Photo of a boy riding his bike in Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Humanitarian Photographer Bryon Lippincott
A boy riding his bike in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

When we use phrases like “the vulnerable,” “the marginalized,” and “the oppressed” to describe others it can have profound implications for how we see the people we are describing. They also color how we see the problems people around us face and our role in creating those problems.

I want to specifically look at three words, the context in which we use them, and how we can shift our use of these words to help us understand our role in creating vulnerability in society and the marginalization and oppression of people a reality.

There is a considerable amount of talk about what we, as a global community are doing to help the vulnerable, marginalized, and oppressed. However, using vulnerable, marginalized, and oppressed as labels for people in these situations and their condition allows us a level of autonomy and separation from the situation that is beneficial for our conscious but not beneficial in helping solve the societal problems that affect their lives.

The United Nations Development program defines vulnerable people as people exposed to a marked decrease in living standards. It is of special concern when it is prolonged, and when standards of living fall below critical thresholds, to a point of deprivation. (1)

USAID defines marginalized people as “those who are denied, or have very limited access to, privileges enjoyed by wider society.” (2)

Wikipedia defines oppression as “malicious or unjust treatment or exercise of power, often under the guise of a governmental authority or cultural opprobrium. Oppression may be overt or covert, depending on how it is practiced. Oppression refers to discrimination when the injustice does not target and may not directly afflict everyone in society but instead targets specific groups of people.” (3)

These definitions describe the conditions that must be present for a person to be considered vulnerable, marginalized, and oppressed. The challenge is these definitions are rarely seen outside of academic reporting on development issues. We have reduced the circumstances that define vulnerability, marginalization, and oppression down to three labels. These labels offer no context. We can use these labels to describe anyone we want based on our personal beliefs and experiences. We can also use the lack of context to deny individuals or groups of people access to any of these statuses that would increase awareness for their plight. 

Another problem with using these words as labels for people and groups in our everyday conversations is that they eliminate any references to events, policies, and systemic injustices that caused the conditions they face. Labeling people as vulnerable, marginalized, and oppressed while only using those labels to refer to them generalizes their situation. Labeling allows us to roll up the problems they face and lay the blame for those problems at their feet. If all we have is a label, then we are free to assume that they are vulnerable because they are “lazy” or “made poor choices.” They are marginalized because “they can’t assimilate and fit in.” They are oppressed because “they are weak” or “because they insist on retaining their culture.” 

The reality is these situations are much more complicated than can be contained in a simple label. 

Our use of these labels has other implications as well. It allows us to remove ourselves and the results of our choices from the equation. Every day we make choices that make people more vulnerable, enabling the marginalization and oppression of people in our communities and around the world. We shop at Walmart instead of local grocery and clothing stores. We continue to shop at places like Walmart because it is convenient and cheap even though we know they actively marginalize workers and intentionally avoid providing essential benefits like access to health insurance and retirement programs. We marginalize and oppress by buying $5 shirts and $10 pants made by people in countries like Cambodia and Myanmar, not acknowledging that those people often only make a couple of dollars a day while producing 100s of dollars worth of merchandise. We give our waiter a small tip because the chef made a mistake or because the restaurant was busy. These are just a few examples, but the reality is, we can’t possibly know all the ways our choices marginalize and oppress people we will never see. 

Yet we use labels for their circumstances that fail to help us have a deeper understanding of the current situation. 

We need to change how we refer to people facing situations of vulnerability, marginalization, and oppression. I want to propose that we make a change in how we refer to people facing these circumstances.

We should end the use of these words as a stand-alone label. Instead, we should refer to these conditions as circumstances that happen to a person rather than something that they are. Specifically, we should say people who are currently vulnerable, rather than “the vulnerable.” We should say people who are being marginalized or people who have been marginalized instead of “the marginalized.” Similarly, we should say people who are being oppressed or people who have been oppressed, rather than “the oppressed.” This subtle shift in language moves vulnerability, marginalization, and oppression from a personal trait and identity to something that is happening to a person or been perpetrated against them. This change allows those of us who are outside the situation more capacity for empathy as it will enable us to see people as separate from their circumstances. 

The purpose of this shift in wording is to force a shift in our thinking, to move these issues from labels we assign to other people to things that happen to them, allowing us greater capacity to empathize with their situation. The second purpose of this shift is to acknowledge that as members of a society we each play a role in creating the circumstances that lead to vulnerability, marginalization, and oppression. Only after we acknowledge our role in these processes can we truly value the people who are forced into these circumstances, have real empathy for them, and make choices that reduce our impact on people facing these situations.  

If you missed the first two Episodes of Words and Implications you can catch up using the links below.

References

(1) hdr.undp.org/en/content/broadening-our-thinking-vulnerability#:~:text=At%20its%20basic%20level%2C%20vulnerability,to%20a%20point%20of%20deprivation

(2) https://wfto-asia.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Literature-Review-Summary-Defining-the-Marginalized.pdf Pg 1

(3) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oppression