Edited by Avleen Grewal and Naomi Litwack
“I don’t know, maybe he would have liked me better if I was blonde.”
I was shocked to hear these words spoken by one of my best friends who believed a failed relationship was due to her race. My friend had come to believe that she was not “good enough” because she was not white. Within current media, we see stories about racist beliefs and events happening all around us. These events include the recent antisemitic act of gun violence in Pittsburgh and the Charleston church shooting in 2017. Although we often hear stories about societal and systemic racism, what is often not spoken about is individual’s experiences of internalized racism and oppression. Internalized oppression is defined as when individuals internalize that possessing certain traits, membership to a specific group, or being who they are makes them inherently inferior. This internalization can occur due to race, gender, sexuality ethnicity, or a disability.
Internalized racism affects the lives of ethnic and racial minorities across North America on a daily basis. As seen through my friend’s comment, internalized racist beliefs can stop people from pursuing relationships, blaming their race when relationships end, or stop them from achieving career/academic goals because they feel they won’t succeed. Internalized racism can arise from viewing negative media portrayals of minorities or from experiencing racism first hand. Speaking personally as a WOC myself I too, have experienced, and continue to experience internalized racism. Growing up, I was raised in an affluent Caucasian suburb and attended only private schools where the majority of my peers were white. To this day, during many conversations I have been repeatedly told that I “act white”, which is a flawed idea considering race is not something you “act.”
Additionally, an occurrence in high school further perpetuated negative feelings. My classmate said how she was shocked that I was “so much smarter, not ghetto at all and read a lot more books” than other members of my race that she had encountered. This comment affected me in several ways, firstly, it was a reality check as to how people perceived many POCs, secondly, I developed an “othering” mentality, as I was myself as “separate” from the people who fell into this stereotype.
Many individuals across different racial and ethnic backgrounds have experienced lower self-esteem, distorted beauty perceptions, or self doubt due to their race. Patricia Martinez states, “From my experience of being a WOC, I believe one of the biggest implications has been has been my social life. As social beings, a large part of my self-esteem is, to no surprise, dependent on my social interactions with people I desire. The color of my skin has been an obstacle in my relationships in terms of an insecurity of being racially different from my significant other and all their friends.”
Although internalized racism is difficult, it can be lessened or eliminated. Some strategies include:
1. Having a trusted friend or mentor to share race related insecurities with. By voicing these insecurities and having someone help you rationalize your way through them can help you heal.
2. Understanding your cultural history and taking pride in your culture through attending race-based networking events, participating in racial equality movements, or participating in cultural activities. By developing pride for your culture can help you can de-internalize negative stereotypes.
3. Recognize it when it happens. When you hear others or yourself making statements that sound like internalized oppression, take the time to point it out in a constructive manner and help move them away from this thought process.
Nila Mohan who is of South Asian descent says she was able to move past her feelings of internalized racism. She states, “Being WOC has affected my confidence before, but it does not now because I’m proud to be a woman of color. Before I thought being white was attractive, and I wasn’t confident in my skin or my other insecurities. But I’ve grown to love my brown skin and all the other things that come with being a woman of color. My friends helped me the most [in this journey], they would tell me that I am naturally beautiful and that I should be happy with every part of me.”
When you realize you might be suffering from internalized racism, this can bring emotions such as shame, embarrassment, or hurt, remember that you are not alone. By taking proper steps and giving yourself time, you can come to love the skin you’re in and take pride in in who you are and where you’re from.