If we’re talking about internalized racism, I feel most comfortable discussing it as if it’s a thing of my past – so I’m about to get real uncomfortable.
Internalized racism shows up when society’s messages that say you’re less valuable as a person of color get under your skin (no pun intended). You might question your worth, believe that stereotypes about your race are true, or make certain choices based on society’s beliefs about who you’re supposed to be.
It’d be nice if undoing internalized racism was as simple as getting woke, realizing that racist stereotypes are all bullshit, and celebrating my full Black girl gloriousness from here on out.
“Wokeness Log, November 2016. I’ve been victorious in my battle with the Angry Black Woman stereotype, and I can report that it no longer affects me. When I rage, I RAGE – no hesitation.”
But it’s a lot more complicated than that. Even now, years after growing up struggling to love my Blackness, even while I spend so much of my professional life writing about racism and the impact of white supremacy, I’m still not free from internalized racism.
I know it cuts me deep, because I’m not even always aware of it. I’ll hold back from defending myself, for example, and I don’t realize until later that I did that to avoid being stereotyped as an Angry Black Woman.
I guess if there’s an upside to this, it’s that I know enough about how racism works to cut myself a little slack when I internalize it. This impact makes sense, since I’m living in a society so heavily influenced by white supremacy.
As people of color, we’re underrepresented in the media, and when we do show up, it’s often in stereotypical ways. So it can be hard to find positive images to remind us of our worth.
And then we’ve got co-workers, strangers, even friends and well-meaning “allies” who act on their racist assumptions about us. Whether they do so intentionally or unintentionally, through microaggressions or explicit insults, that shit gets tiring.
We’re just trying to survive all of this – and it can feel like the easiest way to do that is to go along with white supremacy’s lies. I don’t have to worry about being stereotyped as an Angry Black Woman if I never show my anger – right?
Not exactly. This tactic might temporarily serve me in some situations, but in the end, it only holds me back from being my authentic self – which is my most healthy self.
So for the sake of my wellness, let me step outside of my comfort zone to share some of the ways internalized racism shows up for me. If you’re a person of color and you’ve also had moments like these, I hope this reminds you that you’re not alone – and that you deserve to feel better about yourself.
These are some of the signs that I’m struggling with internalized racism.
1. I’m Asking Myself, ‘Do I Belong Here?’
It’s a pretty common human experience to search for where you belong. You might feel at home among people who share your interests, values, or culture, and it’s nice to finally find a community where you don’t feel out of place.
Throughout my life, I’ve been in many situations where I was the only Black person or one of few people of color in the room. And while that doesn’t automatically mean I’m someplace where I don’t belong, there are times when the whiteness of a room does make me pause and wonder if I’m supposed to be there.
Sometimes it’s not the best place for me – if it’s not an inclusive space and I don’t feel welcome, that’s important for me to realize. And it’s okay for me to leave.
But it might be a sign that I’m dealing with internalized racism if I feel like I don’t belong because I’m doubting my abilities or my worth.
For example, when I first began reading my poetry in public, hearing others read their work before me made me really nervous. At many readings, the lineup was mostly white folks (and often mostly men and straight people, too) – and my Black queer girl poetry was nothing like theirs.
In order to feel like I belonged on those stages, I had to realize that I was judging myself by someone else’s standards. And that it wasn’t a bad thing for my poetry to not sound like it was written by a straight white guy – seeing as I’m not a straight white guy.
We may find ourselves in spaces dominated by white folks, but that doesn’t mean they should only be for white folks. If you’re doing something that enriches you, like reading poetry does for me, then you deserve to be there – or to find or create another space that’s centered around people of color.
I still sometimes wonder if I’m “good enough” to pursue a particular passion. Unlearning internalized racism is an ongoing process of reminding myself that I deserve to live my life to the fullest just as much as anyone else.
2. I’m Afraid That I’m ‘Too Angry’
Every time I think I’ve moved past the Angry Black Woman stereotype, I find myself wanting to be “kind” even in the most infuriating situations, and I realize it still has a hold on me.
This is an example of how racist stereotypes police our behavior. From the time we’re children, we learn that our emotions can get us in trouble because they’re perceived as out-of-control and dangerous.
It’s discouraging to realize that other people don’t even have to act on their biases to control my behavior – I judge myself plenty on my own. But avoiding my anger doesn’t serve me in the end. If I’m talking to someone who’s already biased enough to stereotype me as “too angry,” then they’re going to judge me no matter what I do.
That might seem discouraging too, but instead of feeling defeated, I’m trying to connect with how this empowers me. Because the fact is that white supremacy is not my fault, and it’s going to exist even if I’m as kind as can be.
So instead of punishing myself for white supremacy by keeping my emotions in check, I recognize how my emotions take care of me.
That racist joke? It makes me angry because I’m going to have deal with the impact of normalizing racism, and I deserve better.
I’m glad my anger shows up to remind me of that.
