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The insidious effects of internalised racism on Black people

‘The white-centric ideas that trickle through society and create internalised racism often have deep historical roots’ (Picture: Getty/Shutterstock/Metro.co.uk)

‘Don’t mix with those Black boys, they’re rough.’

This wasn’t said by a racist white person, but by my mum, a Black woman raised in Uganda and proud of it.

She said things like this to me regularly when I was growing up. She would remind me to look out for Black boys in our local area, and to take care. Sometimes I would protest her language, but part of me could relate to her suspicions, despite being a Black boy myself.

This is just one example of internalised racism: the concept that people can believe or perpetuate racist ideas about their own race.

I didn’t understand how it had impacted my life until, one day, I decided to write down every negative idea about Black people I had in my head. The words poured out of me; a waterfall of hatred, as bad as any right wing troll on social media could spew. It shocked me.

But, despite the huge impact it can have on the mental wellbeing and self-esteem of people from minoritised communities, the subtle, insidious effects of internalised racism are often overlooked.

This is in part because it can be a painful subject to discuss. So is racism, of course, but most anti-racist discourse is infused with righteous indignation. When the spotlight is turned on how Black people can actually internalise racist ideology, the empowering narrative of resistance can be replaced with vulnerability and shame.

This shame often has deep roots from childhood. Seun Matiluko, a student and freelance journalist tells Metro.co.uk: ‘Kids make fun of each other for being different. Growing up in a predominantly white area and white school, my main difference was being Black.’

She felt ashamed of her name, not helped by frequent mispronunciations: ‘I believed that being Black was something negative. I felt very low within myself.’

Seun’s experience isn’t unique. Our identities develop significantly during childhood and at school, and unfortunately for too many Black people this takes place within an environment riddled with prejudice.

Recent research conducted by the YMCA found that 95% of Black and mixed-race children have experienced racist language in school, with 51% of young Black males saying they experience it ‘all the time’.

When I was at school, I was referred to as a ‘starving African child’, told that I was sexually aggressive, or a thief, alongside an array of other negative clichés.

In early secondary school, I didn’t reject these ideas – in some ways I embraced them. I would make the same jokes, first as a coping mechanism, and then as these stereotypes seeped into my own psyche. Like many of my peers, I chose to own them rather than risk alienation.

Like any form of racism, internalised racism presents itself in different ways. At the extreme end are stories like actor and director Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s, whose film Farming dramatises his time in a racist skinhead gang as a Black teenager.

Other times it’s less overt: musician and author Akala has described seeing a young Black man deposit a wad of cash and wondering if he was part of the drug trade, despite he himself depositing cash earned from a concert.

But, despite its different manifestations, experts believe there are some common causes of internalised racism.

Sociologist Karen Pyke has highlighted how ideas and practices that benefit white people are portrayed in society as what ‘successful’ people do. Code-switching is thus just ‘talking properly’, straightened hair is just ‘looking professional’, European cuisines are ‘fine dining’ and classical Western music is ‘high-brow culture’.

Black people looking to dissociate themselves from these negative stereotypes of Blackness may then begin to identify whiteness with success.

But Pyke writes how the idea that ethnic minorities can become successful by shunning their difference ‘lures them into supporting the very rules that define them into existence as the “other”.’

Dr Veronica Poku, who specialises in the intersection of Race, Culture and Education at Goldsmiths University, tells Metro.co.uk that internalised racism has roots in colonialism.

‘In order to take Africa’s wealth and have free labour, you have to subjugate the people who are there, you have to make them believe they are lesser than,’ Dr Poku explains.

The erasure of pre-colonial history, and cultural emphasis on Black people’s past only in terms of our oppression, reinforces the colonial idea that Black people have no worthy history of our own, which further contributes to low self-esteem.

A 2007 study by historian Kay Traille, explored how insensitivity in teaching some of the more distressing aspects of the slavery led to shame for Black students, with one participant detailing how she had to play the role of slave in a classroom historical skit.

Former Education Minister Michael Gove’s 2014 statement that the curriculum should ‘celebrate the distinguished role of these islands in the history of the world [including] the role of the Royal Navy in putting down the slave trade’, completes the damaging philosophy – Black people were victims, until white people saved us.

‘A lot of us don’t grow up understanding that while we were oppressed, we also fought back and created our own amazing cultures out of that struggle,’ says Seun, who believes reaffirming Black people’s agency in our history is crucial to fighting internalised racism.

Dr Poku also stresses the importance of reforming the school curricula, but she believes it’s important for Black Britons to search things out for ourselves too, referencing the George Padmore Institute that documents Black British culture and the work of Neil Kenlock, who took iconic photos of the Black British community.

‘Get in touch with your culture,’ suggests Dr Poku. ‘Speak to your parents if you can. Try to find positive images of people who look like you, and they are out there.’

But Dr Poku also acknowledges that it is incredibly difficult to educate yourself if you don’t even realise there’s a gap in your knowledge.

One of the most insidious aspects of internalised racism is that people can be blind to the ways it shapes their lives. It can lead to defensiveness and an inability to communicate effectively.

When Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch was accused of promoting anti-Black ideas last year, some put it down to internalised racism.

She said she wasn’t ‘going to take lessons… on race,’ as part of her response to critiques of the government’s handling of Covid’s disproportionate impact on ethnic minorities.

The difficulty comes in balancing opposition to racist ideas and holding empathy and understanding for those with internalised racism.

Seun says: ‘Showing sympathy for someone for having internalised negative ideas about race isn’t always well-received. That person can interpret it as patronising.’

Beyond individual conversations and re-imagining how we talk about our history, challenges to white-centric ideas of success in contemporary society may be a more valuable strategy in repairing the harms of internalised racism.

Pioneers include Edward Enninful at British Vogue, whose work with Black photographers and cover models has helped redefine beauty in the white-dominated fashion industry. Elsewhere, seeing a dreadlocked Lewis Hamilton dominate F1 as the only Black driver in its history challenges the presumption that Black people can’t succeed in more technical sports.

Another example of pushing back against these negative narratives is the widely publicised case of Ruby Williams, who successfully sued her school after they sent her home for having an Afro. And social media accounts that celebrate Black beauty and Black hair are also helping to undo centuries of negative learning.

The white-centric ideas that trickle through society and create internalised racism often have deep historical roots, and are difficult to erase; I still occasionally wonder if Black boys like me are to be trusted. 

But Black people are strong, we’re clever and we’re beautiful – a truth that perseveres over attempts to say otherwise.



The State of Racism

This series is an in-depth look at racism in the UK in 2020 and beyond.

We aim to look at how, where and why individual and structural racism impacts people of colour from all walks of life.

It’s vital that we improve the language we have to talk about racism and continue the difficult conversations about inequality – even if they make you uncomfortable.

We want to hear from you – if you have a personal story or experience of racism that you would like to share get in touch: metrolifestyleteam@metro.co.uk


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