Internalized oppression and the global appraisal of whiteness

In Black Skin ,White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth Frantz Fanon explores the ways in which colonialism and imperialism coerces and reinforces colonial subjects in “accepting” inequalities like rigid racial hierarchies. This internalisation – or “the epidermalization of inferiority” (Black Skin, White Masks p. 11) – causes some people of colour to accept their oppressed and subjugated position as natural and inevitable. Colonialism perpetuates a “colonised mentality” marked by a sense of inferiority and a desire to be more like the colonisers.

In the Black/white context – particularly in America – there have been numerous studies done that point to this inherent cultural subjection that dangerously reinforces racial stereotypes. The (in)famous 1939 dolls study by the Clarks who interpreted the children’s preference for White over Black dolls as racial self-hatred. Despite receiving valid criticisms, the study has paved the way for more research conducted on the ways in which the dominant culture of a given spatial context reinforces pernicious stereotypes that are not only widely believed by the dominant group but internalized by the subjugated community. Internalized racism can have major consequences: attitudes towards immigration, other PoC communities, and the reinforcement of white privilege not just in predominantly white countries but also around the world, just to name several.

Identities linked to gender, race, sexual, and caste oppressions are not simply a result of forcibly imposed structures of inequality but a constitutive component in their formation (Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish and Antonio Gramsci in Prison Notebooks have expounded this relationship extensively). These categorical distinctions become internalised as they are created through social relations and organisations, causing both the oppressor and the oppressed to have a stake in the oppressed’s subordinated identity. When the oppressed accept these identities as “real,” they are internalizing their subjugated status in their definition of self, and in their formation of their identities. Any attempt to construct alternative identities that go against the grain of the dominant one is greatly constrained as they must do so in relation to the categorical schemas and meanings dictated by the oppressors, or risk being ostracised by institutions.

K. Pyke and T. Dang in a 2003 study analysed 184 young Californian adults who grew up in immigrant Korean and Vietnamese families. They examined respondents’ use of the sub-ethnic identity term FOB, short for “Fresh off the Boat,” in ways that reiterate anti-Asian stereotypes commonly found in America. They found that respondents strategically use FOB to ridicule co-ethnic “others” for displaying the same characteristics associated with anti-Asian stereotypes and, in so doing, distance themselves from those stereotypes and considering themselves as “apart” from them despite being of the same ethnic background. Although intra-ethnic “othering” is a means for many PoC to cope with oppression, this strategy of distancing oneself from negative stereotypes reinforces the negative stereotypes as it adds further validation to them, claiming that they are true, just not true for oneself, and is a form of internalized racial oppression.

In the context of contemporary white worship and in the realm of desirability politics, a similar – albeit tentative – comparison can be drawn with widely accepted standards of beauty (constructed and exported by Western media) and the aspiration and worshipping of whiteness by not only People of Colour in America, but also in post-colonial societies such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and Indonesia. Of course, one must be careful of making widespread generalisations, but due to the paucity of academic research and focus on “private” issues concerning cognition, desire, and preferences, we can only make tentative observations and conclusions based on popular culture.

In a viral article that received over 2000 comments and 12000 shares, an Asian American wrote of her disdain for “filial piety”, “Ivy League Mania” and “traditional Asian culture” as reasons for only dating white men. Immigrants (mostly second or third generation) who have lost touch with their heritage in everything other than skin colour often express a desire to be more “white.” Although some manage to snap out of it, many do not.

Desirability politics is another area that demands reflection.

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Many of us Eurasians can testify to this; we are praised for our large eyes, “exotic” qualities, and ultimately, our white features. This is a product of many different things: Western imperialism in Asia (see the previous post on sexual imperialism), Western media, global popular culture, and colonial vestiges of internalised racial and cultural hierarchies which place the “white gentleman and gentlelady” at the top and the rest of the world behind.

What is for certain is that desirability politics must be interrogated; to simply attribute desire to “preferences” has the potential to be pernicious, oppressive, and emasculating. Given the paucity of research in this area, in order to have a better grasp of these issues we must begin to foray into the uncomfortable, and tackle nuanced issues of white cultural supremacy head on.