TOWARD A CRITICAL SOCIOLOGY OF INTERNALIZED RACISM:

A critical approach that highlights the social structural and cultural mechanisms that maintain and reproduce systemic processes of domination is needed to remedy an overemphasis on the psychological outcomes of White racism’s internalization among the oppressed. In this section, I take such an approach in sketching a sociological definition of internalized White racism and clarify some misunderstandings contributing to the taboo on the topic. I then engage a critical analysis of the theoretical assumptions and trends in race scholarship that discourage attention to this concept. All systems of oppression not thoroughly coerced through brute force and overt repression involve the dominant group’s ability to win consent of the oppressed. I rely on a Gramscian (1971) conceptualization of hegemony to understand the process by which the ruling race attains consensus of subordinated groups. 

The dominant group controls the construction of reality through the production of ideologies or “knowledge” (Foucault 1977 [1975]) that circulate throughout society where they inform social norms, organizational practices, bureaucratic procedures, and common-sense knowledge. In this way the interests of the oppressors are presented as reflecting everyone’s best interests, thereby getting oppressed groups to accept the dominant group’s interests as their own and minimize conflict (see also Pyke 1996:529). Gramsci’s notion of an ideological hegemony is evident when the subjugated inculcate, seemingly by cultural osmosis, negative stereotypes and ideologies disseminated as taken-for-granted knowledge. One need not experience discrete, identifiable instances of overt discrimination to internalize racial oppression. White racism can infiltrate the world view of the racially oppressed without their conscious consent (Osajima 1993) in a subtle process some refer to as “indoctrination” and “mental colonialization” (hooks 2003).  

The concept of hegemony also encourages attention to how White racism can be indirectly internalized via cultural myths and ideologies that seemingly have nothing to do with race per se. An example of such an ideology is meritocracy, the notion that the selection of individuals for advancement and opportunities is based on their achievements and skills. Meritocracy obscures oppression by suggesting that racial disparities in hiring or school admissions are decided according to “objective” standards applied equally to all. We can include in our definition of internalized oppression the inculcation of seemingly neutral ideologies that justify and direct racist institutional practice, such as meritocracy. This conceptualization allows scholars to consider the involuntary aspects of internalized racial oppression and the limits of individual resistance. 

In his study of Jewish “self-hatred,” Sander Gilman (1986:2–5) describes how ideologies win compliance by inspiring a desire among the subjugated to be like What Is Internalized Racial Oppression and Why Don’t We Study It? 557 the oppressors. He uses the example of the liberal myth that social categories marking difference, such as race and ethnicity, are mutable and all can join the powerful if they abide the rules and behave like the dominant group. The more the subjugated identify with the powerful, the more they accept the ruling values and structural arrangements that keep them down. Gilman calls this a classic double bind situation. The empty promise that the oppressed can escape their “otherness” by shunning their difference lures them into supporting the very rules that define them into existence as the “other”—as those who are not allowed to share power. “Become like us and you will be accepted into our group.” But they never are.

In fact, we can begin to talk about internalized oppression at the moment that the oppressed accept the identities imposed on them by oppressors. The creation of a dominant, “superior” class depends upon the existence of groups of exploitable “others” distinguished by their alleged inferiority (Schwalbe et al. 2000). Identities linked to gender, race, sexual, and caste oppressions are not mere by-products of inequality but a constitutive component of their formation (Foucault 1977 [1975]; Gramsci 1971). These categorical distinctions become habitual as they are constructed in and through social relations and organizations, causing even the oppressed to have a stake in their subordinated identity (see Tilly 1998). When the oppressed come to accept these identities as “real,” they are in effect internalizing their subjugated status in their definition of self (Perry 2002:9). Any attempt to construct oppositional identities is greatly constrained as they must do so in relation to the categorical schemas and meanings dictated by the oppressors (Osajima 1993; Pyke and Johnson 2003; Seccombe 1998).

