10 Signs of Internalized Racism and Gaslighting
How does internalized racism occur?
Posted February 15, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
“Humans don’t like injustice, and when they cannot easily fix it, they often engage in mental gymnastics to make the injustice more palatable. Blaming victims for their suffering is a classic example.”
—Dr. Grainne Fitzsimons, Dr. Aaron Kay, Jae Yun Kim
“When I was in school, I was bullied because of my gender, ethnicity, and physical appearance. I internalized a lot of it and was ashamed of myself. It took a long time before I realized that I wasn’t the problem… Now I’m reclaiming my power.”
“All my life I thought white was more desirable—I even married a white man to feel better about myself. Today, many years later, I finally realized what I had done—in choosing skin color over character, I gave up the most precious parts of who I am: my cultural background, my dignity, and my soul.”
—Anonymous woman of color
Internalized racism can be defined as the tendency of some individuals belonging to historically oppressed ethnic groups to regularly invalidate, demean, and/or suppress their own and other marginalized groups’ heritage, identity, self-worth, and human rights.
Often, those with degrees of internalized racism are consciously or unconsciously socialized into believing that being a member of their own cultural group is somehow “lesser,” “inferior,” “shameful,” “undesirable,” or “unacceptable” in relation to the “mainstream” dominant culture. They regard themselves and/or members of their own cultural group with embarrassment (self-rejection) and disdain (self-loathing).
It is very important to emphasize that internalized racism typically occurs in the context of a dominant culture/society that often discriminates against and oppresses marginalized groups both overtly and covertly.
It is also significant to note that while some people with internalized racism are conscious of their own cultural identity struggles, others are unaware (or in denial) of their own cultural biases and shame.
Many victims of internalized racism grew-up in prejudiced environments where discrimination against marginalized cultural groups is the norm in social, community, educational, professional, religious, media, social media, and political environments. To cope with and compensate (overcompensate) for their inner cultural identity struggles, some individuals who suffer from internalized racism may openly reject and even lash out at their own cultural group in order to gain “mainstream” acceptance, suppress their cultural identity, and deny their true selves.
It is a classic example of gaslighting, where a perpetrator (in this case a dominant, discriminatory society) convinces the victim that they are much less important and worthy than who they truly are. The victims in turn gaslight themselves, their own cultural group, and often other marginalized groups. Internalized racism is a form of social and psychological brainwashing.
What are some of the most common signs of internalized racism? Here are 10 characteristics, with references from my books How to Let Go of Negative Thoughts and Emotions and How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People. While some individuals may occasionally dabble in the following behaviors, which might not be a serious issue, someone with strong internalized racism will routinely engage in one or more of the pathologies (dysfunctions) below, while remaining largely unaware of (or unconcerned with) the tangible and psychological damage done to oneself and others.
1. Denying aspects of one’s own cultural identity, either to oneself and/or to others, for the purpose of “fitting in” and gaining the dominant culture’s acceptance and approval.
2. Conforming to the dominant culture while suppressing one’s own expressions. For instance:
- Feeling the need to “act mainstream” and avoid being too “ethnic."
- Changing one’s beliefs, values, speech, personality, and behavior in order to “assimilate” and “fit in."
- Physical alterations—changing one’s appearance in order to conform to the dominant culture’s ideals of beauty and attractiveness (i.e. hair bleaching, hair straightening, skin whitening, cosmetic surgery, etc.).
- According to Dr. Scott Lankford: “Internalized racism can manifest on a cultural (not just individual) level. Examples include ‘colorism’ in communities of color and often even within family groups where having lighter skin tones or white-similar facial features such as lips, nose, and eye-shapes are routinely rewarded and praised.”
- May suffer stress, anxiety, depression, OCD, or other mental health challenges due to self-esteem issues. May experience racial discrimination/bullying-based PTSD.
3. Avoiding and disassociating oneself from members of own or other marginalized groups, especially in the presence of members of the dominant group.
4. Feeling ashamed or embarrassed when seeing members of one’s own cultural group “being too ethnic” in daily activities, social interactions, popular media, or social media.
5. As a sign of learned disempowerment due to systemic racism, underperform academically, professionally, and/or financially. Underestimating one’s own potential, intelligence, ability, and power.
Conversely, as a sign of seeking mainstream approval and acceptance, overcompensate socially, relationally, academically, professionally, and politically. Sacrificing one’s own heritage, identity, point of view, and self-expression in order to conform and assimilate.
6. Allowing oneself to engage and remain in inequitable, dysfunctional, or abusive inter-racial romantic relationships or friendships.
7. Putting down and disempowering oneself and/or members of one’s own cultural group. For instance:
- Refusing to acknowledge racism exists or is a significant issue in society.
- Refusing to acknowledge microaggression exists or is a significant issue in society.
- Consciously or unconsciously accept, justify, and defend one’s social and cultural group status as “second class” in society.
- Regularly making negative self-deprecating remarks about one’s own culture/cultural identity. (Encoding to desensitize the effects of discrimination notwithstanding, regular negative self-depreciation is still a reflection of internalized racism.)
- Judging, belittling, or making fun of members of one’s own cultural group based on dominant society’s negative cultural stereotypes.
8. Displaying intolerance and discrimination toward other oppressed and marginalized groups (discrimination transference/projected discrimination).
9. Defending, justifying, and excusing individual acts of cultural prejudice, discrimination, and racism in family, romantic relationship, friendships, school, at the workplace, or other social or institutional scenarios (learned disempowerment/learned helplessness).
10. Defending, justifying, and supporting societal, institutional, religious, political, and/or cultural bias and oppression against one’s own or other marginalized groups. Openly rejecting social justice initiatives and attacking advocates and leaders who fight for equal respect/equal rights. Condemning and blaming one’s own or other marginalized groups for causing their own victimization (internalized oppression).
For tips on how to handle racism-related stress, whether external or internal, see references below.
© 2020 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide. Copyright violation may subject the violator to legal prosecution.
Ni, Preston. How to Let Go of Negative Thoughts and Emotions. PNCC. (2014)
Ni, Preston. How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People — 2nd Edition. PNCC. (2006)
Ni, Preston. Are You Highly Sensitive? How to Gain Immunity, Peace, and Self-Mastery!. PNCC. (2017)
Ni, Preston. How to Successfully Handle Gaslighters and Stop Psychological Bullying. PNCC. (2017)
Ni, Preston. How to Reduce Anxiety & Increase Certainty in Difficult Situations – A Practical Guide. PNCC. (2016)
Ni, Preston. With Dignity and Honor: Understanding Racism, Unlearning Racism. 2nd. Ed. Burgess Publishing/Pearson. (1997, 1998)
Fitzsimons, Grainne; Kay, Aaron; Kim, Jae Yun. “Lean In” Messages and the Illusion of Control. Harvard Business Review. (July 30, 2018)
Chan, Justin. Mother 'Shocked' By Young Daughter's Request After Watching 'Mulan': 'My ... Reaction Was Guilt.' In The Know/Yahoo News. (December 17, 2020)
Sue, Derald Wing & Colleagues. Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Counseling,” The American Psychologist. (2007)
Nadal, Kevin. A Guide to Responding to Microaggressions. CUNY Forum 2:1 (2014)
Yoon, Hahna. How to Respond to Microaggressions. New York Times (March 3, 2020)