Self-Oppression: Overcoming Stereotypes and Finding Our True Selves

In one of my former positions, my executive director called me into a meeting to talk about communications. Naturally as the communications associate, I thought we’d be having a healthy discussion on the status of various communications projects, from our email campaigns to social media outreach. I should’ve saw through his meeting invitation, though. The meeting turned into an hour long scolding about how I didn’t know how to communicate, I needed to listen more, and how he was sorry to broach it this way, but sometimes I came off as “unfriendly.”


Instead of going home and reflecting on the ways he projected onto me, I instead flipped the script, internalizing his messages to the point that I actually believed in them. Maybe I wasn’t such a good communicator, I thought. Do I really not listen well? Maybe I shouldn’t flinch so much when he touches me on the shoulder -- it’s more friendly that way. Long story short, I spiraled into self-doubt.

As women of color, you might recognize some of the language he used in your own professional experiences. Not only must we be absolutely amazing in our careers, but we also have to be pinnacles of happiness and friendliness, lest assumptions about the “angry black woman” or “dragon lady” or “ill-tempered Latina” be shoved in our faces. So exhausting. 

But sadly, we actually internalize a lot of these stereotypes -- blaming ourselves when we have nothing to do with the oppressive labels people place on us! This often results in self-oppression, which is what I’m writing about today.

Self-oppression happens when a person believes that the stereotypes and misinformation she hears about herself (and in extension, the group she comes from) are actually true. But even more harmful, she internalizes these “truths” to the point that she: holds herself back from opportunities that she thinks she’s unfit for; loses respect for her earned accomplishments; and backs away from bold action in favor of survival.

Self-oppression keeps women of color down and prevents us from fighting for ourselves.

Today, I wanted to share a little exercise I learned from a friend about overcoming self-oppression that stems from the stereotypes people have about us. Take a look at these questions, and write your answers down somewhere where they are easily accessible. When times get tough, remind yourself that YOU are 100 percent worth it.

What makes me proud of being me?

What makes me proud of being [the racial or ethnic group you identify with]?

What are [the racial or ethnic group you identify with] people actually like?

What are things I’ve had to overcome from being [the racial or ethnic group you identify with]?

When’s a time I had to deal with oppressive stereotypes, based on how I look or where I come from?

What’s something I can tell myself, in complete refusal of these oppressive stereotypes?

Do you have any tales of self-oppression you'd like to share? Have any strategies for how you overcame internalized stereotypes? Share in the comments!