If you were to pop open the hood of any system of oppression, whether it be racism or sexism, heterosexism or classism, you would find that they share mostly the same machinery. American political theorist Iris Young reminds us that the machine relies on the ability of the dominant group to define reality, label the other, and perpetuate systemic violence. By design, these components seek to remain as invisible as possible to those who unknowingly support them.
As a social justice educator, I am focused on how systems of oppression impact people based, in part, on social identities. Systems of oppression are stitched together by history, individual beliefs, cultural norms, and policy to create a goliath of social injustice.
Our awareness of this injustice depends on the hand of social identities that we’ve been dealt. Identities that allow us to move through the world more safely - like whiteness, maleness, or straightness - can give individuals the privilege of unawareness.
As a therapist, I am concerned about the mental health impacts of internalized oppression on people with marginalized identities. I am also concerned about the mental health costs of unacknowledged privilege: internalized domination. The inevitable internal conflicts that arise when we hold both internalized oppression and domination within, is also a concern from a mental health perspective.
My focus and concerns are the same whether I’m in a dialogue circle, in the therapist chair or, at the barn.
I’ve shared my entire life with horses. What started as informal riding lessons after my parents’ divorce evolved into 4-H summers in Michigan and classical dressage clinics with Olympic medalists in Spain. My life has been shaped by my love for horses and the countless people that I’ve met along the way who share that love.
I have become increasingly troubled though that these three components of oppression - the ability to define reality, labeling of others, and the perpetuation of systemic violence - are routinely part of horse culture. This oppression is so routine that it has become the norm.
Recently, On Being’s Krista Tippett interviewed the New York Times best-selling author, healer, and trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem. He was discussing the legacy of internalized oppression and domination that people of culture and white-bodied people have inherited over centuries.
“Five brutalities: Colonialism. Enslavement. Genocide. Imperialism. And land theft. When I look at those five brutalities, and I apply those five brutalities to Europe, those things along with, along with public dismemberment...along with rapes, along with Inquisitions...along with The Crusades, along with famine, along with plague...a lot, a lot, a lot of brutalities existed. It’s a traumatizing, organizing principle of America.
Our relationships with horses have always intersected with this history and, consequently, with this trauma. The mechanisms of oppression people continue to face and inflict on each other are the same mechanisms we inflict on our horses.
What happens in the barn and with our horses is always part of the bigger picture. In every culture, the values of the dominant group shape mainstream beliefs, social norms, and policy. In the US, that dominant group has historically been white, male, and owning class. It is not a coincidence that mainstream horse culture is a reflection of our broader social context and history.
If we are serious about advocating for a more humane and ethical horse-human relationship, we must address the history and socialization process associated with being white and male in our society. We need to acknowledge that the behaviors and attitudes we have borrowed from that dominant group come at a cost. We must recognize the trauma that results for everyone who lives and works within a system where internalized domination is allowed to be passed down, rather than healed.
The impact of dominant culture is held in the bodies of white men as a long history of disembodiment and disconnection that separates an individual from his own humanness. This kind of separation manifests as a kind of irresponsible power that is passed on and practiced by (just about) everyone in the system. Irresponsible power- an idea introduced by scholar, philosopher, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass- describes a type of “power-over” that fundamentally disregards or uses another. The outcome of irresponsible power is always the simulations dehumanization of the oppressed and the slow erosion of the oppressor’s humanity.
Left unhealed and unresolved, this legacy of white supremacy and patriarchy will continue to shape mainstream horse culture and influence how we train, keep, and understand horses.
Resmaa Menakem writes, "One of the things we know about trauma is that trauma becomes decontextualized and over time can look like culture." So much of what we call “horse culture” is really the inherited trauma of domination and oppression from our unhealed human history, decontextualized over a very long period of time.
Each of us who loves horses has internalized at least some of this legacy disconnection and irresponsible power. Often, I find myself asking; what have I adopted from a white male colonizer history with horses, without realizing it?
