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When moving toward a pedestrian crossing at a major intersection, there is often a signal of some form to indicate if it’s safe to proceed across the street. Depending on your previous experience with crossing the street, you may stop and wait until the signal indicates that it’s safe. You may also judge for yourself if it would be safe, regardless of what the signal indicates. It can’t know the current condition of the street after all. You may also simply proceed confidently in the direction of your dreams and cross the street. I would, perhaps, not recommend the last option.
Since childhood, you have been taught how to behave when approaching a busy street. As an adult, you likely don’t need to think about it; when approaching a street, you likely look both ways to make a decision about your next action. Possibly, you even look to your left, then your right, and then your left again before you cross, as is the method often taught in pre-K, kindergarten, or elementary schools.
Your actions at the crosswalk are an example of socialization.
Socialization is the process through which we learn behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, values, and messages about ourselves and the world around us. This process is often invisible and unintentional. In the case of the crosswalk, someone may have specifically and formally taught you protocol for approaching a street for safety and to prevent you from running out into danger as a child. Socialization isn’t always this formal however. We receive messages all around us about ourselves and others, sometimes by noticing the way others like us behave or the behaviors that yield positive results and sometimes through the absence of people who are like us or silence about different topics. Both action and inaction can send extremely powerful messages that may subconsciously resonate with us and impact our attitudes and beliefs later on in life.
One framework for understanding socialization is the cycle of socialization, introduced by Bobbi Harro in Readings for Diversity and Social Justice. The Cycle of Socialization explores specifically how we are socialized into the identities discussed in Lesson 1. Using the Cycle of Socialization, we can better understand how we are taught to occupy different roles within our communities and social identity groups, how we may be affected by oppression as well as how we may help to prop up systems of oppression within our own lives.
Cycle of Socialization can be downloaded or viewed in a new tab
The Cycle of Socialization begins, like many good stories, in the beginning. This part of the cycle, shown in the first circle in the diagram above, represents the situation into which we are born. We are born into a world full of pre-established relationships we have no control or power over. We don’t yet have information, opinions, or biases, however, those are firmly in place in the world around us. There exist traditions and legacies, histories of power and oppression that pre-date us and influence the world in which the rest of our socialization takes place.
The first socialization is the one that takes place with the people that care for us in some capacity. This stage of socialization represents the messages we receive early in life from the people we are most dependent upon and that we trust the most. This phase of socialization begins immediately after birth, for instance, if you’re born in a hospital, you are likely given some pink or something blue to indicate your sex assigned at birth. Throughout their early lives, children are given very strong, oftentimes firm, rules, roles, or assumptions that they operate within. This is also the period of time where we will question our socialization the least, regardless of the content, and this period of time will have a deep impact on what children carry out into the world once they leave the more closed ecosystem of their family.
Once children begin to interact with people outside of their primary caregivers, they move into the institutional and cultural phase of socialization. Here, new messages about ourselves and others are introduced as well as reinforcement to messages received during the first socialization. Oftentimes, in this part of our socialization, we’re learning what to look up to and what to look down on. We learn here who gets preferential treatment and who does not, both from individuals within the system but also from the systems themselves. We may learn that a girl’s modesty is prioritized over education if a dress code removes them from class in order to change her clothes. We may learn that white students are more intellectual or capable if the advanced courses, gifted programs, or other similar spaces are occupied by all or mostly white students. We may learn that other people’s religions are strange if the school setting doesn’t provide space to accommodate everyone’s religious needs. Outside of school, we receive even more messages. We may learn that women’s pain or the illnesses of people who are fat are not as serious or worth considering as the pain of men or people who are thin. In this area of socialization, we are learning messages from teachers, social workers, police officers, doctors, religious organizations, and all of the environments that we interact with.
One of the most influential systems we interact with in this stage of socialization are the culture building institutions like media, language, music, TV, and patterns of thought. TV, movies, social media, and other forms of pop culture communication portray stereotypes about different groups. A stereotype is a commonly held, fixed, and overgeneralized belief about a group of people. Stereotypes exist all around us and about every group of people. Their power lies partially in the messages and relationships of power they uphold or perpetuate. Even seemingly benign stereotypes are a site of replicating power dynamics. For example, the stereotype that white people don’t season their food is a good example of a stereotype, as it is a fixed overgeneralization of the cooking habits of a group of people. It may even feel harmless and humorous, annoying at best. Certainly, it doesn’t seem, on the surface, to be insidious, but rather, it’s a sort of “punching up” at a dominant identity group. However, when we dig deeper, we find that this stereotype is actually connected to social class and colonization. When spices in Europe were hard to obtain and could signify social class, it was commonplace among wealthy families to spice their foods and meats. As colonization increased the availability of spices, it became less a signifier of class to have spiced food, and so the wealthy stopped using spices. The common claim of the elite was instead that quality meat should be good enough to not require spices. The stereotype of white people not seasoning their food is actually a reflection of a medieval social class signifier about the quality of their food.
