Marilyn Frye, in her classic paper “Oppression”, emphasises the systematic nature of oppression– that it is a system of constraints and barriers, which can only be understood when considered as a system. In teaching this, it can be useful to distinguish such a system from more isolated injustices and prejudices, but difficult to come up with examples which don’t feel like philosophers’ inventions. For anyone who seeks such an example, here’s a real one.
Jender-Son went for a visit at a school where we planned to start him in pre-school. Our first impression was excellent: they’re really proud of having kids from lots of different countries, and all the kids get story times in English, Spanish and Arabic. A friend has a daughter there and loves it. All was going swimmingly (well, if you consider not asking any questions at all about our son swimmingly) until the head teacher noticed that Jender-Son has an August birthday. Whereupon she informed us that he would always be the youngest in his class and this would be hard. She went on, “My husband has an August birthday, and he thinks it’s held him back his whole life.” I said “do you think we should be really worried?” She looked at me very seriously, and explained “It’s been proven that boys with August birthdays do less well academically. The important thing is not to push him, not to expect too much.” She went on to introduce him to a fellow teacher, telling them only his name and that he’s an August birthday.
Phase 1 of my response was guilt over having had a child in August and therefore blighting his life. But I moved quickly to Phase 2, in which I recalled that it’s definitely been proven that low expectations for children are self-fulfilling. And I grew enraged at the head teacher’s expression of a prejudice I’d never even known of before, August-Birthday-Boy-ism.* I don’t want my son’s time in school to be governed by a holder of this prejudice, even if they are immune to other prejudices. Jender-Son, if he stayed at this school, might well be seriously (and unjustly) disadvantaged.
But, very importantly, because he would not be the victim of various systematically interlocking barriers in other areas of his life, he wouldn’t be oppressed. The prejudice against boys with August birthdays is not a widespread one (I hope!), and it is one that can only operate in certain limited circumstances, like schools in which teachers both hold the prejudice and are aware of a child’s birthday. The various forces contributing to oppression on the basis of sex, race, disability, class, sexual orientation, and so on, are very different from this highly localised prejudice. (Hence its usefulness as a contrast case in discussing Frye on oppression.)
*Yes, it’s true that boys with August birthdays will for the first few years of school be less mature than classmates. Believing this doesn’t make one an August-Birthday-Boy-ist. But believing that this will blight them forever and that we should just accept this sad fact, and having no interest in individual traits of individual August birthday boys, does. (As noted earlier, for all I know this teacher would be fine and was just expressing herself badly– but what I’m considering here is what’s true if she was really expressing her attitude.)