Rejecting my blackness because of internalized racism
When I was in elementary school, I unintentionally found myself practicing internalized racism. It started off with self hate, as I began to not only dislike my hair that was deemed “nappy,” but I also grew to detest my dark skin.
Perhaps you could have blamed it on the fact that I was allowed to play with white Barbie dolls. But that would be a poor excuse, because I also had black ones, but they were of a skin complexion, comparable to caramel, and had hair that flowed down their backs.
Whenever Black History Month rolled around, I had to prepare myself to watch the same documentaries year after year at school that showed my people being beaten in streets, hung from trees, and wearing yokes around their ankles while in slavery. Rarely did I see any positive messages that showed the great accomplishments of black people despite being marginalized.
As I progressed through middle school, I found myself not wanting to wear my hair in an afro, due to the fear that someone would laugh at my nappy hair and my realization that my hair could literally break the teeth off of combs. The pressure of “why don’t you straighten your hair?” and “why not get a weave?” was enough.
In high school, when the #BlackOut movement was born, I thought I officially felt comfortable being a black person. I was wrong. When I learned that I would be attending a college where 75.9 percent of the student body is composed of white people, I immediately found myself anxious about whether my blackness would be accepted.
I shaved off my hair, telling people “I just want a new start.” But I really did it because I did not want to face the awkward looks in the dorm’s bathroom. I did not want a person who is not black ridiculing my bantu knots, questioning why black girls wear silk bonnets, trying to make me the human hair petting zoo, or wondering how I feel toward white girls who culturally appropriate black hair because they ran out of ways to be white.
I noticed how whenever I am in the presence of white people, I refrain from speaking “Ebonics” because many see it as broken English. In multiple settings, whenever black people would speak Ebonics, I always saw how white people’s faces would turn to one of disgust. With my friends that are black, I could speak however I wanted to, but even in those spaces, people of color would ridicule me for speaking “improper English.”
At times when I found myself in spaces where the majority was white, I often questioned why I was getting so many awkward looks. Throughout high school, I participated in FIRST Robotics, and it was a rare chance of seeing a team completely comprised of people of color. The other teams that were majority white would look at my all black team awkwardly, as if we were not equals, and sometimes ask, “How does it feel to come from an area that is so oppressed?” Each time that happened, I had to look at my dark skin and remind myself that I was black.
Internalized racism, also called internalized oppression and internalized colonization, is when a person is racist toward their own race or themselves. Through reading several articles on Everyday Feminism, an online platform that supports intersectional feminism, I came up with a few ways to identify that you’re practicing internalized racism:
1) You pretend supremacy does not exist within the black community
Time and time again as a black person, I am constantly reminded of what white privilege is, but I have seen many not give thought toward the supremacy that happens within the black community. I can surely attest to having the “you’re pretty for a dark-skinned person” phrase thrown at me by other people of color. Though it might seem rather small, I would find myself upset that darker-skinned people seem to suffer the most and are never put on a pedestal for their immense amount of beauty. Due to colorism being set into place through slavery and colonization, it has been difficult for black people to abandon the mindset of straight hair and lighter skin equals the epitome of beauty.
2) You are a modern-day so-called Uncle Tom
Made famous by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the term Uncle Tom is a reference to black individuals who suck up toward white individuals. Examples of modern-day Uncle Toms would include Ben Carson, Stacey Dash, Clarence Thomas, Don Lemon and Russell Simmons. Deemed as an undesirable model within the black community, modern-day Uncle Toms do things such as blatantly ignore how harsh slavery was, commit actions that make them look good in the eyes of their white counterparts, and don’t stand up to racism. People who commit those acts are considered to be “whitewashed,” which is a term used toward minorities who embrace a culture that does not belong to them.
3) You don’t understand that the oppressed can be oppressive
The perpetuation of racial hatred is one of the ways that black people continue to oppress one another even though as a whole, we are oppressed. Hatred toward the so-called “outlying” groups and sexism continue to tear apart the black community. One thing that I find to be ironic is that some black people are so adamant about #blacklivesmatter, but when they say such a statement, they are only referring to certain black lives.
4) You perpetuate the very words of the W. Lynch letters
William (Willie) Lynch, a slave master from the West Indies, informed Virginia slave owners in 1712 how to keep their slaves separate and annihilate a sense of unity by observing these small differences: “Color or shade, there is intelligence, size, sex, size of plantations and status on plantations, attitude of owners, whether the slaves live in the valley, on a hill, East, West, North, South, have fine hair, coarse hair, or is tall or short… I shall assure you that distrust is stronger than trust and envy stronger than adulation, respect or admiration. The black slaves after receiving this indoctrination shall carry on and will become self refueling and self generating for hundreds of years, maybe thousands.”
Despite being questioned on its authenticity by a few historians, the speech clearly speaks truth about the disunity within the black community that still goes on today. I have noticed how the Willie Lynch syndrome plays a role within the black community through the manners in which black people divide themselves. There exists a division based on the amount of melanin in one’s skin, individuals who are native Africans, hairstyles selections, intelligence, the racially ambiguous, those a part of the bourgeois community, and the amount of “blackness” one is able to maintain. All of the division pertaining to such minuscule things continues to be a big distraction from other factors that harm the community as a whole.
After reading through various articles that pertained to internalized racism, I found it scary that even though my people are treated unfairly by other groups, I can also be prejudiced against them. Talking about internalized racism with other people often presents itself as a challenge because most people are unaware of when it happens or what it looks like.
Sharah, 18, is a Posse Scholar leaving for College of Wooster the same morning this article publishes online. Sharah also created the artwork on this page.
This semester VOX Investigates will cover subject of race and will produce stories and share teens’ voices all about this topic online and in our next print edition, to be released in December. This semester-long project will delve into various topics surrounding race, racism, and highlighting other forms of marginalization.
Share your own experience by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.