To underscore this point, I consider the phenomenon of “defensive othering,” which Schwalbe et al. (2000) describe as identity work engaged by the subordinated in an attempt to become part of the dominant group or to distance themselves from the stereotypes associated with the subordinate group. This dynamic is evident in the formation of negative sub-ethnic identities within the group. For example, among Mexican Americans, the derogatory identities wetback (Obsatz 2001) and poncho (Sahagun 2002) are used to denigrate co-ethnics who are, respectively, newly immigrated or have assimilated into the dominant Euro-American culture. These terms are used to “other” members within the subordinated group, deeming them inferior in order to mark oneself or one’s co-ethnic peer group as superior. By attributing the negative stereotypes and images that the dominant society associates with the racial/ethnic group to “other” members within the group, the subordinated can distance themselves from the negative stereotype.

Furthermore, intra-group othering allows the oppressed to present themselves as like the oppressors. By demonstrating that they share the same attitudes and disdain toward co-ethnics who fit with the stereotypes, they attempt to join the dominant group. This is the double bind of oppressed identities, as previously noted, for the subjugated cannot so easily escape their otherness” (Gilman 1986).

Although the subordinated engage defensive othering in resisting the imposition of a negative identity, they do so in a manner that contributes to the reproduction of inequality (Schwalbe et al. 2000). Thus defensive othering is a form of internalized racism. I must stress here that defensive othering is a normal adaptive 558 SOCIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES Volume 53, Number 4, 2010 Response to racism and not a cause of racism (Schwalbe et al. 2000). It is a symptom of the disease of racism, but not the disease itself. Intra-ethnic othering also occurs at the collective level with the construction of derogatory sub-ethnic identities that are widely recognized and broadly used within the group, fomenting internal group tensions and divides (Anzaldúa 1993). 

I provide an empirical example from an analysis based on in-depth interviews with 184 young Californian adults who grew up in immigrant Korean and Vietnamese families (Pyke and Dang 2003). This study examines respondents’ use of the sub-ethnic identity term FOB, an acronym for “Fresh off the Boat,” in ways that reiterate the anti-Asian stereotypes of the White-dominated society. The largely derogatory term is used to label co-ethnic peers who are newly arrived to the United States; speak in heavy-accented English or communicate in Korean or Vietnamese among friends at least some of the time; display traits associated with being a “nerd,” such as social awkwardness or, contradictorily, with being a gang member; identify strongly with one’s ethnic group; assume ethnically “traditional” values and customs; socialize mostly with other co-ethnics; or engage in leisure pursuits associated with ethnic enclaves such as karaoke in Los Angeles’ Korea Town or billiards in the cafes of Orange County’s Little Saigon. Respondents strategically use FOB to ridicule co-ethnic “others” for displaying the same characteristics associated with anti-Asian stereotypes and, in so doing, distance themselves from those stereotypes. 

Although an adaptive response to oppression, this strategy of distancing oneself from negative stereotypes by suggesting they are true, just not true for oneself, is a form of internalized racial oppression (Osajima 1993; Schwalbe et al. 2000). Dynamics of “distancing” are not only an individual response to oppression but also can shape collective practices within an ethnic group. Several respondents described how their entire co-ethnic peer group avoids social contact with other co-ethnic social groups identified as consisting of FOBs. In so doing, the peer group can collectively distance from the derogatory stereotype. To maintain the peer group’s identity as non-FOBs, reprimands are given to any member who engages behaviour regarded as fobbish, such as socializing with co-ethnics who do not speak English. Violators risk expulsion from the group. The social boundaries between peer groups identified as FOBs and non-FOBs are so strict that intergroup dating is prohibited and fights between the two groups are not uncommon (Pyke and Dang 2003:162,167).

The term FOB is a vehicle through which anti-Asian stereotypes infiltrate and shape definitions of appropriate behaviour within some co-ethnic peer groups, deeming as inappropriate and undesirable more “ethnic” behaviour while endorsing as desirable “White” behaviour (such as dressing in popular “White” styles and speaking only English). This illustrates how the resistance of racist stereotypes through distancing can pivot on the simultaneous assimilation of White supremacy and the glorification of Whiteness. My purpose in detailing these two examples is to emphasize how internalized oppression manifests not simply at the level of the individual psyche but also in collective social practices. To further my case for the sociological study of internalized racism, I challenge some of the assumptions contributing to the taboo on the subject. What Is Internalized Racial Oppression and Why Don’t We Study It?

Part 5 to follow: