Breaking Down Internalised Racism in UK
Exploring the internal struggles of racial identity in a country denying its existence.
The everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of colour, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people.
In the past month, the UK government issued a controversial report on racial disparities, concluding that England was to be seen as, "an international exemplar of racial equality", and played down the impact of institutional racism in modern day England.
Though the intricacies of the report can be debated elsewhere, the unfortunate outcome is that an official report of this kind from the government severely undermines the experiences of racism in modern day England, contributing towards the bizzarre notion that we are somehow living in a 'post-racial' society.
Though it is easy to criticise the report as just another case of 'White fragility' refusing to address important issues, I want to turn my attention on how the social climate in England gives breadth to another type of racism in ethnic minorities - internalised racism.
Throughout my life, I have noticed that some ethnic minorities feel ashamed towards themselves and other people of colour, as a result of belonging to a culture that is completely different compared to a majority Western one. In an attempt to fit in with Western culture, it is not uncommon to witness an ethnic minority hiding their cultural identity.
Internalised racism wasn't mentioned once in the report, and it largely goes unaddressed for many reasons.
It's especially difficult to talk about during a climate where many White people still refuse to address their racial biases, so it seems unproductive to discuss how ethnic minorities can be racist too.
But regardless of who you are, we all have the capacity for prejudice, even against our own communities. Addressing our implicit biases involves taking a deep look at ourselves to spot toxic attitudes, which end up affecting everyone around us.
Academically speaking, internalised racism is a taboo subject surrounded by stigma. Social injustices like racism are intangible, and therefore difficult to discuss in the first place. It gets trickier when trying to understand how the same social injustices become internalised.
So with the help of experts in the field, I'm going to articulate what internalised racism is, suggest why it continues in an English landscape that seldom thinks of itself as "post-racial", and how it might be possible for someone originating from a minority background in England to be racist towards themselves and others.
There is no singular and absolute definition of internalised racism, which is no surprise as it is difficult to explain. But I've drawn from many sources to attempt an explanation.
As people of colour experience day-to-day racism, many of these interactions become internalised. Just as there is a system in place that reinforces the privilege of White people, there is a system in place that actively discourages the empowerment of people of colour, and "mires us in our own oppression".
Eventually, a POC living in a White majority country grasps a sense in which they are foreign to the West. They begin viewing themselves through the eyes of an imperial, racist gaze.
The Gaze is a prominent concept within existentalist philosophy and sociology.
Imagine a sexist man who sexually objectifies women with a look that indicates they are a sexual object, rather than a human being. He doesn't say anything particularly sexist, but the woman can feel the objectifying power of this look, and the lack of recognition as a human being.
Broadly speaking, this is what is meant by The Gaze - an attitude that views someone more of an object (a means to an end), than a subject (a means in itself).
Racists also tend look down on people of colour in a similar way - perhaps not to gain sexual favours, but nonetheless with a look which suggests they see a Black person first and foremost as Black - rather than a person.
The Gaze does not simply refer to 'a look' by sexist and racist people. It is better understood as a judgemental attitude which becomes conditioned towards everyone in the subtlest of ways by wider society - through micro-aggressions, lack of representation in advertisements, social norms, and media attitudes which often reflect POCs as criminals and terrorists.
Therefore, the 'Male Gaze' for example, isn't just manifested by men gawking at women's bodies on the street. It is often referred to in cinema, where female characters are sometimes depicted in sexually suggestive ways by male directors, which are not completely representative of how women really are.
In the context of our discussion about race, when the media publishes a story about a terrorist attack alongside pictures of Brown bearded men, it becomes typical for people to make this association and feel suspicious when walking past Brown bearded men in public, projecting this very gaze.
Perhaps not consciously, but certainly implicitly.
So The Gaze isn't just specific to men or White people, but everyone. Because The Gaze is so pervasive, and because it is often experienced by ethnic minorities whilst they are building their own sense of identity within Western culture, it becomes internalised into people of colour.
