Because of COVID-19, we have been locked into our houses, surviving off of family interactions, a surplus of toilet paper, and endless panic so as to flatten the curve. But for decades, people of color (POC) in America have been spreading an equally deadly virus - internalized racism. The belief that they have to grind their own culture into dust to fit into the standard placed by white society, giving into white supremacy so as to be welcomed into a system that only serves to break us down further.
When I was in elementary school, and as someone with severe social anxiety, I lived in constant fear of someone calling me out on anything I did. From the food I ate at lunch, to the clothes I wore, or the way I wore my hair in two oiled plaits with my curly hair popping out at weird sections. It was as if I was a soldier in a landmine, always expecting the worst. And it wasn’t only because of social anxiety, it was because the moment I stepped in through the doors on my first day of school, everyone looked so different from me. They had blonde, straight hair, and wore tank tops and shorts (which my mom would never let me wear to school), and they brought sandwiches and fruit to lunch while I brought roti and dhal.
This is a narrative that has been depicted over and over again by people of the AAPI community, it is nothing new. This is the norm for most of us in the community. We feel isolated, different, and wrong. We go on to write college essays, or articles, or speeches, on how we eventually “embraced our culture” and learned how to connect both our AAPI heritage and our American sides, going on and on about how we learned to find the so-called perfect balance. There is nothing wrong with finding this balance, but what is wrong is that we struggled to choose constantly between a white, American mindset, and our AAPI side, facing isolation and self-hatred throughout the journey, wondering if we would ever be accepted unless we completely gave up our culture.
And here is where we come to the topic of internalized racism. Internalized racism is man vs. self - a self-inflicted, dangerous ideology, fueled by society in which a person internally believes that because they are a person of color, they are lesser than white people, and should actively strive to adopt white culture. A person of color affected would dissolve their own culture to be seen as acceptable in the eyes of white society, altering their clothes, their vernacular, their foods, all to get a gold star of approval by a white society.
By convincing ourselves that our culture is different than what is considered as acceptable by society, we are accepting that in this world of multiple races and ethnic backgrounds, that if we can’t change our skin tone to fit theirs, we can change our behavior. And this is the beginning of the problem.
You may say to yourself that you have always embraced your culture and never, ever put your own race below another. But one of the most dangerous aspects of internalized racism is that it occurs most prevalently at a subconscious level. By going to American schools with a population of mostly white students, by being placed in surroundings where we are unable to see our cultures or skin tones as much as American culture, and by seeing white society being supported by numbers, we as humans tend to gradually slide into this idea that because we are seeing it all around us, it must be what we should achieve. There is power in numbers.
But more importantly, there is power in media, in news, and in literature. School may be where we get the most direct exposure to feed our internalized racism, but we can see where this stems from by looking at what we watch from a young age. Growing up, opening Disney Channel or Nickelodeon and being met with white and white presenting characters - Hannah Montana, Alex Russo, Teddy Duncan, and even extending into animations with Timmy Turner, Danny Phantom, Jimmy Neutron, we are shown only white faces. And whenever a POC was added, they were a side character or the comedic relief, leading us to believe that you have to be white to be important, to be the star of even our own story. Even artists today, in this era of social change where we are becoming more accepting, are predominantly white. The POC artists I see in every genre consistently have less streams than most white artists. You may claim this is because there are more white people in America, but when we see a trend of POC constantly missing out on representation in every field, it becomes a more deeply ingrained issue. From a young age, all that we are presented with is white.
And even if a POC does make it to the forefront and shine, it is treated as an anomaly instead of the norm. Movies like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before or Crazy Rich Asians are praised for having AAPI representation, and the former one as a story in which the Asian girl finally gets the white boy, a story of inspiration for teenagers in the AAPI community. This should not be an exception in film in 2020.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s amazing that we are getting this representation and we are getting noticed, but how long will it take for this to become its own norm? How long before AAPI leads, POC leads, are praised not only for their race and for increasing the diversity of the cast, but for their talent? This should not be Asian girl finally gets the white boy, it should simply be a love story, and the fact that the film is pointed out for the Asian lead is part of the problem - we are placing this in the spotlight because we have been shown that only white girls are able to be with white boys. In America, Asian girls have rarely been the main character.
America claims to be a melting pot, but in reality people of color have always tried to fit into a white beauty standard, a white culture standard, and a white standard of behavior. I used to physically cringe when my parents spoke to me in our language, Gujarati, in public, I used to pray that when I went out in my cultural clothes no one would see me, and I used to hate going to Bollywood dance class for fear of what my classmates would think of me for not being a “real dancer” because I didn’t do ballet, jazz, or tap. To this day I don’t tell people I am a dancer, I tell them I am a “Bollywood” dancer in fear that they will mistake me for being a ballerina and feel betrayed when they find out the truth, or say that a type of dance from my culture is not relevant.
The little things that I find myself adding into sentences, whether it be the word Bollywood, or the word “cultural” before food when explaining what I have for lunch, bracing myself for a wrinkled face of disgust, is what slowly drains us as members of the AAPI community. It might not seem like much, but at the end of the day, by over-explaining everything we do that is not broadcasted or prevalent in white, American culture, we are normalizing submerging our identities below those of our white peers.
Normalize treating yourself as normal. You are not lesser than anyone for being different from the set standard we have seen all through our lives as AAPI citizens of America. Maybe you should consider that there is a deep reason you are interested in adopting white culture - because you have been told your entire life that white is right. I have always been rewarded for adopting a white lifestyle, from the time I stopped bringing Indian food and started bringing pasta and sandwiches, to when I stopped listening to Bollywood music and started listening to white artists. But in acting as a dog who receives treats every time these little acts gained me more friends or attention, I myself have submitted myself to white supremacy. Internalized racism is a poison, and society has a long way to go before we find the antidote. Recognition of what we are doing to ourselves is the first step.