Internalised racism & the colour of power

‘It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity’

Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903, p.3)

With the appointment of three brown people to senior ministerial posts in the UK discussions and divisions over the significance of their presence abound. Some people of colour have shown fierce political and ideological support for the trio and for the new Prime Minister. A prime minister who has repeatedly made racist comments. There are those who see an important step forward in these appointments, stressing the symbolism of people of colour being invited to join the highest echelons of arguably the highest structure of power in society, regardless of their actual policies. Others speak of tokenism and window dressing; covert attempts at mitigating accusations of racism. Still, more stress the lurking dangers of having brown faces dressed in the colour of power, deliver oppressive policies which will disproportionately adversely impact brown and black communities.

I am going to reserve my position for the time being and instead invite you to look into the murky waters of internalised racism. The topic of internalised racism has a long history within black scholarship and black consciousness movements. A history of over one hundred years, to be precise. Its earliest conceptualisation is attributed to Dubois and his double-consciousness, which has been interpreted to (partly) signify the introjection of the devaluating gaze of society leading to black people looking at themselves through the racist eyes of white people and thus, internalising self-contempt, disgust or hate. Few are the black (and decolonial) philosophers who have not interrogated the phenomenon, and this is the case across continents. That alone should give us pause for thought.

Defining and recognising internalised racism

There are a multitude of definitions of internalised racism each emphasising different aspects but here, I will take it to mean;

‘the individual inculcation of the racist stereotypes, values, images, and ideologies perpetuated by the white dominant society about one’s racial group, leading to feelings of self-doubt, disgust, and disrespect for one’s race and/or oneself’ (Pyke, 2010, p.553)

In everyday terms internalised racism can take various forms. It can look like your dark skinned child receiving less hugs and affection than the darker one, in your own family. It can look like black men joining in online harassment campaigns against black women and bestialising them with the loudest voices. Sometimes it looks like exclusively dating ‘outside one’s race’ or forever seeking white sexual partners. Other times it looks like being treated more punitively by people who look like you and who are in position of authority. Many a times it looks like ‘diaspora wars’ and like anti-blackness within non-black communities of colour and their constant need to step on black heads as an attempt to reach a higher rung on the ladder of humanity, by claiming proximity to whiteness.

Sometimes it looks like black children bullying other black children because they look ‘too African’. Or they sound too African. Or their name is too African. At times it looks like the distance we create between us and our heritage or (coughs) that of our parents or between us and those Other migrants who are so unlike us. The less civilised ones. Those ‘fresh off the boat’. Sometimes it is about feeling honoured to manage racist immigration policies and to align with far right ideology to make sure those still on boats remain on boats or, die in the Mediterranean. Sometimes it looks like the pressure to work three or four times harder or three or four times harsher…and, sometimes it looks like refusing to condemn or name racism or like imposing respectability.

The subject of internalised racism can be difficult to broach and/or understand. There is a taboo and silence that often surrounds it too within communities of colour. I have found it to be so within both personal and professional spheres. This is partly because internalised racism is often taken to reflect some inherent pathology located in the oppressed or colonised’s mind, partly because it evokes complicity and shame in people of colour. There seems to be a political move to delegitimise its exploration with those black or brown bodies highlighting its influence often accused of racism or demagoguery. This is not incidental, naming it is indeed a direct challenge to white ignorance and to the social order. 

Whiteness and the social order

But the reality is this; there are those who will forever seek to assimilate into white supremacy hoping it will offer them protection and/or access to structures of power. In fact I have argued this impulse; which does not exist in a vacuum, is present in us all. I have tried to be open in relation to my own liberation journey in some of my writing on Race Reflections. I have started to explore my experience of motherhood and how it has been impacted upon by internalised social discourses and racialised stereotypes. I have attempted to formulate the phenomenon and think about it scholarly, mainly analytically.

In my piece on freedom, I offered a formulation of colonial configurations and the resulting conflicts they can give rise to between and within people of colour. In the follow up article, I used object relations theory as a framework to elaborate on those ideas and, proposed that the internal worlds of people of colour can become the site for Master-slave conflicts related to our wish to assimilate and, our opposing liberatory impulses. I hope to have laid the foundation for some reflections on internalised whiteness which may offer a relevant new set of lenses to reflect on current political configurations and their purported gains for people of colour.

This has now become a cliché but it is still worth repeating, the concept of race, has no sound biological basis, yet as a social fact it continues to have profound implications, for life course, opportunities, identity, and social relations. White racism, as a reminder, is perpetuated by whiteness; a ‘powerful fiction’ some have called it, which is enforced by the use of power and violence. Whiteness determines the allocation of privileges, protection and resources with white groups and those adjacent to them placed first in line receive to them and let’s face it, others set never to taste them.

