Internalized Racism and What It Is


(Artist: Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom)

My parents immigrated from China for one main reason: to have a better life. Growing up, I constantly heard things along the lines of “Canada’s so much better than China! In China - insert some depressing, grim story about whatever systemic issues my parents experienced as citizens of China” and “China is so unfair to poor people, everyone in Canada is so lucky. In China - a long, passionate speech about why the government of China is faulty”. Subconsciously, I started seeing China (and therefore Chinese people) as a bad thing and as much less superior to Canada (therefore white people).

These experiences can lead to internalized racism. Internalized racism is when someone from a racial minority internalizes the racial prejudices constantly surrounding them. That internalization results in self-hatred and hatred for their racial heritage. They believe that white people are superior, and that their heritage is shameful and to be avoided. They idolize white people. It’s like Stockholm syndrome, but in terms of racism. Fighting racism being directed at you is hard, but it’s even harder when you start to believe the hateful messages.

This is something that can be extremely harmful to live with. Internalized racism can lead to low self esteem, because there is so little representation and affirmation. These are some experiences that having internalized racism can cause, and what having internalized racism can look like: You try to hide the Chinese New Year’s decorations when friends come over. You viciously hate going to Chinese school (it’s like Sunday school but instead of a bunch of white kids it’s a bunch of Chinese kids and it costs more money). You feel uncomfortable when you speak Chinese around your classmates and other assorted strangers. You actively avoid Chinese pop culture and demand to turn off the radio when it switches to “foreign language”. You dislike being dragged to Asian markets that smell overwhelmingly of herbal medicine. You resent T&T and its weird fish smell and the old Asian people hitting honey melons and squeezing pomelos. You hate the hand drawn food prices and dirty floor and overflowing fruit baskets that’s the opposite of every clean, neat, white grocery store you’ve ever been in. You cringe at the broken English you associate with shame and annoyance filling in the silence during parent-teacher conferences. You hate doing math because it ties you to your heritage and hate it even more when people automatically assume it’s because of your heritage that you’re good at math.You hate when they say“bUt aREn’T yOu sUpPOsEd tO bE gOoD aT mAth?” when you can’t solve the equation because that's what they associate with your heritage.

I wish that someone showed me that Chinese culture was beautiful and speaking two languages was cool, not just beneficial for work. I wish I knew that China is full of amazing, fascinating culture and people and history. I wish that my family said that they didn't move to Canada because China was horrible. I wish they said that its systems were flawed, although it’s still somewhere that is special and unique and wonderful.

Another common cause of internalized racism comes from the way you look. I used to not like the way I looked. My flat nose, my “yellow” skin, my small eyes. It was the opposite of every Disney princess, book character, and celebrity ever. Racial prejudice was everywhere, and 6 year old me was internalizing the messages behind the white skinned, doe eyed Disney princesses. Once, a friend asked me, “why don’t you open your eyes?”. And I thought “what? My eyes are open...?”.

A lot of minorities experience this. They use skin bleaching creams, double eyelid surgery, hurt themselves to adhere to this subjective beauty standard. Why do we need a certain nose or eye size to be worth anything? Submit to these standards if you want to be liked. Why did this barbie doll single handedly call me ugly? Why was I given this to play with? The fake, wide, blue eyes, pointed nose, blonde hair. Why was this how others viewed me? Well, I am worth more than the price tag on the back of my box.I remember looking into the classroom window and seeing my reflection, and trying to open my eyes as wide as possible, and getting them to stay that way. It didn’t work. And it never will.

Part of internalized racism is white washing. As defined by Merriam Webster, to whitewash is "to alter ... in a way that favors, features, or caters to white people: such as ... casting a white performer in a role based on a nonwhite person or fictional character". For example, in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, white actor Mickey Rooney wore yellowface when acting as I. Y. Yunioshi, a Japanese Landlord. It’s not just movies. Whitewashing has also affected beauty standards, food, and culture. Beauty standards favor features of European people, which is why everyone in Asia is so against having dark skin.

Dangerous skin bleaching creams are common in many Asian countries, including Korea, India, Malaysia. And it’s also prevalent in African countries, such as Nigeria, Togo, and South Africa. Double eyelids and “western” noses are considered conventionally pretty basically everywhere at this point.

Foodwise, authentic Chinese food is not the food in restaurants. Real Chinese food, for one, isn’t that greasy. And Chinese culture in general has been molded into a little box that sits prettily in books about “Asian culture”, which you can find in your local library, while in reality it’s complicated and extremely diverse.

The opposite of internal racism is white people pretending to be Asian or any other minority, which is also wrong and should not be supported. Race should not matter when it comes to your worth - everyone should just accept their own special heritage

Internalized racism is another form of self-hate, which is why it’s so toxic. It’s another example of a way white privilege has forced everyone who isn’t white to work harder in order to just be accepted. Are you racist towards yourself, despite trying to be anti-racist? Well, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to not be racist. All you have to do is identify racism and fight it.

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