By Scott Allen
February is Black History month and we have just observed Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a national holiday. But the news headlines betray that the state of race relations in this country is anything but harmonious. As one of the certified diocesan trainers (along with The Rev. Trula Hollywood) for Seeing the Face of God in Christ and One Another (the General Convention’s recommended anti-racism training program for the Episcopal Church) I heard a helpful thing at our last Province Three Anti-Racism Committee meeting in Martinsburg, WV.
One of our leaders said that the challenged path for a white person is understanding White Privilege and for persons of color it was Internalized Oppression. Both People of Color and European-Americans have a learning curve on these topics.
This is the social construct and phenomenon of a majority who understood their values and lifestyles to be normative and for whom government, education, economic and social structures were patterned. You are born into it. It is never discussed or noticed. You don’t have to know about it. It doesn’t have to be “practiced” because just doing and thinking “normal” things taught to you by family, church and school perpetuated and reinforced it. It is virtually invisible by those who benefit from it.
It’s my own sense of privilege that perceives people of color as “whining” when they fear their teenagers will be out in the car and stopped by police or feel they are often “watched” closer than others in a department store. I have never had either one of those experiences. I don’t have to worry that people will judge my whole racial group by how I conduct myself—what I eat, how I dress, how I dance, how I talk, what car I drive, what house I live in or what I buy at the grocery store just to name a few.
A few years ago, Peggy McIntosh wrote a book on it, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In it she simply puts the reason behind the book “…as a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege which puts me at an advantage.” You see, someone who does not feel they are necessarily racist, can contribute to the system that oppresses by not contemplating this about their life and personal history.
For most of us of Western European extraction it is invisible and seemingly nonsensical. In fact we get angry when someone suggests that we were given anything. We earned what we have by hard work! Of course you did! You worked long hours, spent time in educational institutions, sacrificed to achieve what you have. Much like a football team you had to work and strive for the end zone. BUT what is not understood is that you got the ball on the opponents 40 yard line, while our brothers and sisters of other races got the ball on their own 5. This is how racism gets perpetuated – keeping white people suspicious of other races and indifferent to their indictments of discrimination and disadvantage. It’s what forms a perception that people of color (depending on the race) are more apt to be drug dealers, rapists, violent, better at math, more primitive, not as smart, more fit for manual labor, etc. At the same time it is encouraging white people to not examine social structures which may have given them early and decisive advantage in the game.
Tim Wise (a white guy) has some good talks on YouTube if you want to have a more thorough historical introduction to this social construct.
This is a phenomenon that affects any members of a group which is not in the dominant power position. It has an effect on women, LGBT people, youth, poor people and people of color. When people are targeted, discriminated against, or oppressed over a period of time, they often internalize (believe and make part of their self-image – their internal view of themselves) the myths and misinformation that society communicates to them about their group. It is the message taught to these groups through education, media, advertising, religious teaching and other ways that formative messages come to us in our development which agrees with the dominant culture’s stereotype and description of them.
It also feeds into white privilege by suggesting that the person in dominance is better, smarter, wealthier, more clever, more dangerous socially, and more powerful as a human being. And the behavior of acquiescence follows – just keep your head down, don’t challenge the assumptions and attitudes of the dominant group. “Uppity” is often used by a dominant culture to describe people of an oppressed group who refuse to buy into the narrative of the dominant social culture about them. In fact the privilege of the dominant group becomes invisible to the oppressed as well when oppression has been fully internalized. Media have portrayed this very well in recent movies like “The Help” and “The Long Walk Home.”
Internalized Oppression makes the oppressed agents of their own oppression in a way. They feel and act in ways that give way to the oppressive system. They are taught to “be good” in their roles, not to rock the boat and defer to the leader who is in the dominant group. Part of toxicity of this is that the oppressed person believes what is said about them by the dominant culture is somewhat true. They can find an example of every bad description in their own group somewhere – the stereotypes have power because in some instances there is a grain of truth in some of it – such as black people like watermelon. Never mind that white people love watermelon too. There are some black people who don’t like watermelon just as there are white people with same distaste for it. Yet, internalized oppression may make a person of color think twice about getting it on the salad bar or buying a whole one in a grocery store with whites present. This is a small insignificant example in some ways, but the impact on just this small thing is the kind of stuff internalized oppression makes the oppressed consider at every move.
Internalized oppression also casts a heavy burden on the person of color as they perceive that their whole racial group will be judged by white people through their actions. As an American I feel some of this while travelling abroad. Do the nationals of the country I visit judge me by past experiences with Americans or does my behavior color how they will treat the next American? Some Americans seem not to care either way which also produces bad results. Having spent part of my growing up years in Bombay (now Mumbai) India, I saw this at varying levels from white people who lived there. Being respectful in all incidences is always a good rule to follow…
This is but a short introduction to these ideas with which must all contend. But in this time of year is critical for us to consider and discuss when approaching race relations in our society.
[The Rev. T. Scott Allen is rector of St. Andrew's Allentown/Bethlehem and a member of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Bethlehem.]