This past weekend my partner and I went to see a performance of A Lesson Before Dying, Romulus Linney's play set in a small Louisiana bayou town in 1948. It was based on the 1993 novel of the same name by Ernest J. Gaines and is about a young black man who has been wrongfully accused, convicted of murder, and awaits his death in the parish courthouse. While in court the convicted man's life is compared to that of a hog, and this becomes his truth. His godmother enlists the unwilling aid of the town's young plantation teacher to carry out her mission of teaching her godson to walk to the electric chair like an innocent man rather than the animal the white man has made him out to be throughout his life. Questions of racism and morality are confronted in visits between the two men for the duration of the piece and, in the end, the lessons shared and learned transform them both -- along with the entire town.
After the very moving, emotional performance ended, founders of the August Wilson Red Door Project (an organization that "uses the arts as a catalyst for creating lasting, positive change in the racial ecology of Portland") took the stage for a dialogue about the experience we had just collectively emerged from. Their organization posits that "all people, regardless of personal, cultural, and social history, internalize values and beliefs of the world they have been raised in. While some of these values and beliefs enable creative achievement and success, others create a sense of profound limitation and self-doubt. This doubt can be described as internalized oppression -- a process by which people come to accept and internalize the inaccurate myths and stereotypes they have been exposed to." The idea is that "no one is immune from having to wrestle with a sense that something is holding them back, regardless of background or privilege", and they founded their organization on the belief that "with the right education, exposure, and support, everyone is capable of growing their capacity to create, to achieve, and to thrive."
At one point during the very emotional post-performance chat, while illustrating how this particular story speaks to a universal human rights issue and making a correlation between the civil rights movement in the United States and some current world affairs and battles being fought in the name of race and religion in other lands, someone in the audience said the following four words about Americans: "We are past racism." The room fell silent, aside from a few gasps. I could feel the sting in the air and could see the pain that one sentence had caused in the faces of many others in the room.
Traditional slavery may be over in America, but most of us know that racism is still alive and well in this country and the rest of the world. I agree that oppression is a universal issue that extends beyond race, but to say that we are beyond racism is just simply not accurate. This internalized oppression is its own form of slavery, so in some respects even slavery lives on; it just looks different these days than it used to. This brand of slavery imprisons the mind and poisons the spirit. It keeps us shackled to an idea someone else has about our worth and tells us we are wrong to feel human, that we are not equal, and that we are, in fact, nothing but a hog being fattened up for the kill.
The fight for civil rights continues to this day around race, gender, sexuality, class; many of us are still being told by our country that we are animals, undeserving of the same rights and protections granted to our fellow citizens, and we too often believe them. We accept the limitations put upon us by the world around us, and we perpetuate the dehumanizing messages being drilled into us because, on some level, over time, we have taken them to heart and made them our truth. In the end, we become the stereotype.
My dream is that we can transform; that we are brave enough to identify the inner oppressor and cast him out; that we are able to break free from the prisons we have been placed in by fear and hate and instead, honor who we are as people. We are all human beings with voices that deserve to be heard, and we all have the power to change the world.
Your life is just as valuable as anyone else's, and you can be free if you choose to be, no matter what your mind is shackled to. No one has the ability to take your humanity from you. They can sure try (and, believe me, they will try), but it is only theirs if you give it to them.
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The truth is all humans, regardless of social status, are made in the Image of God with inherent worth and value. The lies of oppression and internalized oppression, say this isn’t so.
Oppression is hatred of one group toward another group which is upheld by public policy and private action. When one group of persons is the object or target of systemic oppression over long periods of time, the mis-education, mis-information, subjugation, and lies begin to be normal, routine, customary, and acceptable to members of the group who are discriminated against. This “normal-ness” is internalized oppression.
The persons who are the target of the hatred often believe the lie that they are inferior, that they are the problem, that they are less worthy. The persons who are discriminated against over a period of time will often shift from a healthy self-image into a self-image that exemplifies the lies of inferiority and inadequacy. When oppressed persons believe the lies that the oppressors tell them about their status as inferior – they have internalized the oppression.
Internalized oppression is like….
- believing a lie;
- taking dishonesty as the truth;
- having faith that persons or institutions that are not trustworthy should be trusted;
- being betrayed but thinking the betrayal is deserved; or
- swallowing poison as if it is nutritious food.
The goal of systemic oppression is to render the targeted group non-thinking, non-imaginative human beings. When people from target groups internalize the lies, myths, and distortions of oppression they often feel they have no intrinsic value. They often feel they are inherently not as capable, intelligent, good, beautiful, deserving, or able as people in the dominating group. They come to believe the lies of oppression and turn those experiences of dehumanization inward as if the lies are the truth. For example:
- Racism is the lie that non-white people are inferior to white people – that white supremacy is a truthful social norm.
- Sexism is the lie that women are inferior to men – that patriarchy is a truthful social norm.
- Classism is the lie that poor people are inferior to rich people – that economic elitism is a truthful social norm.
Internalized oppression can spread as widely as the lies of oppression stretch: from race to gender, from socio-economic status to sexuality, from age to ability. Internalized oppression can be devastating to individual persons as well as entire communities. It leaves people with little dignity. Internalized oppression keeps persons from serving God, loving neighbor, and respecting themselves. It can be a source of physical, mental, and spiritual pain and hurt. Internalized oppression wounds the soul. It can serve to make people self-destructive, self-loathing, and ill.
The United Methodist Church takes seriously the dehumanization of persons which stems from internalized oppression. Jesus teaches we should be free and fully human. Oppression, and the suffering resulting from it, inhibit our freedom to realize the gospel of Jesus Christ which is a message of hope and healing. Jesus said, “… I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). We must be acutely aware of both the bold and subtle ways the lies of oppression lurk in our churches, our preaching and teaching, and our church policies and procedures. We must have the strength and courage to have our eyes opened to the sinister ways that oppression becomes internalized to those already suffering under cruelty. To be the Church, we must be willing and able to root out all forms of oppression – individual and systemic – even within our own denomination. Only then, will we be free to help heal those whose oppression has been internalized.
Written by Dr. Lynne Westfield.