Yesterday, I was against oppression. Today, I'm using it for my benefit.
December 29, 2009 3:57 PM   Subscribe

Examples from history of groups who were oppressed becoming oppressors?

I'm doing research on the writings of Paulo Freire and I am trying to create a...I don't know...rubric (?) for identifying when an oppressed group becomes the oppressor. This is not necessarily scientific, but will be a tool for facilitating discussion among college-age (or older) adults. The rubric will be more for me than for them so that I can encourage them to think about their opinions more deeply and thoughtfully and respond to the examples that they raise.

In order to apply what I am reading about the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I'm trying to think of examples in history (contemporary or ancient history) where an oppressed group may have crossed the line to become an oppressor of another group. When a group has adopted the injustice, exploitation, or even violence of the group that oppressed them. I understand that the lines will be quite blurry in most cases depending upon individual perspectives and and that's fine.

Thanks for any help you can give.
posted by jeanmari to Human Relations (37 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Britain was a colonial possession of Rome, and Britons were traded as slaves, for a few hundred years. Pope Gregory was inspired to convert Britain to Christianity by the site of British slaves in Rome.

Then things improved.
posted by WPW at 4:09 PM on December 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

The United States of America...

As the 13 British Colonies, we saw fit to rebel against the British (and the colonies were populated by groups oppressed in their homeland, like the Puritans, etc.)

... cut to TODAY. Ahem.

Iraq. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, The US treatment of indigenous Indian Tribes, Our lovely present-day California economy fueled by cheap Mexican labor... Must I continue?

Great question!
posted by jbenben at 4:09 PM on December 29, 2009

I live in Quebec. Anglophones in Quebec are subject to many restrictive language laws (what signs you can post, where you can go to school), that were instituted by the francophones in the 1960's and 1970's in a backlash against historic anglophone oppression dating back to 1759.
posted by musofire at 4:11 PM on December 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

The Jewish people were oppressed (and in some places, still are) for a thousand years, victims of libelous, hate-brewing rumors and having to endure collective punishment for the actions of the few. Not too long after a Jewish state was established, Israelis started doing the same things to Arabs. Interesting article here by Mike Marqusee about his realizing this as a boy in the 1960s.
posted by Spock Puppet at 4:13 PM on December 29, 2009 [11 favorites]

Also, the Puritans migrated from Britain in the 1600s, feeling they were not free to practice their religion. (Britain was Christian, but dissenters from the Church of England did not have full political rights.) As soon as they set up shop in Massachusetts, they instituted laws aimed at preventing anyone from practicing any religion but their own Puritan brand of Christianity.
posted by musofire at 4:14 PM on December 29, 2009

At the risk of starting a flame war: Israel. The Jews who formed Israel were certainly oppressed, and now they lay siege to the Palestinians (who, by law, are second class citizens in many respects),

[Note: I'm talking about the nation of Israel as a political entity, not Jews in general as a religion or ethnicity.]
posted by Netzapper at 4:15 PM on December 29, 2009

This is an old story, incidentally:

Proverbs 30:2-23 Under three things the earth trembles, and under four things it cannot bear up: under a servant who becomes king, under a fool who is stuffed with food, under an unloved woman who is married, and under a female servant who dispossesses her mistress.
posted by musofire at 4:18 PM on December 29, 2009 [4 favorites]

posted by fourcheesemac at 4:22 PM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ducks never became oppressors. Geese maybe, but not ducks.

But seriously, now: it's not uncommon for countries that gained independence from colonial powers to become internally oppressive of minorities.

Notorious examples include:

- Burma/Myanmar (majority Bamar ethnicity oppressing just about every other ethnicity, eg Kayin, Chin, Shan, etc etc etc, about a dozen in all)

- Indonesia (Javanese with political & economic strength oppressing or "enforcing unity" on up to 300 separate ethnolinguistic groups, most famously in Aceh & East Timor)

- India (arguable oppression of Kashmiri muslims, as well as ongoing struggles against communal or ethnoreligious uprisings & separatist movements, most notably in the Northeastern hill states, for a while against Sikhs in the Punjab, Muslims in Gujarat & Maharashtra (and generally after the Ayodhya incident), as well as other ongoing & simmering uprisings, eg Naxalites, Gurkhaland, etc)
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:22 PM on December 29, 2009

The very subsect of Christianity that was most into the bloody glory of martyrdom were those most favored by newly Christian Roman imperial state post Constantine (they would later go on to become Catholic). And of course they immediately turned around and began persecutions of Arian Christians and Gnostic Christians and Maniceans etc... that made the Romans over the previous three centuries combined look like free-love slackers.
posted by Riemann at 4:23 PM on December 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

The Boers were conquered and, arguably, oppressed by the British in the Cape Colony. Then then established the Boer Republic and denied English settlers the vote.

They then were crushed by the British in the Boer War.

When they got their independence, they denied the Zulus and all other Africans the vote.

Now, after giving up apartheid, South African whites are mildly oppressed by the Black majority -- most government jobs, and most government business contracts, go to the best qualified Black candidate, even if he or she is much less experienced than the best qualified white candidate.
posted by musofire at 4:23 PM on December 29, 2009

(you might be able to throw Serbians into that list above, although I'm not sure to what extent they were 'oppressed' more than any other group, if at all, in the former Yugoslavia)
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:24 PM on December 29, 2009

Black Zimbabweans.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:25 PM on December 29, 2009

Ethnic Malays are said to be oppressive, or at least restrictive (eg in terms of employment, education etc) against non-Malay Malaysians. Another post-colonial example.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:26 PM on December 29, 2009

Despite being the majority ethnic group (and thus oppressors for many years), the Han have managed to be oppressed by the Manchu and the Mongols. Since China claims inner Mongolia as its own, as well as modern day Manchuria, you could say the Han are back to oppressing those minorities in a way.

I believe Babylonia was originally under the control of Assyria, and eventually conquered their former masters. (Correct me if I'm wrong anyone!)
posted by Atreides at 4:30 PM on December 29, 2009

mormons - generally oppressed, denied their rights to religious freedom, most notably with regards to polygamy. fast forward to present day where they are one of the more vocal groups opposing gay marriage.
posted by nadawi at 4:31 PM on December 29, 2009 [5 favorites]

Every group has their moments of nastiness, so this could go on forever. To me, the most interesting examples would be those wherein an oppressed group later became the oppressors of the group which had earlier oppressed them. A lot of these examples are fairly weak, to my mind. I mean, one can hardly blame the Puritans for war in Iraq. I don't recall Mexicans oppressing the Californians or Indian tribes repressing the US per se. Why make these arguments so wobbly?

The Romanians in Transylvania were largely serfs in a kind of feudal system under the wealthier Hungarians who dominated the region. After WWII, when Romania took control of Transylvania, the Romanian government has denied many benefits to ethnic Hungarians and purposefully flooded the region with ethnic Romanians from other parts of the country to "dilute" what used to be a Hungarian majority. It's interesting that in Cluj-Napoca, Romania (or Kolozsvár in Hungarian), there are ethnological museums which trace the history (mostly of Hungarians) from centuries ago until today. Despite Hungarians still having been a majority only fifty years (and the biggest minority today), you will find descriptions of exhibits only in Romanian, French and English. The Romanians regularly deny the legal rights of the Hungarian minority to open their own schools, erect street signs in Hungarian, and so on. The mayor of Cluj-Napoca (now out of office) tore down Hungarian monuments that had been there for centuries and put up tributes to even small and debatable affronts against Romanians by Hungarians.

In the Baltic states, which were illegally occupied by the USSR, independence has now been gained. In the Communist era, the USSR oppressed the native peoples of these lands in many ways - including deportation to Siberia. Today, ethnic Russians who were born after 1940 and have lived their entire lives in these small countries - often in their own enclaves - are not automatically assumed to be citizens of Latvia (or Estonia or Lithuania.) They must first pass various checks and tests of the "native" culture and language, which many ethnic Russians born there do not know.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:31 PM on December 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Pretty much every Arab nation was conquered by the Turks, who oppressed them dreadfully. After a brief period of European colonial control, the Arabs now control their own countries, where their governments oppress, to varying degrees, ethnic minorities (Kurds, etc.) and sectarian minorities (Shiites, Christians, any remaining Jews).

Meanwhile, the Turks, after being clobbered by the Brits and thrown out of the Arab countries, went home to persecute the Armenians and the Kurds.

So the overall answer is: any time an oppressed nation gets its freedom, when does it not become an oppressor?
posted by musofire at 4:35 PM on December 29, 2009

Liberia is a great example: freed slaves from the US came and got slaves of their own. Unlike some examples above, this is an example of people doing the same thing to others that was done to them (rather than something different but also bad).

musofire might be right that oppressed people often become oppressors—maybe because oppression is what they're used to; it's easier to imagine being on the oppressor's side than changing the situation altogether.
posted by k. at 4:45 PM on December 29, 2009

Human nature being what it is, most countries that have had an "Independence day", or something similar, will also have turned into oppressors. That's not aimed particularly at the USA.

As an additional name thrown into the mix: Sri Lanka was a colony of Portugal, then Holland followed by the British. All the natural resources flowed back to Europe for centuries.

Some/many people would say after independence the Singhalese majority went on to oppress the Tamils and also other minorities.

Instituting Sinhala as the only official language being one of the means - so that Tamils who couldn't speak/read Sinhala had to leave their government jobs.
posted by selton at 4:51 PM on December 29, 2009

Today, ethnic Russians who were born after 1940 and have lived their entire lives in these small countries - often in their own enclaves - are not automatically assumed to be citizens of Latvia (or Estonia or Lithuania.) They must first pass various checks and tests of the "native" culture and language, which many ethnic Russians born there do not know.

Interestingly, Latvia & Estonia seem to have created a new kind of "statelessness" for these kinds of people, under International Law. They are allowed to live in those countries, but are not deemed to be citizens, or indeed citizens of any country. They may, however, be issued with travel documents, which are recognised for Shengen (EU) travel purposes.

37% of ethnic Russians in Latvia fall into this kind of non-citizenship, along with Belarusians, Ukrainians & presumably others.

Lithuania, on the other hand, automatically grants citizenship to persons born within the current borders of Lithuania, so it's only 2 out of 3 Baltic countries with the kind of discrimination that Dee describes.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:52 PM on December 29, 2009

The conclusory "Israel went from oppressed to oppressor" comments above reflect an incredibly simplistic approach to an extremely complicated situation. Specifically, the comment that "Israelis started doing the same things to Arabs" really shows a weak grasp of recent Middle Eastern, not to mention the scope of Jewish, history.

Whether they like to admit it or not, every group has been on the right side and wrong side of history. The only people who think that their nation is purely oppressed, and never oppresses, are nationalists.

This isn't the place to fight the Arab-Israeli conflict, so I'll stop.
posted by j1950 at 4:56 PM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

(you might be able to throw Serbians into that list above, although I'm not sure to what extent they were 'oppressed' more than any other group, if at all, in the former Yugoslavia)

Well they weren't, of course. What's interesting is that they used the butchery of the Ustashe (essentially, Croatians in WWII, allied with Germany) for some of their activities after the break-up of Yugoslavia. To be fair, Tito prevented a lot of wounds from healing properly (though often for good reasons), but the situation was roughly analgous to modern-day Poland attacking Germany for what it did in WWII - a bit too late to make a lot of sense.

However, a lot of what geared up Serbia for its aggressions in the 1990's can be traced to Slobodan Milosevic's speech at Kosevo Polje in 1989 - the site of one of Serbia's greatest defeats, at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, made six hundred years to the day after it happened. This defeat was often used as rationale by some Serbs for the war in Bosnia and Kosovo, despite more than half a millennium having passed.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:58 PM on December 29, 2009

There's a very clear-cut modern-day example: Rwandan Tutsis. Infamous victims of genocide in the 90s, they now control the country and oppress Hutus, both within their own borders and without. They have particularly caused problems in the Congo.

Wikipedia sketches out the history pretty well.
posted by hiteleven at 5:16 PM on December 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

As I reading these answers, I realize that I am actually MORE interested in examples of peoples (Party A) who were oppressed by Party B, then went on to oppress Party C. If the oppressed and oppressor roles are simply switched, the dynamic becomes convoluted with revenge and what is a justifiable reaction against the original oppressor, etc. It is more complex when the oppressed (Party A) rails against their dehumanization at the hands of Party B, then turns around and dehumanizes Party C for whatever reason.

