Internalized Prejudice

Society’s prejudices and assumptions are tricky. They can sneak in in all sorts of ways you don’t expect and wish you could get rid of.  It’s nearly impossible to grow up without internalizing some sort of prejudice or judgment, and it’s incredibly difficult when you realize that the assumptions you grew up with are wrong. Doubly unfortunately, many of those judgments often intersect with our oppressions: e.g. I have a great deal of internalized fatphobia thanks to my eating disorder, which is incredibly difficult to control and combat. Another example of this might be radical feminists who vehemently oppress trans women. When you’ve been oppressed, you often end up with a lot of hatred towards other people or even towards yourself. But the most interesting examples of internalized prejudice (at least to me) are the times we actively work against ourselves in ways we would never do to others.

It’s often easiest to recognize our own prejudices by how we treat ourselves. Oftentimes our behavior towards ourselves is far more honest than our behavior towards others. Our behavior towards others is more often moderated by societal norms, group expectations, shaming behaviors from others, and empathy. Interestingly, many people appear to find it easier to express empathy towards others, whereas towards themselves they rely on rules and “shoulds”. We fall back on the things we’ve internalized because trying to inhabit our own emotions can be more difficult than inhabiting someone else’s.

But the ways that we treat ourselves in comparison to others can reveal a lot. If you have a great deal of privilege and treat yourself super well and think awesome things about yourself while you simply treat other acceptably, that says something. Or if you treat yourself like crap over things like weight, gender, or mental health status, this might reveal some internalized prejudice. Oftentimes these are things you don’t even notice at first. But if you take the time to examine each judgment and negative thought you have about yourself, you might realize that it rests on a myth about how people should be.

As an example, I’ve been incredibly insecure for some time about my sexuality. I don’t have a high sex drive and I’ve often felt that I’m broken or that something is wrong with me when I’m not actively attracted to someone that I love and want to be with. I’ve often avoided thinking about it out of fear that I have some sort of trauma in my past that I haven’t processed, or that I don’t really trust people. It was only after reading a number of websites about asexuality that I realized that some people are simply wired to not have a strong sex drive. There’s nothing wrong or broken about it. The judgment that I had towards myself was actually reflecting an attitude about anyone who differentiated from the sexual norm. I was even medicalizing my own difference, telling myself that asexuality was a mental or physical defect, or that I would get over it when I was healthy. While I thought that I was simply making a judgment about myself, a closer examination revealed that I had some assumptions about what sexuality should be that were highly offensive and erased the experiences of many people (including myself). Many of us have experiences like these.

So what do we do when we make realizations like this? I’ve spent a lot of time grappling with the fatphobia I know I have because of my eating disorder. It’s hard. You don’t know how to treat yourself or others, and you certainly don’t know how to convince your mind that it’s wrong. How do we argue against ourselves? How do we learn to treat ourselves better?

In general I am not a huge proponent of guilt. Generally if you’re feeling guilty you already know you’ve done something wrong, the guilt has already played its role to tell you that you have behaved inappropriately, and from there on out it just turns into self-flagellation. Particularly with internalized oppressions that are directed towards yourself, I can very rarely see guilt being helpful (I can just imagine someone feeling fatphobia towards themself, feeling guilty about it, hating themself even more, and then proceeding to link fat with shitty once again).  When you turn oppression and stigma against yourself, it does not help for either you or others to guilt you or tell you how shitty you are or how you don’t understand. You are the one suffering here, and while your suffering is contributing to negative conditions for others, you do need to take yourself into account. Here are some suggestions:

1.Sympathy towards yourself and others.
Cut yourself some slack! Cut other people some slack! Now I know that this borders dangerously on telling people to just calm down and let prejudice and stereotypes and oppression go cause it’s no big deal. That is not what I mean. I mean that if someone is already struggling, feeling guilty, and really working to improve their actions and mindset, then you don’t need to beat it into them any further. You can offer them praise for things they do well or simply tell them that yeah, things suck.

2.Imagine whether you would do these things towards other people.
Oftentimes we’re far more willing to be jerks towards ourselves than towards others. I call myself horrific names I never would call others, and expect ridiculous diets out of myself that I would tell others they should never engage in. It can be helpful to spend some time imagining what your reaction would be if the offender was someone else. Sometimes I have to imagine that I’m speaking ot my best friend instead of myself so that I can understand how cruel I’m being.

3.Try to explain why you’re mad at yourself so that you can see what myths you’re using.
This might seem somewhat useless, but it can be incredibly helpful. Taking the time to examine what you’re actually saying about yourself, to read up on some of the social justice literature surrounding some of your issues, and to really dismantle the hidden assumptions that you have can make it much easier to fight back. Once you put those assumptions into plain English it’s often obvious how stupid they are. From there, you can remind yourself of these myths when you start to beat up on yourself again.

4.When calling someone out who is the victim of their own stigma, try to be more gentle than you might otherwise: they’re probably fighting a really hard battle.

It’s incredibly hard to recognize our own prejudices and to act against them. It’s particularly hard to fight them in our own lives. Unfortunately we rarely talk about these internalized elements of oppression, and they can be one of the fastest ways that oppression reproduces itself. Let’s start that conversation.

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