Seeing Internalized Racism, Part 4 | Feedback Loop 201

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2020-06-28

In Part 3, I introduced you to the feedback loop of internalized racism. Thinking about it this way helps me understand a bit better why internalizing racism is more than my individual self-hate (see Part 1 & Part 2) but can actually contribute to systemic racism.

You might ask, as I have:
“So, why don’t BIPOC just recognize that racist narratives are lies and stop internalizing racism?”

Shouldn’t ending internalized racism be that simple? Just stop the cycle by…crushing it with our mind-vice (30 Rock reference. Anyone?). In other words, shouldn’t I just stop being stupid enough to fall for this racist narrative crap?

And… that’s kind of blaming of the victim, isn’t it? I felt part 4 was necessary to explain why it’s not always that easy. I also need to have some grace with myself as I unpack my internalized racism. There were reasons I didn’t recognize racist narratives for what they were.

What keeps the loop circling?

Above is the same feedback loop from part 3, but with two things added. First, there is the Impact of Colonization on the outside, acting as a force that keeps the wheel spinning. Second, there is an inner mini loop of “rewards”, acting as a force within. It keeps the momentum of internalized racism going as well. Let’s talk about those two things.

Impact of Colonization

“Colonization” is maybe the wrong term, but I’m using it to refer to the white European legacy of severing ethnic minorities from their heritage and history. With Africans, it was stealing them from their country and stripping them of their cultures and ethnic distinctions. With Indigenous peoples, it was genocide on top of taking their land and forcing the survivors to assimilate.

With me, it is quite different, because it was an unwanted pregnancy and an adoption that severed me from my ethnic heritage and history. However, modern adoption practices (e.g. the tendency to assume that being adopted by white parents means a better life) have definitely been a tool of colonization and white supremacy.

Let’s look at how this keeps the feedback loop spinning.

Lost Heritage

It’s hard to know and affirm the goodness in our ethnic distinctions when we’ve lost connection to our roots. When we do not have a healthy grasp on the goodness of our ethnic identities, it is harder to recognize and fight racist narratives when we encounter them. We will hear the lies and not know for certain they are lies.

Using my Chinese restaurant example from Part 3, I didn’t know the glory and variety of Chinese food culture. I hadn’t grown up watching my Chinese family use fresh ingredients, lovingly prepared, and turn them into our favorite dishes for family holidays. So, when I consistently encountered racist rumors of dog or cat meat in Chinese food, I didn’t have this robust positive context with which to refute and reject the racist narrative. I just had lies stuck on repeat that seemed to make more and more sense in the absence of truth.

Whitewashed History

A whitewashed history erases the sins of white European colonizers and focuses on events from a perspective that glorifies them. When BIPOC are deprived of understanding history from the perspective of our racial/ethnic group, we struggle to recognize the common racist narratives used against us.

For example, I did not know that racist depictions of Chinese immigrants included cartoons of them eating rats. I wasn’t taught about the exclusion act. Now that I am learning this other side of American history, it is much easier to see anti-Chinese racist narratives for what they are.

The most recent example is the scapegoating of Chinese people for COVID-19. I see now that this racist narrative is also over 140 years old and it also has staying power in the minds of Americans. In fact, I knew the moment I heard about coronavirus, that anti-Asian hate was going to get more aggressive and more visible again.

George F. Keller Cartoon from May 1882. Public opinion was that the persistent presence of three diseases – Malarium, Small Pox, and Leprosy – were the fault of Chinese immigrants and their “unsanitary living conditions.”
George F. Keller Cartoon from May 1882.
Public opinion was that the persistent presence of three diseases – Malaria, Small Pox, and Leprosy – were the fault of Chinese immigrants and their “unsanitary living conditions.”

Reward Mini Loop

Now, about that reward mini loop. In the graphic it says this:

“Dominant white culture may reward BIPOC by granting access to some privileges, reinforcing their internalized racism.”

Here are two hypothetical example scenarios:

  1. A Chinese American academic, scientist or reporter who believes China created coronavirus on purpose might get a lot of white-owned media attention. Their youtube video may be all over Facebook. The “reward” for such a person might be invites to the White House, paid speaking engagements, and celebrity-like status with white Americans who want to scapegoat Chinese people for this virus.
  2. Using the model minority myth mentioned in Part 3 for context: a Chinese American kid who struggles with math will not ask for help. They feel ashamed that they are not good at the one subject everyone “knows” they are supposed to be good at. The “reward” for hiding their need for academic support is that they won’t be made fun of by classmates or be seen as not living up to the model minority stereotype. The reward is actually just avoiding a punishment for not upholding a racist stereotype.

