Her complexion is lighter than mine-she’s better than me. Black women with good hair are popular. Black women with Barbie-doll figures get more attention. Asian women are smarter. If I act like white women I will be accepted. Don’t talk to the other women of color-they are troublemakers. Don’t speak unless asked.
These are some of the negative messages and stereotypes I harbored and internalized about women of color. I was well into my 30s before I became aware of the need to challenge my own thinking and to confront internalized racial oppression. I thought the discussion would be pretty straightforward and to the point, but as I peeled back all the layers of myself, being black, female and American, I began to realize there is nothing simple about it.
Internalized racial oppression is a complex issue and is not usually discussed in mixed-race company because it can easily be used against you. These are not conversations that people of color have with each other either within their racial group or with other people of color groups. Many families don’t even have this conversation because no one recognizes the hidden norms of internal racial oppression and/or would rather make fun of the situation rather than challenge false thinking, long-held beliefs and negative behaviors that result from internalized racial oppression.
Doing the personal work to eradicate internalized racial oppression is about understanding how racism directly impacts me. Internalized racial oppression is the social programming that causes me to believe, live and act out the negative messages and stereotypes I’ve learned my whole life-the negative messages that teach me that I have little or no value or worth.
Therefore, my work is to develop a deep awareness of those messages and to challenge them by asking myself: Why do I think and believe this? Where did it come from? Why do I continue to hold on to it? I also have to understand how I am complicit in my own oppression.
The work begins by turning the mirror inward and asking the question, “What am I doing to contribute to my oppression?” Like a parent saying to a child while spanking her, “Shut up or you’ll get more spanking.” If the child continues to cry, and the parent keeps the promise, the child is participating in her own oppression.
I contribute to my oppression every time I buy into the stereotypes about other women being better than me because of the lightness or darkness of their complexion, their straight, curly or kinky hair, their figure, ethnicity, religion or status. No one else says I am less then-I tell myself I must not be good enough. My behavior is to shrink-I don’t speak up. I don’t even show up. And my participation in anything dealing with my color is carefully guarded.
Now I’m over 50 and I’ve come to understand that my good intentions are not enough to overcome the powerful negative messages I have received and internalized throughout my life. I continue to turn the mirror inward and ask myself: What is the impact of my actions? What are my intentions? How do the two align? Unless I question and carefully examine the negative beliefs and stereotypes I hold-and refuse to fall into the victim role-I am complicit and racism wins.
Debra Leigh is the lead organizer for the Community Anti-Racism Education Initiative at St. Cloud State University.