It becomes a judgemental force within ethnic minorities that serves to makes them feel incredibly aware of their race as non-White in England, and therefore like an 'Other' rather than a 'Self'.
In all such cases, The Gaze reflects the assumption that White people are central in Western society, and that people of colour are not.
As Du Bois writes, it is:
"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."
When learning to speak Urdu or going to the mosque in England, a young Pakistani girl named Halima might originally feel at home with her culture, as it is celebrated and seen as ordinary among other members of her family.
But at the same time, Halima learns to view it as strange, devolved and embarrassing in a wider Western context. Her English peers, despite not saying anything particularly malicious about her cultural customs, hardly recognise or make an attempt to understand her cultural traditions.
With mentions of Pakistani people as terrorists in wider media, a lack of representation in entertainment, and a plethora of other ways The Gaze is manifested, this can lead Halima to view her heritage as distinctly problematic - a hinderance to cultivating a central, White identity in England.
Many theorists make a note to distinguish internalised racism within minorities as not mere cases of someone having low self-esteem, self-hatred or stereotyping themselves.
It is a systematic injustice, because even people of colour with high self-esteems must to some degree wrestle with the effects of internalised racism, as racial empowerment is discouraged in a White majority society such as England.
Internalised racism doesn't just affect an individual's sense of identity - it has been described as being "intra-cultural and cross-cultural". This means it can negatively affect other ethnic minorities from different backgrounds.
For example, it is not unusual to hear of Jamaican people being racist against African people or vice versa, despite both communities largely consisting of Black people. Or the caste system in India, which includes colourism against other Indians who are mostly all Brown.
But regardless of the aggressor, one fundamental point is clear - ethnic minorities being racist to others affects all people of colour, allowing racist White people to continue sliding without accountability, which is a tremendous shame in combatting the disease of racism.
Some other, general examples of how internalised racism manifests itself include:
Internalised racism is learned behaviour, rather than an innate hatred of the self. As with other social injustices, a multitude of factors explain where internalised racism originates, and how it is perpetuated in England.
Since I am focusing the article particularly on POCs in England, I would say the most outstanding culprit of all is England's history of colonialism in countries that mostly comprise the ethnic minority population of England today.
The process of colonising India and Africa was disguised as an act to benefit its citizens. But really, it was a means of dominating the country by trivialising native customs and subjecting the nation to Imperial rule.
We often speak of colonialism as if it were a past event that no longer takes place. But colonialism isn't just the act of invading a country. It also involves installing European ideals and customs, to replace essential values of a culture considered by the West to be, "barbaric, uncivilised and mystical".
After official colonial rule had 'ended' (when Western powers left the country to govern itself), an internalisation of European values occurred within the political and cultural spheres of that nation.
To progress further as a society, they believed they must emulate the West, sacrificing core essential beliefs of their culture in favour of Western customs.
This is also reflected in how English artists, writers and historians choose to tell history - with England continuously playing the role of being a saviour, and colonised nations as a victim.
Thomas Macaulay, who instituted the system of Macaulayism, replaced Indian languages and dialects with English as the official medium of instruction in Indian educational institutions. He is quoted on record entirely dismissing the Indian culture which England had colonised:
"It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgement used at preparatory schools in England".
Frantz Fanon once said that to access a language is to access a culture, and clearly, the colonisers worked quickly to erase many national languages to destory cultures.
But it wasn't just languages the colonisers reckoned with - they also wanted to change the fundamental ideologies and religions practised in that culture.
Christian missionaries at the time argued that some superstitious elements of Hinduism were responsible for the religion appearing 'less rational' compared to its monotheistic counterparts.
They promoted a newer Hinduism (which some theorists describe as Neo-Hinduism) to be monotheistic over polytheistic, and outlawed the worship of idols, which many consider essential to the traditional practice of Hindu beliefs.
