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Internalized racism (the silent face of bigotry)

We talk a lot about racism in America (particularly the violent sort of racism usually tied into supremacy groups) and it tends to be viewed as the only “real” problematic behavior by a lot of people. A smaller set of conversations also recognize aversive racism (stereotypes, even “positive” ones are not okay and often are completely invalid), and occasionally we even wade into this new ground of what I call “victim” racism. What’s that? That’s when people say racist things and then swear up and down they are not racist and are deeply offended at any implication that they are racist. This one often involves someone saying things like “Why is it okay to have the United Negro College Fund? That’s reverse racism” and seems to be rooted in a refusal to grasp even the slightest bit of historical context. Then again, it’s not like high school history classes are about putting events in context. For some reason in most places that doesn’t happen until college and by then the classes are mostly optional. But that’s a whole other conversation and while I might write that post, today’s offering for International Blog Against Racism Week pertains to the things that don’t get discussed outside of closed doors most of the time.

Namely what happens when you grow up in a culture saturated with racism and you are a POC. I’ve talked some about learning to love my appearance, but I don’t think I’ve ever talked about learning to love my culture. About learning to see being black as a gift and not a curse. There’s a community on LJ called Oreos which is devoted to black folks that don’t feel like they are like “those” black people. And of course there is no true yardstick of blackness, but then again that feeling of being separate isn’t about being black enough, it’s about not liking the parts of yourself that you’ve deemed as being too black. Quiet as it’s kept, I went through this whole phase where I was the black friend that said I didn’t mind white people saying nigger or who sat there silent and uncomfortable while the white people around me said things about black people and then offered (sometimes with a hint of shame) that they didn’t mean black people like me.

And of course my discomfort with myself meant that I had my share of conflicts with the “mean” black girls of such renown. Now that I am a mean black girl? I can totally see what they were trying to do when they teased me for always hanging out with white kids and my (terrifying) tendency to put up with the kind of ill shit that I’d slap someone for now. It wasn’t (just) about being mean, it was about knocking some sense into me. Because I drank from the Goblet of Internalized Racism and in between my moments of looking down on them for being ghetto (too loud, too rough, too dark, and whatever else I was so busy judging I couldn’t even consider the reality that we were growing up in the same damned neighborhood) I was setting myself up to play Happy Token Darkie. And no one likes to watch a black person coon…well except for bigots. I can’t even claim that I had no idea that I was cooning, because of course when I heard the “those black people” comments a part of me wanted to scream at them. But I didn’t. Not at first. Certainly not at Whitney Young (admittedly it wasn’t anywhere near as overt as at Downers Grove North) and it took me a while once I was surrounded by overt racism to start to find my blackness and my love for my skin and my culture. But in the pressure cooker that was life between 15 and 25 I finally found it and I’ve had to learn over the years since to nurture it and let it grow.

Of course this process hasn’t been easy or comfortable or even particularly straightforward. Because self-hating black folk have a lot of reasons to keep the hate. Start with the rewards they can reap from the establishment for jumping on the bandwagon (if I never see another black Republican sharing a stage with a guy who makes no secret of being proud of flying the Confederate flag it will be too soon) and add all the pathology that can form as a result of the reinforcement provided by the institutional racism that is part of our society and you get people that have their whole identity invested in telling other black people that they are doing it wrong. And this phenomenon isn’t limited to Bill Cosby’s rantings about pound cake, La Shawn Barber or whoever is playing Uncle Ruckus this week. They’ll expound on the subject of marriage in the black community (bonus points if they trot out that tired old gem about more black men in jail than in college), the evils of single motherhood (Welfare Queen anecdata is a given, but the real deal involves expecting them to have a crystal ball and foresee any possible changes in their circumstances), or explaining why black women aren’t attractive (something about being too independent, not feminine enough, or just flat out saying that only lighter skin tones are attractive to men of any color), because tearing each other down is a primary drive when you’ve internalized the message that you’re worth less simply because of the color of your skin. Hence we get fun things like colorism and growing up hearing about “acting white” and even the train wreck that is skin bleaching.

