If Oppression Is the Problem, How Do We Face the Answer? - National Council of Teachers of English
Back to Blog

If Oppression Is the Problem, How Do We Face the Answer?

From the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship


This post was written by NCTE member Michael Seward, a member of the Standing Committee on Global Citizenship.


“The problem is not to find the answer—it’s to face the answer.”  —Terence McKenna

As a member of the Standing Committee on Global Citizenship I am concerned about the problem of oppression, which is confirmed by gaps in nearly every measure of institutional impact: pay, incarceration, poverty, healthcare, police violence, housing, and education. Oppression surrounds us, yet we seem unable to address it. Why? McKenna offers insight: We might know the answer, but are we ready to face it?

My job as a composition instructor is to promote the ability to think critically; every semester, students engage three steps in researching and writing about solving problems:

(1) Acknowledge the problem.

(2) Understand the problem.

(3) Address the problem.

Might we educators follow the same steps to solve the problem of oppression?

Step 1: Acknowledge the Problem

Acknowledgement means seeing and decrying the human grief oppression causes—instead of minimizing or refuting such anguish, seeing it and condemning its cruelty and enormity. Such affirmation entails not only recognizing that human beings in marginalized groups are harmed, but also denouncing such unnecessary, avoidable pain. Crucial is voicing an awareness that systems of oppression, while global in nature, take specific forms in specific contexts and, therefore, the dismantling of any form of oppression requires that it be addressed in its context.

The case is not that the police department in, say, my home town of Minneapolis [or insert the name of your institution] will dismantle the racism by which it operates only when the globe is free of racism; rather, the police department in Minneapolis [or . . . ] will dismantle racism in its operations by dismantling racism in its operations—which might constitute an initial step in dismantling global racism. Important for any institution is that stakeholders personalize the problem: Oppression hurts human beings here.

Such acknowledgement enables the pain to be documented and declared, thus (1) complicating the ability of those who resist change to deny the harm inflicted on those from marginalized groups and (2) validating the very real experiences of many people in the community. The recognition that inequity exists here, in this place, is crucial: The first step in making change is to admit a problem exists: to see it and name it.

Step 2: Understand the Problem

To understand oppression, one must contemplate its complexity. Grasping the systemic nature of oppression allows one to shift how one frames it as a problem—from seeing oppression as isolated infractions by a few, unfortunate individuals to perceiving it as a result of cultural structures: language, attitudes, rules, policies, beliefs, values, and behaviors. An informed perspective challenges one to consider how everyone internalizes such structures and how such an internalization, in turn, continually shapes interactions in ways that damage some people, privilege others, and perpetuate the systems that formed them in the first place.

Such a personal insight is a precursor to change: To comprehend the pervasive nature of oppression and the complicity of everyone in a culture challenges each individual to engage in near constant reflection and honest appraisal of motivations and impact of behavior. Oppression involves all of us.

Such a framing shifts oppression from being the ignorant (and cruel) individual who calls other people names and speaks in stereotypes to being all of us and how our ways of interacting have been shaped by formidable forces that funnel power and privilege in one direction: from people in marginalized groups to those in dominant groups. Oppression ceases to be treated as a regrettable but inevitable eventuality and comes to be understood as a consequence of ubiquitous and appalling forces that brutalize human beings. An understanding of these dynamics can enable deliberate disruptions.

Step 3: Address the Problem

Once a problem has been identified and understood, steps can be taken: Oppression is a problem we can and will address. To solve the problem, one must act. But which actions? What does the understanding that oppression channels power unfairly demand of us?  If those in dominant groups acknowledge that their power is predicated upon the exclusion of others, then they must accept a corresponding obligation to shift power to the marginalized, which means the privileged will have to . . . change. There’s McKenna’s rub: Who wants to face change? To level the playing field means that some will lose their advantage. More comfortable than operating in a setting where others have as much say and sway as you is clinging to the setting in which you have the advantage—to the point where you not only ignore the inequities (for if you acknowledge them—see steps 1 and 2—you might have to admit that you should do something), but you actively deny the oppression and gaslight the marginalized: You place the onus for change on them.

For those in the dominant group to acknowledge and understand oppression might require them to learn how to behave differently and, actually, to behave differently. To espouse the rhetoric of democracy can feel good; to construct and operate in contexts in which power is democratically shared can feel challenging and painful. Democracy and equality can mean, because all parties have an equal voice, that one does not always get what one has become accustomed to getting. Perhaps the privileged have cause to fear loss of power—but should such reasons carry more sway than the suffering of the marginalized? To claim the values of democracy, equality, compassion, and empathy and not to engage in the effort to make changes that redress the suffering of so many is to fail to embody one’s values.


For over 30 years Michael Seward has been teaching a variety of subjects at various levels, from eighth grade to post-graduate. He has been involved in global education in a number of capacities (including two Fulbright teaching exchanges) and countries (including England, Germany, Slovakia, Costa Rica and Poland). Currently he teaches English at Minneapolis College.

The Standing Committee on Global Citizenship works to identify and address issues of broad concern to NCTE members interested in promoting global citizenship and connections across global contexts within the Council and within members’ teaching contexts.


It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.