04 Jan Transforming patterns of internalised sex and class oppression, part 1: How post-its can support liberation
A gift to you from our experimenting
Systemic social oppression is not something that happens “out there”. It happens at home, within our relationships, in all parts of our lives, and within ourselves in the ways that we internalise it that are both known and unknown to us. As Erica Sherover-Marcuse wrote: “The perpetuation of oppression is made possible by the conditioning of new generations of human beings into the role of being oppressed and the role of being oppressive. In a society in which there is oppression, everyone (at one time or another) is socialized into both of these roles.” 1
As we grow, depending on our sex, and where we are born within the social hierarchy, we will experience oppression differently and, through its impacts on us, experience our own and others’ power differently because of it, as Erica further writes: “people who are the target group of a particular form of mistreatment are socialized to become victims; people who are the non-target group of a particular form of mistreatment are socialized to become perpetrators- either in a direct, active form or in an indirect, passive form.”1
The definition of power I am using in this post comes from MIki and Inbal Kashtan, which is that power is “the capacity to mobilise resources to attend to needs.”2 As babies we have power; by the means of our squeals, laughter, and cries, we communicate what we need and usually those resources come to us. As we grow, the ways that resources come to us, or not, and the ways in which we are trained to be able to obtain resources stratifies across the systemic lines that fit our place of birth, e.g. sex, class, race, country of origin etc. “This makes power a significant need in that when we do not have access to resources, our capacity to attend to needs, both our own and others’,diminishes.”2
In this post, I am writing to share about explorations we have been doing in the pod I am part of to unravel dynamics of stratified power dynamics across two dimensions of sex and class which exist between Eddy and me. I am female and come from a deeply working class background, and he is male and comes from a middle class background. There are finer nuances to this, and this is what we have been focusing on at the moment.
The effects of oppression are deeply insidious and there are several reasons why understanding what is what and being able to hold it together is very challenging, including, for example: the ways in which oppression becomes internalised and as such, invisibilised and normalised, even within ourselves; the ways in which we dehumanise one another on either side of the divide to the extent that, as “those with more power often see those with less power as subhuman, while those with less power see those with more power as inhuman”; the ways in which we are systemically unable to see our power, and how we defend ourselves within our placement; and the ways in which we can have shame about our access, or lack of access to resources.2 If we are want to move towards a future where resources move towards needs rather than to where demand and the resources to meet that demand already exist, then from where I am standing, it is clear that we need to understand the systemic reality that we are currently living in and build the strength to be able to begin to tangibly walk out of that tangle and towards the world that we long for.
Since this is what we have been experimenting with in our pod, I am offering our journey and discoveries as a gift to you.
Optimal conditions for experimenting
I also want to foreground the fact that we live in optimal conditions for experimenting with what can be done to undo the effects of social oppression. This means that what we are creating in our pod may not be possible in many other places. Even so, it is my hope that seeing that this is even a possibility somewhere will support increased strength for others. Elements that make these optimal conditions include:
1. Extremely high trust field: we are able to have difficult and challenging conversations, often, while staying within togetherness and without losing trust. They in fact usually deepen our trust and intimacy.
2. Deep collective commitment to one another’s liberation: we are rooting for each other, welcoming of our insights and discoveries, and have full on tenderness for each other’s limitations
3. High collective capacity for self-responsibility: we are able to own our reactions and to identify the ways that our actions are stemming from internalisation of the systemic, or have acceptance in the face of it being brought to our attention
4. Collective focus on systematising and sharing all that we learn: we see what happens from a compassionate systemic lens and are focused on creating agreements and structures that support in re-aligning collective functioning, rather than on individual healing and change.
5. A rich array of challenging dynamics in relation to class and sex training between Eddy and me: the relative systemic placements we have which I already named above.
Even while I am excited to share with you what we have been discovering, I am also writing this piece from a place of deep exhaustion within me. As any of us who experiences the effects of oppression in whatever forms knows, the energy it takes to even find the capacity and willingness to speak about it is enormous. This is both because the internalised effects of oppression rob us of our power to trust our experience and speak up, and because often when we do, it is met with responses that confirm our reasons for keeping quiet in the first place. More often than not, the capacity to co-hold the effects of oppression is simply not there, and so speaking up only results in more impacts to deal with. I am not writing this with blame or from self-righteousness in any way. I know, if not in the specifics, that in the places where I have privilege and others do not, I too can be completely oblivious to actions I am taking that may repeat patterns of systemic oppression, and also that I may react in some way if it’s pointed out, even though it is my wish and intention to be able to maintain an orientation that supports both our liberation.