This Western influence of Hindu beliefs prevails today in the BJP (the current ruling party of India led by Modi), who have sparked great controversy for their islamophobic conduct, and exploitation and intolerance towards Indian farmers. It serves as one example of how European imperial rule prevails in the colonised countries, despite their departure.
Edward Said is considered by many to be the father of post-colonialism, a field of study challenging the bias of Western attitudes concerning the East, a process he coined as Orientalism.
This refers to a continuous narrative that runs through the West's understanding of the East. Generally speaking, that the East is mysterious, barbaric, uncivilised, and infantile compared to the West. The West has ideologically considered itself throughout history as being the 'White saviour', maintaining that without their intervention, Eastern countries would be worse off.
I like to think of Orientalism as being a great name for what Said is trying to articulate, because the West often describes East Asian countries as 'Oriental', where East Asian countries would never describe themselves with this word.
For me, it accurately demonstrates this point of the West historically seeking to define other nations by a Western metric, preventing those countries to represent themselves authentically.
This is reinforced not just by historical facts, but poems and literature from colonisers often describing how rational, strong, noble and 'masculine' Western countries appear in comparison to 'mystical' Eastern countries.
Orientalism is so successful, it continues even today.
Here's a modern example. After an investigation of the Iraq war concluded that there were no weapons of mass destruction, and was therefore fought on unjust grounds, Tony Blair (former prime minister of England who approved the Iraq war) still maintained that invading Iraq was the best thing to do.
He insisted that installing Western values (democratic principles and governments based on Western models) was necessary. He even claimed the Iraqi people would trade millions of dead bodies for these ostensibly great Western liberties.
Edward Said's explanation of how the West 'orientalises' the East dovetails into how internalised racism is perpetuated today in modern England, creating an adverse environment for minorities to cultivate an authentic, cultural identity.
There have been several calls to 'decolonise the curriculum' from students.
What this means is to represent history without bias, including the teaching of historical events from the countries England once occupied, and generally, teaching about the British empire.
As of yet, there have been no significant or meaningful changes despite continuous pressure on the government.
Representatives from the UK government have defended the decision to not decolonise the curriculum, in fear that it will tarnish the general reputation of Britain as a great country:
Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, has rejected appeals to revise the curriculum, responding by saying, “we should be incredibly proud of our history because time and time and time again, this country has made a difference and changed things for the better, right around the world”.
Michael Gove, who was responsible for removing colonisation and slavery as compulsory topics in 2014, had a similar response to critics, claiming schools should not teach “post-colonial guilt”.
(Source: Our Story, Your History)
These comments seem to indicate an acute awareness of England's participation in the colonies, and more frustratingly, a willful ignorance to teaching the brutal facts of British history in the curriculum.
German children are taught about Nazi Germany in their curriculum, so it is hypocritical for the English government to expect a heroic reputation, where Germans are continuously held accountable for their misconduct in World War 2.
Politicians like Michael Gove have continuously whitewashed the curriculum, where "71% of teachers wanted the British empire to be taught".
But bringing the discussion back to internalised racism, one thing should be made clear:
To omit the teaching of historical facts in a curriculum to preserve the reputation of a nation is propaganda; plain and simple. The motivation for doing this is strictly ideological. If Williamson is correct in saying that England had "changed things for the better, right around the world", why are they so shy of teaching England's so-called 'great history'?
Couple that with England's growing multicultural population, the refusal to teach England's conduct in these countries creates a hostile environment for ethnic minorities.
Their identity is unable to be cultivated outside of a context where White people are considered heroes throughout history. Rather than being taught about the multiple occasions that England had occupied Black and Brown majority populations, or even how these same populations fought on England's behalf, they are instead taught about how the victorious Winston Churchill fought for this country with great honour and courage.
I mention Churchill specifically, because I recall many history lessons where he was considered a victor in World War 2, and because he was most recently featured on the English £5 note in respect to his war efforts.
