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Surviving and Thriving in the Wake of Oppression

By: Stacey Pearson-Wharton, CAMPUSPEAK Speaker

Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of speaking with students about the impact of implicit and hidden bias within all of us. Recently, students have begun questioning whether microaggressions aimed at them are, in fact, macroaggressions that are intentional, premeditated, or deliberate. Given the rash of hate and bias incidents on campuses, including tiki torch-wielding white supremacists; an African American student being harassed by a roommate who suggests that she put her toothbrush “where the sun doesn’t shine,” and swastika stickers appearing in greater number, it is reasonable to expect that students who have marginalized identities are increasingly concerned and anxious. This article will provide some real, practical help in dealing with blatant, in-your-face racism, sexism, homophobia, cis-genderism, classism, ableism and other forms of oppression, that will allow individuals to thrive in the wake intentional hate and bias.

  1. Healthy Cultural Paranoia is Real. Healthy Cultural Paranoia is an inherent mistrust that is required to survive in society. It is not your imagination to feel that all eyes are on you every time slavery or the Japanese internment camps come up in a history class. You are not wrong to feel a little unsettled when you have an encounter with the police, or even to question whether you are being unfairly targeted for being late to class by a professor. This vigilance is important and has served as a successful survival strategy for many generations. It is normal to take precautions to avoid danger in the form of failure, injury or prejudice, oppression, and hostility. Continue to stay vigilant, but don’t allow it to rule your life. Not all people who hold privilege in society are out to harm or injure you.
  1. It’s Not You, It’s Them. When you experience an intentional expression of oppression, it feels like a betrayal, it’s hurtful and maddening. It can also feel like an attack on your personhood, the essence of your soul. Do all you can to de-personalize that kind of treatment. Hold onto the knowledge that you are not the problem; the person displaying this oppressive behavior is the one with the problem.Doing all you can to take responsibility for your own reaction to this type of behavior, and to gain insight from it, will help you to recover after experiencing blatant discrimination. As a psychologist, I work with clients who are trying to negotiate a difficult experience. I assure them that the people who are most resilient see the negative events they experience as external, situational and unstable. In other words, they know they did not create the situation and the negative and unstable behavior directed at them. It came from outside of them and has nothing to do with who they are.Individuals who struggle with hypersensitivity, anxiety, and depression see events that happen to them as internal, dispositional, and stable, i.e., as a normal part of their lives because of who they are. I know being called the n-word or the f-word cuts deep. Often, we internalize the slur as if we did something wrong. But think about this – unless there is a racist near, you will not experience racism.A person’s need to oppress another is their own problem, pathology, position, and privilege. Do everything you can to reinforce that this not your problem and these are not your issues. You may need to remind yourself repeatedly that what is happening is not your fault. You cannot take responsibility for someone else’s behavior. You have absolutely no power to control this oppressive behavior in others. It has been around since the beginning of time and cannot be eradicated by assuming a part of the responsibility for this behavior yourself.
  1. Find your Voice. Experiencing on-going, blatant macroaggressions can have a silencing effect. Racial “battle fatigue” often leads to silence when one becomes too weary to continue standing up to racial injustice. That silence can be deafening. Remember, you can only eat poop for so long before you start to vomit. If you are the victim of blatant, deliberate oppression, speak up! You choose the time, the place and the listeners – the way it will have the most benefit for you. Find the strength to report injurious treatment. Engage in activism. Start a petition or go through the conduct process.  Find your voice and make it heard. Hold perpetrators accountable by informing people who are able to make that happen. And make sure you are not carrying the load of someone else’s mistreatment because that burden is much too heavy to handle by yourself. There is help out there.
  1. There’s Healing in Community. Being the victim of blatant, intentional harassment can take a toll on you. Be sure to get support from the people and place that matter in your life. Affinity groups, people who hold similar identities, friend groups, family or faith communities, are a good place to start. While you don’t have to share with everybody, be sure to share with somebody. We were not created to be islands. Isolating your self will only make things worse. Being with and getting support from others can be a healing balm.

The documented increase in hate and bias incidents concerns me. I believe that healing for victims is possible.  Remember, your reactions are normal. Your voice has power–use it. You are not at fault for other people’s behavior and you need those around you for support. It is my hope that these truths will help the next time you experience blatant and intentional hate, discrimination or bias.

To learn more about Stacey Pearson-Wharton and her program offerings, visit campuspeak.com/pearson-wharton.