Turning Our Backs on History: Internalized Racism and Class Oppression

Mauro Sifuentes October 1, 2013 0
Turning Our Backs on History: Internalized Racism and Class Oppression


It is in the best interest of this conversation that I begin with some working definitions. I think shared language can often be a crucial element in engaging meaningful and rich discussions about complicated issues. What appears below is a short list of ever-shifting definitions I have been developing over the course of the past five years through my studies in history, politics, economics, and social justice.

Racism: The structural, institutional, and attitudinal organization of bestowing access and resources to people based on race, where white people are on the upside of a power imbalance and people of color are on the downside. Constructs of race shift from place to place, and experiences of racism are mediated by gender, sexuality, nationality, immigration status, spiritual practice/religion, age, class, ability, and a multitude of other factors. Racism is proliferated through government, business practices, families, schools, individuals, spiritual practices/religion, and many other channels. A professor of mine, a scholar and advocate for social justice, has described two main forms of racism: the Old Racism of exclusion (“you are different from us white people and therefore lesser than”) and the New Racism of inclusion (“we are all the same”). Both of these forms still exist in the world we live in today, and both forms ignore/denigrate the value and history of people of color.

Internalized Racism: The inevitable absorption of racist tropes about different non-white racial groups into the psyche/attitudes/actions of people of color. Internalized racism is both a product of oppression and a method of survival/navigation in a racist world. There is no moral judgment placed on the degree that racism has been internalized. It happens to all of us, to one degree or another, and we all have the responsibility to interrogate it and to humbly help others to recognize and subvert the ways internalized racism functions in their lives as well. We ought not blame one another or look down on one another, but rather, support people in our lives and hold space for understanding the complexity through which we are formed. It is also okay to feel frustrated with other people of color for the ways they refuse to interrogate internalized racism.

One of the best ways to gauge whether or not internalized racism is something you struggle with is to see how you relate to poor people who share race with you; so many racist tropes developed before there was a burgeoning middle class of color, and working class and poor communities are where racism is often directed in its less veiled iterations, though that does not mean racism doesn’t exist just as powerfully (though potentially more veiled) in middle class (MC) and upper-middle class (UMC) spaces. Chances are, for many folks of color in MC and UMC spaces, you are not more than 3-4 generations removed from poverty, at most. This is not the case for everyone, but for many, it is.

Whiteness: The social and cultural values associated with white MC culture. Most forms of whiteness are coextensive with middle class mores. The formation of the modern middle class occurred during a period in history when very few (if no) families of color were a part of the middle class. Whiteness contours what can show up as acceptably and recognizably MC. Whiteness is viewed as the highest form of embodying humanity. It contours our relations to economic markets, technology, and forms of knowledge, in addition to ways of living that are historically associated with white MC culture, including (but not limited to) the prioritization of nuclear family structures above extended family structures, specific gendered relations in the domestic sphere, rigid ideas around dress/appearance/cleanliness, maintaining the appearance of spending power, use of language, and so much more. Given this, we can see that people who are white, because of differences in class/gender/sexuality/nationality/etc., may live in resistance to the regulatory mechanisms of whiteness, just as many people of color may embody forms of whiteness because of class privilege or through (problematic) resistance to racism.

Talking about survival in these United States is a heavy task. What is required of marginal communities to gain access to mainstream versions of ‘success’ is contoured by a history of racism, class oppression, internal and external colonial projects, xenophobia, and gender oppression. Communities of color have learned hard lessons of individualism and depoliticization, that to gain access to economic sustainability, parts of ourselves and our pasts must be left behind in order to integrate into a system that is not very hospitable towards difference. We have been taught to align ourselves with regard to race, to be happy to see others from our race succeed, and that we, too, can be successful if we play by a specific set of rules. This has fostered a politics of identitarian individualism rather than a politics of difference. Pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps is valued above reaching back a hand to help others. There is a huge difference between critiquing the success of people of color and critiquing an ignorance of the political terrain of ‘success’ in this country.

