There is an enormous difference between seeing people as the victims of innate shortcomings and seeing them as the victims of structural violence. Indeed, it is likely that the struggle for rights is undermined whenever the history of unequal chances, and of oppression, is erased or distorted.American medical anthropologist
History shapes the systems we live in and belong to today. When we see and grieve the violent acts that occur today, we often don’t look at the history of how we got here. Systems are the complex webs of institutions, policies, beliefs, history, decisions and values held by people. Violence is tied to our history and also still happening today, whether we see it on the news or experience it in our daily lives.
When you think of violence, how would you define it? Some may say it is the act of harming others or ourselves, while others believe it is only violence if a person dies. Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung teaches us that violence is present when our reality is avoidable. When one group withholds resources from another group which, for example, shortens the life expectancy of that group, violence is present in that system of groups and resources.
Systems of oppression were created through violence and colonization to keep inequitable power and control over people who are part of non-dominant groups. Some examples of oppression are racism, sexism and classism. Systems of oppression have always been part of the foundation of the United States and pre-date the founding of the country. Systems of oppression impact access to education, child care, safe housing, nutrition and more (Social Construction of Systems of Oppression and Privilege, Goduka and Geisthardt).
Colonialism is the control of one group and/or area by another group, with these common goals: to control a group of people, to make money, and to uphold a cultural system. Often the cultural system upheld includes the idea that the colonizing group is better than the other resisting group (oppressed group). Teen Vogue states: “In practice, colonialism is when one country violently invades and takes control of another country, claims the land as its own, and sends people — ‘settlers’ — to live on that land.” Colonialism is the foundation of systems of oppression in our society.
Let’s go back in time to the colonization of mainland United States and Canada. Before the 1830s, more than 125,000 Indigenous and Native Americans lived, honored and thrived on Western land. When European settlers arrived, native and indigenous people were violently murdered, removed and later institutionalized to assimilate into European settler society. This type of colonization is unique because the intent is not only to gain money or land, but to control the land, replace any people and cultures currently living there, and to stay. This is called settler colonialism. Settler colonialism is long term and looks to cause harm and erase any indigenous peoples and cultures. Originally, European settlers violently removed and murdered indigenous and native people to use the land to farm cotton for profit, backed by the violent slave labor of Black people from Africa and the Caribbean. The United States and Canada were founded on violent acts of colonization. Colonization may have been the start, but it was not the end of systemic violence in western culture. The United States and Canada have a long history of violent acts, policies and cultural norms, including the settler colonization of Native and Indigenous people; the mass slavery and egregious acts of Black people; the internment and violent assimilation efforts of Asian people; the exclusion and brutal harassment of Muslim Americans; and the denial of food and health care to immigrant children. Violence is woven into the fabric of our society throughout time and perpetuates the system of white supremacy. White supremacy is racial power that denotes a system of structural or societal racism that privileges white people over others, regardless of the presence or absence of racial hatred. Both people of color and white people can perpetuate white dominant culture, resulting in the overall disenfranchisement of Black, Indigenous and other people of color in many aspects of society.
In addition to historic examples of violence in our society, violence continues to be perpetuated today at the individual, group, cultural and systemic levels as demonstrated in the included graphic. This graphic helps us understand how violence is not just between people but reveals the complexity and reality that violence is engrained in systems and used to keep power and control with the dominant group.
Over the next week, we’re going to dive into different examples of systems saturated with violence. As you continue to read through this series, try to keep these questions in mind:
Violence is a heavy topic, but it’s critical to understand the history and root of something if we want to change it. And keep in mind, the opposite of violence is peace. If violence feels too heavy to think about or feel through, it is OK to think of this word as an absence of peace. Even though violence is within the systems we live in, we can accomplish justice and peace by addressing its roots.