Understanding Institutionalized Oppression article image

People joining together on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. bridge to commemorate the lives lost in the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 21, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. Getty Images

Prejudice and institutionalized oppression are at the root of a great deal of bullying, abuse, assaults, and other violence. Through greater knowledge and skills, we can protect children and teens from the harm done by these destructive beliefs – and can help prepare them to protect themselves.

Understanding how institutionalized oppression works can help caring adults to teach young people how to take charge of their safety in the face of unjust actions and prejudiced attitudes that are hurtful, upsetting, and sometimes dangerous. Without this understanding, outrage about unfairness sometimes spirals into destructive behavior that makes things worse rather than better. We can also help young people develop tolerance of those who are different and take action to work towards greater justice in ways that are safe and empowering.

Institutionalized Oppression

Prejudice is a form of bias from individual to individual. Institutionalized oppression happens when social and written rules, laws, regulations, curriculum, media images, privileges, etc., allow a dominant group as a whole to benefit at the expense of a subordinate group. Institutionalized oppression creates great injustices that can affect a person’s quality of life in hard practical realities such as where they are able to live; whether their families can afford to take care of them; struggles with social problems that are rooted in despair; their access to health care; their educational and job opportunities; whether they are more likely to be targeted for violence; and how they are treated by public safety officials or health care providers.

Sometimes people who have been oppressed can become so frustrated and hurt that the oppression gets internalized as rage. This rage most often gets expressed internally though self-destructive behavior and negative beliefs about themselves. Sometimes this rage gets expressed externally through attacks on others.

People who are in subordinate groups are flooded with assumptions, images, and realities that shape their view of who they are and affect the way others treat them. As a result, people often subconsciously accept the dominant group’s belief that they are not as worthy. Or they subconsciously collude with the dominant group in oppressing some other group that is seen as even less worthy.

Pain Is Pain

Young people from dominant groups who become aware of institutionalized injustice can feel so guilty about the harm done to others that they tend to minimize their own pain or to treat people from subordinate groups as “poor things.” They need to learn that pity is another way of treating others as less powerful than oneself and is another form of oppression.

Cross-cultural communication expert and long-time Kidpower advisor Lillian Roybal Rose tells a story of a young white man who said in one of her workshops, “I come from a wealthy family and never wanted for anything. All that has ever happened to me was that my father hit me. Compared to what these people have suffered, I don’t have the right to feel bad about anything. It wasn’t that bad.”

Lillian says that she turned to this young man and said, “Pain is pain. It was that bad. Until you can accept and acknowledge your own pain, you will never been able to treat others as peers or to be an effective ally. Pity can come out as a form of paternalism that is very condescending, even though I know that is not what you want.”

Not a Perfect World

In a perfect world, no one would care if people were different, as long as they weren’t being hurtful to anyone.

In a perfect world, people would not be bothered or harmed by others because they are of different races, sexual orientations or gender identities, appearances, incomes, religious beliefs, abilities, or cultures. Different colors of skin and shapes of faces and bodies would be celebrated rather than judged. It would not matter whether children have married parents, divorced parents, two moms, two dads, or foster parents. If children’s families have problems, this would not be a reason for other people to think less of them.

But I don’t have to tell you that this is not a perfect world. Prejudice because of differences can lead to bullying or even to hate crimes. Negative assumptions about young men of color being dangerous have led to innocent people being harassed and killed by police officers who were blinded by their beliefs. Negative assumptions about different religious beliefs and cultures have too often led to violence instead of to peace.

“It’s Not Fair!”

Young people have a strong sense of justice, and they are usually outraged when they are picked on because of prejudice. With different groups, the hurting words and the types of prejudice that they encounter might be different, but the feelings are the same: shame, hurt, sadness, wanting to be accepted, fury, fear, wanting to hide, wanting to get even.

In workshops where we have teens or pre-teens practice de-escalating and walking away instead of getting into fights or arguments, they often say, “It’s not fair! I should be able to go down the street without some creep mouthing off. You just said that I have the right to be proud of who I am, and now you are telling me to shut up and take it.”

And of course, we agree with our students because they are right – it’s not fair!

We try to provide perspective by saying, “Our goal is to help you to be as safe as possible in an unfair world. What other people believe or say is not as important as your safety. You can be proud while being realistic about the dangers caused by prejudice. This means that you need to make wise choices about when you show the world what you think and who you are – and when you focus on being aware and getting away from potential trouble. We believe that when you are under attack, your first priority is to get home safely. After you are back in a safe space, that is the time to work to make the world fairer in the future.”

