Monday, May 14, 2018

Recognizing and Healing from Internalized Oppression and Dominance

I delivered this talk at the Community Christian Church on May 13, 2018. It has been lightly edited. 
CW:  Calling out disablist language

Last week, I shared some reflections on disability justice, in light of the recent legislative attacks on the Americans with Disabilities Act. Whenever I encounter unjust situations like this, whether it is disablism, racism, misogyny, gender and sexuality antagonisms, and the like, the question that tends to linger in my mind is – why in the world do we go along with this stuff? Horrible things are happening, we witness or hear about them, and, almost inevitably, someone is there to insist that it’s not that bad, that we’ve just misunderstood the situation, or that it has been worse in the past. It is as if, although oppression may exist, apparently oppressors do not. Do any of these sound familiar?

    • “That was a long time ago; can’t you just get over it?”
    • “Be patient with him; he’s just set in his ways, but he’s not a bad guy.”
    • “You have to overlook some of what she says; she doesn’t mean it that way.”
    • “Honestly, it’s not because of race; we decided to go in a different direction.”
    • “Well, I don’t agree with how they treated you, but everyone has a right to their own opinion.”

 And, perhaps most famously –

    • “Take it easy; it’s just a joke.

Internalized Oppression and Dominance

Systems don’t exist without our participation. In peace and conflict studies, we often talk about how different dimensions – personal, relational, structural, and cultural – all work together to create the circumstances of our lives, for good or ill. Oppressive systems require that the masses of people go along with them, tolerating and protecting them, even if the people involved don’t benefit from them, and even if the people involved are ultimately worse off. This is where the concept of internalized oppression and dominance can be a useful tool, because most of us do not mean to perpetuate oppression, but we still do it. We do it because the oppression and domination is programmed into the way we think and act, so that it becomes automatic and we don’t even recognize it much of the time.

Internalized oppression refers to the ways that marginalized and oppressed people become accustomed to and even participate in oppressive ideas and practices. As a personal example, I was out as a bisexual and genderqueer person from my late teens, but only as a confession of sinfulness. My conservative religious and cultural upbringing had conditioned me to believe that those parts of my experience and identity were immoral. I could only speak about them if I was doing so as a testimony to how I was successfully resisting that part of my life, or if I was encouraging someone else to do the same. I internalized the messages from my community as self-loathing, and I acted on those messages by participating in punishing and oppressing myself and passing on those messages to others. I finally worked through enough of that to begin embracing my gender and sexuality and loving my self during my late 20s.

Internalized domination is the opposite side of the same coin. That conservative religious upbringing that taught me to hate some parts of myself also taught me, for example, that identifying as a Christian made me superior to people of other religions. They didn’t use those words, of course, but it was pretty clear that this was the case, since we were the only true religion, and our denomination was even better than the other Christians. So they trained me, rather unsuccessfully, to convince other people that this was also the case. I internalized that domination in a way that made it seem natural to believe that Christianity was obviously truer and morally superior to any other belief system. It is an easy step from there to support cultural habits and public policies that are based on the idea that Christianity and Christians are entitled to special treatment.

If you need another example, none may be more powerful than the growing body of research on the voting trends in the 2016 US elections, which brought Donald Trump to the White House. The most recent, published in April 2018 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was titled, “Status threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 presidential vote.” The research began with noting how these group status dynamics have become more and more prominent in the USA, especially in two areas. First, many white folk are not adjusting well to the idea that society is becoming more diverse. They referred to a 2013 study by Clara Wilkins and Cheryl Kaiser that discovered that white folk who thought the current system is legitimate had “lower levels of self-worth” when shown “evidence of racial progress.” They quite literally cheered themselves up by believing there was anti-white bias in the world, rather than by embracing the idea of equality and justice for all. Second, many Americans are worried about the perceived “increasing interdependence of the United States on other countries.” A decrease in US dominance on the world stage was interpreted as weakness, rather than opportunity for humanity to work together in increasingly cooperative ways.