So much of the experience of internalised oppression, for me, that keeps me locked within myself and unable to speak, is that many little things happen that I notice; I am then wondering whether to say something, what to say and how it may be received, what to do if I say it and there’s challenge, etc; and, within the complexity of it all, this then amounts to simply absorbing it, again, as if by my own choice.
It has also been my experience, throughout our experiments, that the more I speak to this, the more my energy is freed. So, I write this with humility, and with as much of my strength as I can find, to speak from my experience of oppression from within this complexity, and I write it for me, for my sisters, and as a gift and plea to any budding male allies to not wait any longer.
Now I feel exhausted again. What is exhausting is the act of bringing all of this to the surface and the necessity of navigating within me how to express all of this to unknown readers in a way that is completely authentic to my experience, when the nature of what I am revealing is so insidious, and when many people are still completely oblivious to and even reactive to it. In addition, each section of overall meaning requires me to pull up energy from places that are very weak within me, itself an impact of the oppression. Even though the end result of my sentences may appear clear and strong, the energy that has gone into articulating them is huge. Liberating ourselves from the internalisation of our oppression is very energy expensive and requires the activation of places inside that may not initially even know they exist. It literally takes re-building the energy cells, like re-growing muscles to be able to walk again.
Introduction To The Experiments
The experiments, in the form of actual conscious “experiments”, have taken three forms. First was the “post-its” experiment, which is something we started within our pod. Second is the “sister-solidarity and male allyship agreements”, which we created at a Nonviolent Global Liberation (NGL) gathering we had recently with a small group of us in Scotland, as a way to care for un-metabolised impacts related to what we call “the perceptual grid”. The third is what came to be called the “it’s happening now” experiment, which is a further refinement of the sister solidarity and male allyship experiment that evolved from our learnings as we engaged with it over a period of two weeks. In order to be able to delve deeply enough into each of them, I decided to split it up into three posts. In this one, I focus only on the “post-its” experiment. This allows me to get into the actual specifics, so that you, my readers, can viscerally grasp the depth and intensity of experimentation from within which all this is written.
Helpful practices for creating optimal conditions that support revealing and transforming internalised oppression
As Erica said, “Liberation is both the undoing of the effects and the elimination of the causes of social oppression.”1 Because of the collectively intertwined nature of social oppression, this inherently means it is not possible to do it alone. At the same time, as I noted before, it is also challenging to do it together because of the various reactions we can have which only increase our sense of separation from and distance to one another. Two orientations that are key to transforming this, which I wrote a bit about in the optimal conditions section, include; firstly, the systemic lens, which supports us to be able to see how what is happening is originating in something that is supported systemically and is not coming from the inherent wrongness of another person’s being; secondly and “closely related to the systemic perspective is the capacity to lean on the assumption of innocence, both our own and that of others. NVC can be of tremendous help here, because of the depth of commitment to see everyone’s actions and ways of being as expressions of shared human needs.” 2
To build on the last paragraph, before I head into writing about the post-it experiment, I want to share with you some of the specific practices that Eddy has been engaging with that have enabled him to accompany me and be moved and changed by what I have been sharing. As I said above, more often than not, the capacity for the kind of presence that is, in my experience, most supportive for surfacing the impacts and internalisation of oppression is simply not available. So, what Eddy has been doing within him that has made this possible is deeply significant. What is below is written by Eddy, joining the flow of my piece:
I’m coming in here to offer my voice to this piece and speak to some of the dimensions of what I’ve been holding and how I’ve been orienting. My hope is in writing this that it may be of some service to others who are stepping into this delicate, tender, fraught and deeply significant territory of conversation and support human weaving along these deep systemic fault-lines.
I’m going to outline below a few of the principles and practices that I have been leaning on so far in navigating this territory of conversation with Emma. This list is also by no means exhaustive, these are just some that seem particularly prominent. There are some I haven’t included and others I trust will come in time. To me this post feels like only the initial fruits of our excavation.
