Walking my ninth-grade English class around the campus of a local university, I call the class’s attention to the many college students studying in the student union. “See? Studying is an important part of college life,” I tell them. Without hesitation, one of my ninth-graders responds, “Yeah, but they’re white.”
A lot of what we learn about diversity, sensitivity training and cultural competency focuses on changing negative attitudes we, as educators, might have about identity groups that are somehow different from our own. That’s important work, but what we often miss in those learning opportunities is the importance of also addressing internalized oppression.
Internalized oppression is the belief among historically oppressed people that negative stereotypes about themselves and positive stereotypes about a dominant group are, in fact, true. In other words, a student dealing with internalized oppression believes their social group is inferior to another social group. My ninth-grade student on that college field trip, who is black, had come to believe the racist notion that black people are “naturally” lazy and unintelligent and do not value education; he also believed the racist notion that white students are naturally studious and smart and care about school. In addition to racial stereotypes, internalized oppression often includes negative ideas based on gender and class: for example, girls who believe they cannot be great at math or science or students living in poverty who believe they are not qualified for advanced classes.
For educators, awareness of these common stereotypes about historically oppressed groups is the first step to helping our students do away with these damaging beliefs. The all-important second step is to distinguish internalized oppression from low self-esteem. These two conditions may appear to be the same, but low self-esteem is limited to negative beliefs about the self and may be based on experiences specific to the individual. Internalized oppression, however, is a negative belief about an entire demographic of historically marginalized people, with a contrasting positive belief about the dominant group. In the face of internalized oppression, it is not sufficient to help students feel better about themselves as individuals. Education professionals—and families—must recognize internalized oppression and address it by helping students understand the origins of such stereotypes, how and why certain stereotypes are perpetuated, and what it means when individuals or groups internalize these stereotypes.
But how can we accomplish this? How do we change such long-held, widespread and deep-seated beliefs? The task seems daunting. Yet we cannot shy away from it. Our efforts in this area could make a major difference in our students’ lives, since students won’t succeed until they believe they can.
Here are a couple of ways we can engage in this work. A simple start, which many readers probably already do, is immersing students in positive and complex images or messages about their social groups. Complex images can be more effective than strictly positive images because the goal is not to replace one stereotype with another. Furthermore, strictly positive messages could further alienate students who don’t identify with the images of perfection and might interpret the examples as mere exceptions to the rule. Instead, we can show students that many people like them live successful and fulfilling lives even with ongoing hardship, setbacks and human imperfections that we all deal with. Among such examples, teachers may include narratives by people like Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon, who once struggled with internalized oppression but eventually recognized it within themselves and worked to overcome it. A great text to supplement all of this work is Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which explains internalized oppression at a societal level and how educators can address it.
Perhaps an even better long-term strategy is to debunk the entire myth of inherent or predetermined characteristics. This is a significant aspect of working against internalized oppression because it is not group-specific and can benefit students from multiple demographics at once. We all could probably reflect on a moment when we’ve heard students make comments like, “Asian students are just smart” or “Boys are just better at math.” We might ask students to think more critically about these seemingly inherent characteristics. We could ask them to consider what social conditions or social practices encourage and facilitate certain outcomes and behaviors in some groups.
Not all students who belong to historically oppressed groups will suffer from internalized oppression, but when we do observe it in our students, we can be prepared to tackle it. Although I suggested to my ninth-grade student a different way of thinking as soon as he made the comment, I also committed to challenging that thinking more consistently in the classroom after the field trip.
How have you observed internalized oppression among your students? How did you address it?
Editor’s note: Learn how a school counselor and Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board member addressed internalized oppression in her Latina students here.
Webb is a Ph.D. candidate at Louisiana State University and the founder of ColorismHealing.org.