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Internalized Oppression

Page history last edited by Cathy 10 years, 12 months ago

Internalized Oppression




1.      Internalized Oppression

2.      Processes of Internalized Oppression/ Manifestations of Internalized Oppression

3.      Globalization and how it impacts Internalized Oppression

4.      Colonization and how it impacts Internalized Oppression

5.      Resistance and Responses to Internalized Oppression

6.      External links

7.      References

8.      Further reading


 Internalized Oppression                                                                        

Internalized oppression has been described as a psychological and a socio-cultural phenomenon. It is an experience where individuals who are members of a marginalized group feel an inferior status due to living under various forms of oppression, such as experiencing prejudice and being discriminated against (Tappan, 2006, p. 2118).  Internalized oppression points to another phenomenon that may act along side it known as internalized domination.

Internalized oppression when accepted as a psychological phenomenon is “when a [member of a marginalized] group internalizes the dominant group’s stereotyped and inferiorized images which makes them act in ways that affirm the dominant group’s view of them as inferior and in turn reproduces their own oppression” (Mullaly, 2002).  Those who have internalized oppression fight back within themselves and among themselves rather than against the dominant culture.  Viewing internalized oppression as an individually based experience implies that the individual would need to change and therefore becomes the target of intervention, via education, training, and therapy (Tappan, 2006, p, 2217).

As a sociocultural phenomenon, internalized oppression has its roots in oppressive societal processes.  Thus, “internalizing negative self-images is a response to the strong social forces (systemic, structural and institutionalized) that produce and reproduce these images (Tappan, 2006, p. 2117). This implies that internalized oppression is caused by forces “beyond the individual”, necessitating intervention within the oppressive social practices rather than the individual (Hardiman & Hackson, 1997, as cited in Tappan, 2006, p. 2117). 

Freire (1970) further describes internalized oppression as “identifying with the oppressors” and thus subscribing to the oppressor’s beliefs.  Baskin speaks to this point as well: “So often do [the oppressed] hear that they are good for nothing, know nothing, and are incapable of learning anything – that they are sick, lazy, and unproductive-that in the end they become convinced of their own unfitness” (Baskin, 2003, p. 49). Thus, due to these external messages, one feels self-hatred, shame, humiliation and a low self-esteem. 

Baskin (2003) argues that presenting concerns of Aboriginal clients are not individual acts but when placed in a broader context of powerlessness are justified responses to the experiences associated with colonization and the denial of rights (Baskin, 2003, 74).


Processes of Internalized Oppression/ Manifestations of Internalized Oppression                                                                               

Trauma theory recognizes internalized oppression as a strategy of survival, noting that the “... child trapped in an abusive environment is faced with formidable tasks of adaptation.  She must find a way to preserve a sense of trust in people who are untrustworthy... power in a situation of helplessness...childhood abuse forces the development of extraordinary capacities, both creative and destructive” (Herman, 1992, p.96).  Internalized oppression then becomes a strategy that ensures psychological survival: “Inevitably the child concludes that her innate badness is the cause…if somehow she has brought this fate upon herself, then she [thinks] has the power to change it” (Herman, p.103).  When people gain access to other avenues of self-protection, and internalization of oppression is no longer necessary for immediate survival, it becomes necessary to challenge and unlearn. 

Bishop believes that “internalized oppression begins with childhood,  as children suffer pain and powerlessness when they encounter racism, poverty, sexism, [ageism] and discrimination based on language, geographic location, religion, and the like” (Bishop in Mullaly, 2002, p. 135) .  Children have less power than adults and when they experience discrimination, they do not have the power to change their situation. When children feel powerless it can result them in feeling afraid, having low self-esteem (Mullaly, 2002, p. 135). Furthermore, children learn strategies or ways of coping with their situation that they carry into adulthood that involve adapting to their situation or resisting their situation. (Mullaly,2002, p. 135). 

The following describes some of the ways that people internalize oppression:


Adaptation: The process of adopting dominant groups’ traditions or teachings and repressing one’s own traditions. (Mullaly, 2002, p. 127).


Physical Impacts: When people feel that they are to blame for their situation and turn their anger onto themselves this can manifest in physical symptoms such as depression, headaches, ulcers, etc. (Mullaly, 2002, p. 137).


Horizontal Violence:  “[R]epressed rage causes some oppressed persons to act out, on each other, the very physical and/or psychological violence imposed on them” (Mullaly, 2002, p. 127).


Mimesis: When a member of an oppressed group “imitate[s] the behaviours and attitudes that the dominant group displays toward that group in an attempt to gain a slightly more privileged status” (Mullaly, 2007, p. 277).


