It’s been 13 years since I met Virginia and she convinced me to run 26.2 miles. As a cancer survivor and a few years ahead of me in life, she said if she could do it, then I could do it. I couldn’t argue with that. Now, I may have regretted listening to her a time or two during the following months of training. However, the fact that she was even there for that arm-twisting conversation was a medical miracle, and, at least in part, due to the love of her husband, Van.
When Virginia was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Van started researching. Sacrificing sleep to surf the 90’s internet, he was looking for something that might save her life. What a shot in the dark, right? Cancer is a big, scary monster that has bested experts for a long time. What difference would it make for this one man to educate himself on the world of cancer treatments?
The difference was that he found a clinical trial for an experimental drug. They were able to get Virginia into that trial. She became one of the first people to receive an effective dose and 21 years later she’s still alive.
For a couple years, I had the privilege of hearing Van and Virginia tell parts of their story to crowds of marathon runners. As I listened, I imagined Van accompanying Virginia to her medical appointments and sitting with her through treatments. All things that were probably difficult for him to do, yet powered by his love for her.
However, it was that additional effort of self-education and hunting down a miracle that always gave me pause. Even if the miracle drug hadn’t existed, love compelled him to do as much as he could and to refuse to accept things as they were. If you want to hear more about Van and Virginia’s amazing story, I recommend you purchase their book and read it.
When someone we love gets sick, it might upend everything. Plans and dreams get put on hold or entirely replaced with a new normal; one that might involve becoming “an expert” in the disease or illness that is attacking your loved one.
That makes me think of Jone and Joshua. Jone is my cousin. Joshua is the partner of her son, Randy. Randy also had a terminal diagnosis a few years ago and was in and out of the hospital and, sometimes in and out of consciousness. Jone and Joshua had to advocate for him with surgeons, doctors and nurses for years. And by advocate, I mean stopping them when they were about to do something that would’ve made him worse or even killed him. Time and time again, it was their knowledge about his disease that helped him get through.
When someone we love has a chronic condition, we might have to change the entire family’s diet and/or schedule. I once met a family who got their kids out to ride bikes in the pre-sunrise light because one child, who could not be directly exposed to sunlight, loved to ride. I can’t imagine it was easy to adapt to waking up the entire family while it was still dark on a regular basis.
We might be tempted to say that none of these things are difficult to do when you love someone. We might not even want to talk about how tedious it is to research cancer treatments, or how stressful it is to challenge medical professionals, or how inconvenient it is to reorient our daily life in these situations. At least I tend to jump toward thinking…“well, it is nothing compared to the struggle of the one we love who is sick and in danger.”
There are personal costs we are willing to pay if it means saving the life of or alleviating the pain of someone we love.
What if the disease attacking your loved one isn’t cancer? What if the source of their pain isn’t something wrong in their cells or even in their psyche? What if they are fighting to survive the societal cancers of racism and white supremacy?
Can you make this jump with me?
If you are not a person of color, but your loved one is, there’s a good chance you don’t automatically understand the disease that threatens them or the pain of the cumulative harm done by racism and white supremacy. There’s a good chance that the social “diet” and routines you’re accustomed to are toxic for your Black child or your brown spouse.
Like Van, does your love compel you to stay up through the night learning and researching, even if there is no miracle cure for racism?
Like Jone or Joshua, are you taking on the responsibility to know what you need to know to be ready to prevent further harm, even if it means challenging a doctor, a teacher, a pastor, a grandparent, a friend?
Are you willing to make changes to your life or get out of your comfort zone in order to create a healthy environment for them?
Even if you are a person of color, but your loved one is a different racial/ethnic minority, there’s a good chance you have some learning and changing to do as well because their distinct experiences of racism and racial trauma might be quite different from yours.
I’ll admit I’m a bit confused these days when someone says they love me. In this past year, there have been plenty of “I love you”s from family, friends, and fellow Christians, who seem content with leaving me (and others) to battle the societal cancer that is racism alone.
“I love you” but I will still pedal anti-Chinese sentiment around this virus. That’s like saying “I love you but I will still smoke around you even though you have lung cancer.”
“I love you” but I don’t want to understand what you’re going through.
“I love you” but not enough learn how to care for or help you through this.
“I love you” but I won’t speak up to others who are harming you.
“I love you” but I won’t sacrifice my comfort to alleviate your pain.
I have greatly appreciated the people who have listened to me or have read what I wrote. However, it seems like many white friends and family see it like a hobby of mine. Like I talk about racism and adoption trauma and how that impacts me because I enjoy it, but it’s totally optional. So they do not have to actually know anything about my little hobby in order to love me.
However, I see things like racism and adoption trauma like a disease I’m fighting, an affliction I struggle against. Somedays the pain is so bad I can’t get out of bed. Somedays I’m feeling really good. Either way, my overall health is greatly impacted by whether or not those closest to me are doing their own learning and willing to make changes.
Just like Van, by himself, did not save Virginia’s life, I don’t expect any one person to be everything I need. Virginia is still with us, not just because of love, but because of years worth of research by specialists and treatment by medical staff, as well as the support of their friends and family.
Still. The kind of love that refuses to accept things as they are and keeps trying, against all odds, can make a huge difference in the outcome. The kind of love that puts effort into understanding someone else’s struggle can learn how to help without furthering harm. That is the kind of love we need.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Ibram X. Kendi) driving racist policies. If not, your homework is to read this article.(a concept expertly articulated by
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 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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?