Feelings and Safety

In a workshop with developmentally delayed teens, our instructor Mark was pretending to be a drunken man on the street and shouted, “YOU RETARD!”

When it was his turn, fifteen-year-old Ross turned around and threatened to punch Mark instead of walking away.

“From the time I can remember, people have been telling me that I’m dumb!” Ross exploded. “Special ed. Retard. Freak. Poor thing. Stupid. For years and years. I am sick of walking away and I’m not going to!”

Both Mark and I explained that Ross had a right to his feelings, but that we couldn’t let him practice physical self-defense fighting skills unless he first showed that he could walk away from insults without acting as if he wanted to fight.

Mark modeled looking powerful while walking away.

Ross sat and thought about it while he watched other students practice. Finally, he asked if he could say everything he wanted to say out loud to us. We got permission from his teacher as long as he didn’t use foul language.

Mark and I then listened while Ross shouted, “I HATE YOU! YOU ARE HORRIBLE! I WANT TO HURT YOU THE WAY THAT YOU HURT ME! YOU BLEEP YOU!”

When he was done, I asked Ross if he was ready to practice walking away with calmness, awareness, respect, and confidence from Mark pretending to be horrible. He did a great job, and everyone clapped for him.

Any Word But THAT One

Because so much horrible abuse has become associated with certain words, these words can assume an enormous amount of power for young people. In fact, many adults, in describing these words, will have a hard time saying them aloud and will use initials instead. The “N” word. The “B” word. The “C” word.

“I can walk away from any word but that one,” young people who have been targeted for prejudice will tell us. “If someone uses that word, I have to fight to defend my honor!”

What these words are will be different for different groups, but the issue is the same.

In one workshop for Latino boys, there had been three funerals within a few months of boys who had fought over insults. Kidpower Program Co-Founder Timothy Dunphy got permission from the youth group leaders to use the most offensive words possible, so the boys could practice walking away from trouble and going to safety.

Because peer approval was so important for this group, Timothy got the other boys to cheer their friends as they walked away from the insults, saying things like, “That’s cool, man! I want you to live! Those are just sounds, man! It’s not important.”

Hard-Won PRIDE

Wikipedia’s online collaborative process has developed some useful definitions about groups that are often targeted for violence:

“Sexual orientation describes the direction of an individual’s sexuality, often in relation to their own sex or gender. Common terms for describing sexual orientation include bisexual (bi), heterosexual (straight), and homosexual (gay/lesbian).

“Gender identity describes the gender with which a person identifies (i.e., whether one perceives oneself to be a man, a woman, or describes oneself in some less conventional way), but also can be used to refer to the gender that other people attribute to the individual on the basis of what they know from gender role indications (clothing, hair style, etc.).

“Transgender is the state of one’s “gender identity” (self-identification as male, female, both or neither) not matching one’s “assigned gender” (identification by others as male or female based on physical/genetic sex). Transgender does not imply any specific form of sexual orientation — transgender people may identify as queer, heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual or asexual.”

LGBTQIA+ young people who are visible can be highly vulnerable to being physically and emotionally targeted simply because of who they are, their identity. At the same time, they may struggle to accept themselves, to find acceptance with others, and to make decisions to come out to their family and friends.

By the time they get to one of our workshops, many of these young people have already reported being bullied, harassed, threatened, sexually assaulted, or beaten up. They report that they are often told by adults in charge that they “deserved” it or that they were “asking for it” instead of being given help.

Typical requests of situations to practice include:

  • “I am holding hands with my girl friend walking home after school and this guy starts following us, saying that we need to have sex with real men.”
  • “A guy starts to approach me in an isolated place, making threatening comments about the ‘Gay Pride’ sign on my (tee shirt, wheelchair, car, etc.)”
  • “I am walking with my boy friend and these guys start to threaten us, saying that they don’t want fags in their town.”
  • “I am at a party, and someone starts shouting, ‘Hey, are you a guy or a girl or a what?”

Skills for Facing Prejudice

We create similar role plays for young people being treated in rude, threatening, and other cruel ways because of sexism, racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, ableism, agism, and other kinds of prejudice. We tell our students that it is important to be proud of who they are, but not to let their pride get in the way of their making safe choices. Depending on the situation, our students’ wisest choice might be to:

  • leave and get to a safe place;
  • set strong boundaries;
  • yell for help; or
  • physically defend themselves.

