Compiled By: Leviticus James


A psychological paradigm directing attention to the individual-level manifestations of internalized White racism dominates scholarly and popular discussions of the topic. This approach emphasizes the psychic costs of internalized racial oppression defined as the individual inculcation of the racist stereotypes, values, images, and ideologies perpetuated by the White dominant society about one’s racial group, leading to feelings of self-doubt, disgust, and disrespect for one’s race and/or oneself. This emphasis on individual psychological wounds is evident in a legacy of personal, often anecdotal, accounts of struggles with internalized racial inferiority that span the twentieth century. Anti-racist activists, writers, social commentators, and artists of colour frequently touch on the topic in autobiographies, speeches, essays, editorials, films, music, poetry, and novels (e.g., Cliff 1985; Graham 1995; Hurston 1942; Lipsky 1987; Moraga 1983). Internalized skin tone bias in communities of colour noted by the higher status and greater resources accorded lighter skin non-Whites is the predominate theme in the popular discourse on the topic (e.g., Brooks 1975; Davis 2005; Golden 2004; Lee 1988; Morrison 1970; Sandler 1994; Thurman 1929; Walker 1984). 

These narratives and artistic expressions capture the pain and trauma of individuals who are reckoning with their own internalized racism or their experiences with the internalized racism of others in 554 SOCIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES Volume 53, Number 4, 2010 their racial group, such as family members. Similar themes are touched on in social science investigations of cosmetic surgery, hair straightening, skin lightening, and similar means of creating a more White-like appearance (Hall 2003a, 2003b; Jones 2000; Kaw 1993; Russell et al. 1992). This literature focuses on the psychological responses of the oppressed and how the subordinated can enhance their feelings of self-esteem, such as through consciousness-raising efforts (Lipsky 1987). Placing responsibility on the oppressed to solve the problem suggests it is of their own making, which easily leads to blaming the victims for internalized racism. 

This adds to the discomfort and disdain this topic inspires among anti-racist scholars and activists, an issue I take up later. During the 1960s civil rights movement, a critical literature that focuses directly on structural oppression while also attending to the deleterious psychological effects of internalized racism emerged. Several anti-colonial writers concerned with the psychological effects of colonialism on the oppressed in North Africa and South America described a “colonized mentality” marked by a sense of inferiority and a desire to be more like the colonizers (Fanon 1963; 1967; Freire 1970; Memmi 1965). This body of work influenced racial politics in the United States. American civil rights and Black power activists argued that like Western colonialism abroad, White racial domination in the United States inflicts self-doubt and negative self-images, particularly around racialized features like skin tone.

Malcolm X blamed “the White man” for Black racial “self-hatred” and viewed its eradication as a vital step toward racial freedom (Bagwell 1994). 

The 1960s “Black is beautiful”counter-narrative and the politics of a natural “Afro” hairstyle were attempts to forge an oppositional consciousness of self-love and racial pride. The Black Pride movement did not endure, however, and was followed in the 1970s by a shift to therapeutic or “self-help” solutions to social problems (Polletta 2006), and thus a return to an emphasis on the psychological aspects of internalized racism.

Part 3 to follow: