Dismantling Internalized Racism Part I: Recognizing The Problem

“As more anti-racist white people become clearer about whiteness, white privilege and “doing the work” with white people, people of color are freed up to look beyond our physical and psychological trauma from racism. We can then focus on other challenges to our ability and need to create what we want for ourselves, and our communities.”

Donna K. Bivens

So I’ve been doing a lot of research lately surrounding mental health in the black community here in the United States.

*FULL DISCLOSURE* I’m not a psychologist, nor did I study psychology extensively while I was completing my undergrad. I’m also highly aware that spending quite a good deal of personal time researching mental health issues surrounding the black community doesn’t equate to a 4-year degree in the field of psychology.

Nonetheless, during my time researching, essentially what I’d call “black psychology,” I ran across multiple topics and issues that are beginning to change my perspective on things. Topics and issues that I’ll be bringing to the blog in hopes to better black & brown lives both individually and as a community.

Real Life Shit

2015 was a very busy time in my life.

I had just started my third year at Harris-Stowe State University (S/O to all my HSSU alumni), and since it was technically my second go around at the whole college thing, I decided to kick shit up a notch.

S/O to HSSU Class of 2016

If you didn’t know, HSSU is in St. Louis, Missouri and is one of the only two HBCU’s in Missouri. You’ll find out why this is relevant later in the story

After making HSSU’s Vice President’s Academic Honors List 4 semesters in a row I had the bright idea of adding 6 more hours to my first-semester schedule (7 classes).

When I finally saw my schedule for the Fall

In one of those classes, I had an experience with a teacher, who honestly at the time annoyed me, but not like it would’ve annoyed today…

I’m not going to name the teacher nor the class I had my experience in, cause HSSU is too small for that shit. However, for the purpose of this piece, I’m willing to share a little bit of the tea.

So What Had Happen Was…

It was the end of the semester and part of our final was to research a certain government program or agency and decide if the program/agency was needed, or wasteful spending. Now, of course, there were more requirements than that. I mean this was my junior year after all, but to make a long story kind of short, consider those to be the core requirements for the final.

I decided to cover America’s Social Safety Net.

The Social Safety Net of the United States is made up of various Welfare Programs to protect low-income Americans from poverty and hardship. The programs are meant to be a safety net to catch Americans if they fall on hard times. The goal is to get Americans of sound body and mind back on their feet.”

Like most of my teachers at HSSU, the teacher who oversaw this class was black. The class itself was pretty small in size compared to other classes I had at HSSU. I believe there were 5 of us, and that includes the teacher her/himself. In fact, I remember the class almost getting canceled due to the small number of students who actually registered for the class before the Fall deadline.

Luckily for me, two out of the 4 students who registered for the class happened to be seniors. HSSU has a policy that protects classes from getting canceled if at least one senior registers for the class. All a senior has to do is register before the semester deadline, and prove the class is considered “mandatory” in order for them to graduate with a degree in their respected studies.

Since the class was so small, my teacher decided to grade everyone on the spot after holding an intense session of Q&A after each person completed their presentation.

Well, at least my Q&A session was intense…

Like I said, I decided to cover America’s Social Net. Nonesurpringly I argued that America’s Social Safety Net wasn’t just needed and morally the right thing to do. I took shit to the next level and said it should be expanded, especially in marginalized communities. Since this was a college final after all, I found it extremely important to not only use anecdotal evidence but to also use stats & proven theories to add a little extra sauce to support my final conclusion.

I had graphs, testimonies, years of analytical data, I mean, if I thought it helped my argument, even in the slightest, it was in my presentation. After spending 15 minutes talking about the current crises of income inequality in America (especially in regards to the wealth gap among races) I thought I not only got an A+ but thoroughly convinced everyone in the room that we should expand America’s Social Safety Net in America’s most marginalized communities…

My teacher wasn’t hearing any of that shit… The first question she asked me was,

“Do you think welfare provides an incentive to work?”

The question by itself isn’t a bad one, but it was the way in which she asked it that signaled to me she felt some type of way… It’s kind of like when your girlfriend or boyfriend says, it doesn’t matter if you’re yelling or not, it’s about your tone. and how you say things.

My teacher’s tone was all fucked up… I mean, you could literally hear the neck roll bruh…

My teacher after asking me if welfare incentivizes people to work

I calmly replied, yes, and used my mom as an example. I told her that I grew up in a single-parent household and that for as long as I can remember my mom always had a job. Even though my mom worked her ass off, there were moments we had to rely on Food Stamps to make ends meet. I went on to say that relying on Food Stamps wasn’t something my mom was proud of, but please believe she wasn’t ashamed of it either. She knew it was only a temporary situation. I even told my teacher there were times I’d catch her telling herself everyone needs a little help from time to time.

My teacher wasn’t hearing none of that shit either. Instead, she insisted that America’s Social Safety Net, particularly Food Stamps, wasn’t just wasteful spending, but extremely harmful to the black community.

I remember her telling me that she came from a similar background as me and that just like me, some of her family members had to use food stamps. Except unlike my mom, her family members seemed to be “proud to be living off the government.

She went on to regurgitate talking points I normally would hear on Fox News.

“Why should I pay for someone who isn’t willing to work?”