The next arrow in the cycle represents the mechanisms in place to prevent people from deviating from this cycle. Individuals are rewarded or penalized for branching out from the cultural and institutional messages they receive. This reward can be formal, access to institutions, resources, and other powers that may not be as accessible, or it can be informal, being regarded as a “team player” or the norm. Punishments can be equally formal, such as the significantly higher number of BIPOC individuals who are targeted by the criminal justice system, or informal, such as being regarded as the “cause of a problem” or “making waves” within an institution that would otherwise be fine. For example, a person who continually brings up oppressive, unequal, or discriminatory policies in a workplace may be told that they’re just looking for problems, or they may be tone policed, told that they’re making good points, but if they could articulate them in a way that isn’t so aggressive, they’d be more likely to get people on board.
These mechanisms are in place to prevent us from questioning the messages received in institutional and cultural socialization even if they are harmful or hurtful to ourselves or those we care about.
All of these mechanisms and our interactions with enforcements have different results for different individuals. In part, results differ depending on which of our identities we’re considering. In identities that have less access to power and privilege, we may feel anger or like we’re being silenced. We may experience dissonance between what we expect and what we experience, or a sense of powerlessness in our own futures. This can result in mistrust of peoples, places, or systems. We might also begin to police ourselves internally, reinforcing harmful stereotypes about our own social groups within our own communities. This process is called internalized oppression.
When considering our social identities that have greater access to power and privilege, we experience the results of this cycle differently. We might feel guilt or shame for unearned privileges that are the result of historical legacy, or we may not be able to see or acknowledge the realities of others, having never experienced it for ourselves. For example, if we have never experienced ableism, we may not understand how something simple like not using a microphone or providing captions may limit the access of another person to information. If we have never experienced sexism, it may be difficult to conceptualize all of the steps women are encouraged to take on a daily basis to ensure the safety of their bodies, and if we’ve never experienced racism, we may not understand the variety of ways children of color, particularly black children, are prepared everyday and from a young age to interact safely with the institutions meant to protect us.
Regardless of which identities we are considering, those with more or less power, we may find ourselves colluding with systems of oppression, or cooperating with them in secret. Sometimes, we may even be keeping it a secret from ourselves that we’re cooperating with various systems of oppression. Socialization is a method through which legacies of power replicate themselves, and therefore, we are all socialized to collude with oppression in order to maintain those powers, regardless of what our articulated values are.
The last stage of this cycle presents us with an option. We can continue on in this cycle, perpetuating the messages we received and continuing to pass them on to other individuals, or we can make a change. This cycle happens over and over in our lives, it isn’t something that we experience only once, but something we continue to engage with throughout all the stages of our lives. At some point, we may encounter something that makes us question our socialization, the systems we’re a part of, and the messages we’ve received. When that happens, we may come to the conclusion that there’s something in need of change and seek to educate ourselves on histories, ideas, and people we may not have learned about earlier in life. We may strive to reframe common narratives we’ve heard or to push back against ideas that we’ve been told all our lives.
When we start to consider what keeps us in this cycle, we see the attributes listed as the core of the cycle, fear, ignorance, insecurity, and confusion. We are taught from early on to fear interrupting this cycle lest we be named as the source of a problem or become subject to other punishments, including a wide variety of violences. Regardless of our proximity to power, the cycle of socialization is one that strives to keep individuals ignorant of how oppression functions in their everyday lives. As a result, we may be unaware of the possibility of change or unable to really envision what change could look like. Similarly, the cycle of socialization breeds insecurity in individuals around their ability to or effectiveness at creating change, leading to barriers to breaking away from the cycle. Confusion also creates barriers to change. Oppression is complex, full of nuanced interlocking systems. Confusion around if we’re doing the best things, speaking the best way, or going to misstep can prevent us from breaking away from the cycle even if we want to. All of these feelings create the context which perpetuates this cycle, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.
We can take action for ourselves by striving to educate ourselves on topics we may not know about, learning how to take feedback openly and without defensiveness, and learning how to apologize and repair harm. It is just as much of a process to unlearn the messages we learn through this cycle as it is to learn them in the first place, so it is key that we learn to balance both grace and accountability as we take action.
To align with the iterative nature of learning on this topic, below is a reflective question.