Liberation – Awareness of the Gift
The core piece I have leaned on over the course of these conversations has been holding deeply within me an awareness of the gift of what is being brought forward by Emma. It’s a gift of solidity, an awakening of the sensitive clear spirit within; a gift of being able to see more clearly and fully the vulnerable currents of life around me; a gift of being able to understand others more deeply, by going into Emma’s particular experience; a gift of greater internal and external coherence, and of living with an active heart.
A Buddhist mentor of mine in speaking about ‘ethics’ gave the analogy of living in an upright way being like walking through a young moss garden. Apparently when a moss garden is young you need to walk through it barefoot and do it very slowly and delicately so that your feet don’t tear up the moss. I see this analogy as pointing towards the sensitivity, delicacy, and presence that is called for when we truly bring to awareness the impact we have through our being. In the conversations with Emma I’ve noticed two broad directions I could see things going. One is to feed a curled up anxious being within me, that wants to protect and defend me simply being me as I am, or to put up a load of internal electric fences in response to what is being shared, that police my behaviour and stymy my expression. The other is to see what’s being shared as a mindfulness bell, one calling me back to awareness, an opportunity to refine how I show up in the world and nurture my capacity to embody a deep conscientiousness.
Lowering the Threshold – Seeding the Field with Appreciations
Another move I felt was significant was to consciously give voice to appreciations for what Emma was sharing. Within the context of how much the voices of those from positions such as Emma’s are squashed down, negated or in some way not welcomed, I saw that by saturating the field with a new message, that what is being brought forward is welcome, we can possibly start to create an environment where the information in these perspectives can start to flow with more ease. By contacting the gift of deep humanity, connection, intimacy, understanding, love, and awareness that is gifted to our field through Emma bringing her pieces forward, and by consciously and repeatedly expressing this from an authentic place, it starts to have this effect.
Affirming Systemic Untrustworthiness and Embracing Humility
Affirming systemic untrustworthiness is an acknowledgement that, since those of us that have more power usually don’t see our power, by virtue of the system supporting its invisibility, it means that for those who in a position of less power, those who have more are “systemically untrustworthy”. By saturating the field with the message that ‘what you’re saying makes sense’, it starts to send a counter-message to the organism of the person from the marginalised social location. This is especially significant when it comes from a place where there is so frequently negation and defensiveness in response to impacts being shared along power lines.
A significant part of this type of acknowledgment is to fully acknowledge and come to terms with the fact that, if you are from a position of privilege, there are likely pockets of absent awareness and places where you enact patterns that can have serious impacts. For me personally this involves reckoning with the following (this list is my no means exhaustive and is meant to be illustrative of what I’m speaking to here)
- I have been trained to give more credibility, substance and attention to other male’s voices in subtle and not so subtle ways.
I have been trained to objectify and categorise women’s bodies according to a whole host of societal cues and for this to influence the movement of my attention and energy.
I have been trained to have an inertia in caring for a whole territory of material needs and to semi-consciously lean on women / other class groups to attend to them.
I have been trained to take up space much more readily and easily and to not be attuned and sensitised to those in my environments, implicitly expecting them to give attention and orient to me.
I have been trained to see those from a work-class context as ‘lesser beings’ in subtle ways and again for this to influence my attention and energy.
I have been trained to plaster over all of this and to show up with a pretence of politeness and niceness, having the above operate underground and unacknowledged and to live in a more insidious way as a result.
There is a pathway within me of a patterned dynamic where if any of the above are brought to my attention I could become dysregulated and defensive and in some way not acknowledge the impact and even actively confuse the sharing of it within the defensiveness of my response.
- These are all gardens within me, patterns of behaviour that have been watered and fed by my root context, which interface with the internalised oppression of others. In the event that these aren’t thoroughly acknowledged and held, they prime the space to replicate patriarchal patterns. I have been on a path of abandoning some of them for quite some time and some have only come into awareness, and I have only found choice about being in relationship with them, relatively recently. Within the territory of these patterns, trust starts to be rewoven as I grow awareness of them and to groove new pathways of showing up that are in alignment with my deeper integrity. I am finding that the relational ground that is forming through this process is the ground of liberation, deep humanity, connection to life, and trust that is golden.
