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Decolonizing Our Bodies

The Unknown's picture

“We our working to decolonize our bodies,” a young Bolivian womyn proclaimed in Spanish. People were bending, shifting, shaping their bodies in uncomfortable, almost unnatural ways. The womyn continued, “We have been oppressed for centuries and have been forced to work in the mines. Our bodies have been shaped by history. Our bodies have been taught and manipulated to bend to the oppressor. We need to remember the ways we moved before the colonizers came. We have to erase their imprint. We need to listen to our bodies’ natural movements.”

Last fall, I was introduced to the idea of the “mindset of the oppressed” through a theater program where teenagers meet weekly to “decolonize their bodies.” I learned about the program when I was in Bolivia. The goal of the organization is to help teenagers get in-touch with their natural and less-constrained anatomies before they were drastically altered by Spanish colonizers. The idea is that these young adults have lost apart of their history and culture, not just in-terms of writing, art, or lives, but also in the knowledge of how their bodies are meant to move to most effectively navigate their lives. Their bodies have been shaped in ways to productively serve an oppressor, rather than be most beneficial for their personal success and well-being.

The mindset of the oppressed explains why groups who have been oppressed have stopped resisting their persecutor and over time become comfortable submitting to an invading force or group and the duties that accompany that capitulation. According to the Oxford Dictionary, oppression is “the state of being subject to unjust treatment or control” (Oxford Dictionary 1). Persecutors weaken, marginalize, dehumanize, and devalue groups of people in order to instill the oppressive mindset into a society to the point where it becomes lodged into the prevailing cultural outlook, people’s minds, and bodies. Through different forms of ethnic cleansing, people’s traditions and connections are severed, creating a lack of authority and cohesion. With this marginalization, it is more difficult for these groups to hold onto cultural practices and record and remember their histories, whether physical, emotional, or mental. People’s identities and movements are lost with the erasure of their history and the elimination of their people.

When people’s connection to their culture, history, and nature is severed, they are vulnerable to invading and intrusive colonizing principles and structures. The mindset or psychology of the oppressed effects people’s development and identity. According to Eli Clare in Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation, oppression shapes people’s identities: “The work of thieves: certainly external perception, stereotypes, lies, false images, and oppression hold a tremendous amount of power. They define and create who we are, how we think of our bodies…” (Clare 152). Due to fear, shame, and humiliation, which are emotions and mindsets brought on and caused by the oppressors, people are convinced to hate their cultures and therefore disconnect from them.

Victims of ethnic cleansing are told they are not as productive and therefore begin to devalue themselves, their work, and their power to overcome their persecutors. This subconscious hatred serves the oppressor because the expectations of the persecuted diminish in regards to their rights and freedoms. This mental conditioning also contributes to a disconnection and alienation amongst the oppressed, which makes it difficult for them to unite and collectively rise against their subjugators.

Over time, the oppressed get accustomed to exploitation and therefore do not demand their liberties or fully understand the rights and privileges they should be justly granted. Their expectations for themselves are substantially lowered because they are convinced that they are incapable and insufficient. With their fallen expectations and constant encounters with discrimination and blunt attacks on their culture, a sense of hopelessness sets in that impairs their ability to confront their oppression and think for themselves. Duane Campbell in “The Psychology of Oppression” explains how confining and restrictive oppression is:

The psychology of oppression is the stagnation and removal of free thought and positive development. When one ceases to dream upon the realm of possibilities for self and their sketch of reality is limited to the confinement of manmade ideologies and accomplishments, one has then limited their ability to expand the mind and development of the strength of the inner self (Campbell 1).

Oppression limits the ability of the afflicted to think beyond the scope of opportunities and circumstances that they are bound by and are instructed to choose from. Their oppression becomes apart of an accepted and justified reality. Not only are people’s bodies confined, but through years of oppression, their minds are enslaved and colonized. Breaking out of the structural implementation of colonialism, oppression, and cultural cleansing would require people to think of solutions that would dismantle social structures that they are deeply entrenched in and are forcibly and constantly reinforcing themselves. Often it is difficult to see beyond conditions of life that have become routine and recognize the inhumanity and immorality in a seemingly inescapable system.

Another story, “Bloodchild,” by Octavia Butler, demonstrates how submission to an invading group is not a matter of choice, but expected and difficult to challenge in the eyes of oppression and fear of force. "Bloodchild" by Octavia E Butler, is a story about a dystopian world where humans are used as vessels to carry the offspring of the Tlics. Though several characters in the story understand the pain, brutality, and suffering that is involved in their submission to the Tlics, they continue to eat eggs that help them release their inhibitions, forget about their problems, be more emotionally available, relax, and sleep. Instead of challenging their unjust treatment, they become used to and begin to accept what they see as inevitable pain and hardship. They are at the whim of the Tlics because of a fear of what will happen to them if they do not comply with the Tlics’ demands.

