When Sonia Torres, 21, was accepted to several prestigious universities, including Rice University in Houston, Texas, she found herself doubting she deserved to go — even though she was an excellent student in high school.
“People would come up to me with conditional statements — ‘you did great, but my son is white, so that’s why he didn’t get in’ — implying that I only got accepted because I’m a Latina and because I filled a quota,” said Torres. “When you’re continually getting these comments, you start believing them.”
Torres’ experience is not uncommon, according to Carlos P. Hipolito-Delgado, an associate professor of counseling at the University of Colorado Denver who conducted a survey of 350 first-generation Latinx college students from 93 universities across 29 states.
He asked students questions such as whether they had been followed around a store because of their skin color and whether they thought Latinxes were as smart as whites and more likely to commit crimes. He even inquired about more positive stereotypes — such as whether participants believed Latinxes were better dancers and soccer players.
Hipolito-Delgado found that students with more exposure to racial discrimination and a higher degree of acculturation to U.S. culture and values were more likely to internalize bias, according to his recent study, “Addressing ethnic self-hatred in Latinx undergraduates,” published in Counseling Today.
Addressing these feelings of internalized racism is significant, he said, since this is not a passing phenomenon and can ultimately result in students’ “conscious or unconscious” acceptance that they are culturally and intellectually inferior to whites.
Hipolito-Delgado urges college counselors to acknowledge Latinx students' experiences with discrimination and help them navigate their feelings without internalizing guilt, or worse, start hating themselves.
“My hope is for the student to realize that racism is not the student’s fault. It is not a reflection of the student’s culture or heritage, but instead is the product of a biased perpetrator and a racist society,” Hipolito-Delgado wrote in the study’s findings.
Getting to 'I belong here'
Torres, now a senior at Rice University, told NBC News that it took her a while to work through the effects of impostor syndrome — the feeling that she didn’t deserve to be there.
When some of her rigorous classes — she's majoring in mathematical economic analysis — got especially tough, she blamed it on “a direct result of ‘who’ I am,” rather than the fact that the class was hard, or a particular professor was harder to follow, or because she hadn’t prepared as well for a particular exam,” Torres explained.
It didn’t help, she said, that sometimes she was the only Latina in some of her math and science classes. When the coursework grew more difficult, she became stressed she would no longer be seen as the intelligent young woman, helping disprove others’ negative perceptions of Latinx by doing well in school.
“I felt like I was throwing away everything me and my family worked hard for,” she said.
It wasn’t until Torres anchored herself in Latinx communities on campus — from joining groups to seeking out Spanish speakers — that she started to feel like being Hispanic was okay, and worth celebrating. In her freshman year, she joined a Mariachi group, which “made me realize I was contributing to the campus and that I belonged here,” she said.
She also gained valuable mentorship from a black female professor who understood what she was feeling and served as an example of a woman of color who had thrived in higher education.
“It’s not you,” Torres said the professor told her. ‘It’s this white institution. Read this book. Read this paper. Know that you belong here.’”
Overcoming others' perceptions
Sarah Funes, 27, who recently graduated from the University of California, Berkeley — one of the top schools in the country — said she had to work to overcome others’ limited perceptions of her abilities, not only because she is Latinx, but because she is disabled. Funes suffered from a brain tumor when she was 10 years old, which left her visually impaired in her left eye and with a limp. Funes also has dysgraphia, which makes it difficult for her to write clearly, as well as dyslexia.
She recalled a high school transition coordinator who was far from helpful when Funes asked her how to apply to college directly from high school.
“She questioned if I had the grades and I told her I didn’t think so, but that I was curious,” Funes said. “She said, ‘I’m not going to bother.’ I also had a special education teacher who told me I would never graduate from high school — which I did — so it was on all sides, whether it was because of my disability or whether it was because I was Latinx.”
By the time Funes arrived at Berkeley, she flaunted her Latinx identity, proudly introducing herself as Salvadorian and from an immigrant family. Still, she clearly remembers visiting a library in Denver with her mother and brother as a child and watching as all the other patrons packed up and left upon her family’s arrival.
“My mom thinks that it was because they thought we were going to rob the place," Funes said. "There are just moments like that when you’re a child and you’re wondering why people treat you differently,” Funes said. “You’re basically taught that who you are and who your family is doesn’t matter and that you need to change who you are to make people comfortable.”
Dr. Leslie Berntsen, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Occidental College, told NBC News that in order to address racism in academia and beyond, it’s important to introduce a curriculum that reflects students’ life experiences. She uses a photo campaign to expose her students to microaggressions in her introductory psychology class and opts to share her own experiences as a Latina in academia to connect with her students.
“I believe in socially productive rage and I channel that in my teaching,” Berntsen said. “I ask, how do I prevent anyone else from feeling what I’ve felt, using the platform that I have?”
Hipolito-Delgado said he initially got interested in the subject of internalized racism when he found that most of the existing research focused on African American communities.
He finds it’s important to discuss, especially now, as he states in his study: “Since the presidential election of 2016, Latinx communities have faced an onslaught of racist depictions by politicians and media outlets.”
In the past decade, psychologists have been talking about "microaggressions and these more subtle forms of bias that occur," said Hipolito-Delgado. "The look that someone gives you, the service you get at a restaurant, stuff that you can’t always pinpoint as absolutely discriminatory … But it wasn’t until the current political climate that there has been more of a focus on the “more serious instances of discrimination.”
According to Hipolito-Delgado, counselors and educators can help college students manage internalized racism by encouraging them to recognize the value of their culture and heritage while understanding that the existence of bias in the general culture is not their fault.
While more research needs to be done in order to understand the full ramifications of internalized racism, Hipolito-Delgado hopes his study inspires more people to talk honestly and openly about race.
“We’ve got differences,” he said. “Differences aren’t bad, but until we acknowledge them, a lot of the hatred and misunderstanding that currently exists won’t be addressed.”