Unlearning Internalized Oppression

*this blog entry is geared towards Black, Indigenous, People of Color, queer, trans, fat, non-Christian, migrant, and disabled people – though not exclusively...

Internalized Oppression is one of the hardest layers of oppression to address and transform. It’s incredibly personal and requires a committed effort by an individual to overcome. Internalized oppression is referring to the ways that we internalize and believe stereotypes and negative messages about our targeted identities. This layer of oppression can be very confusing because it is deeply ingrained and does the most damage on our own hearts, bodies, and minds. Together, my colleague and close friend, Fatima Arain, and I developed a training called “It Doesn’t Have to be This Way: Transforming Internalized Oppression” as a way to share what we’ve learned so far on our own healing journeys and as an offering to other people wanting to address the impacts of their internalized oppression. We brainstormed a short list of ways we have personally experienced the harm of internalized oppression: 

  • Identity loss
  • Espousing and embodying the values of rich, white, hetero, patriarchal culture
  • Low self worth
  • Cut off connections with ancestors/ancestral knowledge
  • Fear (of failure, of rejection)
  • Anger and rage
  • Self-blame
  • Shame
  • Staying “stuck” in trauma – building identity around trauma (also trauma bonding)
  • Anxiety
  • Inflicting pain on others/acting out trauma
  • Fear of acting or making decisions (perfectionism culture)
  • Scarcity mindset and competition
  • Pessimism
  • Identity policing (ex: Queer person questioning whether another queer person is “queer enough”).
  • Competing for resources/capital because there is “only so many queers/POC/trans/femmes” that can succeed
  • Dismissing our own needs around care

Maybe some of these characteristics resonate with you as well? It wouldn’t be surprising, these are very common responses to oppression and the trauma that comes with it. And when you are experiencing more than one at a time, it can be immobilizing and hold someone back from reaching their full potential. The truth is, each of these on their own can be managed, unlearned, and transformed, but it takes A LOT of work on an individual’s part.

The impacts of internalized oppression can also be lifelong. Even if one is able to identify inside themselves some self-harming thoughts/behaviors related to internalized oppression, actually shifting those thoughts/behaviors can feel inaccessible. In many ways, we utilize our self-harm as a coping mechanism in an attempt to avoid the ways the rest of the world can use oppression to harm us. Some examples of this would be when a mixed race/light skin POC distances themselves from their POC identity. This often looks like denial and self-exclusion from their POC community and family, cultural practices or markers, or actively changing one’s name/clothing/aesthetic to align more with white supremacy culture. This identity denial can lead to identity loss and identity policing of others. But ultimately, the self-denial is a way to avoid the potential rejection from being aligned with an identity that one needs so deeply but has also experienced violence inflicted on them as a result of that same identity. Another example of this is when a person with invisible disabilities/manageable disabilities does not identify as disabled. Sometimes it is a lack of language or consciousness around disability justice. Other times it is about not wanting to “take up space” when others have much higher needs and/or more visible disabilities. But ultimately, and for a lot of people, it is about an unwanted stigma that is attached to the label of being disabled. This often leaves an individual behind in terms of access intimacy (thank you Mia Mingus for this term!), inclusion in larger communities, and the substantial and complex invisibilization of a person’s daily experience. 

There are tons more examples of ways that believing negative stereotypes has had devastating impacts on people. From suicide to self-harm, decompensation around  emotional, mental, and physical health, the effects of internalized oppression are serious and require dedicated efforts for addressing. You will be hard pressed to find a non-profit or campaign that is resourced to support unlearning internalized oppression. This is considered individual work and we have very little accountability methods established to address this serious problem. 

When Fatima Arain and I shared our experiences with one another, we also brainstormed some ways  we have successfully been able to fight internalized oppression and begin the unlearning process. This lifelong,  on-going process requires support, which is  going to look different for every person. We are the experts on ourselves and we know what feels supportive to us. Perhaps you are someone who needs to process out loud, and may  benefit from talking with trusted confidants, or therapist-type people who can witness your process by listening, receiving, and engaging with you in that process. Others might need quiet solitude and periods of solo reflection during their healing journey and will need to request friends and family support us in taking space in this intentional way. Some of us enjoy writing and journaling, while others are more drawn to visual arts or meditation. There are also people who  may need things like movement of the body during the journey (exercise, yoga, martial arts) or supportive medicines (herbs, plants, spirits) and foods. All of these modalities for processing and dismantling  internalized toxic beliefs and behaviors are valid and up to the individual to determine. 

