Strategies for working through internalised racism.May 10, 2020
What will happen to us if we continue to live with internalised racism and never try to work through it?
I think very simply stated; it would mean that we’re unable to live our lives to the fullest and we would continue to unknowingly hurt ourselves and those around us. Of course, the severity of this would vary based on your personality, your gender, your socio-economic background etc. however, I believe that there is no time like the present to really solidify our identities as Asian Australians so that we can navigate the seemingly choppy waters ahead.
In a more tangible sense, I think that living with internalised racism looks something like the examples below:
Never moving into executive leadership and hovering around middle management until one day we just burn out or give up,
Forever struggling with body image and physical self-acceptance,
Having many persona’s, which means that it’ll be hard to bring different groups of important people together, and
Not choosing our partners based on who we love, but based more on who we think we’re supposed to love.
Living with internalised racism means that we’ll never be completely seen or heard by those around us and this creates deep feelings of isolation and increases our experience of distress. And for me, I got pretty sick of all this in my mid-twenties so I’ve been trying to “unlearn” everyday since then.
What’s internalised racism you ask? Read THIS first and come back to this article once you’re done!
The strategies that I’ve explored to work through my internalised racism have been outlined below, and I hope that these points will be of use to you in exploring and moving through your own internalised racism.
This post is a personal reflection and is not the solution to eradicating internalised racism. Please keep in mind that therapy is a very good place to explore your internalised racism and these strategies outlined below.
1. Nothing beats self-inquiry.
This step is a non-negotiable but I can empathize that self-reflection can be a tedious, uncomfortable task at the best of times. However if you have that niggling feeling that you’re affected by internalised racism in some way, then taking the time to stop, notice, reflect and question is the first step in your journey.
We will talk more about how we can engage in this process of self-inquiry in a safe manner next week, however you might like to start by taking a look at some of the statements drawn from the Internalised Racism in Asian Americans Scale (Choi, Israel and Maeda, 2017). Obviously, this was designed for those living in America, however many of the points are relevant to all Asian diaspora.
These statements are not a diagnostic tool meaning, answering with “X” number of “agrees” does not mean you have/do not have internalised racism. Instead, these statements could be used to help you in your self-reflection. Which statements do you agree with, and why?
1: I sometimes wish I weren’t Asian. I Agree/Disagree
2: It’s unfair that I was born Asian. I Agree/Disagree
3: My life would be better if I wasn’t Asian. I Agree/Disagree
4: My feelings toward other Asians tend to be negative. I Agree/Disagree
5: Asians are physically weaker than non-Asians. I Agree/Disagree
6: Asian men are more feminine than non-Asian men. I Agree/Disagree
7: Asian men can’t satisfy their sexual partners. I Agree/Disagree
8: Asians tend to be passive. I Agree/Disagree
9: Asians tend to be socially awkward. I Agree/Disagree
10: Asians don’t make good leaders. I Agree/Disagree
11: Many Asians would be more physically attractive if they had surgery to look more White. I Agree/Disagree
12: Asians tend to all look the same to me. I Agree/Disagree
13: Asians are less physically attractive than Whites. I Agree/Disagree
14: Lighter skin is generally more attractive than darker skin. I Agree/Disagree
Read more about the IRAAS HERE.
2. Increase the Asian representation in your life.
When old school analogue TV became redundant, I was a student who could barely pay rent let alone upgrade to a new system. Which, ended up being the greatest blessing in disguise because I was then able to curate what I watched for entertainment.
I became well acquainted with personalities like David Chang and Eddie Huang through my love, not so much of food, but of watching anything where I could say “I’ve been there!” to the screen and to anyone who would listen. And through their food related shows, my eyes began to ease into seeing more Asians on the screen.
Asian people cooking = makes sense = stage one completed.
However these guys never just spoke about food, they spoke about history, they spoke about cultural appropriation, they spoke about Asian identity and because of this my interests peaked. I transitioned to watching shows like “Fresh off the Boat” and “The Family Law” and by the time my eyes got more and more used to seeing Asian faces, the increase in Asian representation in the movies, on Netflix, in comedy etc. was evident and far more accessible.
