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INTERNALIZED RACISM

A MAJOR BREAKTHROUGH HAS BEEN ACHIEVED

An important result of the black caucuses and black workshops in Re-evaluation Counseling has been revealing the nature of internalized oppression and the creation of effective techniques for eliminating this major obstacle to our liberation from our midst. Although the ways in which each of us experiences internalized oppression are unique (for each person is individually oppressed), there is no doubt that each one of us has been profoundly hurt by this particular manifestation of oppression. No black person in this society has been spared.

Internalized racism has been the primary means by which we have been forced to perpetuate and "agree" to our own oppression. It has been a major factor preventing us, as black people, from realizing and putting into action the tremendous intelligence and power which in reality we possess. On a personal level it has been a major ingredient in the distressful and unworkable relationships which we so often have with each other. It has proved to be the fatal stumbling block of every promising and potentially powerful black liberation effort that has failed in the past. Patterns of internalized oppression severely limit the effectiveness of every existing black group.

This has been a problem that no one has been able to solve and over which many have despaired. Some patterns of internalized racism have become so familiar that we, ourselves, accept them as part of our "black culture." We attribute them to "the way we are."

It is a breakthrough of major importance that black Co-Counselors and their allies in RC have come up with a clear theoretical understanding of this phenomenon and, more importantly, dependably effective techniques which can completely rid us of this terrible obstacle to our individual emergence and our group liberation. This has never before been achieved. The recognition of internalized oppression is of tremendous significance and can be effectively communicated to black people in the world outside of Re-evaluation Counseling.

WHAT IS INTERNALIZED OPPRESSION?

We know that every hurt or mistreatment, if not discharged (healed), will create a distress pattern (some form of rigid, destructive, or ineffective feeling and behavior) in the victim of this mistreatment. This distress pattern, when restimulated, will tend to push the victim through a re-enactment of the original distress experience either with someone else in the victim role or, when this is not possible, with the original victim being the object of her/his distress pattern.

Racism is a form of oppression that has been systematically initiated, encouraged, and powerfully enforced by the distress patterns of individual members of the majority culture and their institutions. Black people have been the victims, the primary victims in the country, of every form of abuse, invalidation, oppression, and exploitation.

This mistreatment has installed heavy chronic distress patterns upon us as a people and as individuals. We are in no way to blame for the initiation and installation of these patterns. It is clear that historically we have been denied the conditions necessary (for example, the safety) to discharge this distress. It is also evident that from the days of slavery to the present, we have not been in any position to re-enact these patterns upon our oppressors.

The result has been that these distress patterns, created by oppression and racism from the outside, have been played out in the only two places it has seemed "safe" to do so. First, upon members of our own group - particularly upon those over whom we have some degree of power or control, our children. Second, upon ourselves through all manner of self-invalidation, self-doubt, isolation, fear, feelings of powerlessness, and despair.

It is important to keep in mind that some of the patterned behaviors that we frequently recognize within black cultures were originally developed to keep us alive. They originally had a definite survival value. They are a testimony to the strength, inventiveness, and determination of our people - our refusal to give up as a people. Even "today" chronic patterns can have "get-us-by" survival value. Today, many of these responses to mistreatment have become embedded in our culture, but they no longer serve a useful function. Instead, these so-called "elements of black culture" operate to lock us into our roles as victims of oppression.

Internalized oppression is this turning upon ourselves, upon our families, and upon our own people the distress patterns that result from the racism and oppression of the majority society. As part of our liberation work, we know that we must seek out and direct the attention of ourselves and the world to the strength, intelligence, greatness, power, and success of our people and our culture. We must also constantly seek and root out those features of our present cultures that have been imposed by responses to racism and that keep us trapped in that oppression today.

HOW DOES INTERNALIZED RACISM AFFECT US? WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?

