When the oppressed turn into oppressors: Parenting & internalised racism

The privilege of being lighter skinned

I am a lighter skinned Black woman. I am light enough to benefit from shadism but dark enough to still be accepted as Black. A uniquely privileged position. Throughout my upbringing I have received messages in my environment that this made me more desirable, more worthy, and/or more significant than my darker skinned counterparts. These messages were both covert and overt and articulated in the home and outside the home, at school, in the media etc… Pretty much everywhere.  There is no doubt that I was, at times, spoken to in kinder voices or treated with more patience than my darker skinned peers or sisters by both people of colour and by White people, all things being equal.  In time, I have learnt that my femininity and womanhood would be more easily accepted.

That my humanity would be slightly less frequently questioned.  Giving birth to a darker skinned girl forced me to revisit some of these unearned privileges. It brought home to me that because I was and would be treated with more consideration; my daughter would invariably be treated in more problematic ways, more often.  I had to grieve over the fact that whatever little respite and refuge my lighter skin had afforded me, it would not be enjoyed by her, that I had not transmitted these privileges to her. This was painful. It was scary too. The thought of her going through even more hardship because of the darker shade of her skin was difficult to come to terms with.   It led me to wonder about the role of parents in the process of internalisation of racism.  It also made me confront my own internalised racism.

Parenting and internalised racism

Some see internalised racism as one of the most common yet least studied feature of racism.  The subject is fraught with taboo, shame and avoidance leading to many misconceptions and unmet psychological needs. Most people of colour would have grown up in houses within which the narratives of ‘working harder’, ‘being smarter’, were repeatedly enacted. ‘You have to be twice as good as your White equivalent to simply be deemed good enough to stand underneath him/her’ or words to that effect will likely resonate with many non-Whites.   Similarly, it is not unusual for Black parents to mirror (consciously or otherwise) the harsh treatment society befalls onto Blacks males. To respond with punishing harshness to any lapse in conduct or behaviour, particularly those associated with racial prejudices. Out of fear that negative societal expectations and the dreaded stereotypes may materialise.

I have on occasions caught myself looking at my sons’ behaviour through the contemptuous gaze of society.  Perhaps too I have in these moments responded more harshly than necessary in an effort to help ensure my boys would not fall victim of others’ prejudices. I have seen young children whose skin had been lightened. In some families, children may be socialised to avoid partnering with darker skinned individuals or taught to distance themselves from their minoritised or cultural identities or to put the needs and experiences of White people above their own.  Though in good faith, the violence contained within such parenting practices is worth reflecting upon. In essence in our efforts to compensate for racism, we socialise children into injustice, compliance and complicity and instil a sense of inferiority in them. In doing so we may limit children’s scope to be themselves. We may reduce our capacity to respond to them with compassion and kindness. We may attend to stereotypes of what our children could be or could be seen as, rather than attending to them as unique beings. In a nutshell, we may contribute to racism’s self-fulfilling prophecies, perpetuate racial inequalities and more worryingly, may increase their risk of psychological  distress.

The perpetuation of oppression is everyone’s business

Nevertheless, it would be ridiculous to blame or demonise parents for their wanting to increase the survival chances, privileges and life opportunities of their children or to prepare them for the racism they will encounter so as to minimise its effects. Internalising racism is adaptive.  It is no pathology.  It is no personality, genetic or biological flaw. Nor is it the consequence or evidence of inferiority in the oppressed.  So where does it originate from and what function might it serve?  Foucault proposed that the construction of reality through the production of ideologies or knowledge is controlled by the dominant group and circulated throughout society. This construction is posited to inform social norms, common sense and all aspects of organisational and structural life.

The fundamental consequence of such knowledge transmission is that the interests of the oppressors are presented as actually reflecting everyone’s best interests so that those who are oppressed come to internalise the dominant group’s interests as their own.  The ‘double bind’ experience has been used to make sense of internalised racism. It refers to the illusionary and implicit promise by the dominant group that oppressed groups can escape the consequences of their otherness by disowning their ‘difference’.  It lures racial minorities into agreeing to the very rules which Other them. In essence, the double bind exclaim: ‘become more like us and you too will have access to structures of power, you will become one of us’.  A tempting proposition for anyone, particularly for racialised parents eager to shelter children from the impact of racism.  The trouble however is, that achieving the promise of the double bind is impossible. This is because the construction of a superior class is dependent upon the existence of an inferior one.

