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Conspire Magazine

Internalized Racism

November 21, 2013

By Donna Bivens

Racism and the internalization of racism are the primary assaults on our love for ourselves and each other. Love in this context is our ability to care for ourselves and each other spiritually, emotionally, physically and intellectually and to do it in a way that does not split us off from ourselves – body from mind, spirit from emotion, individual from community and so forth.

Racism has a connection to power that is separate from the human flaws we all share, such as prejudice and scapegoating. It involves an unequal distribution of systemic power for people with white-skin privilege in four main areas:  1. the power to make and enforce decisions; 2. access to resources, broadly defined; 3. the ability to set and determine standards for what is considered appropriate behavior; and 4. the ability to define reality.

This inequality is generally the result of a history of colonialism, genocide and oppression in which the material, intellectual, spiritual and emotional resources of one people are put in service of another through force. The struggle against racism for white people is a long and difficult one that involves their learning to live in the world as peers with people of color. To do this requires no less than for them to dismantle oppressive structures that give them an unjust power over others and learn to live as nothing more or less than a part of the whole. This is long hard work.

In the meantime the racism manifests as a relentless attack on the individual and collective lives of people of color. We experience this attack as violence against our hearts, minds, bodies and spirits that often results in some form of internalized racism. Internalized racism is the situation that occurs in a racist system when a racial group oppressed by racism supports the supremacy and dominance of the dominating group by maintaining or participating in the set of attitudes, behaviors, social structures and ideologies that undergird the dominating group’s power.

Internalized racism is a systemic oppression with a life of its own. That is, not only is there a system in place that upholds the power of white people. There is a system in place that undermines the power of people of color and teaches us to fear our own power and difference.

Seeing internalized racism as a systemic oppression allows us to distinguish it again from human wounds like self-hatred or “low self-esteem” to which all people are vulnerable.

It is not an individual problem. It is structural. Thus, even people of color who have “high self-esteem” must grapple with internalized racism. We now redirect the resources of people of color doing anti-racism into people of color – into helping each other to understand and confront the systemic nature of racism and of internalized racism.

Much of the time that people of color spend helping white people understand racism could and should go into helping people of color get clearer about internalized racism.

As more white people become clearer about white supremacy and how to “do the work”  with each other,  people of color are freed up to look  beyond the physical and psychological trauma from racism to other questions about how to create what  we want for ourselves. And together as peers with our many gifts, how to create what we want for humanity.


Donna Bivens has done racial equity consulting and training with Community Change, Inc. for over 10 years. http://www.communitychangeinc.org  Donna currently works as Project Director of the Boston Busing/Desegregation Project at the Union of Minority Neighborhoods (UMN). She served many years as co-director of the Women’s Theological Center in Boston, a center of women’s theological education grounded in social action.  A longer version of this article can be found in the e-book Flipping the Script.

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