Internalized Oppression: Making Assholes Out of the Best of Us

Internalized oppression is like a super-buzz word in social work school. It’s right up there with intersectionality, privilege, and my personal favourite: empathic listening(not to be confused with don’t-care listening). But if you ask me, Internalized oppression is separate from other jelly-like social work terms, in that it’s not quite as obvious in its definition or manifestation. By definition, it is: “The process by which a member of an oppressed group comes to accept and live out the inaccurate myths and stereotypes applied to the group.”( has serious definitions now? What is happening to the Internet.) Examples of this are obvious enough. Like being told your family over eats, listening to your grandma chuckle at herself as she digs into her third peice of birthday cake, and as a result saying to yourself “I’m doomed to pig out,”followed by a midnight trip to the fridge for some night cheese. But if this were about night cheese, they wouldn’t teach it in school. So let’s dig a little deeper.

The Link Between Accepting Oppressive Beliefs and Stereotyping

What does internalized oppression really mean/look like? Well, according to trusty Urban Dictionary, it just means fufilling stereotypes that are projected  onto you by your social circles, your parents, or society at large. But to stop there would be incomplete. Just like UB says, it’s when said group comes to accept and live out varying norms.

In most cultures and contexts, acceptance is seen as a really great thing. More often than not, it’s associated with being wise and even enlightened. Relative to oppression, however, acceptance is pretty much as un-unlightened as you can get. It signifies a sense of fatedness, a lack of critical thinking, a believe that the stereotype is true and/or inescapable.  The thing that’s sneaky about acceptance is that it sneaks up on you sometimes–like a belief or prejudice you didn’t know you held. This usually means inadvertedly agreeing with societal norms.

What’s the big deal?

As discussed, internalized oppression is a danger because we can be totally unaware of its existence. And it often enforces the best interest of the dominant group. Here’s a personal example:

The other day, I was on the bus (this blog pretty much makes it seem like busing is the only thing I do in life…). A girl who uses walking crutches boarded with difficulty, as the driver failed to lower the bus more than half an inch. When she took her seat, the driver leveled the bus, and the girl shouted, “Thanks I know that was hard for you.” in the direction of the driver. As the sarcasm was still dripping from her words, she turned to me and said, “Jeeze, you’d think I’d asked him to shoot a puppy or something.”

Below was my thought process in the moments leading up to, during and after this moment:

-(As she’s getting on the bus) Oh, crutches, she moves fast on those. I wonder why she needs them. She looks pretty able.

-(As she turns to sit down) This girl looks pissed. Oh dear.

Oh no, she’s speaking. About the driver, to the driver, about accessibility. She hates the driver right now. Please don’t talk to me. Please. I’m invisible.

– (something something puppies)She’s talking to me me. Naturally.

She wants me to validate her? This is too much.

She’s still looking my way. I guess I should move my face or something? Tell her the driver probably just doesn’t realize her needs? Suggest that maybe the lowering function is broken? Pretend like I’m seeing through her, having very important thoughts?

Unable to decide what I should do and dying from embarrassment, I  pulled one of these:

Sorry about your life.

Sorry about your life.

That’s right, I disability-faced this girl. Full-on, even though I myself am disabled and cringe every time I spot pity-eyes-pursed-lips in my direction. Pretty absurd, right?

Bringing it All Together

Every blog I write lately is about wheelies and wheelieness and how my wheelieness is different from yours, but everybody’s equal and we need to unite and validate each other, blah blah blah. It obviously doesn’t jive with my personal beliefs to react to this other girl with a disability by derping-out my face while contemplating making excuses for the driver. It also doesn’t fit  to question this girl’s abilities when first seeing her. So what happened there?

Enter internalized oppression, the sly bugger.

In the five minutes it took that woman to sit down, comment to the driver and to me, I had assessed her by ableist standards (“she seems pretty able”) questioned her disability and her use of crutches by default (which really, is none of my business, but ableism screams otherwise), dodged any support I could possibly offer her, in favour brainstorming “what-ifs” for the driver, and treated her with the same face people respond to me with everyday.

Really though guys, I swear I’m not just an idiot. Please be aware that I do however, take full responsibility for my idiocy in this instance, while also acknowledging that I’ve internalized some pretty ablelistic norms in the darkest crevices of my heart.

This post is so long it’s getting obnoxious. Let me leave you with this: Now that you (kinda, maybe?) know what internalized oppression is, reflect back on yourself and your experiences. Have you ever looked a girl up and down and judged her for being too skinny/slutty/fat/ugly/zitty/weird/gangly etc etc? On some level, you’ve learned and accepted that it’s OK to measure girls that way, even if you know that it just isn’t right when you are judged by others strictly on the basis of your appearance. Have you ever turn on heel and ran from a situation or group of people who make you uncomfortable because they’re unfamiliar/different? And last but not least, have you ever totally ignored someone because they‘re just too much like you?

Someplace along the line other people have started telling us what we should and shouldn’t accept in ourselves, and others. While I think some judgement and discernment is necessary for well-being and the general functioning of humanity, I also think it is crucial we examine our biases, and their roots, to be sure were not just vomiting old stereotypes that were once puked all over us.





  1. This is a very interesting post, and I always love reading your blog because it is so well written. I will admit that I am guilty of internalized oppression, even against my own groups. It is an extremely difficult thing to try to avoid thinking that way though, due to the deeply ingrained nature of the “condition”? Can we call it a condition? Sure, it’s a condition. But I would say that it is also extremely beneficial to check yourself before you wreck yourself, and work towards being a relatively unbiased person. Does that make any sense at all? I feel like I’m rambling… but it’s probably because I can’t concentrate because my husband is watching Pawn Stars at an unreasonably loud volume….

    • Hey, thanks for your comment. I think the reason internalized oppression resonates so loudly with many is because it is, indeed, against our “own groups” and indirecty, ourselves. And I 100% agree with you that one of the most helpful ways to stop this cyclical social problem is to reevaluate our motives, thoughts and interests over and over.
      And trust, you didnt ramble despite the incredibly distracting Pawn Stars. Kudos.

  2. Great post! I let my kids play with an ipad/phone when we are out having dinner and I get the “looks” what people don’t know is that we just came back from a hike or busy day outside exploring and I just need my moment to relax and have dinner. We don’t eat out much so when we do its cause we ran out of time cause we were out and about.

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