Now, the purpose of my posting this wasn’t to have a Race 101 conversation about terms and being nice to people who didn’t mean to say “those black people” or even to have the age old “Why are all the black kids sitting together?” discussion. No, it’s a Race 498 conversation about the insidious way racism worms it way into the fabric of a society. It’s a chance to point out that saying “My black friend X says that nigger doesn’t bother him…” doesn’t win you any cookies in a discussion about race because the people you’re talking to have already swum that stream and they know X has some shit to deal with, but that shit isn’t part of *this* conversation. See, I don’t care about your black friend (though I do want you to reevaluate how you define friend if there’s any sort of power imbalance in the relationship since generally people don’t want to torpedo their career by telling a colleague off mid-meeting) or if you’re crying hot bitter tears about someone calling you a racist. Because that’s your problem to work out, and I will never think being called a bigot (especially after you say something ignorant) is more painful than being called a nigger. I’ve been called both over the years (and I’m sure someone will say I’m projecting), but I can laugh off bigot pretty easily while nigger always draws me up short for a second or ten. So no, I don’t care about fixing race relations by using the “right tone” or about comforting the “victims” of the crime that is being called a bigot.

I care about what racism is doing to little girls with Afro puffs sitting at the mirror and wishing for straight hair. I care about little boys that can’t quite imagine their dreams coming true because of the color of their skin. In these discussions about race and representation? It’s not about the dominant culture finding us worthwhile. It’s about making sure that our children can find themselves worthwhile. It’s about being able to see our reality instead of the ugly lies that pass as the stereotype of the week. So yes, while it is a TV show, it isn’t *just* a TV show. They say money is the root of all evil, and I suppose that’s technically true. But racism is the toxin in the water flowing over those roots and unless and until we manage to purify the stream, evil has more than a toe hold in this world. It will make sure the Tree of Life continues to bear a bitter fruit that poisons us all. Combating it will require more than laws, pretty words, and the occasional step forward in the recognition of racism. It’s hard internal work that we all have to do, even if we’re not all doing the same kind of work.

17 thoughts on “Internalized racism (the silent face of bigotry)”

  1. Karen says:

    see, i love it when what I am thinking is said finally outloud by someone who had a much better grasp of the situation and racial vocabulary than i do

  2. Karen says:

    funny enough that I am a Chi-towner as well. no not a suburban who wishes it but a true Southside Chicagoan. and the funny thing about Whitney Young is that it brags about it’s diversity just like other magnet and prep school in CPS. My alma matta Jones College Prep seemed to be a alittle more loud in the outcrys against the system. it left some of the white kids at my school with a sense of leaving out.

    anyway enough about my school. but your post is one that helps me keep learning and changing.

  3. Jordan White says:

    While I do agree with most of this, I don’t want this to swing the other way AKA using this idea to further ignorance in OUR society and have no self-reflection for self-correction.

    Ergo, I still hate Ebonics. =P

  4. Dijon says:


    It turns out I have a sizable chunk of this and in strange places.

    For example, my mother (who is 86, but you haven’t heard that from me) and I went to attend daily Mass in a slightly ritzier neighborhood. (The local weekly communion service has everyone standing around the altar, and Mom can’t stand that long.) We’d never gone to this church before. We arrived a few minutes early and we turned our phones to silence.

    I did, anyway. Mom hit the buttons, but apparently it didn’t take. About midway through the Gospel…

    Further digression: My sister has, as a ringtone, a drum set falling down the stairs. It’s…startling.

    Mom’s isn’t that bad, but it is a jazz-inflected drum solo that means that either my sister or my uncle is calling, and it gets her attention and makes the phone easier to find when it has sunk to the bottom of her usual bag.

    So when that went off in the middle of the Gospel reading? I had a couple of points of mortification: the one time the phone has gone off while I was in church I was at the back and could whip outside quickly; also the phone only plays two verses of the Strauss waltz before it goes to voicemail, so if necessary I can wait it out embarrassedly. Mom couldn’t do that. There was the reflexive thinking-ill-of-people-who-don’t-turn-off-the-damn-phone-in-church-for-mumblemumble. Even though this was my own mother. (You’ve thought it. Don’t deny it.) There was also that Mom had noted that there were no people of color except for us and the Filipina in the next row.

    So the third thing going through my mind at that moment was that the other 15 or so elderly white people (and the Filipina) were studiously not looking at us and instead mentally shaking their heads and thinking, “Don’t know how to behave…”

    (We went again, and actually everyone was nice, and a few more people of color showed up, and folks let us know we’d been genuflecting in the wrong direction and a bit about the church’s history. I think it counts toward my humility points. I’ll have to go there again.)