The conclusion of their study, as written by Diana Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania, was:
“Based on these results, it would be a mistake for people to understand the 2016 election as resulting from the frustration of those left behind economically. Instead, both experimental evidence and panel survey evidence document significant political consequences from a rising sense of status threat among dominant groups in the United States. … Those who felt that the hierarchy was being upended—with whites discriminated against more than blacks, Christians discriminated against more than Muslims, and men discriminated against more than women—were most likely to support Trump. …
“Most critically, these results speak to the importance of group status in the formation of political preferences. Political uprisings are often about downtrodden groups rising up to assert their right to better treatment and more equal life conditions relative to high-status groups. The 2016 election, in contrast, was an effort by members of already dominant groups to assure their continued dominance and by those in an already powerful and wealthy country to assure its continued dominance.” ( )

Language and Internalized Oppression and Dominance

This is straight forward enough, but humans tend to be uncomfortable with the idea that we are vulnerable to this kind of social conditioning. I’ve said this before, in discussing racism, but I think it is worth repeating. Human brains are vulnerable to cognitive biases, and we make interpretations and decisions based on those biases. Most, if not all, people have some level of internalized oppression or domination. It can be embarrassing to admit, so we tend to insist that we are the exceptions. This is why we say things, like: “I don’t have a racist bone in my body;” “I can’t be transantagonistic, I’m gay!”; “I’m not sexist; I love women!” It’s tough to come face to face with the possibility that we are not the exceptions, and that we, too, are vulnerable to internalized oppression and domination. A kind of reactionary, emotional logic lurks beneath the surface of our thoughts:

1) Racists/misogynists/disablists/homophobes/etc. are bad people.
2) I am a good person.
3) Therefore, I am not a racist/misogynist/disablist/homophobe/etc.

Last week, I came pretty close to asking aloud how any decent person would be willing to support measures that took away rights from people with disabilities. While different people will have different clusters of motivations, I am convinced that internalized domination plays a big role. For example, I’m going to assume the best about us and say that all of us are enthusiastic about fighting disablism and working for accessibility. But I am enough of a realist that I would also be surprised if the everyday language of people in this room did not include disablist words and slurs, at least some of the time. Why? Because it’s nearly impossible for us to avoid internalizing disablism in this way, it takes consistent effort to change our habits, and most of us are surrounded by disablist language. But we need to stop and ask: what are we communicating to our selves and others when we call something lame or dumb, comparing physical impairments to things we do not like? And what are we communicating about neurodivergent people when we choose to use one of many insults based on mental health – psycho, nuts, crazy, stupid, loony, idiotic, and the like? None of these words should be used as we commonly use them. Many people with disabilities have asked for these words to be removed from our vocabularies, for many years. And yet, here we still are. This is not merely a lesson in being polite; this is a lesson in how the words we use reflect and reinforce our cultures and structures, and, in cases like this, injustice.

Language also offers an incredible glimpse into the way that we learn what our cultures consider real, important, and acceptable. In the case of the gender binary, we learn very quickly that our society as a whole only allows two, male and female. We have made some progress with acknowledging that transgender people exist, but we are often forced into that binary, whether we fit or not. So what about a person like me, who is nonbinary and genderqueer, not exclusively male or female? It’s a common human experience, documented throughout history and across cultures, but not in most western cultures, except as an aberration. So there is not even a vocabulary for our existence, not even pronouns, and the language is a constant reminder that the society at large has no place for us. Which is why, in my case, I use singular they as my pronoun, instead of he or she. It’s a small step, but the idea is that including nonbinary people in our everyday language not only communicates affirmation and respect, it also expresses a willingness to change society to include people that have been otherwise excluded.

We could work through language associated with other types of marginalization and oppression, with similar results. Through conversations, advertisements, entertainment, and education, we are giving ourselves instructions on what to expect, how to feel, and what to think about our lives. For most of us, we go around soaking it up, usually without realizing that we are being trained and training others. So if we want to build movements, made of human beings who are prone to internalized oppression and domination, we need to build in practices that help us deal with these dynamics in honest and thorough ways. We need to find ways to get beyond our knee-jerk reactions to our complicity, to give pause to automatic self-justifications, and be intentional about not only understanding the world, but changing it.

Changing the Measure

Internalized oppression and dominance combines helpfully with another sociological concept, that of norm perceptions. Together, they help answer the question of why it is so easy for most humans to simply go along with injustice, and why it can be so difficult to denounce injustice and announce a different world. Simply put, human beings tend to feel, think, and act in ways that they believe are considered typical by those around them. We go along with our group and internalize those expectations.

