In my recent article, On Internal Criticism: Taking the Higher Ground, I assert that “we certainly can and should challenge one another when we disagree on views, actions, terminology, perceptions of history,” philosophical and ideological strategies, “and ways to move forward” as individuals and as communities.
I then argue, “We have crossed a critical line, however, when we enter into character assassination, insinuation and innuendo, name-calling, stereotyping, defamation, and calling into question one another’s motives for the views and perspectives we hold.”
Connected to the personal and often vicious attacks on LGBTQ people by other LGBTQ people, I posed two important critical questions: “Have some of us taken on the characteristics of our abusers by perpetuating the abuse? And what role does internalized oppression play in this equation?”
LGBTQ people, and other people of socially marginalized identities and communities, still live in a nation and a world that, in many quarters, teaches that we are “less than,” that we do not have a right to exist, and even that we actually do not exist. As such, we can find it difficult at best not to internalize society’s negative teaching about ourselves.
We can understand internalized oppression as the internalization, consciously or unconsciously, of external attitudes, teachings, myths, lies, and stereotypes of inferiority, inadequacy, self-hatred, and sense of “otherness” by the targets of systematic and systemic oppression.
Lipsky, referring to racism, discusses the “distress patterns” of internalized oppression:
“The result has been that these distress patterns, created by oppression and racism from the outside, have been played out in the only two places it has seemed ‘safe’ to do so. First, upon members of our own group — particularly upon those over whom we have some degree of power or control… Second, upon ourselves through all manner of self-invalidation, self-doubt, isolation, fear, feelings of powerlessness, and despair.”
Internalizing these external negative societal messages is not our fault, for we too have been socialized within the systemic framework of multiple forms of oppression. There are, however, steps we can take to reduce, or even eliminate internalized oppression, though working to end internalized oppression is a long-term process.
We cannot begin the process of unlearning until and unless we work to become aware of our own distress patterns, for it is much easier to direct our anger and blame – to project — outward onto others, than to look within ourselves to our own injuries.
Though I have been involved as a political activist and community organizer for 50+ years founding and working for LGBTQ organizations and activist groups, through years of undertaking my “personal” work, nearly on a daily basis, I continually become aware of the “stuff” still in my head: the self-doubts, the shame, the fear of living as a queer person.
For example, I have always loved the colors lavender and pink. My good friend gave me a gift of a beautiful bright and warm hot pink fleece house robe, which I simply adore. Before I put it on each time, however, I always pull the curtains and shades in my house and lower the lighting to make certain no one on the outside can see me.
I understand that we live in a nation with strictly-held gender scripts where it is written that people assigned “male” at birth must don certain apparel (not “gay apparel”) and avoid others. Part of my reaction stems from the knowledge that transgressors suffer extreme consequences. I am certain, however, that I also operate in ways influenced by internalized oppression.
Therefore, to Acknowledge the internalized oppression can be the second step after Awareness, before proceeding to taking Action. This “AAA” 12-step program plan to confront addiction can be applied to confronting internalized oppression as well.
One of the means of action I have taken over the past three decades was first to develop and continually refine and to conduct “Unlearning Internalized Oppression” workshop for members of marginalized identities and communities.
By no means officially “scientific” or definitive, over the years in my studies and hearing workshop participants’ experiences, I have come up with a list of some of the ways people act out or manifest their distress patterns related to their internalized oppression:
- Denial of one’s minoritized identity(ies) to oneself and others.
- Attempts to alter or change one’s identity(ies).
- Feeling one is never “good enough” (sometimes a tendency toward “perfectionism”).
- Engaging in obsessive thinking and/or compulsive behaviors.
- Under-achievement as a sign of resignation or giving up; or Over-achievement as a bid for acceptance.
- Delayed or postponed emotional and/or cognitive development.
- Low Self-Esteem and/or Body Image.
- Contempt for the more “open” or “obvious” members of your identity community(ies).
- Contempt for those at earlier stages of the identity developmental process” (The “I am more proud than thou” attitude.)
- Denial that oppression against minoritized peoples and communities are serious social problems.
- Contempt for those who are not just like ourselves; and/or Contempt for those who seem like ourselves.
- Projection of prejudice onto other minoritized group(s), reinforced by society’s existing prejudices.
- Becoming psychologically and/or physically abusive; or remaining in an abusive relationship.
- Attempts to “pass” as a member(s) of dominant groups to gain social approval.
- Increased fear and withdrawal from friends and relatives.
- Shame and/or depression.
- Anger and/or bitterness.
- School truancy and/or dropping out of school; Workplace Absenteeism/Reduced Productivity
- Continual self-monitoring of one’s behaviors, mannerisms, beliefs, and ideas.
- “Minstrelizing” or clowning as a way of acting out society’s negative stereotypes of your minoritized identity(ies).
- Mistrust and destructive criticism of “activist” community leaders. (“Eating One’s Own.”)
- Reluctance to be around or have concern for children of dominant groups for fear of being considered a “pedophile” or “predator.”
- Conflicts with the law as a reaction to oppression, sometimes as a conscious or unconscious cry for help.
- Unsafe sexual practices and other destructive risk-taking behaviors (including risks for pregnancy and STDs and HIV).
- Separating sex and love, and/or fear of intimacy. Sometimes low or lack of sexual drive.
- Substance abuse (including food, alcohol, drugs, and others).
- Suicidal ideation, attempts, completion.
During these times, as the political and theocratic right-wing attempt to roll back the gains marginalized people and communities have fought so hard and tirelessly for over the years, we must remain forever vigilant and continue the struggle. For us to work to our fullest potential in the movement and generally in our daily lives, we must also work on our “stuff,” the ways in which we have internalized those subtle and not-so-subtle messages, how this has limited us, and how we can dismantle this internalization and move forward.
We must stop eating our own!
Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).
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