Internalized Racism Hinders Family History Work

By Michelle Franzoni Thorley

Today I want to continue our discussion about family history for people of color by addressing  how shame prevents us from engaging in generational healing and family history.  This post is for Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) but anyone is welcome to learn more about family history for people of color.  What is internalized racism, as it relates to BIPOC? For people of color, or people of indigenous or African descent, internalized racism may lead to racist and shameful thoughts or feelings about themselves or their ancestors.

Many BIPOC people who struggle with internal racism may identify as white, even when their DNA and family history shows ancestors from a mixed race heritage. They may unconsciously think being black or brown is dirty, evil, ugly, or bad. ie. “I am not those things, so I am white.” BIPOC suffering from internalized racism may think that white people, or those of European descent, are superior to people of color.  These thought processes about the supremacy of whiteness are very damaging.

For my ancestors who were colonized by white Europeans, embracing whiteness over their indigenous heritage was like a racial version of Stockholm Syndrome. They developed psychological alliances with their captors during captivity by coming to believe the lies about white supremacy.  They were  subjected to the cast systems set up by the European colonizers, which privileged whiteness in their communities.  Unlearning these beliefs about the supremacy of whiteness is one way we heal the wounds our ancestors carried for generations.

Internal racism can be conscious, but in my experience it is more often unconscious. This is the case in my own family, as with many Latinos and Afro-Latinos.  Both of my paternal grandmothers were indigenous Mexicans.  My grandmother denied this and always said that she had “sangre puro” – pure blood – from Spain.  It seemed she hated the indigenous part of herself so much, she was in denial about the complete picture of who she really was. She was taught to feel this way about herself from her own mother, also indigenous Mexican.  I suspect her mother was taught by her mother before.  This is an example of how intergenerational racism and beliefs about the supremacy of whiteness are passed on in families.

I was recently talking to my friend whose family is from the Dominican Republic.  He has dark beautiful skin and afro-textured hair.  He says his family firmly believes that they have no African ancestors.  He was chastised for even bringing it up. He is starting to research more into his family history.

The cold hard reality of generational internal racism is shame.  The shame of being the descendant of the impoverished, the uneducated, the slave.  In many religions it is taught that to be white is to be delightsome and righteous.  To be anything other than white is evil. Even interpretations of LDS scripture, including  verses in the Book of Mormon, have claimed that literal whiteness comes as a result of righteousness.

“Shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection:  is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection?” –Brene Brown

High scores on internalized racism have been repeatedly correlated with a variety of poor psychological and physical health outcomes among sample populations including African Americans, Filipino Americans, non-American Pacific Islanders and latinos.

This shame will continue to keep many individuals and families away from their family history as long as “white is right” narratives continue.  The only way to combat this is with education, empathy, therapy, and self care.  To any BIPOC reading this, YOU ARE WORTHY.  YOUR ANCESTORS ARE WORTHY. You have all the power to stop this cycle of shame and embrace your authentic family history story.

“If you trade your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.” – Brené Brown

Michelle Franzoni Thorley is a family history and plant enthusiast. You can follow her extraordinary work about family history, race, generational trauma, and art at @flora_familiar on Instagram.

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18 Responses

  1. Amy says:

    Good thoughts. Also, while reading I had my own that for a person with mixed ethnicity, maybe its pride in one ethnicity over the other, maybe from the more dominant parent figure. For instance, an outside example, your Dad is from Texas and loves Dallas Cowboys, and your Mom is not, and doesn’t even like football, even though her state has a team too. If your Dad is so dominant about his Cowboys, maybe your Mom just let’s him have it his way, or vice versa. So, his pride is passed down onto his children, unless maybe he’s a big jerk about it, wherein it repels the kids to have more pride in their mothers side. Not shame, nor racism, just good ol’ family dysfunction.

    • Violadiva says:

      I can see that you’re trying to work out what Michelle is saying here by creating a metaphor that works in your mind as a way to explain how racism or white supremacy doesn’t weigh on the scale when it comes to how people embrace or deny their heritage and identity. But your comment also indicates a few things you’re not seeing which are really important to consider. Almost all Latino/a people have a heritage that includes Native American, African, and white European ancestors. From the earliest days of slavery and colonization, whiteness was prioritized and privileged, and then perpetuated for hundreds of generations, including in the caste system. To be Latino/a is to be a descendent of both oppressor and oppressed. Without conscientious deconstruction of white supremacist thought, including reconciling what it means to them to have an ancestry filled with dissonances and pain, many Latino/a people today will carry on the same racial biases that have been handed down for generations. To call that “family dysfunction” and deny that there is also shame and racism at play is to miss the point of Michelle’s piece.
      In an LDS context, think about this: The Priesthood and temple ban for people of African descent was in place until 1978, but the ban did not affect most people in Latin America. Latino families were generally afforded all the temple blessings available. But knowing now about the realistic demographics, countless Latino/a people would have had to deny their African ancestors in order to receive their temple and priesthood blessings, or else be excluded from these rites because of the “one drop” rule. Our church once functioned on the premise that Latino people had to deny or disprove their relationships to African ancestors in order to participate in temple rites. This is one example of how systemic white supremacy is passed down as denial of identity, ancestry and lineage.

