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How Does Oppression (Microaggressions) Affect Perpetrators?

The cognitive, affective, behavioral, and spiritual costs of oppression.

"All the white people I know deplore racism. We feel helpless about racial injustice in society, and we don't know what to do about the racism we sense in our own groups and lives. Persons of other races avoid our groups when they accurately sense the racism we don't see (just a gays spot heterosexism in straight groups, and women see chauvinism among men). Few white people socialize or work politically with people of other races, even when our goals are the same. We don't want to be racist - so much of the time we go around trying not to be, by pretending we're not. Yet, white supremacy is basic in American social and economic history, and this racist heritage has been internalized by American white people of all classes. We have all absorbed white racism; pretence and mystification only compound the problem."

Spoken by Sara Winter, a White female psychologist, nothing could be more straightforward about what she and many other well-intentioned people experience as they confront racism, sexism and heterosexism: (a) a realization of the pervasiveness of oppression and injustice toward marginalized groups; (b) burgeoning awareness of their own role and complicity in the oppression of others; (c) pretending that they are free of biases and prejudices; (d) avoiding marginalized groups so they are not reminded about the racism, sexism and heterosexism that lies inside and outside of them; (e) feeling impotent about changing social injustices in our society; (f) realizing that White, male and heterosexual "supremacy" is a basic and integral part of U. S. society; and (g) awareness that no one is free from inheriting the racial, gender and sexual orientation biases of this society.

Winter's quote is directed toward well-intentioned Whites who are only marginally aware of their biases and their roles in the oppression of persons of color. The internal struggle she describes is manifested cognitively (awareness vs. denial, mystification, and pretense) and behaviorally (isolation and avoidance of marginalized groups). The internal struggle, however, brings about strong, intense and powerful emotional feelings as well:

"When someone pushes racism into my awareness, I feel guilty (that I could be doing so much more); angry (I don't like to feel like I'm wrong); defensive (I already have two Black friends...I worry more about racism than most whites do - isn't that enough): turned off (I have other priorities in my life with guilt about that thought): helpless (the problem is so big - what can I do?). I HATE TO FEEL THIS WAY. That is why I minimize race issues and let them fade from my awareness whenever possible."

On cognitive, emotional, behavioral and spiritual levels, research in psychology indicate that when microaggressive perpetrators become increasingly aware of their biases, they often experience debilitating emotional turmoil (guilt, fear, defensiveness), cognitive distortion and constriction - false sense of reality, and behavioral avoidance or inauthentic actions that impair relationships with marginalized individuals and/or groups. In my previous two blogs, I concentrated the discussion and analysis of racial, gender and sexual orientation microaggressions on the recipients; especially with respect to their harmful impact upon people of color, women and LGBTs.

For a moment I'd like to turn my attention to describing the social and psychological consequences to microaggressive perpetrators. What are the psychosocial costs to perpetrators of racism, sexism and heterosexism? Increasing interest and scholarly works on the psychosocial costs of racism have spawned renewed interest in looking at the detrimental impact to those who oppress.

Cognitive Costs of Oppression

Many scholars and humanists have argued that being an oppressor requires a dimming of perceptual awareness and accuracy that is associated with self-deception. They note that few oppressors are completely unaware of their roles in the oppression and degradation of others. To continue in their oppressive ways means they must engage in denial and live a false reality that allows them to function in good conscience. Second, the oppressors' empowered status over marginalized groups may have a corrupting influence in the ability to attune to the plight of marginalized groups. The oft-quoted saying that "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely" has been attributed to Lord Acton in 1887. In essence, an imbalance of power acutely affects perceptual accuracy and diminishes reality testing. In the corporate world, women must attune to the feelings and actions of their male colleagues in order to survive in a male culture. People of color must be constantly vigilant to read the minds of their oppressors lest they incur their wrath. Oppressors, however, do not need to understand the thoughts, beliefs or feelings of various marginalized groups to survive. Their actions are not accountable to those without power and they need not understand them to function effectively.

Affective Costs of Oppression

As we have seen, when racism, sexism or heterosexism is pushed into the consciousness of oppressors, they are likely to experience a mix of strong and powerful disruptive emotions. These intense feelings represent emotional roadblocks to self-exploration and must be deconstructed if oppressors are to continue in their journey to self-reckoning.

1. Fear, anxiety and apprehension are common and powerful feelings that arise when race, gender or sexual orientation related situations present themselves. The fear may be directed at members of marginalized groups; that they are dangerous, will do harm, are prone to violence, or contaminate the person (catching AIDS). Thus, avoidance of certain group members and restricting interactions with them may be chosen.

2. Guilt is also another strong and powerful emotion that many Whites experience when racism is brought to their awareness. As we have indicated, an attempt to escape guilt and remorse means dulling and diminishing one's own perception. Knowledge about race-based advantages, the continued mistreatment of large groups of people, the realization that people have personally been responsible for the pain and suffering of others, elicits strong feelings of guilt. Guilt creates defensiveness and outbursts of anger in an attempt to deny, diminish and avoid such a disturbing self-revelation.

3. Low empathy and sensitivity towards the oppressed is another outcome of oppression for the perpetrator. The harm, damage, and acts of cruelty visited upon marginalized groups can only continue if the person's humanity is diminished; they lose sensitivity to those that are hurt; they become hard, cold and unfeeling to the plight of the oppressed; and they turn off their compassion and empathy for others. To continue being oblivious to one's own complicity in such acts, means objectifying and dehumanizing people of color, women, and LGBTs. In many respects it means separating oneself from others, seeing them as lesser beings, and in many cases treating them like subhuman aliens.

Behavioral Costs of Oppression

Behaviorally, the psychosocial costs of racism include fearful avoidance of diverse groups and/or diversity activities/experiences in our society, impaired interpersonal relationships, pretense and inauthenticity in dealing with racial, gender or sexual orientation topics, and acting in a callous and cold manner toward fellow human beings

Fearful avoidance deprives oppressors the richness of possible friendships and an expansion of educational experiences that open up life horizons and possibilities. If we use racism as an example, there is great loss in depriving oneself of interracial friendships, forming new alliances, and learning about differences related to diversity. Self-segregation because of fear of certain groups in our society and depriving oneself of multicultural/diversity experiences constrict one's life possibilities and results in a narrow view of the world.

Spiritual and Moral Cost of Oppression

In essence, oppression inevitably means losing one's humanity for the power, wealth and status attained from the subjugation of others. It means losing the spiritual connectedness with fellow human beings. It means a refusal to recognize the polarities of the democratic principles of equality and the inhuman and unequal treatment of the oppressed. It means turning a blind eye to treating marginalized groups like second-class citizens, imprisoning groups on reservations, concentration camps, inferior schools, segregated neighborhoods, prisons and life-long poverty. To allow the continued degradation, harm and cruelty to the oppressed mean diminishing one's humanity, and lessening compassion toward others. People who oppress must, at some level, become callous, cold, hard and unfeeling toward the plight of the oppressed.

In conclusion, racial, gender and sexual orientation microaggressions are manifestations of oppression. They remain invisible because of a cultural conditioning process that allows perpetrators to discriminate without knowledge of their complicity in the inequities visited upon people of color, women, LGBTs and other marginalized groups. The costs of inaction for perpetrators can be calculated in the cognitive, emotional, behavioral and spiritual toll to oppressors. But, what can we do about it? That is the topic of the next blog, but I end this column with the following quote attributed to Albert Einstein: "The world is too dangerous to live in - not because of the people who do evil, but because of the people who sit and let it happen."

Taken from: Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

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