Internalization and Desensitization

Oppression is “naturalized” and the status quo is preserved.


Race-Related Trauma Wounds

Racial oppression is a traumatic form of interpersonal violence which can lacerate the spirit, scar the soul, and puncture the psyche. Without a clear and descriptive language to describe this experience, those who suffer cannot coherently convey their pain, let alone heal. The source of their hurt is often confused with distracting secondary symptoms ranging from hopelessness to acting out behavior. Racial oppression is seldom seen as contributing to these difficulties, and discussions of race are dismissed as manufacturing excuses, justifying bad behavior. As with other forms of trauma, we ask the wrong question about struggling youth of color. Instead of asking “What is wrong with them?” we need to ask the trauma-informed question, “What has happened to them?” Rarely is unmasking and treating the hidden wounds of racial trauma a focal point of intervention. Instead, conventional approaches attend to family problems, individual psychological issues, behavioral problems, affect disorders, and substance misuse (Hardy & Qureshi, 2012). These are salient factors but skirt issues of race which are powerful dynamics in the lives of youth of color. These are insidious, mostly invisible, and virtually inextricable from the other difficulties that youth are experiencing. To work effectively with youth of color, we must understand, address, and ultimately heal the hidden wounds of racial oppression.


Internalized Devaluation

A toxic human mold, hard to see yet ever spreading, gnaws at the dignity of youth of color. They are oblivious to this infection but emotionally reactive to its effects (Hardy & Qureshi, 2012). Internalized devaluation is a direct by-product of racism, inextricably linked to the deification of whiteness and the demonization of non-white hues. It is perpetrated throughout society, including in the very systems with the stated mission of serving youth. For example, when youth of color are removed from their families and placed in a residential setting, they observe that most of their peers in care look like them. This reinforces a powerful message internalized since childhood—“I am bad and unworthy.” Racial devaluation is intertwined with other affronts to dignity such as neglect, abuse, and rejection. While treatment protocols may be designed to address familial dynamics, scant or no attention is given to underlying racial wounds. Profoundly devalued youth become hypervigilant about gaining respect (Hardy & Laszloffy, 2005).
They intuitively understand that respect is the perfect elixir for devaluation.
While they would be hard-pressed to explain why respect is so important, they seem to
know experientially that respect reduces the intensity of the uneasiness of devaluation. To some of these youth, death is preferable to disrespect.

Assaulted Sense of Self

There is a second hidden trauma wound that is closely tied to internalized devaluation and ultimately racial oppression. The assaulted sense of self is the culmination of recurring experiences with internalized devaluation. Continual exposure to devaluation shapes how youth of color see themselves. It becomes very challenging to develop a healthy sense of self when one’s emotional-psychological milieu is inundated with the repeated race-related messages such as: you are not as attractive as…not as smart as… too dumb to…not intelligent enough to… ain’t ever going to be anything…not college material…not welcomed here…and so forth. The onslaught of devaluing messages makes it hard for youth to know who they really are—and easy to believe they are what others say. This is the essence of the assaulted sense of self. Unfortunately, it strikes at one of the most vulnerable stages of the life cycle: adolescence, when youth are forming their identities.

Internalized Voicelessness

The third hidden wound of internalized voicelessness erodes the ability to defend against a barrage of unwelcomed and unjustified negative, debilitating messages. While these wounds are described here in a linear and distinct fashion, they are experienced in a systemic, inter-tangled way. For example, voicelessness both results from and fuels internalized devaluation and an assaulted sense of self. While voicelessness does not literally render the youth silent, it impairs the ability to advocate for oneself. Angel, a seventeen-year-old Latino, shared this example with his therapist:

“Dog, it’s crazy out there as a Latino…; everybody
looks at you all the time like something is getting
ready to go down. I mean, I get on the E Train (subway)
and suddenly all eyes are on you like you are
a thief, rapist, or burglar. I see the looks…. I know
the looks cuz they happen all the time. At times, I
want to go over to them, you know, mostly white
people, and say ‘hey, I know what you’re thinking
and I ain’t no robber’. But I ain’t stupid. I know I
can’t say s— cuz the minute I try to say something
like that, the next thing you know, the person start
screaming and yelling, I am dead! You and I know
what happens next…here comes the Po-Po and the
next thing you know I’m on lock down for just trying
to tell some racist M—– F—–, I ain’t trying to
rob them. Man, it’s messed up out there!”

Angel never mentions the word voicelessness but his experience on the subway describes it perfectly. He is both a victim and a prisoner of others’ perceptions of him. His options are severely limited, especially his ability to advocate for himself. From his perspective, he either speaks up and risks appearing to be threatening or remains silent and has his sense of self further assaulted. No matter how much he repudiates the views others have of him, he has little to no ability to effectively address or alter them. Consequently, he suppresses his feelings while planting the seeds of rage.


The Wound of Rage

Many youth of color, like their adult counterparts, suffer from the race-related trauma wound of rage. It is virtually impossible to be the depository of perpetual negative and debilitating messages and have one’s sense of self assaulted without experiencing rage. Rage can be a deep-seated emotional response to experiences of degradation and devaluation. Rage builds over time as a result of cumulative suppressed emotions precipitated by voicelessness. It is distinguishable from anger, which is an emotion connected to immediate experiences. Rage is a very complex emotion that can appear as anger, explosiveness, sadness, and depression. Youth of color are often prescribed anger management interventions, while rage from the hidden wound of racial oppression remains unaddressed.


