The course that changed my life was called Making Connections.
When I was in college at Hobart and William Smith, there was a program called Peer Education and Human Relations. It was my minor, it served as some of the backbone of what has made me the therapist that I am today. Today, from what I know about the field of Social Work, and having done my MSW at the top institution in the country, I believe the PEHR program at HWS served as a defacto BSW program. This course work extremely through in studying the history and dynmacis of oppression. It provided a broad scope of terminology and application of terminology. It had in it, some of the most intense training in facilitation and practice applications that I have ever engaged. Further after my training was completed, in my senior year, I taught three semesters of work as a facilitator-led and taught 15 up-and-coming trainees. I taught this capstone course, "Making Connections" twice and I firmly believe that what I gained in my time as an undergrad shaped who I am today and gave me the skills that I use every day as a clinical therapist.
The course Making Connections had an ambitious task: how do you take a group of 60-80 people ad walk them through each 'ism a week, and hope to bring them through the grueling exploration of how to identify and work with oppression?
The writing that I have been sharing came from that course work from Hobart and William Smith and from various other graduate work from Washington University in Saint Louis. At the time of writing this post though, the core of the lessons I received are over 20 years old. Yet, they are all relevant. They represent a model of how to work with diversity issues on a large scale. The course has had many names, but the name I learned to appreciate was: “Making Connections,” or MC for short. MC is an experiential learning course based around systems of oppression in society. It was a course created by men and women who worked and studied at Cornell University, and it taught me how to live.
The key tenet of the course is that there is no hierarchy of oppression. Each form of oppression is equal to any other, as opposed to there being one that is the most important to solve. Further, it taught me that as long as you have one form of oppression you will have all the others; there is no “solving” racism, for example, unless we solve all forms of oppression. The course taught me how to dissect different types of societal oppression and recognize the historical implications and similarities one type has with the others. Students learned their roles in breaking the cycle of oppression, as well as the stereotypes and misinformation associated with different groups of people.
For an entire semester, myself and a group of 60 other students, faculty and staff members gathered for three hours to talk about understanding what the individual experiences. We would tackle an “ism” a week: Racism, Ageism, Ableism, Sexism, Heterosexism, Anti-Semitism and Classism, making interconnections between them all. Each ism has a relation to power and access to privileges. With sexism, for example, the group in power is men and called the “included group.” Therefore, the excluded group is women.
Each class began with a historical understanding of the roots of the oppression, typically a 45 minute lecture supported by readings and class discussion. We then separated into affinity groups. For example, women talked to one another about their experiences and vice versa with men. We were allowed to work through our experiences with oppression with others privately, without judgement and without being forced to defend our experiences. No matter the ism we were discussing, I always felt like I learned something valuable about my experience in the world.
Then something more remarkable would occur: We would come back together as a group and the excluded group would speak to the included group about their experiences. This was something radically powerful about this class, and it allowed us to share personal stories that transformed opinions. How often have I, as a man, been able to listen to all of the ways that women are impacted by sexism? How often have I been able to share the ways in which I have been personally impacted by racism in my life? How often have I had the opportunity to speak to a group of thoughtful, patient potential allies? Reflecting back on the class now, it seems remarkable that we did this every week.
By the end of the 10 week course lives were radically changed. Individuals that thought they had no culture and questioned their validity as an ally began to transform themselves into being anti-oppression activists. Individuals that experienced oppression in excluded groups grasped language and understanding of a shared experience that transcended not only their own identity group but saw the intersectionality of other groups.
The model of MC is one that can be replicated and worked with in large groups across the country. Whether is set in a corporate environment or used as a model to work with higher education institutions the system works as it leaves no story untouched and has material which makes use of our own stories and experience with oppression. Individuals can learn the basic tenants of social justice and begin breaking out of the systems of oppression which have plagued them. Using the lessons I learned 20 years ago and using the skills I have honed for for the past two decades brings me to the field of social justice and helping others.
Systems of oppression are taught and reinforced by a cycle of oppression which keeps you locked into a way of thinking about the way the world works. It takes information and unlearning to break this cycle. This is the second installment of teachings on social justice that I work with in diversity training sessions.
