Society’s prejudices and assumptions are tricky. They can sneak in in all sorts of ways you don’t expect and wish you could get rid of. It’s nearly impossible to grow up without internalizing some sort of prejudice or judgment, and it’s incredibly difficult when you realize that the assumptions you grew up with are wrong. Doubly unfortunately, many of those judgments often intersect with our oppressions: e.g. I have a great deal of internalized fatphobia thanks to my eating disorder, which is incredibly difficult to control and combat. Another example of this might be radical feminists who vehemently oppress trans women. When you’ve been oppressed, you often end up with a lot of hatred towards other people or even towards yourself. But the most interesting examples of internalized prejudice (at least to me) are the times we actively work against ourselves in ways we would never do to others.
It’s often easiest to recognize our own prejudices by how we treat ourselves. Oftentimes our behavior towards ourselves is far more honest than our behavior towards others. Our behavior towards others is more often moderated by societal norms, group expectations, shaming behaviors from others, and empathy. Interestingly, many people appear to find it easier to express empathy towards others, whereas towards themselves they rely on rules and “shoulds”. We fall back on the things we’ve internalized because trying to inhabit our own emotions can be more difficult than inhabiting someone else’s.
But the ways that we treat ourselves in comparison to others can reveal a lot. If you have a great deal of privilege and treat yourself super well and think awesome things about yourself while you simply treat other acceptably, that says something. Or if you treat yourself like crap over things like weight, gender, or mental health status, this might reveal some internalized prejudice. Oftentimes these are things you don’t even notice at first. But if you take the time to examine each judgment and negative thought you have about yourself, you might realize that it rests on a myth about how people should be.
As an example, I’ve been incredibly insecure for some time about my sexuality. I don’t have a high sex drive and I’ve often felt that I’m broken or that something is wrong with me when I’m not actively attracted to someone that I love and want to be with. I’ve often avoided thinking about it out of fear that I have some sort of trauma in my past that I haven’t processed, or that I don’t really trust people. It was only after reading a number of websites about asexuality that I realized that some people are simply wired to not have a strong sex drive. There’s nothing wrong or broken about it. The judgment that I had towards myself was actually reflecting an attitude about anyone who differentiated from the sexual norm. I was even medicalizing my own difference, telling myself that asexuality was a mental or physical defect, or that I would get over it when I was healthy. While I thought that I was simply making a judgment about myself, a closer examination revealed that I had some assumptions about what sexuality should be that were highly offensive and erased the experiences of many people (including myself). Many of us have experiences like these.
So what do we do when we make realizations like this? I’ve spent a lot of time grappling with the fatphobia I know I have because of my eating disorder. It’s hard. You don’t know how to treat yourself or others, and you certainly don’t know how to convince your mind that it’s wrong. How do we argue against ourselves? How do we learn to treat ourselves better?
In general I am not a huge proponent of guilt. Generally if you’re feeling guilty you already know you’ve done something wrong, the guilt has already played its role to tell you that you have behaved inappropriately, and from there on out it just turns into self-flagellation. Particularly with internalized oppressions that are directed towards yourself, I can very rarely see guilt being helpful (I can just imagine someone feeling fatphobia towards themself, feeling guilty about it, hating themself even more, and then proceeding to link fat with shitty once again). When you turn oppression and stigma against yourself, it does not help for either you or others to guilt you or tell you how shitty you are or how you don’t understand. You are the one suffering here, and while your suffering is contributing to negative conditions for others, you do need to take yourself into account. Here are some suggestions:
1.Sympathy towards yourself and others.
Cut yourself some slack! Cut other people some slack! Now I know that this borders dangerously on telling people to just calm down and let prejudice and stereotypes and oppression go cause it’s no big deal. That is not what I mean. I mean that if someone is already struggling, feeling guilty, and really working to improve their actions and mindset, then you don’t need to beat it into them any further. You can offer them praise for things they do well or simply tell them that yeah, things suck.
2.Imagine whether you would do these things towards other people.
Oftentimes we’re far more willing to be jerks towards ourselves than towards others. I call myself horrific names I never would call others, and expect ridiculous diets out of myself that I would tell others they should never engage in. It can be helpful to spend some time imagining what your reaction would be if the offender was someone else. Sometimes I have to imagine that I’m speaking ot my best friend instead of myself so that I can understand how cruel I’m being.
3.Try to explain why you’re mad at yourself so that you can see what myths you’re using.
This might seem somewhat useless, but it can be incredibly helpful. Taking the time to examine what you’re actually saying about yourself, to read up on some of the social justice literature surrounding some of your issues, and to really dismantle the hidden assumptions that you have can make it much easier to fight back. Once you put those assumptions into plain English it’s often obvious how stupid they are. From there, you can remind yourself of these myths when you start to beat up on yourself again.
