On MLK Day, Students Analyze the “Iceberg” of Oppression


Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day,the Anti-Oppression Training Alliance (AORTA) facilitated a workshop entitled “Dismantling Systemic Oppression”. Around 50 students packed the Scheuer Room to attend the afternoon event. The event was sponsored by the Student Government Organization (SGO), Black Cultural Center, Women’s Resource Center, Interfaith Center and the President’s Office.  

The facilitator, Jenna Peters-Golden, focused on creating a “shared analysis” of systemic oppression. The AORTA website describes Peters-Golden as an “organizer, trainer, anti-Zionist Jewish rabble-rouser and artist”.

Violence Prevention Educator/Advocate Nina Harris said after the event that AORTA was “one of the first groups I brought in a few years ago to do things like deconstructing misogyny and patriarchy. They bring a great lens for analysis and community organizing and engagement in the different workshops and programs they have.”

Peters-Golden started the workshop with icebreakers that made participants think about questions such as “What revolutionary leaders for racial justice do you admire?”, “What questions do you have for racial justice?” and “What motivations do you have?” The dozens of participants walked around the Scheuer Room and discussed these questions with each other.

Afterwards, people voiced out what they had heard from their peer’s introductions and answers to the icebreaker questions. Participants mentioned that they admired leaders like Angela Davis, W.E. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey.

The conversation shifted to model of the “Iceberg of Oppression”. According to Peters-Golden, the system of white supremacy was perpetuated in three layers: the “personal” that forms the visible part of the iceberg, the “institutional” that is just under the waterline, and “values” that support these institutions.

White supremacy was defined by Peters-Golden as the “historical and contemporary system where people considered white are given more political, social and economic power than people not considered white.” She acknowledged the contentiousness of the term and that people may feel uncomfortable talking about it.

Participants gave numerous examples of institutional oppression, from Swarthmore College endowment’s investment in private prisons to marijuana laws and mandatory minimum sentencing. White supremacist values, according to participants, included the idea that English was the only acceptable language in America, or the idea that “everyone gets what they work for”.

Peters-Golden accompanied the “Iceberg” metaphor with that of a society modeled after the “Titanic”. Like in the real Titanic, those on the upper stratum of society may not see the problems below them, according to Peters-Golden. She also emphasized that the struggles of different communities are intertwined, and that “divide and conquer” was a tactic used to defeat social movements. But she ended on a more optimistic note, saying that like the Titanic, white supremacy is poorly constructed and thus can be taken down.

Haruka Ono ‘19 noted the helpful illustration of the Titanic metaphor.

“As was shown in the Titanic example, usually the problems that are reflected in everyday encounters or interactions are deeply rooted in institutional stuff,” she said.

Ono said that she attended the workshop partially because “it was a Monday and we had no classes. I had nothing else.”

Julius Miller ‘19, who is a Diversity Peer Advisor, wrote that the workshop was “very helpful and important”, but also cautioned that “there wasn’t anything new and was definitely more beneficial for people who have that privilege where white supremacy doesn’t affect their lives in a negative way.”

Isaac Lee

Isaac is an economics and political science major. He is a Singaporean who grew up in Hong Kong. In America he discovered the wonders of Netflix and Uber. Other than devoting his time to The Daily Gazette, he is probably reading The Atlantic and the Wall Street Journal, or skim-reading the hundreds of pages assigned to typical Swatties.

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