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Internalized oppression

Internalized oppression

Internalized oppression is a concept in social justice, in which an oppressed group comes to use against itself the methods of the oppressor. Internalized oppression occurs when one group of people recognizes a distinct inequality of value compared to another group of people and, as a result, desires to be like the more highly valued group.

For example, sometimes members of marginalized groups hold an oppressive view toward their own group, or they start to affirm negative stereotypes of themselves. Internalized oppression may manifest on a group level as well as an individual one. Internalized oppression may result in conflict within the group, and discrimination among the group.[1]

Internalized oppression may also exist among some immigrants and their descendants. If the host community devalues foreigner's ethnic origin, native language or culture, the person may feel a sense of inferiority. This could lead to self-hatred, which manifests itself through an exaggerated conformity with the dominant norms. In response to ridicule, an immigrant may attempt to compensate via assimilation and acculturation.[2]


  • Internalized racism occurs when a person of a group that is a target of racism assumes a racist attitude towards members of their same group, including themselves. It is a negative predictor of self-esteem.[3] Internalized racism is an effect of internalized colonialism in which colonized peoples lose their identities and begin to value the same things as the colonizing society. This often happens unconsciously over a long period of time. The impact of internalized colonialism can be seen in the practice of skin whitening found in places like the Philippines, Nigeria, and Korea.[1]

  • Internalized homophobia, also known as internalized heterosexism, occurs in the LGBT community when individuals adopt the dominant heterosexual norms of the culture. Internalized homophobia has a positive correlation with psychological distress and a negative correlation with self-esteem.[3] Internalized homophobia has strong ties to feelings of guilt and shame, especially among youth, and has been linked to increased anxiety, depression, and suicides.[4]

  • Internalized sexism is experienced when people, generally women, adopt the oppressive attitudes towards their gender held by the culture they live in. An example of this is slut-shaming, wherein women enforce male expectations of female sexuality on themselves and other women.[5] The pervasive cultural idea that women are inferior to men may have developed into women viewing "themselves as reduced agents".

Multiple internal oppressions may occur when a person belongs to more than one oppressed group. For example, a woman of color might simultaneously be the victim of both internalized racism and internalized sexism. Another example would be a person of color who also is homosexual.


  • Internalized oppression “occurs when a person comes to internalize oppressive prejudices and biases about the identity group(s) to which he or she belongs”[6][7][8][9]

  • Internalized oppression occurs when “[s]ocial oppression such as racism, sexism, ableism, classism, heterosexism, gender and religious oppression, and anti-Semitism” are “implanted by and [work] toward the benefit of White society” or any other dominant group (Joseph and Williams).

  • Internalized oppression “depends on systemically limiting, blocking, and undermining” the “success, innovation, and power” of oppressed individuals or groups (Joseph and Williams).

  • Some oppressed individuals will copy and internalize “institutionalized rejection of difference,” failing “to examine the distortions which result from…misnaming [these differences] and their effects on human behavior and expectations.”[10]


  • “If women are surrounded by people who view them as subordinate, incapable, or lacking control over their actions, women are likely to come to understand themselves in a similar way, even if subconsciously” [11]

  • Belief that the self cannot be autonomous[11]

  • Belief that one is not worthy to participate in positions of power[11]

  • Belief that one is little more than an object for sexual gratification[11]

  • Fragmentation of the self may occur when one views oneself as the oppressor may see one and when this view is in direct conflict with how one believes one views oneself[11]

  • “Psychological oppression can be damaging to a person’s moral relationship with the self”[11]

  • “Since those who have internalized oppressive prejudices often engage in behavior that further perpetuates these biases, internalized oppression is not only a symptom of an oppressive social climate, but it also represents a mechanism for its continued existence”[11]

  • According to University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s doctoral students Valerie Joseph and Tanya O. Williams, “deep racial self-negation[,]…internalized racial hatred[, and] internalized oppression…stymied [their] growth as people and scholars [and] inhibited [their] ability to be…profound, strong, and beautiful…” (Joseph and Williams).

  • Sometimes oppressed individuals can be made to feel as if they are “implicated in a project of compliance with the values and goals” of the dominant society (Joseph and Williams).