BORN INTO THIS:
From birth we have a number of privileges based on what we are born into. Someone who is born with a white body and rich parents has a leg up on the rest of the population in lots of ways. But it doesn't stop there. You receive messages from people like your family and parents who want your success and to be untroubled by the world around you. If you were born assigned a boy, they may wrap you in a blue blanket, if you were assigned as a girl at birth, they wrapped you in a pink blanket. Perhaps, your parents get right into looking at everything in binaries and they may get into the subject object thing too. It may be complicated for them to begin explaining what it means to be gay or Jewish at this point in your young life so they begin creating a more object orientated view of the world. You then learn things from your community, then this is reinforced by the media, or your organized religion, the methods of influence come from all over. Be it the movies you watch, the songs you sing, the world is being manufactured around in you in real time. There are agents to ensure you get the message--who have a stake in ensuring that you buy things that correspond to your class, to your race and gender and so on. And before you are even hitting puberty you may have already gotten a pretty darn good understanding of the way you're supposed to be and act. And what's worse is you may believe that everyone else who is not like you is "wrong" in some way.
TAUGHT & REINFORCED:
My favorite proverb, popularized by Chinua Achebe, "Only when lions have historians, will hunters cease being heroes." Our history is just one person of history, taught by the victors and is constantly evolving. It is taught by a perspective that excludes perspectives and does not allow for a complexity to be shared. We do not reckon with the complicated pasts because they mess up the goals that the majority power is trying to push forward. As the history is taught then it becomes reinforced by people who have influenced you in your life. For some this may your parents, for others these are your teachers, clergy members or political leaders.
This happens without us really becoming aware of the implications of their views. But powerful understandings become ingrained in our minds. When I first started doing this work I thought that everyone who was reinforcing views had ill intent in their heart. Not true. People who have been influential in your life are in the same boat. They're all on a journey to understand their own relationship with personal oppression.
This info-graphic allows you to see how complicated this is. Going back to the idea of studying oppression as a cycle and not looking at it as something base, this allows you to get a sense of what I'm talking about. It was something that was developed by some of the teachers I worked with at Hobart and William Smith. I've updated it here. It's called the Cycle of Personal Oppression. Please use it and reflect on it.
MESSAGES ARE CRAFTED AND DEVELOPED BY INSTITUTIONS:
Like the example I used in the previous post, media and a host of other institutions deliver messages which infuse our understanding of oppression on a global scale. We make choices regarding what institutions are
Importantly, you don't need to feel guilty as to where you are. We all go through this cycle. We're all taught things about ourselves and the rest of the world. Then we get some information and our impulse is to either deny it or work with it. If you are interested in breaking out of the cycle of oppression you work with it. It's okay. We have to keep moving and taking information and unlearning.
BECOMING SOMEONE: EXTERNALIZED AND INTERNALIZED OPPRESSION
The next stage is difficult to express. As we begin to grow up, perhaps this happens somewhere in the teenage years, perhaps older, perhaps younger. We begin to identify ourselves in how we want to relate to the world.
We've all had moments where we began to see race, or sex, or religion. We began to understand that the way we were raised in society was different and that we began to need to work through our identities. We begin to identify with our role in society. We work with the information that we have received all of our life and then begin to take action. We choose every day to accept these lessons. Individuals make decisions every day--we all do--of whether we will reinforce a model of subjugation, power and identification as other people as an object.
It is important to note that we engage with oppression on different levels of our being. We are only exploring in this post, internal and external oppression. Though there are two other levels, group and inter-group. That's for another post.
Internalized oppression works on the inside. We pick up these messages and without having an external impetus, we learn to do it to ourselves. The way I describe this is when I saw on CNN a graphic about latin men who commit crimes. I will never forget the feeling that I had that day, seeing latin and then "Cuban" and a number associated with it. It made me feel immediately like a criminal. And of course, the statistic didn't really mean that--but I felt that the message clearly and I held onto it for quite a while.
Importantly, internalized and externalized oppression are always working with one another. From a cognitive perspective, these are reinforced messages where our understanding of ourself is always shifting with the world around us. Our true self stands in the way of the external messages and the negative internalization. It works to
MAINTAIN THE STATUS QUO OR BREAK THE CYCLE:
If you choose to maintain the status quo, well, that's your choice. You may need more information or to continue working on yourself. However, if you have even gotten this far in exploring, it is honestly hard not to begin to break the cycle. As, just because you may be in the included group on particular isms, it does not mean you aren't suffering from oppression.
The very cool thing about all this is that the cycle is actually very fragile. The minute that you begin to unlearn all the lessons you received then you have broken out of the cycle. Yes, it takes time but it's not like this is a lifetime of work. You want to remove a tattoo, it's not that hard. You begin to take stands in your life about what you believe. You do not allow others to speak about oppression as if it does not matter--because you now have information. You make choices in your life to support causes, get involved and the gift of understanding this system, ultimately liberates you from thinking you aren't connected to others. You view people more as similar to you than noticing their differences.
