Lateral Violence and Internalized Oppression (Or, When The Professor Becomes What Is Preached Against)

I’m currently studying social work in this summer session, a field that I absolutely love.  It’s been a long time since I’ve been in school (no, I’m not telling you how long) and to boot, I’m in college as opposed to university, which is a whole different ball game – at least on my side of the border.  University is very theoretically driven, with most classes being large groups of students scribbling down the lecturing and slides of the professor expert; in college, things are (best I can tell) more experiential, more group work driven, and tend not to lecture directly but instead, move straight to learning the concept in its practical usage.

For programs like this, where we must tread carefully and correctly in the field, I appreciate this novel change of pace.  It’s daunting to me, and to most of us, because we have spent our academic lives being taught in a whole other manner.  Old habits die hard, especially in compressed course situations; they die even harder with old horses in the stables. That said, in my first course, the approach worked;  we learned how to teach Life Skills Training by handling each new theoretical concept just as our future clients would:  within the parameters of the Life Skills model.  The model is specifically designed to instruct on emotional, mental and kinetic levels, as adult learners in particular absorb things best when they use all three modes of learning.  I remember all of the lessons of that course fairly readily, because of how I was emotionally moved, cognitively lectured to or engaged, and then physically practiced the concepts in role play and so forth.

For my second course, I assumed much of the same would occur, and was thusly prepared.  Although the course was a discussion of social work’s fundamental principles and theory, I assumed we would engage this theoretical material on multiple levels, and in this regard, I was not wrong.  However, the course fast became an unfortunate and uncomfortable lesson on a key concept, one that played out not in controlled learning situations, but in teacher-student dynamics.

Our instructor – let’s call this person X, and use the male gender based on a coin flip, not necessarily reality – began our class by explaining that his teaching methods were not the typical methods of Western education systems; they were far more practical, and designed to engage critical thought.  X immediately presented as a vibrant personality, and explained his historical background in the field:  a differently-abled or disabled (you choose; I call myself disabled and will use that in this blog) Aboriginal, with extensive experience in the field and multiple degrees, X immediately dismissed the education away and insisted we all had experiences and training to offer the class.  I enthusiastically agreed, as I count my lived experiences as crucial to my understanding of social work, and a true asset.  X then began to teach, using videos, discussions on loose themes, and so on.

I loved the videos, and loved the discussions, but when I sat down to tackle the readings associated with the lecture, I realized that much of what was in there was not remotely addressed in any cognitive sense in class.  While I learn well enough from reading, I do find I learn best with a combination of audio and visual stimuli and, ideally, a concrete example of a theory via discussion.  Our Life Skills course was a perfect blend of just that; this first class, however, had jumped straight to examples and assumed understanding of the logic beneath.  It was like traversing a highway without road signs: I can guess the speed and which exit I need to take, but who’s to blame if the cops yank me over and tell me I was doing 100km/h in an 80km/h zone?  All students need a few guiding markers to keep us on track.

The second day, we began with a guest lecturer (another Aboriginal instructor – and before one wonders, I mention this information out of relevance, not because that’s all I see these instructors as):  let’s call her Y.  Y worked a case study through with us, the discussions mostly loose, but occassionally stopping to make a point of theory.  It was more clear for me as to what I was to take away, and I felt very satisfied with the experience, as much as it was driven by group work and debate.  There were road signs, to continue the metaphor.  The afternoon, however, returned to X, and again, I felt mostly lost.  I was frustrated, because I felt X had so much to offer me, a British-Canadian Anglo woman, and nothing seemed to be sinking in as I’d hoped.  When we were told our exam was a group exercise the next morning, I felt my stomach drop out as well.  It unsettled me, the notion of time pressure and attempting consensus.  It’s foreign to our school system to have not an assignment, but a test, be a group effort.

The examination took place the next day, and I was horribly ill with a flu.  I also suffer from attention deficits due to a mental condition, and the collective noise of eight other groups in a room made keeping my focus on my own group a nightmare.  I was rattled, and knew I should skip the afternoon lecture; however, being as 30% of our grade was attendance and participation, I stayed with it.  Big mistake:  the afternoon’s ‘lecture’ was a combination of a group of classmates playing a noisy game that aggravated my migraine, coupled with the watching students shouting out random facts from the reading between rounds of said game.  In pain and irritable, I went into the hall to read my chapter, making notes to help pass the time and waiting out the game.  Other students left and went home in frustration, feeling they were not learning anything; some came into the hall and checked on me, or shared my frustrations.  X overheard this in the hall and came out to speak with me and I decided to take a classmate’s advice and express my frustrations.

This is precisely how I explained myself, admittedly in tears from the migraine at this point:  “I appreciate that you make the effort to teach in a non-standard way – I’m sure you’re engaging so many people in new ways – but it’s not working for me.  I actually need a bit of the standard methods; I need to hear the theory, too.  Yesterday, when I spoke with you privately, and we discussed that concept and you then helped me come to a personal example – that’s how I learn best.  Reading it alone isn’t enough with me.  And it’s frustrating because I know you have so much knowledge and experience to offer me, and I want to learn it – but you’re not engaging me, and it sucks.  And then today – I’m sick with the flu and have a migraine, and during the group midterm… it was hell!  I get the purpose of it – in the field, we will often work in treatment teams, and it’s crucial we know how to collaborate on treatments – but in the field, we’d be in a board room, not competing with the noise of eight other groups.  I have attention issues, and it was SO LOUD and so hard to focus.”

