"What do you have to say about 'internalized oppression'?"
Question: "I hear you when you speak about all the 'macro-oppression' in the world and the very big problems that you think need to be changed through revolution, but what do you have to say about 'internalized oppression'?"
Answer: Since this question—or very similar questions—have come up a number of times over the years, I
thought it was important to speak to it.
First, it is important to appreciate even the way this person framed the question, using the words: "internalized oppression." I believe that accurately captures what is going on when we see oppressed people doing self-destructive things much of the time. Tyler Clementi, the gay student who jumped off the
Some people look at all this and say, "Well, those people are just monsters." Or they say, "Those people are suffering from low self-esteem," ... or, "They have no respect for themselves."
But the truth is, when these things happen in the epidemic numbers they happen in—they are not just a whole bunch of people's individual problems or "personal" problems. They are part of a pattern. It is a pattern where all the oppression of this society—all the anti-gay bigotry and discrimination, all the misogyny and treating women like objects of sexual plunder or the butt of a joke and all the brutality and rape and insults that go along with that, all the "stop-and-frisks" and racist profiling and miseducational tracking and mass imprisonment and insults that confront Black and Latino youth as well as many immigrants—gets internalized. All this putrid shit that comes from this culture and this society is so pervasive and so suffocating that it not only forces them into conditions that no one should have to live through, it has even embedded its way into people's own view of themselves and own feelings about their own worth and the worth of others like them. It is exactly as she says, not their own individual problem, but oppression internalized.
And the truth is, just as this comes from society and not something that flows from their own heads in some isolated way, it cannot be fixed or transformed just by those individuals transforming their own attitudes or their own thinking. But still you hear this kind of thinking all the time: "Just think positive." Or, "No one else is going to respect you until you respect yourself." Well, this reverses cause and effect—and leads people to blame themselves for things the system does. How are you going to go through life being constantly insulted and degraded, bullied or brutalized, ridiculed and even possibly killed—every week, every day, every hour—without that getting into your head?
Besides, what kind of craziness is it to think that the problem is that you are not well-adjusted enough to living in this totally fucked up world? The real problem is not in your head, the real problem is that this world is so fucked up that it does this to thousands of gay youth, to millions of Black youth, to the whole half of humanity that is women! … and more.
Really, we ought to put our energies to changing all this, making the kind of revolution that can get rid of all this oppression, bringing into being a world that really values and respects gay people and lesbians and sees their love and their lives as valid. We need a revolution that is about overcoming racism and all the oppression and horrors that have gone along with it through the history of this country and that fosters learning about and forging relations of respect and equality between people of different nationalities or races. We need a revolution that recognizes women as actual human beings capable of participating fully and equally together with men in every kind of human endeavor.
And, we need to start living that way today as we fight to bring that world into being. We have to be—and we can be right now—an embodiment of the world we are fighting for. That's what this movement for revolution does. We foster this revolutionary, this liberating culture and this attitude now—and we learn from each other and are transforming ourselves as we come together to transform the world. This is not about "getting your head together first" and then going up against the system later; it means that as we are fighting the power, we are transforming how people think and feel and relate to each other, for revolution.
And in this way, we—right now—are building a movement for revolution—the kind of revolution that can emancipate humanity—and we are creating space and a culture right now where oppressed people are valued and respected, seen for who they are and what they have to contribute both to those around them as well as to humanity as a whole. This is a culture where people can both fight to put an end to the source of the "macro oppression" and, in the process get that "internalized oppression" out of their own heads because a whole different morality and culture is being reinforced by a whole movement for revolution that is seeing things differently and living differently now. This is a process where people change themselves as they change the world.
This is not only the greatest and most meaningful way to go at both the "macro oppression" as well as the "internalized oppression," it is, frankly, the only lasting way to deal with either of them. And there are a lot of people—coming from very different perspectives—who ought to get in on this together with us. We need to be living differently, challenging backwards attitudes, bigotry, racism and sexism. We need to be planting a pole—and doing it with pride—that says we are about something totally different, something really liberating, something revolutionary. And this is something that we should be doing now. By that I mean, starting right here, right now.
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