Some of these examples are very good, right on target for what I need to think through. And I also appreciate the arguments for/against why some of these examples ARE relevant or not, as I'm sure that the members of this discussion group will be arguing these same points with one another. I've thought through some of them myself, but it is very useful to hear some alternate viewpoints in advance.
posted by jeanmari at 5:39 PM on December 29, 2009

Palestinian groups like Hamas who oppress their own people.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:40 PM on December 29, 2009

The Rwanda example is pretty good, but just to be clear there were many phases over the past century, not just 1994-present. The Germans and Belgians oppressed all Rwandans. Then the Tutsi (initially just meant 1 man with 10+ cattle) gained power over Hutu (majority, poor). Then Hutu gain power over Tutsi and commit a series of large scale massacres over the next forty years culminating in the 1994 genocide where they virtually eliminated all Tusti and moderate Hutu in Rwanda. Tutsi regain power in 1994, and commit atrocities against Hutu living in camps in the DRC (at least in part b/c the Hutu army trying to finish the genocide was sheltering/recruiting in those camps). Now Rwanda is an authoritarian state where the Tusti leader rules very firmly, conducts extensive intelligence gathering, and doesn't tolerate much political dissent. Absolutely nowhere near the oppression previously committed by both Tutsi and Hutu though. And he is trying to keep a lid on genocide (Hutu on Tutsi) 15 years later. Hutu from the FDLR are accepted back into Rwanda, some high level genocide perpetrators are living well in Rwanda, Hutu are well represented in the govt and military, many admitted murderers have been released from prison, etc. I'd consider putting Rwanda into the category of oppressed NOT oppressing oppressors, at least post 1996.
posted by semacd at 6:01 PM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Liberia is a good example of A (Liberian slave traders) who oppress B (Liberians sold into slavery) and then C (Liberians freed in the US and returned to Liberia) oppress D (Liberian native peoples).
posted by semacd at 6:04 PM on December 29, 2009

[few comments removed - please don't derail this fighting with other people's answers, thanks.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:55 PM on December 29, 2009

Maybe... Maori in New Zealand being forbidden to speak Maori in schools etc, then (especially in the 90s) the NZ First party (then with a lot of Maori) campaigning on the primarily on the issues of 'asian immigration' and restricting non-white/pacific people etc and having stricter language laws - all for a 'bi-cultural' society, not a multi-cultural one.
posted by Elysum at 9:15 PM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Not a direct answer to your question, but I think much of the reason this happen can be understood in terms of the so-called "dialectical". (I think I ran across this explanation in Heilbroners The Worldly Philosophers but I can't find the specific reference and I might be wrong about it).

The idea is that when any two ideas or systems or even social groups vie against each other on some level as they do so they (to a great degree, unconsciously) adopt many of the characteristics of the group they are struggling against. The more prolonged, difficult, bitter, etc. the struggle is the more the two sides are likely to end up resembling each other by the end of it.

A lot of this process is disguised, or the participants are largely unaware of it, because in the very process of conflict or struggle of the various groups or ideas, much is made of the differences. Most talk, writing, and discussion is about these differences. The differences are continually highlighted--because without them there would be no conflict or struggle at all!--and this leads most people to believe that the two opposing groups (ideas/philosophies/systems/countries--whatever) are different in every imaginable way.

But in reality, if there were not a great deal of commonality between the two sides there would be no basis for conflict at all. (Note for instance that most of the bitterest religious conflicts are between groups that share 99.9% of doctrine and belief).

In terms of the Hegelian dialectic, the thesis & antithesis (which, again, need not be simply ideas but can be social systems, philosophies, economic systems, etc etc etc.) go through a process of conflict wherein each adopts characteristics of the other as they work towards a synthesis.

In terms of some of the conflicts mentioned above, the dynamic seems to be that an ethnic group that is seen as inferior and deprived of certain rights or economic advantages struggles against these restrictions, but as the society does so it may well, on a deeper level, buy into the much bigger idea that certain groups are inferior or superior and should be granted privileges or restricted in various ways.

So then the struggle becomes about which social group should have the upper hand but comes to implicitly accept that there should indeed be different social groups and one or the other of them should, indeed, have the upper hand.

For instance, in the case of the former slaves, they seem to have fought against the enslavement of themselves and their families but (partly because they were exposed to it in a completely immersive way) accepted that a society and economic structured with slave owners and slaves was acceptable (or, they might even argue, inevitable).

Similarly, we tend to mythologize the Puritans as "escaped from religious oppression to find religious freedom and then turned around and enforced their own religion on others--what a contradiction!" In fact (oversimplifying a bit I know . . . ) they accepted the same integration of religion and society others of their time did. The conflict wasn't about religious freedom per se but about which religious sect should be the one universally adopted.

