The Making and Healing of a Racist Part 2: A Psychological Perspective
Jordan came to me for anxiety and depression. He also had another symptom. He was a racist. (Continued from Part 1)
I hoped to help Jordan understand how the entirety of his healthy anger towards his parents had been displaced onto an entire race. I asked Jordan what were some of his earliest memories of black people. He reported a few negative encounters with people who happened to be black. A lunch lady in elementary school yelled at him once.
To find out more and start the healing process, I suggested he imagine the racist part of him on the chair between us. “Can we welcome this part of you into the room and get to know it? I am sure it has something important to share or else it wouldn’t be here with such a vengeance.” Separating from and working with parts of us that hold symptoms helps us learn about them and communicate with them as if they were separate people. I hoped to create safety to explore something new.
Jordan relished the invitation. He was able to create some distance between his self and his racist part. His racist part shared how black people were inferior and his contempt for their inferiority — it’s their fault they have it so bad, he said.
Where was his compassion? It reminded me of many of my patients who blamed themselves for the abuse and neglect they experienced instead of their parent. They believed they should have escaped their abusers, even though intellectually, they knew that because they were children, it was not possible to leave. The self-directed, largely unconscious anger, however, leads to depression, irritability, and misanthropy.
Racism is more about our personal stories than hatred of others. Racism is the cover story.
The real story is this: “I’d rather hate a group of people than my father, my mother, and myself.”
I asked him a few more questions that were intended to ignite the neural (brain cell) networks that could lead us down the road to his primal memory — the historical moments when Jordan’s racist parts first came into being. I wanted to understand what were the deep emotional conflicts he had struggled to manage and how becoming racist helped.
I asked, “What emotions do you feel as you rant about black people?”
“Superiority,” he said.
This gave me an opportunity to explain that superiority wasn’t an emotion. It was more like a state. Then I listed the 7 core emotions for him so we could see which ones he was actually feeling when he ranted about black people. I asked him to check inside his body to see if there was sadness? Fear? Anger? Joy? Disgust? And/or excitement? He could identify anger and disgust.
“Where in your body do you sense the racist part?”
“In my chest,” he reported.
I asked him how old he was when he first had this feeling in his chest with anger and disgust? He said it started when the lunch lady yelled at him. I asked why she yelled at him. He couldn’t remember that but he vividly remembered feeling humiliated by her and hating her. He remembered thinking she was inferior so it did not matter what she thought about him. He was better than her so why care about her opinions. That was a way he defended himself against the unbearable feelings of shame this African American triggered. But the root of the toxic shame originated in his home and stemmed from the emotional neglect and abuse he endured.
When I asked him how he felt when the black lunch lady yelled at him he said, “Like a worthless piece of crap.” A few sessions later when I asked him how he felt when his father criticized him, he said verbatim, “Like a worthless piece of crap.”
Projecting the part of him that felt like “a worthless piece of crap” onto an entire group of people was the only way Jordan had to expel the toxicity of the feelings caused by his childhood traumas. Take rage, shame, and contempt, and then add in some anxiety and despair, it all mixes together to form a toxic soup that has to be expelled, as it is intolerable. I refer to it as the hot potato of shame — now it’s yours: African Americans, Muslims, Latinos, and Jews. Jordan’s feelings were misdirected.
Jordan’s racism offered him protection from feeling weak, powerless and vulnerable. When he was ranting about black people he felt powerful and superior. But, as I explained to him, there was a cost for the protection that racism offered. The energy that goes into hate could otherwise be used for vitality and positive connection. “The racist parts of you offers protection from hard feelings but they are also maintaining your depression and low-self worth. The cure is to help you deal with the underlying insecurities and emotions directly.” I shared my feeling that he had been a victim and the fact that he felt bad was not his fault. His parents had hurt him. Black people were just the scapegoats.
Creating curiosity is the first step to change.
Jordan was willing to get curious because he was desperate for relief from the misery he felt. This desire to feel better overpowered his racist defense.
We worked together for several months until he moved away. Even though our work ended prematurely, I was satisfied that we had loosened the hold the racist part had on him. The little bit of space we created opened up the possibility that his hatred was a reaction and not a reality. I feel hopeful that Jordan, like most people with racist inclinations, has a path to recovery.
(Patient details have been altered to protect privacy and confidentiality.)
If you’re interested in learning more about emotions, you might like my blog. I invite you to check it out to learn more about how emotions work, tips for everyday living, and updates on an upcoming book.