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Internalized Oppression

Looking inside for the effects of racism

by Attica Scott

"My fight is not for racial sameness but for racial equality and against racial prejudice and discrimination."
—John Oliver Killens, 1964

Internalized racist oppression (IRO) is the internalization by people of color (POC) of the images, stereotypes, prejudices, and myths promoted by the racist system about POC in this country. Our thoughts and feelings about ourselves, people of our own racial group or other POC are based on the racist messages we receive from the broader system. For many people of color in our communities, internalized racist oppression manifests itself as self-doubt, an inferiority complex and self-hate (as defined by facilitators from the ChangeWork organization).

It ain't easy to talk about nor to write about internalized racist oppression or any other topic dealing with racism. In Knoxville and throughout East Tennessee, IRO manifests itself through our inability as POC to truly imagine where we could and should be in our communities. Some of us are content with mediocrity and too often do not question oppressive systems, be they educational, governmental or societal. This unwillingness to question is an inferiority complex that is passed down from generation to generation, leading us to raise children with low self-esteem who also will not question.

Our low self-esteem makes us blind to the process of oppression. The process is historical and methodological and affects the spectrum of people of color. Within the process there is violence and the threat of violence. Violence can include and has included being smashed in the head with bottles, being attacked with water hoses, and being mauled by vicious attack dogs.

Some people will write these kinds of attacks off by saying that they are in the past, but people of color continue to be brutalized by law enforcement officers, white gangs because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and in our community; it wasn't that long ago when a family was forced out of town because of a cross being burned in their front yard.

The process includes people acting differently toward one another and the destruction of one's culture. Finally, the process also involves division, separation, and isolation. As a result, people of color become afraid to speak out against racism and prejudice. Sometimes we fear the negative labels that we know will follow if and when we are outspoken. For example: "You're too aggressive;" "He sure is angry;" or, "You people are overly sensitive." But in order to try to move toward any semblance of parity, we must be vocal. And beyond being vocal, we must be active.

The ChangeWork group offers eight phases for action by people of color to dismantle the effects of internalized racist oppression. Of course, you'd have to attend a "Dismantling or Undoing Racism" workshop for yourself to begin the process of experiencing all eight, but I'll offer a few here.

Phase One is to develop a self-identity where we define ourselves, speak for ourselves, and love and respect ourselves. This does not mean that we should not be critical of one another as POC, but that we must also be supportive of one another. Phase Two is the difficult phase of waking up and realizing that you have been the best gatekeeper that you knew how to be. You have been protecting the oppressor who sits in his tower using you as his scapegoat.

Because my space is limited, let me skip to the seventh and final phases where we begin to seek out other people of color, whether African American, Hispanic, or any other group of color, for collective action and to develop a community of resistance. Our collective action allows us to empower ourselves because no one can empower you or your community. Providing people with tools and skills, even if it is for community-building, is not empowerment. Remember that the so-called "power" that is given to you can also be taken away from you.

I'm putting down my pen and picking up the telephone to start calling people to action. Who's with me?

July 5, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 27
© 2001 Metro Pulse