Before taking Ethics of Diversity during the spring 2008 term, I had never heard of, or given much thought to the concept of internalized oppression. Internalized oppression occurs when members of a minority group use the same tactics as their oppressor to hold themselves or others in their minority group down. Those who are internally oppressed usually believe the negative stereotypes and marginalized status of themselves and the group they belong to.
The concept of internalized oppression is a very difficult one to talk about or discuss at length. I think this is because it creates a very real and painful portrait of self-hatred and prays on a person’s vision of self-concept and group identity. In addition, I think it is a very subversive and therefore extremely well hidden from society’s conscious. I for one, want to like myself; I want to be content with who I am and I want to be proud of the various ways in which I identify. And yet if I look carefully enough I can see elements of internalized homophobia that have conflicted with my ideal version of myself as well my group identity. In my case, internalized oppression started out through the act of intentionally not portraying any of society’s negative stereotypes attached to either the GLBT community. Of course, the consequence of this behavior was to look down on and avoid those people who looked, behaved or thought in ways that reflected society’s negative views. If it were not for the GLBT friends and mentors I met in college (obviously I wasn’t all that good at avoiding them) I am fairly sure that my internalized homophobia would have led me down the road towards believing that people deserve to be oppressed based on how they looked, behaved or thought.
Based on my experience and my knowledge of student affairs in general, I believe that internalized oppression can have an extremely damaging effect on college students’ success. One of the most damaging stereotypes is that certain underrepresented populations are not as smart or hardworking and therefore are far less likely to succeed in college. Of course, those who believe in and spread this misinformation never talk about the various systems of oppression (socio-economical, educational, political, etc.) that lead some students to be better prepared for college than others. Instead they attribute all of a student’s academic potential to their ethnicity. Because this “extra” information is swept under the rug, students are often compelled to believe the stereotype. Many choose to individually rebel against it and prove society wrong, however in doing so they may also make value judgements against their peers who are unable to succeed at the same level. Instead of recognizing the systems of oppression at work, along with the different learning styles and motivations of their peers as the reason for their success or failure, they attribute it all to peer’s ethnicity. And thereby begin on the path towards internalized oppression. There are countless other examples of stereotypes that work in a similar if not same pattern.
Having only come across the concept of internalized oppression fairly recently, I am quite uncertain how student affairs professionals can help to address and hopefully dismantle it. I know from my own experience that it took longer than my 4 years in college to properly recognize, address and reflect on my own internalized homophobia. For me it was important to interact with people in the GLBT community and recognize that all of them were individuals with good and bad traits. Moreover I realized that the things I respected the most about them and the things I disliked the most had nothing to do with their sexuality, let alone their ethnicity, religion, or politics. Given my own experience my only hope is that student affairs continues to strive towards providing students with greater opportunities to explore their own identities through academic and extra-curricular programming AND interact with people who share those identities and with people who have complete different identities through formal and informal programming.