Two-Punch Combo: Unconscious Bias + Internalized Oppression

Shut down anyone who disagrees with you, regardless of their identity, in the name of social justice.

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If I was teaching a masterclass in social justice dogma (SJD), this would be the take home lesson: in the right hands, the concepts of unconscious bias and internalized oppression can be used to shut down any dissent.

Like a pair of magical boxing gloves, if you put these beauties on and swing, nobody will be left standing.

It doesn’t matter who you’re talking to. They can be a dominant group member talking about oppression that doesn’t target them, or a person who holds a dozen intersecting marginalized identities speaking from their own experience.

And beyond who you’re talking to, it doesn’t matter what they’re saying.

They could be giving you a first-hand account of their truth on the matter, or recounting other people’s perspectives. Their argument could be well-substantiated by a wide read of literature, research, and other supporting theory. They could even have a degree in the social-justice-centered subject you’re talking about.

None of that matters.

If someone is saying something that you disagree with, think is problematic, doesn’t align with your view of what’s important or helpful for social justice, or – even better – they’re trying to undermine an argument you’re making, all you need to do is hit them with a quick one-two:

  1. Unconscious Bias: “You’re being motivated by oppression that you aren’t aware of. Because of how systemically oppression is ingrained in our day-to-day lives, we often don’t realize that a viewpoint, argument, belief, or stance that we think is neutral, is actually rooted in oppression.”
  2. Internalized Oppression: “Just because you hold a targeted identity doesn’t mean you’re not supporting oppression. A lot of people internalize the oppression they’ve been taught about themselves, and then perpetuate that oppression by reinforcing it for other people, or obstructing progress toward justice.”

This combo comes in handy when:

And more!

You can even use this combo proactively.

Before you’ve received pushback, or had your position criticized, you can preemptively debunk anyone who might say otherwise by including a notice about unconscious bias (to discourage anyone from disagreeing, lest they accidentally act on something they didn’t know they believed) or internalized oppression (for anyone holding the identity or targeted by the -ism in question).

And don’t take it from me: I’m not the originator of this undefeatable martial art, it’s just something I’ve learned from watching the masters.

I’m young Daniel, and other social justice people within the movement are Mr. Miyagi. They had me over here waxing cars and painting fences, learning about oppression and bias. I didn’t realize I was surreptitiously being taught a technique of impenetrable defense and and piercing attack. SJD meets Karate.

Want to see it in action? Go to a social justice workshop or training, scroll your social media newsfeeds, or hop onto a popular social justice or intersectional feminism website, magazine, or blog. It’s not hard to find someone busting these moves out if you know what you’re looking for.

One note: they only work if you’re doing them in the name of social justice. You can’t dismiss someone with “unconscious bias” from a conservative position, if they’re advancing a socially-just one; and “internalized oppression” only works as a way of shutting down pushback if you’re working against oppression yourself, or at least that’s your intention.

This is because the power of these moves is derived from the Cornerstones of SJD, and they only exist in Social Justice Land.

Related note: does this mean that this move is susceptible to an “Enemy of Your Enemy”-type counter-attack, where anti-social-justice people deploy the combo against social justice people, masquerading as activists and exploiting SJD? Yes, yes it does, and I’ve seen that happen in workshops and online, and it results in, to say the least, a fiasco.*

*I’m resisting sharing these examples here, because we might end up losing sight of the point. I just want you to know that this is like an onion: there are a lot of layers, and they get stinkier the deeper you go.


Because I know that this idea is likely to result in lots of questions (and maybe some accusations, because in writing this, I’m making myself totally vulnerable to the attacks above), let me try to anticipate a couple. Here are some more questions and answers about the two-punch combo:

Are the concepts of unconscious bias and internalized oppression insightful, useful, and helpful in us moving toward living social justice?

Absolutely!

Is this a bad faith way to engage in conversations about important, complicated, life-or-death issues?

It sure is!

Am I advocating that people actually use these ideas in this way?

I am certainly not. I’m a social justice advocate, not a social justice dogma advocate. I framed the above as a [satirical] SJD How-To for two reasons: (1) while this is a tactic that’s being learned and utilized, it’s never taught openly or directly, so giving “instructions” has the potential to highlight the cynicism more than just explaining this tactic; and (2) it was quicker this way, and this book is getting long af.

So I’m advocating that people don’t use the two-punch combo?

Yep!

Deploying these concepts in the way described above – using them as a two-punch combo of bad faith to shut down other people’s perspectives, instead of as a good faith starting place for different conversations – might even erode their usefulness in general.

It might make it more likely that people flinch when they hear the phrase “internalized oppression,” or cover their ears when they hear “unconscious bias,” because they’ve seen this move so many times before, and they think they know what’s coming, so instead of listening, they prepare themselves for attack.

Imagine you’re a small boat sailing alone in the ocean. A big ship approaches, one like you’ve never seen before. A crew member shouts, “We’re here to help!”, then they board your ship and rob you of all your valuables. The next time you see a ship like that, how likely are you to trust they’re there to help you? How long before you notice the common features of those ships (e.g., the mast, the sails, a black flag) and interpret them as signals to you that they don’t mean you well, that you should run, or prepare whatever weapons you have to fight?

Every time we deploy these tactics – using “unconscious bias” and “internalized oppression” to sink other people’s arguments, convince them they’re wrong, or that they’re even wrong for trying to argue – we’re launching a pirate ship into the seas.

And while other vessels certainly exist – people who do mean well (and intentions do matter!), that are carrying these same ideas not as weapons, but as tools and supplies for building a more just world – their ability to do good is predicated upon other people’s perceptions of their intent. If they see what the ship is carrying and think “Pirates!”, nothing good is likely to accomplished.

Here’s the pirate ship analogy framed as a question:

If people frequently notice us using “unconscious bias” and “internalized oppression” in bad faith ways, to reject dissent and undermine opposition, does that make it impossible for us to use these concepts to do good?

I hope not, because that ship might have already sailed.

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