    @Jordan White: My unsupportable suspicion is that most of the sorts of trolls (not including dyslexics, who tend to express themselves respectfully and well even with confusing grammar and poor orthography) on the Net with bad grammar and no spelling are probably white and male, because using language well confers no advantage on them. Being able to switch between standard English and Ebonics does; and being able to use standard English without strain is probably what got the president elected. I don’t hate Ebonics, and I suppose that in the group it confers an advantage, but a little research pulls up similarities to 17th and 18th century rural English dialects.

  5. Momsomniac says:

    Appreciate what you are saying here, but about the “acting white” thing – in this context, what you are saying is absolutely true, but in another context – well, you will be able to explain how/why the statement played out here better than I:

    My best friend as a child was always taunted by her family for “trying to act white” because she got good grades, and was a fine musician. Certainly, self-hatred was in play here too, but it was not resting with the little girl playing the trumpet. She went on the be an MD. I don’t know what her relationship with her family is now…

    Perhaps this is the sort of thing Jordan White (above) is getting at?

  6. Amina says:

    Great post. For me its all about the kids. How do you teach your kids to be proud of who they are when everything around them says lighter is better, straight hair is better. And believe it or not little kids these days are very good at exclusion games based on skin color.

    Is it possible for kids at a young age… say 6,7,8,9 to have self-hate? That would be so scary.

  7. Sami says:

    So… this may be me being a Clueless White Non-American, here, but I’m not sure where “more young black men in jail than in college” comes into it, because… isn’t that an indictment of society, not black people?

    America broke 1% of the population being in jail. That shit is seriously fucked up right there, and skin colour is NOT the problem.

    1. karnythia says:

      It should be an indictment of our society. If it were true. It isn’t, but it is a trope trotted out fairly often in an effort to say that black people are all dangerous animals.

      1. Sami says:

        I see…

        I guess that saves me some time on google – I was going to go look to see if the “more in jail than in college” thing applied to all in races – I wasn’t sure what the percentages would be on Americans in college/jail generally.

  8. David S says:

    Culture is a waste of time, a crutch of the weak mind – shed all the material clothing of this world and live closer to the true self. end of story…

  9. Yasmin says:

    Best thing I have read in a long time. Forwarding this link to everyone I know.

  10. Melinda Bishop says:


    thank you so much. I’m literally holding back tears while I type this. No offense to white people or anybody else, but I’m a young multiracial woman who has internalized so much pain and self-hatred since childhood.

    I’ve lived all my life wanting to be white just so I could be considered beautiful, just so I could be loved. I’m very light-skinned with long hair but it is still the “wrong” kind of hair according to racist beauty ideals. It isn’t straight. I don’t have soft, flowing curls. I’m not blonde with blue eyes. People love to constantly remind me that I have the “worst” hair because it is African in texture. Most black people have hurt me in unspeakable ways because of my color. Most white people have never really seen me. My white husband loves me to death, but he is uncomfortable when I try to share my pain. I need him to understand who I am and how racism affects my life.

    He doesn’t seem to want to talk about it. He is a wonderful person but tends to deny the harsh reality of racism. He says I’m “liberal”. I remind him that despite my overwhelmingly white heritage, I’m still viewed by most as a Black woman living in a society that destroys people psychologically if they don’t meet some fucked-up standard of how one “should” be. My light skin keeps other sistas at bay, when all I want to do is open up to them and let them know that I’ve been there too. My hair texture keeps people from seeing my humanity.

    I live in South Florida. This part of the state is home to a sizable Black and Hispanic population. I have been the victim of racism my whole life by other minorities and by a few whites. I have never come to terms with this.

    My black ex-boyfriend verbally and emotionally abused me. He allowed his friends and family to do the same. I’m unable to fully trust anyone because of the experiences I’ve had. As a kid, I WAS the little girl in front of the mirror hating my hair. At 26 years old, I’m still that little girl inside. I never learned to love myself. I never learned to appreciate anything about myself because people were constantly telling me that I needed to “fix” my appearance.

    My skin was too light, hair too nappy, and I was “nothing special”. Simply ugly in the eyes of most people because I happened to be black and female. I know this sounds pathetic, but I’m sharing this with you because you KNOW where I’m coming from. You’ve been there. You know what it’s like.

    I’ve been that girl, sitting silently while her so-called white “friends” mocked black people. I’ve been that girl who recoiled after being told that she had “nigger hair” by racist white and Hispanic people. I’ve been that girl who lost her innocence when she finally realized that race DOES matter and that NO ONE is “colorblind”. My husband is in denial. He believes that simply attending school and getting good grades will help me land a decent job. We’ll live happily ever after. But as I’ve tried to tell him, it doesn’t work that way. People are still obsessed with race. He is an older white male who is completely unaware of his privilege. He strikes up conversations with people freely without having to worry that he will be judged based on race. People constantly ask me, “What are you?” They do not attempt to know me better as a person…my race seems to be of utmost importance before they will consider talking to me.

