Awareness of Unfairness: Thawing Out from Internalized Dominance

Emotional First Aid Tips
December 12, 2010
Radio interview on Sustainable Social Justice & Healing Trauma
March 8, 2011

Many Western therapeutic models suggest that ongoing emotional/psychological discomfort and dysfunctional relationships originate in individual traumatic life experiences. Addressing such personal hurts through individual healing methods is certainly helpful and necessary. Yet there are other traumas that we—and everyone–suffers from. We cannot separate ourselves from the collective wounding caused by oppression, and the disconnecting impacts of racism, sexism, and other oppressions.

Oppression grants some of us advantaged statuses associated with being white, male, heterosexual or middleclass, etc. However, none of us as children consented to living in a world of racial, gender, sexual, or economic inequality, or to being members of a dominant social group. And if we were asked, we probably would say, “No!” Children–and grown-ups–have a deep longing for fairness and connection with others. Oppression* thwarts this innate longing. It breaks our hearts.

Nevertheless, without our consent we were born into a world where our light skin or gender or income means “better than” and we are taught to accept and take for granted the pervasive overvaluing of our social group and the undervaluing of the “other.” Through conditioning and socialization, we learn to accept oppression and internalize dominance.

Oppression is essentially unfairness. Each form of oppression is a cycle of unfair treatment made possible by a lack of presence/empathy. This cycle is self-perpetuating: it arises from lack of awareness and presence, an inability to see and empathize with those who are different from us. Out of this obliviousness comes unfair treatment of the “other,” and a need to numb ourselves to the harm we are causing. Numbing ourselves reinforces the lack of empathy and awareness, and perpetuates the cycle of oppression.

This type of unfairness looks like someone or some group having basic needs met while others do not, some being harmed while some are protected, some being given skills or membership, inclusion, and special treatment while those skills and membership, inclusion, special treatment are withheld from others, simply because they don’t belong to the “in” group.

One way to picture oppression, using the example of racism, it is to imagine a wide teeter totter, with a group of white folks in the “up” position, taking it easy, enjoying the view. And on the ground, holding down the other end of the teeter totter are a group of people of color, waiting for their turn to be “up.” And their turn never comes. In real life, people of color keep white people “up” with their effort and energy. Looking up at white folks all the time, it’s easy for people of color to feel exhausted, to start believing they are lesser than. And way up high, taking in the sights and resting, it’s easy for white people to be unaware of the people of color at the bottom who are straining and suffering.

If you are a person who belongs to a minority group because of your race, gender, class, sexual orientation, age, physical ability, etc., or if you can remember what it was like being a small child in a world controlled by adults, then you probably already can empathize with the experience of being the one at the bottom of the teeter totter.

Any child could tell you this teeter totter situation isn’t fair or fun, and that it cannot last. So why do children put up with unfairness? Well, they don’t. At first; they resist. We have to work very hard to teach children to accept oppression, but eventually, everyone succumbs. It’s either that or be cast out, and no child can survive that.

Children do not control the social norms and rules, so they don’t have much choice. Instead of risking the connection and safety of their community, children from the dominant group learn to “fit in” and tolerate unfairness.

The process of learning and accepting the “one up” position at the expense of a whole group of people is wounding. One example of this wounding, using the example of heterosexism and transphobia, is the common experience of heterosexual and gender conforming children or teenagers being expected to avoid or end friendships with lesbian, gay or transgender peers. These situations lead to terrible choices and ruptures of trust and connection with family and friends.

At the same time, participating in cruelty and unfairness towards the “other” conflicts with our human inclination to care and connect. Oppressing others dehumanizes and wounds us, shuts us down and limits our ability to connect with ourselves, other people and spirit. We learn to numb ourselves to avoid feeling these painful losses and betrayals of our humanity. We develop blind spots in our perceptions, numb spots in our bodies. These layers of armor shut out the pain and loss.

We have all been conditioned to tolerate/accept unfairness towards ourselves and others. We have all come to accept being oppressed and oppressing in order to survive in an oppressive culture. And this has hurt us, intimately and personally.

The antidotes for this collective wounding that we all participate in and suffer from need to be both personal and collective. To approach this healing process skillfully, we need to know what we are up against.

A variety of obstacles deter dominant group members from recognizing the oppression and privilege operating through us and around us, or taking steps to counter them. The major obstacle we face is that it is painful! Undoing this tolerance/acceptance of the status quo requires starting to feel more. This means facing and feeling your own and others’ fear, confusion, shame, grief, anger, excitement and joy. A useful metaphor for this thawing out process is that “pins and needles” feeling you get when circulation returns to a numb hand or foot—it is uncomfortable! By the same token, uncovering the vivid emotions and sensations of the body that are our birthright as humans is difficult. We need to be prepared for discomfort; we need a great deal of support.

Support comes in the form of companionship and community. We need other members of our social group to travel the path with us, people who are committed to a just world. Such community helps us feel safe to take risks, and sustains our journey of learning about and challenging oppression. When we feel our allies standing with us, it feels much safer to access our innate empathy, feeling, and presence.

Support also comes in the form of tools and practices that help us to stay self-loving, resilient, and persistent when things get tough. The most powerful practices that I have found are embodied (grounded in the body) compassion and awareness practices. Both compassion and awareness are essential to sustain the daily practice of allying with racial, economic and gender justice struggles.

Compassion helps soften denial, allowing us to perceive the suffering the dominant social system inflicts on people of color, working class and/or queer and transgender people. Compassionate awareness supports empowered action.

And compassionate awareness awakens our hearts to our connection with all beings. This personal and collective healing journey gradually leads to a reawakening of our childlike sense of justice and fairness, and our innate qualities of trust, curiosity and connection to all beings. We become able to listen with open hearts, perceive injustice wherever it is occurring, and act with fierce love to challenge it.

This is an adventure worth embarking on!

*Oppression constitutes individual, cultural and institutional policies, laws, practices, attitudes that reward and support individuals and communities with more social status and power and simultaneously limit and harm individuals and communities with less social status and power. Oppression takes the form of racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, classism, anti-immigrant policies, etc)

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