What is “Internalized Oppression” and why do I claim we all have it going on?
If you have spent a lot of time in political activism, psychological growth, advocating for social justice/progressive causes and feminism, anti-racism, anti-Semitism and other anti-oppression movements of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and continuing, as I have, you would know what I’m talking about and have lived long enough to have unlearned some of the IO we all have. Or, you could have come to learn about IO some other way. If not, or if you’re interested in my perspective and some personal stories, keep reading.
I was first trained in 1977 in Massachusetts via the Movement for a New Society’s (MNS) Nonviolence Activism [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Movement_for_a_New_Society
The members of MNS consciously sought to develop tools and strategies that could be employed to bring about revolutionary change through nonviolent means. The three-part focus of MNS included training for activists, nonviolent direct action and community. The main location for MNS activity was in West Philadelphia. Other locations included Boston, Minneapolis, Seattle, Tucson, Western Massachusetts, and more….MNS was unusual in combining feminist group process, broad analysis of interrelated people’s struggles including class and culture, and personal empowerment techniques ranging from music and street theater as political organizing tools to Re-Evaluation Counseling.
I was also trained via Re-Evaluation Counseling (RC) in Massachusetts and New Hampshire starting in 1978 and continuing through 1986. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Re-evaluation_Counseling]
RC has ambitious social and environmental objectives, including, “The transformation of society to a rational, peaceful, non-exploitative, classless form world-wide. The preservation of all existing species of life and the re-creation of extinguished species. The preservation of wilderness areas and the creation of a completely benign environment over most of the earth, the oceans, and the atmosphere. The exploration of, and eventually becoming at home in, space.”
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was part of the “Clamshell Alliance,” a successful anti-nuclear energy group utilizing MNS and RC techniques and principles. We “Clams” prevented the second “tower” of the Seabrook, New Hampshire, power plant from being built. This and many other “affinity groups” like it across the continent worked throughout the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s to dismantle the stranglehold the nuclear energy capitalists were gaining on energy production in the USA and Canada. We have them/us to thank for how few nuclear disasters there have been in the USA due to there having been fewer power plants built than proposed.
MNS and RC were the grandparents of most modern USA and global social justice movements movements; believe me). Their teaching techniques, training exercises, formats for consensus decision-making, use of nonviolence, understandings of social justice issues and oppression and methods for transforming individuals as well as groups have been incorporated into almost every type of social and political change movement around the globe, including Arab Spring and Occupy.
They taught me about Internalized #Oppression (IO): We All Have It Going On.
Intersectionality thrives via IO, because the overlapping strength of each oppression with insidious inroads into us and each other creates the systemic continuance of them all.
image from http://decolonizeallthethings.wordpress.com
For example, Height-ism. I am short and getting shorter. For a Jewish/Eastern European-roots female born in the middle of the last century, it’s not uncommon. I stopped growing at age 12, at 5′ 1.5″, at which point I was considered somewhat tall. I didn’t even realize I wasn’t going to keep growing, since everyone around me seemed to be, nor that I was short, until we were being arranged in poses for photos for the high school yearbook in the beginning of my senior year (I know; how could I not know? Well, I just wasn’t thinking about my height). People kept telling me to “get into the middle” or would call out: “Short people in front,” pushing me forward. I looked around in shock: “Oh! I really am short!”
I then spent the last four decades comparing my size to many other people’s and always being shocked at who else was actually my size or smaller, because they all appeared to be SO SHORT but I didn’t see myself as that short. In my inner voice, I was contemptuous, ridiculing, and otherwise snobbish about their smallness, as if I were magically exempt from such derision. Luckily (?), I kept these thoughts to myself.
Randy Newman (amazing singer-songwriter and social commentator) did not keep HIS thoughts to himself. We should all be grateful to him…. We need to laugh, sometimes, at how ridiculous prejudice and bias are, without forgetting how damaging and dangerous these ideas can become when enacted or spoken.
