Why Oppressed People May Not Jump At Chance For Freedom


Ever wonder why those who experience systematic abuse and violence don’t jump when they get a chance for freedom? Consider the abused teen choosing not to reveal the abuse to an inquiring teacher but rather stays in the abusive home in silence. Consider the victim who refuses the help of a friend in order to leave a domestically violent spouse. What is the psychology that supports these responses to oppression?

Brilliant Mhlanga has written a short memoir of his experience of being from an oppressed people group in Zimbabwe. Under the guise of “independence” his people and his family suffered tremendous violence. Family members were raped and murdered in grisly fashion. He labels what happens a genocide (from 1980-1987).

Here’s how he describes the impact of this systematic oppression (emphasis mine, British spellings his)

The psychology of oppression, then, becomes a phenomenon derived from the state where the oppressed, given their existential experience, adopt the attitude of ‘adhesion’ to the oppressor (ibid: 45). Freire adds that under these circumstances the oppressed cannot consider their situation clearly and objectively in a bid to discover themselves outside the spectacles of their oppressor. As discussed earlier, the oppressed rationalise and internalise their suffering. Their state of mental warping makes them appear as walking symbols of conformity. Such conformity makes them reject their enlightened brethren whom they tend to perceive as ‘trouble makers’. To them anyone who advocates change of their state of being is likely to bring them more trouble, as they cannot know the likely outcome. They fear change. This is the state of people who have lost a sense of hope in their full potential without the help of the oppressor.

Notice some of the features of the oppressed:

  • Identity tied to oppressor
  • Belief that one cannot exist outside this relationship (fear of being in relationship, fear of not being in relationship)
  • Internalize suffering (blame self)
  • See those who would fight for their freedom as dangerous (the devil you know may be better than the one you don’t know)
  • Reject change as dangerous

Now these features are not found in everyone who is abused but they are worth noting. Those who would want to help the oppressed must consider these challenges and develop interventions that do not automatically trigger the fear reactions. This might include,

  • Identifying self-blame and raising doubts
  • Giving freedom to control response to oppressor (not coercing leaving oppressor)
  • Identifying possible future
  • Validate change as scary

Quote: Mhlanga, B. (2009) On the psychology of oppression: Blame me on history! Critical Arts, 23:1,106 — 112

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1 Comment

Filed under Abuse, Psychology

One response to “Why Oppressed People May Not Jump At Chance For Freedom

  1. Sarah

    Thank you for your insightful post. This isn’t something many people realise, with most people jumping straight to the “just leave” solution and being very confused when people in abusive situations don’t leave.
    I particularly liked your ways to help people in these situations. Validating them and giving them back the power and freedom they have been stripped of has the potential to change their perceptive and help them make life changes.

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