Learning to See Ourselves as Inferior

“I asked my teachers not to tell anyone that I was doing well in school because I was afraid I’d get beaten up.”

This quote comes from a young black man, freshly admitted to Brown University, who was telling a reporter about his struggle to get good grades at a high school where academic attempts were punished for “acting white.”      

Why would doing well in school take on a sense of “whiteness”? Or merit punishment?

It all goes back to something called “internalization,” which happens when society ends up embedded in our own minds.

When children are born they don’t know much of anything, and are faced with a seemingly chaotic world that lacks meaning. But we need to cope. So the mind unconsciously categorizes what it observes. And the vast majority of the following appear white: Presidents of the United States, Congress, scientists, doctors, CEOs, major historical figures, teachers, professors. On the other hand, majorities, or large numbers, of the following seem to be black: basketball players, football players, baseball players, rappers and entertainers. In movies, TV shows, music videos, and in the news criminals, gang members and the poor are often black.

Unconsciously fitting a complex world into simple categories, stereotypes arise. We all do it. After a while – somehow in the back of our minds – smart successful people too often come to be associated with whiteness, while sports stars, rappers, criminals and the poor can come to be connected to blackness. And early in life the mind doesn’t discern the history of discrimination that lies beneath the patterns.

We grow up hearing we shouldn’t stereotype, shouldn’t be racist, but the messages can linger unless we become conscious of them and work hard to rid them. We find evidence of this in psychological tests like Harvard’s Implicit Bias test, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. When people take this test, most learn that they’re more racist than they had thought. So much so that about half of the black test-takers also have a preference for whites.  

So consider young African Americans in school, having internalized these stereotypes. Jeff Howard and Ray Hammond, a black sociologist and a black physician, wrote a piece called “Rumors of Inferiority” for The New Republic a few years back. The stereotype gnaws at the minds of young black kids, they said. And people tend to live up to – or down to – expectations.  

Howard and Hammond suggest that the children unconsciously fear competing academically for fear of failing, and proving the stereotype. They refuse to play on a field where they think they can’t win, rejecting the value of academics outright. And, they punish anyone who doesn’t go along. Instead, valor in areas like sports is praised. Unfortunately, academic achievement is a much surer route to success.

Interestingly, the threat of “acting white” arises primarily in integrated schools. Perhaps when children are competing in all-black communities they don’t fear doing worse than whites and proving the rumor of inferiority true. They may also have more black role models and a greater focus on the achievements of African-Americans, boosting the children’s faith in themselves.

The only way to overcome the loss of faith that accompanies the stereotype is to become aware of its existence and critique it. When prejudice plays on the unconscious mind, it doesn’t occur to us to rethink. But when we understand the history of discrimination that led to privilege for some and underprivilage for others, and when we see what many Black people have accomplished despite the obstacles, we understand that the stereotypes are not true. And faith can be restored.

Georgia Platts

February is Black History Month

Related Posts on BroadBlogs
“Why I Left the KKK”: One Man’s Revelation
How Does Racism Hurt Racists? The Case of Emmett Till
Rise Up or Beat Others Down: Reactions to Oppression

About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on February 28, 2011, in psychology, race/ethnicity and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Emma Betancourt

    Loved the reading and lecture that went with this! There is indeed SO much stereotyping and racism whether we want to believe it or not. It’s everywhere and probably will always be.

  2. This article reminds me the time at high school, people around me seemed to think that because I am from China so I must be good at math and all other science classes. And when they knew someone was doing well on a math problem, they would say that person was “so Asian”. I think there are stereotypes for each race. And whether people really realize, they would be racism for somehow because there are ethnocentrisms for each culture and race.

  3. Vita Castañeda-Morgan

    I really love this subject, and I thought the lecture in class was also really interesting. I never really understood this concept until after it happened to me. I am Mexican, Greek and Irish and in high school I took AP Classes, and tried to join the Latino Club. I was met with rude comments and suspicion, the people in the club thought that I wasn’t Mexican enough. Because I didn’t look or act Mexican, I spoke Spanish, but I took AP classes and had several white and Asian friends from Foster City, where I lived. Not exactly the hub of Mexican culture. This idea of acting like your race, or what is expected of your race, is just another way for society to place us in neat little categories where they can control us and make sure we never move up and out of our place. Awareness is the best way to overcome these barriers that have been put up for not only minorities, but for white people also. It affects everyone, who unconsciously follows society’s rules.

  4. This article is very interesting. I never thought that a kid would be so afraid to say that he was smart, but unfortunately things like this happen. People will always categorize you depending on what you wear or how you act or your ethnicity. Its horrible having to belong to one category. I have asked myself if being different is that bad? actually i think that is good to be different from others, but as long as we have stereotypes we will never change.

  5. I was never really aware of the fear minorities had of expressing their success in academics. After reading this article I really did learn about a whole new hidden struggle for some people that I never knew about before. Why should whites be able to proudly display their success and move on to careers while this young man (and many others) need to hide it simply because it’s not in their cultures “norm” to be academically smart. Why should that be considered “acting white.” It’s a false stereotype, one that happens often. There are a lot of smart Indian, Asian, European etc people that doesn’t mean that we would say we are acting “Asian.” This concept of internalization is very true and prevelant in our society. I hope that someday with time, no one would need to be ashamed of doing well in school or work because of their race.

  6. This is a thought-provoking article and similar to something I’ve read, as well as heard before. In fact just recently in our class when we were talking about a time where we’d encountered racism, sexism, or discrimination, an African-American girl talked about a similar experience. She said that when she switched from her private, mostly-white school to the public school, she was made fun of. Other African-American girls said that she tried to act to “white” and mocked the fact that she was smart.
    I am fortunate to have come from a high school where there is a lot of diversity of races and so no matter what race you are, other students don’t laugh at you for trying to act “white” or out of your own race if you take hard classes or get good grades. It’s sad to see that in most parts of the country, people have internalized blacks as inferior and not as smart as whites. That’s not true. I’m sure if they put in the effort, they can do just as well as whites.

  7. I found this article to be really interesting and to also relate a lot to the topics discussed in the race and ethnicity class i took last quarter. We learned about the concept of internalized racism, how society forces people into hating the aspects of themselves that tie them to a minority or “inferior” race because of the stereotypes and prejudices that follow them. It is incredible to think that someone would want to hide their academic success to avoid being teased and beaten up and it is truly a shame that we have not become a more evolved society. Being successful is something that should be celebrated and rewarded, regardless of one’s race or gender and should not be associated with only one race. Black, white, brown or purple, this student has every right to be proud of his accomplishments.

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