Making internalised racism and its manifestations the problem of racialised groups is a further act of violence. This  equates not only to victim-blaming but also to erasing the very fact that the dominant group remains both the primary beneficiary and source of such internalisation. It is akin to saying ‘you need to be like us to be human or not to be Other’ whilst similarly positing ‘trying to be like us is evidence that you are not human or that you are Other’.  A ‘lose lose’ tautologically absurd proposition.  Being a parent is the toughest job on the planet.  Parenting in the mist of oppression and marginalisation is even harder.  Perhaps it is time that we collectively stopped shying away from internalised racism and gave it the clinical and empirical attention it deserves.  For mental health professionals this would naturally entail sharing a little bit of power and giving away some privileges. The privileges of not knowing, of not understanding or perhaps of not wanting to understand.

Thank you for reading.

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15 comments

  1. A fascinating discussion, Guilaine. Parenting is indeed challenging, especially for children “with darker skin tones” in cultures that have been socialized to see this as important and a marker of inferiority and a reason for exclusion. I appreciate the way you have applied Foucault’s work to describe the double bind – the temptation to internalize messages of inferiority on the promise of being included – a false promise as you eloquently argue.

    1. Thanks Carol. Appreciated. I tend to think that most of us, regardless of our ethnicity or race, have been socialised to associate darkness with negative traits, this I believe is the legacy of colonialism and slavery in part internalised by us all. For instance, a number of studies across continents have evidenced that darker skinned individuals (even within the same ethnic group) tend to be perceived as more aggressive, less intelligent or more dangerous. As a result, structurally they tend to be the most disadvantaged e.g. harsher sentences lower incomes, shorter periods of education etc. That is the case after controlling for other variables. I am even aware of a study in the Netherlands linking skin shade to the type of mental health intervention received (the darker the tone the more coercive the treatment). A minefield… Thanks for stopping by 😉

  2. Hi, I’m a non-postcolonialist but I can speak a few phrases from your language…

    …”Erasure”, “inter-generational transmission of trauma”, “whiteriarchy”, “colonisation of the mind”, “people of colour”, “Frantz Fanon”, “othered”, “internalised racism”, “Akala”, “intersectionality”, “SOAS”.

    So despite my partial bilingualism, I’ll reiterate that I’m not a postcolonialist. However, what I am is a brown-skinned Scotsman born to immigrant Punjabi Pakistani parents. I’ve only become aware of postcolonialism in the last couple of years, and thus far, I really do not get it at all. I’ve thought to myself “maybe it’s because I’m not black? (sub-Saharan African heritage)”. But I’ve spoken at length about postcolonialism with a couple of close friends, both Scottish also but with Nigerian Igbo and Nigerian Yoruba immigrant parents respectively. They were of the same opinion as me. I’ve discussed these ideas with some of my other non-white friends (ethnic Kurds, Copts, Bengalis) and with some white friends too. I’m still left believing that postcolonialism is an intellectual cult that people are caught up in. One in which the cultist is invited to pervert reality and create a dystopian, conspiratorial view of the society in which they live.

    I really do not think that your daughter having a darker skin tone to yourself is as large a potential problem as you currently believe it could be. I don’t know who the nameless oppressors you speak of are.

    – ” ‘You have to be twice as good as your White equivalent to simply be deemed good enough to stand underneath him/her’ or words to that effect will likely resonate with many non-whites.”

    You may well be right about that in your part of the UK, but that is not something I’m familiar with in my household nor have any of my local non-white friends mentioned it. My parents barely knew what was going on half the time when I was growing up. My dear Mum after nearly 30 years living in Scotland still barely speaks any English, and that despite years of my siblings and I trying to convince her it’d be a good idea to learn it properly. My Dad valued education having been deprived of it himself in rural Punjab, and he encouraged us to study at school, but there was no talk of a system being against us. Quite the opposite in fact, if my sisters had grown up in Pakistan they’d have gotten absoloutely nowhere, simply on account of their gender. Scotland, by contrast, gave us a world class state education for free. My brother and I are both studying Medicine now, my youngest brother is doing Chemistry next year, and two of my sisters also went to university.

