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Surviving Oppression; Healing Oppression

Surviving Oppression; Healing Oppression

To heal oppression in ourselves and in world, it is helpful to understand trauma. Trauma is a physically or emotionally threatening experience (or series of experiences) that leaves us feeling unsafe and disconnected. When we feel threatened or when something traumatic is happens to us or the people we love, the Limbic and Reptilian areas of the brain activate our automatic survival strategies of fight, flight, freeze, appease and dissociate (FFFAD).

If these experiences (which can include car accidents, earthquakes, medical interventions, verbal or physical assaults, etc.) are not immediately followed by restorative experiences of finding safety and being acknowledged, these FFFAD reactions become stored in the body. Trauma stored in the body in this way shapes our perceptions and worldview in profound ways; our bodies and the world around us may seem inherently unsafe, and we can become fundamentally disconnected from ourselves, other beings, the earth, and spirit.

Oppression is Social Trauma

Oppression is a social trauma that traumatizes—although in very different ways–both the targets and the agents of oppression.

For targets of oppression (also known as underprivileged people), social trauma impacts entire target communities (for example: youth, working class people, lesbian/gay/bisexual people, transgender and gender variant people, immigrants of color, African Americans, First Nations people, Arab Americans and other communities of color, people with disabilities, etc); is ongoing (it exists over generations and over an individual’s entire lifespan); pervasive (it is reinforced by myriad institutions); and traumatizes the targets of oppression through (actual or potential) physical, emotional and spiritual violence, and through the withholding of basic resources necessary to survive and thrive. These collective, pervasive and ongoing ruptures of safety and connection result in internalized oppression and other coping mechanisms.

For agents of oppression (also known as overprivileged people), social trauma impacts entire agent communities (for example, adults, middle and upper class people, heterosexual and gender conforming people, U.S. citizens, European Americans and able-bodied people); is ongoing, pervasive; and traumatizes the agents of oppression through the enforced rupture of their inherent sense of interdependence with people in the target group; and through being coerced into causing other human beings to suffer. For example, Mab Segrest in her book, Born to Belonging, describes the impact of racism on white people as follows: “The profound damage racism has done to us (because) we… participate in such an inhuman set of practices and belief…there is a pain, a psychic wound, to inhabiting and maintaining domination.”

In addition to these traumas, children in the agent group also experience the implied threat of losing the safety and connection of their caregivers and community if they do not conform to the dominant role. These collective, pervasive and ongoing ruptures of safety and connection result in internalized dominance and other coping mechanisms.

Oppression Survival Strategies Based on Fight, Flight, Freeze, Appease, Dissociate

Faced with repeated experiences of social trauma (racism, sexism, classism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, anti-semitism, ageism, and other forms of systemic oppression), individuals and communities in both target and agent groups practice whichever of the above survival strategies have helped them (and their group) survive in the past.

Oppression survival strategies are based on limbic and reptilian brain potentials of fight, flight, freeze, appease, dissociate (FFFAD). These strategies can include caretaking, appeasing, assimilation, hypervigilant scanning for threats, spacing out, emotional and mental denial, defensiveness, attacking, criticizing, avoidance, withdrawal, isolating, refusing to take responsibility or taking on too much responsibility, constant image management, self-absorption, seeking absolution, becoming paralyzed, silent, invisible, etc.

As we repeatedly practice these strategies, they become automatic, habitual patterns that get activated by situations that remind us of the original threat or trauma.

Agent or Internalized Dominance Survival Strategies

Anyone can resort to any of the following strategies to survive being either a target or an agent of oppression, but internalized dominance or agent survival strategies often take the form of:

• denial
• dissociation
• numbness
• obliviousness to oppression and to target group members in general
• defensiveness
• attacking and blaming target group members
• refusal to take responsibility for oppression
• self absorption
• avoidance of target group members
• paralysis

Target or Internalized Oppression Survival Strategies

Anyone can resort to the following strategies to survive being either a target or an agent of oppression, but internalized oppression or target survival strategies often take the form of:

• appeasing
• caretaking of agent group members
• staying silent or attempting invisibility
• withdrawal from and avoidance of agent group members
• isolation
• spacing out
• dissociating
• numbing
• hypervigilant scanning
• interpreting everything in the social environment as a threat

The Non-dual and Complementary Nature of Oppression Survival Strategies

For the sake of clarity, I have separated agent and target survival strategies into two distinct lists. However, both target and agent survival strategies live and operate in everyone’s bodies. All of us have learned to survive being targets and agents of oppression (for example, at the very least, all of us once were children in a world dominated by adults); thus we may recognize any of these strategies in ourselves and our communities.

Target and agent survival strategies often play into and reinforce one another. For example, it is common for white people to become defensive and make verbal attacks when a racist action or policy that they were unaware of is pointed out. It is common for people of color to respond by appeasing and soothing white people’s feelings to protect themselves from backlash and further harm.

Heterosexual people often demonstrate denial and dissociation by acting oblivious to the realities of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people; LGBTQ people often resort to the complementary strategy of being silent and invisible by staying in the closet.

These complementary target-agent survival patterns become incorporated into our bodies and behaviors. Since these patterns arose to help target and agent groups survive oppression, these behaviors do little to eliminate oppression. In fact, they support the status quo.

