Originally published in
Linda Frye Burnham - Editor
Published by Art in the Public Interest, Summer 1996


Artists, their organizations and their
community coalitions are truly on the front
lines in the battle for American culture.

Attacks on freedom of artistic expression continue, fostering not only cuts in funding but internal struggles and self-censorship. In addition, the mandate to undo racism and other forms of oppression creates a constant struggle for clarity and compassion among people of different backgrounds.

We all have great despair about this immeasurable gulf of ignorance, fear and anger that seems to divide humanity along so many lines, pitting us against each other. It is heart-breaking, it is infuriating, it is terrifying. And in the face of such overwhelming irrationality it is not surprising that we sometimes allow this despair to become our guiding force, adopting a reactive, victim stance. While this is completely understandable, I believe it is a mistake.

We need to be heard and acknowledged for what we have been through in dealing with oppression: how we have survived, and how we are still battling for our lives, our work and our communities. But there are ways this battle can also trap us and limit us, ultimately reinforcing our own internalized oppression. I believe we must hold out for a concept of identity that goes beyond victimization, that is not defined solely by oppression.

Every liberation movement,
social transformation project or progressive change effort, regardless of its identity or cause, inevitably runs head-on into that most confusing, insidious and destructive obstacle--internalized oppression. And while we fight against various forms of institutionalized oppression, it is internalized oppression which actually does the most long-term damage to people.

Anyone who has been hurt by oppressive treatment will eventually internalize it, with a variety of resulting reactions. Internalized oppression is an umbrella term for our response to all the identity-specific ways we have been hurt and still carry the effects of that hurt: internalized sexism, internalized racism, internalized gay oppression, internalized anti-Semitism, internalized classism, etc. We can live our whole lives in rigid response to our oppression, operating by knee-jerk reaction rather than by thoughtful, intelligent, compassionate process.

ONE OPPRESSION that virtually every human encounters regardless of class, gender, race or ethnicity, is the oppression of children. It is our first experience of systematic invalidation, disempowerment and mistreatment. If we had not first been subjected to such treatment as young people and internalized it, we never would have tolerated the ensuing sexism, racism or classism heaped upon us. We would have had no doubts about our intelligence, self-worth, power, beauty, creativity, connection and honest pride as human beings. It is the primer coat of internalized oppression that makes us vulnerable to all the other layers of oppression we face later on.

It is extremely difficult to engage our most exquisitely complex
and elegant thinking processes when we are being attacked,
disrespected, hated, ridiculed, threatened or excluded.

Sometimes we have survived by defiance, by digging in our heels and attacking back, adopting the oppressor's techniques and strategies, and going full tilt in the opposite direction. The phenomenon of "pecking order" is classic internalized oppression--a victimized person seeking out someone else upon whom to repeat the mistreatment.

Other examples of internalized oppression include self-hate, in which we become simultaneous victimizer and victim. We survive by becoming invisible, silent, compliant, by isolating ourselves, by "agreeing" with our oppression or by identifying with the oppressor group and denying our own identity. In the grips of internalized oppression, it will appear as if we have but two choices: victimize someone else, or be a victim. There is no judgment on anyone for having internalized oppression--it is virtually inescapable.

LEARNING TO RECOGNIZE our internalized oppression and see that our humanity is separate and distinct from it is a huge step toward building alliances between individuals and groups. To see it for what it is--a collection of painful responses--means we are less likely to get confused about each other and about ourselves.

The core of internalized oppression is the emotional pain from our experiences of being oppressed. Wrapped around that pain is a layer of isolation that keeps it all glued together. And this is where we each must look to begin unraveling our internalized oppression. One way to identify it is to look at all the ways we mistreat ourselves, all the ways we mistreat others, and all the ways we allow ourselves to be mistreated.

When we treat each other as if we are enemies we are buying into our internalized oppression, allowing the oppression to define us and accepting the victim role as if it were our inherent nature. It is not other humans who are the enemy. It is the oppression we have all been slimed with. Yes it does affect us deeply, but we are far more than the sum of our mistreatments. Eliminating internalized oppression is key to clarity and effectiveness in making social transformation possible.

Dan Kwong is a Los Angeles-based performance artist, writer, teacher and community activist who tours internationally with his solo multimedia performances. His work focuses on creating models for moving through internalized oppression, the use of storytelling as an act of self-empowerment, and developing the ability to distinguish between humans and their conditioning.