Here are some useful steps in unlearning or transforming internalized oppression inside oneself:

  1. Unlearning White Supremacy Culture

The insidious and violent impacts of white supremacy culture hurt everyone, even white people. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are more obviously harmed by it, and BIPOC are also contributors to it. An example of this is when BIPOC vote in favor of racist elected officials. Or when BIPOC teachers target BIPOC students with unrealistic expectations, including ignoring and invisibilizing BIPOC student needs over institutional priorities and expectations. It is up to each and every one of us to acknowledge, understand, and change beliefs and behaviors that uphold white supremacy culture. 

White supremacy culture tells us that whiteness/lightness is more valuable, attractive, intelligent, deserving, and entitled to power. White supremacy culture tells us that if you are not closely aligned with the aesthetic, personality, race/class, able bodied, a binary gender, and Christian values of whiteness, then you are deserving of suffering. White supremacy culture is dependent on hetero-patriarchy values and thrives in economic systems like capitalism. Unlearning white supremacy culture means questioning all of these assumptions and coming to new conclusions about the value and genius of BIPOC/disabled/queer+trans/migrant people, culture, and community. 

One of the hard parts of this process is admitting and acknowledging the ways we as individuals  have participated in and benefited from aligning ourselves with white supremacy culture. Even if in the long-run you can understand the harm it has caused, there are likely moments when hiding behind white supremacy culture kept you safe at the time. This may have included causing harm toward others in the name of upholding white supremacy. Maybe you didn’t burn a cross on a BIPOC person’s lawn, but even something less insidious has consequences. For example, maybe you made a comment about a colleague’s work habits as being “lazy,” which had negative repercussions later but also took the heat off of unfair surveillance/judgement of your own work habits. Because white supremacy culture is so deeply ingrained, we often don’t see it in motion and unknowingly fall right in step with it. 

Identifying the elements of white supremacy you are most closely aligned with, deciding to shift beliefs/behaviors, and divesting from spaces and people who continue to uphold white supremacy is lifelong work – as much of this healing journey is. Coming back to this work throughout one’s life is imperative to keeping it at the forefront.

  1. Stepping Into the Power of Your Targeted Identities

Those of us with heavily targeted identities are often taught to distance ourselves from those parts of ourselves, including denying and invisibilizing whole parts of ourselves. When we decide to embrace rather than reject our targeted identities, we begin to exit isolation and enter into community. Sometimes this transition can feel strange or intimidating, but try to remember that it will ultimately bring you closer to liberation.

Sometimes the first steps towards community can feel a lot like imposter syndrome. But will I be accepted? Will I belong?  — These types of questions are insecurities you may wrestle with as you enter the spaces and communities that have been shut off from you. Maybe you are a little different, or less knowledgeable about your own history or culture – these are not reasons to hold back. It’s important to move at a pace that feels good and to seek out support in your process. This can look like learning to cook/eat foods of your culture/ancestry, learning the language(s) of your people, visiting people and places of your past, seeking out mentors with shared experiences, joining support groups or community building groups with people who have  shared life experiences, accessing art and music made by people with similar backgrounds, and meeting strangers who have similar experiences or shared backgrounds as you. While these tangible pieces may be readily available for some people, this can also look like individual therapy and self-care to heal negativity you have connected to those parts of yourself. This can include changing the people you spend time with and how you are spending your time. There are almost an infinite amount of ways one can begin stepping into the power of their targeted identities. 

It does take courage. Sometimes it takes a serious unlearning and re-learning about parts of yourself. This can feel scary and daunting, especially if you have spent many years hating or invisibilizing parts of yourself. You may have a period of forgiving yourself and tending to any pain you may have in this transition. It’s important to forgive yourself for any ways you have contributed to the on-going pain you’ve experienced as a result of internalized oppression. This work is courageous and transformative. It is not easy and it is on-going. Sometimes it comes in waves. Stay committed to the process and you will make it to the other side.

  1. Adopting A New Framework Centering BIPOC/Queer & Trans/Migrant/Disabled People

As one moves away from white supremacy and toward liberation, a new path forward is forged. To ensure accountability and not accidentally vear back to the path of white supremacy, one must orient themselves towards valuing the voices and genius of those who have been historically minimized and silenced. Re-calibrating focus and one’s ability to hear and uplift the voices pushed to the margins requires some education. You will not find a college course or a workshop on this (not readily at least), and you may have to seek resources to explore and uncover the things you don’t know. We are experts at our own experiences and have scholarship to offer from our lived experiences. Simultaneously, we are also responsible for listening to and learning from the lived experiences of others also pushed to the margins of our society. Even in the midst of our own oppression and suffering, we are still able to enact pain on others by participating in the invisibilization of their intersecting identities, needs, and experiences.