But those who have learned history outside of an English classroom may recall Churchill's disparaging comments about Indians, particularly in private conversation.
At one point, he explicitly told his Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery, that he "hated Indians", and considered them "a beastly people with a beastly religion". Despite being tremendously racist, many Indians fought on England's behalf in World War 2 (which I was never taught about in school).
On top of that, 3 million Indians died by starvation in Bengal - a famine that many historians believe was man-made, and caused by English colonial officers occupying India.
Churchill denied these Indians food relief to save them, despite 2.5 million of them joining the army to fight on England's behalf, and despite the commander-in-chief at the time asserting that the British "couldn't have come through both wars [World War I and II] if they hadn't had the Indian Army."
World War 2 is part of the English curriculum, so there should be no excuse why Indian children should not be taught about their ancestors' efforts to fight for the country, and how they were ultimately betrayed by a figure who is taught as a hero.
To recap, I've argued that one of the largest reasons why internalised racism in England persists is due to England's history of colonisation, the refusal to teach said history, and a complete dismissal of the psychological effects this has on ethnic minorities.
The original culture of immigrants living in England - be it Pakistani, Ethiopian, Nigerian, Jamaican - is seen through the eyes of an English judgemental lens where their heritages are considered 'less evolved' than the rational, intelligible English customs which prevail in the coloniser's country.
Another way this is demonstrated is through beauty standards which have always been in favour of White features - even in African and Indian countries.
Skin-whitening cream is a good example of how fairer features were emphasised as more beautiful during colonial rule, and how this beauty norm persists in people of colour.
Beauty adverts still feature White men and women as beautiful - even when particular features characteristically resemble Black or Brown features.
To give you an example, many fashion and beauty magazines are talking about a growing trend of thick eyebrows becoming 'en vogue'. The choice of models is typically White women, featuring guides explaining how they can grow them thicker.
But this was unfashionable ten years ago. Thick eyebrows were considered unattractive, and stories such as these from a young Turkish-American reflect the great lengths she once took by overly shaving her eyebrows, and being astounded that they are now in fashion.
Another example has arisen online called 'Blackfishing', where Black and mixed-race individuals have criticised White women emulating features that are characteristically Black by tanning their skin, weaving their hair, or getting plastic surgery.
Those publicly commenting on this, like Dara Thurmond, have claimed that it is an appropriation of Black beauty by White women, because Black women have always previously been dismissed or seen as unattractive:
"We're coming into a time where you see a lot of black women really expressing themselves and stepping into their blackness, and owning it, and not being ashamed of it anymore.
So it makes sense why it's happening - because I guess some people who are white-presenting feel like they're not the standard anymore. So now they're trying to do things to stay relevant and keep their popularity."(Source: BBC News)
As mentioned before, hybrid identity is developed within the ethnic minority who has grown up in a majority White England. Their authentic wills and desires co-exist with an internalised judgemental White gaze that views their culture as less evolved to an English one.
When minority culture is celebrated, English ethnic minorities may direct their Western Gaze (which values 'rationality', 'logic' and 'strength') towards their original culture.
When the national curriculum of a country willfully ignores the history of migrants (which could help constitute an authentic cultural identity in the individual), and beauty standards are often always represented as White, it seems easy for a minority to manifest internalised racism both at themselves, and towards others who are not White.
This can lead to distancing themselves from immigrants with poor English, even if they share the same cultural traditions, since the English ethnic minority considers themselves more attuned to Western customs, which differ from their original culture.
For example, the term 'Freshie' is common among South Asian people to refer to immigrants who are 'fresh off the boat', demonstrating derogatory attitudes which refer to those who are not naturalised to the West by specifically minorities from the same ancestry.
Language barriers prevent those from original cultures to properly converse with those who can only speak English, as a result of what Fanon would describe as their 'mental colonisation'.
A large part of that culture's traditions are lost in translation, and even if they are not, they are viewed through the judgemental Western lens as being less evolved to the English thinking and traditions.