Patterns of internalized racism get played out in dozens of unique ways in each individual. But we have come to recognize that there are certain forms of internalized oppression that are widely experienced by black people in our society. Some forms of these distress patterns are so universal throughout our black sub-culture that they are mistaken for a "true" part of our culture.

These destructive and hurtful behaviors and feelings are not part of our real culture. They are not part of the nature of black people. They are simply chronic patterns (the kind that play all the time and are mistaken for reality) resulting from systematic and institutionalized mistreatment.

Understanding this gives us the safety to undertake the job of identifying all forms of internalized oppression in ourselves and other oppressed peoples. We recognize these as our enemy, as chronic patterns that prevent our liberation. We subject each example we find to discharge and re-evaluation.

What are some of the ways patterns of internalized racism operate among us?

Individual
Relations

Patterns of internalized oppression cause us to dramatize our feelings of rage, fear, indignation, frustration, and powerlessness at each other - at other black people - often those closest to us.

Our
Children

We invalidate our children with fierce criticism and fault-finding, intending to "straighten them out" but, in the process, destroying their self-confidence.

Group
Effort

Patterns of internalized racism cause us adults to find fault, criticize, and invalidate each other. This invariably happens when we come together in a group to address some important problem or undertake some liberation project. What follows is divisiveness and disunity leading to despair and abandonment of the effort.

Leadership

Patterns of internalized oppression cause us to attack, criticize, or have unrealistic expectations of any one of us who has the courage to step forward and take on leadership responsibilities. This leads to a lack of the support that is absolutely necessary for effective leadership to emerge and group strength to grow. It also leads directly to the "burn out" phenomenon we have all witnessed in, or experienced as, effective black leaders.

Isolation
From
Other
Blacks

Patterns of internalized racism have caused us to be deeply hurt by our brothers and sisters. We often develop defensive patterns of fear, mistrust, withdrawal, and isolation from other blacks. On top of this we sometimes feel ashamed of our fear of our own people.

The isolation which results from internalized oppression can become so severe that a black person may feel safer with and more trustful of white people than of blacks. This is an illusion, a confusion, created by the pattern, but an individual may accept living inside this pattern because it feels "comfortable" and therefore "workable." Clear thinking tells us, however, that this is not a good enough solution. No black person's re-emergence will be achieved unless he or she faces and dissolves the isolation from her or his own people.

I can be sure that any time I feel intolerant of, irritated by, impatient with, embarrassed by, ashamed of, "not as black as," "blacker than," better than, not as good as, fearful of, not safe with, isolated from, mistrustful of, not cared about by, unable to support, or not supported by another black person, some pattern of internalized racism is at work. Any time I take action or do not take action on the basis of any of these feelings, I am giving in to a pattern of internalized oppression, racism, and powerlessness. For example, if I do not ask for, demand, and organize support for myself from my black brothers and sisters, I am strengthening the stranglehold of oppression on us all. Similarly, if I do not forcefully persist in offering and giving my support (even risking my own feelings) to another black person in the grip of some distress pattern, I am buying into my own powerlessness and oppression.

Internalized
Stereotypes

Patterns of internalized racism have caused us to accept many of the stereotypes of blacks created by the oppressive majority society. We have been taught to be angry at, ashamed of, anything that differs too much from a mythical ideal of the middle class of the majority culture - skin that is "too dark," hair that is "too kinky," dress, talk, and music that is "too loud."

Narrowing of
Our Black
Culture

Internalized oppression leads us to accept a narrow and limiting view of what is "authentic" black culture and behavior. Blacks have been ridiculed, humiliated, attacked, and isolated because they excelled in school; because they did or did not talk in a particular way; because they liked classical or folk music; because they did not dance; because they did not play basketball; and in many other ways have been told that they were not legitimately "black enough," or are "trying to be white," etc. All of these hurts were served up and accepted by human beings wearing restimulated patterns of internalized racism.

Mistrusting
Our
Thinking

Institutionalized racism and the internalized racism which results from it have given rise to patterns which cause us to mistrust our own thinking. We carry around doubts about our own and other black people's ability to think well. Even when we do have confidence in our own thinking we are often prevented from putting this thinking into action by the racist and oppressive structures and practices of the society.

Needing to
Feel Good
Right Now

The patterns of powerlessness and despair that result from this "impossible" situation give rise to still another pattern common among us, which I will call the "feel good now" pattern. The pattern says, "Since I do not know what to do (the 'I can't think good' pattern), or knowing what to do, I am prevented from doing it by the racism around me, and since any black effort is doomed to failure in the long run (patterns of powerlessness and despair), I must settle for making myself feel good right now. At least I deserve that much." Drugs, alcohol, and other addictions; compulsive and hurtful sexual behaviors; flashy consumerism; irrational use of money; all kinds of elaborate street rituals, games, posturing and pretenses that waste our energies - these are all directly related to patterns of internalized racism and oppression.

Learning and
Long-Range
Goals

Learning and thinking are powerfully affected by internalized oppression. Here real, objective racism, internalized racism, and deep feelings of powerlessness combine to make it very difficult to commit ourselves to flexible thinking all the time, or to correct action toward long-range goals, or to efforts with delayed rewards. Prevented by society from acting on our correct thinking - and we often do see clearly what is wrong and what needs to be done - we are limited to acting on our feelings. It would be hard to find a more effective way of keeping us powerless and ineffective towards our own liberation.

Survival

Internalized oppression is a major factor in the perpetuation of so-called "getting by" or "survival" behaviors. Some of these behaviors were developed in the slavery era of our oppression as a necessary response to acute problems of survival in that situation. Learning to silently withstand humiliation by practicing on one another is an example - e.g., playing "the dozens." The development of "happy" or "clowning" or "shuffling" or "ignorant" patterns are other examples. In order to "survive" we have learned also not to show or share our feelings ("cool" patterns) or to disguise them ("tough" patterns) - particularly feelings of tenderness, love, and zest.

Because we have been the victims of attack, humiliation, and exploitation, the restimulated patterns draw us to play out these behaviors on others and to feel that we must do so in order to survive, or at least to prevent ourselves from again being the victim of the pattern.

Such patterns no longer serve our interests or our liberation; but just as the pattern of oppression continues to operate even when it no longer serves the exploitative purposes for which it was originally installed and perpetuated, so, too, our "pseudo-survival" patterns have a momentum of their own and remain in force long after they have ceased to serve any useful purpose for us.

We can no longer allow ourselves to settle for survival. Survival is not enough. To accept these "pseudo-survival" behaviors or call them part of black culture, is giving in to the worst kind of internalized racism and powerlessness.

Other
Oppressions
and
Divisiveness

The workings of distress patterns have caused us to introduce, tolerate, proliferate, and internalize within our black sub-culture other oppressions such as classism, sexism, anti-Semitism, the oppression of young people, and the oppression of other oppressed groups. This has only created further disunity and divisiveness among black men and women and young persons and persons who appear to be of different classes. (In fact, almost all black people are of the working class, although this reality may be obscured from both themselves and other blacks.) Unity and pooling of the power among blacks, and between blacks and other oppressed groups, is thus effectively prevented.

These are some, but by no means all, of the common manifestations of internalized racism among black people. It is probable that each black person in the United States has experienced at least one of these distress patterns but always in some individual, unique way. Each of us has been individually oppressed and participated in internalizing and experiencing this oppression in individual ways.

Although the effects of these patterns have been devastating to our people, we need not despair. We have achieved a major beginning victory against them. We have realized that these terrible feelings and the destructive behaviors that result from them are only patterns - patterns of distress imposed on us from the outside! We know that these can be destroyed by systematic and committed discharge and re-evaluation. These destructive patterns can be replaced by a reality of rationality, love, power, and unity among all blacks and all oppressed peoples.

The perpetuation of internalized distress patterns is the only thing that stands in the way of our coming together and taking the lead in ending all racism, oppression, and exploitation. Knowing this can be done, only patterns of despair and powerlessness stand in the way of our acting on this certain knowledge.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

We possess, right now, the knowledge, the tools, and the power to attack and eliminate patterns of internalized racism from among ourselves and in the wide world. I am sure that nothing will contribute more significantly to our individual re-emergence nor to black liberation than our firm commitment to this project.

It appears, in fact, that at some point black Co-Counselors must address internalized oppression. Those who have begun to address their counseling to these areas have found that profound and positive changes have taken place in many areas of their personal and group life - even areas that do not, at first, seem related to internalized racism. These people have reported success in making significant changes in relationships, parenting, the workplace, and organizations in which they participate.

Where internalized oppression has not been tackled, individual Co-Counselors have often found themselves blocked or slowed in their counseling; black or Third World classes have been unable to meet the needs of the participants and have dissolved; support groups have floundered and workshops have sometimes "exploded."

We need to refine our theory with regard to internalized oppression. We need to fully commit ourselves to a firm policy against all forms of internalized racism - and we need to further develop effective counseling techniques to discharge all patterns of internalized oppression.

I propose that as black Co-Counselors we commit ourselves to this project and that, periodically, we assess our progress; update our theory, policy, and goals; and plan actions appropriate to that point in our liberation effort.

I propose that we commit ourselves to the following six-point program:

Point One

To devote significant effort to understanding, adding to, and refining the RC theory of internalized oppression to make this theory as accurate and as workable as possible. We should seek out all information that is relevant to our thinking in this area.

We can do this by devoting sessions to discharging on the theory in its present form and on any patterns that may keep us from thinking about this theory. We can devote time in classes and support groups to "think and listens" and to discussions on the theory of internalized oppressions.

Point Two

Each individual commit herself or himself to learning to identify and recognize patterns of internalized racism in him- or herself and in others. Create ways of reminding ourselves to suspect patterns of internalized racism in all relationships and interactions with others that are not working well and are not characterized by understanding, cooperation, clear thinking, and safety.

Point Three

Focus the discharge and re-evaluation process on all experiences of internalized racism in our sessions, classes, support groups, and workshops. Develop increasingly effective ways of counseling on memories of internalized racism, incidents in which we have been victims of the patterns of other blacks, or incidents in which our own patterns have been the vehicle of oppression of other blacks or other oppressed peoples. (Perhaps it is better to work first on the distress itself in sessions and classes and only then try to think about theory, policy, and improved techniques.)

We can begin by asking some of these questions in our sessions:

  • What has been good about being black?

  • What makes me proud of being black?

  • What are black people really like?

  • What has been difficult about being black?

  • What do I want other black people to know about me?

  • How have I been hurt by my own people? (be specific)

  • When do I remember standing up against the mistreatment of one black person by another?

  • When do I remember being strongly supported by another black person?

  • When do I remember that another black person (unrelated) really stood up for me?

  • When do I remember acting on some feeling of internalized oppression or racism?

  • When do I remember resisting and refusing to act on this basis?

Point Four

Commit ourselves to setting correct directions against and taking bold actions that forcefully contradict patterns of internalized oppression and powerlessness in all parts of our lives and discharging on the feelings that these directions and actions bring to light.

Point Five

Continuously and fully share the information, knowledge, and experience we collect through these actions with each other through Black Re-emergence and at our various gatherings.

Point Six

Translate our progress into effective liberation activities in the wide world.

Let us agree to stop being the victims of internalized racism. Let us see it for what it is - nothing more than a distress pattern worn by a victim who feels powerless. There is nothing wrong with any human being (including you) except the effects of mistreatment. These can be changed now by you and your allies.

Suzanne Lipsky

(originally appeared in the RC journal Black Re-emergence No. 2)


Last modified: 2016-08-22 02:11:22-07