Escape from Identity: When subordinate group members deny their membership to that group (e.g lesbians who marry men) which leads to “fragmentation of oppressed people that serves to maintain the status quo” (Mullaly, 2007, p. 278).


Psychological Withdrawal:  “Adopt[ing] a cautious, low profile conservatism as a way of decreasing their visibility” (Mullaly, 2007, p. 278).


In-group hostility: At an attempt to align with the dominant groups to increase their social status and privilege, “hierarchies provide a self-perpetuating dynamic that allows the [subordinate group members] to console themselves through a comparison with yet more degraded people” (Mullaly, 2007, p. 279). For example, a fat person ridiculing someone who is larger than him/her.


Gramsci (1971) articulated the idea of alienation which he considered to be “…possible only because of the dominant classes/ability promote their values and have them tacitly adopted by the majority – what he calls “hegemony…Hegemony is the ideological vehicle that drives the marginalization process” (Tremblay, 2003, p. 383).

Michel Foucault’s (1977) exploration of the Panopticon Prison (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panopticon) discusses the process whereby prisoners come to internalize the unequal gaze of the guard and effectively police themselves.

Second wave feminist named the Impostor Syndrome  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_Syndrome) as the phenomenon internalized sexism in high-achieving women who “...internalized into a self-stereotype the societal sex-role stereotype that they are not considered competent” (Clance & Imes, 1978, p. 2).

It is important to note that the above responses are “not irrational on the part of the oppressed persons who use them [because] they are actually rational coping mechanisms employed in everyday life to lessen the suffering of oppression” (Mullaly, 2007, p. 277).  When oppressed persons learn to adapt to the dominant groups by making their identities invisible or acting out with anger or aggression, these patterns take a toll. It is “not surprising that mortality, incarceration, poverty, psychiatric hospitalization rates are higher for oppressed groups” (Mullaly, 2002, p. 127). Oppression which results in people internalizing these beliefs, allows for the reproduction of domination to occur. It is only when we become more aware of oppression and power dynamics; we can unlearn oppressive teachings and relearn ways or resisting internalized oppression.


Globalization and how it impacts internalized oppression               

“This modern global social structure based in individualization puts the responsibility on individuals to create and produce their own biographies” (Alphonse, George, & Moffatt, 2008, p.  149).   Globalization, neo-conservative ideology does not take into account that there are structural and historical implications that contribute to the perpetuation and maintenance of subjugation.  The “lack of recognition of the [global] context depoliticizes the global from the local and spares global standards from a responsibility to respond to the local impacts of global forces” (Alphonse, et al., p. 153). This contributes internalization of individualistic ideologies where people wrongfully blame themselves for their situation and … “accept the system of inequality itself and…to accept their own position” within it (Charon, 2004, p. 97).  Globalization, similarly to colonization, results in the “universalizing discourses [that are] characterized by Western imperialist intentions and practices [that] hold potential to dilute or even annihilate local cultures and traditions and deny context specific realities” (Sewpaul, 2006, p. 421).  Globalization is “presented as a value-free and gender-neutral process” at the same time as global capitalist markets have created greater inequalities (Sewpaul, p. 425). Globalization does not create a free market for all because there are many groups excluded based on their “race, class, gender, culture, ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability [which]  intersect in powerful ways to influence people’s access to power, prestige, status and resources” (Sewpaul, p. 424).


Colonization and how it impacts internalized oppression                

Colonization and its impacts are not over today because “there is a constant negative presentation on society, through advertising and the media, lack of representation, and false and degrading images that inferiorize First Nations peoples (Baskin, 2003, p. 68).”  Mainstream institutions have and continue to ignore Aboriginal values and practices and perpetuate negative and untruthful images of First Nations communities (Baskin, 2003, p. 68). It is not surprising to learn that Aboriginal communities are “particularly vulnerable to internalized oppression” (Baskin, 2003, p. 68) because they have been taught that their culture and traditions need to be excluded, robbed, erased and killed because they do not subscribe to Western white Christian ideologies. Western colonizers had enormous power and authority to rob Aboriginal communities of their cultural identities, practices, values, land and power.  Aboriginal communities developed many responses to colonization, some of which include internalized oppression. 

Colonization does not only affect First Nations communities: “[S]ocial workers are implicated in the colonization process as they have often been an extension of it” (Baskin, 2006, p. 5).  Any societies have social structures and rules that produce expectations and norms. People living in a Western colonial society internalize the dominant beliefs and values from the Western colonizers. When someone’s social locations do not belong to or assimilate to the dominant ideologies, it can result in that person and group being excluded from privileges and access to power leaving them with fewer resources and increased risk for discrimination, marginalization, and disenfranchisement (D’Augelli & Grossman, 2006, p. 13). 