I want to share with you a system of looking at the world, which when explained to me, fundamentally changed the way that I understood everything around me. It is from a course that I took, and then taught and trained others to teach over 20 years ago. I am sharing this now because the information is vital for the current conversation happening in America and unfortunately, there is a gap between many who are well-intentioned allies and those who have this information already or parts of it.
As Americans, we understand oppression more from an emotional and intellectual standpoint. We see a white police officer and a black man and we can point to it and think, "this is wrong" or "well, there must be reasons." but we don't really process past that. We think in terms of it being bad or justified. We make excuses for oppression that, "the world can't change overnight." Or we are complacent and say, "what can we really expect?" We make platitudes that are infuriating when you have deal with oppression. "everybody can't always to be treated with fairness." Yet, even these statements by themselves, are part of a larger fabric of understanding how oppression works as the dialogue of justifying alienation is part of our ingrained need to survive and oppression pits every group against one another to do just that. Instead, if we understood oppression from a systematic approach--if we studied it like we study a science in school, we may be able to increase awareness of when it is happening around us. We may be able to identify it in front of us when we see it around us. I'll give you an example a funny one.
I was watching Parks and Recreation the other day. It's one of my favorite shows. There's this one episode from Season 6 episode 8. The Cones of Dunshire episode.
In this episode Ron, white, wants to sell one of his cabins, of which he has four. Tom, from Indian heritage, and Donna, the only reoccurring African American woman in the show, decide to help him sell the cabin if they can split the commission. Hilarity ensues for the entire episode. Ron, who is an interesting character, a libertarian and otherwise stand-up character who talks a lot about his word and doing right by people. First, Ron is ok with the deal and then eventually, because the people who want to buy the cabin are goofy liberal types, he decides that he backs out on the deal. At the last minute, when Donna shows Ron the offer, one that is above asking price he decides he won't sell it unless they can find someone like him who wants it only for peace and quiet. April, who is biracial (Latinx) andthe closest in character type to Ron, and he treats like a surrogate daughter in the series, says to him that she will give Ron the money in her purse, $8, some cough drops and someone else's inhaler if he gives her the cabin. Donna and Tom are besides themselves. Ron, who we are to later find out is already a multi-millionare, then turns to April, agrees on the sale. Now the scene is funny but it is at the expense of the two people of color in the show.
To add insult to injury, Ron then goes into his pocket and then hands Donna some change, of which Donna then slides over the remaining change to Tom and says, "here's your share, mogul."
When I first saw this episode I never saw it as a racial moment. It was just a moment. Now, in the context of Black Lives Matter, the episode stinks of racial inequity, white privilege and stereotypes. The point is not to ruin the episode under the guise of liberal affectations. The point is to expand our thinking and understanding of how race plays out in front of us in the mass media and to at least be able to turn on that lens. And if that upsets you, wait till you rewatch the "Flu Season" episode in the CoVid world we live in.
LESSON 1: THERE IS NO HIERARCHY OF OPPRESSION.
Today, the national conversation is about with racism. Two years ago it as rich with sexism and the #MeToo campaign. When Joe Biden was uttering, :This is a Big Fn' Deal," to President Obama, it was heterosexism. Each 'ism works under the same systems, they have patterend responses, systematic systems of abuse and trauma. We are taught that each "ism" is a different sort of oppression. We believe that one is worthy of working on or we are farther along the road of another. For as long as we have one form of oppression we will have another, they work together to identify and marginalize parts of our society, creating winners and losers.
As long as you have anti-semitism, you will have ableism because they work together to undermine your sense of why one group of people are favored over another. As you Go farther in your study you see how they are linked together. For example, ableism is linked heterosexism as the American Psychological Association up until 1973 considered it a mental health condition.
To get into why this all is so common place and confusing, we have to understand that ever since we were born we've been trapped into thinking in two ways which are detrimental. a) we think in terms of binaries: you're either black or white, male or female, straight or gay and so on and so on. b) we think in terms of subject/object.
The former, has begun to be dismantled as our understanding of race and gender have become more complex but we have a long way to go and there will always be those not interested in unlearning this work. The latter, describes how we treat sentient beings around us often. When we are working with beings on an object level we see them only as their identities. Let's use an example, I had a client once who asked me what I meant by subject object, I asked him if he ever leafed through Playboy magazine.
"Of course," he said.
"Okay, when you looked through the magazine were you wondering what the life stories of the women were, what sort of experiences they had in their life, or were you just looking at their bodies?" He got it then. Unconsciously, we do this with everyone, our brains are quite used to processing information and then deciding what information to let go of. Subject/Object is the primary system that allows oppression to exist and fester and grow in our minds, when we don't attempt to understand the depth of people, we allow our hearts to shut down towards others--even entire groups.
Systems of oppression thrive under us picking and choosing which one we want to work on. At various times we will see this play out in the media. For example, after Black Lives Matter began gaining steam, Lana Del Ray came out with this tweet:
So this is a complicated one but I'll just go there. We begin to fall into a trap when we decide not to go deeper into the intersectionality of racism and sexism. That's what this post gets into and most of the media didn't do much exploring of it. There is incredible privilege of a white woman, addressing a group of black woman and saying that what they write and sing about is privileged. See how messy it gets? She's trying to address her own sexism and yet she brings out race instead as she needs to use the African American women as a prop to address the issue of sexism. No matter the relative power of individual, they can fall into this trap.
This is why understanding that there is no hierarchy of oppression is essential. You cannot use another 'ism in order to get equality for your own ism. This is how oppression remains in place. This ends up causing groups to be pitted against one another and used by included groups as distractions.
Summed up by Aurdre Lorde in her poem, There is No Hierarchy of Oppression, articulates a passionate and beautiful way of articulating how it is impossible it is to respond from one identity: I was born Black, and a woman. I am trying to become the strongest person I can become to live the life I have been given and to help effect change toward a liveable future for this earth and for my children. As a Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, poet, mother of two including one boy and a member of an interracial couple, I usually find myself part of some group in which the majority defines me as deviant, difficult, inferior or just plain “wrong.”
What this sets in place is infighting between isms, setting about a desire to prioritize one ism over the other. This is where your lesson on intersectionality becomes vitally important.
I worked at Cornell for five years. I had a job working in the office of international education. I reported directly to the Vice Provost. The local kid had done something big, scored a nice gig at Cornell University. More than than, I had a landing space where I could begin to pay off debt and take a few international trips every year that would be work related.
I worked in one of the oldest buildings on campus. in the Ag Quad. I was proud to work there. I would dress up in sharp clothes and stroll into the office with a smile on my face. It has now been three years since I worked at Cornell University.
One day, I walked into the building and noticed a friendly white woman on the stairs. I did not recognize her but had the air about her that she knew what she was doing. This could have just been my snap judgement. We began walking up the stairs together. My office was on the third floor. We were going the same direction it appeared. On the second floor there was CIPA, the school of Public Administration and an office called Engaged Learning. On the third floor was my office and the Graduate school offices. The top floor was the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program. I walked up the stairs, bright and chipper. Each floor has a landing with bright and colorful images to announce the offices.
I climbed those beautiful steps along with this white woman next to me when I arrived to my floor. I took a step towards the direction I had gone for 2 years, week-after-week and then as I we were splitting off, she announced loudly to me. "This isn't your floor, is it?" I turned to her puzzled, how did this woman know where it was that I was supposed to go? "This isn't your floor, your floor is upstairs, isn't it?" "I don't know what you mean," I said to her. "Your floor is upstairs, isn't it?" She said to me pointing a single finger upstairs towards the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program. I can still see her finger pointing upstairs.
I had no issue with being confused with being Native American--I know where I work.
When I was 19 years old my car was surrounded by three cop cars in a road block in Horseheads, NY, about 20 minutes outside of Ithaca, NY. I was thrown into the back of a police car, yelled at, interrogated, accused of having drugs, being high, being drunk, repeatedly screamed at until they confirmed I was speeding. They wanted more, much more. All my friends were split up into different cars and then accused of being part of a gang.
I did not drink, I was in college at the time at TC3, trying to get into HWS. I did not do drugs due to a seizure condition. I was speeding to get away from a violent alcoholic in Elmira who had started a confrontation with us while we were leaving the area to go back to Ithaca.
After 2 hours of questioning in the back of a police car I was given two tickets, told to appear in court that summer and to never drive through Horseheads again.
Unlike many days of my youth, that morning is clear. The moments where something traumatic happen everything crystallizes, you've heard that before . The times when whatever relative power you think you have is taken away--you remember that. And my first encounter with a sense of total vulnerability at the hands of police is something that I cannot ever forget.
We had taken a trip to Wegmans to get snacks before making the hour long trip back home. My friends in Elmira were ironically in the police academy there. I had stayed in their house the night before, played video games and talked for most of the night. We gathered snacks and left the city. It was hot that day, the sun was beaming down on my 87' Nissan Stanza, the most poetic car ever made. We all felt free and young and youthful. We were between lives and professions. We have never hung out the three of us again. Dave. Bryan and a kid that went by Alexis at the time.
Lex Enrico Santí is a mental health therapist based in Ithaca, NY. He offers therapy sessions in a home practice and can work with clients using a secure telehealth (online) practice. Contact him today for more information.