In a world where mysogyny and racism are on the rise, ‘jokes’ and ‘banter’ are back with a vengeance, firmly established as the first rung of Gordon Allport’s ‘Ladder of Prejudice’. Mysogyny and racism kill – actual lives in some, too many, cases, but also self-belief, aspiration, motivation. There is much to be done to challenge the dominant ideology – but that’s not my focus here. My concern is how we maintain our own sense of self and build our resilience in an environment in which people from non-dominant, less powerful groups are often not seen or not seen as good enough, or seen as good only at things that aren’t considered particularly important.
First, it is important to my sanity to understand that oppression is systematic, not personal, and to know that, as Steve Biko said, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”. Without that understanding, our greatest critics remain inside our heads. Systematic oppression has helped put them there. Think about how we learn the things we do. We can’t learn everything so what we are taught is selected by those with the power to do so and often favours the stories of the dominant minority rather than the diverse majority. There is an African proverb that says “Until the lions have their historians, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter”. Understanding how the system works can help us silence those internal critics and seek a broader range of sources for our knowledge.
Oppression may not be personal but it feels personal. I remember that on a radio programme exploring racism I heard some years ago (the name of which I’ve forgotten) a black woman contributor said that sometimes people looked at her and she could see the light go out in their eyes. It still upsets me to think of that. And I know why I’ve remembered it. I’ve remembered it because I recognised it. I’ve had that experience – more than once. And at such times, have been grateful to have a good support network.
Although people within the same ‘group’ are often seen as ‘all the same’, we’re all different and we have different strategies for coping with discrimination. So I have people in my support network who have different strategies but, instead of arguing about their different merits, we work together to eliminate the need to have strategies at all.
Thirdly, it’s difficult to remember sometimes but we all, always, have choices (and choosing not to choose is also a choice). You may not be able to change a situation but you can choose to change how you think about it. And what you think is important because it affects how you feel and then how you behave. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But it can be difficult – and scary. Sometimes it is easier to stay with the same thought patterns and the familiar feelings that accompany them even though we know that the behaviours they lead to will not help. Whatever strategy you use, you’re using it so you can cope today. Tomorrow you may make a different choice. Remember, too, that just because someone throws you a ball, you don’t have to catch it. And be careful with the ones that are important to you.
And finally (for now anyway) and most importantly, your most important relationship is your relationship with yourself. Other people are important. But you’re important, too. Live your life as though you count – because you do. Never beat yourself up for anything. There are enough critics out there without joining them! Be kind to yourself – always! We always do the best we could in the circumstances we find ourselves in. Sometimes we learn enough not to get ourselves in the same position again. Sometimes we don’t. If that happens, just forgive yourself and look after yourself even better. Always treat yourself as you would your very best friend.
Know who you are and be you. No-one can do that as well as you. Being yourself is not just OK – it’s perfect.
Eleanor Roosevelt said that “No-one can make you feel inferior without your consent”.
You don’t need to give it!