Resistance and Responses to Internalized Oppression           

Groups, individuals, and professionals engage in various forms of resistance.  Some examples of resistance include the “Black is beautiful” campaign of the late 1960s and early 1970s which aimed to dismantle dominant views of African Americans as “ugly, inferior, [and] dangerous” and show black culture in a positive light (Mullaly, 2002 p. 144). 

Baskin (2003) points out the importance of decolonization in resistance with First Nations groups.  Decolonization reclaims identities and values lost in colonization.  Some examples that Baskin mentions include media input from Aboriginal people and accurate representations of history for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.  Poupart explores internalized oppression in her article referring to poetry as one example of resistance (http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/hypatia/v018/18.2poupart.html). 

Baskin urges Social Workers not to pathologize Aboriginal people’s presenting concerns as individual acts but to place them in a broader context of powerlessness that is often experienced and associated with colonization and the denial of Aboriginal rights (Baskin, 2003, p. 74).  “Structural social work views social problems as arising from a specific societal context- liberal neo-conservative capitalism- rather than from the failings of individuals” (Baskin, 2003,  p. 65).   Oppression and inequality are not experienced or sustained because individuals are maladaptive or inferior, contrary to what dominant ideologies would teach, but there is an acknowledgment that the greater systems such as institutions and global economy directly influence people’s abilities to survive and thrive.  Furthermore, a structural approach acknowledges the history such as colonization has an impact on groups of people which are “linked to their present conditions of oppression” (Baskin, 2003, p. 67). In addition to acknowledging history and structural influences, bring a critical reflective lens can “help reframe clients presenting problematic behaviours as being [as acts] of resistance” (Heron, 2005, p. 348).  

Research is another method of resistance to internalized oppression, in various academic fields, including Social Work.  Specifically, critical discourse analysis is a method of research which aims to resist dominant discourses surrounding oppressed groups.  An example of this can be in this study: “Don’t look down on me because I have one: Young mothers resisting the discourse of ‘a young mother is a bad mother’” (Berman, Silver, & Wilson, 2007). Individual acts of resistance can also include talking to others with same/similar experiences about internalized oppression to create a sense of validation and belonging.  As long as people are not talking, dominant ideologies will continue and so will individuals’ sense of shame and internalized oppression.  As Bauman (2005, p. 311) states, challenging individualism and focusing on collectivism and reflection can help people to create meaning.  This meaning and knowledge-building can lead to resistance of internalized oppression.

Social withdrawal is defined as the “move towards reconciliation with other members of one’s subordinate group, [allowing] the individual [to] discover his or her identity with them” (Mullaly, 2007, p. 279).  Although this can result in being invisible to the dominant group, coming together with other members of your group can be a “haven [as] a response to oppression [by providing] a sense of community [and] solidarity (Mullaly, 2007, p. 279). The saying “strength in numbers” speaks to this because when people come together and not feel alone, they can gain the courage and confidence to resist domination.

Resistance to in-group hostility can include finding new ways of working together:

Woman-to-woman negative, aggressive behaviour is not unlearned when all critical judgment is suspended.  It is unlearned when women accept that we are different, that we will necessarily disagree, but that we can disagree and argue with one another without acting as if we are fighting for our lives, without feeling that we stand to lose all self-esteem by verbally trashing someone else (hooks, 2000, p. 65).

Resistance strategies also include reclaiming stigmatizing or marginalizing language, such as the use of ‘Queer’ as a descriptor of sexuality, political movement, as well as a space of theoretical discourse (“Queer Theory,” 2008). Another example of this is the reframing of ‘disability’ to mean “the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organization, which takes no or little account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from participation in the mainstream of social activities” (Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) 1976 in Oliver, 1996).  In this sense, able-bodied society, not the individual, is what disables. 

Artists have also created resistance to internalized oppression through media.  For example, artist/activist Aya De Leon (http://bitmunk.com/media/6599961) performs an audio clip entitled “Internalized Oppression” on her 2006 album Joy in the Struggle where she describes the impacts of internalized racism” “You know me/ I’m internalized oppression/ I’m not the stereotype, but I’m the part of you that fears it might be true about you, about your people/ The part that worries they might think it about you...”

 Fat femme mafia (http://lukasblakk.blip.tv/file/239388) is a group of fat queer activist women who describe themselves as being rooted “around claiming the space we know our fat bodies deserve” (Foad, 2006, para. 2).