As an example, think about all the social norms at work at an American football game. In other settings, adults physically tackling one another in an aggressive way would not only be inappropriate, it would be illegal. And cheering and encouraging that physical aggression would often be perceived as immoral, at the very least. But at the stadium, it is what is expected, and you are encouraged to get excited, celebrate, and enjoy a hot dog and beer. However, spectators are not allowed to participate, and those that do run onto the field will be expelled or even arrested. If you've grown up learning all those social expectations, it is likely you don't even notice them anymore - this is just the way things are. You don't have to think about them, you aren't surprised by them, and they feel natural. But if you are unfamiliar, attending an American football game is more likely to be confusing, bewildering, boring, or perhaps even exhilarating.

Throughout history, social norms have been powerful vehicles for perpetuating injustice. People from widely different cultures and time periods have all come to accept, tolerate, and even protect egregious oppression as normal - genocide, slavery, segregation, economic exploitation, sexual violence, war, and other oppressive systems. When oppression becomes built into social expectations, they are internalized, and people are not any more likely to notice those norms than the spectator at the football game - this is just the way things are. If you don't have to think about the norms, you aren't surprised by them, and they feel natural. The oppression becomes inevitable, and is reinforced both through unconscious and intentional behavior, structures, and cultures.

As discouraging as this may sound, social norms also provide an incredible opportunity. If injustice can be normalized and internalized, so can justice. The question becomes: how can we influence social norms so that what we come to expect from one another is equality, compassion, well-being, and solidarity? In a presentation on implicit bias in early childhood education, Dr. Walter Gilliam pointed out that human beings tend to -  "value whatever we measure. … If we can change the measurements, … then sometimes we can effect human behavior without the humans even thinking about it.” ( )

In other words, we tend to value, we tend to internalize, what we and our social groups pay attention to. If you want to uncover social norms and their justifications in a given society or group, look at how they measure their success or well-being. If you want to use social norms to promote change, find ways to shift those measurements, to shift the attention, to measures that align with justice. This is why, last week, we talked about normalizing accessibility and interdependence, making those the measures, and prioritizing them over other measures, such as profitability and productivity. Because, to quote Dr. Gilliam again, human beings tend to -  "value whatever we measure. … If we can change the measurements, … then sometimes we can effect human behavior without the humans even thinking about it.”

Starting With Ourselves

As I worked through these reflections, I decided to take time to list my own aspirations and theories of change. Here are three of my personal commitments:

    • Assume you have internalized oppression and domination. In my experience, the default assumption is often that only “bad” people have internalized oppression and domination. So let’s change the measure: justice-minded folks actively work to recognize their implicit biases and are intentional about changing their habits of thinking, speaking, and acting to align with their values.

    • Expect to learn, heal, and grow. Because I am more and more aware of how this works, it is more likely that I’ll take advantage of opportunities to change. And if someone, especially someone from a marginalized community, points out that I have done or said something oppressive, I will receive it as an opportunity for self-reflection. If I feel my reactivity bubbling up, I will pause. Instead of defending or justifying myself, I can say thank you for taking the time to speak up. I don’t have to agree or disagree, but I can resolve to use it as an opportunity to root out, as Audre Lourde put it, “that piece of the oppressor that is planted deep within each of us.”

    • Commit to listening to and centering people from marginalized communities. I realize that I mention this in 2/3 of the talks I deliver but if I have internalized the dominant, oppressive narrative about life, then a foundation for changing the measure has to be hearing and heeding voices that speak the language of liberation and justice and love.

We could go through relational, organizational, and cultural dimensions and distill similar experiences and principles, but I won’t try to squeeze that into this particular talk. Holly will be reflecting a little on working to change the measures within your spheres of influence, especially with how she’s helping address implicit bias at her workplace and also how her children’s book can help readers internalize measures of justice, wisdom, equity, and love. But the main idea here is simple: we tend to value, we tend to internalize, what we and our social groups pay attention to. It can be, it probably will be, uncomfortable when we ask people in our circles to pay attention to what has been overlooked and ignored. But this is why we have to keep pointing out the injustices around us, no matter how many times someone tells us to be quiet. And this is why we have to keep insisting on changing the measure, making love and justice the standards by which we gauge success, well-being, and progress.

Because if injustice can be normalized and internalized, so can justice. And if colonizers, imperialists, misogynists, and racists can build a world where peace and justice seems outlandish, then we can build a world where exploitation, greed, and violence are equally outlandish. That’s the world I want to live in, the world I want to internalize, and the world that we have the opportunity to build together, if we’re willing to keep doing this work.