The Making and Healing of a Racist Part 1: A Psychological Perspective
The news is heartbreaking. Wanted to repost this for another hopeful angle, as we understand more and more the insidious effects of childhood trauma. Healing is possible!
With the heartbreaking reality of people hating people based on having a darker skin color, I keep thinking about how people become a racist.
I know from my education and years of experience treating childhood trauma there are not only cultural and sociological factors but psychological ones too.
My relationship with Jordan started with a phone call. He wanted help with overwhelming anxiety and low-self-esteem. He was also depressed. This 30-year-old Caucasian accountant described his childhood as a “normal middle-class upbringing.” But the way he described his parents, irrational and violent at times, made me think they had trauma in their pasts.
Jordan started our first session with a ten-minute rant about African American people.
As a psychotherapist, I view racism as a symptom; an adaptation the mind is forced to make to deal with trauma and the unmanageable emotional distress and conflicts that cause trauma to happen to the brain and body. As with any symptom, I welcome it into the therapy room and engage my patient with a stance of curiosity and compassion — no matter what.
Believing his prejudice was connected to the symptoms of anxiety and depression for which he sought help, one of my goals was for us to understand the racist part of him, which used up energy better used on vital living.
What were the circumstances that gave birth to his racism? How did racism protect him? What psychological solution to an unbearable conflict was his racism providing? Once the reasons for his symptom were clear, we could work to find more adaptive ways to deal with the underlying emotions and conflicts.
Jordan reported the mere sight of African Americans was angering. He complained about how they pushed, shoved and blocked him from walking at a pace he felt comfortable as he traveled the subway to get to my office. He described them as “entitled” and as “beneath him.” The gross racist generalizations that came out of his mouth shocked me so much that I was challenged. I was disgusted and I felt myself shutting down. As a therapist, however, my job was not to judge but to remain curious. It took all my might to stay connected to Jordan and find empathy.
“Jordan,” I asked in our first session, “I know this sounds strange but I wonder if I could get you curious about this racist part of you. It sounds like it uses up a lot of your energy.”
Referring to a symptom as a part of someone suggests it is not his true nature but something learned and therefore subject to change and healing. At first, Jordan said it was not a part, it was ALL of him. I explained that people are not born hating. We learn to hate.
“You were not born feeling this way about black people, you learned to judge and hate. It is a defense that keeps you from feeling your core emotions.” And, from feeling shame, I thought to myself, the emotion that always accompanies childhood adversity. But it was too soon to talk about shame with Jordan.
He was all anger and bluster on the surface, but I felt his fragility underneath.
He thought for a moment and nodded in agreement. I validated that this part of him must have good reasons for being so angry. When Jordan was a child, his parents frightened him. When they fought, they were violent. They threw plates at each other. Then when the fights ended, it was like nothing ever happened. Neither of his parents checked to see if he was all right. They seemed not to realize the effect the screaming and aggression would have on their young boy.
His father and mother frequently criticized Jordan. They were equal opportunity humiliators; criticizing and judging everyone they knew. His father often bragged about his own superior intelligence and how everyone else was an idiot. The closest times Jordan had with his parents were bonding over their judgments of others. I imagined the relief Jordan must have felt when his parents focused on someone else’s inadequacies and flaws as opposed to his own. I assumed from the beginning that Jordan’s depression and low self-esteem was from early emotional neglect.
His hate and racist thinking were redemptive for those weak and fragile parts — it gave him power. The hatred would come to be the antidote to his deep-seated feelings of inadequacy and weakness.
(Patient details have been altered to protect privacy and confidentiality.)
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series next week to learn more about how symptoms of trauma are healed.