Families in Psychiatry

Helping families understand internalized racism


Ms. Jones brings her 15-year-old daughter, Angela, to the resident clinic. Angela is becoming increasingly anxious, withdrawn, and difficult to manage. As part of the initial interview, the resident, Dr. Sota, asks about the sociocultural background of the family. Ms. Jones is African American and recently began a relationship with a white man. Her daughter, Angela, is biracial; her biological father is white and has moved out of state with little ongoing contact with Angela and her mother.

Dr. Alison M. Heru, professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Denver, Aurora

Dr. Alison M. Heru

At interview, Angela expresses a lot of anger at her mother, her biological father, and her new “stepfather.” Ms. Jones says: “I do not want Angela growing up as an ‘angry black woman.’ ” When asked for an explanation, she stated that she doesn’t want her daughter to be stereotyped, to be perceived as an angry black person. “She needs to fit in with our new life. She has lots of opportunities if only she would take them.”

Dr. Sota recognizes that Angela’s struggle, and perhaps also the struggle of Ms. Jones, has a component of internalized racism. How should Dr. Sota proceed? Dr. Sota puts herself in Angela’s shoes: How does Angela see herself? Angela has light brown skin, and Dr. Sota wonders whether Angela wants to present as white or whether asserting her black heritage is important.

The term internalized racism (IR) first appeared in the 1980s. IR was compared to the oppression of black people in the 1800s: “The slavery that captures the mind and incarcerates the motivation, perception, aspiration, and identity in a web of anti-self images, generating a personal and collective self destruction, is more cruel than the shackles on the wrists and ankles.”1 According to Susanne Lipsky,2 IR “in African Americans manifests as internalizing stereotypes, mistrusting the self and other Blacks, and narrows one’s view of authentic Black culture.”

IR refers to the internalization and acceptance of the dominant white culture’s actions and beliefs, while rejecting one’s own cultural background. There is a long history of negative cultural representations of African Americans in popular American culture, and IR has a detrimental impact on the emotional well-being of African Americans.3

IR is associated with poorer metabolic health4 and psychological distress, depression and anxiety,5-8 and decreased self-esteem.9 However, protective processes can reduce one’s response to risk and can be developed through the psychotherapeutic relationship.

Interventions at an individual, family, or community levels

Angela: Tell me about yourself: What type of person are you? How do you identify? How do you feel about yourself/your appearance/your language?

Tell me about your friends/family? What interests do you have?

“Tell me more” questions can reveal conflicted feelings, etc., even if Angela does not answer. A good therapist can talk about IR; even if Angela does not bring it up, it is important for the therapist to find language suitable for the age of the patient.

Dr. Sota has some luck with Angela, who nods her head but says little. Dr. Sota then turns to Ms. Jones and asks whether she can answer these questions, too, and rephrases the questions for an adult. Interviewing parents in the presence of their children gives Dr. Sota and Angela an idea of what is permitted to talk about in the family.

A therapist can also note other permissions in the family: How do Angela and her mother use language? Do they claim or reject words and phrases such as “angry black woman” and choose, instead, to use language to “fit in” with the dominant white culture?

Dr. Sota notices that Ms. Jones presents herself as keen to fit in with her new future husband’s life. She wants Angela to do likewise. Dr. Sota notices that Angela vacillates between wanting to claim her black identity and having to navigate what that means in this family (not a good thing) – and wanting to assimilate into white culture. Her peers fall into two separate groups: a set of black friends and a set of white friends. Her mother prefers that she see her white friends, mistrusting her black friends.

Dr. Sota’s supervisor suggests that she introduce IR more forcefully because this seems to be a major course of conflict for Angela and encourage a frank discussion between mother and daughter. Dr. Sota starts the next session in the following way: “I noticed last week that the way you each identify yourselves is quite different. Ms. Jones, you want Angela to ‘fit in’ and perhaps just embrace white culture, whereas Angela, perhaps you vacillate between a white identity and a black identity?”

