What Is Internalized Racism?
By Nadra Kareem Nittle, About.com Guide
“What Is Internalized Racism?”
This novel by James Weldon Johnson chronicles a biracial man’s decision to pass for white.
Dover Publications Inc.
Updated February 01, 2010
Just what is internalized racism1? 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 stereotype2 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 bullied3 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.”4 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 Man5, 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.”