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LBC: Internalised oppression

Do you ever wonder why it is that so many people put up with such an unsatisfactory situation? Why more people aren’t actively engaged in attempting to change the world?

I think a significant key is the internalised oppression, the learned powerlessness, that we all carry. As people seeking to act powerfully in the world, and working to motivate others to do the same, an understanding of internalised oppression can be very useful.

Consider these two quotes:

“External oppression is the unjust exercise of authority and power by one group over another. It includes imposing one group's belief system, values and life ways over another group. External oppression becomes internalised oppression when we come to believe and act as if the oppressor's beliefs system, values, and life way is reality...
The result of internalised oppression is shame and the disowning of our individual and cultural reality. Internalised oppression means the oppressor doesn't have to exert any more pressure, because we now do it to ourselves and each other. Divide and conquer works.”
"Peace Begins At Home", Sacred Circle - National Resource Center to End Violence Against Native Women, downloaded from Let's Wrap.

“Internalised oppression is not the cause of our mistreatment; it is the result of our mistreatment. It would not exist without the real external oppression that forms the social climate in which we exist. Once oppression has been internalised, little force is needed to keep us submissive. We harbour inside ourselves the pain and the memories, the fears and the confusions, the negative self-images and the low expectations, turning them into weapons with which to re-injure ourselves, every day of our lives.”
‘Internalised Oppression’ by Micheline Mason (first published in Reiser, R. and Mason, M. (eds) (1990) Disability Equality in Education, London: ILEA).

Every person on the planet has been subject to some kind of oppression, and has to some extent internalised and believed the oppressive stories told about them. It takes harsh and hurtful experiences us to believe these messages, and to become confused about our own intelligence, powerfulness and worth.

Believing oppressive messages undermines the powerfulness of an individual, and can sabotage the effectiveness of social movements. Internalised oppression operates on two levels – how we feel about ourselves, and how we feel about our people. If we feel awful about ourselves, and others like us, this is likely to manifest in undermining and attacking each other. The heavier the internalised oppression, the more difficult it is to have functional and effective organisations and movements – unless work is done to address it. Reducing the impact of internalised oppression results in greater unity and stronger liberation movements.

It is possible to unlearn and heal from internalised oppression, and organisations can take practical steps to support this. The Community Toolbox offers these suggestions, and I’m adding in number seven:

1. Become a close friend, ally, or mentor to individuals who you see are struggling with internalized oppression.
2. Take pride in and celebrate culture.
3. Meet in groups with people from similar backgrounds, to heal from the emotional hurts of internalized oppression.
4. Take action against injustice and oppression.
5. When you notice internalized oppression operating in groups, point it out, and help the group change direction.
6. Protect young people from the effects of oppression.
7. Promote diversity and cross-constituency alliances in order to reduce the dominance of any particular internalised oppression.
Questions for reflection and discussion

Where do you hold back from acting boldly, being visible, or trusting your own thinking? Where do you see that other people are limited?
What do you like about your people? What can’t you stand?! (Think of this in terms of any identity you carry eg men, women, trans, Australians, race, ethnic heritage, age etc)
Where do you see internalised oppression operating? In your own life? In organisations and social movements?
What steps can you take in your organisation or movement to reduce the impact of internalised oppression?
Join the discussion

New to the Liberation Book Club? This is a monthly discussion of anti-oppression ideas and practices. For more information see past months: May, June, July, August , September and October.

Get in contact if you have any queries or comments.

Holly Hammond

Healing from the Effects of Internalized Oppression - A great chapter from the Community Toolbox with further information about internalised oppression. Reproduction of this material is encouraged for community purposes, but please acknowledge the source: Community Tool Box: http://ctb.ku.edu


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