In his study of Jewish “self-hatred,” Sander Gilman describes how ideologies win compliance by inspiring a desire among the subjugated to be like the oppressors. He uses the example of the liberal myth that social categories marking difference, such as race and ethnicity, are mutable and all can join the powerful if they abide the rules and behave like the dominant group. The more the subjugated identify with the powerful, the more they accept the ruling values and structural arrangements that keep them down. Gilman calls this a classic double bind situation. The empty promise that the oppressed can escape their “otherness” by shunning their difference lures them into supporting the very rules that define them into existence as the “other” - as those who are not allowed to share power. “Become like us and you will be accepted into our group.” But they never are.
In fact, we can begin to talk about internalized oppression at the moment that the oppressed accept the identities imposed on them by oppressors. The creation of a dominant, “superior” class depends upon the existence of groups of exploitable “others” distinguished by their alleged inferiority. Identities linked to gender, race, sexual and caste oppression are more than by-products of inequality but a constitutive component of their formation. These categorical distinctions become habitual as they are constructed in and through social relations and organizations, causing even the oppressed to have a stake in their subordinated identity. When the oppressed come to accept these identities as “real,” the are in effect internalizing their subjugated status in their definition of self. Any attempt to construct oppositional identities is greatly constrained as they must do so in relation to the categorical schema and meanings dictated by the oppressors.
To underscore this point, I consider the phenomenon of “defensive othering,” which Schwalbe et al. describe as identity work engages by the subordinated in an attempt to become part of the dominant group or to distance themselves from the stereotypes associated with the subordinate group. This dynamic is evident in the formation of negative sub-ethnic identities within the group. For example, among Mexican Americans, the derogatory identities “wetback” and “pocho” are used to denigrate co-ethnics who are, respectively, newly immigrated or have assimilated into the dominate Euro-American culture. These terms are used to “other” members within the subordinated group, deeming them inferior in order to mark oneself or one’s co-ethnic peer group as superior. By attributing the negative stereotypes and images that the dominant society associates with the racial/ethnic group to “other” members within the group, the subordinated can distance themselves from the negative stereotype. Furthermore, intra-group othering allows the oppressed to present themselves as like their oppressors. By demonstrating that they share the same attitudes and disdain toward co-ethnics who fit with the stereotypes, they attempt to join the dominant group. This is the double bind of oppressed identities, as previously noted, for the subjugated cannot so easily escape their “otherness.”
Although the subordinated engaged defensive othering in resisting the imposition of a negative identity, they do so in a manner that contributes to the reproduction of inequality. Thus defensive othering is a form of internalized racism.
Intra-ethnic othering also occurs at the collective level with the construction of derogatory sub-ethnic identities that are widely recognized and broadly used within the group, fomenting internal group tensions and divides. I provide an empirical example from an analysis based on in-depth interviews with 184 young Californian adults who grew up in immigrant Korean and Vietnamese families. This study examines respondents use of the sub-ethnic identity term “FOB,” an acronym for “Fresh Off the Boat,” in ways that reiterate the anti-Asian stereotypes of the White-dominated society. The largely derogatory term is used to label co-ethnic peers who are newly arrived to the United States; speak in heavy-accented English or communicate in Korean or Vietnamese among friends at least some of the time; display traits associated with being a “nerd,” such as social awkwardness or, contradictorily, with being a gang member; identify strongly with one’s ethnic group; assume ethnically “traditional” values and customs; socialize mostly with other co-ethnics; or engage in leisure pursuits associated with ethnic enclaves such as karaoke in Los Angeles’ Korea Town or billiards in the cafes of Orange Country’s Little Saigon. Respondents strategically use “FOB” to ridicule co-ethnic “others” for displaying the same characteristics associated with anti-Asian stereotypes and, in so doing, distance themselves from those stereotypes. Although an adaptive response to oppression, this strategy of distancing oneself from negative stereotypes by suggesting they are true, just not true for oneself, is a form of internalized racial oppression.
Dynamics of “distancing” are not only an individual response to oppression but also can shape collective practices within an ethnic group. Several respondents described how their entire co-ethnic peer group avoids social contact with other co-ethnic social groups identified as consisting of FOBs. In so doing, the peer group can collectively distance from the derogatory stereotype. To maintain the peer group’s identity as non-FOBs, reprimands are given to any member who engages behavior regarded as “fobbish,” such as socializing with co-ethnics who do not speak English. Violators risk expulsion from the group. The social boundaries between the peer groups identified as FOBs and non-FOBs are so strict that intergroup dating is prohibited and fights between the two groups are not uncommon.
The term “FOB” is a vehicle through which anti-Asian stereotypes infiltrate and shape definitions of appropriate behavior within some co-ethnic peer groups, deeming as inappropriate and undesirable more “ethnic” behavior while endorsing as desirable “White” behavior (such as dressing in popular “White” styles and speaking only English). This illustrated how the resistance of racist stereotypes through distancing can pivot on the simultaneous assimilation of White supremacy and the glorification of Whiteness. My purpose in detailing these two examples is to emphasize how internalized racism manifests not simply at the level of the individual psyche but also in the collective social practice.”