The catalysts to the exploration
The catalysts to this exploration didn’t come from sitting down together and deciding to look at and unravel this piece of the collective systemic tangle. They emerged through expressions of frustration and stress from within the tangle. With our vagabonding lives, we move around a lot and, often in times of transition, I have found myself constructing huge lists within me, which I later referred to as “my internal pile”. This included things that needed to be done now so that other things could happen later, starting something here, finishing something there, gradually moving us towards being able to leave the house, holding the doing of it all by myself and not getting to things that I actually wanted to do, such as reading and working on things that were important to me. Meanwhile, when I saw Eddy sitting on the couch, doing his learning journal, apparently completely oblivious to it all, it drove me insane.
My initial expressions of frustration about this came out as judgements about Eddy. Usually these started internally, an experience of resentment that I couldn’t catch in a clear way and that built into me eventually saying something in a way that had a quality of exploding and took some cleaning up. I don’t remember what sorts of things I said, but it was hard for both of us. After initially orienting to this as something that I needed to work on; to be able to make requests of others, and that way of orienting not shifting it, we started to look for other avenues.
One thing that came clear was that, through being brought up working class and female and in a family that doesn’t read at all, I don’t have the pathways internalised for engaging and supporting my own learning, especially in the face of a load of things that need to be done to support the functioning of our group. Within me, there is an “of course” that my energy would go there when we need to leave the house in however many days. It didn’t make sense to me, when looking at all that was happening and needed to be done, how on earth could someone just sit there while I ran around him attending to things? And yet, in general, I much more easily orient towards doing things and tending to emergent needs, so why wouldn’t I? There is a certain joy in it for me, at least when I am with a group of people who are also doing practical things together and are connecting around that.
Another thing that became clearer was seeing, as he wrote above, Eddy’s inertia around emergent needs and practical things, his prioritising of his structures for learning and integration in the absence of awareness and orientation towards the practical and emergent things, along with more available capacity around caring for his own learning, which are all aspects of his own class and male training. As I imagine you can clearly see, Eddy’s training is in direct contrast to my own. Without any specific intention to do so, he easily supported a space that contributed to replicating my patterning of tracking and attending to much of the practical things, and my training easily contributed to what was happening being completely normalised, making sense within itself. At the same time, the multitude of things I was tracking were invisible to Eddy and the idea of prioritising attending to emergent needs brought fear to Eddy about losing touch with choice and what was important to him.
Looking at all of this, we saw a clear path of liberation for both of us. For me it was to prioritise my learning needs, and for Eddy it was to prioritise emergent needs. Taking these on was not easy for either of us, and we oriented to supporting one another with our respective strengths to lift up the other where we had limited capacity. This had two immediate results. One was bringing back a practice that had been started some time ago: the collective tracking sheet, which is a collectively made list of tasks which aims to support more distributed holding of practical things, and also creating a system for transitions which effectively started to “systematise my stress”. The other was for Eddy to start working with me to create structures that could support me with integrating more choice around prioritising my learning needs. Both of these things have been really helpful in supporting me to begin to grow more strength in this area (for example, I am now much more easily able to write this than I would have been a year or so ago!), to take significant amounts of the weight off me in times of transition, and to support us in becoming more aware of the overall dynamic.
The insidious nature of these dynamics, though, is such that it’s not only about the things that are done or are not done, it’s also the awareness and orientation from which they happen or not. For example, it’s the difference between being willing to go to the shop and get more milk if asked, and checking to see if there’s milk and going of our own accord. Translating that to this situation: even though we had the transition system and the collective tracking sheet, the majority of the time we are not in transition, and if we are not all looking at the sheet the underlying dynamic has not changed.
One thing I noticed, as we started to open up and explore these dynamics and I began to unravel and reveal the impacts on me, was that more of it started to come to the surface and I became less and less willing to absorb what was previously completely normalised. It got to a point where there started to be so many things that I was both tracking on the material plane and was annoyed with Eddy for not tracking, that I became a reactive mess, pre-empting impacts on me before they even happened. Even with this much reactivity in me, I still had access to choice in terms of being connected to the clarity that I wanted us to be able to harvest from this for collective learning, and this is what we have been doing.
