What internalised racism looks and feels like.May 03, 2020
I know that “internalised racism” is not a very fun topic: it sounds heavy, too theoretical, too “activist”-y.
But this is something that we, the Asian Australian community need to be aware of especially as we move into this changing Covid19 reality. Because right now, anti-China sentiments are growing across the world and unfortunately these kinds of discussions are rarely intelligent conversations about foreign policies and international relations. Instead the conversations get tangled up in racist, xenophobic commentary not just for Chinese people, but for Chinese-passing people too.
As our airwaves get clogged up with racist messaging, we need to be awake and ready to notice when we’ve started to internalise this fear and hatred, so that we remain strong and well. So that we can continue to thrive, excel and contribute to the world around us.
I’ll make this as digestible as possible. Skip this next part if you want to get straight to the stories.
INTERNALISED RACISM vs RACISM
Internalised racism is when people develop beliefs, ideas, actions and behaviours that collude with racism. And it differs from pure “racism” which is when someone fears and hates a person of another race. Instead, internalised racism makes us fear and hate ourselves and other people who are not white, even if they are from the same culture/origin as us.
It differs from racism because racism is about being attacked and oppressed by someone else, whereas internalised racism is how we attack and oppress ourselves. It can often be mislabelled as self-sabotage, or low self-esteem/self-worth, or self-hatred, but these kinds of generic self-help labels are too simplistic for people who have been systemically undermined for generations and generations.
There are many amazing articles that discuss internalised racism in its beautiful theoretical form which I will link below, however, let us think about internalised racism through some stories and examples.
Which stories resonate with you? Which stories are truths to you too? Which of these stories do you feel surprised by when labelled as an example of internalised racism?
1. Cafe girl
One of my favourite local cafes is this super delicious yet tiny, homely kind of place. And because of this, it attracts a lot of visitors from all over. Everyone that works there always looks super busy but they’re friendly. EXCEPT for the only Asian girl who works there. I’ve seen her chatting away with the Caucasian locals, discussing very non-typically Asian things like tattoos and second hand boots. When I first approached her I thought we’d do the “hey sis” thing. But instead, she was stone cold.
Since then, I’ve seen her actively walk away from the counter when I’ve approached and despite all the other staff just somehow working out the spelling of my name, this particular girl always asks me, “um… how do you spell that…?” I know what’s going on because I’ve been her before; so desperately trying to make sure that everyone knows she’s “not that Asian” that she can’t risk being caught having a friendly chat with another Asian.
2. Make up
For the longest time, I’ve worn makeup specifically for the purpose of making my features stronger and my eyes look bigger. This is because I have internalised white-centric beauty standards of having strong features and big eyes. It is only with the recent rise of China money (forcing marketing campaigns to look like their target audience), growing conversations about increasing diverse representation and social media “stars” that Asian faces and Asian features have started to be portrayed as beautiful.
Only then, has it given me permission not to cake on thick black eyeliner Every. Single. Day.
3. The bogan act
Similar to having a highly skilled private-school-bitch persona that’s always ready to unleash itself, I also have a highly developed “bogan” persona within. It’s probably not very bogan at all but I know when I’m putting it on because I suddenly say things like “no worries” and “nah you’re orright”. Although I cringe every time it comes out, I continue to maintain this persona because it works for me. When I bring it out, I make friends/contacts easily. I’m able to keep people engaged in small talk. I usually get good service. Some may call it adaptive behaviour, I call it internalised racism because I suffocate my true self in order to be accepted and seen as “safe” by people I don’t even care about.
4. Asian colleagues
I recently started a new job, which happened to be advertising for the position of my one and only colleague shortly after I was hired. The directors and I went through a huge pile of applicants and none of them had the skillset that we needed. One week before this particular program was due to begin, we still hadn’t found anyone and things were getting desperate; the program couldn’t go ahead without the position being filled.
So, I suggested my friend, my Asian friend, who I knew had all the needed skills but I’d wholeheartedly believed that, “…well, they wouldn’t want two Asians leading the program anyway…”. Turns out he was more than perfect for the role, not once did I get any sense that there was an issue with us two Asians running the program and instead the only feedback I got was, “why didn’t you suggest him earlier?!”
I think my first realisation of my own internalised racism came in my mid-twenties when I was at the airport (how I miss the airport!) buying some last minute gifts for my family in Japan. Alongside me in the Tim Tams section was a group of Mainland Chinese tourists talking excitedly (by which I mean loudly) and filling up their baskets with piles and piles of Tim Tams.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw another group, this time consisting of Caucasian people, looking on in a combination of disgust, fear and ridicule. Instinctively, I pretended I wasn’t buying Tim Tams and tried to give these white people a knowing look to show that I, a civilised Asian, was nothing like these other Asians.
As they walked away without even seeing me, it hit me:
What on earth am I doing trying to fit in with a bunch of Bali-bound trash bags?
I know there is just so much wrong with the example that I’ve provided however, this is exactly how my shift began. Since then, I’ve been working on noticing and unlearning this deeply internalised racism.
Next week, I’ll be sharing some strategies to work through internalised racism and I hope you will continue this journey of unlearning with me. For now, if you feel compelled to, please share your own examples of internalised racism as I really feel shared stories are one way in which we can feel less alone and move forward as a community.
Two resources to learn more about internalised racism:
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