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Excerpted from:  Laura M. Padilla,  "But You're Not a Dirty Mexican": Internalized Oppression, Latinos & Law, 7 Texas Hispanic Journal of Law and Policy 61-113, 65-73 (Fall 2001) (347 Footnotes Omitted) (Full Document)


Internalized racism has been the primary means by which we have been forced to perpetuate and "agree" to our own oppression.

In order to understand the many ways in which internalized oppression and racism affect subordinated communities, it is important to have a general background on these forces. Thus, this part of the article will describe internalized oppression and racism generally and will then describe how internalized oppression and racism are particularly manifested in the Latino community. This will better allow the reader to comprehend why Latinos engage in the specific types of self-destructive behavior described throughout this article.


A. Working Definitions of Internalized Oppression and Racism

When a victim experiences a hurt that is not healed, distress patterns emerge whereby the victim engages in some type of harmful behavior. Internalized oppression has been described as the process by which these patterns reveal themselves.

[T]hese distress patterns, created by oppression and racism from the outside, have been played out in the only two places it has seemed "safe" to do so. First, upon members of our own group--particularly upon those over whom we have some *66 degree of power or control . . . . Second, upon ourselves through all manner of self-invalidation, self-doubt, isolation, fear, feelings of powerlessness and despair . . . .

Thus, internalized oppression commences externally. In other words, dominant players start the chain of oppression through racist and discriminatory behavior. This behavior could range from physical violence prompted by the victim's race, to race-based exclusion, to derogatory race-based name-calling and stereotyping (such as "we don't need any more wetbacks--they just take away our jobs"), together with capitalization on the fears created by those stereotypes.

Those at the receiving end of prejudice can experience physical and psychological harm, and over time, they internalize and act on negative perceptions about themselves and other members of their own group. How might internalized oppression appear generally--that is, not in regards to a particular ethnic or racial group?

Patterns of internalized racism cause us adults to find fault, criticize, and invalidate each other. This invariably happens when we come together in a group to address some important problem or undertake some liberation project. What follows is divisiveness and disunity leading to despair and abandonment of the effort.

Patterns of internalized oppression cause us to attack, criticize or have unrealistic expectations of any one of us who has the courage to step forward and take on leadership responsibilities. This leads to a lack of support that is absolutely necessary for effective leadership to emerge and group strength to grow. It also leads directly to the "burn out" phenomenon we have all witnessed in, or experienced as, effective . . . leaders.

Internalized racism affects our behavior in many other ways, yet always with the result that we harm ourselves and sometimes others. The following section will describe how *67 internalized racism manifests itself specifically within the Latino community.

B. Internalized Racism and Latinos

Internalized oppression operates rather uniformly at both the group and individual levels, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, through some common behavioral patterns. However, it also manifests itself uniquely depending on the negative stereotypes it causes a particular group to internalize. Latinos' specific history gives rise to the particularities of our internalized oppression and racism. We "share a unique experience of oppression and survival in the United States. Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, who constitute the largest and oldest Latino/a communities within the official borders of the United States, were attacked, invaded, colonized, annexed, and exploited by the United States." This oppressive behavior toward Latinos is deep-rooted. Jeanne Guana elaborates:

[A]fter the Mexican American War ended in 1848, people of Mexican origin faced lynchings, land theft and virulent racism. Later, in times of economic depression, people of Mexican origin--citizens and non-citizens alike--were deported en masse . . . . As a result, many Mexican-origin people internalized the racism and learned to despise all things Mexican.

Despising all things native to ourselves causes unhealthy behavior, including self-loathing and participation in the perpetuation of negative stereotypes. Latinos may be conditioned to believe that other Latinos-- particularly recent immigrants--are taking jobs away from United States citizens or are unfairly taking advantage of United States social services. Additionally, we may refrain from using Spanish in professional settings because it will betray our heritage, or we may believe that Whiter is better. "From the Latina/o viewpoint, the desirability of whiteness represents the internalization by the colonized of the colonizers' predilections." The remainder of this section will provide greater detail on ways that internalized racism affects the Latino community, both at the group and individual levels.

*68 At the group level, internalized oppression and racism involve harmful or destructive conduct by members of a group directed at other members of the same group. "[Internalized racism] has been a major ingredient in the distressful and unworkable relationships which we so often have with each other. It has proved to be the fatal stumbling block of every promising and potentially powerful . . .liberation effort that has failed in the past." Internalized racism thus thwarts Latinos' empowerment efforts. For example, Latino groups often wither when leadership issues revolve around how "ethnic" one is. To wit, at California Western School of Law, one year a majority of the La Raza law students refused to elect a blond student to a board position because she was not perceived to be "Mexican" enough, even though she was born in Mexico, spoke better Spanish than most of her classmates, and was a committed activist. The experience was devastating. Internalized oppression and politics of race impeded her advancement and prevented her from performing work that would have benefited the Latino community. I have seen the same politics of race emerge among La Raza Lawyers of San Diego--members' credibility was frequently based on whether they were perceived as either "too dark" or "too light," depending on the issue.

