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Ask A Therapist: Do I have Internalized Oppression?

Personal Growth, Ask a Therapist, Racial/Cultural Identity
6 min read
black male sipping from mug while typing on laptop

Dear Therapist, I identify as a Black man of immigrant parents, but I grew up in a wealthy, white neighborhood. After viewing the racial injustices of the past few years, I’ve started to wonder if I have internalized oppression. I see myself gravitating to ‘white spaces’ and now I feel conflicted about my perception of myself. How do I navigate these thoughts and get back in touch with my roots?

 

Frame therapist, Phebe Brako-Owusu, weighs in...

Let’s begin with the fact that you are not alone in this! Internalized racism is something that is more common than we care to admit. Our inner voices are sometimes in agreement with the outside oppression we face and to be honest, we may have some shame about that. It is also a means of survival in a society that says in more ways than one that whiteness is the standard.

What is internalized oppression?

Internalized oppression is what occurs when people from marginalized or oppressed groups (for example, African American/Black people and Asians in the U.S.) start believing and telling themselves the lies or misinformation that society has told them about their groups.

It can look like:

  • Wanting to push down your emotions so you don’t seem threatening when you’re in white spaces.
  • Not wanting to take a break from work because it will confirm the stereotype that Black people are “lazy”.

 

4 Tips for Navigating Thoughts Related to Internalized Oppression

 

Be kind to yourself

You have done what you have to do to survive so far. There is a reason for your gravitation towards ‘white spaces’. This internal work can be very tough and will have you questioning many things about yourself. It is important to show yourself some kindness by being cognizant of the words you use to describe yourself for example, and setting boundaries with yourself so you don’t go into a downward spiral. Just because you think something, doesn’t mean it’s true!

 

Recognize where this comes from

Oppression is one of the many legacies of White Supremacy. To overcome something, you have to name it and understand where it comes from and how it functions in your life. Take a look at how you view and think about yourself and ask yourself, “Is this really true?” You may find that some of the perception you have about yourself is a reflection of society’s standards for people like you, and not really how you want to see yourself. Do some research on the impact of internalized oppression by reading articles such as this one (https://www.forbes.com/sites/janicegassam/2022/01/28/exploring-the-ways-internalized-oppression-shows-up-in-the-workplace/?sh=15de39f25f09)

 

Talk to others you feel safe with

Because of the nature of verbalizing internalized oppression, it is important to talk to people who will not judge you and understand your struggle. Pay attention to how they have responded to news of racial injustices over time to see if they could be a safe person to talk to. A therapist can be a great person to process some of these emotions with as well.

 

Learn more about your culture

Especially about the history of powerful figures from your parents’ home country. Ask them questions about their home and lives before immigrating abroad. You may learn a thing or two and even get some surprises about your parents’ lives and identities pre-immigration. Resources like YouTube can provide more information like videos about current happenings in the country, popular music genres and an outlook on how life is in your parents’ home country. Part of learning about your culture is also being intentional about who you surround yourself with. Find a local group of immigrants by searching “Ghanaians in *Name of your city*” on Google to see if there’s a community with events you could attend.

 

Think of your perception of yourself like a lump of Play-Doh. You get to mold it into whatever you want to. So maybe the mold you have had thus far is starting to feel uncomfortable. It’s not too late to start working on a different shape. Use these tips to start your work and always remember you don’t have to do this work alone. There is power in community.

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About the author: Phebe Brako-Owusu is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in Washington state and licensed to see clients in WA and DC. She is an immigrant from Ghana who supports immigrants as they build a home away from home. She works with adults, families and couples who are facing work stress, need healing from trauma and want to explore their immigrant identities. She is the founder and CEO of 253 Therapy and Consult, a group practice offering both telehealth and in-person services in University Place, WA.  Connect with Phebe or view more of their work on their Frame profile.


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