Internalized Oppression and its Impact on Social Change

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 activist 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. This extends beyond 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 (p. 151-152):

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, even though 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.   Is the focus inherently divisive?  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