There is an old African proverb that reads: “Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.” Although our society is one of folks rather than felines, the same sentiment holds true. Oppression operates at every level, its pervasive nature like an unrelenting claw on the throat of humanity. Hunter-esque humans internalize the feelings of superiority that stem from oppression, using them as justification to control and tyrannize others. In her remarkably candid essay “What is Social Justice?” author Lee Anne Bell shines a light on the dark underbelly of our world, and how oppression has lodged itself into different subsections of society. In so doing, she illustrates the importance of identifying and analyzing oppression so that we may ultimately work to combat it.

    Bell begins by discussing the pervasiveness of oppression, crafting an argument that is equal parts powerful and persuasive. She writes, “The term oppression encapsulates the fusion of institutional and systemic discrimination, personal bias, bigotry, and social prejudice in a complex web of relationships and structures that shade most aspects of life in our society” (Bell 22). The way I see it, this toxic mass of hostility leads many people to look at things with a jaundiced eye, citing their perceived superiority as a reason to victimize others. While this can manifest itself in a myriad of ways, one of the most common happens to be microaggressions, or commonplace verbal and behavioral indignities. Simply put, an individual’s attitude will indicate negative prejudicial slights toward a culturally marginalized group, often subtly or surreptitiously. These indirect instances of “systemic discrimination,” as Bell puts it, are unequivocally pervasive, because they will continue to fester and be seen as completely normal occurrences.

    Oppression is also restrictive, in the sense that it has the potential to negatively shape someone’s sense of possibility. A child living in abject poverty is unlikely to imagine themselves as president or the CEO of a big business, simply because the typical trajectory of someone in their position is rather unexceptional. In other words, it is difficult for members of marginalized groups to reach their full escape velocity because of intrinsically oppressive factors like the economy. Moreover, I agree with Bell’s position that oppression “restricts both self-development and self-determination” (Bell 22). Like an-ever present phantom, it looms over those who have been dealt a substandard lot in life, reminding them of their innate inferiority and mediocrity. This poses a direct hindrance to the ultimate goal of social justice that Bell refers to at the beginning of the essay. Thus, restrictive oppression must be analyzed and understood for the social impediment that it is; only then can lasting progress be made.

    The most cogent argument in this essay, in my opinion, is that of oppression being inherently hierarchical. Those who are in positions of power, privilege, and, by extension, dominance, benefit from “the disempowerment of targeted groups” (Bell 22). This creates a perpetual cycle of sorts: whites are disproportionately selected to work high-paying, cushy jobs, so they are able to make more money, so they can ensure comfortable lives for their children, who can do the same for their children, and so on. At the same time, their privilege permits them to “command the controlling institutions in society,” thereby ensuring that the aforementioned cycle will never be broken (Bell 22). This logic lends itself to the system of white supremacy in the United States, a system that is maintained and upheld by those whose skin color does not contribute to their difficulties in life.

    Film is one medium through which we can have complex conversations about oppression, a monstrous entity with several truculent tentacles: pervasiveness, restrictiveness, and class-consciousness, among many others. The first screening of the semester was Jordan Peele’s thought-provoking cinematic opus Us. The film establishes a society with two distinct groups of doppelgangers, the haves and the have-nots. Although both castes are seemingly identical in every way, we soon learn that the former can bask in the sunshine with complete autonomy, while the latter is confined to a dreary life underground. Thus, Peele’s horror flick deals heavily in pertinent social commentary, the majority of which is masked in “blink and you’ll miss it” metaphors about duality. While we do not have tethers of our own roaming around subterranean tunnels, the film postulates that there is a person out there who could have had our life, had the circumstances been different.

    At the beginning of Us, a young Adelaide - the protagonist of the film - is whistling the tune to the popular nursery rhyme “Itsy Bitsy Spider” as she saunters through a hall of mirrors. The themes of this universally recognizable ditty mirror the themes of Us, in addition to Bell’s essay about social justice and oppression. Adelaide’s tether, Red, is the itsy bitsy spider, in that she attempts to climb up the “waterspout” - the escalator to the surface world - to achieve a sense of social mobility and a better life. However, her initial attempt is futile; down comes the figurative rain, which washes her out. Not all is lost, though. Ultimately, out comes the “sun” - the perfect opportunity for Red to make the switch with Adelaide, her above-ground doppelganger - and she is successfully able to ascend. If Red hadn’t switched places with Adelaide, she would have had an entirely different life, devoid of any sunshine or self-determination. Similarly, Bell’s essay suggests that one’s environment shapes who they become and the choices they make.

    It is in this way that Us makes a strong case for nature over nurture, revealing how, as Bell so effectively did, oppression can be restrictive. Had a person in poverty been born to wealthy parents, there’s no telling what they could have accomplished. In essence, they would have been given the necessary tools to work up the corporate ladder and enter into higher social strata. As far as lenses of analysis go, Peele relies on both cultural context and audience reception to elevate his film from a fearsome feature into a mature thinkpiece to meet the moment. He demonstrates how storytellers have an innate responsibility - to their audiences, colleagues, funders, cast, crew, and the world at large - to relay puissant, relative narratives with purpose. In other words, filmmakers possess the power to transform an audience from the very first scene, leaving a lasting impression on their thoughts and overall outlook on life. With great power comes great responsibility, a fact that isn’t lost on Peele. He uses Us as a vehicle to horrifically highlight what we, us - the U.S. - have done and continue to do to those who lack the resources to excel: oppress.

    Both Peele’s film and Bell’s essay are incredibly influential, in my eyes, because they expose the issues that lurk beneath the surface of society. As these creatives craft their arguments through scenes and sentences, respectively, they hold up a mirror to us so that we may consider how we are contributing to the perpetuation of oppression. Bell admits that she views social justice as “both a process and a goal,” and I cannot help but agree (Bell 21). Just because the goal seems so distant does not mean that we cannot continue to make meaningful strides forward. There is a particularly thought-provoking exchange between the Wilson family and their tethered doppelgangers when they first meet in Us. Terrified at the sight of these strange-looking, completely identical corporeal entities, the Wilsons timidly ask, “Who are you?” Red, the supposed leader of the tethered, simply responds, “We’re Americans.” This matter-of-fact answer is perhaps the most chilling moment in the entire film, as it merely raises a whole new set of disquieting questions.

    Through his use of doppelgangers, Peele directly suggests - as does Bell, albeit in a more indirect way - that we are the true monsters that we so often attempt to portray in popular culture and media. In order to achieve a lasting sense of social justice, we must face our innermost fears and be willing to confront the dark parts of humanity that Bell identifies in her essay, the most pervasive of which happens to be oppression. As Americans, we have an inherently dualistic nature; we are capable of being both the hunter and the lion, the oppressor and the oppressee. It is up to us to decide what kind of legacy we would like to leave behind, so that we may continue to make progress toward the ultimate goal of social justice.

︎ Work Cited ︎

Adams, Maurianne, et al. Readings for Diversity and Social Justice. Routledge, 2018.