If the path of time never stops — if it is an eternal arrow moving toward infinity — when do we become ourselves and how can we lose ourselves? What have we lost?
It was years into a process of bleaching and starving myself that I realized that I was actually trying to erase my identity out of a deep-seated hatred for my own cultural heritage. I hated the way that I naturally looked, the dark hair and eyes, the curvier body, and the pronounced, bumpy nose. I wanted to resemble the image of an ideal, but such an ideal was so far removed from reality that I just perpetuated racism against myself until I broke.
In each person, there is the voice of society telling us right from wrong. This mechanism is important for the formative development of our sense of morality, abstract thinking, and even the notion of the self. Yet, it is clear that the society around us is systematically racist, and thus might teach you to believe that you are wrong because of the colour of your skin, ethnicity, or citizenship. From a young age, we are immersed in a world that internalizes and reinforces racism, as well as other forms of discrimination, through social conventions and expectations.
It is impossible to conceive a self that is not laden with pre-existing worldviews, and that means that you know the dynamic of superiority and inferiority as early as you are socialized. For those from marginalized communities, our personal history has always been marked by this looming internalized racism, to the extent that there is no specific moment where we lost ourselves but it is rather that we were always taught not to find ourselves.
Internalized racism, in my experience, is more than accepting and supporting racial hierarchies. You are dealing with self-loathing, which reflects how society perceives you because of your race. It is simultaneously a social and psychological issue. It reaches the core of who you are, and affects how you think about and see the world around you, especially in reference to people from your own racial or cultural background.
In multicultural societies there are politics of recognition — the idea that recognition is an essential pre-condition for forming a personal or group identity. This means that for marginalized people to forge a place against dominant groups, they must have interest in their identity being recognized.
Internalized racism is a tool for assimilation because it creates negative psychological effects during racial identity development. We reduce ourselves, erase ourselves, and lose ourselves. It is only in this way that the conflict between marginalized and non-marginalized groups for recognition — and hence power — can ever be resolved. If we come to oppress ourselves and our people, then the power dynamics that are inherently interlaced with racism will continue. Internalized racism turns the politics of recognition around, so as to make marginalized racial groups ‘recognize’ their own ‘inferiority.’
As a racialized person, I now know far too intimately how internalized racism manifests in different aspects of and times in our lives. I wish I would have known that not wanting to speak my parents’ languages, to tell people my full ethnicity, or to bring traditional foods to school as a child was indicative of a far-reaching battle that I would have with myself later in life.
The bulk of my internalized racism presents itself in feeling ugly from the outside inward. But there is no reasoning for a girl without any sense of self-worth. Every pound that I lost ripped at me in ways different than gaining weight ever could. The smaller that I became, the more beautiful I felt, and the less secure I was about my place in this world.
Still I kept pushing myself to fit a mould that I was not biologically constructed to fit. I saw a flat stomach and lack of breasts as a sign that I was finally reaching a threshold of what was appealing to others, and only because I thought that to be white, stick-figured, no-workout type of person was the most attractive. I didn’t really have any examples to tell me something different.
Now, as I’ve somewhat moved away from that rigidness and anxiety, I can realize the self-worth I lacked. People tell me that I look a lot healthier. But I don’t think that I’ve actually released any of that self-hatred. I’ve just come to understand its presence in my life, which mitigates the irrationality in some ways.
I certainly have not risen past my internalized racism; I had a mental breakdown last winter, crying and screaming because I no longer looked the way I wanted. Even if I was not visibly different, I felt substandard and unappealing. My entire self-worth is tied up in the way that I view myself, and I view myself as the other.
Internalized racism is the trap of all traps: it lets racialized people self-destruct. It should not be separated from historical policies that aimed at the assimilation and oppression of different races, but instead should be seen as the next manifestation of colonial relationships.
And yet because this revised form of racial discrimination takes place on the psychological level, it will require a moment when one can establish racial equality within oneself in order to be ameliorated. How is that possible when spiralling in a timeless void of anxiety and mental trauma? Is it even possible if racism is moulded into one’s psyche from the beginning? I don’t feel like it is. I am so far down the rabbit hole that, even though I support the need for radical equality between social groups and despise the unjust lack thereof, I can’t separate my own mental well-being from those social facts. The mind is unreasonable. It won’t enter into negotiations.
When I started university, I was bleach-blonde, frail, and hateful toward myself. Although time has kept moving onward and I have grown into new dimensions, I feel the internalized racial hierarchies moving on a continuum within me and can only hope that they won’t be there forever.