These examples aren’t that hypothetical, are they? Living in a world that has been shaped by racist policies and narratives, BIPOC are constantly pushed to meet racist expectations. People want to see us a certain way. Going along with that can feel easier in that we avoid the friction and confrontation required to go against it. Getting applause and praise feels good. It can even feel like love.

However, when BIPOC internalize racist narratives, it does deep harm to ourselves and others. It leads to self-hate and self-sabotage and turns us into an actor in the oppression of others. These ‘rewards’ merely mask the harm being done, like a pleasant side-effect masks the symptoms of a lethal drug. So you keep taking it because you don’t realize it’s killing you.

Truth & Grace Required

In seeing internalized racism in myself, I have felt the need to be aggressive at times. It is important to own up to the truth of how I have upheld racist narratives and excavate my mind, heart and history for the root my racist beliefs. Yet I’ve also felt the need to extend grace to myself as one who has been harmed by racist narratives and policies that I did not create, and is recovering from self-hate and shame.

Truth and grace are both required.

This is why I am so critical of white Christianity and white culture. I feel I have to right my wrongs by speaking against the beliefs I formerly held. While it might not be the best way for me to atone, it helps me heal. I have gone through much of my life experiencing racism that I was unable to name and process. Now that I am learning the words and tools to do that, sharing that feels like freedom.

I believe that confronting and deprogramming internalized racism is godly and necessary healing work. However, it is costly (i.e. I have lost the ‘rewards’ of certain relationships and opportunities). I’m sure as I learn more and get better at seeing internalized racism in myself, I’ll want to explain some things differently.

Seeing Internalized Racism, Part 3 | The Feedback Loop

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2020-06-28

In Part 2, I showed how my circumstances led to internalizing anti-Asian racist ideas. However, that’s just not enough. It’s important to see how internalized racism perpetuates racism in a feedback loop. We need to zoom out and see how my story fits into the bigger picture.

Content Warning: Anti-Chinese and Anti-Asian racism and imagery.

As I said in Part 1, internalizing racism means that BIPOC experience racial inequities and believe the source of that problem lies with their own racial group. Essentially, BIPOC adopt the racial prejudices of white people who hold power. When this happens, BIPOC can be used by those white people in power to uphold and defend racist policies. This explains how.

Feedback Loop 101

I’ll expand on this in the next post, but this is the basic feedback loop. The graphic below assumes that you understand the origin of racism as self-interest (a concept expertly articulated by Ibram X. Kendi) driving racist policies. If not, your homework is to read this article.

Take a minute and think on it. Then read through my examples under the headings below. I’ll follow a thread of anti-Asian racism, connecting historical events to things we still see and hear today.


Racist Policies

Racist policies preserve and protect wealth and power.
An example: The Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.

In the 1800s, war, natural disasters and famine in China forced thousands to come to America. These Chinese immigrants were seen as a threat to white European Americans who held power. You can learn more with a google search, but the tl;dr (“too long, didn’t read”) version is that white America did not want competition for wealth and power from a new crop of immigrants they had little in common with and couldn’t control.

This was a race-based law designed to protect
white American wealth and political power.

Therefore the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed; a law targeting a specific ethnic group, banning Chinese people from immigrating and preventing Chinese people from becoming naturalized citizens (i.e. owning land, voting). Originally considered a 10 year plan, it stayed in place for 61 years!


Racist Narratives

Racist narratives are used to justify racist policies.
An example: Chinese immigrants depicted as dirty, rat-eaters.

To justify the Chinese Exclusion Act in the minds of the majority of (white) Americans, several anti-Chinese racist ideas took root. This included referring to Chinese immigrants as “yellow peril“, depictions of Chinese men as dirty and immoral, eating rats, addicted to opium, stealing jobs and threatening white women.

Image description: "Rough On Rats" product box lid is a colorful celluloid picture of a Chinese gentleman with  a long pigtail, a cooly hat, and an embroidered tunic who is about to eat a rat while in his other hand he holds a second rat, apparently also about to be consumed.
From MemoriesandMiscellany: “The racist image perpetuated a long-held belief among some Americans that the Chinese on a regular basis ate live rats as a snack.  The Chinese also appeared in “Rough on Rats” advertising.”

Yes, the idea that Chinese immigrants frequently ate rats was so recognizable that it became a part of this brand’s image and product design. Were they insinuating this rat poison was just as effective at eliminating rats as Chinese immigrants were? Go ahead and be angry about that for a minute, will you?