3. I’m Wondering If I Sound ‘Too Black’
Now, let me just say that I know without a doubt that there ain’t no such thing as “too Black.” I’m proud as hell of my Blackness, and I wouldn’t want to change it even if I could.
But there’s this thing about living in a society that treats whiteness as the default, as preferable, as the “normal” way of being. In many situations, the further we stray from whiteness, the more we’re at risk of being judged as strange or even dangerous.
It’s no coincidence, for example, that I’ve wondered about sounding “too Black” in professional settings. Some of the very things I love most about my Blackness, like my hair, are often deemed inherently unprofessional.
But it’s one thing to play the corporate game, tone down the Black vernacular, and turn on my “customer service voice” when I’m aware that I’m doing what I have to do to succeed in a system built on white supremacy.
It’s a different matter if I’m actually buying into the message that I have to aspire to whiteness in order to have value. And if I’m wondering if I sound “too Black,” there’s a good chance that that’s happening.
Here’s one way to flip the script: I can ask myself instead if the setting I’m in can handle my authentic Blackness. If the people around me can’t handle who I really am, then that’s a fault of theirs – not mine.
I can play their little game when that’s what I have to do to get by – but I’ve got to remember that the things society says are “too Black” about me are wonderful things, so that I don’t concede to white supremacy’s narrative.
4. I’m Worried That I Don’t Sound ‘Black Enough’
If worrying about sounding “too Black” is a sign of internalized racism, then the opposite must be a good thing, right?
Not necessarily. Believing it’s possible to sound “not Black enough” means internalizing the idea that there’s one “right” way to be Black – and that idea still comes from white supremacy.
Think about it: While people of color are labeled “ethnic” and boxed into a narrow idea of what it means to be a member of our race, white folks are considered “just white” – as if nothing defines their ethnicity.
So white people get to have a huge diversity of experiences. They’re in movies as heroes, villains, and everyone in between, while people of color are often cast as one-dimensional stereotypes. They can express themselves and still be seen as unique individuals, while people of color are seen as representing our entire race.
This is especially noticeable when qualities that are seen as “positive” are also seen as unusual for our race. For example, the same people who think I sound “white” on the phone are likely to say something like “you’re so articulate” when they realize that I’m Black and I’m speaking English in a way they approve of.
Wondering if I’m coming across as “Black enough” often translates to wondering if I fit a stereotype. But none of us are one-dimensional stereotypes – we are all unique human beings. Humanity doesn’t belong to white folks.
Since Black folks aren’t a monolith, my existence is already part of the definition of Blackness. There’s nothing I can do to make me “not Black enough” – but there’s plenty I can do to prove people’s narrow ideas about Blackness wrong, just by being my full, authentic, and human self.
5. I Think What I Have to Say Is Unimportant Because of How I Say It
But there’s another reason I don’t participate: Sometimes it’s because I see people having a “rational” conversation about something that makes my blood boil, and I know I won’t be able to say something without being emotional about it.
That might make sense, considering that “rationality” is commonly used to judge whether or not someone is credible. But examining this a little more deeply reveals some subtle racism here.
By judging myself this way, I’m tone-policing myself before I ever enter the conversation. I’m falling for the idea that someone who stays calm is automatically rational and objective, while an emotional reaction reveals bias.
White men get to whitesplain and mansplain about things they don’t even have experience in, like racism. Because when objectivity is judged on the basis of being “calm,” then of course the guys who aren’t even affected by the issues come out looking like the winners.
I have a lifetime of firsthand experience with racism, as well as years of education on it. But sometimes, that’s still not enough to give me confidence that my voice will be accepted as “credible.”
In her essay on being the only Black student in her college program, Salina Mahoney described how internalized racism makes us think in terms of how we differ from whiteness – like the idea that I’m less competent than some white guys because I don’t express myself like they do.
How can I unlearn this toxic lesson when it’s so deeply embedded in our everyday lives?
Here’s a start: I can normalize my own self-expression instead of prioritizing white male voices as the norm.
Of course, there are lots more signs of internalized racism than the ones I’ve named here. I’m not aiming to cover the whole of it – just to point out that it can sometimes show up in ways we don’t think twice about.
I’m also not aiming to be 100% free of internalized racism, and to beat myself up if I find it creeping up again. Instead, I’d like to be prepared to recognize it, to be gentle with myself when I do, and to redirect from feeling bad about myself to being angry at that damn system of white supremacy that makes me feel this way.
That’s right – embracing anger, that emotion that sometimes makes me feel less valuable as a person, is part of my healing from internalized racism.
What parts of yourself will you embrace as you heal?
Maisha Z. Johnson is the Digital Content Associate and Staff Writer of Everyday Feminism. You can find her writing at the intersections and shamelessly indulging in her obsession with pop culture around the web. Maisha’s past work includes Community United Against Violence (CUAV), the nation’s oldest LGBTQ anti-violence organization, and Fired Up!, a program of California Coalition for Women Prisoners. Through her own project, Inkblot Arts, Maisha taps into the creative arts and digital media to amplify the voices of those often silenced. Like her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @mzjwords.