In Afrikaans, “apartheid” – introduced by the Nationalist Party, was a system of government and legislative framework that upheld segregationist policies against non-white citizens and indigenous people of South Africa and any Black person from the rest of the world. Despite strong and consistent opposition to apartheid within and outside of South Africa, its laws remained in effect for the better part of 50 years.
How might the current events in the United States resonate with someone living in South Africa, a country scarred by its own tragic history of institutionalized prejudice and racism?
The fundamental difference is that, black people are not a minority in South Africa. Black Africans constitutes 81% of the population, White’s only eight percent and the 11% balance is made of ethnic groups that are classified as Coloured and Indian (Statistics Africa, 2019).
Irrespective of what the numbers say, many believe that the minority own 80% of the wealth, most of the land and that in some way continue to oppress the majority. How come? You may ask. Well it is a complicated story in that there is a democratically elected Black led and majority government that rules South Africa today. However, most of us believe that there is a conditioning that has taken place, in that some black people honestly believe that white is superior to black. And this is not unique to South Africa, it has been picked up across the African continent.
According to the World Health Organization 77% of Nigerian women use skin lightening products on a regular basis, followed by Togo with 59%, South Africa 35%, Senegal 27% and Mali 25%. The single most dangerous commonality between black people in Africa and those in America, is self-hatred. While some of our parents have raised us to be strong and self-confident, we have all responded to being exposed to racism differently. After all we are human. Also, the way African leaders have behaved in office has somehow perpetuated this evil and dangerous stereotype and perception on how being black is viewed by many people.
We are human beings with a lifetime of experiences that have shaped our minds. We are all a product of our upbringing, and our beliefs reflect our experiences. If you grow up in a country that is racist, where one is constantly exposed to hatred and dehumanization that has been masked in one way or another, then it is no surprise that some black people actually believe it to be true that they are inferior to other races. Steve Biko, an anti-apartheid activist who was killed by the apartheid government in 1977 said, “The most powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”. This is one of the desired outcomes of systemic and systematic racism.
Internalized racism refers to the feelings of self-hatred among oppressed groups. Their traits have intentionally been devalued in Western societies. In their book The Psychology of Racism, Holloway-Friesen and Johnson emphasize that internalized racism involves both “conscious and unconscious acceptance of a racial hierarchy in which whites are consistently ranked above people of colour.” These definitions encompass a wide range of instances, including, but not limited to, belief in negative racial stereotypes, adaptations to white cultural standards, and thinking that supports the status quo (i.e. denying that racism exists).
Internalized racism as a phenomenon is a direct product of a racial classification system and is found across different racial groups and regions around the world where race exists as a social construct. In these places, internalized racism can have adverse effects on those who experience it.
Internalized racism is likely to consist of self-hatred, self-alienation, self-concealment, fear of violence and feelings of inferiority, resignation, powerlessness; and accepting limitations to one’s own full humanity, including one’s right to self-determination, and one’s range of allowable self-expression (Jones, 2000; Pheterson, 1986; Watts-Jones, 2002)
It is naive to think that the system is going to change itself, if we, as black people want to change the tide, we need to understand that “only us can save us”. This transformation can only happen in our own mental models. This is where most of the damage has taken place, this is where through various ways, the dysfunctional pattern of thinking has been created, in our minds there is a collection of attitudes, beliefs, expectations, morals and values that form the underlying structures that perpetuate self-hatred.
Mental models are deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behaviour (Senge, 1997). Awareness is a good place to start – we need to be aware of our blind spots, find and use knowledge that can influence positive change.