6 Signs of Internalized Racism (and How To Heal)
When I was ten years old, I heard a rising politician in her first speech to Parliament proclaim:
I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians.Pauline Hanson
A few days later, a concerned teacher asked me if I was okay after hearing the speech.
I recall feeling angry and ashamed. Unbeknownst to her, the teacher was singling me out as Asian.
This may seem like an obvious fact, but as an immigrant child, I loathed being reminded that I was different — an outsider.
It was as Beth Kaufka describes like I had been “marked with a yellow highlighter”. A persistent reminder that I could never truly belong in white Australian culture.
So how did I respond to my teacher?
Defiant, I said I had no idea what she was talking about because I’ve never experienced racism in my life.
The truth was, by that age:
- I had people yell, “Go back to where you came from!” more times than I could count.
- I had been spat at by a cyclist on my way home from school.
- I had kids in every grade run up to me on the first day of school, pull back their eyes and sing, “Ching-chong ching-chong!”
- I had befriended a white neighbor who three days later announced we couldn’t stay friends because her “dad hates Chinese people”.
- Yet somehow I knew that if I were to call out the racism I had experienced, I’d be even more marginalized.
In this post, I’ll explain how internalized racism is born directly from the colonial mentality. I’ll then outline the six signs that you can use to reflect on the extent to which you may have internalized racism throughout your life.
At the end, you’ll also learn the six-step process developed by Suzanne Lipsky of the ways we can overcome internalized racism and start the process of healing.
To help you along your decolonization journey, I’ve created a workbook that you’ll be able to download at the end of the post.
The Colonial Mentality
To establish, colonization refers to the violent process of seizing political and cultural control over another country, occupying it with the intent to exploit the land, people, and resources.
Decolonial psychiatrist, Frantz Fanon, developed a classic four-stage framework for understanding colonial oppression in his 1963 book, The Wretched of the Earth. He describes:
- The first stage of colonialism begins with the forced entry and occupation by the colonizer to exploit natural resources and inhabitants (e.g., slavery or cheap labor).
- The second stage is when the colonizer imposes its culture, disintegrates indigenous cultures, and recreates their own definitions of indigenous culture. Indigenous cultures are usually portrayed as primitive, backward, and savage compared to the civilized colonizer.
- The third stage justifies military domination and tyrannical rule by framing it as “the white man’s burden” to tame and control the colonized. In many cases, the colonizer presented themselves as heroic saviors saving indigenous people from themselves.
- The fourth stage is the establishment of a society where all the political, social, and economic institutions (e.g., governments, schools, churches, etc.) are designed to benefit and maintain the domination of the colonizer while subjugating the colonized. Indigenous people are rewarded for assimilating into the colonizer’s ways and punished when they resist. It’s through this phase of colonization that colonized people begin to develop the psychological chains that keep us oppressed.
The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.Steve Biko
Frantz Fanon argued that sustained oppression and subjugation experienced by colonized people lead to self-doubt, identity confusion, and feelings of inferiority. Albert Memmi agreed that the colonized often eventually end up believing in their own inferiority.
Paulo Freire further elaborated that because of the inferiority attached to their indigenous identities, the colonized might develop a desire to rid themselves of their racial identities and to mimic the colonizer because they’re seen as superior.
Colonized people may even feel a sense of gratitude and indebtedness toward the colonizer for civilizing and enlightening their own.
This self-perceived inferiority of the colonized usually begins at a very young age. Eventually, the colonial mentality becomes natural, unconscious, and involuntary.
Writers like Kwame Nkrumah, the first prime minister and president of Ghana, describe neocolonialism as the final stage of imperialism.
Neo-colonialism is the external rule of a country that may otherwise appear independent. Often this control comes in the form of economic dependence on the former colonial ruler or another more developed country that continues to enrich themselves.
As “patriarchy has no gender” (in the wise words of bell hooks), white supremacy also has no race.
Some people misunderstand racism to be purely about the prejudicial attitudes and behaviors we express to others on the basis of their race. This limited perpetrator versus victim view ignores the fact that we are all inculcated in white supremacist ideology, irrespective of our racial identities.
Related: What Is Intersectional Feminism? A Definitive Guide
Internalized racism was first defined through the term ‘internalized oppression’ with early theorists like Suzanne Lipsky who described it as “turning upon ourselves, upon our families, and upon our own people the distress patterns that result from the racism and oppression of the majority society”. It’s a natural response to feelings of powerlessness.
