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Working on Oppressor Material

At an Allies to Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals Workshop in April 2013, “Jeanne D’Arc”1 talked about oppressor material2 and how to work on it. I used what she said to lead two different groups at that workshop and later a number of Community classes, topic groups, and workshops. The following is what I understood from her, and what I learnt from doing this work:

Because we live in oppressive societies, every one of us has been oppressed, at least as a child. Each time we were oppressed, it was a hurt that left us with a distress recording—a literal recording of everything that happened at the time we were being hurt: our emotions, our sensations, our responses, and what other people around us were doing, including the person who was oppressing us.

If we witnessed someone else getting oppressed, then the distress recording was of our own feelings and actions (or inaction) as well as the actions of the “victim” and the person in the oppressor role.

If we didn’t get to fully discharge the hurt, then we still carry the distress recording, which can be restimulated. We are vulnerable to feeling any of the feelings and acting out any of the actions in the recording.

We can act out any of the victim behaviours or any of the oppressor behaviours, or none of them. We may feel our recorded feelings, or not. Our restimulated feelings don’t necessarily match our restimulated actions since the only feelings in the recording are ours, whereas the recorded actions are both ours and others’.

We don’t have to have any negative thoughts or feelings about someone in a target group to act out oppressor material at them. In fact, we can be feeling positive about them while acting it out.

We also don’t have to be in an oppressor role to act out oppressor material. For example, if someone in a victim role lashes out in anger3 at someone in an oppressor role, the anger can be “oppressor material.” (I’ve put “oppressor material” in quotes here because it is being acted out by someone in an oppressed role at someone who is in the role of their oppressor. Thus it is not oppression.4 Still I think it is useful to call it “oppressor material,” because it is a recording of what an oppressor did.)

I’ve noticed that “oppressor material” often comes out when we feel like we need to defend ourselves. Perhaps it feels like a way to be “powerful.” (It certainly once overpowered us!) It may feel like “it’s better than settling for being oppressed.”

Also, as we begin to move out of oppressed behaviours, we can move into positions in which there is more “opportunity” or “permission” to act out oppressor material. (As I move out of victim behaviours that are part of internalised racism and classism, I find myself mistreating people in ways I’ve not done before.)

In the wider society, some oppressor behaviour is seen as “bad.” (In RC we say that everyone is good—though we are not yet consistent in remembering or acting on this bit of our theory.) Some people are harshly and visibly targeted for acting out their oppressor material—for example, white working-class people for acting out racism, or black men for acting out sexism. Others can get into the habit of looking out for who the “bad” people are and making sure they are not mistaken for one of them. Because of all this, no one finds it easy to talk about or work on oppressor material.

Also, when a child acts out oppressor material at another child, the child who is acting it out usually gets punished harshly. Because we all witnessed or experienced this many times, we can feel like there is little safety to be open about and discharge on how we have acted out oppressor material. This may be a fundamental part of keeping the whole world tied into an oppressive system.

A lot of our distress recordings include oppressor material, but for the most part we’ve focused on where we are being hurt rather than on where we may be hurting someone else. If we think of all of our recordings as a heap of dirt, we’ve taken big shovelfuls out of the “victim” side of the pile (and we carry on shoveling, even when we’ve reached the bottom) but the “oppressor” side has been left relatively untouched.

Anyone who has been oppressed has recordings of all that the oppressor group did to them and may potentially act that out at other people. I’ve been reviewing the ways in which I’ve been hurt to see if I might have been acting out those hurts unawarely.


“Jeanne D’Arc” suggested that one way to discharge on this stuff is to adopt a two-step procedure:

1. Recall where you can notice oppressor distresses in your own behaviour, such as

• getting irritated with someone

• adopting a strange tone of voice

• being distant or aloof

• feeling more important than or superior to someone

• wanting to have the last word

• lashing out with anger

As much as you can, talk through in detail the behaviours you notice. (You may not be aware of them at first. If you don’t know what your oppressor material looks like, then ask the people closest to you. They will probably have seen it—and told you about it several times already.)

2. Ask yourself where this behaviour might have come from in your early life.

I can think of two reasons why this approach seems to work well:

Firstly, it doesn’t identify one group of people as “the oppressors” and another group as “the victims,” with the conscious or unconscious associations of “the bad ones” and “the good ones.” This means that it is relatively easy to use in a group of people of mixed identities. (I think it works better in a group than in a session, because everyone gets to see everyone else working on oppressor material. However, the turns have to be long enough to do the two steps effectively.)

Secondly, the material we work on is mostly self-identified. We work on it because we’ve noticed something about ourselves that we’re curious about and want to change. This is very different from having someone tell us that we’ve done something wrong and that we should “go away and work on it.”

Almost everyone who has done even a bit of this work has reported that his or her life and relationships felt different in the following week.

From the point of view of this work, oppression itself may be seen as society’s large-scale permission and encouragement to act out a type of distress recording that we all carry, at the people society has put into positions weaker than ours.


I think we each have at least three separate relationships with oppression: our roles, our identities, and our distress recordings.

• Our roles are assigned to us by the oppressive society. Each of us has been forced into both oppressor and oppressed roles.

• Our identities are how we’ve chosen (often unconsciously) to think of ourselves in relation to our roles.

• Our distresses recordings depend on the unique ways that each of us has been hurt by oppression.

Our distress recordings and the resulting behaviours don’t always correspond to a simple view of our roles or identities. For this reason, it’s sometimes useful to work on the recordings without first finding a role or an identity to “explain” them or to justify working on them. This has been useful for many of us who have previously seen ourselves mainly as “oppressed.”

I think there is also a fourth relationship with oppression that we can each build: understanding it. We can come to understand each of our own oppressions and each of our own oppressor positions (rather than just having feelings about them). Most importantly, we can come to understand the whole oppressive system—how each oppression, including the ones we have roles within, fits into the overall system and how the overall system works to impede human liberation, which is our goal.

Karl Lam
Cambridge, England

1 “Jeanne D’Arc” is the International Liberation Reference Person for Lesbians and Gay Men.
2 “Material” means distress.
3 The author doesn’t mean anger discharge but the acting out of a distress recording.
4 In RC we define oppression as the one-way mistreatment of a group of people, reinforced by society.

Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00