What Is the Definition of Internalized Racism?

Minorities aren't immune to the negative messages about their racial groups

Mindy Kaling and cast on 'Mindy Project'
Mindy Kaling has been criticized for only having White love interests on ‘The Mindy Project’.

Leslie White / Flickr

What does internalized racism mean?

In a society where racial prejudice thrives in politics, communities, institutions and popular culture, it’s difficult for people of color to avoid absorbing the racist messages that constantly bombard them. Thus, people of color sometimes adopt a white supremacist mindset that results in self-hatred and hatred of their respective racial group.

Those suffering from internalized racism, for example, may loathe the physical characteristics that make them racially distinct such as skin color, hair texture, or eye shape. Others may stereotype those from their racial group and refuse to associate with them. And some may outright identify as White.

Overall, those suffering from internalized racism buy into the notion that White people are superior to people of color. Think of it as Stockholm Syndrome in the racial sphere.


While some people of color grew up in diverse communities where racial differences were appreciated, others felt rejected due to their skin color.

Being bullied because of ethnic background and encountering harmful messages about race in greater society may be all it takes to get a person of color to begin loathing themselves.

For some, the impetus to turn racism inward occurs when they see White people receiving privileges denied to people of color.

“I don’t want to live in the back. Why do we always have to live in the back?” a fair-skinned Black character named Sarah Jane asks in the 1959 film “Imitation of Life.”

Sarah Jane ultimately decides to abandon her Black mother and pass for White because she “wants to have a chance in life.” She explains, “I don’t want to have to come through back doors or feel lower than other people.”

In the classic novel "Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man," the mixed-race protagonist first begins to experience internalized racism after he witnesses a White mob burn a Black man alive. Rather than empathize with the victim, he chooses to identify with the mob. He explains:

“I understood that it was not discouragement or fear, or search for a larger field of action and opportunity, that was driving me out of the Negro race. I knew that it was shame, unbearable shame. Shame at being identified with a people that could with impunity be treated worse than animals.”

Beauty Standards

To live up to Western beauty standards, people suffering from internalized racism may attempt to alter their appearance to look more “White.”

For those of Asian descent, this could mean opting to have double eyelid surgery. For African Americans, this could mean chemically straightening one’s hair and weaving in extensions. Also, people of color from a variety of backgrounds use bleach creams to lighten their skin.

But not all people of color who alter their physical appearance do so to look “Whiter.” For example, many Black women say they straighten their hair to make it more manageable and not because they’re ashamed of their heritage. Some people turn to bleach creams to even out their skin tone and not because they’re trying to uniformly lighten their skin.

Who’s Accused?

Over the years, a variety of derogatory terms have cropped up to describe those likely suffering from internalized racism. They include “Uncle Tom,” “sellout,” “pocho” or “whitewashed.”

While the first two terms are typically used by Black people, "pocho" and "whitewashed" have circulated among immigrants of color to describe people who have assimilated to White, Western culture, with little knowledge of their native cultural heritage.

Also, many nicknames for those suffering from internalized racism involve foods that are dark on the outside and light on the inside such as "Oreo "for Black people; "Twinkie" or "banana" for Asians; "coconut" for Latinos; or "apple" for Native Americans.

Putdowns such as "Oreo" are controversial because many Black people recount being called the racial term for doing well in school, speaking standard English or having White friends, not because they didn't identify as Black. All too often this insult demeans those who don’t fit into a box. Accordingly, many Black people who are proud of their heritage find this term hurtful. 

While such name-calling hurts, it persists. So, who might be called such a name? Multiracial golfer Tiger Woods has been accused of being a “sellout” because he identifies as “Cablinasian” rather than as Black. Cablinasian is a name Woods devised to represent the fact that he has Caucasian, Black, American Indian, and Asian heritage.

Woods has not only been accused of suffering from internalized racism because of how he racially identifies but also because he's been romantically involved with a string of White women, including his Nordic ex-wife. Some people view this as a sign that he’s uncomfortable with being a person of color.

The same has been said about actress and producer Mindy Kaling, who's faced criticism for repeatedly casting White men as her love interests on the sitcom "The Mindy Project."

People who refuse to date members of their own racial group may, in fact, suffer from internalized racism, but unless they declare this to be true, it’s best not to make such assumptions. In any case, children may be more likely to admit to suffering from internalized racism than adults. A child may openly yearn to be White, while an adult will likely keep such wishes internalized for fear of being judged.

Those who serially date Whites or refuse to identify as a person of color may be accused of suffering from internalized racism but so are people of color who espouse political beliefs considered detrimental to minorities.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Ward Connerly, a Republican who’s led the effort to strike down affirmative action in California and elsewhere, have been accused of being “Uncle Toms,” or race traitors, due to their conservative beliefs.

Discussing With Others

It’s impossible to tell if someone suffers from internalized racism simply based on their friends, romantic partners or political beliefs. If you suspect someone in your life suffers from internalized racism, try to talk to them about it, if you have a good relationship with them.

Ask them in a non-confrontational manner why they exclusively associate with Whites, want to alter their physical appearance or downplay their racial background. Point out positives about their racial group and why they should be proud to be a person of color.

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Your Citation
Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "What Is the Definition of Internalized Racism?" ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-internalized-racism-2834958. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2021, July 31). What Is the Definition of Internalized Racism? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-internalized-racism-2834958 Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "What Is the Definition of Internalized Racism?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-internalized-racism-2834958 (accessed March 30, 2023).