I’ve been thinking a lot about something lately, and I think I’ve figured something out. Here’s a question- which of these statements is true?
A. Oppression is real- things like racism, sexism, classism etc. systematically work against human beings in every minute of their everyday lives in order to maintain and uphold the patriarchal, white supremist status quo.
B. We create our own realities, anything we imagine is possible, we are 100% responsible for our experience of the world- if we believe in love then love comes to us, if we believe we are wealthy then wealth comes to us, if we believe only in darkness then darkness comes to us, etc etc.
The first statement places us all as victims of oppression, nearly powerless against the systems that have been in place for hundreds of years. The second statement says that we are infinitely powerful, so powerful even that we are incapable of being victimized without our own consent. So which of these realities is more real?
The answer is that they’re both real.
They are both exactly and completely real.
We all know that the first statement is true because we’ve experienced it in our everyday lives. Women and men are both thoroughly fucked over by sexism and patriarchy in every moment of their lives. Sexism and patriarchy tell every human who they can and cannot be, how they can and cannot act, and set impossible gender ideals which no-one can ever hope to fulfill. Racism, too, creates barriers for people of color on every level from the institutional to the interpersonal, working against them like a strong current which they must struggle against in order to make their way upstream. And classism, duh.
These things are incredibly real, and they’re incredibly important to talk about because as soon as we begin to talk about them we begin to see them, and when we see them we can work to undo them, each to the best of our abilities, in big ways like the ways we choose to live our lives and make a living or in the small ways, like the stories we tell our children and the businesses that we support. But if we refuse to see these systems of oppression then we are very likely to make choices that actually perpetuate them, because those choices are often the path of least resistance, because that is how the system is set up, and how it perpetuates itself.
So external oppression is real, and it’s important to see it, to talk about it, and to acknowledge its power.
The second statement, however, is also true. We create our own realities, using the contents of our own brains, and we are only limited by what we imagine to be possible.
This second statement is true because it deals with internalized oppression, not external oppression. Internalized oppression is what happens when you’re fucked over by the world for a while and then, even when the world is no longer fucking you over, you just keep fucking yourself over, automatically, because you’ve internalized the pattern of being fucked over and so you’re fated to play that pattern out for the rest of your life, even when the external source of oppression is gone.
Internalized oppression is one of the crueler ironies of the universe.
It’s like this- you’re a little boy, and your dad tells you that you’re a fucking pansy, and that you’ll never be a real, strong man like him, and that you’re basically a failure of masculinity on every front. Eventually you grow up, and no-one is telling you that you’re a fucking pansy anymore, but you have a constant deep secret fear that you’re somehow not masculine enough, and it effects the way you act in the world, and your relationships, and the choices that you make. Actually, it makes you a homophobic douchebag sometimes, which is not what you set out in the world to be, and you really do not like this part of yourself, but your father created this little thing inside of you that’s like a perpetual motion machine that tells you that you’re basically a total failure when it comes to being a man, and that thing will never ever go away, even though your father has not been in your life for many years.
Or, in my case, your parent, instead of giving you affection, would beat the shit out of you, and instead of telling you that you’re a special snowflake, etc, they would tell you that they wished they’d had an abortion, and that all of their problems are a result of your existence. And then when you’re fourteen your grandparents adopt you, and they basically tell you that you’re a worthless piece of trash, so even when you move out on your own at 17, and you’re an adult and no-one is beating you or telling you that you’re worthless anymore, you are severely limited in what you believe you are entitled to on this great green earth, namely: nothing.
I am thirty years old, and no-one is beating me or telling me that I’m worthless. I am a white, well-spoken, able-bodied American living in a very gentrified city with lots of lovely rose bushes and bike lanes, an no-one is oppressing me in any way. And yet I am crippled by internalized oppression, and it interferes with my ability to invest in myself in any sort of lasting way, and to trust others.
Basically, on some deep level I believe that other humans cannot be trusted and that I am entitled to nothing, and this story that I tell myself grows outward and shapes my environment, and creates this reality that is my day to day experience, in which I am poor, have no future, and am, in my most vulnerable moments, alone.
No-one, at this point in my life, is “doing” this to me. I am doing this to myself.
You don’t have to fucked over to the extent I was fucked over to experience internalized oppression. Because of classism, sexism, racism, etc, nearly all of us experience it. We have our stories that we tell ourselves about what is and is not possible for us in our realities that we have somehow convinced ourselves are rigid and with clear, definable borders, and that these stories move outwards and actually create our day-to-day experiences is absolutely real.
I once knew someone who either experienced no internalized oppression, or her internalized oppression was so different than mine that I could not tell that it was there. Where I felt entitled to nothing, she felt entitled to everything. In an ambiguous situation when someone’s intentions were unclear, I would assume that they were negative, while she would almost invariably assume that they were positive. Where I would embark on a project and become almost immediately discouraged, she would let nothing discourage her. Where I anticipated that the universe, if asked, would always answer NO, she would not take no for an answer. When the universe said NO, she heard MAYBE. Most importantly, when the universe said NO, the story inside of her said YES.
I don’t have to tell you that this friend gets absolutely everything that she wants in life. That she’s successful in everything that she sets out to do. That her world has no edges, at least as far as I can tell, no strict borders. No invisible fences.
How does my friend do it? How does she actually alter the physical world into a place where she is able to manifest all of her dreams?
She just believes that it’s possible. That’s all. It sounds stupid, but it’s actually the hardest thing in the world.
I think that’s why I’m so drawn to eastern religions, like Buddhism, whose core belief is that the outside world is an illusion, and that the only real battle is the one that happens inside our own minds. Because external oppression is real, and external oppression will come and go, but unless I can heal that part inside of me that wants to recreate that oppression, over and over, for all eternity, then I will never be free from it, whether I am, at the moment, actually experiencing it or not. And not only will I experience the oppression inside of myself, but I will recreate it with others, and become the oppressor that had oppressed me in the first place, ensuring that the cycle continues into the future, even after I am gone. Basically, even if you took all the external oppression away, and there was no more racism or classism or what have you, it wouldn’t matter. We would create it all again, out of the contents of our own hearts. External oppression is real, and internalized oppression is real. And you cannot face one without facing the other. And that, right there, is more real to me than anything- and if I’ve done any healing in my adult life, it’s been facilitated by that type of thinking- the idea that, after all the dust has cleared, what we believe is possible becomes what is, in fact, possible, and that if we see darkness everywhere all around us, then the world becomes darkness, and if we assume the worst will happen, then the worst is always happening, perpetually, forever.
Of course the inverse it true, and incredibly beautiful. And so simple that it sometimes fills me with a sort of blinding resentment, because no-one ever told me it could be so straightforward, and because, when things are hard, it is so easy to forget.
If I believe that people are basically good and beautiful, then I am surrounded by good, beautiful people. If I believe that I am entitled to something, as weird as that feels, like money or comfort or success, then it is not hard to make it mine. If I believe that money comes to me, then the missing pieces to make the money I need come to me effortlessly, as though by magic. If I believe that I am safe, then I am never in danger. If I believe that people love me, then of course they do.
I am loved. I let love in. I am kind to myself.
It’s the hardest thing in the world.