Their motive in establishing a new colony was not to establish a place where every individual could make their own independent religious choices but to establish a society that integrated their particular version of religion. So the very same values that made them religiously oppressed in the first place also drove them to religiously oppress religious disagreement and dissent within their own community.

In short, my point is if you are looking for some great change that takes place in a group of people that transforms them from oppressed to oppressors you are likely to miss the bigger factors that remain the same and enable them to take the roles of oppressed and oppressors in turn without any great internal contradiction.
posted by flug at 9:27 PM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Palestinian groups like Hamas who oppress their own people.
That doesn't answer the question. Hamas is not an ethnic group. It was however brutally oppressed by Fatah when it first started, but that's more of an internal civil war than anything else.

Also, the Puritans migrated from Britain in the 1600s, feeling they were not free to practice their religion. (Britain was Christian, but dissenters from the Church of England did not have full political rights.) As soon as they set up shop in Massachusetts, they instituted laws aimed at preventing anyone from practicing any religion but their own Puritan brand of Christianity.

Well, of course the largest migrations of Puritans happened after the restoration. Oliver Cromwell and his chaps overthrew and later executed King Charles I, then ruled England with a brutality and religious intolerance that had not been seen since Bloody Mary. To be a Catholic in England during that time was to be hiding or dead, and to have been Irish was much worse. Theatre, Whorehouses, and pubs suffered mightily during the Puritan rule. After he died, England was rather sick of the whole Puritan thing, so they installed the heir (living on the continent at the time) as King Charles II.

So the Puritans were not just a poor, oppressed religious minority - they were hated and feared for good reason. After the restoration they started migrating to the Mass. Bay Colony in ever greater numbers.
posted by atrazine at 9:36 PM on December 29, 2009

Britons were traded as slaves, for a few hundred years.

If you mean people living in what we call Britain, then the slave trade continued into the 17th and 18th century, with slaver raids ont he southern coast of England by North African powers. Morocco et al only gave up on white slavery when the European powers had the muscle to threaten serious reprisals.

Chinese dynastic change would be rife with examples of this - despite the Sinophile declaration that China is a single, coherant entity for 6,000 years or so, the dynastic changes often involved the rise of a minority to the new, opressive elite, with the former group thrown down.

The same can be said of the Mamluks, who were slaves who ended up running their former masters' affairs.
posted by rodgerd at 9:44 PM on December 29, 2009

I'm not sure if this is what you have in mind, but what about white women on plantations who suffer at the hands of a patriarchal husband, but then boss around their slaves.

Or perhaps men slaves who then were abusive husbands or fathers.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:45 PM on December 29, 2009

posted by Asparagirl at 10:18 PM on December 29, 2009

From the link you posted:
It is a rare peasant who, once “promoted” to overseer, does not become more of a tyrant towards his former comrades than the owner himself. This is because the context of the peasant’s situation, that is, oppression, remains unchanged.
He's not exactly talking about groups in general becoming oppressors, but individuals within specific social classes becoming oppressors.

The answers you're getting here are mostly about ethnic, religious or national groups.

If you run with these and start generalizing about entire groups as having particular moral characteristics as "oppressor" or "oppressed", I think you're heading for trouble.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 8:57 AM on December 30, 2009

TheophileEscargot. What makes you think that I am not aware of the individual versus the group issue in that specific text? In fact, that is one of the very things that I hope they will bring up in the context of an interpretive discussion. However, my question is a reflection of my anticipating other interpretations of the text based upon a number of things. I appreciate the points that you are trying to make, but I tried to make my original question for the purpose of AskMefi as specific as possible to meet the needs that I have as I prepare. I am not sure how you think I'm "heading for trouble".

Even though Freire's text discusses individuals versus groups, it is not the only text we will be using and one of the issues that we will be discussing is related to group identity and group values that drive behavior. As well as how a group can or cannot justify actions against another group. ("It was reprehensible when it was being done to us, but it can be justified when WE'RE doing it because...") I didn't want to get into that here because it didn't seem relevant to my original question, but if you're interested, well, there it is.
posted by jeanmari at 9:22 AM on December 30, 2009

« Older How do I bring HTML data into Excel?   |   I ate WHAT? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.