The following questions can help Dr. Sota elicit IR:

  • What information about yourself would you like others to know – about your heritage, country of origin, family, class background, and so on?
  • What makes you proud about being a member of this group, and what do you love about other members of this group?
  • What has been hard about being a member of this group, and what don’t you like about others in this group?
  • What were your early life experiences with people in this group? How were you treated? How did you feel about others in your group when you were young?

At a community level, family workshops support positive cultural identities that strengthen family functioning and reducing behavioral health risks. In a study of 575 urban American Indian (AI) families from diverse tribal backgrounds, the AI families who participated in such a workshop had significant increases in their ethnic identity, improved sense of spirituality, and a more positive cultural identification. The workshops provided culturally adaptive parenting interventions.10

IR is a serious determinant of both physical and mental health. Assessment of IR can be done using rating scales, such as the Nadanolitization Scale11 or the Internalized Racial Oppression Scale.12 IR also can also be assessed using a more formalized interview guide, such as the DSM-5 Cultural Formulation Interview (CFI).13 This 16-question interview guide helps behavioral health providers better understand the way service users and their social networks (e.g., families, friends) understand what is happening to them and why, as well as the barriers they experience, such as racism, discrimination, stigma, and financial stressors.

Individuals’ cultures and experiences have a profound impact on their understanding of their symptoms and their engagement in care. The American Psychiatric Association considers it to be part of mental health providers’ duty of care to engage all individuals in culturally relevant conversations about their past experiences and care expectations. More relevant, I submit that you cannot treat someone without having made this inquiry. A cultural assessment improves understanding but also shifts power relationships between providers and patients. The DSM-5 CFI and training guides are widely available and provide additional information for those who want to improve their cultural literacy.


Internalized racism is the component of racism that is the most difficult to discern. Psychiatrists and mental health professionals are uniquely poised to address IR, and any subsequent internal conflict and identity difficulties. Each program, office, and clinic can easily find the resources to do this through the APA. If you would like help providing education, contact me at alisonheru@gmail.com.


1. Akbar N. J Black Studies. 1984. doi: 10.11771002193478401400401.

2. Lipsky S. Internalized Racism. Seattle: Rational Island Publishers, 1987.

3. Williams DR and Mohammed SA. Am Behav Sci. 2013 May 8. doi: 10.1177/00027642134873340.

4. DeLilly CR and Flaskerud JH. Issues Ment Health Nurs. 2012 Nov;33(11):804-11.

5. Molina KM and James D. Group Process Intergroup Relat. 2016 Jul;19(4):439-61.

6. Szymanski D and Obiri O. Couns Psychologist. 2011;39(3):438-62.

7. Carter RT et al. J Multicul Couns Dev. 2017 Oct 5;45(4):232-59.

8. Mouzon DM and McLean JS. Ethn Health. 2017 Feb;22(1):36-48.

9. Szymanski DM and Gupta A. J Couns Psychol. 2009;56(1):110-18.

10. Kulis SS et al. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychol. 2019. doi: 10.1037/cpd000315.

11. Taylor J and Grundy C. “Measuring black internalization of white stereotypes about African Americans: The Nadanolization Scale.” In: Jones RL, ed. Handbook of Tests and Measurements of Black Populations. Hampton, Va.: Cobb & Henry, 1996.

12. Bailey T-K M et al. J Couns Psychol. 2011 Oct;58(4):481-93.

13. American Psychiatric Association. Cultural Formulation Interview. DSM-5. American Psychiatric Association Publishing: Arlington, Va. 2013.

Various aspects about the case described above have been changed to protect the clinician’s and patients’ identities. Thanks to the following individuals for their contributions to this article: Suzanne Huberty, MD, and Shiona Heru, JD.

Dr. Heru is professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado at Denver, Aurora. She is editor of “Working With Families in Medical Settings: A Multidisciplinary Guide for Psychiatrists and Other Health Professionals” (Routledge, 2013). She has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

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