Who are We? Internalized Oppression, Internal Agreements

What prevents us from doing those things we’ll regret leaving undone?

Dr. Teri MarcosDr. Teri Marcos

What is your greatest accomplishment, and what did you learn from it? What is your deepest regret, and what did you learn from that?

In a staff development session at one school, the second question brought tears to several eyes. The regrets they shared were not what they had done but rather what they had missed doing. Speaking at the University of Nebraska’s conference on Women in Educational Leadership in Lincoln in October, Dr. Teri Marcos posed the question: What prevents us from doing those things we’ll regret leaving undone?

Part of the answer lies in the lessons we take from our experiences in community. “When we meet up in a room, we walk in as individuals and we take form in a group,” she told WIHE. Through navigating our place in community, we frame who we are and what we think we can do.

We create community wherever we are: in our families, departments, committees, classrooms and communities of faith. Students even form community in the online classes at Azusa Pacific University CA, where Marcos is professor, chair and director of the MA program in educational leadership.

Each of our communities immerses us in messages about our traits and potential, many of them negative. Discrimination against women, ethnic minorities and others promotes low expectations. Character takes shape through what we adopt and what we refuse to adopt from the messages that we receive.

Internalized oppression

“Why is it that year after year, certain groups perform higher and certain groups perform lower?” Marcos asked. To get data for analyzing these differences, students are often asked to check a box for ethnicity or gender at the start of a test. But recent research reveals that just the act of checking the box skews the test results.

Scores on one mathematics test so regularly favor men that they are sometimes cited as evidence that women can’t do math. At an elite private college in the Northeast, researchers randomly assigned women into three groups to take the test. Before starting the test they asked one group to self-identify by gender, another by region and the third by type of college. The third group, who began by framing themselves as students at an elite school, went on to score much better on the test.

In a study of African American students taking a standardized test, those who were asked to identify themselves by race did poorly compared to those not asked their race. And middle school Latinas significantly boosted their test scores after researchers at New York University emphasized that who they were depended on what they could do, not their race or gender.

Identity doesn’t emerge at birth or grow in a vacuum. Individuals construct their identity in the context of community. It starts in early childhood. A little girl receives a doll while her brother is given building blocks. Relatives praise her pretty hair and her brother’s strength.

Over time, some members of groups that face repeated discrimination soak up the negative images and begin to believe them. A woman, a senior citizen, a lesbian or a person of color may unconsciously come to believe she is less worthy or capable than others. She may live down to their lowered expectations.

This is the individualized form of internalized oppression, when one accepts and acts according to the stereotypes she has heard about herself. Internalized oppression also operates in groups when members of a marginalized community undermine each other instead of addressing larger social issues. The high college dropout rate among African American men reflects a peer culture that cuts down academic achievers for “acting white.”

Educators can play a role in offering students and colleagues a different set of messages. They can also model a different way of learning from our communities. We frame ourselves in community but the frame does not have to be a steel cage. We do not have to accept everything we hear.

Internal agreements

Most of us take very seriously the agreements we make with others. Even more important for leadership are the agreements that we make with ourselves.

Kevin Mannoia uses the model of an iceberg. Only 10% of the iceberg appears above the water line, while 90% is hidden beneath the ocean. Wind and weather may buffet the tip of the iceberg, but the 90% below the surface is what holds it in place.

In leadership, he argues that visible actions are only the tip of the iceberg. The bottom of the iceberg, the larger part that holds it in place, is personal identity. Individual character must be deep and well formed to give balance and stability to the leader’s performance. He calls it the integrity factor.

Like internalized oppression, integrity takes shape in communities. Some individuals refuse to incorporate negative self-images from the people around them. They use their experience to construct internal commitments for what they will be or do. “It doesn’t matter how tired you are and how exhausted you are, you’re going to keep your agreement,” Marcos said.

She recommends Don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements (1997), drawn from the ancient Toltec wisdom from southern Mexico:

1. Be impeccable with your word. Say only what you mean. Don’t put yourself down or blame others for your actions. Use the power of your words for truth and love, not fear.

2. Do not take anything personally. What others do or say is about them, not you. Think how much energy you could save by refusing to internalize other people’s words and actions.

3. Do not make assumptions. Communicate clearly, ask clarifying questions and state what you want. Your beliefs about what other people are thinking and feeling come from you, not them. 

4. Always do your best. Your best will vary from one time to another. When you do your best in any given moment, you will have no reason for self-judgment or regret.

