For one of our meetings, we prepared to spend the hour discussing different religious and faith-based stereotypes that impact us. It began with people sharing stereotypes that people have directly communicated with them, or stereotypes that are shared throughout general society. It was interesting to be able to hear people’s perspectives on how narratives, either about them or their traditions, can be damaging. We agreed as a group that putting people into categorized boxes limits our ability to act freely and be seen as individuals. We also agreed that harmful stereotypes play out frequently on the UW-Madison campus.
Our conversation dove a bit deeper, exploring the differences between prejudice (where stereotypes come from), discrimination, and oppression. While anyone can hold a prejudice against another, and act in discriminatory ways because of that, we unpacked the idea that people with privileged identities cannot experience oppression from that dominant identity. Oppression requires power, and power comes from privilege.
This brought us into the topic of intersectionality, a term first utilized by Kimberlé Crenshaw to explain the multidimensional experiences of Black women. As fellows, we briefly began to explore what it meant for us, as individuals and as a collective, to hold both privileged and marginalized identities at once, and how the stereotypes we encounter reflect the ‘both/and’ of who we are.
The impact of stereotypes can be profound, and it can also be as simple as a minor nuisance in someone’s day. For some, stereotypes shaped our behavior, who we affiliate with, and how we speak. I appreciated hearing from a few fellows about how they began to believe stereotypes about them. I have learned to call this phenomenon internalized oppression, meaning you take in negative beliefs about yourself, and manifest them in your life.
To build off of this insightful dialogue we had, I would like to add the idea of internalized dominance, which is that we believe narratives about our dominant identities to be true and thus enact those beliefs through our actions and choices. For example, I, as a white person, often feel entitled to be recognized when I enter a room, because society constantly reinforces the idea that I am welcome and deserving of attention in any space, and that my needs are top priority. This is how I benefit from racism. However, I also identify and am perceived as a cisgender woman, and being a woman has taught me to be quiet and meek when I enter a room, which transforms into internalized oppression.
The complex nature of my identities are never separate from my experiences. In other words, my cohort of fellows are not just simply students who have religious, spiritual, and secular beliefs; we are students with an array of identities that impact us and others during our weekly meetings. For interfaith communities, I implore members to really examine which identities may be appearing more than others, and why that might be. Even when a group comes together to center spirituality and faith, we always bring more of who we are to the room.
Examining power, privilege, and marginalization is a necessary process in engaging with a group of people, no matter the purpose. I am excited to have started this process with my peers, and I hope we incorporate these themes throughout the year and into our community-wide programming.