X reiterated that he’d warned us that his teaching method was not Western, but then asked if it would be easier to write our final exam alone, as opposed to the groups again.  I confessed that yes, that would be wonderful, and X agreed it was done.  X then stressed I should go home for the rest of the day and practice self-care; I agreed to this.  I told my group I was not working with them for the final and they, much to their credit, said they felt this unfair to me, and wondered why we, as a group, couldn’t be in a quiet room to do the next exam.  We posed this to X; X later offered to let us write it alone after the rest of the groups finished.  All was well – or so we thought.

The next day, we began again with Y, and again, the mix of discussion, music, multimedia and the moments of summing up theory worked very well for me; I was in awe of Y, to be honest, and wished we could have her teach more courses.  The afternoon came and X proceeded to lecture with a slideshow, stating that X was “asked to give this lecture”.  Throughout the afternoon, X repeatedly made snide side comments, such as, “For those people who need numbers…” and “For those people who need to write until they have carpal tunnel….”   I felt attacked, and very uncomfortable.  I hadn’t once said this, and I hoped that no other student had done so, either.  It was a lecture on the specific horrible issues faced by the much maligned and abused Aboriginals of our country, and I wasn’t able to fully immerse myself because of the little barbs peppering it.

Friday morning, my group and I came to class first thing, as we were told, before departing to await the afternoon.  When we arrived, X was telling a group of classmates that in spite of it being a group exercise, the exam was to be done in silence or everyone would get a zero.  X then came to me and asked if I was ‘registered with disability services’; I said no, confused about this.  Although I vaguely knew of the centre and procedures, my schedule hasn’t allowed for me to see my doctor yet and get the complex paperwork done, counselling appointments made, etc.  We were then told on the spot that we had to write with everyone else now.  I felt absolutely awful for my group, who’d expected to have the morning to study; X had never asked about this.  In university, I was simply accommodated; there were no doctor notes or special centres I had to be registered with.  I’d assumed on Wednesday that X was merely being kind.  I also took the silence rule as ridiculous and again, aimed at me, and decided that I needed to tell X that I didn’t feel comfortable with the entire class under fear of a zero because of me.  I took two group members with me, and explained precisely this.  The response we got shocked us all:

“It’s not just you; others have complained that exams are supposed to be silent.  Apparently everyone wanted a White instructor for this class.”  This was said with a great deal of resentment and rage.

We expressed that was not a consensus opinion at all; eventually, the silence rule was lifted, but X expressed that we should all be mindful of our noise levels – a reasonable and appreciated request.

After the exam, my entire group was irate because of the sudden switch, and I was upset that in their kindness, they’d all been screwed over.  But what struck me the most was that we’d just seen two key concepts in action with our instructor’s behaviour: internalized oppression and its often-partner, lateral violence.

Oppression is what the non-dominant groups of a category experience, which is essentially not having the same treatment and access to resources/privileges as the dominant group.  For example:  Aboriginals receive a significant amount less from welfare than non-Aboriginals.  Internalized oppression is when an oppressed person begins to believe the stereotypes and awful statements about their group; for example, a Black woman begins to believe that she is not as deserving of fair treatment as White people are, or a gay man believes he is a sinner and is flawed for ‘choosing’ to be gay.  Lateral violence is when, as a result of this, an oppressed person retreats to his or her group, or perhaps lashes out at the dominant group or at the very least, refuses to interact beyond his own culture; we see this when people react poorly to interracial dating, for example.

X had taken criticisms of his teaching method – and I cannot say there weren’t racist remarks, but that said, the vast majority of our class was non-White and thus, I doubt it, especially in our field – and assumed it to be more oppression of the usual kind – that he was not ‘White enough’ to teach.  In turn, he lashed out, retreating away from us, instead of working collaboratively with us to make the learning experience successful for all.  It was sad, scary and a shame to see:  sad, in that I felt sympathy for the fact that it probably had happened that X had been told he wasn’t ‘White enough’, never mind the mistreatment of the Aboriginals and its toll; scary, in that someone with so many years experience teaching how to avoid this behaviour was exhibiting it in our class; and a shame, because we all lost an opportunity to learn from each other.  When I offered my feedback, for example, I had commended the uniqueness of what X offered, while suggesting what I and perhaps others needed to create a bridge and help us learn; it was offered constructively, as collaborators in the learning process.  That opportunity was spurned and shunned.  I in turn lost out on the wealth of experiences and knowledge X could have given me for my social worker tool box.

None of us are perfect, but I am still aghast.  Then again, I am more aghast at how we treat our First Nations in Canada, because if we treated them as the equal human beings they are, this oppression would not be such a painful trigger button, waiting to be pushed.  White-skinned people, and their privilege, have created this emotional damage in so many generations of Aboriginals, and even racial minorities aside from Aboriginals have seen better treatment; perhaps we all just reaped what we have sown in this case.

Hmm.  Maybe I learned something from X and Y after all.

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