Internalized oppression may also occur in disabled individuals. This phenomenon is called disability oppression. People with physical disabilities may distance themselves from others with disabilities to avoid associating themselves with those who may be viewed by society as "weak" or "lazy".[12]


According to Audre Lorde, manifestations include voluntary isolation, since those who have internalized their oppression have failed to recognize their difference.[13] Lorde also describes the relationship between older members of an oppressed group by younger members of the same group as “contemptible or suspect or excess.” [14] Through this generation gap between the young and old, there is also the event of “historical amnesia” causing oppressed minorities to repeat the learning process and to fail to pass those lessons on to subsequent generations.[15] Specifically, Lorde gives the example of oppressed individuals as being “encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of [one]self and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of the self.”[16] Oppressed individuals may have a hesitance to step out of false stereotypes that surround them, as well as hesitancy to verbalize resistance to violence that happens to their oppressed group.[17] Finally, there is also the most common manifestation: self-hate.[18]

  • “multifaceted and extreme psychological, social, and economic self-sabotage”; a tendency to “defer to whites”; and feelings of being “‘not black enough’” (Joseph and Williams).

  • Colorism within racial groups

  • Dieting or exercising to achieve a socially-imposed version of femininity (Bartky)

  • Displaying “specific repertoire of gestures, postures, and movements” to achieve femininity (Bartky)

  • Applying make-up, enhancing or surgically augmenting physical attributes, or wearing specific styles of clothing “directed toward the display of [one’s] body as an ornamented surface” in accordance with socially accepted standards of beauty (Bartky)

  • Strict adherence to costly, and at times, painful skin- and hair-care regimens (Bartky)

  • Imposing discipline over facial expressions to avoid wrinkles from smiling or frowning, thereby denying the self the right to emote visibly (Bartky)

  • Deference to oppressor by avoiding eye contact (Bartky)

  • Smiling, despite one’s inner state, in an attempt to display “graciousness, deference, and readiness to serve” (Bartky)

  • Manipulation or restriction of the comportment of the body as a whole, manifesting in a “reluctance to reach, stretch, and extend the body to meet resistances of matter in motion—as in sport or in the performance of physical tasks—and in a typically constricted posture and general style of movement” (Bartky)

  • Restriction of body movements and mannerisms of speech to avoid being labeled a “loose woman” (Bartky)

  • Self-effacement in the presence of men or members of a dominant oppressor group (Bartky)

  • View of the self as a diminished moral agent (Liebow).

  • View of the self as a deviant moral agent (Liebow)

  • View of the self as trespasser or criminal (Liebow)

  • View of the self as promiscuous, hypersexual, animalistic, undeserving, illegitimate (Liebow)

  • Diminished self-respect

Links to Risk-taking Behaviors, Criminality, and Diminished Mental Health

  • Anorexia-nervosa and bulimia may result from strictly monitoring diet

  • Depression

  • Paranoia

  • fragmentation

  • According to Nabina Liebow, “people of color who internalize stereotypes regarding criminality and moral deviance…can cause [them] to view themselves as outlaws in the moral community” and may “engage in behavior that further perpetuates these biases” (713).

  • “Fulfilling these stereotypes further pushes someone outside the moral fold and intensifies one’s damaged moral identity” (Liebow 723) “[I]nternalizing stereotypes about criminality and moral deviance can led to a pervasive feeling of guilt…” (Liebow).

  • “Persistent feelings of guilt can result in mental-health setbacks such as depression” and “repeated exposure to guilt and similar feelings has been linked with a range of health challenges such as “dysfunctional coping, abdominal obesity, and glucose intolerance complicit in the development of Type 2 diabetes” (citation). (Liebow 721).

Overcoming Internalized Oppression

  • “[T]he master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (Lorde 5).

  • To better understand and overcome internalized oppression, Joseph and Williams developed a workshop to “introduce and discuss issues of socialization, stereotyping, internalized oppression, and domination.” This “social justice education model…encouraged an agent/target model of leadership,” whereby representatives of both the oppressor and oppressed classes joined together, to guide “participants in developing a plan of action to address racism.”

  • Joseph and Williams recommend that any fear “left over about discussing race, racism, and internalized racism” must be set aside in order to “talk forthrightly, honestly, reflectively, and thoughtfully about race” and say that the “need to voice…hurt, the need to surface realities, the need to shine light on a history that was and continues to be ignored” must be greater than the fear of discussing these issues (73).

  • Those internally oppressed must learn the ways in which they have been indoctrinated in order to “engage in a process of rejecting internalized subordination as an everyday choice” (Joseph and Williams).

