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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Warren

Who Am I? And What Am I Doing

Updated: Jan 15

Internalized racial oppression is a sociopolitical and economic process. It is part of the chain of causation of racism. It is a risk factor with deleterious inequitable health outcomes. In my opinion, public health systems need to delve further into this issue. It affects health behavior, health decision-making, treatment adherence, and physician/client communication, and has recognized correlations with disease outcomes. Therefore, any health promotion program or intervention, without understanding internalized racial oppression is mute within specific African American communities with particular African American members. Yes, there may be short-term impacts. Still, over the long haul, these practitioners and researchers are just wasting taxpayer money.

There are many ways to conceive internalized racial oppression. For me, it is the unconscious inculcation of white racism, beliefs, values, ideologies, actions, and negative stereotypes that cognitively and behaviorally maintain a racial group's subordination in such a way that seems natural and unquestionable. It supports the power and privilege of White Americans at the expense of African American health, well-being, and economic opportunity. There is a generational aspect to internalized racism. There are even those scholars who say it is genetic. Some say it's also passed on in-vitro from mother to child.

We know for sure that internalized racial oppression has adverse cognitive, emotional, mental, behavioral, and physical health outcomes for men and women. Think about Snowball in the movie Django. He was an extremely confused house slave who took on the beliefs and values of Whites. He did the master's degrading biddings against his people – interpersonal lack of compassion for the suffering of the same racial group. The newest Harriet Tubman movie where slaves would choose to live under degrading circumstances because of fear of the unknown (of course, the concern is also getting caught). Restricting oneself and family occurs even with resources at a person's disposal to enhance their lot in life is internalized racial oppression.

My commentary is not an indictment of people living in poverty, nor do I seek to essentialize all African Americans as being the same. However, on some level rich, middle class, and poor African Americans are affected by internalized racial oppression. Now the degree to which you allow it to define you is the issue. Internalized racial oppression is less active as a result of critical consciousness.

Internalized racial oppression stays active due to a lack of knowledge and willful ignorance. It keeps African Americans in their place. The African American man or woman will police their behaviors. This personal surveillance keeps us out of the game, and less of a threat to White privilege and their resources. Internalizing deprivation, getting by any way possible, no way out, insecurities, lack of choice, mistrust of others who like you, and ignorance are the tip of the iceberg. Because deeper down, it fosters helplessness, hopelessness, confusion, shame, self-hatred, self-doubt humiliation, fear, and decreases in life satisfaction. These factors promote maladaptive coping and behavioral responses.

I can recall my struggles with internalized racial oppression when I entered kindergarten in an all-White school that I bused. It was outside my empowering little African American middle-class suburban world. I can recall feeling different, not quite right. I began to covet what was white. As I moved through grades, I lost the power to believe in my intelligence. All I began to see was inferiority. Everything we learned was a product of White beliefs and values. White racism seeped deep into my soul and was at odds with my spirit. It's funny that I bought into the stereotype that I was inferior and could only hope to have some menial job way below my understanding. I would probably still be working there counting down the days to retirement if I had not developed that critical consciousness as a community college student.

Believing that you are inferior is the opposite of thinking that if you are African American, you have to be a superhero doing everything correctly by their rules. Fostering this racist stereotype breeds fear and makes you think you have to be uber in some ambiguous way to make in a White privileged society. I recall my days fighting this stereotype in predominantly White universities—the Black woman's battle with a stellar academic record facing marginalization. I'm fighting the less-than-stellar academic records of White women. Then, there are no rules. They get all the attention, resources, and promotions. Being an overachiever is internalized oppression in this commentary. It's the perception that you are not capable. This stereotype is embedded in policy and practice within social institutions with real impacts on our opportunities. However, our reactions are a product of maladaptive coping and behaviors linked to internalized racial oppression.

Psychological distress is related to perceived threats. Known threats are identifiable. Unknown risks are less tangible. It's in the air we breathe just like White power and privilege. This rancid wind causes a sense of confusion. It restricts our ways of being, thinking, and becoming in a racist society. The Ghetto Boys have this song, "My Mind is Playing Tricks on Me." I don't know who else knows this rap song or how others it. But for me, it exemplifies this unknown threat. Paranoia sets in because you don't know from where that dis-ease is coming. You feel threatened. We all came to grips with that stinky air, threat, and stress with the untimely death of George Floyd Jr. This feeling of constriction is a threat to African Americans' very existence. It is a chronic stressor that can eat away at you little by little and right out kill you.

A person can become entangled in a web of internalized racial oppression stressors – poverty, bad jobs, disrespect, egregious racism, unnamed paranoia, and lack of education. This type of stress over prolonged periods or on an ongoing bases causes a torrent of physiological effects that cause disease. Obesity, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cardiovascular, diabetes, and an overall feeling of being ill are all correlated with internalized racial oppression. More, stress causes malfunctions in the replication of DNA. These malfunctions cause cancer and cancer relapse, premature aging, and limitation on how long you live.

Due to the debilitating nature of internalized racial oppression, it is a public health issue.

Internalized racial oppression is a risk factor for avoidable and inequitable health outcomes. Public health professionals and researchers in the design and implementation of promising and evidence-based health promotion and interventions have to address this symptom of racism. It is health justice. Systemic racism is one thing. It's the racism inside that is the real issue. What you can't see or understand will kill you. The individual who may be affected by internalized racial oppression doesn't know it.

If you want your health programs to work, then you need to bring these issues to light. As I was telling a friend, researchers study internalized oppression and its relation to substance use and smoking. However, creating health interventions that raise critical consciousness and provide individuals the tools to redefine identities and life, would genuinely turn this society upside down. Give them just enough ponder, enough on which to work. But not enough to prove a threat to White power.

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