Community Tool Box: http://ctb.ku.edu
What are discrimination and internalized oppression?
Why do community builders need to understand discrimination and internalized oppression?
How do you help people overcome the effects of discrimination and internalized oppression?
Some research results to think about:
A recent study found that African-American students who were asked to identify themselves by race when taking a standardized test consistently scored lower than other black students who were not asked to specify their race.
In another study, women taking a test of math ability were randomly divided into three groups. One group was asked to answer a list of questions that clearly identified them as women; one was given a list that identified them as residents of the Northeastern U.S.; and the third answered questions that identified them as students at an elite private college. The women that identified themselves as elite students consistently performed better on the test than the others – often better than male students, who, over the years, have almost invariably scored higher than women. (The results on the test used in this study have been so one-sided that they are often cited as proof that men are genetically superior to women at math.)
Researchers at New York University worked with minority and female middle school students who were about to apply to magnet high schools that required entrance exams. They were able to help students significantly raise their test scores and admission rates (compared to the averages for their race/ethnicity and gender) by helping them understand that that who they were was determined by what they could and did do, not by their racial or gender characteristics.
In none of these cases was there instruction in the subject matter of the tests in question, or in test-taking technique. The crucial difference in all cases was how the test-takers identified themselves. Why should revealing or thinking about your race or gender make so much difference on a test of knowledge or reasoning ability? The answer often lies in the assumptions of society and a long history of discrimination. In this section, we’ll examine the effects that discrimination and oppression have on their targets, and think about how to counter them.
What is discrimination?
The word “discrimination” means simply distinguishing between one thing and another. When we talk about discrimination as a social issue, we refer to distinguishing between population groups defined by specific characteristics – race, gender, religion, national origin, political opinions, sexual orientation, class – and treating groups differently as a result. Although discrimination can be either positive or negative – you can either discriminate in favor of or against a particular group – our focus here is negative discrimination.
Unfortunately, discrimination is all too familiar in all societies, from the age-old discrimination against Untouchables in India to racism in the U.S. Caucasians are favored for jobs – often unconsciously – over blacks and Asians. Middle Eastern workers are harrassed in Europe, African-Americans are stopped for DWB – driving while black – in large American cities. The poor are often blamed for their poverty, and denied basic services because they aren’t “deserving.”
All of this probably dates back to pre-human times, when our ancestors banded together in groups for safety and mutual aid, and any other group was a potential rival for food and other resources. In most modern societies, there are laws against various kinds of discrimination, but it persists, and much of it is so ingrained that we don’t even think of it as discrimination. Gender roles and the treatment of women in general is still unequal: women in the U.S. still earn, on average, less than men for the same work, and women in many other countries are blatantly denied education and other opportunities. According to the United Nations, there is no country where men and women are treated equally.
For our purposes, then, discrimination is the denial of opportunities, rights, and or freedoms to one or more groups that other groups in the society enjoy. It is the failure to treat all people as of equal worth, and to acknowledge their full humanity.
What is oppression?
Oppression is discrimination carried to its extreme. Oppressed people are not only discriminated against, but are also subject to physical and psychological brutality – and occasionally genocide – sometimes for disobeying or displeasing those in power, sometimes to discourage them and others from trying to change their condition, and sometimes out of pure hatred. Modern examples include the treatment of Jews in Germany in the 1930’s, culminating in the Holocaust; the apartheid rule in South Africa between 1948 and 1990; slavery and its aftermath in the American South; the disappearances and other atrocities committed by the military governments against suspected leftists in Argentina and Chile; the genocidal violence in the former Yugoslavia; the slaughter of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda; and the wholesale starvation and murder of about 20% of the population of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, on the grounds that they were tainted by capitalism.
The distinction between discrimination and oppression is important. In most cases, groups that are discriminated against have some recourse, either under the law or through political action. In many countries, groups that were discriminated against have overcome their situations through education, organization, economic advancement, or some other avenue. For oppressed people, often the only remedy has been force of some sort – either revolutionary action or outside military or economic intervention.
Community developers that work with oppressed people often try to help them understand their situations, so they can decide on what action to take to change them.
Paulo Freire, a Brazilian organizer and educator, in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, says that the oppressed can change their circumstances through praxis – reflection and action – and that in order to do that, they have to learn to analyze their lives and to throw aside internalized oppression. Although Freire worked with and wrote about people who were exploited and oppressed, those who are discriminated against may have to deal with internalized discrimination as well.
What is internalized oppression?
When people are targeted, discriminated against, or oppressed over a period of time, they often internalize (believe and make part of their self-image – their internal view of themselves) the myths and misinformation that society communicates to them about their group. Exploited peasants might internalize the ideas that they can’t do any other kind of work, that their lives were meant to be as they are, and that they’re worth less than people with wealth or education. Women might internalize the stereotype that they are not good at math and science, or people of color might internalize the myth that they are not good workers,
When people from targeted groups internalize myths and misinformation, it can cause them to feel (often unconsciously) that in some way they are inherently not as worthy, capable, intelligent, beautiful, good, etc. as people outside their group. They turn the experience of oppression or discrimination inward. They begin to feel that the stereotypes and misinformation that society communicates are true and they act as if they were true. This is called internalized oppression.
