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.
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.