A lot of what we think and do stems from our subconscious feelings and beliefs. These are influenced by our experiences and personality as well as our understanding of our social position – past, present, and future. Social hierarchies influence the opportunities that are available to us and others as well as our perception of those opportunities. We may also hold beliefs about the types of opportunities that ought to be available to ourselves or others based on social position.
Think about the social groups to which you belong. These groups may include gender, age, religion, nationality, ethnicity, occupation, or income. For each group, list stereotypical beliefs that have been revealed to you through either personal experience or the media. List opportunities that have been opened and closed to you and others like you as a result of your group affiliations.
Carefully examine how you feel when reviewing your list of prejudicial and discriminatory beliefs and practices. Do you feel angry? Sad? Proud? Think about how these feelings have infiltrated and influenced your subconscious reasoning, morphing your self-concept and restricting your behaviors.
Being unintentionally prejudiced is a part of human nature. As a middle-aged woman, I would feel silly walking around in a miniskirt. Even though I am a beautiful person and I am just as hot, both literally and figuratively, as your average 35-year-old (I wrote this two years ago), it would be considered distasteful, if not disgusting, for me to reveal myself in this way. This benign example illustrates just one of the many, many collective social rules that preside over our thoughts and actions.
As a woman with fair skin, I can freely enter and walk around most stores. I once visited a store with my 16-year-old African American G-ddaughter to buy her a keepsake from our vacation. We were meticulously followed as we browsed through the store. We both entered the store with a different expectation of what the experience might be like based on our social group membership. Although we had visited hundreds of stores without incident, I am certain that every time there was had been an underlying fear and anticipation of what might happen on her part without a second thought on mine.
Without even realizing it, we both continually manifested internalized oppression and privilege related to shopping over the years. It did not have a significant impact on our lives. In many other instances, internalized oppression and privilege can interfere with our ability to successfully interact with others and fully participate in social activities.
We have the ability to choose to accept or reject these limiting beliefs. We also have the ability to reposition our group both internally and externally to more appropriately reflect both reality and the group’s collective hopes for the future.
As leaders, we should work both to equalize social systems so that all have access to opportunities to do what is meaningful to them and to heal our personal relationships with the social structures that have effortlessly included or systematically excluded us. Transcending barriers such as these leads to more inclusive, healthy organizations and communities.