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?
You might have read my examples of internalized racism in part 1 and thought, “Whoa, that’s crazy! How did that happen? Where you raised by racists?!”
No, I was not. I was raised by a really loving white family. They did try to give me a positive racial identity in the best way they knew how. Simply, there were things they didn’t know and didn’t know to ask about. I’ve said it many times before; I don’t blame them for what they didn’t know, but what they didn’t know still negatively impacted me.
So what happened?
There are million ways we learn things, consciously and unconsciously. Racist narratives and stereotypes are embedded into American culture and society. So I was exposed to anti-Asian ideas in subtle and overt ways. Even people who knew and loved me unknowingly perpetuated anti-Asian racism that I was internalizing.
This happened through jokes they didn’t see the harm in (like slanting eyes) or discussions I overheard about “the Chinese” (meaning the country of China) which would often have been portrayed in my corner of the world as a competitor with the USA or a “dark place” in a Christian, evangelical religious sense.
Without being explicitly taught about race or racism, I had to make sense of all these things I was soaking up on my own.
Now, you could easily say, “Well…just because you are around people who say or do racist things doesn’t mean you have to internalize it.”
Which is true, but there are more factors at play than just what I heard people say or do. There are environmental and situational factors and social pressures that influence how we make sense of the world around us and what happens to us. These are implicit factors, things that indirectly effect our ideas and choices.
The world around me was sending uncomfortable or hurtful messages, and I had to find a way to adapt and survive in that environment. Here are some examples of the implicit factors that encouraged internalized racism to take root in my experience.
This is not uncommon for transracial adoptees. It can even happen to non-adopted persons of color whose family has assimilated to the dominant white culture.
Even though my white adoptive parents spoke positively about my ethnic heritage, I was still only learning about Chinese culture and people from a white perspective. This didn’t help me see how my ethnic identity was an important thing for me to develop and integrate into my view of self. In fact, focusing too much on my ethnic identity would have been seen as incompatible with focusing on my identity being “in Christ”.
Ambiguity is uncomfortable for the human brain because it is designed to categorize as a way of learning and knowing. Being biracial Asian/white, I am used to people having an awkward reaction to my features. It’s happened my whole entire life.
So growing up, when people acted awkwardly, I took that to mean something about me was awkward, therefore it was my responsibility to make them feel comfortable with me. One way of doing that was exemplifying the white cultural values I was raised with until they saw me as an individual, not my race.
Distancing myself from my non-white identity and embracing my “white side” benefitted me in all the ways I’ve already listed and more. I didn’t realize that was what was happening, because white adjacency is a typical outcome of being adopted into a white family. It’s just how things were from the start.
Even now, I can find more affirmation and applause from white people when I say and do things that affirm white views on pretty much anything. That may look like being chosen for leadership positions or getting my writing submission accepted and published.
This is a double whammy when you’re adopted, which inherently implies a “primary rejection” (or relinquishment) by our birth mother. The thought or threat of being rejected again in anyway can trigger that adoption trauma. Rejection is something you’ll want to avoid at all costs.
However, even outside of the context of adoption, as a minority, being rejected by the majority culture is an overwhelming thought for all the implications that has; reduced access to privileges and opportunities and increased likelihood of being targeted or scapegoated. No one wants to be on the outside looking in.
I included a lot more of the adoption layer in these examples, but I don’t believe that any of these implicit factors that influence internalized racism are exclusive to adoptees.
I set out to describe how internalized racism can happen to people of color but I have not yet fully answered that question. I’ve given you some personal context, but I think we need to put that personal context into the bigger picture.
In Part 3 of this series, we will zoom out and I’ll show you how I’ve come to understand the role that internalized racism plays in the bigger picture. If we don’t understand that part, we’ll miss how internalized racism perpetuates racism and the reason it is so important that we learn to name and deconstruct it when we see it in ourselves.
Before we begin, let me remind you that I’m speaking as a mixed Chinese/German American who was adopted at birth by my White relatives and raised in a rural, White area, as a charismatic, evangelical Christian. This is the perspective and context that I write from and shapes how I’ve seen internalized racism in myself.
To start, here is a sad yet amusing story.
I was a freshman in high school, when I had my first Black classmate. We were in a version of a homeschool co-op and had nearly every class together. We were the only kids who were not white.
One day he asked me, “Does it bother you when people call you ‘c—k’?”
My response was, I kid you not, “You mean like…in a chain?”
I would never have known if I had been called a racial slur because I didn’t know one when I heard it. Raised in a white, racially colorblind culture, I truly believed racism was a thing of the past, save for the few crazies, well into my adulthood.
I minimized racism because I had an immature and incomplete understanding of what it was. I minimized anti-Asian racist ideas because I had internalized anti-Asian racist ideas.
I experienced a lot of racial micro-aggressions as a kid, (e.g. “Of course you’re good at math.” or “What are you?”). They made me uncomfortable and hurt in a way I couldn’t articulate. So I often assumed the source of the problem was internal (i.e. something is wrong with me) rather than assuming it was external (i.e. something is wrong with how that person sees me or treats me).
This is a tricky subject. I do not want to blame BIPOC for our own oppression, but I do want us to be able to see and name when we are complicit in racism.
Internalized racism doesn’t fit cleanly into typical understandings of how racism works. To talk about internalized racism is to talk about how BIPOC can (un)consciously uphold racist narratives and policies.
Racism is often described as race-based prejudice + the power to act on it. Historically, it has been people of white/anglo European descent who have had the power to act on their race-based prejudices against Black, Indigenous, people of color. So we often see white people as being the sole perpetuators of racism.
However, with internalized racism, BIPOC are adopting the prejudices of white people (those in power) against themselves, believing the racist ideas to be true and/or racist policies to be justified.
I’ll end up saying this over and over again, that how internalized racism manifests differs based on who the person is (their race, gender, etc) and what their circumstances and life experiences are. I can’t speak for anyone but myself.
Below are six examples that span 30 years of my life, but this is not an exhaustive list by far. These examples focus on the anti-Asian racism that I internalized. I was exposed to anti-Asian ideas in the culture around me because racism is embedded into American culture and society.
For example, when I encountered harmful Asian tropes in media (e.g. Rooney in in the movie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s), I would minimize (e.g. “That’s just a comedic role so of course it’s over the top”.) and believe that there was nothing wrong with the portrayal of the Asian person, but that it was funny because Asian people were really that way on some level.
So on to my examples.
Well, if someone slanted their eyes when they talked about Chinese people, then at 4 yrs old, when I was told I was part Chinese, I felt that was what I was supposed to do; mock myself. If someone joked about a Chinese/Asian stereotype, then there must be some truth to that stereotype.
While I was internalizing racist messages about my own racial group, I was also internalizing racist messages about all non-white races. So I picked up some anti-Black racist ideas and believed some stereotypes about Latin people, etc.
Internalized racism prevents a healthy identity development and self-actualization. In my experience, internalized racism leads to shame, self-hate, self-sabotage, etc. I still struggle with believing that I am qualified to do things that I learned were “not typical of Asian people”.
For each of my examples, there has been shame and self-loathing that made it difficult to want to unpack these things. This is not a place any BIPOC chose to be. Which is why I believe truthfully addressing this must be done with an abundance of grace and gentleness.
These examples are the easier ones to share. However I have more I’m still unpacking. There is always more. I hope that by sharing it helps other connect some dots and better understand that racism can take many forms.
Internalized racism serves to perpetuate racism. I’ll explain how in Part 2.