Racism manifests itself negatively in both the mental and physical health of those who experience racism. There are three levels to this racism:

    1) Active racism, or overt racism. An obvious example is violence directed at somebody for being a certain race. This causes adrenaline-related stress, as well as the obvious negative health affects of violence.

2) Internalized racism, which is the “the unquestioning acceptance of the myth of racial inferiority”. As one doctor puts it, this affects our mental health because "…stigmatized people become hopeless and helpless, and those things can impact on health."

3) Institutionalized racism, which refers to the structures in our country that restrict access to high-paying jobs, high-quality health care, and safe neighborhoods.

The author of one study done in 2000, David Williams, writes, “It is also likely that residence in the highly segregated…[poor areas created by institutional racism can adversely affect mental health. Research reveals that several characteristics prevalent in these neighborhoods, such as high population turnover, crime, violence, fear of crime, and overcrowding, can have a negative affect on the psychological functioning of adults and children.”5

Internalized racism is essentially misinformation received by people of color and ethnic groups, which they then believe. Internalized racism is a result of racism in society, not the result of people of color being stupid, slow, or unable to understand how to deal with racism. It is also common for people to not be aware of racism in our society until adolescence, when the normal identity process can be accompanied by a crisis, where racism is made obvious.

Filipino author Jeremiah Torres writes of an identity-shattering experience from high school in his essay, “Label Us Angry”:

    That night was our first encounter with overt racism that stems from a hatred of difference. We hadn’t seen it through the smiles and happy songs of elementary school or the isolated cliques of middle and high school, but now we knew it was there. We hadn’t seen it through the clean-cut, sophisticated façade of the Palo Alto white guy, but now we knew it was there.

Following a jolt or crisis experience (such as being actively discriminated against, or seeing a friend become the victim of violence), teens often go through a period of denigrating White culture and affirming their own group culture. Later stages that are exhibited as ethnic identity is strengthened and crystallized, adolescents will exhibit a “growing confidence,” and oftentimes is accompanied by what is termed a “commitment mode” which is characterized by activism. Through activism or community work (for example, forming a diversity club, recording oral histories of family members, or getting involved with youth groups trying to eliminate racism and discrimination) many adolescents positively express their ethnic identity by working to end oppression.

    “The word activism is centered on the word act. An act doesn't necessarily have to be a physical act like going out to the middle of the street. Activism means, I have a vision for the kind of world that I want, and that vision has to do with compassion and justice and I'm willing to take action toward that goal...”—Billie Rain

Adolescence is, for all Americans, a time of identity-shifting. It is very common for teens to think about and struggle with who they are in the world, what their ‘true’ personality is, what they want to be in life, and who their true friends are. For adolescents of specific ethnic and racial groups, this time can be especially stressful, as there is an additional layer to the identity shifting: comparing ethnic identity to the mainstream (White, upper middle class) ideal. And because racism is institutionalized in our society, it is common for this process to be experienced again and again.

    “[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…control . . .Second, upon ourselves through all manner of self-invalidation, self-doubt, isolation, fear, feelings of powerlessness and despair . . ."

The results of internalized racism and oppression on people of color can be low self-esteem, self-doubt, and self-hatred. The self-hatred may be expressed by dissing friends for acting “too white,” or not wanting to be seen with your family or ethnic group. It is important to remember that these are signs of internalized racism, but internalized racism is not a dysfunction, but a result of the complex reality of institutionalized racism.

By recognizing one’s own feelings about internalized racism, thinking about it, and realizing your own identity, internalized racism can be un-learned, fostering positive community-based work and activism towards dismantling institutionalized racism.




Riker, B. D. & Warren, K. (2004). Some Facts that Psychologist Know About Racism. Retreived from http://www.uc.edu/psc/sh/SH_Racism.

3) Jones, C. (1998). Violence aside, racism may be harmful to our health. Retreived from http://focus.hms.harvard.edu/1998/Feb6_1998/pubhealth1

4) Harrell, J.P., Hall, S., Taliaferro, J. (2003). Physiological responses to racism and discrimination: An Assessment of the Evidence . American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 93

5) Williams, D. (2000). Mental health and the african american experience. Ethnicity and Health. Vol. 5, No.3-4, 243 – 268.

6) Torres, J. (2004). Label Us Angry. In A. Han & J. Hsu (Eds.), Asian American X (15-18). Ann-Arbor,MI: University of Michigan Press.

7) Marshall.

8) Steinberg, L. (2005). Adolescence. Boston:McGraw-Hill.

9) Marshall, Ibid.

10) Helms, J.E. (1993). An overview of Black racial identity. In J.E. Helms (Ed.), Black and White racial identity: Theory,research and practice. (9-32). Westport, CT: Praeger.

11) Rain, B. (n.d.), The Healing Journey as a Site of Resistance. On Colours of Resistance: Articles and Analysis. Retreived from http://colours.mahost.org

12) Padilla, Laura. (2001). A Dirty Mexican: Internalized oppression, latinos and the law. Texas Hispanic Journal of Law and Policy, Vol. 61-113, 65-73

13) Bivens, D. (1995). Internalized racism: A definition. Retreived from the Women’s Theological Center, http://www.wtc.org

14) Ibid.