Racist Ideas Forced on BIPOC

Racists narratives are forced onto BIPOC.
An example: Chinese restaurant “mystery meat” rumors/jokes.

What do I mean when I say ‘forced’? I mean that racist narratives permeate all aspects American culture. BIPOC can’t escape these narratives completely. There are a million ways, large and small, violent and subtle, that racist narratives can invade your mind and make you doubt yourself.

I’ve definitely heard on more than one occasion that Chinese people ate dog meat and that Chinese restaurants frequently serve dog or cat (or rat) in their dishes. Yes, this is essentially the same racist narrative that has been around since the 1800’s. This racist narrative has so much staying power that family-owned restaurants have gone out of business because of local rumors; that it feels true enough for white Americans to find this meme funny.

Image shows hands holding a fortune cookie paper that says "That wasn't chicken" and an empty serving dish with chopsticks in the background.
Last year, two white guys in my Facebook feed shared this meme.
Neither one saw it as being racist.

Growing up, I never liked going to the one Chinese restaurant in town. I remember ordering a cheeseburger and fries instead. I knew some people believed I had a connection with Chinese food (being a half Chinese adoptee). I also knew Chinese food was sometimes seem as gross or suspicious.


BIPOC Internalize Racist Ideas

BIPOC interpret the results of racist policies as proof of racist narratives.
An example: The Model Minority Myth.

This one is long, so stay with me. This shows us how racist narratives change to suit the policies and therefore interests of white people in power.

First, Chinese exclusion eased up in 1943 as the USA wanted China as an ally against Japan. (This is self-interest driving policy, btw.) To justify this about-face, a literal committee strategically recast Chinese people as great neighbors and good citizens in promotional materials to convince America accept them!

Then, in the 1960’s, the National Immigration Act gave preference to immigrants that could help the American economy. (Again, self-interest driving policy.) Suddenly, many Asian immigrants had PhDs and high-demand skills. They had less obstacles due to racism and experienced more financial success. So guess what? They made the wealth and education stats for the average Asian American go way up.

Overlapping all this was the Civil Rights Movement. White people in power used Asian American success to argue that racism wasn’t holding anyone back. Asian Americans became “proof” that America wasn’t racist. They claimed that it was hard work and good citizenship that made Asians just as wealthy and successful as white people! This is how Asian Americans were depicted as the “model minority”; the one all other minorities should seek to copy.

So, this is the model minority myth; a racist narrative used to excuse the racist policies that produced inequities for Black Americans! This myth pits minority against minority and protects the status quo of white wealth and power.

So, how does this get internalized?

Today, an Asian American might believe the myth; that their family’s success is proof that if you work hard, you can overcome any racist obstacles that might exist. Therefore, this person may believe that racism is not the reason for the economic disparities between white people and other BIPOC.

Instead of connecting their racial group’s success to external factors (i.e. policies that removed obstacles and opened doors for them), they internalize it, believing that their racial group’s success is because they behaved better and worked harder than other racial minority groups.


BIPOC Uphold Racist Policies

Once internalized, it is easy to believe that racist policies are justified.
An example: Asians against affirmative action.

Affirmative action in higher education has been a big topic in recent years. In this example, the racist “policy” was actually the widespread practice of discrimination against racial minorities in higher education prior to affirmative action.

While many white people have been against affirmative action, a certain segment of the Asian American population is now against it as well. Research done in 2019 shows that this segment tends to be first generation immigrants; the ones benefitting from selective immigration (*) and who tend to have higher academic achievements.

Asians against affirmative action seem to have internalized the model minority myth (i.e. we earned this). Just like many white Americans, they would prefer solely merit-based college admissions, which would ignore how our educational system still hinders Black students. In this way, they seek to uphold the practice of racial discrimination in higher education.

(*) The Mere Mention of Asians in Affirmative Action, Jennifer Lee, Van C. Tran, Sociological Science.


Wealth & Power Stays White

Now the feedback loop has come full circle, where white wealth and power can keep creating racist policies to protect their wealth and power. BIPOC who have internalized racist narratives often get weaponized against other BIPOC who are trying to call out and correct racial injustices.

Racism, as a form of oppression, is constantly seeking to keep the oppressed down. So internalized racism functions to get oppressed people to do that work themselves, to keep themselves down. This is why it is important for BIPOC to untangle ourselves from this mindset.


In Part 4, I’ll talk about how white wealth and power exploits BIPOC with internalized racism. I’ll also add two key details to the Feedback Loop that help me understand how this wheel can keep spinning? Why can’t I just recognize that racist narratives are wrong and stop myself from going around this circle?

Read Part 4.