Over the course of my life, I have watched white women, like myself, turn off something within themselves. They - we - turn off the very thing that enables them to relate and empathize with others’ pain or fear. Within this inherently oppressive system, it becomes impossible for us to see ourselves in the horse and thus we perpetuate the very structures that have oppressed us for so long.
It’s a tricky thing, white women adopting dominant culture. What happens when we internalize a system that both gives us power and is essential in our oppression?
A long time ago I read the memoir of Frederick Douglass. He recounted how he learned to read in a system of slavery that forbid and specifically describes the erosion of humanness of the white mistress who started to teach him to read:
“She at first lacked the depravity indispensable to shutting me up in mental darkness. It was at least necessary for her to have some training in the exercise of irresponsible power…Under its [slavery’s] influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamb-like disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierce-ness…She now commenced to practice her husband’s percepts. She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself.
I know this training in the exercise of irresponsible power well because I was trained in it from a young age. I’ve exercised irresponsible power myself. Edit Added** It’s that switch that can get flipped almost instantly that is an attempt (conscious or not) to put someone in their place and maintain the racial status quo. It’s the belligerent, angry “Karen.” It’s also the quiet “nice” woman that talks over a person of color in a meeting, takes their ideas, or prioritizes their own comfort over the emotional and physical safety of those with marginalized identities. I’ve been both. And guess what? We practice the embodied experience of both with our horses. ** I've justified labeling my horses "dumb", "disrespectful", and "bad". I've hit, jerked, yelled at, chased, and restrained my horses. These are all immediate examples of how we (white women) unknowingly engage in trauma reenactment - or acting out with our horses what those before us have done to others and what has been done to us. It is so important we realize this: as soon as the horse begins to be perceived as the offender, it is actually us who inevitably become the perpetrator.
I know that disconnection from my own body and my history is part of the fuel that will keep these reenactments alive. I write about us (white women) here because that’s what I know, but this disconnection from self and history can compel each of us, regardless of identity, to reenact what is unhealed within.
In spite of all the systemic barriers, there are countless courageous women and non-binary folks out there who are white, BIPOC, or queer that are setting down what they’ve borrowed from the dominant culture- the first step in choosing a different path. They understand how our history as people is connected to our history with horses. They are are my inspiration. They are finding new and less oppressive ways to be with their horses and their fellow humans. They are dedicated to their own healing and liberation. I am often struck (although not surprised) by the resistance they face when they attempt to break free from this cycle of trauma and seek out less aversive practices with their horses.
Systems of oppression want our investment, so we defend them, often without realizing it. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to truly see ourselves, our horses, and each other within these systems, it’s a bit like waking up from a dream. A dream you’ve been sleepwalking through for a long time. Once you see, you can’t go back to sleep, and you can’t unsee.
My fellow horse lovers: I think we will continue to unintentionally be the cause of pain, to each other and our horses, if we ignore and disavow our history and our legacy of oppression and domination. I think we need to get clear about how systems like racism, sexism, classism, ableism, for example, have shaped our stories. In order to be better for the horses we love, we need to create a different culture with each other - one that is centered on listening, accountability, and healing.
I’ll be back soon with ideas about how we can uproot these systems of oppression in the barn and within ourselves. Until then I’ll leave you with words from the great Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
*Edit: In the spirit of doing better when we know better I’ve removed the first paragraph of this piece because of some wonderful community feedback that it was potentially setting up a comparison in suffering between people and animals- which historically is a part of systemic oppression. In our culture comparative suffering is rooted in scarcity and the minimizing of people’s history and lived experience. The purpose of a side-by-side view of how the mechanisms of oppression repeat and reproduce is to deepen our understanding of these systems; to make visible what seeks to remain invisible. When we connect how the underlying machinery of racism, sexism, homophobia, for example, are the same, we must address two questions that are fundamentally interconnected: “what do I need to do differently in my relationships with horses to not perpetuate these systems?” “What do I need to do differently in my relationships with people to not perpetuate these systems?”*
With tenderness and care,
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