4.When calling someone out who is the victim of their own stigma, try to be more gentle than you might otherwise: they’re probably fighting a really hard battle.
It’s incredibly hard to recognize our own prejudices and to act against them. It’s particularly hard to fight them in our own lives. Unfortunately we rarely talk about these internalized elements of oppression, and they can be one of the fastest ways that oppression reproduces itself. Let’s start that conversation.
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I just finished reading Grassroots and Nonprofit Leadership: A Guide for Organizations in Changing Times. This is the best book I have read on activism and leadership and is now a staple in my social change library. The book is full of tangible leadership techniques and pushes activists to consider how their leadership and the structure of their organizations hinders or furthers their cause. You can download the book for free.
One major challenge to effective leadership that they highlight is low morale brought about by internalized oppression. Internalized oppression (also called “self-hate”) is when a member of an oppressed group believes and acts out the stereotypes created about their group. In addition to race, gender, and class, internalized oppression to how we see ourselves as activist (waiting to get a “real job” for example). The authors outline four ways that internalized oppression negatively affects the function of a group:
Damaged self respect: When people don’t respect themselves they may substitute self-righteousness.
Irrational attacks on leaders: The more oppressed a group is, the harder it is on its leaders. People project their negativity on those most visible and their own feelings of powerlessness in those in their group acting more powerfully.
Divisiveness in the group: This shows up as complaining rather than taking responsibility to give feedback or correct situations, making nonnegotiable demands, turning conflicts into win/lose situations, gossiping, and backbiting.
Pessimism: Experiments won’t work, bold action will backfire, social betterment is impossible anyway, and we might as well just talk about out beliefs rather than expect real change.
Additionally, when it comes to strategy, internalized oppression allows folks to settle for much less than real change.
Bringing up internalized oppression and its impact on our social change work is like entering a battlefield. While a discussion may encourage reflection, openly acknowledging how we may participate in our oppression and the oppression of others takes a great deal of strength. When I’ve seen when discussions of internalized oppression happen, it is usually in the form of name calling (charging someone with being a self-hater), disgust, and disappointment. It is seen as a barrier to progress with the greatest offenders called out quickly.
But what about those subtle aspects of internalized oppression that can easily be looked at as a form of strength, humor, or defense? The International Re-evaluation Counseling Communities based in Seattle looks at some of the ways internalized oppression manifests itself among African-Americans:
We invalidate our children with fierce criticism and fault-finding, intending to “straighten them out” but, in the process, destroying their self-confidence.
Internalized oppression leads us to accept a narrow and limiting view of what is “authentic” black culture and behavior.
Internalized oppression is a major factor in the perpetuation of so-called “getting by” or “survival” behaviors.
I can’t lie—when I read through the entire list a shiver went down my back. Many of these behaviors and attitudes I have witnessed, felt growing up, and deal with today. Some I never looked at as being a barrier to social change and progress for African-Americans—after all, “getting by” is often a response to the very real material challenges many of us face, challenges that have little to do with us as individuals. That said, I also believe that attitudes that encourage settling or negativity, even if rooted in an oppressive past, should be examined.
While these behaviors and attitudes are neatly listed, overcoming internalized oppression feels like an all encompassing life long journey. For those of us who have made social change our profession, it extends beyond friendships to challenging values at our organizations and the language we use to describe the groups we work with. Where do we begin personally and professionally?
To start, I think we should deliberately address internalized oppression as a separate critical issue at the heat of any social change movement. Internalized oppression affects how we treat each other, how we structure our organizations, and our definition of progress. I really like the questions The International Re-evaluation Counseling Communities asks when trying to overcome internalized oppression among African-Americans:
- What has been good about being black?
- What makes me proud of being black?
- What are black people really like?
- What has been difficult about being black?
- What do I want other black people to know about me?
- How have I been hurt by my own people? (be specific)
- When do I remember standing up against the mistreatment of one black person by another?
- When do I remember being strongly supported by another black person?
- When do I remember that another black person (unrelated) really stood up for me?
- When do I remember acting on some feeling of internalized oppression or racism?
- When do I remember resisting and refusing to act on this basis?
But again this is a first small step. A challenge I see is making the case for why a focus on intra-group dynamics is valuable in the first place, especially if an organization or movement is being led by someone who is not a member of the group fighting for change. What are some examples of programs and practices aimed at challenging internalized oppression? How do we walk the line between looking at something as an example of internalized oppression or an example of something else? What are the limitations to thinking about internalized oppression?
Image credit: Crossing the T, Life at the Intersection of Church and Trans