Seeing Internalized Racism, Part 2 | Implicit Factors

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2020-06-27

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?

We Learn More Than We’re Taught

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.

Internalizing is a way to make sense of it.

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.

Weak racial identity development

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”.

Ethnic or racial ambiguity

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.

White Adjacency

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.

Fear of being rejected

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.

Read Part 3.