PT. 3 In a Series on Oppression
This is a difficult topic to introduce because it requires to expansively think of ourselves as embodying different bodies of mind at the same time. Let me explain, I function in gender with the identity of being part of the male included group. Or, to be specific, the CIS gender group. At the same time, I have a relationship with my gender which "bumps into" other individuals. I have a relationship with the group "men" and whether that is a meta relationship or a relationship which entails getting together or influencing men as a whole. And I have a relationship with this group of men which can come into contact with a group of women or other gendered groups. This is why it is complex to understand how oppression is impacting because we can experience it on all these levels. This article attempts to explain this sticky aspect of oppression and where some of us get caught.
These different lenses we experience oppression are as follows: internalized, Inter-personal, group and inter-group.
Each one of these has their own unique attributes which keep us from seeing a wider whole of how we may be impacted by oppression.
Most of what we see in the news media happens on the inter-personal level. That makes sense right? We see one individual do something horrible to another individual based on oppressive instincts. Our relationship to the act of violence then has a relationship to our thoughts and feelings about that form of oppression. For example, if you are male, you may not think a wage gap is such a big deal--because you may hold onto ideas of internalized oppression that "well, men work harder" and this may be a very well rooted bias that you hold and it defines you in a particular way. You may then go out an say this to your partner, or get together with groups of men and advocate that the wage gap should be even greater. And so on and so forth. We have a relationship then with an institutional form of oppression (the wage-gap) and while it may not individually impact us (let's say you are male and make less than the median) you may have thoughts and feelings about it (internalized oppression) and then you act out and say that the wage gap is a lie to your partner (inter-personal oppression). Your partner gets upset and this causes tension and struggle. Then you go out and begin organizing with other men (group oppression) against women (inter-group). It sounds complicated right? It is. Don't worry, we're going to go over this a lot.
One can have a relationship with yourself and see your experience as being in an included group. The pain of being a male can be very real and yet you can still act out of your gender and the power that it has and act upon another individual. That's because in Internalized oppression, things are learned about our identities which have been part of the training and construction of having a relationship to power. This happens across all groups of identities, and it happens in included groups and excluded groups. The system of oppression's goal is to for people to police themselves and convince themselves that they cannot--will not thrive--in the system they are in--so why bother?
Just because someone is part of an included group does not mean that all that they learned about themselves is good, in fact, someone can be violent towards their way of being in the world and have a very unsatisfactory relationship with their identity. For example, men are often taught not to cry and share their feelings because it is not "manly". Therefore, internalized oppression ends up being experienced and stories are told and repeated inside of one's mind.
This is a system of oppression where we act out ideas of oppression on other people. We objectify them in a particular way and have preconceived notions on the way this is to go. Very clearly, George Zimmerman was working with a sense of entitlement and out sized ego in order to intimidate Trayvon Martin. He was likely acting out of a sense of internalized oppression as he was angry and saw himself in fact as a victim. When this didn't go his way, the incident turned into interpersonal oppression, as Zimmerman's actions clearly were based on his relative privileged of being white/Latino and Trayvon's racial identity.
We can dip our toe into ageism as well, as Zimmerman may have believed that he could intimadate a boy (Trayvon was 17 at the time) and Zimmerman was 29 years old at the time. The discussion never seems to center around the fact that someone who had 12 years on a boy followed and then executed a youth.
We experience so much on a personal and interpersonal level. When an issue becomes publicized though we begin to experience a lens into our group experience of identity. We begin to process events as part of a greater whole. The next two examples explore this aspect.
We explore how we fit into the larger context of a "group identity". What does it mean to be light skinned black in a group? What does it mean to be Latin who does not speak Spanish? How do we embrace the diaspora of the identity.
To use a relevant example and to bring this all home, let's stay with gender and the male identity. A man experiences stories and experiences of being male. He has thoughts about what it means to be a man and may have examples where he feels he was passed over for a job because of his male identity. This is internalized oppression then, he begins to process his feelings and has a "story" about his life. The oppression can be perceived and not be entirely correct of course. We can't easily change the stories in our head and once we convince ourselves of something it is brutal to interpret.
So then this man has a relationship and acts out his ideas of inferiority and oppresses whomever is of another gender around him. Let's say he begins to have an interpersonal oppressive relationship with his partner. He then experiences his internalized stories of masculinity and then carries out an interpersonal action against his partner. They may not realize how this is linked.
The next step then is for the individual to associate and work with their group to gain power and begin to associate their own internalized oppression as part of a larger movement. A clear example of these are the sad turns of men's groups like Proud Boys which believe that men's relative power has waned over the last number of years and that they must take back that power by force. Other examples of group oppression would be Nazis gathering power to commit violence.
INTER-GROUP OPPRESSION: When entire groups commit acts of violence against other groups for the purpose of exploitation or intimidation then we begin to see how power is wielded and inflicted on another group. These are large scale understandings that we learn about how one group interacts, works with or deals with another group.
You may not realize it but all of these systems of experiencing oppression are playing out around you and you're a part of it on some level. The easiest for you to work with day-to-day is how to address yourself. What assumptions do you make about yourself and where was that learned? Then next, work with approaching people not as objects to work through and get done with but as people who have a subject for you to learn about.
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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.