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What Is Internalized Racism?

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What Is Internalized Racism?

This novel by James Weldon Johnson chronicles a biracial man's decision to pass for white.

Dover Publications Inc.
Updated May 31, 2014

Just what is internalized racism? One might describe it as a fancy term for a problem that’s pretty easy to grasp. In a society where racial prejudice thrives in politics, communities, institutions and popular culture, it’s difficult for racial minorities to avoid absorbing the racist messages that constantly bombard them. Thus, even people of color sometimes adopt a white supremacist mindset that results in self-hatred and hatred of their respective racial group. Minorities suffering from internalized racism, for example, may loathe the physical characteristics that make them racially distinct such as skin color, hair texture or eye shape. Others may stereotype those from their racial group and refuse to associate with them. And some may outright identify as white. Overall, minorities suffering from internalized racism buy into the notion that whites are superior to people of color. Think of it as Stockholm Syndrome in the racial sphere.

Causes of Internalized Racism

While some minorities grew up in diverse communities where racial differences were appreciated, others felt rejected due to their skin color. Being bullied because of ethnic background and encountering harmful messages about race in greater society may be all it takes to get a person of color to begin loathing themselves. For some minorities, the impetus to turn racism inward occurs when they see whites receiving privileges denied to people of color.

“I don’t want to live in the back. Why do we always have to live in the back?” a fair-skinned black character named Sarah Jane asks in the 1959 film “Imitation of Life.” Sarah Jane ultimately decides to abandon her black mother and pass for white because she “wants to have a chance in life.” She explains, “I don’t want to have to come through back doors or feel lower than other people.”

In the classic novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the mixed-race protagonist first begins to experience internalized racism after he witnesses a white mob burn a black man alive. Rather than empathize with the victim, he chooses to identify with the mob. He explains:

“I understood that it was not discouragement, or fear, or search for a larger field of action and opportunity, that was driving me out of the Negro race. I knew that it was shame, unbearable shame. Shame at being identified with a people that could with impunity be treated worse than animals.”

Internalized Racism and Beauty

To live up to Western beauty standards, ethnic minorities suffering from internalized racism may attempt to alter their appearance to look more “white.” For those of Asian descent, this could mean opting to have double eyelid surgery. For those of Jewish descent, this could mean having rhinoplasty. For African-Americans, this could mean chemically straightening one’s hair and weaving in extensions. In addition, people of color from a variety of backgrounds use bleaching creams to lighten their skin.

It’s important to note, however, that not all people of color who alter their physical appearance do so to look “whiter.” For example, many black women say they straighten their hair to make it more manageable and not because they’re ashamed of their heritage. Some people turn to bleaching creams to even out their skin tone and not because they’re trying to uniformly lighten their skin.

Who’s Accused of Internalized Racism?

Over the years, a variety of derogatory terms have cropped up to describe those likely suffering from internalized racism. They include “Uncle Tom,” “sellout,” “pocho” or “whitewashed.” Also, a number of nicknames for those suffering from internalized racism involve foods that are dark on the outside and light on the inside such as Oreo for blacks; Twinkie or banana for Asians; coconut for Latinos; or apple for Native Americans. Such name-calling is offensive and insults those who may not experience racial self-hatred but don’t fit into a box.

While such name-calling is hurtful, it persists. So, who might be called such a name? Multiracial golfer Tiger Woods has been accused of being a “sellout” because he identifies as “Cablinasian” rather than as black. Cablinasian is a name Woods devised to represent the fact that he has Caucasian, black, American Indian and Asian heritage.

Woods has not only been accused of suffering from internalized racism because of how he racially identifies but also because he's been romantically involved with a string of white women, including his Nordic wife. Some people view this as a sign that he’s uncomfortable with being an ethnic minority. Someone who refuses to date members of their own racial group may, in fact, suffer from internalized racism, but unless the person declares this to be true, it’s best not to make any assumptions. In any case, children may be more likely to admit to suffering from internalized racism than adults. A child may openly yearn to be white, while an adult will likely keep such wishes to himself for fear of being judged.

Those who serially date whites or refuse to identify as an ethnic minority may be accused of suffering from internalized racism but so are people of color who espouse political beliefs considered detrimental to minorities. Conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Ward Connerly, a Republican who’s led the effort to strike down affirmative action in California and elsewhere, have been accused of being “Uncle Toms,” or race traitors, due to their right-wing beliefs. Whites who associate mainly with people of color and politically assign themselves with minority groups have historically been accused of betraying their race as well. Whites active in the Civil Rights Movement were harassed and terrorized by other whites for seemingly “siding” with blacks.

Wrapping Up

It’s impossible to tell if someone suffers from internalized racism simply based on their friends, romantic partners or political beliefs. But if you suspect that someone in your life suffers from internalized racism, try to talk them about it. Ask them, for example, why they exclusively associate with whites, want to alter their physical appearance or downplay their racial background. Point out positives about their racial group and why they should be proud to be a person of color.

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