Education justice trainer, Donna Bivens, explains “as people of color are victimized by racism, we internalize it. That is, we develop ideas, beliefs, actions, and behaviors that support or collude with racism.”
Even at my tender age of 10, I had already learned that I would be rewarded for supporting white privilege and defending white power and punished and excluded if I did not.
This had little to do with the particular teacher who asked me about Pauline Hanson’s sentiments or any other individual white person in my life at that time. White supremacist ideology was simply a condition of the culture around me, which kept me trapped in my own oppression.
In fact, developmental psychology research into internalized racism shows that children learn ideas about the inherent worthiness of their race much younger. A re-creation of this classic psychological experiment from Italy can be seen in the video below.
Signs of Internalized Colonialism and Racism
- You’re an overachiever. You’re extremely grateful to be given a chance (at your work, organization, community group, etc.) and want to prove to everybody (and yourself) that you deserve to be there. You’re terrified of letting anyone down.
- You worry about fulfilling a stereotype. You’re conscious of the stereotypical behaviors associated with your racial identities and you try to avoid them at all costs. For example, if you’re a Black woman, you overcompensate the ‘angry Black woman’ stereotype by being extra soft, polite, and people-pleasing. If you’re an Asian woman, you may evade the ‘lotus blossom’ stereotype by being more assertive, extraverted, and individualist.
- You suppress aspects of your racialization. You’re self-conscious about the ways you might appear ‘too ethnic’. For example, you may dislike your accent and attempt to code switch and train your speech to be more ‘white’ in hopes of sounding more intelligent and civilized. This isn’t the same thing as tactically code-switching in order to avoid racial hostility or to attract better service/support. Internalized oppression requires a belief that your racialization makes you less professional, approachable, and likable. Tactical assimilation comes instead from a place of self-love and self-acceptance, yet knowing when you need to ‘play the game’ to make life easier in the imperialist white supremacist capitalist cis-heteropatriarchy.
- You’re uncomfortable talking about race and racism. You think talking about race and racism is making a lot of fuss about nothing. You’re worried about coming off as a troublemaker by raising ‘political’ issues. You think you’ll ruin everybody’s fun by bringing up negative topics.
- You’re embarrassed by your culture and community. You think your culture is less refined, less elegant, and less tasteful than white European cultures. You think people from your own racial/ethnic group are less cultured, less sophisticated, and less beautiful than white people. You think the most beautiful people of your race/ethnicity are those who most resemble white European beauty ideals, e.g., fair skin, narrow noses, blue/green eyes, blonde hair, straight hair, etc.
E.J.R. David’s Internalized Oppression shows how the use of skin-whitening cosmetics by non-white women are poisoning their bodies. According to David, approximately 77% of women in Nigeria, 59% in Togo, 50% in the Philippines, 45% in Hong Kong, 41% in Malaysia, 37% in Taiwan, 28% in Korea, and 27% in Senegal, use skin-whitening products.
Skin-whitening products can contain dangerous amounts of mercury, leading to scarring, skin rashes, and kidney failure, as well as to psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression.
- You long for white approval and acceptance. You yearn for powerful white people to tell you that you’re good and worthy. You seek primarily white friendships and partnerships, mentors, and advocates. You implicitly value white people in your life more than the relational bonds in your own racial/ethnic communities. For example, you appreciate and believe white praise more than support from people in your own communities.
It’s important to note that internalized colonialism and racism are specifically grounded in white supremacist ideology.
This means that it’s not the same thing as having low self-esteem. So while some of the signs above like the first point about being an overachiever might apply to anyone who feels inferior, internalized oppression has to do with feelings of racial inferiority.
Internalized Racial Superiority
While these six signs above focus on the internalized oppression experienced by people of color, clinical psychologist Dee Watts-Jones acknowledges in the video at the start of the post that another understanding of internalized racism is the internalized superiority that non-Black people can bear.
Internalized racial superiority is equally grounded in the assumption that whiteness is paramount to intelligence, beauty, purity, and virtue. This ideology need not be an overt prejudice against people of color. Often it’s covert, subtle, and taken-for-granted.
We may even consciously proclaim that we support racial equality, yet signs of internalized racial superiority appear in moments such as:
- Walking straight down the sidewalk, forcing people of color to move out of your way.
- Voicing your opinions at a meeting, interrupting colleagues of color, speaking over them, or appropriating their ideas.
