in other words enough money to consistently pay for basics such as food, housing, transportation, clothes, healthcare, and household supplies. Depending on the context, the default might also include enough money to pay for travel, expense-heavy hobbies, and college.
Variant: Low income, below the poverty line, or not having enough money to consistently pay for the basics listed above. The more of those basics that you can’t afford, the farther away from the default you are.
Societal Problems: Predictably, people living in poverty face lack of access to basic necessities like food, housing, and health care, but they are also more likely to work jobs with difficult or unsafe conditions, they have limited options in jobs due to lack of education or other requirements that cost money, high rates of health issues and impairments, and studies show that up to 70% of people who were born into poverty stay poor.
The information above covers the biggest categories of marginalized people but is in no way an exhaustive list. Other groups that are marginalized: undocumented immigrants, homeless people, drug addicts, pedophiles (yes really), sex workers, and felons. I intend to cover issues and experiences related to all of these marginalized groups through this blog and I’ll talk about each of these groups in greater detail in the future.
About the writer: Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator, editor, and main writer for Yopp. In addition to creating a collection of educational resources for social justice, she works as a freelance writer specializing in content about her experience with disability, chronic illness, mental health, and trauma. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The BeZine, Betty’s Battleground, and Splain You a Thing. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Instagram.