    He will never understand. He doesn’t understand why I’m so proud of President Obama. He doesn’t understand that our children will not be considered white in America, but biracial or Black. He doesn’t understand why it hurts me that my mother has literally killed herself in this country to survive and has been married to an abusive man (my stepfather) for years. My stepfather, a Black man, worships white women. He told me throughout my teen years that I was ugly and worthless and promiscuous. When a white woman with big boobs comes on TV, he admires her in my mother’s presence. My mother is biracial (her father was white), but it still hurts her when he is disrespectful. He hates “nappy” hair. I feel like a grown-up version of Pecola from The Bluest Eye.

    Anyway, I’m sorry that my post is like a book. It’s just that you really hit a nerve with me. Once again, thank you!!!

    1. MissKing says:

      Mrs.Bishop, Avoid idiots who judge you upon 1st meeting & *hole of step-father. Listen 2 your Husband. Trust. Build Sacred BrickWall between Y’all and rest of world.

      In 35yr Marriage of neighbor Folks=ALL THEY HAVE. Each other. Family, friends, acquaintances R on the side. You worry 2 much about the wrong thing. Concentrate on ImmediateFamilyTypes. adios!

    2. Eleanor says:

      I can feel your pain, we live in a very curel world one that does not care about feelings. Thank you for your honesty and for sharing with the world. Hold your head up high, seek out some help, there are many wonderful people especially some grounded “Black Sistas” hope you will find one who will be willing be able to journey with you. Much love & Peace, from a Sista in Canada

  11. xander says:

    hey Karnythia,

    Thank you for posting this. I can’t imagine the many nuanced and insidious ways internalized racism affects folks of colour.

    The only thing I can offer as someone with white privilege (and slightly mixed heritage) is that I’m doing as much damned work as possible to undue all the racist teachings that I grew up with and make sure I am not that person that makes assumptions based on race, treats poc differently, or is otherwise ignorant or perpetuating dominant power relations.

    Just know some of us are trying real hard to unlearn that shit and stopping the cycle that contributes to internalized self hatred.


  12. Jim says:

    This post is being sparked by something that happened to me last night. I was looking for a forum in the vain attempt to find others of my ethnicity in Australia who have had the same problem.I am of Greek heritage. However, I have a very olive complexion, very dark eyes and black hair-well, greying now. My parents are fairer. I seem to have taken a concentrated dose of whatever was in their makeup.

    Last night I was taking a stroll with my girlfriend and was abused by a trio of young anglo teens as being aboriginal. They did it in the most demeaning way.

    I have been a target of this racism for most of my life in Australia. It has ruined my life. I have felt uncomfortable with myself, isolated and disempowered and unable to speak. I could never speak of it directly with my parents or other Greeks. I am angry, offended, hurt, and bitter about it. I have never offended anyone and have been the recipient of much offence randomly in the street and in the workplace.

    I am a living testament to the fact that “race” is a social construct. If it weren’t then I wouldn’t have been abused like I have been and undoubtedly will continue to be.

  13. Melinda Bishop says:

    Jim…you COMPLETELY relate to what I’ve been saying.

    I’m sorry you experienced that. I can relate. Hopefully, this will be a safe place to share our thoughts and feelings. No one deserves to be treated that way. I see where you are coming from when you talk about feeling isolated and disempowered.

    Miss King…I appreciate your advice. I was moved by your beautiful words about trust and love. However, I’m not sure what you mean when you say that I “worry too much about the wrong thing”. Racism is very relevant in my world. There is nothing I can do about it. People tend to be openly racist toward people like myself. I’m not white, but not black. I constantly have to monitor my actions and physical appearance around other people to make it through the day without being discriminated against. My husband cannot relate to this. He will never have to worry about being judged based on superficial matters and having to suffer possible consequences. No one will ever tell him, as a white male, that his racial characteristics are “unacceptable”. He will never feel pressured to be something he is not in order to fit into society. His skin color is fine. His hair texture is fine. He does not look “ethnic” in any way. No one will ever dismiss his cultural background as being “weird” or “Other”. He measures up to the standards put forth by society. As a WOC, I do not. This is reality.

    It is my perspective. I’m sorry if this sounded rude. That wasn’t my intention at all. *smiles*

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