Tracy Zhu (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2BgqLE3YoPw) performs a poem named “internalized oppression” that is accessible on YouTube.

Augusto Boal (a Brazilian theatre director and founder of Theatre of the Oppressed, designed popular theatre workshops with a focus on internalized oppression, including 'cop-in-the-head' during the 1970s.  These workshops continue to be offered today by Imaginaction Theatre:   (http://imaginaction.org/workshops/theatre-of-the-oppressed/the-cop-in-the-head).

Narrative therapy principles that centre “...on the idea that the narratives we, and others, construct about us actively shape our experiences, our sense of selves and our life options” (Healy, 2005, p. 206). Narrative therapy invites an exploration of exceptions to the presenting problems and searches for alternative themes that do not require a dismissal of the problem (Miller, 2006, p. 113). There is more to people than these problem stories and it would be important to construct an alternative story that involves focusing on a person’s strengths and resilience (Miller, p. 113).

Constructing internalized oppression as a concept is not solely about having a clear definition that can be found and cited in scholarly journals, but it is also about including voices, stories, and experiences.  The writers of this entry felt that it was important to put their voices in the entry to exemplify the role of narratives in defining and resisting internalized oppression. The authors of this wiki-entry are including their own narratives to describe how they were able to “restory” and create an alternative response to internalized oppression:



They asked themselves, “How did they resist internalized oppression?”


Through – tapping into my inner monologue and turning it into a dialogue; going easy on “shoulds” and “sorrys”; making room and nurturing impulses that are odd, weird, queer, selfish, idealistic, troublesomely creative, contrary, inconvenient, incomprehensible; practicing kindness and solidarity with others who value these, and with myself; creating spaces that encourage us; communing with nature; speaking out against oppression.

Coming out was hard.  I had to deal with the negative messages that I heard and saw about what it meant to be gay. “You are sick. You should not be here (You should not be alive).  You should not be around kids, because you are a pervert.”   I was hurting from these messages.  I learned that staying alive is my way of saying I do not believe in these messages. By being true to myself, and believing in my right to love who I choose and being open about it is my way of resisting these messages.  I am here and proudly queer.  My EXISTENCE is my RESISTANCE!

In my experiences as a bi-racial person, I have found that often times people will define my race for me based on my physical appearance and how they perceive me.  To some people I appear brown and to some people I appear white and I typically get labelled as one or the other.  Such labels have consequences because I am often treated differently by different people depending on how they perceive me.  Many, many times I have been viewed as white and then assumed to have the white privilege that goes along with that.  I often experience such discourses as “Arabs are terrorists” or “brown people are Paki’s” (with the notion that brown is inferior to white).  As someone who is not “legitimately” brown or white, but rather a combination of both it can be difficult to speak with authority from either perspective because there is such a dichotomy and people are constantly trying to label me as one or the other.  In speaking with other bi-racial (brown-white) people about these experiences I have felt a sense of belonging and understanding in being able to relate to others with similar realities.  We have resisted the brown-white dichotomy by identifying as “beige” a term that is used with some humour, but is really our way of saying were not either/or but we are both and that is our identity as we define ourselves.


As I have become more aware through critical reflection, I recognize that these negative feelings are the result of internalized oppression which is when “people are socialized to accept the system of inequality itself, they are also socialized to accept their own position.” (Charon, 2004, p. 97). When I felt ashamed about being a lesbian and a fat woman, I internalized that shame and did not talk to others about my feelings which did not allow for different discourse or validation to occur. When I began to talk to others, this helped validate my feelings and promote a sense of belonging as I learned that I shared the same feelings as other lesbian fat women. Talking to other lesbians and fat women gave me connection to others with similar experiences which allowed me to begin to reframe some of the internalized teachings.

External Links                                                                               

-         Panopticon

-         Imposter syndrome

-         Poupart

-         Aya de Leon

-         Fat Femme Mafia

-         Augusto Boal

-         Theatre of the Oppressed


Alphonse, M., George, P., and Moffatt, K. (2008). Redefining social work standards in the context of globalization: Lessons from India. International Social Work 5, 145-158

Baskin, C. (2003). Structural social work as seen from an Aboriginal Perspective. In W. Shera (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on anti-oppression practice (p 65-78). Toronto: Canadian Scholar’s Press.

Baskin, C. (2006). Aboriginal Worldviews: Challenges and possibilities in social work education [Electronic Version]. Critical Social Work, 7(2). Available at www.criticalsocialwork.com

Bauman, Z. (2005). Education in liquid modernity. The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 27, 303-317

Berman, R., Silver, S., & Wilson, S. (2007). Don’t look down on me because I have one: Young mother’s resisting the discourse of “a young mother is a bad mother.” Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering, 9(1), 42-52.

