by Mary Pender Greene, LCSW-R, CGP, Sandra Bernabei, LCSW, and Lisa V. Blitz, Ph.D., LCSW-R
Heeding the NASW call to action on structural racism, our columns have discussed the principles of Undoing Racism® outlined by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB). We do this because racial disparities persist in areas touched by social work: child welfare, criminal justice, education, health, and wealth distribution, where outcomes for people of color are consistently worse than for White people. We have explored some of the complex reasons for this, and we now consider a factor that is often ignored or misunderstood: internalized racial oppression.
Internalized racial oppression is a multigenerational process of accepting social messaging about one’s standing in society and one’s comparative value. Unless there are conscious, rigorous, and well-informed efforts to challenge them, social messages become internalized and, thus, invisible. Once invisible, the legacies of privilege and oppression become part of what is handed down through generations as social, cultural, and institutional norms and practices. Therefore, to understand structural racism, we must understand internalized racial oppression.
Success for any person ultimately depends on the efforts of the individual, but until the barriers of racism are acknowledged and addressed, people of color must strive for achievement without the foundation provided to White people through imbedded systems of White privilege. White privilege includes historical and structural components that allow greater access to education, wealth, and power; it also includes cultural messages around race. White people can see themselves represented throughout American society, and can go through life without needing to consider their race when navigating social systems. White people do not need to consider race as a factor in their success or failure. Thus, White people can focus on their own skills, talents, and work ethics as keys to achievement, with cultural messages reinforcing the idea that they are deserving and capable of success.
In contrast, people of color face daily challenges imposed by structural and institutional racism that are often invisible to White people. As they put energy and talent into efforts to achieve, people of color must respond, react, and filter through multiple factors related to their race: interpersonal microaggressions, cultural norms that inhibit expression, and structural barriers. These cultural messages reinforce the idea that people of color are suspect and only capable of success if they distance themselves from their culture: as individuals they may be deserving, but their group is associated with failure.
Internalized racial oppression is not individual race bias; the focus is still on structural racism. We define racism as race prejudice plus power. Power is held by social, economic, and political institutions. Collective attitudes inform culture and institutions, and assumptions based on those attitudes become part of the structural norm. The norm becomes accepted and its history forgotten, and this forms the core of structural racism.
The concept of internalized racial oppression includes internalized racial superiority (IRS) and internalized racial inferiority (IRI): two sides of the same coin, where IRS is designated as an oppression, not a privilege. As noted by Martin Luther King and others, people cannot be truly free if they participate in the subjugation of others, regardless of whether participation is intentional or if it is an unwitting consequence of maintaining the status quo through failure to oppose injustice.
IRS is defined as the unconscious assumption of the inherently superior qualities of White people and White culture. Nowadays, most White people would remove themselves from the culpable group, assigning guilt to the overt White supremacists who live amongst us but are not us. IRS, however, is absorbed through cultural transmission and shows up subtly. IRI is defined as accepting and acting out an inferior definition of self that was given by White people, rooted in the historical designation of people of color as inferior. Reinforced by negative cultural messages over many generations, the process of disempowerment and disenfranchisement becomes part of individual and community self-concept unless constant vigilance in exercising resistance ethics is maintained. When healthy resistance breaks down, IRI expresses itself in self-defeating behaviors.
To understand how IRS and IRI affect social work, we offer an example of staff group dynamics that happen in a wide variety of professional contexts and provide a window into the subtle manifestations of internalized racial oppression. Consider Wendy and Brenda, two mid-career social workers. Wendy, a White woman, has dedicated herself to professional development and has been appropriately rewarded by increasing success in her agency. In staff meetings, she expresses her opinions assertively and has gained the respect of her colleagues and supervisor. Her ideas often dominate the conversation and frequently influence decisions. She does not do this forcefully. She simply puts forth an idea, sometimes in the form of a thoughtful question, and facilitates the conversation as others talk through the concern. Since her ideas and ways of approaching problems are in line with the assumptions of her White supervisor and the mostly White staff, the conversations typically expand on what she put forth without much deviation from the original idea.
Brenda, a Black woman, has also dedicated herself to professional development and is respected as a skilled and valued member of the team. Brenda’s experience in staff meetings, however, is markedly different from Wendy’s. When Brenda offers an idea or poses a thoughtful question, there is little collective attention to her words and the wisdom behind them. She is never ignored or dismissed, but she is also rarely followed in the ways that have helped Wendy become a de facto leader within the team.