Group-level internalized racism also reveals itself through the way Latinos view other Latinos. For instance, many people in the Latino community believe the tired propaganda that Latino immigrants are a drain on social services. As far back as 1913, "the Commissioner of Immigration . . . publicly announced his fear that Mexicans might become public charges, since according to these authorities, Mexicans came to the United States only to receive public relief." Today, many Americans harbor that same belief about recent immigrants, and too many Latinos believe it. If those who believe this propaganda were to look beyond the myths to the facts, they would learn that many immigrants contribute more to our society than they receive. One expert "estimates that immigration brings economic benefits to the United States in the range of $6 to $20 billion annually--small, but still a net positive gain." Moreover, "there is overwhelming evidence that undocumented immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in public benefits." When researching campaigns to limit immigration, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic found that even conservative think tanks concluded that "immigration is a net benefit, not a drawback to the *69 regions in which immigrants settle." Their research uncovered conservative spokespersons who emphasized that "legal immigrants are more likely than natives to participate in the labor force. . .and that immigrants earn roughly $700 more a year per capita than natives, with those who entered the United States before 1980 earning nearly $4,000 more." Moreover, many immigrants, particularly Latinos, exhibit entrepreneurial spirit, often starting their own businesses. "According to the Greenlining Institute in San Francisco, most of the new small business development in California that helped to move the state's economy forward was fueled by Latino entrepreneurs." Thus, rather than taking more than their share of public benefits, in many cases Latinos disproportionately contribute to the economic health of the United States.

Internalized racism in the Latino community also reveals itself at the individual level. For example, nearly half of all Hispanics consider themselves White. More telling, there is a great deal of self- loathing tied to the darkness of one's skin. One Mexican American, who asserted that he "would have been only too happy to look as Mexican as my light-skinned older brother," admitted that he felt "shame and sexual inferiority . . . because of my dark complexion." He continued describing himself: "With disgust . . . I would come face to face with myself in mirrors. With disappointment I located myself in class photographs--my dark face undefined by the camera which had clearly described the white faces of classmates. Or I'd see my dark wrist against my long-sleeved white shirt."

At a more personal level, I have heard friends and family attempt to one-up each other about how "gro" their children or grandchildren are. I remember my mother's best friend bragging about how gra her first granddaughter was as she pulled out a photograph of a hirsute, dark baby. Rather than ask each other why her friend felt the need to assert her granddaughter's "gra-ness," my mother and I instead later compared the granddaughter's "gra-ness" to the "gra/o-ness" of our own family members. We succumbed to the conditioning that Whiter is *70 better without even realizing it. We also use a grading process brought about by this conditioning to rank the acceptability of boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, and partners. Lighter is preferred; darker is grudgingly accepted so long as that person is Latino. To go any darker may put one at the risk of family alienation. As one Latino expressed it:

The unpleasant truth is that whether or not Mexican-Americans consider inter-racial relationships to be acceptable has everything to do with the specific race involved. The clearest analogy: a ladder. The social ladder, if you will. At the top of the ladder is the color white, owing to generational assumptions that the fair-skinned shall inherit the earth. At the bottom is the color black, the color of subjugation. Inferiority. In the middle, nesting precariously between the extremes, is the color brown.

We have been conditioned at many levels and for many centuries to believe that lighter skin is more desirable. Although some may be puzzled as to why Latinos would perpetuate that belief, it is readily explained.

It is hardly surprising that minorities have often sought to "pass" as White--i.e., present themselves as White persons. They did so because they thought that becoming White insured greater economic, political, and social security. Becoming White, they thought, meant gaining access to a whole set of public and private privileges and was a way to avoid being the object of others' domination. Whiteness, therefore, constituted a privileged identity.

Survival instincts coupled with an unquestioned acceptance of liberal ideology promoting pursuit of individual well-being pushes us to claim a White identity. Yet a critical analysis of that pursuit reveals some flaws in the goal. Most fundamentally, that goal asks us to forfeit our cultural and ethnic identity. Another flaw is that it assumes that even if one wanted to "pass" for purposes of obtaining White privilege, the privilege would follow. As explained elsewhere in this article, even if Latinos self-identify as White, they cannot control how others see them. So long as they are viewed as Latino, they will not obtain the White privilege that they crave. Here lies the greatest risk of all, as one could lose one's ethnic and familial identity without ever achieving one's desired identity, thus leaving an untethered soul who fits in nowhere.