Just as the colonisers had erased Indian customs when occupying the country, the effects of 'mental colonisation' continue today by purposefully hiding the truth of England's past, and bit by bit erasing the means for English Black and Brown citizens to cultivate an authentic identity.
The day-to-day microaggressions experienced by people of colour in White majority countries, regardless of whether they were born in that country or not, leads to a greater sense of alienation for being Black or Brown which only grows over time.
To escape this condition, a subconscious belief persists that one must entirely conform with White culture, language, ideologies, and beauty standards to finally be seen as a person. Hence why Fanon writes in the accurately described book, 'Black Skin White Masks':
However painful it may be for me to accept this conclusion, I am obliged to state it: For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white.
Whereas a White person, free from these constraints, can be whatever kind of person they want, a migrant from a colonised country strives tirelessly to be White. But of course, they can never be.
Unfortunately, this often leads to non-White people being racist towards other non-White people - deep in denial that they are White, or at least Whiter than their Black/Brown counterparts. The racism targeted towards other people of colour is, therefore, a result of repressed shame and guilt for not being White.
Fanon wrote extensively about the psychological effects of colonialism on colonised migrants over 70 years ago. So internalised racism is not a new problem. Indeed, it is heartbreaking that not much has changed since then.
But I never like to conclude an article without proposing some kind of solution to the problem, especially because I think there is a way out for ethnic minorities experiencing this.
After reading this, you may agree the most obvious solution to internalised racism for minorities is to be aware it exists. After all, it is difficult to discover in oneself.
Many hold this belief that it is almost impossible for people of colour to be racist, and I have always thought it is a ridiculous and dangerous opinion. Just as much as White people, ethnic minorities ought to be aware of their own racist biases towards others including themselves.
A recent study found that adolescents who are marginalized based on characteristics of their identity such as their race, social class, income, and gender can benefit from being 'critically conscious'.
To be critically conscious, an individual must be more than aware of the oppressive systemic forces in society. Individuals must also have "a sense of efficacy to work against oppression, and engagement in individual or collective action against oppression".
Just by reading this article, your awareness about this issue has increased.
But 'critical awareness' includes a continuous effort to understand and talk about these issues, against the social taboo that comes with talking about racism.
There is a lot of untaught history which could help ethnic minorities understand that they are not a nuisance or a burden incurred on the English people, but a fundamental part of English history and the country it is today.
"If we were all taught about colonial history in school, we’d learn at a young age that many of the people who came here from colonies and former colonies did so as citizens, not as immigrants.
We’d discuss how so-called immigration policies introduced from the 1960s onward were designed to make it more difficult for people of colour to come to this country, and we’d examine the forms of resistance that came with this."
Source: The Guardian
As a result of many minorities being born and bred in England, I imagine I'm not the only one who experienced disenfranchisement with my original culture.
Reconnecting with these roots - through traditional celebrations, learning the language, enjoying movies and art from that culture - can go a long way in the self-development and empowerment of a minority.
Don't wait for the government to teach your culture - the Internet is at your fingertips.
I've heard from other minorities that connecting with your original culture's music and art can sometimes seem shallow or infantile, because it can seem cliche compared to the conventions of Western art.
But I would argue this is another example of the internalised Western gaze, which views anything other than itself as less civilised and developed.
Finally, if minorities feel empowered enough to break The Gaze living in a country like England, representing ourselves without Western interference can pave the way for future Brown and Black people to do the same.
Refusing to be defined by stereotypes, and openly discussing the niche elements of our cultures, will hopefully contribute towards making our original cultures less shameful and more appealing to belong to.
One of my fundamental aims in life is cultivating a platform where individuals can represent themselves authentically. I'm very happy with the current development with my publication COSY, as one way to do this.
There's a lot more to cover in this subject, and this is by no means a comprehensive understanding of internalised racism. But as always, I hope this marks the beginning of a much-needed conversation about the subtler elements of racial relations.