The Case of a Nobody

Fourteen-year-old Assad sat nervously shaking his left leg while staring off to a far-off place. He appeared disengaged and verbally unresponsive to questions posed by his therapist while passively expressing disdain for having to be present. Intermittently, he would check the time on his cell phone which produced an audible sigh. After twenty minutes of attempts to engage Assad, a break-through finally came. He looked at his therapist and asked in a very soft voice: “Why are you wasting your time?” “What do you mean?” his therapist responded. “With me,” he stated flatly. “Well, I don’t consider this a waste of time at all. In fact, there are ways in which you remind me of myself years ago,” the therapist noted. Assad quickly dismissed the claim and noted, “There is no way I can remind you of you or anybody else!” Surprised by Assad’s expression of such strong emotion, the therapist cautiously asked, “What do you mean?” “I mean, I’m a NOBODY….I ain’t s— and never gonna be s—…and that’s a fact, so you are wasting your time.” “I just wonder whose voice that is that you are repeating, because that is not how I see you or what my experience with you has been. I see you as a gifted young brother.” Assad became quickly animated and slightly agitated as he stated: “Then you are clueless Doc…and WHOSE voice? …WHOSE voice? You wanna know whose voice? It’s everybody’s voice. It’s my mom’s voice, which is why she don’t come around more. It’s my dad’s voice, which is why he has never stepped up. It’s the f—in’ cops’ voices, which is why they just dis’ us, beat us, and kill us like we are a bunch of f—in’ animals. It’s the teachers’ voices who come right out and tell you in so many words that you dumb ass— and you ain’t going to be nothing. C’mon Doc, you better get with it. You can’t be as dumb as you trying to sound, dog. Look at Obama and all those smarts that he has. He gets the same message. They let him know that ‘Yo, you might be President and s—, but you still ain’t nobody….as far as we are concerned you are just another nigger!’”

Beneath Assad’s seemingly disjointed and accusatory “outbursts” are the hidden wounds of racial oppression. His sense of hopelessness, despair, and rage are the by-products of chronic and repeated experiences of being systematically devalued and having his sense of self assaulted. His “angry self-absolving rant” lacks psychological sophistication, appropriate usage of Standard English, or evidence of any understanding of the nameless condition that plagues him. Still, it accurately describes the world of a youth of color in a society that seems hopelessly organized by race. But since Assad is clueless about the hidden wounds that shape how he sees himself, he cannot see the wall-less prison that racial oppression has placed around him. For many youth of color, such issues are central to their healing and transformation but seldom addressed. Traditional interventions designed to “help” Assad and those like him would focus on goals such as:

a) being more accountable and taking responsibility for his actions;

b) being more respectful and using less profanity;

c) examining his usage of the “N” word;

d) getting his mother more involved in the treatment process;

e) processing his feelings regarding the loss of a relationship with his father;

f) anger management; and

g) setting more positive goals for himself.

While these goals are highly germane to the “rehabilitation” and “transformation” of Assad, they do very little to address the hidden wounds of racial oppression.

From “Healing the Hidden Wounds of Racial Trauma” By Kenneth V. Hardy
Found at:


Calvert, W. (1997). Protective factors within the family, and their role in fostering resiliency in African-American adolescents. Journal of Cultural Diversity, 4, 110-117.

Gil, A., Vega, W., & Turner, R. (2002). Early and mid-adolescence risk factors for later substance abuse by AfricanAmericans and European-Americans. Public Health Reports,
117(1), 15-29.

Hardy, K., & Laszloffy, T. (2005). Teens who hurt: Clinical interventions for breaking the cycle of adolescent violence. New York, NY: Guilford.

Hardy, K. V., & Qureshi, M. E. (2012). Devaluation, loss, and rage: A postscript to urban African American youth with substance abuse. Substance Abuse Quarterly, 30(3), 326-342.

Internalized White Superiority (affecting white people)

  • My world view is the universal world view; our standards and norms are universal
  • My achievements have to do with me, not with my membership in the white group
  • I have a right to be comfortable and if I am not, then whoever is making me uncomfortable is to blame
  • I can feel that I personally earned, through work and merit, any/all of my success
  • Equating acts of unfairness experienced by white people with systemic racism experienced by People of Color
  • I have many choices, as I should; everyone else has those same choices
  • I am not responsible for what happened before, nor do I have to know anything about it; I have a right to be ignorant
  • I assume race equity benefits only People of Color​


How we internalize the ideological ideas of oppression

Internalized oppression means the oppressor doesn’t have to exert any more pressure, because we now do it to ourselves and each other. The fourth way oppression works is within the groups of people who suffer the most from the mistreatment. Oppressed people internalize the ideology of inferiority, the see it reflected in the institutions, they experience mistreatment interpersonally from members of the dominant group, and they eventually come to internalize the negative messages about themselves. Oppression always begins from the outside of the oppressed group, but by the time it gets internalized, the external oppression need hardly be felt for the damage to be done. If people from the oppressed group feel bad about themselves, and because of the nature of the system, do not have the power to direct those feelings back toward the dominant group without receiving more blows, then there are only two places to dump those feelings—on oneself and on the people in the same group. (HORIZONTAL VIOLENCE)

Thus, people in any target group have to struggle hard to keep from feeling heavy feelings of powerlessness or despair. On the way to eliminating institutional oppression, each oppressed group has to undo the internalized beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that stem from the oppression so that they can build unity and power among people in that group, support its leaders, feel proud of its contributions and develop strength and organize.


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