We also coach students to practice being clear, respectful, and persistent in setting boundaries about prejudice with people they know. We have them practice using assertive body language so that they act strong instead of weak, and neutral instead of provocative. We rehearse how to manage your emotional triggers so you can stay in charge of what you say and do even when you are upset and how to “think first” before engaging in prejudiced behavior themselves.

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Making Wise Choices When Being Unfairly Targeted by Public Officials

Chilling statistics show that young men of color in the U.S. are far more likely to be stopped for questioning, treated with suspicion, and killed by police officers. And anyone of any age or color can be harmed by escalating a confrontation with law enforcement officials, even if “they started it”.

All young people need their adults to tell them that, as unjust as being targeted like this is, their top priority must be to make safe and wise choices in the heat of the moment. We recommend that anyone in this situation be prepared to:

  • Stay calm and respectful even if others are rude.
  • Leave calmly if you are allowed to do so.
  • Keep your hands empty and visible so officers can see that you do not have a weapon.
  • Avoid sudden aggressive moves or language.
  • Try to defuse the conflict by being very polite.
  • Recognize that alcohol or drugs can impair your ability to stay calm and make safe choices – and might harm your credibility if you file a complaint.
  • If possible, document what is happening by turning on the video camera of your phone.
  • Ask bystanders to witness what is happening and to film it if they can.
  • Know how to get help by calling the ACLU or other people who are in a position to speak up for you. The ACLU has developed a Mobile Justice app that allows people to record and report concerning incidents. https://www.mobilejusticeca.org

In order to be prepared, it is important to know your rights and to practice. The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults is being used by many child rights activists to teach young people how to take charge of their emotional and physical safety.

Working Together Towards Change

One important action each of us can take is to speak up clearly about the importance of treating people with respect regardless of their differences. For example, one of our Kidpower values is to be inclusive with a boundary: We welcome people of any age, culture, religion, race, gender, political belief, nationality, sexual orientation or gender identity, marital status, any kind of disability, or level of income who share our commitment to integrity and safety for everyone and who can join us in upholding our values.

The Tyler Clementi Foundation launched the #Day1 Campaign to encourage people in positions of leadership in families, schools, organizations, businesses, and other groups to make it clear with their members from day one that prejudiced remarks and behavior are unacceptable and what to do if it happens. Setting clear expectations with a path for follow-through is a powerful step toward creating inclusive communities.

Even with the best of intentions, we will make mistakes with each other, and it is important not to let those mistakes stop us from continuing to work towards greater understanding and acceptance. From early childhood on, we are immersed with mixed messages about different groups in our society, and we will sometimes say or do something that perpetuates prejudice instead of stopping it.

According to Lillian Roybal Rose, “The field of cross-cultural communication starts with the working assumption of the goodness of all human beings and helps people to become true allies to each other in making a more just society. A true ally is not someone who helps another person. A true ally is someone who takes a stand based on her or his own values with no strings attached. We will make mistakes with each other out of fear or out of misunderstanding. We have to stop blaming and shaming each other for these mistakes. A true ally is not someone who never makes mistakes. A true ally is someone who never goes away.”

With compassion and self-awareness, we can overcome destructive beliefs inside ourselves through getting to know people who are different. Together, we can teach our children to treat themselves and others with respect and understanding instead of fear and hate. And together, we can work towards creating societies where safety and justice are a reality for everyone, giving all our children a better world to live in.

Additional Resources

#Day1 Campaign to Stop Bullying, Harassment, and Prejudice Before It Starts

Speaking Up About Putdowns

Sexual Harassment: Another Kind of Pollution

Facing Prejudice With Compassion and Determination: What Can Each of Us Do to Create Greater Justice and Safety?

Safety for LGBTQIA+ Teens and Young Adults: 7 Strategies from Kidpower

For more information about Kidpower’s resources for teaching these People Safety Skills and concepts, please visit our online Library (free community membership) and our RelationSafe™ Bookstore.

(Are you a member? Sign-up or Login for direct downloads and free access to 100s more Kidpower resources.)

Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: cartoon-illustrated Kidpower Safety Comics and Kidpower Teaching Books curriculum; Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe; the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults; Earliest Teachable Moment: Personal Safety for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers; and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.

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