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.