Even if one does not attempt to "pass," one can consciously or subconsciously attempt to acquire White privilege through the choice of a spouse. Critical race theorists have left the *71 sensitive topic of spousal selection in interracial relationships largely unexplored, even though this study would shed light on the complex relationship between subordination and White privilege. Although I will not analyze this topic at length here, at some risk, I will share some of my own experiences. I married an Anglo and in reflecting on why I married my husband, I realize that the reasons are many, complex, and positive, and that I never consciously chose not to marry a Latino. However, it is not as clear to me whether I subconsciously chose not to marry a Latino. During law school, I spent countless hours with my Latino classmates and one year I co-chaired the Stanford Latino Law Students' Association ("SLLSA"), but I did not date my Latino classmates. One reason was that there were not many Latinos at the law school and many of the few had girlfriends. Another reason that I reveal with reluctance is that I saw too many marriages in my family break up because of the man's infidelity. Of course many non-Latino men are unfaithful, and I never believed that all Latino males were unfaithful, but my family history made me nervous. That nervousness was later compounded when I became active with La Raza Lawyers of San Diego. At parties and out of town conferences, I noticed that a significant number of men suddenly lost their wedding rings and seemed to spend too much time with women who were not their wives. So I remind myself that this behavior is characteristic of many men, not just Latinos. When I experience this unease, am I unconsciously succumbing to internalized racism by believing negative stereotypes about Latino men? My need to ask this question reveals one of the dangers of internalized oppression--we frequently do not even realize when or how we are prejudiced against ourselves.

Other manifestations of internalized racism include behavior resulting from envidia, or jealousy. Latinos, for instance, frequently inwardly, and sometimes outwardly, question the qualifications of other successful Latinos. It is heartening that this is not uniform--many Latinos provide mutual support networks by, for example, intentionally and systematically referring business to each other. Nonetheless, we too frequently neglect to provide support for each other and even worse, we actually conspire against each other. This tendency is illustrated by a popular Mexican folk story:

*72 A man stumbles upon a fisherman who is gathering crabs and placing them in a bucket with no lid. When the passerby asks the fisherman whether he is concerned that the crabs might climb out of the bucket and crawl away, the fisherman replies that there is no need to worry. "You see," he says, "these are Mexican crabs. Whenever one of them tries to move up, the others pull him down . . . ."

The envidia phenomenon sabotages Latino unity and requires our attention. We need to challenge negative stereotypes about Latinos, refuse to perpetuate negative stereotypes about other Latinos, recognize sabotaging behavior among ourselves, and convert that behavior and the environment that promotes it into a supportive environment.

Internalized racism is also displayed when Latinos experience self-doubt upon receiving either admission into a top university or a prestigious job offer. This "impostor" dilemma haunts many of us. How did I get here? Do I truly belong? The answers, respectively, are through hard work and perhaps some serendipity, and yes. However, because of internalized racism, we doubt our qualifications and hard-earned credentials and succumb to the often not-very-delicate suggestions that we do not belong.

We also denigrate ourselves through both our treatment of the Spanish language and our support of the English-only movement. By the former, I mean that Latinos can cavalierly use Spanish when convenient--for example, to temporarily bond with other Latinos, while also being ashamed by it when it reveals too much of our heritage. Through support of the English-only movement, we send the message that we should be ashamed of our inherited language. When we support this movement, we admit Latino inferiority and accept the notion that Latinos are "dangerous because of their language. It perceives the Spanish language as a threatening foreign *73 influence that must be eradicated to preserve cultural purity." Accordingly, internalized racism causes Latinos to distance themselves from the Spanish language. This distancing increases as income rises and assimilation becomes more complete. As one study indicates, "[A]lmost 40 percent of Latino respondents prefer English as their dominant language, and 92 percent prefer either monolingual English or bilingual English and Spanish . . . . Over time, and as Latino socioeconomic status improves, Latino language preferences, while bilingual, move closer to an English predominance for . . . [survey] respondents." Latinos who intentionally distance themselves from Spanish accept "[t]he assimilationist ideal [that] would have Latinos learn English and completely lose their Spanish-speaking ability." Rather than being a source of embarrassment, as one academic suggested, our language should be a source of cultural pride; "Latino/as must learn to celebrate their language if they are to find strength in their common identity."

This part outlined just a sampling of the many negative stereotypes about Latinos. When we accept these stereotypes about ourselves and other Latinos, we accept the "colonized mentality" and engage in actions consistent with internalized racism. These actions are harmful in and of themselves, and the consequences can be even more severe when the stakes are higher--for example, when legislation is proposed that directly harms the Latino community.