Whiteness and the psychosocial order

A structural focus when talking about racism in necessary to emphasise the harm of whiteness at macro levels of society. They rest on the assumption of white superiority and result in racial inequality and injustice. Nonetheless, racism harms people of colour (and white people…but that’s not our focus here) in multiple and intersecting ways. The reproduction of whiteness is achieved through, socio-cultural, economic but also psychological and psychic mechanisms that thus impose whiteness overtly and covertly on people of colour, normalising and naturalising it and, rendering it legitimate and virtuous.

There is a tendency to see the structural and the psychological as distinct and separate. This binary conceptualisation is illusory. No psychological world can exist independently of social structures and vice versa. Both domains are co-constitutive and mutually reinforcing. Indeed, many have argued that there is only one single field of human communication and interaction. As such, none of us can escape internalising social structures and social forces including; racial discourses, prejudices, symbols and historical configurations. This internalisation is central to the reproduction of social inequality and structures and, it is reliant upon key mechanisms and processes. A few of these are proposed below.

Intergenerational transmissions

The colonial project, slavery and all forms of massive collective trauma continue to have profound effects on our relational functioning. Violent imperial endeavours relied on the imposition of European consciousness on people of colour. With European colonialism came the vilification of cultures and the erasure of the histories of many people in order to replace local belief systems and understanding of the world with Eurocentric perspectives/epistemologies. Convincing the colonised of their dependency, subservience and immaturity was central to the ‘success’ of colonialism. Concomitant patterns of behaviours which have been transmitted as survival scripts across generations, persist today.

Such scripts include, treating white people with deference, working hard without complaining, keeping one’s head down or otherwise observing subservience. In other words, remnants of colonial configurations through the transmission of learnt behaviour and survival strategies centred around inferiority and appeasing whiteness are still in operation and, continue to influence how children of colour are raised, how we relate to white people and how we treat one another. Often times how we have historically been treated very harshly. In that light, I am not sure we can fully make sense of the stripping of Sharmeema Begum’s British  nationality by a man, then home secretary, of a similar background and religion, without considering internalised racism, its associated shame and need to distance oneself from those Other uncivilised and barbaric (brown) people.

Hegemonic forces

Cultural hegemony aims to make visible how the domination of diverse groups in society is achieved by the ruling class. At its core is the notion that dominant groups’ interests, explanations, perceptions, values etc…are imposed as the cultural norm. White racism can be indirectly internalised via hegemonic forces that inculcate through seemingly neutral ideologies inferiority. Such ideologies serve to justify and legitimise racist institutional practices (Pyke, 2010). Pyke (2010) suggests that one such an ideology is meritocracy. Meritocracy naturally obscures oppression by propagating the notion that race inequality reflects real, objective differences in attitudes, skills, talents and efforts rather that widespread discrimination.

Although the cultural myth and ideology of meritocracy seems to have little to do with race per se it reproduces a sense of inferiority in people of colour and conversely a sense of superiority in white groups since according to it, only those who are capable and sufficiently gifted gain recognition, success and power. Another such and related ideology, I would add, is colourblindness. Colourblindness reinforces the myth of meritocracy and positions race as non-operative in shaping and organising structural reality and social relations. In other words, hegemonic forces covertly legitimises the subordinate position and inferiority of people of colour in society and functions as social control. Once people of colour (and white people) are convinced that the social order is just and as it should be, they are much less likely to rebel, resist or demand the redistribution of resources.

Identification with the aggressor

Identification with the aggressor is a defence mechanism associated with Anna Freud and Ferenczi. According to the former whose theory focuses on children; children often impersonate those who abuse them by assuming their attributes or imitating them. This process allows the child to transform themselves into those they find threatening and in a way, master their fears. Ferenczi’s conceptualisation is slightly different and is focused on trauma. Accordingly, identification with the aggressor is an act of “helpless compliance”, an attempt at protecting the self by preempting violence and gratifying the sadistic or violent impulses of the aggressor. Moving from identification with the aggressor to identification with the oppressor is short but necessary leap and an important application. Fanon’s neuroses of blackness could be argued to do just that.

Fanon posits that the colonial subject identifies with his oppressor but that this identification is rooted in the trauma and process of colonialism and, in the unequal and oppressive historical and socio-political configurations. According to him, the desire for whiteness is underscored by the wish to be recognised as fully human, the wish to self-determine and thus the wish to access power. Wether by identifying with the oppressor we hope to avoid abuse, master trauma, seek connection with those who harm us or simply wish to reclaim power, our attitudes in the process invariably shift towards self-destruction since power configurations remain built on violence against black and brown bodies. One way to handle the cognitive dissonance evoked by this reality, is to idealise those who harm us.  It is not unusual even in situations of terror that those victimised develop admiration, gratitude, and deference towards those who have tortured them or put their life in danger.

