On Internalized Racism: Moving from Anger to Compassion
Internalized racism is real y’all.
I once attended an event that was designed for students, faculty, and staff to have a space to grieve, and openly share their thoughts and feelings about the killing of Michael Brown.
As difficult as it was to be in that space, I did find some comfort and a sense of community in our collective grief.
Over time, we began to discuss action steps, and people who were white in the room began to talk openly about challenging and interrupting their own complicity and the complicity of other people who are white with racial profiling, police brutality, and other manifestations of institutional racism that preserve the notion of white supremacy.
As the event was coming to a close, a microphone was passed around for participants to share closing, unresolved thoughts, affirmations, and any other feelings they might have. The last comment that was shared was particularly triggering to me.
A young black man proceeded to take the mic and said:
“How are white folks gonna respect us if we don’t respect ourselves? We need to pull up our pants. We need to stop listening to Hip-Hop. If we dressed better, if we spoke better, we wouldn’t be getting treated like this.”
I felt the air leave my lungs at that moment in a way that I hadn’t before. It’s not like I have never heard a person of color blame themselves or other people of color for their own oppression before, but with the way things were happening, and because of the kind of sharing that had been taking place that night, I didn’t expect it. I didn’t see it coming. I wasn’t prepared for it.
I thought to myself:
“Don’t you know that white supremacy doesn’t discriminate? Don’t you know that no amount of education, assimilation, or “respectablility” can protect us?”
I thought these things and more, but felt so immobilized that the words wouldn’t come forth. And the fact that they were the last words of the night, and were not challenged in any way left me feeling very challenged and disappointed.
I was angry with the person who made the statement. I was angry with the facilitators, but I was mostly angry with myself for not interrupting. To this day I still perceive this experience as a missed opportunity in a sense.
However, I was also reminded of something important on my long drive home. Black people are bombarded with negative messages about ourselves on a daily basis. To grow up in this society where we are constantly told that you are inferior; not just told, but to witness and experience state sanctioned violence and other actions which communicate the message to you that your life does not matter; to exist in this society and not be impacted by the onslaught in any way would be a miracle.
As I replayed the experience, and the person’s statement on my drive home with that context in mind, my thoughts moved from anger and indignation to compassion. I felt, and still feel compassion for that brother.
I feel compassion for all of us whenever we feel as if dressing or behaving in ways that appear as non-threatening to white people as possible is the appropriate response to racist policing practices, and state sanctioned violence against people who are black.
I recognize and acknowledge it for the survival tactic that it is for many of us, and I also recognize that sometimes, we really do start to believe the negative messages we consistently receive about ourselves.
But they aren’t true.
From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins-Jones, MSW, LLMSW