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  • Writer's pictureLex Enrico Santí, LCSW, MFA


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 learning to break this cycle. This is the second installment of teachings on social justice that I work with in diversity training sessions.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.

Next up...

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