That is classic Internalized Oppression (IO): Version 1) believing ourselves to be outside of/better than/not really representative of the groups we actually belong to, we deride our identity group by condemning other members of it; Version 2) we condemn ourselves for traits considered to be endemic of that group.
With both versions, we perpetuate the cultural and institutionalized oppressions that already run rampant, adding strength to stereotypes and assisting the oppression machine to keep churning out misery. We collude with and give power to the oppressors by “owning” their perspectives. IO is so difficult to uncover or recognize that we actually believe these viewpoints are our own opinions, developed on our own, independently of anyone or any influence: that’s how deluded we are.
So it goes.
How does IO play out? Via sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, ableism, ageism, homophobia/heterosexism, transphobia, classism, etc., oppressions reign supreme. When those within these oppressed groups further and enable the oppressors’ aims in putting us down by loathing ourselves and each other for being members of said groups, that is IO at work.
Example: SEXISM: When women/girls, as individuals of an oppressed MAJORITY, FEMALES, adopt society’s negativity towards females, what happens? We then display “our” views of females by scornfully talking about other females at almost every age (and not just because of differing political positions, intellectual differences or disagreements). Worst of all, IO leads women to be the main enforcers/ perpetrators of some of the worst harm inflicted on female children and other women (genital mutilation, forced child marriage, sex trafficking, bride-burning, foot-binding).
Women/girls who live with unmitigated IO will be motivated to compete unfairly, gossip, spread rumors, backbite, jockey for position, believe in scarcity (zero-sum games) and operate in other ways that undermine each other rather than collaborate and support one another. We “sell out” our own gender in a usually unsuccessful attempt to gain favor from men or stand out as superior to other women.
IO rots “sisterhood,” pitting heteronormative (“cisgender”) women against gender-queers and lesbians, motivating lesbians to exclude female bisexuals. IO inspires white women to believe whatever the oppressors tell us if it seems we may “some day” reach feminism’s goals, such as when white men told suffragettes that abolition was “more important” than women’s having the right to vote, that women should “wait our turn”: most white women accepted this.
When women find it acceptable (not speaking up AGAINST this means you find it acceptable) for females to be labeled “bitches,” “whores,” “sluts,” “tramps” and whatever other derogatory monikers current trends are utilizing to put strong, powerful, sexually active, empowered women down, then that is also IO operating within and among us.
image from http://www.hercampus.com
IO is in place when a coach tells a mixed-gender or all-male group of athletes to “stop playing like girls,” and the girls on the team or at the location spew hate on the weaker members, continuing the damage caused by this coach.
When mothers, female teachers, any females who interact with young people, dichotomize the children based on supposed gender-based traits so that the girls are positioned by other females as less important, less competent, less valuable, and are forced to be less active or presumed to be less able than the boys, that is IO in action.
Example: RACISM: Racist IO occurs when those from oppressed ethnic/racial groups have “oppression derbies” to evaluate (usually not in public, but with social media, increasingly in public) the relative status of each individual of that group by applying arbitrary, oppressor-based criteria. Furthermore, we devise ways to determine who has the least number or degree of whatever traits of that group are currently despised (curly hair, darker skin, slanty eyes, large noses, thick or thin lips, argumentative/interrupting speech patterns, accents, higher intelligence or perceived skills in particular areas, glasses, other physical features such as stature, body type, breast size, etc.). Then, we assign higher value to those who “pass” or who are taken for NOT belonging to that group over those who display more/stronger group-identified traits. IO wins, there.
image from http://www.sodahead.com
IO manifests when Black people tell themselves or others (or have TV shows/movies/ music videos/ books which demonstrate) that “lighter skin” is “prettier” or straighter hair is “more professional.”
