Shifting Focus from Internalization to Appropriation of Racial Oppression

Racial oppression can be appropriated by both oppressed and non-oppressed groups and affect individuals’ mental health and well-being.

Reviewed by Becky Mer


Scholarship has examined many forms of racism, but research on how racism impacts individuals’ everyday experiences is still developing. Some scholars have studied how racism can be internalized by members of oppressed groups. For example, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s famous experiment presenting Black children with Black and white dolls continues to be referenced as an example of internalized self-hatred among Black people. More recent scholars, however, have proposed a shift away from the term “internalized racism,” arguing that it limits the impact of racism on people of color, narrowly focuses on negative self-image, and places the blame of oppression on marginalized groups. 

In this article, Versey et al. support emerging research that recommends a new framing known as “appropriated racial oppression.” This term refers to the process of both oppressed and non-oppressed groups appropriating, or taking up racial oppression through repeated exposure to racial messages centered on whiteness. Appropriated racial oppression can be a response to, or strategy for, navigating normative white ideals in society. This framing centers white supremacy, rather than individual pathology, as the driver of racism and the source of race-related stress. Appropriated racial oppression has consequences for mental health and public health more broadly, both for dominant and marginalized groups. 

H. Shellae Versey is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Fordham University. Dr. Versey is a psychologist and critical health researcher, and her research explores health and intersectionality. Courtney D. Cogburn is an Associate Professor at the Columbia School of Social Work. Dr. Cogburn directs a research group that uses innovative means to characterize and measure racism and evaluate its effects on mental and physical health. Clara L. Wilkins is an Associate Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Dr. Wilkins is a social psychologist whose research examines prejudice, stereotyping, and the self. Nakita Joseph is an adjunct lecturer at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and a ParentCorps Educator at NYU Langone Health. Ms. Joseph is a graduate of the Columbia School of Social Work, where she researched systemic oppression, trauma, and inequality.

Methods and Findings

In this commentary, Versey et al. describe how managing racism may be as harmful to health as exposure to racism. Responses to racism can be both negative and adaptive, which is an important distinction the authors make. For groups of color, appropriated racial oppression can include responses to “fit in” or navigate white norms and practices. The authors illustrate this with two examples:

  • Respectability and vigilance: Respectability behavior, such as mimicking whiteness to counter negative stereotypes about one’s group, is considered to be a form of appropriated racial oppression. While respectability provides social benefits, anticipating discrimination can be taxing and yield more costs than benefits. Researchers have found that vigilantly guarding against racial stereotypes is correlated with negative health outcomes, including risk of chronic disease and increased depressive symptoms.
  • Code-switching: To accommodate different social contexts and avoid evoking negative stereotypes, Black people and other racial/ethnic groups may modify speech in ways that are aligned with normative whiteness. While code-switching may be effective in achieving ‘success’ by some metrics, it may be psychologically damaging when practiced over time. Moreover, by focusing on individuals who practice (or fail to practice) strategies like code-switching, we divert attention away from white supremacy and fail to address systems that force people of color to code-switch in the first place.

The authors also discuss how white people are harmed by racism. This may seem counter-intuitive, as whiteness is a system that produces gains and privileges for white people as members of the dominant group. But when expectations of success are not met, when losses to economic or social positions do occur, and when the system of racism does not confer benefits as expected, appropriated racial oppression can lead to negative health outcomes. Versey et al. describe three ways this can operate:

  • Threats to worldviews: When experiences violate a white person’s worldview (such as a job loss), they may feel threatened by a perceived loss of status in an increasingly diverse world. These threats may have meaningful consequences for individuals’ mental health and broader health policy.
  • Perceived loss of status and mental health outcomes: Political events and demographic shifts may evoke fear among dominant groups and compromise their feelings of safety and security. For example, some research has shown that, compared to other groups, white people’s perceived loss of status is associated with increased emotional stress. One way that white people may be able to shift their interpretation of such events is by developing a critical consciousness, or an understanding of how social, economic, and political systems contribute to inequity. 
  • Health policy:  If white Americans are unaware about how the system of whiteness makes certain privileges possible, then any policy perceived to level the playing field can contribute to feelings of threat, resentment, or anger. These feelings can be heightened by inaccuracies that play on racial stereotypes, such as the misperception that the Affordable Care Act primarily benefits groups of color. When such feelings lead to health policy changes that hurt everyone, then the process of appropriated racial oppression can undermine one’s own health.


This article makes two novel contributions to emerging research on appropriated racial oppression. First, by providing examples in which white supremacy affects both non-oppressed and oppressed groups, the authors highlight how appropriated racial oppression has implications for mental health and public health more broadly. Second, by discussing how people, particularly oppressed groups, negotiate racism on an individual level, the authors suggest new opportunities to research how racism influences people’s attitudes and behaviors.

Versey et al. conclude that, if we accept that appropriated racial oppression is an inevitable by-product of racism, then we must examine the full range of consequences associated with responding to normative whiteness. The authors pose questions for future research, including: In the long-term, are the strategies of code-switching and respectability more toxic or beneficial? How is the process of appropriated racial oppression interconnected with assimilation, health disparities, and racial identity? How can worldviews be rebuilt? How can we promote dialogue about the symptoms of racism, including appropriated racial oppression, in a way that both addresses and changes the systems of power that created those symptoms?


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