It is easy to orient solely to your own experiences and lessons, especially when you are more intentionally valuing and finding empowerment in those experiences. In these moments of feeling powerful, we are also given the opportunity to bring others along with us. When we reach past differences and also bring along those who have vastly different experiences than us that have also been rooted in oppression and struggle, we are building a movement against our shared enemies and oppressors. 

Reading stories, poetry, watching films, appreciating art, doing research, building interpersonal relationships across difference, challenging our own prejudices, unlearning “norms,” traveling and visiting new places with curiosity and openness, trying new foods and experiences – these are all examples of ways we can begin the process of adopting new frameworks that challenge white supremacy. This process goes much deeper and builds toward shaping accountability with different communities and building authentic solidarity. But the journey begins with taking steps towards learning

Ultimately, this process asks each individual the question: how do we value the genius of the lived experiences of all oppressed people? Using this question as a guiding principle for establishing accountability and solidarity frees us from being the sole expert or elevating any single experience or need. Rather, it allows us to hear the many voices of those who have been silenced. When we are working at our best, we create and maintain truly intersectional and long-lasting solutions for addressing the needs of our people.

**Much of this analysis was developed in collaboration with Fatima Arain.

Using Conflict Mediation as a Tool for Abolition

As our political world shifts towards the possibilities of the abolition of police and imprisonment, it seems individual communities are also leaning in to all the ways they can and will need to address harm and conflict without relying on the police or court system going forward. When I was first introduced to the principles of Abolition and Transformative Justice, I immediately aligned with the idea that we are ALL responsible for changing the conditions around us that make harm possible. This kind of abolition is in our hands and our control. We don’t need to wait for anyone in an elected and/or assigned role of power to make these changes. We only need brave, committed, and loving community members willing to get messy and real about the hardest shit: healing and preventing conflict, harm, and violence.

There are various tools communities have been using for millenia to respond to and address conflict, harm, and violence. On occupied Turtle Island, many indigenous and First Nations communities relied on (and continue to rely on) community-wide processes which often include talking and peace circles, decisions on reparations for those harmed, and utilizing family and friends to hold harm do-ers accountable. This is sometimes referred to as Indigenous Justice. In settler communities, some of these processes and lessons have been adapted and are sometimes used in Transformative Justice and Restorative Justice as elements of larger processes. While there is a difference between Indigenous Justice and Transformative Justice, there are shared principles and values and both reject use of the white-settler criminal justice system as appropriate responses to these real human issues.

One of the shared values and principles of both Indigenous Justice and Transformative Justice is creating and holding space for those involved in the harm to come together and talk in a structured space held by loving community members. As we vision and imagine bringing these lessons into the many communities currently ravaged by police and imprisonment, we must acknowledge that currently we are very far from feeling equipped and resourced to respond to the real conflict, harm, and violence happening. It’s imperative to identify what skills are useful NOW and will support prevention and healing NOW.

Conflict Mediation is one such tool in the large toolbox of healing and responding to harm, conflict, and violence. Often it is a tool best used when the conflict or harm exists between a small number of people and impact has had minimal community impact. Sometimes it can be used as a supplementary tool in larger processes that are addressing bigger impact situations but require some unpacking of interpersonal conflict within a larger community and pattern of harm. And certainly this tool can be expanded and adapted for use in larger situations involving many people, but generally when doing group work this tool is best used in a supporting role with other interventions and practices in motion as well.

As a society, we are very afraid to “get involved” when there is drama and disagreement. There is a deep rooted belief that we should mind our own business and go deep into our individualism and handle our problems on our own. It is considered a weakness if others are aware of your personal problems and it’s even worse if you are someone who asks for support.

There is also the fear in some communities that getting involved in someone else’s conflict makes them a new target for the conflict and could negatively impact their lives and interpersonal connections. I think this is a very valid concern and must be considered when determining whether or not someone is the best person to engage an intervention or response to conflict.

But what if getting involved did not put you at an immediate risk for harm and violence, could it be seen instead as an act of love to intervene? What if we invited trusted loved ones in when we were struggling with others? It would mean allowing our loved ones to deeply witness us at our messiest points, and conversely it means we would be asked to hold space for those unflattering and sometimes scary moments for our friends and family. It would mean admitting we aren’t perfect, and that in fact, sometimes we’re complicated people who do awful things. We would also be invited to hold one another accountable to behavior change that we often agree to and struggle with actually implementing. This would also mean that we can no longer check out and look away when we see conflict, harm, and violence. No longer relying on outsiders to handle the neighborhood drama means we must address it or else it will start to harm bystanders and our families as well.

