Seeing Internalized Racism, Part 4 | Feedback Loop 201

by , on
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 2 | Implicit Factors

by , on
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.