Dailyspeak: an introduction

What we really mean when we talk about privilege and oppression

A common theme in The Daily’s Commentary section is that we are writing in “Daily-speak.” This obscure language is characterized by phrases like “oppressed,” or “privileged elite,” and is found not just in The Daily, but in many activist spaces. Like most jargon, its keywords have lost their ordinary meanings and are now shorthand for concepts that aren’t always obvious. Also, like most jargon, it grows on you until you forget that once upon a time you, too, had no idea what it meant. But we continue using it, because these terms end up being necessary to describe a reality we have a hard time expressing any other way.

So here’s an attempt to introduce some of the language you’ll find among these pages, and the concepts from which it springs. It can be hard to wrap your head around some of the language, since it deals in probabilities that aren’t how most of us are used to thinking about ourselves, but it can ultimately be really useful for understanding the world.

We start from the fact that there is inequality in our society, not just in outcomes, but in opportunities. A look around you – or better, a Google Scholar search, or a study of census data – will show that people of colour, women, and other historically marginalized groups continue to be much less likely to be successful than white men. Since most of us realize that someone’s race or gender doesn’t actually affect how smart, talented, or hard-working they are, there must be something else going on.

That “something else,” which we call systemic oppression, happens in three ways. First, there are outright discriminatory actions: a law explicitly gives different rights to Native versus non-Native people; a landlord suddenly decides their apartment isn’t available after they learn the single bedroom will be shared by two men. Because we’re looking at population-level distributions of opportunity, we’re interested in those actions which reinforce the existing inequalities. Actions that correct, rather than exacerbate, unequal life chances may be prejudiced but they aren’t oppressive.

Secondly, policies applied “equally” across the board work to reinforce this discrimination. For example, a law school basing admission on LSAT scores unjustly privileges people who have time and money to take test prep classes, even though nothing in the admissions handbook explicitly discriminates based on wealth. This becomes a self-perpetuating cycle when those people get well-paid jobs that help their kids get similar opportunities. Because of these sorts of cycles, even though most forms of legal discrimination have been abolished in this country vast inequalities remain.

This doesn’t mean that no one beats the odds – far from it. But looking at it systemically, your race, gender, sexual orientation, mental and physical ability, and class background, to name just a few, have a huge impact on how likely you are to have opportunities and how likely you are to succeed at them.

Third, institutions in our society constantly define “normal” people. Children’s authors are told that girls will identify with male characters but not the reverse, meaning that most of the representations we see of people doing cool stuff from an early age feature males. Government benefits depend on certain definitions of family, sex, or citizenship. Advertising teaches us that “successful” people are white, French-/English-speaking, cisgender, able-bodied, and straight. The relativity we’re sold of what society looks like means that people who fit the norm are likely to be treated as three-dimensional people while those who don’t are singled out by their Otherness and treated as stereotypes. It also means that those of us who don’t fit the norm are more likely to face mental illness and self-esteem issues.

In Dailyspeak, benefiting from the systems above is privilege. Like oppression, it is an imperfect term, but it’s what we’ve got. We often experience both: I face sexism, for example, but benefit from white privilege. Noticing where we have privilege and working to overturn those systems brings us to a more equal, democratic distribution of power.

But that’s another lesson, and I’m out of space for today.

Class dismissed!

In Through the Looking Glass, Mona Luxion reflects on activism, current events, and looking beyond identity politics. Email Mona at lookingglass@mcgilldaily.com.