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.