Racism is among the most written about forms of oppression that occur at the individual, institutional, and cultural levels. While levels of racism are studied by social scientists across disciplines, psychologists typically focus on the origins, manifestations, and impact of racism at the individual level. Racism is predicated on the belief that certain human groups, called races, are inferior, while other human groups are superior. Internalized racialism is of particular interest to mental health professionals because it involves beliefs about race that are usually uncritically accepted and subsequently become internalized.
Internalized racialism can broadly be defined as the process by which ethnic minorities internalize white stereotypes about ethnic minorities. In the scientific literature the term has been used primarily with blacks or African Americans, but in theory, if not practice, it can be applied to any racial or ethnic minority. The term has been used primarily with blacks or African Americans because they seem to be the most racialized of all ethnic groups in the United States.
Unlike racism the term racialism is harder to define because it is used in different ways by different people. In the psychological literature, racialism has been defined as a way of cognitively organizing perceptions of racial categories so that members of a race are believed to share immutable characteristics that they do not share with members of another race. The immutable traits believed to be shared by all members of a racial group usually include, but are not limited to, physical characteristics such as skin color, hair texture, width of nose, size of lips, shape of chin, the shape and size of the buttocks, and, for men, the size of their genitalia. Behavioral traits often associated with a particular race include law abidingness, sexual activity and reproduction, and athleticism. Cognitive processes are alleged to include intelligence and personality traits regarding temperament.
Racialism is related to the philosophical idea of essentialism, whereby things that look alike are believed to share similar properties. In the white separatist literature, racialism is usually described as involving a strong interest in racial matters, based on the premise that there are innate and immutable traits that define the nature of every racial group. This interest in racial matters can sometimes translate into advocating for or enacting racial policy, such as racial segregation. Consequently, people who are proponents of racialism, or racialists, do not see themselves as racists because they do not appear to advocate or promote the idea that racial groups are superior or inferior.
Social scientists and other social commentators often doubt the truthfulness of this claim, and they dispute the notion that one can believe in immutable racial traits without assigning value, and ultimately a hierarchy, to those traits. Proponents of racialism do not see themselves as promoting racism because they do not support behaviors that harm certain racial groups. Instead, they promote the idea that there should be laws recognizing that there are racial differences. In theory, racialism is usually a precursor to or a necessary condition for racism. It has been argued that racialism is not inherently problematic. Instead, in this view, it is only problematic when the beliefs lead to discriminatory and harmful behavior. In reality, there are instances when claims of racialism are synonymous with racism and other instances when racialism is truly distinct from racism. Because of white racial oppression, the expression of racialism by ethnic minorities may be more about promoting racial pride than promoting racial separatism.
The term stereotype refers to negative or positive beliefs about the characteristics of a group of people. Like racialism, it has been argued that stereotypes are not necessarily problematic unless they influence the behavior of a member of one racial group toward a member of another racial group. Racialism is largely responsible for racial stereotypes. It has been found that the stereotypes applied to blacks are generally more negative than the stereotypes applied to other racial or ethnic groups. The negative stereotypes of blacks include the beliefs that blacks are more prone to violence and criminal behavior, and that they are lazy, low in intelligence, and sexually promiscuous. The so-called positive stereotypes of blacks include the beliefs that they are athletic, naturally good dancers, and that black men have large genitalia. The notion of positive stereotypes is somewhat controversial, in that members of groups to whom positive stereotypes have been attributed often believe that there are hidden harmful effects of positive stereotypes (e.g., the pressure on Asian-American students to excel academically because of the model minority stereotype). Racial stereotypes play an important role in influencing prejudiced behavior in the form of discrimination and racism.
Internalized racism is the degree to which members of ethnic and racial minority groups agree with negative racist stereotypes attributed to their racial or ethnic minority groups, and consequently act on these beliefs. Examples of internalized racism may include: (1) Believing that members of one’s racial or ethnic minority group are stupid, lazy, and inferior; (2) aggressive or violent behavior against members of one’s racial or ethnic minority group because of the low regard or hatred one holds toward the group; (3) having low self-esteem associated with one’s racial or ethnic group membership; (4) placing a higher value on members of one’s racial or ethnic minority group who physically or phenotypically appear more white in their features (e.g., lighter skin, straight hair) while denigrating those who have darker skin or appear less white in their features; and (5) holding in higher regard members of one’s racial or ethnic minority group who adopt the values or behaviors of the white majority because of the belief that the values and behaviors of one’s racial or ethnic minority group are inferior. Internalized racism is generally believed to be negatively related to mental health and physical health. For example, psychologists examining black identity have found that low regard for being black is related to negative mental health outcomes. Internalized racism can take the form of Asians having plastic surgery to “fix” their eyelids to look more like the white majority, or of blacks bleaching their skin to be lighter. It can also involve dating individuals outside of one’s racial or ethnic minority group because of the low regard one has toward members of one’s own racial group.
Internalized racialism is the degree to which members of ethnic and racial minority groups believe that racial groups have innate and immutable characteristics, and consequently act on these beliefs. This racialist thinking usually involves identifying with any negative or positive stereotype attributed to one’s racial group. Internalized racialism differs from internalized racism in one important way. Unlike internalized racism, internalized racialism includes agreeing with so-called positive stereotypes attributed to one’s racial group. The notion of positive stereotypes, as mentioned earlier, can be controversial. An African American who believes that blacks are naturally faster runners than whites and other racial and ethnic groups is experiencing a form of internalized racialism because being a naturally fast runner is a positive stereotype. Similarly, an African American who believes that blacks, on average, are genetically less intelligent or more prone to acts of violence and criminality is also experiencing a type of internalized racialism. Whether it involves agreeing with negative stereotypes (internalized racism), or a combination of negative and positive stereotypes (internalized racialism), individuals who have internalized these stereotypes believe that all individuals are a part of a definable racial group characterized by immutable traits.
A disproportionate amount of academic discussions about internalized racism and internalized racialism focus on black people, specifically on African Americans. This is perhaps because of the legacy of slavery in the United States. The legacy of slavery, segregation, and discrimination has negatively affected the identity and self-conception of many African Americans. Consequently, many psychologists have focused on facilitating a positive black racial identity for African Americans. The process of constructing a positive black racial identity has been found to be related to racialist beliefs about black athleticism, black mental capabilities, and black sexuality.
Cokley, Kevin. 2002. “Testing Cross’s Revised Racial Identity Model: An Examination of the Relationship between Racial Identity and Internalized Racialism.” Journal of Counseling Psychology 49: 476–483
Devine, Patricia G. 1989. “Stereotypes and Prejudice: Their Automatic and Controlled Components.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 56: 5–18.
Jones, James M. 1997. Prejudice and Racism, 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Taylor, Jerome, and Carolyn Grundy. 1996. “Measuring Black Internalization of White Stereotypes about African Americans: The Nadanolitization Scale.” In Handbook of Tests and Measurements of Black Populations, Vol. 2, edited by Reginald. L. Jones, 217–221. Hampton, VA: Cobb and Henry.
Kevin O. Cokley