  2. Amy says:

    Also, it’s a caste thing, more to do with wealthy/poor…which people of color tended to be of the latter.

    • Violadiva says:

      Stereotyping people of color to be poor and therefore not picked as the dominant or favorite parent to align one’s identity with is hugely problematic. Do you see how assuming that people of color are poor is an ideology of white supremacy? And if it is true, that it’s also the poisonous fruit of white supremacy? There’s not really a way to divorce any of these issues from their foundations in white supremacy. (not the KKK dudes, just the average preference of whiteness over non-whiteness that persists in many places today.)

  3. Amy says:

    So, how I’m reading your response, people of color may not have been more poor than their white counterparts, to assume such is problematic, and or white ideology.

    However, I think it would be reading too far into my very brief comment. I wasn’t trying to mute the point of the article, but add to the reasons why a person may not celebrate their ethnicity, which even if its imperfect, I think may be a valid perspective that adds to why a person may feel the way they do. Does that detract from the message? Maybe I could have said, in some instances race + instead of race, shame minus.

    • Emily says:

      You may not have intended it, but it is problematic when a womam of color explains how race and racism has affected her life, and then a white woman (I’m assuming you are?) implies that it’s other things too, not just racism. I’m also a white woman, and the truth is that I just don’t have the same personal experiences as a woman of color in regards to race and racism, and so when they talk about how racism has impacted their families, I should just listen.

      • Amy says:

        Isn’t that simply ironic that my color of skin be brought up in regards to whether I have any place to comment? Let us refer to Brene’s quote used as a parting remark:

        “If you trade your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.” – Brené Brown

        I am authentically a white woman, and I responded not as a white woman to another woman of color, but as one woman to another woman, period, who wrote an article that was of particular interest to me because I am a genealogist, specifically interested in Mexican Genealogy, where caste is extensively found throughout their records.

        And also, my children have my white heritage, and their Dads Mexican heritage, which places them squarely in this Bipoc zone that the author discusses…which I want to point out she invited as a discussion with her opening sentence:

        “Today I WANT TO CONTINUE OUR DISCUSSION about family history for people of color by addressing  how shame prevents us from engaging in generational healing and family history.”

        Emphasis mine

        My children are not ashamed of their Mexican heritage in lieu of their white heritage. We raised them to be proud of both, or rather proud of neither. Race just wasn’t anything we ever emphasized. But, I can see if maybe I had been dominant in my heritage pride, or their Dad in his Mexican Pride, they may have been swayed one way or the other. And I am allowed to leave my opinion in the comment section, and don’t appreciate, just like the author wouldn’t, that based on the color of ones skin, they should just be silent. Is the irony really lost on everyone here?

        • Violadiva says:

          Amy, sounds like you’re in a position to do some really impactful family history work with your own children and their ancestors! I think you and your children are the exact audience Michelle is hoping to reach with her work. She used a word for this a few weeks ago on her IG: the Diaspora. The dispersed. Mixed race Latino people who are embracing their heritage and learning more about their ancestry. I do hope you are proactively addressing race with your children from an anti-racist framework so that they’ll be as affected as little as possible by the well-advertised thoughts in the US now about the supremacy of whiteness. They may be hearing reports about immigration, detainment, cages, walls, ICE, and know that it is somehow connected to people of Latino heritage, Mexican specifically. You may not be aware of the messages your kiddos could be internalizing, and perhaps relating to themselves in some ways, unless you’re actively addressing and processesing it with them. It’s really rare for anyone raised in the US not to have some unlearning of white supremacy to do, but the shame and self-loathing that can accompany those beliefs in BIPOC compounds the tragedy. Michelle’s IG has suggestions for amazing ways to have those conversations.

      • Emily says:

        I didn’t mean that you or I, as white women, aren’t allowed to comment. But it is still true that for conversations about racism, we do need to be very aware of our perspectives and not let them overshadow the perspectives of people of color.

        I re-read the post and your original comment again, and I can see that you really are interested in the topic and the discussion. But the original post is stating the FACT that many people of color feel shame and have intergenerational trauma that is very real. It’s a serious thing, and it just doesn’t compare very well with having two parents who like different sports teams.

    • Emily says:

      Also, it can absolutely be true that your husband and daughters don’t struggle with these issues at the same time that other people do.

  4. Judith Curtis says:

    This is a very good report showing the history of racism and all we need to be
    doing to have it be no longer a part of our culture. Racism went away for me when I was a child in the 50s and could no longer see that blacks were any different from me.

    • Emily says:

      Unfortunately, racism has never gone away for people who don’t look white. *You* may not treat people differently based on skin color, but our society absolutely does. If we think racism isn’t a problem, or that we can just ignore it, then we are part if the problem.

    • Violadiva says:

      I am glad you have grown up with a mindset aimed at equality for all people. More recently, we have come to see the argument for “colorblindness” regarding people as a bit of erasure – that the unique struggles and challenges experienced by Black Americans has added layers of difficulty to the same actions that you or I (as privileged white women) might take for granted. Recognizing those disadvantages today are key features of anti-racist awareness. Racism as a societal ill didn’t go away, and there is still much we can do to break down systems and biases rooted in white supremacy.
      (and just as a tip for your future awareness, it’s preferred to use Black as a capitalized adjective when describing Black people, not as a noun)

  5. Amy says:

    Why would my children need those conversations just cause they are mixed, should not every child have them? Just because a child only has a white heritage, doesn’t mean issues like immigration, ICE, walls, etc., doesn’t apply to them, or wouldn’t cause them some sort of internal turmoil that they need help to sort out. That’s a racist notion. And, has it ever gone well for anyone to offer unsolicited hopes of the conversations you believe another parent should have with their own children?

    We’ve done a great job without having to politicize our kids, I have no reason to worry about them adjusting into their authentic selves, more or less than any other child growing up in this society today.

    No parent is ever completely aware of all internalized messages a child has, the best we can do is build a solid relationship, so they know they can talk to us if they need to.

    • Violadiva says:

      Oh, yes, absolutely ever child needs conversations about anti-racist ideals. This is an ongoing conversation at our house. Since my children are white, anti-racist conversations at our house have a lot to do with privilege and equality, making sure they’re aware of the relative power they have in society because of their whiteness, and to make them aware of how they can use that privilege to help others. I talk to them about how people who looked like us have been the oppressors and colonizers over Black and Brown people for generations, and it’s our duty to make sure we stop and undo those patterns.
      I mention the anti-racist work with your children only because it’s possible that they could be envisioning themselves, or children who look like them, to be the ones that are detained or in cages. It’s possible that they hear the anti-immigration rhetoric and wonder if it applies to them, too, or their dad and grandparents. Where my children see the angle of white supremacy of people who look like them to be the ones in power, and that’s where we originate and debunk a lot of our family conversations about race, your children may see that people who look like them are the ones oppressed by white supremacist ideologies. All kids have different struggles in how white supremacy affects them – it’s good to meet them where they are and proactively counter the negative messages they pick up from our environment. Black kids have different conversations with their parents, too, since their heritage with white supremacy goes back to slavery, and that leaves a lot of generational trauma for them to heal.
      Same disease, different symptoms, different treatments.

    • Violadiva says:

      One of the things Michelle has written about in her IG is how she tries to reconcile the dissonances within herself, that as she has both Indigenous and European ancestors, she is a blend of both the oppressor and the oppressed, the colonizer and the colonized. That within one body, her heritage is at odds with itself, but she’s coming to see how it all fits together by embracing the humanity of both sides. This is the work many mixed Latino people will go through, or avoid, at some point in their lives. She’s modeling really healthy ways to discover and apply what she learns about her family from all sides.
      This is different than the work other people do with their family history where the ancestors are more homogenous in heritage, But also highlights some of the exact challenges for mixed race BIPOC.

  6. DB says:

    Question for Michelle, because of the internalized racism you’ve described among many BIPOC people, how do you think many of them feel about DNA testing? Is it something they would prefer not to do because of the truths it could reveal? Do you think it would be a beneficial way of helping more BIPOC people understand and accept who they’ve come from?

    • Michelle Thorley says:

      Great question! Yes many friends and social media acquaintances have concerns about DNA testing. Most internalized racism is totally unconscious. They take the test and have 40% indigenous DNA and are very upset, but still cannot process why. DNA tests force us to be authentic and sometimes that is really hard to do especially when there is unconscious shame about being connected to a certain group.

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