These survival strategies have proven to be effective in protecting target group members from even worse harm, and in protecting agent group members from self-hate; this effectiveness is the very reason these strategies persist; and why they deserve to be honored and appreciated for getting us here. Gratitude is an appropriate first step.
The next step—if our goal is to move beyond maintaining our survival and the status quo into creating a just world—is to choose and practice new strategies that give us more options. For example, members of both target and agent groups can consciously choose to practice behaviors such as being present; treating self and others with compassion; listening before reacting; and speaking their truth. Humans become whatever we practice, and life-affirming behaviors such as these are antithetical to oppression.

Discussing Oppression Means Revisiting Trauma

When people come together to look at oppression we revisit profound social trauma. We bring our complex identities and traumatic target and agent group experiences to the mix; we bring our hurt and shame and hope for honesty, healing and redemption. The stakes are high. In this vulnerable atmosphere, our limbic and reptilian brains register the uneasiness. Our oppression survival patterns tend to become re-activated in our bodies and in the group space. It is important to remember that when agents and targets attempt to dialogue about oppression of any kind our “lizard” brains are present for the discussion.

If our limbic and reptilian brains are in charge of the space, dialogues about oppression can swiftly become hurtful, re-traumatizing miscommunications. There is the risk of oppression being recreated and reinforced by our complementary survival patterns.

To encourage constructive, healing discussions about oppression, it is important to cultivate an atmosphere of safety, compassion and mindfulness, and to have tools at the ready to help us recognize and soothe our inevitable reactivity when it comes up. It is also important to practice creative, empowered responses to triggering situations, so that our focus moves beyond survival reactions such as denial and blame into practicing and creating the loving and just environment and community that we long for.

with gratitude to Staci Haines, Denise Benson & Generative Somatics


You can find out about Dr. Vanissar Tarakali’s upcoming workshops or make a somatic and intuitive coaching appointment at http://www.vanissar.com 

You can also connect with her on Facebook at Tarakali Education.

Obstacles to Being an Ally

Recently I realized that the most significant obstacles that stop me from owning my privilege and stepping passionately into allyship with racial, economic and gender justice issues are connected to the personal and social trauma I have experienced and been shaped by.

What do I mean by “trauma”? According to Peter Levine, trauma is “the often debilitating symptoms that many people suffer in the aftermath of perceived life-threatening or overwhelming experiences.”  From Staci Haines and Denise Benson, teachers of Generative Somatics (www.somaticsandtrauma.org)  I have learned that trauma particularly wounds our sense of safety and connection. When I use the term personal trauma, I am referring to trauma that occurs within intimate relationships, such as attachment trauma, domestic violence, child sexual abuse, etc.

Social trauma is a term I learned from Staci Haines, and is another way of describing systemic oppression, such as racism, classism, ableism, adultism, transphobia, homophobia, sizeism, anti-semitism, etc. in addition to  the traumatizing impact that oppression has on target groups and communities, oppression is experienced very intimately by individuals. In that respect, all trauma is “personal” trauma.

Unfairness and scarcity associated with social trauma is often at the root of personal trauma as well. For example, my own attachment trauma was caused by my mother ‘s inability to give me the love and attention I needed as an infant. This inability was caused in part by the personal and social traumas of sexism, child sexual abuse, domestic violence, and poverty that she and my female ancestors suffered from.

And what is underneath that? The lingering effects of poverty, passed down from grandmother to mother to child as scarcity; prevented my mother from receiving attentive loving parenting when she was a child, sexism limited her ability as a young woman to choose a fulfilling vocation, and domestic violence used up all of her attention and energy in basic survival. So oppression is passed down through generations.

The impacts of these social traumas trickled down to me, manifesting as more attachment trauma, child sexual abuse, and sexism.

It was so difficult for my ancestors to not succumb to numbness and denial, just to shut out the misery, just to survive. For them and for me, denial has been a key means of surviving oppression. Sometimes our sanity—our very lives–have depended on not feeling, not seeing what is happening to/in our bodies and around us.

It is such a struggle for me to wake from this numbness and maintain awareness of the even heavier burden of unfairness and scarcity that social trauma inflicts on people of color, poor and working class people, and people with disabilities.

As Mab Segrest points out in her essay, Of Soul and White Folks (Born To Belonging), generations of white people practicing numbness and other survival patterns have ill-equipped myself and other white women to see and feel and challenge racism.

So these survival patterns have terrible side effects. But these survival patterns do not die easily.

And so, on these pages I want to share with you, dear reader, what I have learned about what it takes to unravel these once-essential, now-redundant survival patterns, and begin to practice authentic allyship. And I use the word “practice” deliberately, cuz thank goodness!–we don’t have to be perfect. “Practice” also means we need to keep at it, day by day, the same way we take the time to work out, brush our teeth, or practice playing an instrument.

Finding compassion for what my ancestors and I did to survive social trauma—the same things that beings all over the planet do to survive trauma: fight, flee, freeze, appease, dissociate—helps me to forgive myself and my people—white people–for being so oblivious to the suffering we inflict on people of color. This compassion also helps me soften that denial, and allows my heart to awaken to its connection with all beings. I have found that compassion and awareness is essential for me to begin and sustain the daily practice of allyship with racial, economic and gender justice struggles.