    Regarding mental health issues, there is plenty of that amongst Pakistanis in Scotland. My own mother has scars from cutting on her arms, she acquired those in her youth and I think the psychological distress was caused mainly by the extreme poverty she grew up in. If I ask her what she remembers about being a kid, she responds “being hungry all the time”. Otherwise, there are many more cases of mental illness in Pakistani females than males in Scotland, from my experience anyway. More often than not it is down to either abusive parents when younger women or girls are involved (forced marriages, etc.), or when it is adult women, an abusive husband is very often the main distressing factor. I don’t think being an ethnic minority is ever much of a factor.

    – “Being a parent is the toughest job on the planet. Parenting in the mist of oppression and marginalisation is even harder.”

    This, I just don’t get at all. What oppression and marginalisation are you facing? I know all about violent racism, as a child I watched my Dad being viciously beaten with bats and bottles in a random and unprovoked attack by racists when closing up his shop one evening. But that was a gang of the local scum, they weren’t representative of the society I lived in as a whole. I didn’t feel oppressed or marginalised growing up and nor do I now. Is it honestly the case that you are?

    1. Hi Sheharyar, thanks for your comments. Clearly our views and experiences are different and that’s fine. I do not claim to speak for every Black (French) woman of African descent who has walked where I have so I certainly have no intent to speak for all Brown skinned, Scotsmen of Punjabi descent. You do not ‘get it’ as you say. That is again fine. I do not expect that everyone will. There are enough of us with the experiences described and even if there were not, you not ‘getting it’ would not invalidate such experiences.

      Racism, internalised racism, shadism are no problem for many people. That they are not problems for everyone, for your friends or for yourself does not amount to those, often systemic issues, not impacting on the lives of many others. I had hoped one might be able to transcend one’s egocentrism and have the decency and critical thinking to concede the same (without even considering the case that there may indeed be various powerful reasons, some protective, stopping many people from ‘getting it’ or conceding that such issues are issues…).

      It is interesting that you see my writing as post-colonialist. I have never thought this of myself. Certainly, I’ll use whatever theory, lenses and analytical framework allows me to make sense of the world and process my experience. Their names matter little to me. But isn’t it fascinating that I am labelled so many different things by different people?

      You see post-colonialism as a cult, that’s fair game. Perhaps most intellectual movements could be seen as such too? Where I tend to disagree is your sense that it promotes a conspiratorial view of society, this seems ill informed to me but I am open to being challenged on this point if you were to offer your arguments in support of this view.

      What with respect is absolutely not up for debate and argumentation by you is my lived experience. Speak not Sir of what you know not. I invite all readers to remain humble and curious rather than dismissive or disrespectful simply because they do not ‘get it’, have not experienced ‘it’. Oppression is mainly invisible. Simply because something cannot be seen does not mean it does not exist, as I am sure you know. For those who ‘get it’, that people are able to name their experience and self-define is central to resisting the oppressive processes you do not get.

      I’m glad Scotland has offered you and your family an equality heaven and that in your experience, psychological distress is unrelated to racism and oppression. Many hold this position irrespective of the multitudes of empirical studies evidencing the contrary and again that’s their prerogative.
      Thanks for your words. I hope those around you who have experienced emotional distress are healing. I am sorry I could not help you ‘get it’. I appreciate the time you spent commenting.

  3. P.S. Having just read my comment back to myself just now, it comes across as a bit snarky or even hostile. That was not my intention, so sorry about that.

  4. I never claimed that psychological distress is unrelated to racism. That would be a ridiculous assertion that I would not expect anyone to make. Neither did I claim that Scotland is an “equality heaven”, and I see your sneering there as evidence of your own prejudice against white-majority societies. I was called a “Paki”, maliciously, countless times in my youth. As were all my siblings. One sister of mine had a knife pulled out on her by some racists who stopped their car while driving past especially to get out and intimidate her. My Mum was also threatened at knife point when I was very young by an irate white neighbour claiming her children were making too much noise. Where we perhaps differ is that I see these as a series of isolated incidents concerning nasty individuals or groups, and I do not see it as part of a conspiracy against me, my family, my co-ethnics, or all non-whites in Scotland.

