November 2015: Taboos / racism

Let's Talk Internalised Racism

All women have to check themselves for internalised misogyny because we live in a patriarchal society. Similarly, all people of colour have to check themselves for internalised racism due to living in a structurally racist society. While looking at internalised misogyny can be difficult, as a woman of colour I’ve noticed I find it much harder to talk about internalised racism – something about it feels more painful and taboo.

I’m scared of being judged about it by white people and people of colour and I feel ashamed of it in a way I don’t about internalised misogyny. I think this may be to do with the level of dehumanisation the black race has faced through slavery and colonisation so maybe there is something protective there about wanting to avoid the hurt that can come with digging up the topic. It’s quite possible after all that my Jamaican ancestors were slaves as Jamaica was a country which was colonised by the British. Also, I feel more vulnerable as a person of colour discussing internalised racism because I’m in a minority and minorities have to be strong in many ways to survive; it’s not easy to show how we’ve been wounded when we can feel precarious in society anyway. I think for many, part of the issue is not having the vocabulary to discuss the problem. In fact, I only learned the phrase ‘internalised racism’ a few years ago.

I recently went to a conference for Black and Asian counsellors and it felt like I’d been waiting for it all my life. Men and women of all different ages were open and shared their experiences of internalised racism, particularly in reference to shadeism, or colourism as it is also called. While on the one hand it was depressing to fully face what a history of slavery and colonisation has done to people of colour, it filled me with hope hearing people acknowledge the damage and the struggle they still face.

My earliest memories of internalised racism are from being a child and wishing I was white. I wanted soft and straight hair that my mother would be able to manage. I wanted white skin so I wouldn’t get called ‘Paki’ at school and when playing outside. I wanted ‘white’ features so I’d look like girls at school, in magazines, and on TV. There are videos where children are shown pictures of other children of different complexions and asked questions such as which child would they would want to be, which child is the good child, which child is the pretty child, and so on. Children of different races typically identify the pictures of white children as more attractive, likeable and good.

I’ve heard some people scoff that these videos are not depicting reality but I can tell you from personal experience that they are: children absorb very quickly how society values people based on the colour of their skin. Children of colour learn to measure themselves against white ideals and standards.

As I got older I did start to accept my identity more – or at least I thought I did. I experienced more subtle racial oppression in upper school which centred mainly round my hair and sometimes my mixed race identity specifically. Some of this bullying came from not just white students but black students too. The stereotype that mixed race kids are cute and special in some way possibly buffered me from some suffering but I did not fit the stereotype of being mixed race and attractive. I had big frizzy hair, braces, glasses and my features were seen as more typically ‘black.’ Eventually, as a young woman, I ditched my glasses and braces and I managed to fit the stereotype of being mixed race and attractive more comfortably. However, what many people don’t realise is that if you embrace that stereotype to prop up your self-esteem in the face of racism it can have a nasty fallout for you. I know this because after years of hating my appearance and thinking I was ugly it seemed quite appealing to buy into the idea that being mixed race was somehow intrinsically beautiful.

When I bought into the stereotype in order to enhance my shattered self-esteem, what I found was that I tended to attract men who fetishised me for my race and these men were sometimes explicitly racist against black women. What such men fail to realise is that an insult to black women is an insult to mixed race women like myself because we are all of black origin. Coming into contact with such men, both black and white, left me completely confused about my identity. I know I will continue to have to check out any romantic suitors to clarify if they are more excited by my racial mix or me as a person particularly now that the racial fetishization of mixed race people in the media is heightened.

Having just finished training as a counsellor I had to face my internalised racism head on. My training group was mainly white and I’m so glad they were. Much of the work we did in the group was based around sharing personal feelings and experiences and it gave me a chance to acknowledge how all my life I have been looking at myself through white eyes. I struggled with how to behave in the group and what to share because I was so afraid of conforming to anyone’s racial stereotypes.

I was completely inhibited in the group at first because of racist messages I had absorbed about black and mixed race people. I felt like I couldn’t be angry because black people, especially women, are often portrayed as ‘too angry’. I felt like I couldn’t talk about my mental health because of the stereotype that mixed race people are unstable/crazy. I felt like I couldn’t talk about problems in my family in case it was somehow connected to race.

In short, I couldn’t be myself at all and I had to accept that this was the way I had been living my whole life: imprisoned by my internalised racism. All of this was magnified due to the fact I was learning a counselling theory of personal development devised by a white male American, Carl Rogers. While I agree with much of his theory, there is no denying that there are limitations to it because it comes from a white, male and western perspective. The course helped me to dislodge not just the white view of myself I had internalised in my head, but the white male western one as well.

It’s important to acknowledge that any internalised oppression is the natural fallout of the society we live in, but I’ve noticed society tends to turn on the people who demonstrate this kind of oppression the most. I’d argue such people need our empathy because they have been more wounded by society’s various ‘-isms.’ I’d also say that it’s hypocritical of us to turn on these people because I don’t believe anybody is completely free from it. The best we can all do is continue to question our thoughts and motives but I don’t believe that we can free ourselves of these ‘–isms’ altogether. So since they affect us all I wish we could talk about them more freely: we won’t get past them by simply ignoring them.

This is why now when I see something like a black woman on TV promoting skin lightning cream, instead of being incensed with her, I’m angry at the racist structures that created her thought processes. I’m also thinking that this person has been wounded by internalised racism, just like me.

I think more people of colour need to start acknowledging how internalised racism impacts all of us and, most importantly, that it is not shameful, it is inevitable.

The only real shame is in not talking about it.


Nicola Codner
I am an intersectional feminist, a therapist and a social justice blogger

4 thoughts on “Let's Talk Internalised Racism

  1. I love this! I’m in the middle of writing a similar post (terrified to do so), and it’s so good to hear your experience and how you actually confronted things a few times. It’s something I’ve started to experience much more.
    Thank you for sharing this. Xx


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