bell hooks, Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem
Living in a White-supremacist culture, Black people receive the message daily, through both mass media and our interactions with an unenlightened White world, that to be Black is to be inferior and subordinate. Our Blackness is seen as a threat to be subdued or eliminated. Such a cultural context hardly prepares us to embrace healthy self-esteem.
In fact, Black people who do possess healthy self-esteem often find that we are more likely to face racist attacks, precisely because we do not fit the negative stereotypes of Black identity that many White people feel comfortable with. Black people with self-esteem are often told by unenlightened Whites–even some individuals who are liberal and friendly–that we are not “really Black.” In telling us this, these Whites do not see themselves as expressing racism; they feel they are offering us a special place. Yet there is, in these words, an attempt to seduce us away from loving Blackness, to undermine the very self-esteem that, by its existence, eliminates White supremacist domination.
Let’s face it: If all Black people were able to cultivate healthy self-esteem, institutionalized racism might continue to exist, but White supremacist domination would no longer have a place in our psyches or in our intimate lives. As Lerone Bennet, Jr., was fond of saying: “The last bastion of White supremacy is in the Black man’s mind.”
Internalized racism has been a feature of Black life in the United States from the very first moment Black people found that White people would reward them, be kinder to them, and like them better if they showed a higher regard for Whiteness than Blackness. There were no doubt many such moments during slavery, moments that became more pronounced as the rape of Black females by White males produced Black people who were fair-skinned and automatically deemed better in racist iconography.
When civil-rights advocates fought for racial desegregation, they did not produce documents addressing how the self-esteem of Black folks might be damaged by interactions with White folks who had not unlearned White supremacist thinking and action. In the late sixties and early seventies, it was often just assumed that White people who chose to hang out with Black people liked them, and that their friendly association with Blacks assured that these Whites were free of racist attitudes and behavior. It was a gesture of low self-esteem that some Black folks felt better about themselves when liked by a White person.