Internalized Oppression: We Need to Stop Hating Ourselves
New book highlights the universality of internalized oppression across groups.
Posted September 30, 2015 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
In your mind’s eye, picture the following scenarios:
A black woman in Nigeria bleaching her skin.
A gay man in the United States going through reparative or conversion therapy to cure himself of homosexuality.
A Korean woman getting surgery so that she can have a “fold” on her eyelids and be more attractive.
A young man with autism who refuses to be friends with other people with special needs, because he thinks this idea is “retarded.”
An Alaska Native woman who looks down on other Native people from the “village” and teases them for their “village accent.”
A man in the Philippines spending his hard-earned money to pay for treatments in a local skin-whitening clinic.
A mother in the United Kingdom who, while playing catch with her daughter, coaches her to “don’t throw like a girl.”
A Mexican American adolescent who is embarrassed of his parents as they struggled to talk with his teacher in their limited, broken, and accented English.
Although the attitudes and behaviors described above seem very wide-ranging, all of them actually have one common root: internalized oppression.
Oppression can come in many forms, and we can be oppressed for various reasons—because of our race, culture, sexual orientation, gender, and others. When we accept or “buy into” the negative and inferiorizing messages that are propagated about who we are, then we have begun to internalize the oppression that we experienced. We have come to learn that—having certain traits, being a member of a particular group, and being who we are—are not good enough or are not desirable. Sometimes, we even learn to hate our traits, our groups, ourselves. Even further, sometimes we end up hurting ourselves, our communities, and those who we share many similarities with, the ones who likely care for us the most—our family and friends. This is why internalized oppression does not just affect a few individuals. Instead, internalized oppression can destroy families, cultures, and communities.
We also need to realize that the inferiorizing and dehumanizing messages about women, racial minorities, LGBT folks, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups that we propagate and allow to survive in our society also affect people's mental health. Such messages distort their views of themselves and others. Distortion of reality can lead to harmful emotions (e.g., hate) toward one's self and others. Such distortions can lead to harmful, sometimes deadly, behaviors—both toward one's self (e.g., suicide) and toward others (e.g., abuse of women, hate crimes).
Such widespread, serious, heartbreaking, and long-lasting negative consequences are the reasons why I felt that a book is needed to show us that internalized oppression has already been damaging our communities for many generations, and that it continues to do so.
The Book on the Psychology of Internalized Oppression
And that's when the work on my most recent book—Internalized Oppression: The Psychology of Marginalized Groups—began. I was very excited at the start to get to work and read the manuscripts from the contributors. Because each chapter includes heartfelt narratives and stories, however, I was quickly reminded that this work was not fun at all. The topic is already depressing enough, but also reading the narratives that express immense losses, sorrows, and pains gave me regular sensations of a knife piercing through my heart.
As a Filipino American immigrant with a colonized mentality, internalized oppression has always been very real to me. I didn’t know it was possible, but reading the stories from many others who at the surface may seem very different from me, made internalized oppression even “more real.”
Perhaps being “more real” means the realization that internalized oppression is more widespread and impactful than I previously thought. Whatever it means, I know that—despite the darkness and the bleakness—I came out of this experience feeling less alone and more inspired, connected, hopeful, and stronger than ever to address internalized oppression and its negative consequences on communities throughout the world.
And to this, the book is the first to highlight the universality of internalized oppression, while at the same time acknowledging its unique manifestations and implications for various groups such as African Americans, Latinas/os, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, American Indians, Alaska Natives, women, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community, and people with disabilities. The chapters are written by leading and emerging scholars, who share their personal experiences to provide a real-world point of view. Additionally, each chapter is co-authored by a member of the particular community group they are writing about, which helps bring a first-hand, insider perspective on the lived realities of such groups. Even further, the community coauthors' experiences also help to bring academic concepts to life.
One of the main goals of this book is to illuminate the widespread existence and destruction of internalized oppression, and hopefully unite various groups around the world to work together toward addressing this most insidious form of oppression. Perhaps by seeing that all of us are affected by the devastation of oppression and internalized oppression, then we will come to realize that we should care. Perhaps we will also see that all of us have a role in oppression. Then, maybe, all of us might do something to address it.
It is time for us to become aware of how internalized oppression may exist and operate within us so that we may begin to stop it, control its effects, and cease the possibility that we pass it on to future generations. We’re not born hating ourselves; we learned that. Therefore, we can unlearn it. It’s not easy, but we need to.
Note: An earlier version of this post was previously published in Springer Publishing Company's blog.