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 yellow face 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.
Beating this pandemic alone will be costly
We can’t afford hate during this crisis
To be Chinese does not equal disease
I am Asian American, I am not a virus
It’s not uncommon for human fear
To refuse to focus on real dangers
Believing instead in a false “Us vs Them”
Seeing enemies instead of simply strangers
Yet love can overcome fear
People all over are linking arms in this fight
I want to put their stories and their faces,
Their unity that’s contagious, in the spotlight
Like the doctors in Zhejiang, China sharing expertise
Through a Zoom call connecting west and east
Answering questions for their USA colleagues
Even praying for American’s fighting this disease
Or the Chinese Red Cross sending medical staff
Along with 30 tons of supplies
All the way to beleaguered Rome
Where death counts continue to rise
Millions of masks, test kits, and ventilators sent
By a Chinese billionaire whose giving isn’t done
To help the USA, Italy, & Russia, Africa & Latin America
Living out what it means to believe We Are One
Nations are being neighborly
Like South Korea donating test kits
500 to the Philippines and
50,000 to the United Arab Emirates
Asian Americans have been doing their part
Even within the borders of these United States
Donating medical supplies and raising funds
As we face the rising of anti-Asian hate
In Houston, a $42,000 donation of supplies
Long Island: $70,000 by Chinese American Associations From Vegas to Charleston, Michigan to Idaho
If you look for the helpers, you’ll find many are Asians
Yes some are thinking first about money and power
Politically gaming and blaming to protect their own
But many are crossing divides of race and nation
The best of love and unity in humanity can be shown
I’d planned on reposting a series I’d done on Facebook in 2018 that compared political cartoons from the late 1800s and early 1900s to issues we were facing today. Turns out a lot of those posts are mysteriously gone from my Facebook feed.
However, we can analyze this one today.
This one was titled ‘The Mongolian Octopus – His Grip on Australia’ and was published in Sydney, from The Bulletin [‘Australia for the White Man’], August 21, 1886.
Fears of the “Yellow Peril” were not a USA only problem. Pretty much any area colonized by white, western europeans also felt threatened by the mass immigration of Chinese people and east asians in general.
You can see how “small pox” and “typhoid” – the medical threats of the day – are associated with Chinese. Today, as Asians all over the world are sharing how they’ve been verbally and physically attacked because of a racist connection between them and the coronavirus, we see not much has changed. #IAmNotAVirus is only necessary in a world that associates anyone east asian with disease and infection.
Other labels in this cartoon (cheap labour, robbery, immorality, drugs), should remind us of the labels being put on immigrants and asylum seekers at the USA’s southern border. When you hear your aunt or neighbor expressing their concern about the criminals coming in from the US-Mexico border, it is the same thing. The fear of Chinese immigrant in the 1880s was no less real to them as the fear of the Latin immigrant is today. And no less racist either.
Today we know that all people are made in the image of God. Right? That there is no race or ethnicity, no culture or heritage that is inherently immoral, diseased, or criminal. I hope so. However, it’s clear we still have not fully eradicated these ideas from our collective cultural conscious.
When the news broke about Coronavirus and media/press grabbed any image of east asian people (images from unrelated events and places) they could find to attach to their articles…it was a false association with damaging effect.
It revealed how the former racist narratives of Chinese and east asian people still exists in our collective imagination. We’ve not done a good enough job of deconstructing these biases.
I think it helps to look at these things from history…look at something from a safe distance of “we know better now” because we can clearly see how wrong this cartoon is and how dehumanizing it is.
Then we can ask ourselves, in what subtle ways are we still doing this? Still tempted too or permissive of associated a racial/ethnic group with infection, disease, immorality or generally being a threat to ‘our way of life’?
I have a new article up at The Art of Taleh:
Here is an exerpt:
“It is not difficult to hate someone once we’ve perceived them to be a threat. The depictions (in words and images) of East Asians as the evil and threatening “yellow peril” have deep roots in our cultural history and COVID-19 is merely proving how little has changed. […] Yet God urges us throughout the Bible to resist all lies and deceptions; to take every thought captive (2 Corinthians 10:5). What might that look like during the rise of COVID-19?”
Recently, the President of the United States said that four minority congresswomen originally came from countries with broken governments, that they should go back and fix the crime infested places they came from instead of stay in the USA. Yet 3 of them were born in this country and one has been here since she was a child. The only reason the President referred to them in this way is because of their black and brown skin.
My first thought was about how boringly common that kind of racist language is. So common it even has a term; the concept of the Perpetual Foreigner in the United States is basically that US Citizens who are not white will always been seen as an alien or a foreigner, as belonging somewhere else.
However white citizens, whose ancestors definitely originated somewhere else, are never spoken of this way, never questioned or seen as foreign simply because of their race. No one is telling Pelosi to go back and fix problems in Italy. No one told Hilary to join British Parliament instead of run for President of the USA.
My second thought was about how frighteningly damaging those words are when they come from the President and not just a random person with an internet connection and no real influence.
As the weight of the President’s words toward black and brown women who are serving our nation in elected office sank in, my own experiences with this sentiment ate away at me.
So, while my husband drove our family to Portland for the day, I sat next to my baby in the back seat and wrote this on my phone to post on my Facebook profile. I needed to try again to explain why this hurts. Even though I actually have written about this very thing several times recently on Facebook. I am reposting it here, below the next heading.
So, white friends, do you think it is ok or normal to assume that someone who is not white was not born in the USA? That they actually belong in another country? That they should go and fix that country before they can positively contribute to the USA?
If you have any doubts about how common it is for non-white (and I will say especially asian) people to be told to go back to “where you came from” or asked a variation of “Where are you REALLY from?” (which might be asked with friendly intentions but still makes the same problematic assumption)…then I will personally verify this for you.
It happens to me. It happens to my non-white friends. It’s so common I don’t even talk about it when it happens usually. Last time it happened I didn’t even tell my husband because I was a little embarrassed about the circumstances.
It is important that you know these assumptions and comments and questions are based in the (often unconscious) belief that white is default, white is normal, and white always belongs. Therefore anyone not white is other, is not expected, and does not belong.
It is important to know that it is not the one individual incident that is the main problem. It’s the lifetime of these recurring incidents happening in the first person, witnessing it happen to others, seeing it expressed in movies and the news.
It is the cumulative effect that is so damaging, like one thousand soft punches to the exact same spot that begins to ache then bruises and eventually immobilizes the entire arm.
Even if you know not everyone thinks that way.
So when I hear people in power speak this way, I am rightfully angered and grieved. I know that it increases the perceived acceptability of these assumptions and normalizes these comments.
If you hear about these kinds of incidents and your instinct is to find a way to explain why these comments are not racist and/or to minimize the impact on non-white people, it’s like you’ve witnessed someone softly punch my broken and bleeding arm and rolled your eyes at me when I cried out in pain. It’s like your telling me I shouldn’t feel pain because they didn’t know that was a sore spot. You might as well punch me yourself.