Projective identification

Projective identification is another defence mechanism which occurs when aspects of the self or an internal object are split off and attributed to an external object aka someone else. These disowned and projected aspects may then be introjected and thus trigger associated behaviour or emotional states in the recipient of the projection, who may consequently come to feel and act in accordance with the material they have introjected. Protective identification thus involves a two-step process, firstly getting rid of aspects of one’s own psyche then, getting into the mind of the other either to acquire aspects that are desired or, to induce particular behaviour/ feelings in them. Projective identification is one of the more complex defence mechanisms, it can be difficult to grasp.

It also challenges many Eurocentric beliefs. The idea that we can through our gaze and fantasies induce certain behaviours or emotional states in other people can seem far fetched. Yet, increasingly this proposition is empirically supported. For example, children who are expected to do well in class tend to do well and conversely children perceived to be more challenging well, tend to become more challenging. Similarly studies on stereotype threat are starting to evidence how collective or social prejudices and biases can induce specific stereotypical responses in targets. So perhaps, not so far fetched…the main point here in relation to internalised racism, is that white groups through their gaze, expectations and fantasies can shape the consciousness of people of colour, induce feelings of inferiority as well as bring into cognitive and experiential salience, colonial imagery and schemas. The passage below from Black skin white masks, powerfully illustrates the same.

””Look, a Negro!”

It was an external stimulus that flicked over me as I passed by. I made a tight smile.

“Look, a Negro!”

It was true. It amused me.

“Look, a Negro!”

The circle was drawing a bit tighter. I made no secret of my amusement.

“Mama, see the Negro! I’m frightened, Frightened! Frightened!’’

Now they were beginning to be afraid of me. I made up my mind to laugh myself to tears, but laughter had become impossible. I could no longer laugh, because I already knew that there were legends, stories, history, and above all historicity, which I had learned about from Jaspers. Then. assailed at various points, the corporeal schema crumbled, its place taken by a racial epidermal schema. In the train it was no longer a question of being aware of my body in the third person but in a triple person. In the train I was given not one but two, three places. I had already stopped being amused. It was not that I was finding febrile coordinates in the world. I existed triply: I occupied space. I moved toward the other . . . and the evanescent other, hostile but not opaque, transparent, not there, disappeared. Nausea … I was responsible at the same time for my body, for my race, for my ancestors. I subjected myself to an objective examination, I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics; and I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects, slavery…”’ (Fanon, p 112)

Concluding thoughts

Despite the centrality of internalised racism in the reproduction of race inequality, by and large, we continue to neglect to consider its workings, effects and significance. But the internalisation of whiteness is required for it to continue to be successful as a system. Without it, I am not sure unequal structures would effectively operate. I have previously argued that making internalised racism and its manifestations the problem of racialised ‘minorities’ is an act of violence. Not only because it amounts to victim-blaming, but also because it occults the very fact that white groups remain the primary beneficiaries and, source of such internalisation.

Internalised racism is the corollary of internalised superiority and one cannot exist without the other and without unequal social structures. That is why  sometimes I wonder wether it may be more helpful to speak of (race based) internalised inferiority and race based internalised superiority. In relation to the question regarding the current political terrain in the UK being a gain for people of colour and specifically for black people, I remain highly skeptical. Having brown people deliver violent austerity, racist immigration policies, neo-colonial agendas and, protect the wealthiest in the society will never serve the interests of people of colour. Let alone Black people who are likely the first in line to be harmed. Sitting at the master’s table to join deliberations on the running of the plantation and the distribution of violence is really no progress. At least not as far as I am concerned. 

 Thank you for reading

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  1. Deep and necessary search. I am challenged by this piece of writing. So have further work to do internally and externally.

  2. Thank you so much for this paper – extremely timely. There is much food for thought and worthy of time for reflection and discussion. I look forward to seeing how this paper contributes to the ongoing discourse and struggle. Many Blessings 👏🏾👏🏾

  3. Your work, brilliance, and contribution is enormous. Thank you so much for all you do to enlighten me and others. Deep respect.

  4. Reblogged this on | truthaholics and commented:
    Another incisive, insightful and sobering contribution which exposes the BAME self-loathing at root for what it is in order to climb the greasy socio-political ladder and generates vital questions over the compatibility of white privilege and entitlement in today’s ostensibly multicultural and democratic civil liberal society – or, are these labels simply a false construct to appease and pacify restless natives?

  5. Brilliant piece – Just submitted my thesis about racism and mental health in medical training – so good reading this and seeing so much of my reading reflected here . The structural and systemic nature of it so important in terms of understanding how it works and the resistance to talking and thinking about it. Also lots of policy but not much change . Let’s see what the university makes of it …

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