By: Sela Kleiman
Throughout life, especially during early life, we internalize messages sent to us by caregivers, siblings, extended family, peers, and larger social and cultural institutions. Growing up, if caregivers are attuned to our emotional needs and respond in a warm and empathic way, we are more likely to internalize, or have an unconscious felt sense, that we are a person worthy of being loved. If, on the other hand, caregivers respond to our emotional bids for affection with rebuke, derision, anger, and so forth, we instead may internalize a felt sense that we are unlovable in some way. The messages we receive about ourselves from others profoundly impact how we feel about ourselves and how we relate to others.
Messages sent from the cultural and social milieu in which one lives can greatly influence how we feel about our own worth. Growing up in North America where racism is prevalent, for instance, folks of colour are subject to many recurrent and demeaning messages about their racial identities. These messages often are subtle. For example, they may be revealed in television shows and movies where people of colour represented stereotypically and cast in a narrow range of roles. Additionally, these messages are found in schools. For instance, some children who have to pass through security guards checkpoints every morning before class undoubtedly receive the message that they are dangerous and not to be trusted. Unkempt school grounds and poorly supplied classrooms are a consistent reminder to some students that their education is not as important as those who live in more affluent neighborhoods. Consistently receiving these messages takes its toll on an individual; one result may be internalized racism.
Internalized racism is a phenomenon whereby people of colour constantly exposed to demeaning messages that imply their inherent badness or lower worth may unconsciously start to feel this way about themselves. One of the most disturbing yet illuminating examples of this was the doll experiments conducted by Clark and Clark in the late 1930s/early 1940s in which they asked children to rank Black and White dolls (everything the same except for their skin colour) on various characteristics. They showed that both Black and White children typically preferred White dolls over Black dolls in terms of appearance, niceness, and so forth. To Clark and Clark, Black children preferring White dolls for these reasons was an example of internalized racism.
Aside from cultural and social shifts needed to combat internalized racism, a more intimate domain to work through this issue is in therapy. For this to happen, psychologists, psychotherapists, and other helping professionals must be multiculturally-competent practitioners. Indeed, they must be well-versed in psychological and emotional manifestations of discrimination and be able to engage in meaningful dialogue with clients as these issues arise. Ignoring internalized discrimination and placing the locus of responsibility solely within the client risks reinforcing oppressive patterns responsible for internalized racism. Using therapy as a space to explore themes of badness, worthiness, and so on through a culturally sensitive lens can empower clients to gain a better understanding of their pathogenic beliefs and, through deep and meaningful processing of these themes, detoxify these negative feelings about the self.