How to Heal from Internalized Racism

Surround yourself with images of beautiful Black people.

A long time ago, I read somewhere that your outlook on life is determined by the first seven years of your life. Surrounded by positive white images, and negative images of Black people during the first seven years of your life, you have likely internalized a negative image of yourself.

The thing I’m most embarrassed to admit was that I thought braids looked better on white people and did not look good on me. No one told me this, but the internalized racism and self-hate I’d developed over the years made me believe it.

Whenever I looked for fashion ideas, browsed magazines, I saw positive white images. I was primed into thinking my body should fit a certain shape, my natural hair had to fall a certain way. That I should stay out of the sun to avoid getting darker. I internalized the idea that my body could be curvaceous but not too curvaceous, and my hair could be natural, just not too or kinky or Black looking. Cue the hair texturizers and slimming outfits.

I used to think, why can’t I be from some other culture, African culture is the least attractive of them all.

No one explicitly taught me these things. I simply internalized the idea that being of African descent or African is on the lowest rung of human existence.

I undid the damage by changing the images I consumed.

Back when Instagram was young, I deliberately followed pro-Black and positive Black pages that featured the natural beauty of Black people. It didn’t happen right away, but after a couple of years, I could see the beauty in my people. I’m talking in natural beauty—not with all the add-ons (weave, skin brighteners, contouring, etc) we use to make ourselves feel more confident.

I’m not talking about just diversifying your home media library, and Netflix shows. I’m talking about a complete overhaul of the media you consume. You need to see as many positive Black images as you see positive white ones.

After reprograming my mind, I started to see the beauty in African culture, garments, jewelry and traditions. Beauty I never noticed before.

Shout out to Kweli.tv if you’re looking for a Black owned streaming service.

Learn some history. Un-learn American history as taught in schools.

This should be an obvious one, but it can be the least attractive when you have internalized self-hate. I never liked history class in the first place so pursuing history on my own was not something I wanted to do.

I only started unlearning public school American history after I stopped viewing Blackness as an unfortunate lot in life, and started seeing its beauty.

There is something liberating to learning the history you learned in school was written by the winners: racist white people. And that you should take their opinion of how things went down with a grain of salt.

It’s liberating to learn you have more history than the last 400 years. More than slavery, jazz, Jackie Robinson and the civil rights movement.

History has always been the hardest for me because every white person I know can point to specific countries across the Atlantic and say “my people are from here.” Even if I wanted to affiliate myself with an African country, I couldn’t. Africa is a continent with thousands of cultural/ethnic groups. Who my people are, my ancestors’ country, my culture will most likely always be a mystery.

The first (and only) alternative history book I read was Lies My Teacher Told Me. It’s probably not the best book for studying the effect of African peoples in the Americas, but it taught me a lot. That book completely changed my perspective on the history of the United States. Although a public school education would have you believe otherwise, Native American culture and language courses through the veins of our country.

What other history have they suppressed, denied or ignored? I have so much to learn. But the more I learn, the more I realize I have to be proud of.

Explore the diversity among Black people

Systematic, cultural, and internalized racism has led us to believe we, as Black people, are a monolith. We (and non-Black people) reinforce one definition of what it means to be Black: from how we dress, the music we listen to, our education, the way we speak, who our friends are, where we live, our skin color, hair texture, our interests.

When I went to college, I had a certain idea of what being Black was. There were only two types of us: Those who rose above and assimilated, and those who fit the Black stereotype. And I only wanted to associate with the former. The college-educated, sophisticated, etc. And boy was I mistaken in my judgments. (some of the college-educated folks taught me the hardest lessons in life)

It wasn’t until I started spending more time with Black people from diverse backgrounds—backgrounds very different from mine and learning we had common “non-black” interests that I understood that there was no such thing as a Black monolith.

Blackness does not have one definition. We are as diverse in our interests, backgrounds, values, ideals as any other group or culture on this earth.

The more I learned that there were other Black people with my “non-Black” interests, the more comfortable I felt with being myself. I didn’t feel like I had to be a certain way to “prove” I was “Black enough.”

Be mindful of the words you use to talk about Blackness and Black people. Including how you refer to your friends, family and people you don’t like.

I’m not saying you have to go all King and Queen or Brother and Sister for every Black person you meet, but know that words have power. (Cue the argument about reclaiming the n-word. Hear me out)

Some words and phrases I suggest you eliminate from your vocabulary when talking to another black person or about yourself:

  • too dark
  • too black
  • blackie
  • coon
  • uncle tom
  • red bone
  • lite-brite
  • n*gga
  • b*tch
  • dark *ss
  • black *ss
  • oreo/ oreo cookie
  • I only date/talk to light-skinned/white/Spanish girls.
  • not Black enough
  • mutt
  • not really black
  • darkness
  • ugly
  • nappy
  • nappy *ss
  • good hair/bad hair
  • ghetto
  • ratchet
  • hood
  • …for a Black girl
  • …for a dark girl
  • any compliments with race or skin color-related qualifiers
  • you talk white
  • taking the “black card”
  • lighter than a paper bag

These words are hurtful and reinforce internalized racism, low self-esteem, and white supremacy. Any time you put down a skin tone/hair texture to uplift another, you are sowing division among Black people. Most of these words glorify whiteness and white proximity. I know some of these words are used as complements or in jest, but they slap a label on Blackness, accept one type of blackness and reject others.

While I’ve used very few of these words, I’ve been on the receiving end of enough of them. These words contributed to the warping of my sense of identity and encouraged me to turn away from my Black identity.

I understand it’s sometimes necessary to describe how someone looks. Use that beautiful vocabulary of yours to find other ways to describe shades of brown or hair textures. Positive words.

If words can hurt people and contribute to a culture where whiteness is valued above all else, words can also uplift our community. Help us love ourselves and each other.

What are some ways we can use our language to talk about Blackness differently?

What things can Black people do to heal from internalized racism?

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