The post-it experiment
There was a bit of a build up to the “post-it experiment” in which I explored a couple of other pathways of getting support in order to understand what was going on and to find more spaciousness within me and connection to my power. This included experimenting with the “rage room”, which is a structure we designed for NGL online for the purpose of having a space where unprocessed rage can be expressed, especially for the purposes of liberating stuck energy at the roots of powerlessness. What I particularly came into contact with while doing it was rage at some judgements that Eddy had shared, as part of his middle-class upbringing, towards working class people. The voice of the rage was “you need me!”. I felt myself speaking for the whole of my class and all those who, historically, have had their life energy squeezed from the labour of their frantic fight for their survival; the same labour which provides the back on which all of the comforts that those who can do so within our capitalist-patriarchal world enjoy. Exploring in the rage room didn’t shift the overall dynamic on its own, though, and I met with Menaka, a fellow NGL person, to explore further. We discussed creative nonviolence; how to both make the systemic reality more visible and ridiculous through humour, and how I could trust more that my truth was a gift to increase my strength to bring it forward. Still, this was more “on me” than I was able to hold in a way that felt useful and was bringing the kinds of shifts I wanted, and yet all of these little co-held steps are important elements of the overall orientation to collective liberation that is a part of the optimal conditions I pointed to earlier. It certainly paved the way for what came next.
We then met with our wider support group and about 9 of us held the dilemma within our pool of collective wisdom and co-holding. Within that conversation, I uncovered more fully the nature of my internalised classism. I discovered thoughts that devalued my challenges and aloneness in holding the things I was holding, such as: “Why would I want to interrupt Eddy’s flow with these mundane things that no one would want to do anyway? I‘ve been trained to do these things and to do them well, why would I give them to someone else to do when it would just be more work and I’d likely need to be involved anyway?”
I discovered that while I’m in touch with the absorption of sex and class oppression, it’s not so clean within me to be able to simply name what it is. It’s more complex than that. The layers of its internalisation also mask it from my own view. It is my lived experience, not only something that simply has happened to me, or may still be happening to me from the outside. There is a way in which, in my experience, it is who I am. This makes the unravelling of internalised oppression a very complex thing, especially in the context of knowing that “at one time or another [everyone] is socialised into both of [the oppressor and oppressed] roles.”1 This means that, like all of us, my unique experience of oppression, in whatever way it exists, makes up my experience of who I am. Shifting it means the willingness to change, and this is a very challenging thing for most of us to do.
From within my experience in the context of internalised sex and class oppression, I also discovered a phenomenological nuance that is important when applying the systemic lens. It’s as if there is a rubber band between the individual and the systemic. Even though we never know whether a systemic phenomenon is actually happening in the particular instance we feel the impact, stretching all the way into the systemic and speaking only from within the humility of not knowing whether x thing is happening now can leave us behind as an individual and contribute to our sense that our experience is either not believed, or not true and that we are making it up, or simply crazy. There is a sweet spot with applying the systemic lens. It needs to be stretched towards enough to shed light on the larger dynamic, so that we know and trust that our experience is not unique to us, and stretched little enough that we know that we are still speaking about our unique experience within it, otherwise it can be disabling. We use the systemic lens to shed light on why each individual may act in this way or that way, not to negate that we act in this way or that way, and that that has impacts.
Within the obvious challenge of navigating all of this, it was clear that I needed a way to help me express the things that were coming up as they came, in a way that bypassed my own doubt about or diminishing of my experience, while at the same time, doing it in a way that that enabled Eddy and me to co-hold it and still be able to do other things. Someone had the idea to simply write exactly what was coming up for me onto post-its and stick them on the objects where the thought had arisen from. These would then be collected before dinner and brought to our daily impact sharing session.
I made 4 post-its in the first 20 minutes after the call. It was intense to just write my thoughts exactly as they were and stick them to something. This continued over the duration of the experiment. Sometimes I would find myself saying “no, I don’t need to write that one”, I found myself thinking that I could just “leave it and it will go away”, I found myself resisting writing them down as I didn’t want to admit to having those thoughts, I found myself making myself write down things that had a very harsh energy in them, and things that I needed to move through a wall of shame to articulate. Now when I look back on them, they seem completely harmless, and in the moment, it was the hardest thing.