- Feeling like you would be much more interested in learning about anti-racism if someone would only explain it to you quickly and simply without making you feel ignorant, sad, angry, guilty, or ashamed.
- Separating ‘good’ people of color from ‘bad’ ones. Specifically, you believe ‘good’ minorities are polite, respectful, grateful, stay in their own lane, and never bring up racism, while ‘bad’ minorities join protests and openly challenge injustice.
For non-Black people of color, we also learn both internalized racism alongside anti-Blackness.
This means while we hate our own racial identities, we may think, “At least I’m not as bad as Black people”.
Learning to decolonize our minds and overcome our internalized oppression means we must also challenge our own anti-Black racism.
So as a prelude whites must be made to realize that they are only human, not superior. Same with Blacks. They must be made to realize that they are also human, not inferior.Steve Biko
Intersectional Liberation & Healing
The beauty and power of intersectionality can be found in the path to recover and heal from internalized colonialism and racism. Intersectional feminist thinkers have long promoted the importance of decolonizing our minds for liberation.
Suzanne Lipsky designed a six-point process to overcoming internalized racism:
- Learn as much about internalized colonialism and racism as possible. Form trusted circles to raise our collective consciousness about how internalized colonialism and racism function in our culture and society.
- Critically reflect on the ways internalized colonialism and racism have impacted our identities and our lives.
- Seek counseling and healing on our memories of internalized racism, incidents where we’ve been harmed by the internalized racism of other people of color, and incidents where our own internalized racism has harmed other people of color. Using Blackness as her example, Suzanne Lipsky offers some insightful writing prompts:
- What has been good about being Black?
- What makes me proud of being Black?
- What are Black people really like?
- What has been difficult about being Black?
- What do I want other Black people to know about me?
- How have I been hurt by my own people?
- When do I remember standing up against the mistreatment of one Black person by another?
- When do I remember being strongly supported by another Black person?
- When do I remember that another Black person really stood up for me?
- When do I remember acting on a feeling of internalized oppression or racism?
- When do I remember resisting and refusing to act on this basis?
- Commit ourselves to taking bold steps towards overcoming habits of internalized colonialism and racism.
- Continually share information about overcoming internalized oppression with others in our communities.
- Translate our progress into effective liberation activities in the wider world.
Critical to intersectional healing and liberation is ongoing self-care that center expressions and celebrations of Black, Indigenous, Asian, Chicanx/Latinx, Middle Eastern, etc. joy.
To help you reflect on the powerful questions more easily, I have created a workbook that you can download to fill in your responses.
When you sign up for my newsletter Moon Rites, you’ll receive the link to my internalized oppression journal. If you enjoy reading my blog, I think you’ll really like my emails too, but in case you don’t, you’ll be able to unsubscribe anytime.
Internalized racism is a remnant of the trauma of oppression caused by European colonialism.
This colonial mentality makes weapons of our own minds, which subjugates us into believing we are biologically, intellectually, socially, culturally, and morally inferior to white people.
Signs that you have internalized colonialism and racism include 1) you’re an overachiever, 2) you worry about fulfilling a stereotype, 3) you suppress aspects of your racialization, 4) you’re uncomfortable talking about race and racism, 5) you’re embarrassed by your culture and community, and 6) you long for white approval and acceptance.
If you recognize any of these signs within yourself, you can choose to begin a process of decolonial healing to develop self-love.
This post outlined the six-point process to overcoming internalized oppression proposed by Suzanne Lipsky. Self-expressive reflective writing is one powerful way that we can start systematically identifying and disputing damaging beliefs about our own culture and people.
I have created a workbook to help you journal through your ideologies and experiences of internalized oppression, which you can get in the section above.
You deserve complete and perfect love.
Sign up for Moon Rites, my newsletter sent on the new moon, and receive a self-care checklist as a gift.
E.J.R. David (2013) Internalized Oppression: The Psychology of Marginalized Groups
Drexler James (2020). Health and health-related correlates of internalized racism among racial/ethnic minorities: A review of the literature. Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, 7, 785–806.
Beth Kaufka (2009). The shadows within: Internalized racism and reflective writing. Reflective Practice, 10(2), 137–148.
Gail Pheterson (1986). Alliances between women: Overcoming internalized oppression and internalized domination. Signs, 12(1), 146–160.
Karen D. Pyke (2010). What is internalized racial oppression and why don’t we study it? Acknowledging racism’s hidden injuries. Sociological Perspectives, 53(4), 551–572.
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Featured image by Polina Zimmerman