Best first-read to unlearn racism? A classic, by Professor Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”
ETHNOCENTRISM/ANTI-SEMITISM: When Jewish families determine that their child’s teenage nose is “too large” and encourage or require their child (usually a female) to have plastic surgery to “fix” (break and reshape) their noses, that is IO imposed by the parents onto the children. Similarly, hair-straightening, skin-lightening, lip-thinning or plumping and other feature-changing attempts all stem from some type of racist/ethnocentrist IO most of the time.
Example: ABLEISM: Those with different physical/mental abilities or disabilities position ourselves “above” as many others classified in this way as possible, striving to be seen and appreciated for our strengths, but not giving that same respect and value to those we place “below” us. This classification of individuals within an oppressed group by members of that group is also classic IO in action: we do the oppressors’ work for them.
When a paraplegic calls a quadriplegic a “crip,” that is IO. When we who are older and becoming more hearing-impaired respond with impatience to someone else who can’t hear well, or are self-deprecating about our own inability to hear clearly, that is IO.
AGEISM: When adults presume younger- or -older looking people are teens or elderly and therefore treat them with less respect, that is oppressive. When WE, as members of a targeted age group, have similar negative attitudes because of someone’s actual or presumed age, IO is taking charge.
Telling ourselves (and anyone else) that we/they are less capable, worthy, competent or otherwise valuable because of our/their age (whatever it is) is also IO at work.
HETEROSEXISM: When gay men deride other gay men for being “too faggy” or a “flaming ‘queen,'” or lesbians call other lesbians “bulldykes” or “lipstick lesbians” based on their appearances, that is IO. Being down on ourselves as bisexuals, believing we are “unclear” or people who “can’t make up our minds” means IO has taken over.
Some people believe that oppressed groups can “reclaim” derogatory labels, like “nigger,” “dyke,” “fag,” “kike,” “bitch,” “‘ho'” and others by using them among “ourselves,” but I strongly disagree and so do those who work within the oppression-reduction movements. Using the slave-owners’ terms for the slaves among the slaves does NOT “empower” them: it makes them colluders.
image from http://goodmenproject.com
You don’t “liberate” a derogatory term by using it repeatedly. Instead, we give the oppressors and bigots permission to use horrible names for us publicly and strengthen those terms’ cultural importance because we use those names, too. I don’t use them at all, anymore.
IO gets its main power from us. When we hear messages repeatedly that we aren’t “good enough,” regardless of who we are and how we look, from advertisers that want to sell us products to “make us look better,” these messages creep into our psyches. We then exacerbate and facilitate this brutality onto our own self-esteem when we buy into the ideas that we aren’t attractive because of IO operating on our subconscious.
Example: AGEISM and SEXISM plus LOOKS-ISM: Women and men do not “need” to remove body hair to be “attractive.” Believing that body-hair-free men or women are “sexier” is a social construct, one not followed by most of the world and only recently followed even by modern adults. Body-hair-free adults look more like pre-pubescent children. How is that look perceived as “sexy” by anyone who is mentally healthy?
What can we do to eliminate or reduce Internalized Oppression?
Perhaps you’ll be willing to go on a hunt, excavating your own internal messages and searching for those that are oppressive in order to eradicate or neutralize them. I hope you will.
image from http://www.industrialantioppression.blogspot.com
Read! Listen to Podcasts or watch videos on this topic: there are thousands of ways to recognize and then unlearn the messages we have internalized that build onto institutionalized oppression.
image from http://ink361.com
PEGGY McINTOSh’s article
If your self-improvement efforts are not immediately successful, don’t be discouraged: it can take decades to “unlearn” the oppressive viewpoints which have been inculcated into us all. Just keep trying to notice them and not believe them: that’s a great start. Also, if there are workshops, classes, or other opportunities online or in person (better) to unlearn racism, sexism, etc., or to learn about social justice and oppression, please avail yourselves of them.
It’s never too late to become less biased and to learn to advocate more positively for yourself as well.
Next, don’t allow statements that perpetuate IO to go unchallenged. Speak up. Speak out.
Silence = assent is not just a bumper sticker.
image from http://www.decolonizingyoga.com