Wendy was raised to be confident. She was told, directly and through numerous cultural reminders, that she and people like her are smart, dynamic leaders who have the skills and talents to change the world. Of course, she knows about White people who are not successful, but the overarching message has always been about the positive potential of people like her. As Wendy internalized the positive affirmations about herself and her community, the implicit link with White people/White culture went unseen. Wendy is a good person, an effective social worker, and has internalized racial superiority.
Brenda was also raised to be confident, and she is surrounded by people of color who are smart, talented, and dynamic. Brenda receives other messages, though. Her parents understood that Black students are disciplined more severely for subjectively interpreted behavior (e.g., disrespect or excessive noise), whereas White children are more often only punished for things like fighting and smoking at school. To help her succeed, her parents taught her to maintain “proper behavior,” which often meant stifling self-expression. In her community, Brenda sees aggressive policing, the effects of mass incarceration, and numerous other reminders of the struggles of Black people. Despite all efforts, she is not able to keep the negative messages out, and (with anger and sorrow) gives in to doubt, holds back full self-expression, and sometimes looks at her own community with suspicion. This is Brenda’s internalized racial inferiority.
Now consider Wendy and Brenda together at work, and how the dynamics of IRS and IRI can play out and reinforce one another. Brenda is confident enough to assert herself, but the team naturally gravitates toward Wendy. Team members like and respect Brenda, but more often follow Wendy’s guidance. The supervisor, also White, is more likely to question or challenge Brenda. He says he enjoys a lively debate on issues, but engages with Brenda in this way more than with Wendy. The message to Brenda—and the rest of the team—is that Brenda’s ideas are suspect or open for debate, whereas Wendy’s ideas should be followed down a deeper path. Wendy feels in a bind. She knows Brenda has great ideas, but feels as if she’s being condescending when she tries to create space for Brenda to speak up. She sees Brenda shut down without really trying and she’s frustrated with Brenda and herself. For Brenda, the extra effort for continual assertion is exhausting, and it is a painful reminder of negative cultural messages.
The agency has staff conversations about cultural diversity. Wendy holds back in these conversations, staying silent to create space for Brenda and the other staff of color. She feels her place is to listen to the people of color, and doesn’t feel that she has anything valuable to add. Brenda is also largely silent in these conversations, and recognizes that the other staff of color do not say publicly what they confide privately. To speak up in the silence of White people in the room feels like exposing herself to voyeurism and hurts more than helps. Wendy feels humble and open in these conversations, but to Brenda, this humility feels like an acting out of IRS.
Wendy is struggling with cognitive dissonance, blocking her ability to connect with Brenda. Wendy knows she is not superior to Brenda, but her unconscious IRS inhibits her otherwise natural empathic ability. Until Wendy’s IRS becomes conscious, she does not have a way to understand the manifestations of institutional racism, nor does she have a sincere and supportive way to relate to Brenda’s struggles with IRI. When her IRS becomes conscious, Wendy will have ways to explore organizational culture and staff dynamics to understand how IRI and IRS are activated. She will then be able to coach the supervisor and partner with him, so they can both clearly convey to the staff that Brenda’s unique contributions are valued and publicly acknowledge her wisdom and insights. When this happens, the work climate will be inviting for Brenda and the other staff of color, and all staff—and their clients—will benefit.
Until then, the relationship between Wendy and Brenda, while collegial and pleasant, is inauthentic. The inauthenticity does not hurt Brenda personally—she developed ways to understand and deal with White peoples’ IRS long ago. It does hurt Brenda professionally, however, because she is deprived of the type of peer-mentorship that helps people achieve success. Wendy is hurt personally by being deprived of a more fruitful partnership, but she is not hurt professionally as she continues to enjoy the trust and support of colleagues and supervisors. This is structural racism manifested through internalized racial oppression.
The next column will be our last in this series, and we will focus on solutions, actions, and next steps in undoing racism in organizations and communities.
Mary Pender Greene, LCSW-R, CGP, is an organizational consultant, psychotherapist in private practice, career/executive coach, professional speaker, and co-founder of the AntiRacist Alliance.
Sandra Bernabei, LCSW, is President of the National Association of Social Workers—New York City Chapter. She is a founding member of the AntiRacist Alliance.
Lisa V. Blitz, Ph.D., LCSW-R, is a social worker, researcher, and educator with 25 years of experience in mental health and social justice centering on culturally responsive trauma-informed practice and organizational development.
This article accepted for publication in June 2016.