Dynamics of Internalized Racial Oppression
All of the messages that White people receive about their value, both explicitly and implicitly, are also received by peoples of Color (Mullaly, 2002; Tatum, 1997). In other words, peoples of Color are also told, in myriad ways, that to be White is better than to be a person of Color. And similar to the mixed messages that White parents send to their children by saying that everyone is equal while simultaneously living in segregation, children of Color also get mixed messages. Their parents may tell them that they are good, strong, and beautiful, but the society around them is still conveying that they are of lesser value.
Internalized racial oppression occurs when a person of Color, consciously and subconsciously, accepts the negative representation or invisibility of peoples of Color in media, education, medicine, science, and all other aspects of society. Over time, the person comes to believe that
they are less valuable and may act this out through self-defeating behaviors and sometimes by distancing themselves from others of their own or other non-White racial groups. Although there are important differences in how various racialized groups experience internalized racial oppression, groups of Color are collectively shaped by the following:
Historical violence and the ongoing threat of violence Destruction, colonization, dilution, and exoticization of their cultures Division, separation, and isolation from one another and from dominant culture Forced changes in behaviors to ensure psychological and physical safety and to gain access to resources Having individual behaviors redefined as group norms Denied individuality and held up as representative of (or occasionally as exceptions to) their group Being blamed for the effects of long-term oppression by the dominant group, and having the effects of that oppression used to rationalize further oppression
The internalization of and adaptation to dominant culture’s messages can cause a kind of self-defeating cycle. Carter Woodson, writing in 1933, powerfully captures the dynamics of internalized racial oppression when he writes:
If you can control a man’s thinking, you don’t have to worry about his actions. If you can determine what a man thinks, you do not have worry about what he will do. If you can make a man believe that he is inferior, you don’t have to compel him to seek an inferior status, he will do so without being told, and if you can make a man believe that he is justly an outcast, you don’t have to order him to the back door, he will go to the back door on his own, and if there is no back door, the very nature of the man will demand that you build one. (p. xiii)
Woodson is speaking to one of the more profound and painful dynamics of oppression; once people believe that they deserve their position in society, external force is not needed. As can be seen in several important studies discussed below, this internalization occurs at a very early age. It is important to note, however, that peoples of Color have always resisted internalized racial oppression, but this resistance has costs and can be very dangerous; resistance has historically been used to further rationalize violence against peoples of Color.
Claude Steele’s (1997) work on stereotype threat demonstrates the
impact of internalized racial oppression. Stereotype threat refers to a concern that you will be evaluated negatively due to stereotypes about your racial group, and that concern causes you to perform poorly, thereby reinforcing the stereotype. Because there is a powerful stereotype in mainstream culture that Blacks are less intelligent than Whites and other racial groups, Steele and his colleagues examined the effects of this stereotype on test performance. They found that the mere threat of the stereotype can diminish the performance of Black students. Their research shows that when Black students are told that their racial group tends to do poorly on a test, they score lower when taking that test. When the stereotype is not raised, they perform better.
In light of Steele’s work, consider how much attention is given in schools to the so-called achievement gap and other disparities in outcome between Whites and some groups of Color (Black, Latino, and Indigenous students in particular), and how often these disparities are formally and informally explained as a function of genetics or inferior cultural morals that do not value education. Concerns and assumptions about their abilities constantly surround students of Color. It is important to remember that these stereotypes are not just “in their heads”; Whites do hold these stereotypes and they do affect the way Whites evaluate peoples of Color (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2004; Picca & Feagin, 2007). White teachers, for example, who comprise over 90% of K–12 teachers (Picower, 2009), are in a particularly powerful position to evaluate students of Color. Thus, Steele’s research captures the relationship between internalized oppression and internalized superiority.
Another powerful illustration of internalized racial oppression was demonstrated through the work of psychologists Kenneth Clark and Mamie Clark (1950). The Clarks used dolls to study children’s attitudes about race. The Clarks testified as expert witnesses in Briggs v. Elliott, one of the cases connected to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case in the United States, which ruled that enforced racial segregation in schools was illegal. The Clarks found that Black children often preferred to play with White dolls over Black dolls and that when asked to fill in a human figure with the color of their own skin, they frequently chose a shade lighter than their skin actually was. Black children also described the White doll as good and pretty, but the Black doll as bad and ugly. The Clarks offered their results as evidence that the children had internalized racism. Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the opinion of the Court: “To separate [some children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way
unlikely ever to be undone” (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954). This is an important quote to remember as we watch schools in the United States return to pre-civil-rights-era levels of racial segregation.
In 2005 Kiri Davis, an African American teen, repeated the Clarks’ experiment to see what had changed in Black children’s attitudes over the past 50 years. In her documentary film A Girl Like Me, 15 out of the 21 children she interviewed (or 71%) preferred the White dolls for the same reasons as children cited in the 1940s; the White doll was “good” and the Black doll was “bad.” While many people believe that children are innocent and unaware of racial messages, research has shown that children of all races and as young as 3 have internalized the societal message that White is superior to Black (Doyle & Aboud, 1995; VanAusdale & Feagin, 2001). The effect of this on White children is internalized racial superiority; the effect on children of Color is internalized racial inferiority. Internalized racial inferiority has devastating impacts on all aspects of a person’s life.
This brief discussion of some of the dynamics of internalized racial oppression is not meant to blame the victim for the effects of racism. Rather, it is meant to briefly highlight the damaging effects of White racism and White supremacy on peoples of Color.