I was only 15 years old. Kicking off my Converse, my heart raced. The long-anticipated package was finally in my hands. The Arctic Monkeys blaring in my headphones tried to restrain the voices in my head. I analyzed the stranger in the mirror one last time. It was for the best. No it wasn’t. Yes it was. No it wasn’t. Tears fell on top of my hands as I pulled the bottle of skin-whitening cream from the box. I wanted to be white.
In The Psychology of Racism, Robin Nicole Johnson offers a definition of internalized racism.
“[Internalized racism is the] conscious and unconscious acceptance of a racial hierarchy in which whites are consistently ranked above people of colour," Johnson writes.
This concept can be understood in the context of a history of white supremacist colonialism, and the lingering effects it continues to inflict today. Internalized racism is the poisoning of cultural roots with Western ideals, stripping away a piece of one’s identity at a subconscious level.
I knew who I was—a first-generation Sri Lankan Muslim who ate rice and curry for dinner almost everyday and would occasionally attend weekly Friday prayers at the local mosque—but I never wanted this part to define me.
Growing up, I first attended elementary school with a relatively even mix of white and non-white students. When I transferred to a different school as part of the Ontario Education System’s ‘gifted’ program, my blanket of ignorant bliss was stripped away. The peers in my new classes were predominantly white, and the abstract term ‘minority’ became an increasingly resonant experience. The ‘popular’ group of students were mostly white, and I received more and more comments about how my lunches were different or smelly. I began to realize how truly different I was, and not in an accepting way.
I started thinking more and more about how my identity, the decisions I made, the way I presented, were all influenced by race. Internalized racism is never something you're born with, it’s something you’re taught.
I hid my sixth grade student photo from my parents because I wholeheartedly believed that I was too ugly to look at. I never admitted to it, and I never rationally understood why I did it. The act was second nature.
Too often, these sorts of uncomfortable life experiences inform the backbone of racial preference for minorities across the globe. Alec Regino, U3 Arts, grew up in the Philippines but was exposed to Western ideals at a young age.
“I am Filipino, but, [growing up], my mom would also say I was from Spain and China,” Regino said. “My parents’ ultimate goal was to constantly push this narrative that I needed to meet a white girl and marry her so that their grandchildren [would] have lighter skin and bluer eyes [....] I didn’t think about it so much until I got here, but I did have this idea. Since light-skinned people were desirable, dark-skinned people wouldn’t be as attractive.”
When racialized children constantly wonder if they’re desirable enough for their parents, let alone their peers, the prioritization of a specific race inevitably becomes the norm. A lack of role models, at home and in the media, fosters self-doubt and limits the potential for young minorities to develop a stable identity. In an interview with The McGill Tribune, Egyptian student Abeer Almahdi, U2 Arts, recalled her yearning for a role model who looked like her while growing up in the Middle East.
“I didn’t really have strong Egyptian women to look up to as much, especially living in Kuwait,” Almahdi said. “The media didn’t help either, even [...] Arab media. Arab media was dominated by the same white passing artists, and the same people who never really looked anything like me. Growing up, the Western media was just as bad. When I was a kid, I used to draw myself with straight blonde hair and my kindergarten teacher was like, ‘that’s not you.’”
A life-long exposure to Western media can skew a person of colour’s self-perception and personal aspirations. Inevitably, as minority groups encounter predominantly light-skinned representation in almost all forms of media, they are taught that Western traits garner success and fortune, promoting an impossible, ambient hunger for acceptance. With unrealistic ideals often come rude awakenings. After moving from the Philippines to Montreal, Regino experienced this culture shift first-hand.
“When I moved here, this was the first time I realized how Filipino I was,” Regino said. “I grew up surrounded by Filipinos, but, moving to Canada, the whole dynamic shifted. Back in the Philippines, I was at the top of the social hierarchy. I have a white-sounding name, I have a white sounding voice. People treated me nicely. I had no issues. Here, I am nowhere near the top of the social hierarchy, and I assumed it was due to my race.”
Internalized racism is informed by racism’s many manifestations in society, but also by the prejudice that minorities are forced to assume when existing in Western contexts. When entering a Western society, ignoring the stereotypical implications of your race is more easily said than done.
“[In] first year, I tried to not talk about my background as much, because I was so scared [of how people would perceive me] especially as a Muslim, or as an Arab or an Egyptian,” Almahdi said.
In a perfect world, not having intrusive thoughts about one’s skin colour would be a weight off the shoulders of minorities everywhere, but, in our own world of ubiquitous prejudices, it’s unbelievably taxing to maneuver through these thoughts. I faced the exhausting, repressive reality of ‘looking past race’ in my first real relationship. Imagine your significant other not wanting to be in public with you in case one of their family members saw; imagine your absence from their social media pages for the same reason. Imagine them breaking up with you because their mother found your skin colour and background downright ugly. I understood my relationship was far from the norm, but, subconsciously, I felt as though putting up with this heartbreaking reality was just me paying the Western tax. I knew what I was signing up for, but it’s hard to emotionally and mentally process the words “I love you” from a person who is afraid to be with you.
The thought of being internally racist can be difficult to grasp, and some obscure their prejudice as a matter of personal preference. Self-reflection is key to uncovering the truths underlying your beliefs, but admitting that a problem exists is harder than it seems. Ignorance may seem like the easier choice, but, in addressing internalized racism, we should all strive to be the role models our younger selves needed.
Almahdi and Regino shared similar sentiments toward their younger selves.
“I think about all the suffering that could be prevented,” Almahdi said. “Depression, anxiety, eating disorder, all of these things didn’t have to be there. There is nothing that I could really tell [my younger self] to [send] her down the right path just because of the environment. But I think [that] if I could do anything, I would give her more representation. I’ll give her a list of things she should look up, a list of movies she should watch, books that she should read.”
Regino spoke about the emotional rewards of self-acceptance.
"If I could talk to him again, I’d say, ‘don’t avoid the beach because you might think people will see your tan skin as ugly,’” Regino said. “Question why you think these things instead. If you don’t go about these things with a framework of hate and dislike, then you can usually find the right kind of answers."