The Four Agreements are timeless, intercultural, moral and humanistic. They are first and foremost agreements one makes with oneself, and only secondarily with others. “If we were to distill all our behaviors into these Four Agreements, we would be successful,” Marcos said.

Agreements from her life

Every life includes hard times and suffering. What lessons do we take from it? If the water in a small drinking glass were diffused, it would spread fog over a large area. “We need clarity, not the dispersion of our troubles,” she said.

She offered personal examples of internal agreements that grew out of her life experiences:

Early teen. She was the middle of three children in a loving, faith-based family with warm, supportive parents. As she reached her teens, it was becoming apparent that her older brother’s mood swings were not just normal high school angst. Today he would be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated with medication. In the 1960s having a difficult child was swept under the rug.

Marcos became an observer, watching two wonderful parents utterly unequipped to deal with their child’s mental illness. In response to all the suffering she observed, she assumed undue responsibility to protect her parents. At 13 she made herself a promise or internal agreement: “I will never hurt Mom and Dad.”

She has learned compassion, influencing her work as an educator. Now she is planning research about the issues that face siblings of troubled children. When one child has special needs, educators need to be aware how the whole family’s suffering affects other children in the family.

College student. Like many in the 1960s, she was raised to believe she could achieve anything she wanted. Her first experience of gender prejudice occurred in her second semester at college, when a circuit lecturer declared that women attend college for an MRS degree.

Marcos, a tall, blonde, 18-year-old basketball player, raised her hand. “Excuse me, all of us in this room have made a decision to attend college,” she told the lecturer. By the lecturer’s criterion, this agriculture school should be her first choice only if she wanted to marry a farmer; otherwise she should have chosen a college with wealthier students in more prestigious fields. Like the others in the class, she came for an education and not to nab a spouse.

In that moment she made a strong agreement with herself: “I will help others learn how to treat me.” She would not carry a chip on her shoulder or act argumentative in ways that stopped others from listening, but neither would she accept mistreatment as a woman.

Educator. Advancing in her career as a junior high teacher and assistant principal, she made other internal agreements over time: Always help others to grow, never diminish anyone and help others to develop healthy internal agreements.

She lived and taught in Chino CA, home to three state prisons: for women, men and youth. Altogether California has 32 state and 10 federal prisons, with a total of 140,000 people incarcerated in the state. That’s nearly half as many prisoners as schoolteachers. Nationwide the U.S. now has more than three million prisoners, making it the most incarcerated nation on earth.

Serving a prison town increased the prevalence of transient students in the Chino school system. Families move nearby to keep children connected with their incarcerated parent and leave again after time is served. Some children live with relatives temporarily. Others go into the foster system while their parents serve time.

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act, the district also buses homeless children to and from school and after-school programs based on their last district of enrollment. The school performance of these transient, foster and homeless children is below par and their prospects appear dim. Many are likely to become homeless at age 18 and land in prison soon after.

“There is so much sadness in so many kids,” Marcos said. As a school leader, she wanted to help them break the cycle of dysfunction. She made an agreement with herself: “I will never give up on any child.”

Like teachers across the country, she stayed in touch with many former students, providing a continuing contact with someone who cares. Perhaps most important, she has tried to give them positive messages and encourage construction of internal agreements that might offset the power of internalized oppression.

Out of adversity

Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “It is only through disruptions and confusion that we grow, jarred out of ourselves by the collision of someone else’s private world with our own.”

Many people have observed that character is forged through adversity. Hard times can also wear people down until they give up on themselves, like laid-off workers who turn to alcohol to dull the pain of unemployment. It isn’t clear what makes some people grow through adversity while others shrivel.

Eleanor Roosevelt suggested, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

Disruptions and confusion multiply through Hettler’s six dimensions of wellness (1976): social, intellectual, spiritual, emotional, physical and occupational. These dimensions affect each other like dominoes. Job loss can lead to depression and interfere with social relationships. Prolonged illness can dampen mind and spirit, and so forth.

“We all share in suffering. It has affected who and where we are,” Marcos said. The question is what we will learn from it. Will we internalize limitations and self-doubt, or will we commit ourselves to fresh agreements in a life of integrity?

In the words of singer Janis Joplin, “Don’t compromise yourself. You are all you’ve got.”

Contact Dr. Marcos at

Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2013, April). Who are We? Internalized Oppression, Internal Agreements. Women in Higher Education, 22(4), 17-18.

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