Laura M. Padilla
excerpted Wrom: ZRCLBDXRQBGJSNBOHMKHJYFMYXOEAIJJPHSCRT
a Dirty Mexican": Internalized Oppression, Latinos & Law , 7
Texas Hispanic Journal of Law and Policy 61-113, 65-73 (Fall 2001) (347
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
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
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
*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 "gŁero"
their children or grandchildren are. I remember my mother's best friend
bragging about how gŁera 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 "gŁera-ness,"
my mother and I instead later compared the granddaughter's "gŁera-ness"
to the "gŁera/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
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
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
*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
This part outlined just a sampling of the many negative stereotypes
about Latinos. When we accept these stereotypes about ourselves and
other Latinos, we acceptthe "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. . . .