Conflict mediators are those who are willing and able to hold space for those in conflict to talk through the elements of the conflict as well as move towards resolution. Mediators are not magicians and they are not the bosses. They are often excellent listeners, enjoy facilitation, deeply love people, and can practice objectivity. They are also people willing to be uncomfortable, say and ask hard things, and point out patterns or behaviors contributing to conflict. It is very difficult to be a mediator if you are experiencing instability and crisis in your own life. This doesn’t mean you have to be perfect or have everything figured out in order to show up to support your community. But as a mediator, it is important that you are able to show up for the people involved without making it about your own struggles and trauma.

In every conflict between people, it is important to remember that there is both trauma and power/oppression dynamics that inform the situation. This means that who is right and who is wrong is going to be complicated by these dynamics. We are often taught that there is a wrong and right person in conflict. But when we account for all the layers at play, that binary isn’t clear in all situations. One role of a mediator is to hold space for ALL the truths in a situation in order to truly hold the whole picture of the conflict, including the conditions that are underlying and made the conflict possible in the first place. Was there a previous conflict between these people? What else was going on in their personal lives at the time of the conflict? Is it possible there was some racism/classism/misogyny/homophobia/ableism at the root of some of the interactions and to what degree can folks admit this? Oftentimes, all parties have contributed to the conflict and harm in some ways and to some degree thus requiring all to recognize and acknowledge not just the negative impact on themselves, but also their complicity in perpetuating the harm.

Healing happens many different ways. One of the more powerful moments of healing in a conflict are when responsibility is authentically taken and/or generosity and forgiveness are authentically extended. I know from personal experience that getting to my most generous and authentic self in terms of taking responsibility and/or offering forgiveness requires some steps.

First, a space for safe story-telling and talking must be made. This looks like allowing everyone equal amounts of time to be heard, naming micro-aggressions and power dynamics, and allowing each individual to process how their own histories and trauma were present in the conflict. With enough time and space for this type of story-telling and understanding, the resolution develops itself and generosity is built by hearing each other’s truths. It doesn’t always get there on its own and mediating sometimes means asking the hard questions and offering options for continuing to move forward. Sometimes this space is created on the fly, in the moment, and/or on the spot. Other times this space is agreed to ahead of time, at a special location, and with agreed upon terms. Bottom-line is the logistics are less important than the actual ability for a container of trust to be built. This will be different depending on the existing relationships and/or circumstances of the situation – sometimes trust building takes time and may not happen immediately.

Behavior change and practicing new ways of being are often the scariest parts of resolving a conflict for those involved. This is the most vulnerable part – where each person is asked to say out loud how they will prevent harm from coming from this conflict. Saying it out loud, with a third party present, is an important part of the accountability. Behavior change, while (usually) physically painless, can feel emotionally wrought and mentally confusing. It often requires unlearning an instinct or habit. It often means integrating new information and a new perspective. This takes time and practice and we mess up along the way. We need people holding us in our mistakes and sharing with us how they’ve seen us change and grow. This reflected back to us is one of the most exciting parts of conflict resolution for those who have caused harm. It’s important to note that when one becomes aware of how they have caused, perpetuated, or benefitted from harm, this realization on its own can cause its own special kind of distress, which can manifest as physical symptoms such as anxiety, cognitive dissonance, dissociation, etc. And some of these feelings may continue to be present or come up as we work toward behavior change and actionable accountability.

Mediation is not a guaranteed happy experience and end of the conflict. Sometimes it takes weeks and multiple mediations for things to feel “better.” We’ve also seen mediation co-opted by the state and used in place of legal proceedings but ultimately utilizing the same players of legal proceedings and similar punitive and punishment-based resolutions. Also, people can erupt and act out during mediations, sometimes bringing violence into the mediation. This also means that if someone is in complete denial about their contribution to the conflict, you may only be able to go so far in the mediation. This is all to say that mediation is not a replacement or alternative for our current systems of judgement. But rather it’s a tool that if implemented with care could be incredibly supportive to communities and provide healing opportunities and resolution options when conflict and harm are present.

Overall, mediation is one piece in a larger puzzle of how we will transform society away from punitivity and punishment and towards healing and transformation. There is not one way to do it, and it can be formal or informal. It is deeply nourishing to have a community member hold you and your conflict with a belief in your transformation and a commitment to your healing. What a beautiful gift to be able to share with your beloved community. Sometimes the best way to learn about mediation is by experiencing one. Next time you find yourself knee deep in conflict with someone you care about, seek out a mediator for support!

**Much of my analysis on Transformative Justice was inspired by INCITE: Women of Color Against Violence, Transformative Justice Law Project in Chicago, the SF Coalition on Homelessness, and all of the organizations/communities/individuals that have trusted in me for mediation support.