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Questioning Models of Anti-Oppressive Practice
Shahid Ashrif

Pick up any assignment on community/youth work and it is bound to mention that anti-oppressive work consists of ‘raising awareness’ of particular oppressions with the client group. Such ideas have a good pedigree since they are grounded in the academic literature. However, these approaches remain problematic for activists like me.

I want to question the whole notion of ‘awareness’ or ‘consciousness raising’. These terms seriously contaminated the antiracist struggles of the 1980s and most recently have been given official blessing with the publication of the McPherson Report into the death of Stephen Lawrence. (This is not surprising considering that the Scarman Inquiry into the Black Rebellions of the 1980s engaged in a socio-psychological view of racism that rejected the very notion of institutional racism in favour of racial prejudice.) However, whether we examine oppression based upon class, race, gender, disability or sexual orientation, the underlying assumptions are the same.

The model of ‘awareness/consciousness raising’ is not indigenous to Britain, but is American. As Sivanandan pointed out in his seminal article ‘RAT and Degradation of the Black Struggle’, the model first originated in the US Army as HAT (Human Awareness Training) during the 1960s, in response to the Black rebellions across the cities of the US. The Defense Department trained and employed human relations instructors in order to inculcate a knowledge of minority cultures/history in concert with an understanding of personal racism. The Kerner Commission’s report of 1970 into Civil Rights claimed that combating racism consisted of ‘changing the behaviour of whites’. This helped to launch an explosion of literature (much of it clearly commercially orientated) in which racism was divorced from structures and procedures and instead was confined to the White psyche. (This was also the period that spawned the flawed but catchy formula, racism = prejudice + power.)  Subsequently Judy Katz adopted and adapted such an approach while simultaneously drawing upon her own understanding of the Women’s Movement. Hence Katz gave birth to RAT (Race Awareness Training) which distorted the language and analyses of the Black movement such that racism was severed from its exploitative nature and rendered classless. (Racism had been viewed as a psychological problem suffered by White people, as far back as 1944 in the Myrdal report.) The Katz model of RAT was widely used in the US and would eventually finds its way to Britain to contaminate how we think of anti-oppressive practice.

The emergence of ‘awareness’ training in the US is not surprising given that country’s love affair with psycho-analysis and psychiatry.  (Unfortunately, given the dominance of US programming in the television and film industries, these psycho-analytic approaches are promoted world-wide with serious consequences for oppressed groups.) The assumption underlying a great deal of psycho-analysis is that ‘awareness’ of a problem or difficulty leads inevitably to the resolution of the difficulty. If a patient is exhibiting depression or over-eating this may be due to some trauma in childhood. The patient is encouraged to recall the traumatic event or suppressed memories although there is little scientific evidence that painful memories are routinely suppressed by the brain. Upon becoming conscious of being abused by a parent/sibling, the patient comes to terms with the trauma – makes a psychological adjustment to being abused. The late Professor Carl Sagan was one of the first mainstream scientists to point out such approaches are prone to ‘false memories’ and this understanding has increasingly gained ground, but the psychiatric profession finds the retrieval of memories financially too lucrative to abandon.

Along with the RAT approach came a variety of other simplistic analyses (or aphorisms) that maintained that ‘racism is a White problem’ and that ‘racism equally harms both the oppressed as well as the oppressor’. The psychobabble suggested individual solution to social problems – a theme that would be taken up subsequently in the King’s Fund document on health inequalities in Britain. (Responsibilities for health were posited upon the individual as if the steps taken by governments had no bearing upon health inequalities.) As Sivanandan reminds us, personal satisfaction or achievement through coming to terms with one’s own racism, cannot be equated with political liberation. To use an American analogy, the public was being sold snake oil rather than a genuine cure. The appeal of this approach lies as much in its ability to leave capitalism and White power structures intact as delivering personal salvation in a semi-religious sense. Power is not something White people are born with, but something they take for themselves. Similarly, men and heterosexuals are not born with power but derive it from their positions in a hierarchical society. Personal liberation of individuals cannot be equated with political liberation of oppressed groups. The appeal of ‘awareness/consciousness raising’ approaches by state, local government and institutions is that problems can apparently be solved with minimum disruption to capitalist exploitation and without bloodshed.

We need to examine carefully the limitations of community/youth work practice. By making groups or individuals like White working class girls/young women aware of how class and gender oppress them, or by enhancing their solidarity with other women and working class people essentially caters to individuals, not the oppressed groups as a whole. Now that I am aware of how (and maybe even why) I am oppressed, how does that alter my condition? Will my job prospects, or salary increase? Will my oppressors stop oppressing me now that I know what they are up to? It could be argued that the oppressed should remain mired in their ignorance. Unless there is the possibility to bring about an end to oppression, why be further tormented by what can never be? Or is it that community workers also expect the oppressed to come to an accommodation with their oppression? The only alternative to this accommodation would be to exhort the oppressed to take action to change the structures that oppress them. That means voting out all existing political parties (who have a vested interest in the status quo). Given the political party system and the procedures for electing representatives to parliament, voting out the established parties is well nigh impossible. Short of revolution there will be no radical change to the experiences of the oppressed.

It is interesting to note that community workers when speaking of their work they tend to emphasise the ‘teaching’ of oppressed groups and individuals. Other than understanding their oppression, oppressed groups might learn how to access certain financial and other resources. Such groups might even learn who their elected (national and regional) representatives are, but will the oppressed be told to lobby en masse their elected officials? Will the oppressed learn civil disobedience, or attrition techniques to wear down MPs and councillors until they agree to radical reform of society? How can community workers call what do, anti-oppressive unless they are urging people to overthrow the current system?

Why is it that so little is said by community workers about their anti-oppressive strategies in the workplace? Could it be that they are afraid of challenging their own institutions. Do they even have the skills and understanding to bring about the changes required? How much time on the BA or MA in youth/community work is devoted to strategies for changing an institution? Yet one of the most important differences that community workers can make is to radically alter the  institutions in which they work. If community workers with all their knowledge and skills cannot alter the institutions in which they work, what chance is there that the oppressed will be able to change society as a whole?

Shahid Ashrif

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