If I’d never been oppressed, I’d never known that oppression could change a person in so many different ways. That it could also undermine our personal sense of worth and abilities.
We’re all familiar with the theory that if a child lives with criticism and rejection, he or she will eventually despise him- or herself. Yet we don’t think about, understand or apply that to the everyday lasting effects of discrimination on women of color who not only hear from their own men that their gender renders them second class, but also hear it from non-colored men and women that the color of their skin renders them less than their own women.
As such, we are neither aware of nor are we able to successfully help bridge the equality gap that exists between white women and women of color.
Where women are given the opportunity to perform, we automatically and immediately expect the standard of performance to be the same for all women, and we’re unable to recognize that the initial lower standards of performance of women of color are as a result of limitations that were imposed by others, but which they’ve now come to believe about themselves (cf., the fly experiment). And that if they are to rediscover and operate at their full potential, they need people who believe in them enough to stand with them in their moments of low performances and say “I know you’ve got it in you, keep going!”
Instead what we often see are people who come to us supposedly believing in us (and rightly so), but without understanding what we’ve been through, drop us at the first sign of failure or weakness.
Many women, colored and white, who’ve been traumatized by discrimination of women, will tell you that they’ve lost confidence in themselves. But do we know what ‘that’ means?
Do we know and even understand what causes a person to lose confidence in themselves?
Picture the kid from a low-income black family, who’s heard all kinds of negatives portrayed about his or her situation from the media and from those that are better off…what’s the default attitude of such a child? Is it not the automatic fitting in with the negative stereotype he or she has heard about him/herself?
Words. By words, God created and shaped the earth and everything in it. By words, He determined we would be ‘like Him.’ So words matter to human beings! We are shaped and often influenced by the words we hear -directly and indirectly- about us.
The spoken words and the words that are acted out, rather than verbalized.
How long do we think it takes for the effects of negative words about women in general and colored women, particularly Black women, to materialize?
We never think such discriminatory words affect who we are as Black women, because words do not leave an immediate physically visible mark, right? Nevertheless, they work more damage than can be physically inflicted upon our psyche and existence.
I always used to think of myself as a ‘tough’ and resilient person. I had faith in God and I ‘knew’ who I was. During the most difficult times of my life, no one could believe what I was going through, not even my oppressor, who marveled at my supposedly ‘undamaged’ person. It appeared that I’d escaped the intended and well-planned and well-thought out attack on my person and soul.
That was the same attitude I had in ministry. I thought that as long as I continued to love those who marginalized and mistreated me, I would be okay.
In both cases I was wrong, because this caused me to endure unjust treatment for an unhealthy period of time. Thinking myself strong and resilient, made me unreactive to the discriminatory actions and attitudes, until it was too late. By the time I realized and pulled away, I’d already been damaged.
Having, for countless times, been passed up or ignored (personally and professionally) and unvalidated and unaffirmed even when I did good, I began to believe I could neither be good or do good enough work. So that when people actually approached me, either commending or believing I could do good work, my freaked out, default performance and response was always to disprove them!
After hearing for so long that I could neither be or do enough good and having my person and work passed up time after time, it became easier to just believe it. So much so that when the few faithful others expressed otherwise, I balked! Just let me remain at this lowly place of lowly expectations, from which I cannot be disappointed. He that is down, need fear no fall, right?
You don’t think all this is possible? If so, it’s only because you haven’t suffered oppression for long periods of time.
I felt the same way about struggling African-Americans when I first met them – how can you tell me that years of oppression have somehow incapacitated you, when you are now free???
But until one has been repeatedly oppressed, one cannot understand the effect and power of oppression. How its activity somehow conditions our minds to believe about ourselves what our oppressors would have us be.
The oppressors understand the power of demeaning and its power to break the human spirit. That’s why verbal, emotional and psychological methods are employed against those they seek to control and dominate.
So what do we think or expect to be the effect of the constant demeaning of women of color’s place in society???
Will they automatically stand up and be at par with their white or lighter-skinned sisters in performance and accomplishment? I say no.
It’s easy to say “Believe in yourself.” But what if the ‘self’ that you have, has been beaten down to an unrecognizable pulp? What is left to believe in?
For those who do believe that discrimination leaves a long lasting effect, I say this: when you -a white man or white woman- meets a black or colored woman who somehow doesn’t measure up to the ‘value’ you see in her, don’t give up on her. Instead, stick to her like white on rice – love her and affirm her worth, no matter the grade or quality of her person and work – and soon the murk will will pass away and be replaced by the treasure that she really is.
It was in the presence of such unconditional love and acceptance from my faithful white and colored brothers and sisters that my soul was restored. So that slowly, I began to find the power to heal and let the real me appear. I also slowly found the power to reject the lying voices of insufficiency that overtook and filled my head and heart.
It is only such persistence with and unconditional love and acceptance for our sisters of color, will women of color be brought to par with our white sisters. Time and room for healing needs to occur for all women, but especially for women of color. And it is only with such love that women of color will regain their sense of self, worth and productivity that’s been eroded by exposure to communities that devalue women and people of color.
I dedicate this article to all the men and women (white and colored) who God’s sent into my life to stand by and with me – who refused to give up on believing in the gifts and virtue they saw in me. Your love and devotion were the CPRs that steadily brought me back to life and made my ‘created in God’s image’ heart beat again! Thank you so much! God bless you!