Frequent questions on oppression  ....with answers by Jacob Holdt 


What is oppression? 
To suppress the natural self-expression and emotions of others. 

Victims of racism in Mississippi

How is racism, sexism, homophobia etc defined? 
The shortest definition I use is: prejudice combined with social power to exert it on others. It is human and natural to have prejudice, but dangerous when whites in the USA, men everywhere, heterosexuals everywhere, gentiles most places, natives in Europe. etc. have the power to oppress others with it. 

Can blacks be racists, women be sexists etc? 
No, nowhere do they have the social power to be able to turn the power structure of the whites (or the men) upside down (not even in pockets where blacks hold political power such as in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia). 

Example from the USA: if all blacks hated whites, how would it affect whites? Only emotionally - through fear. The whites usually solve this problem by moving further out into suburbia or by going to a shrink. 

If on the contrary all whites entertain negative feelings toward blacks, how does it affect blacks? In their access to jobs, health, education, housing etc. All tangible things they have to go to the whites to get. 

So blacks in the USA (or Muslim immigrants in Europe) cannot be racists since they have no power be able to discriminate against whites in any significant way. 
(But they certainly can have prejudice and anger, which is quite another thing!) 

Ku Klux Klan racism in Alabama

How does racism manifest itself? 
The small racism which only a few suffer from (such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis) can manifest itself in violent ways - usually, in my experience, because it originate from a strong mistreatment in childhood. It resembles the dominative racism of the past through the declared desire to hold down the target groups. 

Yet, these hate-groups have no social power to be able to significantly hurt blacks as a group (or the Muslim immigrants) although rare cases of random fire bombings certainly have caused individual pain. 

The big racism, which most of us suffer from, is on the other hand evasive in its manifestations. The pathological picture is usually a close-knit pattern of guilt and fear. We sincerely wish to live up to our lofty democratic ideals about equality and freedom for all, but choose in reality situations, schools and living areas, where we will have as little as possible to do with the target group. 

Incapable of living up to our own ideals, we are stricken by strong guilt in the company of the target group, we lower our eyes when we meet them in our work place, we tremble in our voice when we talk about "the race problem" (US) or "the refugee problem" (Europe) in school classes with members from the target group listening etc. 

Through such evasive behavior we in the US created the biggest ghettos the world has ever seen - just as we are now creating similar Muslim ghettos in Europe. 
Guilt and fear in the oppressor generate anger- and hostility patterns in the oppressed. These can  lead to irrational behavior, which further creates fear in the oppressor. This again increases our guilt since we don't like to face the fact that we fear human beings whom we actually wish to regard as equals. 

All of it helps to increase the anger- and hostility patterns in the oppressed, who as a result of their sense of total rejection often begin to strike out in self-destructive patterns. The oppressor and the oppressed thus constantly create each other and both end up as victims, yet only the oppressor possess reel power to change this "system." 

We, who are the oppressors, try to disclaim all responsibility by looking for the cause of this sad "system" in a few extreme losers such as the "Ku Klux Klan," "skinheads" etc, who feel just as shut out from "the American Dream" as blacks and have no social power to hurt the oppressed. 
In Europe we always turn things upside down by calling the racism of such losers "the big racism" and rather than giving them help to get out of their distress patterns, we frequently join associations, which legitimize violent agitation (witch hunts) against them. 

In reality the great decent-thinking majority among us are not only oppressors of American blacks and European immigrants, but also of the most hurt whites, who are also ghettoized into despair and hatred. And thus the vicious cycle of oppression goes on and on through human history. 


Nazi in Baltimore

What is internalized racism? 
Everywhere in the world, where there is long term oppression, the oppressed will internalize the prejudices of the oppressor and begin to believe them and impress them in their own children and their fellow oppressed. 

The most obvious example is internalized sexism: everywhere in the world women are good in child rearing, in convivial gatherings and in women's magazines at telling each other, that the woman's "natural" place is in the home, wearing a veil, not taking power away from men, etc.  No oppressed group would accept its own oppression for one minute, if such a distress pattern had not first been installed in it. 

Internalized racism is perhaps seen most strongly in American blacks. Such as  in "playing the dozens," a game in which young black men try to humiliate, tease and insult each other in the strongest possible way. When you are being attacked, the object is to stay "cool."  If you get upset, you lose. 

This cruel invalidation of each other has continued since slavery, where it apparently originated in black parents invalidations of their children in order to break down any rebelliousness in them, which could lead to their execution. Thus - in the name of love - so that they would survive - they chose to collude with their slave masters by crushing and humiliating their own children. 

Childhood oppression in Florida

How do we become racists? 
While the little racism among the few extremists usually originate in a violent mistreatment or incest in childhood, the far more serious and devastating big racism, which most of us suffer from, came to us in the name of love: our parents wanted to protect us from that which they themselves were brought up to fear. 

Hardly any of us have as white children in the USA avoided situations similar to this:  we were on the bus in early childhood when a black guy of a certain type stepped inside the bus. Unconsciously our mother pulled us a little closer to herself. Since we were incapable of understanding why this signal was given, it helped - along with many other similar early messages about blacks - to cripple us with a paralyzing fear of blacks the rest of lives. 

Later in life our parents sincerely tried to teach us their own high ideals, their Christian love of one's neighbor, their firmly anchored belief in "equal opportunities for everyone," "American creed" etc. But whenever the talk came to "inner city", slums, blacks, homosexuals etc they couldn't help - again without themselves knowing it - raising their eye brows a bit, or changing the voice slightly. Thus they oppressed their children's innate and natural love and curiosity towards all people with the crushing message: that some people are not as equal as others. 

Later in life - when we try to live up to their high ideals - we may attempt to break out of this oppression by for instance in high school or college trying to reach out to blacks (or Muslim immigrants). But all the time we are paralyzed by the rumbling in our back head - this terrifying feeling of betraying our parents love: all their veiled warnings about blacks. And if this doesn't directly hold us back from becoming friends with a black (or an immigrant), it certainly makes us so clumsy in our attempt that our adversary escapes far away. 

Once again our guilt (seen as patronizing) is woven together with fear: now our fear of rejection. And once again our behavior creates anger and hostility patterns in those whom we try to reach out to. 

That it should be so difficult to behave in a decent and human way shows how horribly oppressed we were by racism. We must never forget that this racist oppression made blacks equally paralyzed in their human behavior. 

Example: a black man comes walking down the street. A white man comes up and slaps him in the face. The black man keeps walking, another white gives him a blow. At the sight of the third white the black takes his hands up to protect his face. 

Through the centuries these defense mechanisms have become deeply installed in American blacks whenever they see a white. And suddenly one day they meet you - a "nice" white, who says: "Hey, I want to be your friend!" And what will the blacks do? They will pull their arms up in a self-defensive posture or put on a protective hostile expression which can make you feel like crawling down in a mouse hole (or retreat further out into white suburban isolation). 

We tend to forget that such internalized racism only exists because the white blows never really ceased. Hurt by their rejection we end up once again putting the blame on the victim: blaming them for wanting to "ghettoize themselves," as especially heard among Europeans today about Muslim immigrants. It is easy to see that in such an oppressive system we are all hurt - and eventually all losers. 

Poor whites - perpetrators and victims of racism

What can we do? 
Begin to work on our racism. 

With love 
Jacob Holdt 





Other pages under "Racism" menu

Frequent questions on oppression     

Insights on oppression   

Disclaimers and definitions on racism      

Text from Jacob Holdt's racism workshop

Links to racism resources




This page in Danish

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