As I am writing this, I am looking at the post-its that I collected over that period of time. Some of them had to do with what I saw Eddy doing, not doing, or what I predicted would happen, e.g.: “When I am doing lunch, I am tracking the possibility of Eddy coming in and going on his laptop and that would be too much”. “Having all this tracking go through me overwhelms me and I go into separation (exchange thoughts) and I suffer”, “Eddy didn’t move to put more wood on the fire and I think he’s not tracking the fennel”, “Why didn’t Eddy move that?”, “Why does he just do his own thing?”, “Eddy sat down to read the NV resistance article after doing the wood and I carried on doing some things such as copying all my tasks on the collective tracking to an A4 because it washed off”. “I thought ‘how can you find the spacious ease to do that among all this stuff there is to do?'”.
Some of the things I wrote had to do with what I saw as automatically mine to do, e.g.: “I need to put a hook here”, “I have more thoughts moving through me than I can catch”, “Feeling guilty and thinking ‘I should be doing that’ about Eddy doing the washing up. I’m telling myself ‘it’s ok, he already has learning structures’”.
Some were an expression of resistance, fear, or protection of the message I was trying to get across through making the post-its, “I totally think that at some point my requests will be ‘too much’ and that there will then he will withdraw from me and i’ll need to absorb again and be ‘put back in my place’”, “I’m not going to move that – feeling resistance”, “I’m tired of listening to men’s voices”
One of the key learnings that came from this experiment was my beginning to see simply how the more I expressed what was in me, the more present I felt, the less reactivity I had in me, and the less pressing it was to share things. At the same time, this meant that the practice required a certain rigour to keep it up, and when I didn’t share, I soon knew about it because the suffering in the form of the judgements, resentment at seeing Eddy on his laptop, and the self-diminishing thoughts would return.
I discovered a distinction between post-its that spoke with blame and post-its that spoke with shame, and saw how much easier it was to share the ones that came from blame, connecting this in particular to a piece within the Connecting Across differences packet that says how “those who don’t have enough access to resources to sustain themselves with dignity can often live in chronic survival fear and experience shame in relation to internalizing modern capitalist notions that their lack of access to resources is an individual deficiency rather than systemically driven”2
We also discovered the power of appreciation as fuel to keep me going. As part of our agreement, every time I would share a post-it, Eddy would share with me what it gave him and what he appreciated about it. Often this was along the lines of how much what I was sharing contributed to growing his awareness of these kinds of dynamics and acted as an invitation to increased sensitivity and attunement to others. This practice of appreciation grew into the following form as we moved into having a gathering with many more people around and the practice of doing post-its in the ways that we were was shifted into the sister solidarity and male allyship experiment, which I will talk about in the next post:
1. Articulating any appreciations he could connect with
2. Acknowledging the phenomenon I was speaking to even if the specifics were not relevant to him in that moment
3. Acknowledging of impact he could feel that was related to the phenomenon
4. Sensing into where his experience was within the phenomenon
5. Expressing any remorse or mourning around it if it was present and authentic
6. Sharing any actions he intended to take from how he was moved by what I had shared.
We started to experience the power of collective holding within our pod to unravel these dynamics, both to support those who are receiving the impacts, and those who are unearthing them. We began to discover more tangibly how much space is needed around the impact sharing in order for them to surface and be shared at all, when the internalisation of them is so deep that they are a normalised part of our sense of self.
In the gnarliness and deep seated nature of power and privilege dynamics, even knowing we are doing this within optimal conditions, I find a renewed sense of possibility to look back over what I wrote and see what we have done. It’s at the level of hope for humanity because, even if this level of self-awareness and commitment to liberation is rare, it shows me that it is possible. In the following pieces, I plan to share about the other two experiments that we have engaged with so far, and where we have taken more steps into collective untangling of these dynamics and within a bigger group.
As I close, I am drawn again to Erica’s quotes at the start. I find in me, afresh, the stark awareness that these infuriating dynamics that we all experience, at least at some point in our lives, are not actually who we are. Beyond them, within me and within you, still exists the vibrant human being that we came into the world fully ready to be. This isn’t a spiritual bypass. It is a doorway to compassion for all of us, wherever we can find it, even from within the suffering that is inherent to life in structures that we live in. With that compassion, may we all continue to find the strength to do the grinding, difficult, and luminously beautiful work of imagining a future into being.
- Erica Sherover-Marcuse, https://www.filmsforaction.org/articles/liberation-theory-a-working-framework/
- Miki Kashtan – Connecting across Differences Learning Packet: https://thefearlessheart.org/item/connecting-across-differences-packet/