5 ways to address internalized white supremacy and its impact on health

During the summer of protests, workplaces, institutions and many businesses seemed to have finally “awakened” to the plight of Black folks and the injustices we face. But the conversation needs to go further.

We need to also have a discussion about the impact of white supremacy (also known as internalized racism) on our physical and mental health. The definition of internalized racism is “the acceptance, by marginalized racial populations, of the negative societal beliefs and stereotypes about themselves.” There are many spaces where internalized white supremacy has created detrimental impacts on Black people’s health. To continue Black resistance, decolonization, and dismantling white supremacy we need to address some of these realities.

In this era of multiple pandemics — COVID-19 next to systemic anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism — discussing the impact of internalized racism on our health is crucial to furthering Black resistance, healing and emancipation.

As a global social justice health researcher and psychotherapist with a private practice, I have collected both research-based evidence as well as clinical experiences from this past year (and my many years working in community mental health) of the damage of white supremacy and internalized racism.

Some of the earliest conceptions and seminal researchers who have work on internalized racism are: W.E.B Du Bois in his 1903 The Souls of the Black Folk, Marcus Garvey in 1923, Franz Fanon on Black masks in 1952 and The Wretched of the Earth in ‘65, Albert Memmi’s work on the colonizer and the colonized in 1965, to name a few. For a review of psychological literature on internalized racism, check out the 2019 paper by: E.J.R. David, Tiera M. Schroeder and Jessicaanne Fernandez.

White supremacy

White supremacy is maintained through systems of punishment and religious indoctrination. The over 400 years of colonization’s violence on Black people’s lives, including the killing, mass incarceration, co-optation and demonizing of our resistance movements through white supremacist systems and practices, have been internalized and as a result impact our health. Internalized white supremacy is a direct result of systemic anti-Black racism and intersectional violence. It creates pain, suffering, and rifts and divisions in our communities and movements. It occurs when folks of colour believe racist stereotypes and act them out in their daily lives. Internalized white supremacy supports systematic violence by ensuring that oppressed peoples are consumed by “whiteness” or proximity to it, as the measure of greatness or goodness. Meanwhile, “Blackness” and other racialized identities are internalized as subservient or bad. Internalized white supremacy has its history in Black communities
through the brutal enslavement of Africans. The separation of African families and the threat of death, sexual and physical violence, racist scientific experiments, and other cruelties created feelings of powerlessness and trauma that purported whiteness as superior, and Blackness as inferior. There is continuing research in the fields of psychology, health, medicine and education, to name a few, on internalized white supremacy (internalized racism) and its detrimental impacts on our physical and mental health.