When I first read, “Internalized Racism: One More Piece of the Puzzle” by Suzette L Speight, I felt that it was the most depressing thing I’ve read in a very long time. In the article, she talks about the negative short-term and long-term psychological consequences of racism and analyzes ways in which African-Americans are oppressed. She refers to these as conditions which can help psychologists understand the various functions of racism. They include exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, systemic violence, and cultural imperialism, which she describes as the “conduit through which subordinate groups come to internalize their oppression” by accepting the racial oppression as the norm. In describing the first four conditions, it felt easy as an African-American to digest the well-known types of racial oppression as it points the finger back to the main culprit and perpetrator – the system of White Supremacy. Although exploitation, marginalization and systemic violence are all very terrifying facets of the African-American experience, they are what we as African-Americans have been accustomed to and have lived with all of our lives while on American soil. We’re used to seeing Blacks exploited on television, marginalized, beaten, killed, disempowered, and taken advantage of. We have become used to this system of White Supremacy and racial oppression almost to the point that those external factors don’t have an impact on us hardly anymore – at least not on a level that moves us to bring about real lasting change.
Of course, you have your occasional police shootings of unarmed Black men and women followed by protests and riots in an effort to bring about justice, but aside from that, Blacks have become complacent in this harsh reality and comfortable with the way things are. Few Blacks are taking a stand against being exploited, marginalized, or subjected to feelings of powerlessness and inferiority as we do when an innocent Black man, woman, or child is killed. Perhaps it could be because we have grown blind to these other forms of racial oppression and have come to accept things for the way they are. How many Black individuals or organizations are making a big deal about African-Americans living in poverty and being denied access to equal opportunities? Well there was a time during the Civil Rights era where we felt a need to come together and fight for equality and against racial oppression and discrimination, but given the context we live in now, where African-Americans are going to college, becoming doctors, owning businesses, and taking luxurious vacations, many Blacks feel that there isn’t a need to scream and cry, “unequal opportunities or racial discrimination or oppression” – when on the surface everything appears to be fair for everyone no matter one’s race or ethnic background.
This false assumption brings us back to the topic of the article, Internalized Racism. The more we try to deny and escape this truth, the bigger a problem it gets. Ironically, as an African-American woman who is driven to bring about change within the African-American community, I can admit that it was very difficult for me to digest the last condition of Internalized Racism that Suzette talks about in her article. Why? Because it points the finger back at us. It says that although there’s a system designed to keep us oppressed, exploited, powerless, and hopeless, there still remains a percentage of responsibility and blame that rests on the shoulders of every African-American who has become a victim of this system. It’s a catch 22. On one hand, we are victims, and on the other hand, we are told that our victimization is what’s keeping us oppressed. The author of this article talks about psychological outcomes of the oppression and how the wounds of oppression could possibly stem from two main sources – the first being shame and the second being acceptance of the oppression. In reading her explanation, I could not resist feeling even more depressed and hopeless concerning the situation. Here’s why.
As counselors and psychologists, we understand that the feeling of shame is only a response to an adverse situation – in this case racial oppression. We also know that accepting the status quo is a form of adaptation to the dominant structure. So for many African-Americans, it’s not that we agree with this system of White Supremacy, we have come to realize that in order to survive and make it in America, one must learn to adapt very quickly to the way things are. Foreign immigrants looking to live and work in America, learn this harsh truth very quickly when they first step foot on American soil.
So to bring people’s attention to a form of racial oppression that acknowledges the main source but attributes partial responsibility to the victim in describing their painful experience as a factor of their own internalization of negative stereotypes and beliefs about their own identity by accepting the dominant group’s system of oppression, exploitation, and degradation creates an added layer of stress for the African-American looking to escape the problem. Essentially, this notion says, yes you’re a victim, now it’s your responsibility to let go of that victim mentality and do something about it. On one hand, this way of conceptualizing the problem can be alleviating and empowering in knowing that part of the power still rests in the hands and minds of Blacks who are oppressed; but meanwhile it makes Blacks feel burdened, implying that in order for things to change, we need to change. It assumes that if we all let go of these negative internalized beliefs and did not further perpetuate the system, then things would somehow get better and the system of White Supremacy and racial oppression will go away. I am the first to say that is so far from the truth it’s ridiculous. When we trace the origin of racism, when Blacks were snatched away from their homeland and forced into cattle slavery, we can see that Blacks did not have these internalized beliefs of inferiority – they were forcefed to our ancestors who became slaves and then passed down through many generations. Conscious African-Americans know that we did not always have this warped sense of inferiority, shame, and self-hatred when we were a powerful dynasty in Africa during ancient times. It wasn’t until one group of people felt a need to invade our territory, enslave us, and rob us of our dignity that we were broken down and made into ¾ of a human being.
However, in conceptualizing the origins of racism and dissecting how we got to this point, I am forced to face the reality that part of the problem is our acceptance of the problem. It’s hard to admit, but it is. As African-Americans, we go on and on, pointing the finger back at the racists culprits of White Supremacy without ever taking a step back to take an honest look at the role we play in manufacturing and sustaining the system. So in race relation discussions, you see this game of hot potato where each group tosses this hot potato of responsibility back to the other team to avoid having to handle the heated pressure of fixing the problem. In looking back, I can appreciate this article for what it’s worth because it provides a good snapshot of an ugly picture no one wants to look at. It teaches us that there is no one group or person responsible for the problem of racial oppression, but that we all play an equal part in keeping it alive. Therefore, we all should step up and play an equal part in eradicating this system of White Supremacy. The only thing stopping us is the comfortability we all have with the way things are.
Copyright November 2016 Danielle Leach All Rights Reserved