Internalized oppression affects many groups of people: women, people of color, poor and working class people, people with disabilities, young people, elders, Jews, Catholics, immigrants, gays, and many other groups. (You may belong to one of these groups, even if it is not mentioned here. See Section 1 of this chapter: Understanding Culture and Diversity in Building Communities, for more information about understanding your own culture and identity.)
Not all members of groups that are discriminated against or oppressed necessarily turn stereotypes inward. Many remain proud of their heritage, or are able to take prominent places in the larger society through their exercise of effort, intelligence, talent, interpersonal skill, and self-respect. Many members of oppressed groups try to escape their situations by emigration or other means, and many succeed. Some rise up and overthrow their oppressors, although this can cause nearly as many problems as it solves.
Don’t assume that just because someone is a member of a group that has experienced bias, he is suffering from the results of internal oppression. Individuals are different, and have different experiences and backgrounds. If you assume internal oppression in all cases without getting to know the individual at least a little, you may, in trying to be helpful and empathetic, find that instead you’re being condescending or insulting.
There are two ways that internalized oppression functions:
1. Internalized oppression operates on an individual basis. A person believes that the stereotypes and misinformation that she hears are true about herself. She holds herself back from living life to her full potential or she acts in ways that reinforce the stereotypes and are ultimately self-defeating.
2. Internalized oppression occurs among members of the same cultural group. People in the same group believe (often unconsciously) the misinformation and stereotypes that society communicates about other members of their group. People turn the oppression on one another, instead of addressing larger problems in society. The results are that people treat one another in ways that are less than fully respectful. Often people from the same cultural group hurt, undermine, criticize, mistrust, fight with, or isolate themselves from one another.
In Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze, light-skinned African-Americans at a prestigious black college look down on their darker-skinned fellow students.
It is important to note that internalized oppression is not the fault of people whom it affects. No one should be blamed or blame themselves for having been affected by discrimination. Nevertheless, as community members, we have to face these barriers in order to achieve our goals.
While the stereotypes that people internalize are imposed by society, we all, whether we are members of the favored majority or the oppressed or unfairly treated minority, have a personal responsibility to confront those stereotypes. As members of the majority, we need to help and support those in the minority to see that their personal worth has nothing to do with society’s current or past prejudice. And as members of the minority, we have a responsibility to listen to those among us who challenge the majority view, and to analyze and challenge it ourselves. We may need support and guidance in doing so – that’s what Paulo Freire provided to those he worked with, and what he wrote about.
Here are some examples of internalized oppression:
Examples of internalized oppression as it occurs in individuals:
Women, low-income people, and people of color don't speak up as much in meetings because they don't think their contribution will be important or "correct". Often participants from these groups may have insight into how to solve a problem, but they hold back from sharing it.
In response to low expectations and lack of encouragement, some teenagers from oppressed groups believe that they won't succeed; consequently they give up on learning and pursuing their dreams.
People from oppressed groups often shy away from taking on leadership roles. They don't view themselves as having leadership capabilities, and their style doesn't match that of "traditional" leadership models.
A person who is not able get a job with decent wages may try to dull his disappointment with alcohol.
A person who speaks with an accent feels that she should not build relationships with people outside her own culture because she is afraid that others will not want to be friends with her.
Examples of internalized oppression among members of the same cultural group:
Women on the board of a charitable organization compete for the attention of the male chair and refrain from taking leadership roles. They see their greatest capability in organizing dinners and creating decorations for events, even though they all have college degrees.
The membership of a low-income grassroots organization cannot support anyone from their own community who tries to take a leadership role in the organization. They claim that people in the leadership role become too "business-like" and "authoritative." The role of the leader is discussed endlessly and the organization cannot get to the business of defining and achieving goals.
Women who work on construction join men in putting down other women who have child care problems or can't do particular work because they are not as strong as some of the men.
When Latino immigrants from different countries of origin try to organize to create a political power base, the mistrust and prejudices among them makes it difficult for them to work together.
Fearing that her children will not succeed in the mainstream culture, an immigrant mother is overly harsh in disciplining them so they will "fit in."
An African-American teenager is not accepted among his group of peers because he works hard and does well in school; he is told he is not African-American enough.
As you can see, internalized oppression can have serious consequences for communities. It holds people back from thinking well of themselves, from living full lives, and from standing up against injustice. It can be the source of physical or mental illness and self-destructive behavior. Internalized oppression can serve to divide people within the same group, so they are not as effective in supporting each other and standing together for change. It can also cause people to be suspicious of those outside their own group, making it difficult to build alliances.
Andre's purpose is to reconnect people to their Dignity and Honor in Being Human.