            Instead of scheming and organizing to change or dismantle the system, the humans consciously submit to an unjust society. They have been convinced that any effort to change the world they live in would result in more pain than they already experience or they would face being outcasted. When fear tactics are not used, the humans are told that their relationship and subservience to the Tlics is just and righteous. The characters in “Bloodchild” feel vulnerable and incapacitated in relation to the whims, concerns, and interests of the Tlics. Not only are the Tlics successful in instilling fear, but they have also convinced the humans that the circumstances they find themselves in are for the most part unchangeable and unavoidable. They are deeply and unavoidably entrenched in their oppression.

While in Bolivia, I took a tour of Potosí’s silver mine. Since the Spanish arrived in 1545, Bolivians have been forced into the mines to mainly extract silver from the mountains above the city of Potosí.

Upon entering the mine, a bitter, overwhelming acid taste filled the back of my throat. The chemical I felt invading my throat was silica. Silica dust, arsenic gas, and acetylene vapors are some of the hazards miners endure. Despite my attempts to cough and spit, the acidic taste remained. Silicosis, the disease caused by inhaling silica dust, is one of the most prevalent causes of deaths in the mines. Some of the horrifying symptoms are coughing, spitting up blood, and weight loss. As dust and grime caked on my face, I learned that most of the workers in the mine do not eat while they are in the mines because when they have, they have gotten diarrhea from the chemicals and dust that collect on their food. Miners lose their teeth because of lack of nutrition. I felt the chemicals seeping through my skin. I was disturbed and speechless.

I cannot imagine going to work everyday, wondering whether I would break a leg, get sick, or potentially die. Even if I survived, I would feel like I was wasting my life. What is it like to live in fear? The miners are trapped. Every inch of their bodies, minds, and hearts are telling them that the mines are annihilating them, but they are forced to go to work due to economic constraints and lack of resources.

How much can we become accustomed to out of necessity? According to Carl Ratner in The Psychology of Oppression, oppressed people’s consciousness have been exploited to succumb to the oppressive social, invading system:

Victims of oppression are unwittingly complicit in their own oppression. Psychology of oppression consists of motivation, agency, perception, emotions, ambitions, ideals, reasoning, memory, aesthetics, and morals that accept the oppressive social system, desire it, identify with it, take it for granted as normal and even as ideal, take pleasure in it, defend it, and reject alternatives to it. This is only possible because consciousness/psychology has been mystified and manipulated to not perceive, understand, or resist the oppressive society and the oppressive social basis, characteristics, and function of psychological phenomena (Ratner 5).


The theater program in Bolivia teaches muscle memory. The leader of the group explained that bodies are shaped, conformed, distorted to be able to work for their oppressors- blast apart mountainsides and sometimes disastrously themselves, shovel ore, and load parts of the mountainside to be processed for silver and other precious minerals. Their bodies have been “colonized,” an ingrained, muscle memory that manipulates how people move to most effectively complete the tasks that have been forcefully required of them. Not only land, but also people’s bodies have been colonized, controlled, and abused. Oppression in this sense has been past down.

It is easy to come to the simple conclusion that if the conditions are so treacherous in the mines, people should not continue to work in them, but this is a privileged perspective, one that assumes they have a choice, an escape, and other options. This judgment does not consider how people have become accustomed to certain lifestyles, even if they are unjust. People are driven to accept their persecutor’s language, customs, and identity through the use of violence and an intense and severe attack on their culture by their oppressors. Sometimes oppression is difficult to identify because it has become so deeply implanted into a people’s daily routine, customs, lifestyle, jobs, and even family units.

Oppression is invasive, potent, and influential. Though oppression is ensured through strong, powerful social structures and maintained with people’s submission to these structures and persecutors, it is essential that people work to bring an end to oppression, and not accept these injustices. One way to dismantle and end the cycle of oppression is to remember that no one can characterize the nature of a person’s inner fortitude. What defines people lies not only within successes and personal skills, but one’s ability to confront injustice and overcome oppression. Though people are confronted with and find themselves enslaved in tight, mostly unyielding social structures, people also have the ability to change and shape their realities. It is the will and persistence to constantly question and fight repression that defines people’s legacies and ultimately decides the potency and power of oppression.