Boal, A. (1973). Theatre of the Oppressed.  United Kingdom: Pluto Press.

Bishop, A. (2002). Becoming an Ally-Breaking the Cycle of Oppression in People. Fernwood Publishing: Halifax, 2002.

Charon, J. (2004). Ten Questions: A Sociological Perspective, 5th Ed. Belmont: Thomson-Wadsworth.

Clance, P. & Imes, S (1978). The Imposter Phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy Research, Theory and Practice, Volume15 (3)


D’Augelli, A. & Grossman, A. (2006). Transgender youth: Invisible and vulnerable, Journal of Homosexuality 51, 1: 111-128.

Foad, L (2006, February, 16) Body Politics:  A big fat revolution, In Xtra! Retrieved October 22, 2008, from http://www.xtra.ca/public/Toronto/Body_politics_A_Big_fat_revolution-1361.aspx

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. Translated from the French by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. New York:  International Publishers.

Healy, K. (2005). Social Work Theories in Context: Creating Frameworks for Practice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Heron, B. (2005). Self-reflection in critical social work practice: Subjectivity and the possibilities of resistance. Reflective Practice 6, 341-351

Herman, J. (1992).  Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence – from domestic abuse to political terror. New York: Basic Books.

hooks, b. (2000). Sisterhood: Political solidarity among women. In Feminist theory: From margin to center. 2nd Edition. Cambridge, MA” South End Press.

Impostor Syndrome. (2008, October 22) In Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia. Retrieved October, 22, 2008 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_Syndrome

Miller, L. (2006). Counselling Skills for Social Work, London: Sage Publications.

Mullaly, B (2002). Challenging Oppression: A Critical Social Work Approach.  Toronto, Oxford University Press.

Mullaly, B. (2007). Oppression:  The focus of structural social work, In B. Mullaly, The new structural social work (pp. 252-286). Don Mills: Oxford University Press.

Oliver, M. (1996). Understanding Disability: From Theory to practice. London: Macmillan.

Panopticon. (2008, October 22).  In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved October, 22, 2008, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panopticon

Queer Theory. (2008, October, 22). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved October, 22, 2008, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queer_Theory

Sewpaul, V. (2006). The global-local dialectic: Challenges for African scholarship and social work in a post-colonial world, British Journal of Social Work 36, 419-434. 

Tappan,  M. (2006). Reframing internalized oppression and internalized domination: From the psychological to the sociocultural. Teachers College Record, 108(10; 10), 2115-2144.

Tremblay, G. (2003). Understanding multiple oppressions and how they impact the helping process for the person requesting assistance.  In W. Shera, Ed., Emerging Perspectives On Anti-Oppressive Practice. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc.

Further reading

Cvetkovich, A. (2003).  An Archive of Feelings:  Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures.  Durham, N.C.:  Duke University Press.

David, E. J. R. (2008). A colonial mentality model of depression for filipino americans. Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology, 14(2), 118-127.

Jeyasingham, D. (2008). Knowledge/Ignorance and the Construction of Sexuality in Social Work Education. Social Work Education, Vol. 27 (2), pp. 138–151

Kanuha, V. K. (1999). The social process of "passing" to manage stigma: Acts of internalized oppression or acts of resistance? Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 26(4), 27-46.

Lee, B. (1999). Pragmatics of Community Organization. Mississauga: Common Act Press.

McDonald, K. E., Keys, C. B., & Balcazar, F. E. (2007). Disability, race/ethnicity and gender: Themes of cultural oppression, acts of individual resistance. American Journal of Community Psychology, 39(1-2), 145-161.

Monture-Angus, P. (1993). Organizing against oppression: Aboriginal women, law and feminism. In P. Monture Angus, Thunder in my soul: A Mohawk woman speaks (pp. 169-188). Halifax: Fernwood.

Parmer, T., Arnold, M. S., Natt, T., & Janson, C. (2004). Physical attractiveness as a process of internalized oppression and multigenerational transmission in African American families. The Family Journal: Counselling and Therapy for Couples and Families, 12(3), 230-242.

Poupart, L. M. (2003). The familiar face of genocide: Internalized oppression among american indians. Hypatia, 18(2), 86.

Sedgwick, E. (2003). Touching Feeling – Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Duke University Press.

White, M. & Epston, D. (1990) Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Yan, M. (2004). Bridging the fragmented community: Revitalizing settlement houses in the global era. Journal of Community Practice, 12(1-2), 51-69

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