  • Similarly, the Center for Organizational Leadership and Renewal at Saint Louis University conducts research and workshops with educators to examine ways in which oppression and internalized oppression impact racial achievement gaps in schools. Participants are encouraged to examine the underlying causes of the practice of oppression, how beliefs systems are formed, and the ways in which oppression, including internalized oppression, become woven into society. Workshop participants “are challenged to look at how white privilege and internalized oppression are manifest both in their lives and in their institutions” (Mai and Holmes).

  • The Center’s workshop participants develop greater self-awareness with regard to their own discriminatory practices through discussion, journaling, action-planning, and network-building. Follow-up surveys with participants report increased attention to understanding of how they see their roles as arbiters of race-related issues in education. Respondents reported increased interactions with and greater understanding of coworkers and students of other races, increased motivation to act as change agents to dismantle racism, increased attention to the harms of student-on-student prejudice and oppression, and greater inclination to take action against racial injustice and oppression (Mai and Holmes).

  • School districts that send educators to participate in the Center’s workshops report positive changes in hiring practices, school improvement plans driven by disaggregated data, supplemental academic programs for minority students, adult peer counseling for parents of minorities, changes in schoolwide discipline policies, professional development workshops for faculty and staff, and increased attention to intentional and purposeful differentiated instruction to reflect diverse student bodies (Mai and Holmes).

  • Audre Lorde states: “My fullest concentration of energy is available to me only when I integrate all the parts of who I am, openly, allowing power from the particular sources of my living to flow back and forth freely through all my different selves, without the restrictions of externally imposed definition” (5).

  • Audre Lorde says that “to root out internalized patterns of oppression” women must “recognize differences among women who are our equals, neither inferior nor superior, and devise ways to use each other's difference to enrich our visions and our joint struggles …to identify and develop new definitions of power and new patterns of relating across difference” (5).

  • “[S]harpen self-definition by exposing the self in work and struggle together with those whom we define as different from ourselves, although sharing similar goals” (Lorde 5).

  • “[M]aking explicit the tensions and intersections that exist between different kinds of internalized oppression can help women of color and others to continue working toward cultivating and promoting healthier moral identities” (Niebow).

  • William E. Cross, Jr. suggests that those suffering crises of identity can ameliorate a diminished sense of the self by employing four techniques: Buffering is a process whereby someone who may experience situations potentially threatening to their “psychological integrity” may prevent an encounter from having its full effect by anticipating these interactions and either avoiding them or taking them into full consideration with their context. Buffering may allow these people to maintain an intact sense of self as well as physical and mental health. Code-switching occurs when a member of a minority group exercises agency to navigate and alternate between the language and the mannerisms of the mainstream group and of one’s own group to the benefit of oneself. Bridging occurs when people of different identity groups connect and form “basic connection[s] involving their fundamental humanity.” Rather than rejected or denied, differences are embraced as “part and parcel of the friendship.” Attachment-bonding occurs when the sense of self becomes aligned healthily with an understanding and an acceptance of the intricacies and nuances of one’s own identity group. This process requires “knowledge, practice, choices, and perspective.”

Related Theorists and Theories

Michel Foucault

  • French philosopher Michel Foucault “has argued that the rise of parliamentary institutions and of new conceptions of political liberty was accompanied by a darker counter-movement, by the emergence of a new and unprecedented discipline directed against the body. More is required of the body now than mere political allegiance or the approbation of the products of its labor: the new discipline invades the body and seeks to regulate its very forces and operations, the economy and efficiency of its movements” and that “the production of ‘docile bodies’ requires that an uninterrupted coercion be directed to the very processes of bodily activity, not just their result; this ‘micro-physics of power’ fragments and partitions the body’s time, its space, and its movements” (Bartky).

Jeremy Bentham and the Panopticon

  • English philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s design for the Panopticon serves as a theoretical model for explaining Foucault’s ideas. The constant state of surveillance created by Bentham’s model and imposed by an oppressive external force serves “’to induce in the inmate a state of consciousness and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power’; each becomes to himself his own jailer,” imbuing in the oppressed perpetually self-surveilling behaviors, including those that may be damaging to the self (Bartky).

See also

  • Internalized racism

  • Learned helplessness

  • Passing (racial identity)

  • Self-hatred


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