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  • Writer's pictureWJ Kehewin

The Lateral Violence Project

“When a powerful oppressor has directed oppression against a group for some time, members of the oppressed group feel powerless to fight back and they eventually turn their anger against each other.” – Jane Middleton-Moz

As a child, I experienced many acts of lateral violence like people telling me I was too sensitive, that I needed to be able to take a joke, and calling me names like, "A bitch like your mother", names in Cree that have negative meanings towards the female genitalia, rolling their eyes at me to show disapproval, and many other acts and micro-aggressions which I have listed in this blog.

I thought it was essential to write about lateral violence and to create space to learn about it because it exists everywhere, is harmful to people and communities, and causes trauma. An excellent example of this trauma and how it bled into my life as a child and an adult happened when I was a child. As a child, I felt like I wasn't good enough and deserved to be 'othered' and isolated by someone in my community who I looked up to as a safe adult who was supposed to protect me or at least not harm me. I lost my voice especially when I was around this person which affected me even as an adult. As a child, I felt that if I just listened to her and did what she asked me to do, I would be accepted and loved.

This person used to have this unspoken power over me because she knew how to 'disapprove' of me with her non-verbal communication using body language such as rolling her eyes, turning away from me when I was speaking to her, ignoring me, publicly humiliating me with snide comments or remarks, interrupting me when I spoke, shaking her head at me as a way to show she disapproves of me, speaking Cree to others while looking at me and laughing at me. This person who I was supposed to respect but who never respected me. For many years, I thought it was me. I thought I deserved this sort of treatment and believed I was not good enough. I believed this person was more important than I was and that I didn't matter.

It was like a huge weight lifted from my life of uncertainty when I learned that this person was in fact someone who was skilled at harming others through acts of lateral violence. I don't have the same view of myself as being stupid and not worthy, especially in this person's presence anymore because I realized that her behavior is a result of something she had learned. Forty-five years later, she still rolls her eyes at me and ignores me when she sees me which used to hurt but doesn't anymore. This person probably isn't aware of her acts of lateral violence that hurt and harm others. I have to try really hard not to commit acts of lateral violence toward her because it is a learned behavior and because I am aware of it, I have to do better.

It is crucial to recognize lateral violence to better inform the community on how harmful it is, and how it still continues, and to learn ways of dealing with it or stopping it (Realization is key). Whether you are the one who experiences lateral violence or the one who inadvertently or advertently commits an act, it is vital to identify it when it happens to lessen the power that lateral violence has to shame, blame, or harm another. Gossip is a colossal act of lateral violence, especially in small surviving communities like the reserve where daily survival is an actual thing. Lateral violence is a learned behavior that continues to happen and harms others on a daily basis. Just listening to gossip as a passive participant is also allowing lateral violence to continue because by listening and not doing anything about it, that negative energy and the momentum gossip gains still exists in the world.

Initially, I was to complete this project as an individual and personal project, and thankfully it became something more that involved the community, specifically Indigenous. I wanted this project to focus on the effects of lateral violence on a personal level with Indigenous community members, using a mannequin as the subject of our learning and shared experiences around acts of lateral violence committed to us or acts we have committed to others.

The mannequin was painted in the four colors of the medicine wheel to represent all human beings in the world and to show that lateral violence happens in all communities, some more than others, especially from the communities that have been oppressed. That continued oppression we have learned is something we now pass on to others as a way to feel like we have some power, even if it is over others.

The attendees of the two workshops had a chance to write on the mannequin with sharpies and acrylic markers highlighting what we learned about lateral violence, how it has affected us, and what was said or done by us or others. It was also a powerful experience sharing with others the healing that comes with recognizing acts of lateral violence against us were never our fault. We learned that we were never stupid, dumb Indians, whores, ugly, troublemakers, sick in the head, bad kids, useless, bitches like our mother, assholes, squaws, chugs, wagon burners like we believed when they were said to us by foster parents, step-parents, family members, ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends, and even teachers in decades past.

It was very healing for the attendees to realize that the things that were said or done to them were not a reflection of them as children or people and that those acts of lateral violence were learned behaviors said or done by someone who had learned it. It empowers and creates space for healing and awareness when we recognize acts of lateral violence that we have experienced and/or committed. The knowledge helps us to think critically about the impacts we have had on others or how someone else’s behavior affected us and how it can have a profound lasting impact. We can also empower others by spreading lateral kindness, the next workshop I plan to host in the community in the new year.

The roots of lateral violence lie in colonization, oppression and intergenerational trauma, powerlessness, and ongoing experiences of racism and discrimination. These are learned behaviors. As human beings, we all struggle with our own traumas and aren't able to recognize lateral violence until we learn what it is. Here is a list I have created from many resources about lateral violence.

Frequent forms of lateral violence are but are not limited to:

  • Non-verbal communication (Body language) like raising of eyebrows, making faces, or rolling the eyes to communicate disapproval

  • Bullying

  • Malicious gossip including spreading rumors or even listening to the gossip

  • Overt or covert verbal attacks that include snide remarks, gossip, calling people names, abrupt responses

  • Humiliating someone in public

  • Patronizing or condescending language

  • Undermining the personal beliefs and values of someone else

  • Micro-aggressions like making snide comments, belittling or sarcastic comments

  • Mocking someone

  • Intimidation

  • Passive/ Aggressive behavior

  • Harassment

  • Creating an environment of inclusion and exclusion where it isn’t safe to be on the outside (Cliques)

  • Making someone the butt of their jokes

  • Shaming

  • Undermining activities like turning away from them when they are speaking to you, not being available, or excluding them socially

  • Withholding information

  • Scapegoating

  • Backstabbing

  • Failure to respect privacy

  • Organizational conflict

  • Physical violence

  • Using your power over others, abuse of power

  • Cyberbullying, put-downs, spreading rumors over the internet, IM, and social networking

  • Undermining someone’s accomplishments

  • Ignoring or avoiding someone

Once you learn about it, you can't unlearn it.... As hard as it is, I have to do better. I am responsible for doing better, so I do not make others feel like I felt. She learned this behavior and was so skilled at it, but I don't have to be that way, and I can do better. We all can because if we are all hurting each other, our focus is not on healing. As a human being, I have committed acts of lateral violence; we all have--but once we learn what it is, we do have a responsibility to the community and to others not to harm and to do better.


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