“Why bring race into it? Some things aren’t always about race, but more so about responsibility”

“People need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, and stop looking for government handouts.”

She even brought up welfare queens…

Welfare Queens |

“Welfare queen” is a derogatory term used in the United States to refer to women who allegedly misuse or collect excessive welfare payments through fraud, child endangerment, or manipulation. Reporting on welfare fraud began during the early 1960s, appearing in general-interest magazines such as Readers Digest.

Related Source: “The Truth Behind The Lies Of The Original ‘Welfare Queen'” 

After what seemed like hours of interrogation, I was finally given a C+ for presenting what my teacher called, “bias facts.”

I was pissed bruh, but not because of what she said to me, or how she said it. Nah, at that time in my life, I remember being more upset about receiving a C+ even though I did everything that was required of a student to receive an A.

I ended up passing the class with a B and went on to graduate without ever running into that teacher again. I honestly never thought about that experience again until recently when I came across this piece titled, “What Is Internalized Racism?”

Now instead of asking myself how could, they have given me a C+, I’m beginning to ask myself how could that black person believe all that bull shit about other black people, let alone their own family? Why was there so much animosity in their voice when they brought up other black people who happen to be less fortunate than themselves? 

Internalized Racism

I recently came across a piece titled, “What Is Internalized Racism?” by a woman named Donna K. Bivens who is widely known as an Anti-Racism Trainer and Consultant.

In all honesty, I’ve only heard the term, “Internalized Racism” once before, and at that time I really didn’t understand what it truly was, or what the speaker meant. Based on context clues I thought it was another term for “self-hatred,” or something along those lines.

However, after reading Donna’s work about Internalized Racism, I was shocked to find out that Internalized Racism is much more than that.

Before we jump into what Donna’s definition for Internalized Racism is let’s cover what she says Internalized Racism is not…

In trying to understand Internalized Racism and work toward its elimination, Donna said it is important that we do not confuse Internalized Racism with other realities that are frequently used to explain or describe “dysfunction” among black people and other people of color. Basically the shit I was doing before actually began studying Donna’s work. She goes on to say that we need to understand that Internalized Racism is not simply the following:

  • Low self-esteem,
  • Color prejudice/colorism
  • Stereotyping
  • Self-hatred.

These may be and often are symptoms or results of Internalized Racism but they are not the thing itself. According to Donna, Internalized Racism should be viewed as the following;

Internalized Racism |

Just as racism results in the system of structural advantage called white privilege for white people and their communities, Internalized Racism results in a system of structural disadvantages for black people and communities of color on inter- and intra-group levels.

I know that definition might be a bit confusing right now, but as this series progresses, I promise it’ll become clearer and clearer as your eyes grow wider and wider to the truth buried deep inside our own subconsciousness.

The main thing we must understand about Internalized Racism is that it’s a system of structural disadvantage for black people and other POC. In basic terms, Internalized Racism is when a racial group oppressed by racism supports the supremacy and dominance of the dominant group.

Donna says this is done “by maintaining or participating in the set of attitudes, behaviors, social structures and ideologies that not only support the dominating group’s power and privilege but also limits the oppressed group’s own advantages.”

This is what my teacher was doing. In my teacher’s mind, he/she truly believed that since they themselves, “made it out the ghetto,” anyone else can do the same. By using talking points that blame black folks for the current wealth gap instead of addressing the harsh realities of years of racial oppression and exploitation, my teacher was essentially embracing Institutionalized Racism.

To be honest, success, especially economic success for most black people living in America relies heavily on our own willingness to embrace the system that was designed to oppress us.

Maybe it’s letting certain jokes slide in the office because you don’t want to be labeled as that guy. Or maybe it’s ignoring a chance to educate a white friend because you know dealing with white fragility is emotionally taxing. Or maybe it’s something as simple as embracing code-switching for 8+ hours a day in hopes to avoid any racially-charged microaggressions that might come your way.

Let’s use code-switching as an example…

Code-Switching |

“Linguists would probably quibble with our definition. (The term arose in linguistics specifically to refer to mixing languages and speech patterns in conversation.) But we’re looking at code-switching a little more broadly: many of us subtly, reflexively change the way we express ourselves all the time. We’re hop-scotching between different cultural and linguistic spaces and different parts of our own identities — sometimes within a single interaction.

– Gene Demby

Related Sources:

For us black people, code-switching is more than just blending in… Code-switching is a tool used for survival in a land that normally targets those who look like us. It’s a tool some might use to gain economic prosperity… Others might use it to find love…

Code-switching might seem necessary to achieve these things, but the truth is it’s not… Earlier in this piece, I said, the main thing we must understand about Internalized Racism is that it’s a system of structural disadvantage for black people.

We must come to the realization that the belief of code-switching, in itself, is us internalizing the system that oppresses our less fortunate brothers and sisters. By code-switching, we’re actively participating in America’s social construct of whiteness. Primarily by putting on a front that supports anti-blackness in some shape or fashion.

I know I’m guilty of it which is why I started this mini-series titled, “Dismantling Internalized Racism.” Consider this the intro piece to a 5-part series hitting the blog throughout this summer. In this mini-series, I will be examining how Internalized Racism manifests itself in four dimensions of the black experience; Inner, Interpersonal, Institutional, and Cultural.



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