Fragility of status breeds an intense need for affirmation from spaces of dominance. Many middle class people of color rely heavily on refusing the tropes of racism (whatever they may be for that particular racial group) by denigrating those in working class and poor communities who may continue to embody those tropes. “Yes,” we say, “we are brown (or black) and proud, but only because we aren’t like those brown (or black) people. We are the evolved ones. We have nice houses and send our kids to college so they can have nice houses, too. And so they won’t be poor like we were. Or like our grandparents. We want to shield them from what comes from a lack of economic privilege.” I’m invested in a justice-to-come, an idea prolific in emancipatory Jewish thought. Becoming white is a process. The Jews in this country were not always imagined as white. The Irish were not always white, nor the Italians. While passing through assimilation into cultural standards while wearing lighter skin can be easier, middle class-ness is increasingly becoming the standard for whiteness, allowing for a flood of upwardly mobile POC families and communities to become examples of the tamed savage.

Talking about cultural loss and the pain of becoming socialized into middle class spaces is often a conversation never had between parents and their children, or between grandparents and their grandchildren. Many who come from generations who have only known class privilege do not even have a tangible sense of what has been lost, from days of spiritual observance, to language, to different networks of social support often found in cultures that do not exclusively prioritize nuclear family structures. Privilege functions to anesthetize the pain of memories lost through generations, all the while leaving behind a thick residue of callused relations to those who continue to live without access to resources.

For many middle and upper-middle class people of color who have never experienced poverty or underemployment firsthand, it becomes essential to be critical of the desire to defend one’s experience as something that is politically neutral. It is not about those middle and upper middle class families or communities of color doing harm intentionally, but it is about what becomes of the politics of upwardly mobile communities of color once they arrive at financial stability. What are their relationships to working class and poor communities with whom they share experiences of race? What stories are we told of how people become/stay poor? Do we understand how economic privilege functions to contour imaginations, entitlement, morality, and compassion? When larger social forces are taken into account, being critical of the defense of a middle class ethos does not function as an unwarranted moral judgment; rather, it demonstrates that those in positions of privilege are rarely interested in engaging thoughts that might compel them to think about their own complicity in structural inequity. Confronting complicity and ignorance is no easy task. Denial or shame are often the counterparts to reckoning with privilege.

Historical RealTalk: If we study processes of colonization, it becomes clear that every successful colonial project required a collaborator class, which was a subset of natives who, for one reason or another, were granted petty privileges by colonizers for accepting the racist tropes about their people and serving as examples of success. Colonial domination was only possible with this collaborator class.  Using this framework of thought, we can see that the exceptional success of MC and UMC communities of color have not benefitted working class whites or people of color. Racial distinctions and racism in the United States have also helped to keep the oppressive qualities of our economy in place by dissociating people of color from working class white folks, making struggles and conversations about race primary and leaving economic relations intact. We have to learn how to use our analyses to complexify issues rather than reduce them to single-factor variables of race or gender or class. It is also no accident that the downfall of the Civil Rights Movement was concomitant with the rise of a black middle class. Bluntly stated, granting class privilege to a small subset of people of color who play by the rules is paying a collaborator class to say, “Racism is over!” This makes racism even more difficult to point to because of our misunderstandings of how racism functions. Creating a depoliticized middle and upper-middle class of color actually has reinforced racism, instead of undoing it. Middle class status is the bone we’ve been thrown to keep well-educated people of color in an apolitical mindset to stave off deeply transformative activity; it becomes difficult to deny that we live in counter-revolutionary times. Today, we can see that class standing, rather than race, is increasingly becoming the primary barrier to higher education. The burgeoning middle class of color is not fundamentally altering relations of discrimination, but is simply allowing for the lines of worth to be re-drawn.

None of this is to say that people of color are necessarily to blame for these dynamics. It does feel like an unfair burden to ask people from marginalized communities (in this instance, communities of color) to take on the task of critical thought in relation to class privilege, communities who did not create and do not manage the structures of class and upward mobility in the United States; however, a relation to responsibility and counter-memory (memory that contests/supplements dominant history-telling) tells us that we have a burden to not forget. Because poverty chases us from recent generations, it feels like many of us from MC spaces feel we must run even faster, without looking back, towards upward mobility and the financial security that comes with it. I like to dream of a world where my economic security does not rely on the exploitation of other marginalized groups, as it does today.

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