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.