When I entered my undergrad, I entered as a traumatized young person. I had just come off of 12 years of severe bullying in elementary school, junior high and high school. I knew I was transgender by this time and in fact had come out to a therapist in Grade 12. I knew that I was in rough shape and that the bullying had an effect, but had no idea just how big of an effect it was. I had zero self-confidence and very little self-esteem. I was in a deep depression and immediately started therapy and went on medication my first year of college.
In 1993, at the beginning of my sophomore year, I decided to take a couple of Women’s Studies courses. I later went on to declare a major. Women’s Studies not only changed my life, it saved my life. I needed a shot of self-esteem and Women’s Studies provided that. It also coincided with my coming out as transgender. I learned that I was a member of a minority group and that I basically had two choices. I could be a victim of my oppression and internalize it, or I could become an empowered minority-group person.
I chose to become empowered and it has made all the difference in the world for my life and my journey. Empowerment is when targeted group members refuse to accept the dominant ideology about their group, reject their subordinate status and take actions to redistribute social power more equitably, i.e. to work for social justice and liberation. Empowerment is the opposite of internalized oppression, which is when targeted group members internalize dominant messages and hegemonic ideologies about their social group and suffer the consequences of this insidious internalization. Empowerment is thus an A-mazing concept [meaning without a maze] in that we are able to make our way through the maze of lies and web of deception to see the truth about our own worth and value. Empowerment dovetails with the concept of self-actualization, a term from Psychology which is the drive present in all people to realize or fulfill their talents and full potential. To self-actualize, we must become empowered. We cannot be dragged down by internalized oppression.
Being empowered is not a one-time event. It is not a destination but a journey. It is not something you simply and totally acquire but something you are constantly in the process of obtaining. There have many ebbs and flows in my own journey of empowerment. The discrimination of the society is unrelenting. We are flooded with negative images and messages about transgender people. I am affected by these ideologies. Other than living under a rock, there is no way to not be impacted by these forces. So it is not being unaffected by these messages, it is what you do with them. When you are trying to become empowered, you need a tool kit for critical thinking skills and critical literacy. Empowered is partially about social justice activism but it also very much about active thinking and quiet reflection. The colonization of minds is just as real as the colonization of bodies. We must de-colonize our minds in order to be on the journey of empowerment.
I am so thankful that Women’s Studies provided me with the critical tool kit and activist instruction to resist my own oppression. It has provided the theory and the praxis I need to challenge the many negative things said about the targeted social groups that I belong to. Whatever the source, it is my hope that all oppressed people will find a way to sharpen their critical consciousness and that that will lead to working for social justice, which is a vision of society in which there is a radical distribution of resources that leads to a time when everyone in society is physically and psychologically safe and secure.