When looking for more “Asian” representation in your media mix, it’s important that the shows you’re choosing aren’t further perpetuating white-centric Asian stereotypes. For example, choosing The Hangover because you know Ken Jeong is in the movie, is not really the way to go. Similarly, I really tried to get into all the Japanese dramas but because I grew up in the West, the stories and the cultural norms didn’t quite match mine. Instead, look for shows like “To all the boys I’ve loved before”, “Kim’s convenience” and “Singapore social” (LOL had to have a mention) that are stories that provide normality and depth to the Asian experience.
What we see is important. If you grew up with minimal Asian representation around you this step is really important. Allow your eyes to adjust slowly and through any means necessary but what we see is impacts us greatly.
Through this process, I’ve also increased the Asian representation in my day-to-day life. Having taught yoga for over 10 years and in both Japan and Australia, I’m well aware that Asian bodies and Caucasian bodies move differently. Similarly, I know that Asian skin and hair are vastly different to Caucasian skin and hair. So knowing this, my “physical self-care” practitioners are now mostly Asian Australians. I’ve started to work with more Asian Australians and have been attending (pre-covid) more Asian Australian events. It’s been a slow process that gets confusing at times – am I being racist by choosing only Asian people? – but I’ve tried to make my decisions based on the self-reflection process mentioned in step 1.
3. Be prepared for a difficult transition.
Acknowledge that this process of unlearning is exactly what it sounds like. We are trying to unlearn years, even generations of internalised racism and the process gets confusing and dirty. Most people will have no idea what you’re going through, so it might also be a lonely process.
After increasing the Asian representation around me and getting used to seeing more Asian faces and seeing them as beautiful again, I started to also change my makeup to follow more Asian standards and to focus more on the natural features that I had. I was getting used to my reflection and goodness, even appreciating what I saw at times. Things were good. But then, I saw myself in a photo with some Caucasian friends. Instead of resembling some form of Gemma Chan, I looked like a washed out, featureless, tiny person. And that sinking shame washed over me to undo the years of unlearning in 3 juicy seconds.
I can’t remember what happened after but knowing me, I probably changed up my “look” from then on to have some Asian days and some darker, stronger makeup days depending on where I was going and who I was meeting.
I don’t think that this is a bad thing necessarily; I think being aware of your decision making process is probably the most important facet as it acknowledges the difficult nature of this transition. Prepare for the difficult transition by continually reminding yourself that you’re trying to unlearn a deeply seated framework which takes time and perseverance.
4. Be okay with yourself not just in isolation, but also in the context of your relationships.
You can love your Asian face as much as you want in the isolation of your bathroom mirror, however can you honour your features even when standing next to all your strong-featured Caucasian friends?
You can love your quiet stoicism in the isolation of your WFH home situation, but can you remember your value even when you’re continually overshadowed by your boisterous, vocal colleagues?
You can love your favourite foods but can you still enjoy them in the company of people who are like “so, what is this, does this have MSG?” and “omg the waitress has NO idea what I just asked for”.
The first step is being true to yourself and working on yourself, however the extension of this is working out how to remain yourself in the context of the world and all your many relationships. This is hard.
5. Find your community.
This process of unlearning can be quite a lonely experience. You might find yourself in this horrible in-between stage where you don’t really like anything or anyone and you feel like you’re constantly second guessing yourself. In those times, we usually tend to look for people we can relate to but when the people we reach out to don’t really understand, it can feel even more jarring than talking with someone who you know would never get it.
For example, I know several Japanese Australian people who for some reason, were never really affected negatively by their experience of growing up Asian in Australia. And aside from feeling deeply suspicious, I can feel even more alone. It makes me doubt and think that perhaps it’s not the world but it really is me that is an anxious, depressive mess who’s much too sensitive.
Again, be prepared for things like this; honour yourself and continue to seek out your community of people who are on a similar journey as you. Being seen and validated in your experiences by others is important BUT a community cannot be an excuse to fuel more anger, fear and criticism within. It’s a fine very line and I hope that we at Shapes and Sounds can find a way to create some kind of strong community soon – I feel it growing!
Connect with our community.
You're not alone in navigating the intersections of race, culture and mental health. Find out more about our Shapes and Sounds Community, designed for and by Asian Australians.