    The attack I described on my father in my earlier comment, that caused no end of psychological distress. I was only 11 years old yet I was having to phone for an ambulance while my father lay on the ground groaning with his face red with blood. I’d taken a glass bottle to the knee for my troubles, the injury from which prevented me from playing football for a few months. That experience caused me anxiety over the possibility of future violence against me and probably still does. But many of my friends experienced significant violent incidents in their youth, white and non-white, some connected to racism but most not. Most of them also developed some form of anxiety about violence. Whether it was a racist gang, or an alcoholic father carrying out the violence, the distress was the same and I’ve talked with my friends about our experiences and their effects

    You are far more articulate than me, both of thought and of word, and you’re clearly more intelligent than me also. So I’m aware that my “not getting it” may simply be down to those factors. What worries me about your reply is exactly what I’d feared about those pushing the views that you do (- if you’re not a “postcolonialist” then OK, but you are certainly part of a movement where members all use the same jargon and argue the same positions). People like me seem to be considered as fraternising with the enemy by virtue of not buying the line that all white people are out to get us non-whites. Not believing that we are being systemically oppressed. The awful reaction by postcolonialists to Trevor Phillips after his recent documentary confirmed to me what is now going on. It reminds me of white nationalists screaming “race traitor!” at whites who are friends with and supportive of non-whites. What postcolonialists are doing is simply the reverse of that. As a liberal Muslim, I’ve already had this crap all my life from Islamists, being told to hate those nasty white infidels. Now postcolonialists have myself or Trevor Phillips or whoever in their sights for not supporting their divisive and hysterical views on society.

  5. Hi Sheharyar,

    Glad we both agree on the devastating psychological consequences of racism. But you state:
    ‘Where we perhaps differ is that I see these as a series of isolated incidents concerning nasty individuals or groups, and I do not see it as part of a conspiracy against me, my family, my co-ethnics, or all non-whites in Scotland.’ I am not sure where I might have stated that either a) I believe in conspiracy theories or b) I believe there is a conspiracy against me or my family or my ‘co-ethnics’ as you say by all non-whites. If this is what you’ve taken from this site or indeed any post-colonial theorist then I do think, with all due respect, that you have misread me and more likely others.

    I believe in both individual and systemic racism and that both feed into the other. I do also believe that those who are (socially constructed as) white more often than not, benefit from systemic racism whether they intend it or not. In the same way that men tend to benefit from systemic sexism etc.. Sorry that you and your family have had to endure the bigotry, racism and islamophobia you described. Given that islamophobia is on the rise and that sadly more Muslim men are finding themselves within the mental heath system and being stopped and searched in record numbers, many people would wonder whether seeing such incidents as ‘isolated’ be adequate these days.

    Trevor Phillips’s programme was full of fallacies, contractions and inaccuracies. They have been exposed by people from a range of orientations and positions. Perhaps if you re-read some of these critiques without labelling them as post-colonialists (something that seems to push your buttons) you might possibly agree with some of them. As to your understanding/views on post-colonialism, I am really really not convinced but again I am grateful for the time you’ve given this website. I have been quite stressed of late and your comments have certainly provided me some distraction. Hopefully you’ll find something that speaks to you within racereflections.co.uk, but if not, thank you for stopping by.

    Ps: I am really not that clever, trust me but I am the absolute undefeated expert on my experience 🙂

    1. Islamophobia has hardly been an issue in my life and I do think that Scotland, in general, actually has very little of that particular discrimination. The experiences I described in my previous comment I believe were solely down to either racist or xenophobic motives. Disproportionately stopping and searching ethnic minority males is really not an issue in Scotland either, but I’m well aware of the problems there are with that in London and other urban areas in southern England.

