Acknowledging Racism’s Hidden Injuries: Part 1:

Compiled By: Leviticus James

ABSTRACT: Despite sociology’s longstanding interest in inequality, the internalization of racial oppression among the racially subordinated and its contribution to the reproduction of racial inequality has been largely ignored, reflecting a taboo on the subject. Consequently, internalized racism remains one of the most neglected and misunderstood components of racism. In this article, the author argues that only by defying the taboo can sociology expose the hidden injuries of racism and the subtle mechanisms that sustain White privilege. After reviewing the concept and providing examples of the phenomenon, the author draws on critical social theory to examine reasons for the taboo, such as a theoretical fixation on resistance, a penchant for racial essentialism, and the limitations of an identity politics. The author concludes by offering a method for studying internalized racism and resistance concurrently within the matrix of intersecting forms of oppression.

Keywords: internalized racism, White privilege, resistance, complicity, oppression, inequality, critical race theory

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.

—W.E.B. Du Bois, the Souls of Black Folks (1989 [1903]:3)

When I grew up my parents would hate me hanging out with anyone Asian. I mean they would literally say, “Don’t hang out with them.” I guess they have a preconception of them as being gang members. I don’t know. I never really asked them. Maybe it was the way my parents influenced me because the whole time I was with anyone Asian I just felt uneasy. I can’t stand Vietnamese people or just Asians in general. —Author’s group interview with Vietnamese American males

Over one hundred years have elapsed since W.E.B. Du Bois (1989 [1903]:3) described how White domination affects a “double consciousness” for the Black American 552 SOCIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES Volume 53, Number 4, 2010 born into “a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.” Despite an enduring respect for Du Bois and his oft-cited allusion to internalized racial oppression, sociology has yet to devote sustained attention to the topic. In fact, Stuart Hall refers to internalized racism as one of the most common and least studied features of racism.

He defines internalized racism as “the ‘subjection’ of the victims of racism to the mystifications of the very racist ideology which imprison and define them” (Hall 1986:26).1 my interest in the topic emerged after I unexpectedly found evidence of the phenomenon while interviewing second-generation Asian Americans. Given sociology’s long interest in inequality, I was astonished to find the subject largely absent from the race literature. Upon asking race scholars to point me to research on the topic, I met more often with puzzled looks than references. I learned our collective ignorance was no accident but the result of a taboo on a topic dubbed a “dirty little secret” (hooks 1995; 2003; Russell, Wilson, and Hall 1992). It was only by violating the taboo that I became aware of its full force. At an interdisciplinary conference in 2004 sponsored by the Centre for Ideas and Society.

On my campus, I presented a paper on how internalized racism undergirded many Asian American women’s accounts of romantic preference for White over Asian American men (Pyke 2010). My research sparked the anger of two visiting Ethnic Studies scholars who argued that the topic of internalized oppression denigrated the Asian American respondents as mere “dupes” and that I ought to consider the “politics of knowledge.” They further suggested I focus my analysis on resistance instead. Their rather harsh comments perplexed me for a variety of reasons. Although I was uncertain as to how they were using the notion of a “politics of knowledge,” and they did not elaborate, I assume they meant that research on internalized racism was politically harmful to the larger mission of racial liberation. I found this comment particularly bewildering as I regard the study of internalized racism as important as the study of white supremacy and racism.

White racism as integral to the project of resisting racism, especially given that the feminist study of internalized sexism among women has long been regarded as essential to strategizing against gender oppression (e.g., Anzaldúa 1993; Bordo 1993; Crenshaw 1993; Dinnerstein and Weitz 1994; Pheterson 1986; Pyke 1996). To forge effective methods of resistance, it is necessary to understand how oppression is internalized and reproduced. I assumed it to be common knowledge that all systems of inequality are maintained and reproduced, in part, through their internalization by the oppressed. Although the suggestion that I frame my study around the concept of resistance was untenable as my data simply did not point in that direction, I was troubled by the potential political misreading of my research and felt awkward defending my position. I lost confidence in my ability to do the topic justice and my research came to a standstill. I contemplated dropping the project altogether but knew doing so would disappoint the many students and respondents who had invested so heavily in the project. In order to gain the assurance I needed to move forward, I spent considerable time exploring why internalized racism is deemed so pernicious a topic as to warrant a taboo. 

This article is the result of those efforts. I argue for the sociological study of internalized White racism by debunking some of the myths stalling its investigation and give examples of how such an

What Is Internalized Racial Oppression and Why Don’t We Study It? 553 inquiry can forward our understanding of inequality and White privilege. I begin with a review of the concept in popular and scholarly discourses where it is referred to as “internalized racial oppression,” “internalized racism,” “internalized White supremacy,” “internalized Whiteness,” and the much-criticized term “racial self-hatred.” I follow with a preliminary sociological re-sketching of what has been largely a psychological concept. I then engage critical social theory—an approach that considers how authority and power in all aspects of society, including research worlds, contributes to inequality—to evaluate several factors undergirding the taboo on the study of internalized racism. I conclude by offering an analytic method for future research.

My purpose is not to provide a definitive discussion of the concept or its measurement, or to present an exhaustive or uncompromising argument. Rather, my goal is to spur sociological engagement with a topic that despite being pivotal to understanding racial inequality has been understudied for far too long. Due to the tendency to misconstrue internalized oppression as reflecting some problem of the oppressed, I begin by noting what it is not. Like all forms of internalized domination, internalized racism is not the result of some cultural or biological characteristic of the subjugated. Nor is it the consequence of any weakness, ignorance, inferiority, psychological defect, gullibility, or other shortcoming of the oppressed. The internalization of oppression is a multidimensional phenomenon that assumes many forms and sizes across situational contexts, including the intersections of multiple systems of domination (Padilla 2001). It cannot be reduced to one form or assumed to affect similarly located individuals or groups in precisely the same way. It is an inevitable condition of all structures of oppression (Schwalbe, Godwin, Holden, Schrock, Thompson, and Wolkomir 2000).

Written by: Karen D. Pyke

To Be Continued: