Looking Directly at Internalized Racism

From a talk by Tim Jackins at the Black Liberation and Community Development Workshop, in Warwick, New York, USA, May 2011

You are leaders. You are here because somebody thinks you are a leader, or will soon be a leader, or wants you to be a leader. Someone has hope in your direction. That doesn’t mean that you feel like a leader.

You are here because somebody thinks highly of your abilities. This is a smart crowd. They don’t make big mistakes, and they didn’t make a mistake about you. So you get to be ready to lead RC, in any way you want to. In particular, you get to figure out if you want to lead RC for this constituency.[1] It’s important that a good number of you decide to do that. Barbara[2] has guided this constituency deftly for a long time. People have joined in more and more fully, and that needs to keep happening.

Part of the struggle is looking at racism, directly. Part is making RC available in spite of racism, so that people have this tool to work on every distress. A part that needs to be looked at over and over again, which isn’t easy to look at, is how much racism has affected us and gotten into our minds. It does this with all of us whether we were trained to be the agents of racism or the targets of it. You may not have ever believed racism, you may have used RC well enough to stand against any pull of it, but the hurts of racism are in your mind. Racism gets into us and gets internalized. You can resist it, but until you discharge it, it gets in the way and affects your relationships within the constituency.

This can be difficult to work on. Who are you going to work on it with? Who is safe? Who can you count on to think well enough about you to not be confused that you have this material[3] about people of African heritage? It’s like this with all oppressive material. Because it’s come down on everybody in the society, nobody seems to have enough slack to listen. So what do you do? Well, you do the best you can. You keep it under control. You hide it. You don’t tell anybody what you are fighting against. You fight alone. You fight against this distress alone in your own head.

Or you have sessions on it secretly and don’t tell your counselor what you are working on. You can have very good sessions in which your counselor has no idea what is going on[4] (laughs). You’re thinking your own thoughts, even as you say the phrases he or she gives you. You work on distresses surreptitiously. You don’t have to take a chance. It’s nice that you can do that, but it’s accepting a piece of the oppression—that there is no good ally, that nobody will understand, that you can’t fight openly against the distress with anyone. That’s not true.

There are lots of people who could be your counselor on internalized racism, including lots of people in this room. That doesn’t mean that they won’t get restimulated. It’s all right that we get restimulated—just like it’s all right that we get defeated in our battles part of the time. It doesn’t mean that we don’t fight those battles. It doesn’t mean that we don’t work on the distress. It simply means that it is not easy. It means that we have to have agreements amongst us—that we know that this is distress, that we all carry it, and that we will work on whatever is restimulating about one of us working on it, that we will take responsibility for cleaning up whatever distress gets restimulated. Distresses simply get restimulated, and that doesn’t mean that we’re corrupted, or weak, or stupid, or mistaken. It means that life has been that tough. We have been defeated by racism repeatedly.

The hard part is not the defeat. It is the fact that we have had to live it ever after. We have to stop doing that. We have to decide that no matter how horrible we feel or how confusing it seems, we will let somebody else in so that we can really work against the distress.

You have to confess to someone how the distress runs in your head. You have to tell somebody about it and trust that he or she will understand that it’s not you, that it’s part of the recording that got laid in, that you didn’t have a choice about it, and that you’ve never had the resource to discharge it. If we are going to go on, if you are going to go on, if you are going to go on and lead this constituency, you can’t protect that material.

People see the effects of all the distresses we try so hard to hide, and it’s even more confusing when they don’t know what the distresses are. You know how scared you are when you see people all tight with something and you don’t know what it is. You think the worst possible things. You worry that they are near the edge of being out of control with it, when they are just hanging on as best they can. There is no way to interpret it correctly when you have no information. You need information about it so you can make sense of it. It can be restimulating. That’s fine––you can work on that.

This happens to everybody who is targeted by oppression. The oppression has been heavy enough in our societies that although you have known better and have fought against it, at some point it still got you. Even though you know better now and can fight against it, it’s still there and it’s still affecting you. It’s still affecting the relationships you care most about. It still gets in the way of the work you most want to do. So you have to do more than you have done.

You have to talk about the things that run in your head about other people of African heritage. You’ve got to face and say out loud what runs in your head, what you struggle with. You can give somebody a picture of it. You don’t have to blame yourself. You don’t have to feel bad about it. None of that makes sense. And it doesn’t make sense to keep it secret, because then nothing moves. Then you don’t have any way to decide to move it.

You can decide that you want to change something in your own mind and go after[5] it. Nobody can change something in our own mind except us.

So we’re going to do a three- way mini-session in which you get to figure out how to talk about the distressed things that you haven’t been able to get out of your head about other people of African heritage. Look around the room. Who are you going to talk to? Keep looking. There are a lot of good people here. Don’t choose anyone yet. It isn’t going to be that simple. Look around the room. Who knows you well enough not to be confused by your internalized racism? I’m not asking who you feel comfortable with. I’m asking you to think about this. Who knows you well enough that he or she is not going to be confused about the things you have to talk about that you haven’t had a chance to? Is there anybody? How many? A handful? One? I want to see. I want you to hold up how many fingers—three, ten, five, four. A lot of hands are not going up, which tells us how hard it is to even think about doing this. It is that hard. Sorry. It just is, and you can do it.

This is the point at which you decide that it’s important enough to make these distresses move––that, okay, you are going to go right at them. You are going to take a shot at them instead of hanging back believing the fears that say you can’t make this stuff move. It will move. It actually moves fairly easily once you get it out in the open. But you’ve got to get it out in the open, and that’s what we haven’t done well. In our fears we’ve kept it out of sight most of the time. If we want to reach people of African heritage, and do it faster, this is part of what has to move to make it happen.


[1] African-heritage people
[2] Barbara Love, the International Liberation Reference Person for African Heritage People
[3] Material means distress.
[4] Going on means happening.
[5] Go after means pursue.


Last modified: 2017-05-06 23:35:41-07