      Shadism, a term I hadn’t come across before but makes perfect sense, is certainly a genuine phenomenon. I think people at either extreme of the colour spectrum can feel unbeautiful. Some very light people (there’s many here in Scotland!) will risk developing melanoma in a bid to darken their skin. Then I’m aware that skin lightening products are a lucrative industry in India, indeed even Sharukh Khan of Bollywood fame has advertised them. One of my sisters, rather unusually, uses sunbeds. She likes to be a darker brown than her natural tone. The emergence of Lupita Nyongo’o on the USA celebrity scene is a welcome development. I hope that both her darker skin and her indigenous African (Luo) surname will help people in the Anglosphere to appreciate a little more diversity.

      I’ve read a few criticisms of Trevor Phillips’ documentary but I found each of them to misrepresent him. I don’t think it was full of fallacies, contradictions, and inaccuracies. I think that what *was* missing was specificity.

      For example, the Romanian pickpocket statistics. The first distinction that needs to be made is that it is ethnic Roma from Romania, and not ethic Romanians from Romania, who are doing this. Then within the Roma ethnic group – dispersed across continental Europe – there are twelve main subgroups. It is only one of these groups, the Kalderash, who engage in pickpocketing as a cultural norm. Also take the paedophile gangs in Rochdale and elsewhere. Those gangs were overwhelmingly composed of Mirpuri men, and certainly always led by Mirpuri men. Seventy per cent of UK Pakistanis are Mirpuris. Like the UK, Pakistan is a state made up of different countries. Mirpuris are often highly distinct in culture and practices to Punjabis, Sindhis, or Balochis. Mirpur was the very last region of Pakistan to be connected to the national electricity grid. It was traditionally the least developed part of Pakistan and various unfavourable traits remain part of Mirpuri culture. Cousin marriages, and yes, child grooming. Look up “Swara”, “Vani”, or “Bacha bazi” on Google. This is cultural, not genetic, and I don’t believe it racist or even problematic to condemn aspects of a group’s culture.

      Thank you for all your patience and replies. Although I’ve obviously struggled to grasp the concepts, I’ve still been able to admire the astonishing eloquence of your writing. Anyone who receives your psychology expertise in future will surely be *very* fortunate.

  6. Great article which explores many themes that are close to my heart. I am a black Yoruba Nigerian descended woman born in the UK. I work as a psychotherapist and am planning to start psychology PhD university research 2016 following the completion of my Masters degree this year.

    I wrote a novel published in 2011 exploring ontology, oppression, prejudice and power. Colourism and shadism within a mother daughter dyad feature strongly as a theme through out my novel. As well as heterosexism and homophobia, Christianity, mental distress and hospitalisation. I wrote my novel hoping it could be used as a catalyst to promote the discussion of these important themes some of which you so eloquently describe. A tool to debate serious issues being reinforced often out of awareness within the racialised, genderised, etc discursive frames in which we inhabit.

    What I have learned is that these subjects are so taboo that virtually no one wants to look at and explore them. They are the elephants in the room that remain poignantly acted upon and defended against at the same time. In an environment where racial implicit and explicit bias is rampant structurally, institutionally and personally through out the UK, Europe, USA, infact to a greater or lesser extent throughout the world and the endemic incarcerations of black people continue, turning away from the reality of historic and current perpetuations of white supremacy is psychological suicide.

    This is why your article gives me hope. That other people are recognising the psychological harm done and bringing it to public awareness.

    Do you have a forum for interviewing authors and carrying out book reviews? You seem open minded enough to be able to manage the task.

    1. Hi Olukemi,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I do not have the capacity to take on book reviews at present but maybe in the future. However, clearly, you have a lot of knowledge and skills I’d love to tap into 🙂 There are not many of us in the field who speak the unspeakable as far as racism is concerned. I’d be delighted to interview you. It may be a few weeks as things will get hectic for me this September.
      I could not agree more about the stigma and taboo that surround internalised racism. This is why I believe, we, as mental health professionals, need to be more vocal and articulate these issues in a de-stigmatising and normalising manner. If people of colour understand they are merely responding to a dysfunctional social order and that there is no psychopathology in internalising racism, shame reduces, people open up, wounds start to heal. I’ll be in touch in the next few weeks to discuss a way forward.
      Guilaine

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