It isn’t easy to be human. Beyond the lessons of learning and striving for what is necessary to survive and to meet our creaturely comforts, there is something that takes us beyond the animal kingdom, what we call civilization. Through the invention of language coupled with a capacity to contemplate the sublime humans are unique in that we can transcend what is momentary to visit in our minds civilizations from a distant past, possibilities in a distant future, abstract languages such as mathematics, to create sophisticated technologies, appreciate art and music, extract meaning from metaphor, and more. But it comes at a price, the ability to experience in a rudimentary way the world as we did when we were young children, without prejudice, without beliefs and judgments. It is extremely difficult to undo what we learned since early childhood through a process known as acculturation. Acculturation is the internalization of beliefs and values handed down to us through generations; it is part of what makes us human. It is also the source of racism.
So, racism is a set of beliefs rather than a reflection of the “natural” state of our species as it is. The word, “race,” implies that a distinction is made among members of our species that sets us in competition with one another; we are in a race set by the laws of natural selection in which only the fittest survive. However, the competitive connotation of this term, race, also suggests it can be used as a measure of judging who is superior. While it is likely that racism has some measure of origin in our ancestral past that reflects a xenophobic attitude toward strangers and those who are different than we for the purpose of survival, as a belief system this aboriginal tendency to distrust “the other” can be used for any purpose whose agenda is to divide and establish a hierarchy by which groups of people may be judged and ultimately privileged. As Kurt Barling, professor of journalism at the University of Middlesex, England, observes in his book, The R Word: Racism and Modern Society, “racism is about getting deep into people’s imagination and shaping the way they feel about the other.”
CONCEPTS AND FOUNDATIONS OF RACISM
Our conventional definition of racism establishes this concept as a belief that is seated in our conscious mind, in other words, an attitude or belief that is endorsed by any individual or group who hold ideas deemed racist in nature. However, a more modern definition broadens the meaning of the term as being also systemic in nature. This broader definition encompasses a less consciously held but subtly manifest and thus, in effect, insidious belief system embedded within a culture itself.
The confusion between the more overt, conventional and the more covert, systemic definitions of racism is nowhere more clearly exemplified than by the common reaction, “No, All Lives Matter!” in reply to the slogan, “Black Lives Matter.” If we take this phrase literally it is simply an endorsement for Black lives, but it implies that none but Black lives matter, what defines racism in the conventional sense. However, if we understand it as an expression of a deeper implication that the purpose for proclaiming the phrase is to reclaim what is absent in society it makes sense according to the modern definition of the word. Identification of racism as systemic in nature through the phrase, “Black Lives Matter,” reclaims acknowledgement that it still exists.
The idea that a belief system can be subtly embedded in culture is not new. Nominalism, the concept that all classifications and qualities attributed to them are man-made constructions, goes back to the Middle Ages. The school of structuralism in 19th century philosophy held that the structure of language itself constitutes the primary source for how we interpret the world, not the way the world itself is constructed. Certain philosophers who followed went a step further by claiming that political and social forces influence how language shapes beliefs for the purpose of serving the interests of those groups of people associated with them.
Language, then, is an effective means to influence beliefs insofar as it constitutes the source for how we interpret the world and is at the same time assumed to be a reflection of the world as it truly is. Mystification, a term introduced by the French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, refers to any system of beliefs that is purposeful in nature whose effectiveness is predicated on the degree to which it is able to keep its agenda hidden. Creating a “serviceable other,” a concept introduced by Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize winning playwright and author in her essay, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, is an example of how the purpose of establishing superiority is thus achieved. A “serviceable other” is a process by which one’s identity as a group is affirmed by assigning complementary qualities to another group that serve one’s own identity through comparison. This concept explains how, in Sam Keen’s book, The Face of The Enemy, creating a serviceable other promotes a cause to go to war by painting the enemy as evil and how, in Black Panther author, Eldridge Cleaver’s landmark book, Soul On Ice, racism has been perpetuated in the United States for centuries by assigning qualities to African Americans that elicit contempt and distrust.
The challenge to address the problem of racism at the social level is a matter of changing belief systems about identity, deeply-held ideas that are both personal and as they apply to “the other.” Racism is a concept that divides. To dismantle it requires unification, to undermine its corrosive effects entails finding commonality of experience and mutuality of interest, with a tone of openness and respect. These are the principles familiar to a psychotherapist in that they are necessary to establish a trusting relationship, to suspend judgments and prejudices, which is not the same as ignoring them, for the purpose of establishing a working relationship that forms the crucible for change to take place. In order for therapy to be effective, a patient must trust his therapist enough to become open to explore and examine deeply-held beliefs about oneself and others that otherwise prevent change from taking place.
To address racism effectively at the personal level we should follow the principle used by psychotherapists to heal ourselves in order to heal our relations with others. Healing begins within ourselves. When we take pride in our identity, we may choose how we wish to be defined. To put this into practice, identifying the subtle mechanisms embedded in our society that subvert the power to do so, the institutions that contribute to systemic racism, should lead to political action that produces real change. Identity politics recaptures one’s own voice to speak in a language that, by virtue of defining the self, empowers the self.
We must also learn how to actively listen to others with both respect and a spirit of inclusiveness. Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, observed that identity politics devoid of inclusiveness, as in the case of contemporary American society, for example, the broad segment that feels forgotten, disenfranchised, and disillusioned, those most likely to resist efforts to promote change whose deference to “the other” that has been targeted and scapegoated as responsible for their condition, can only inflame longstanding grudges and feelings of resentment. To exclude is to divide; hasn’t history already taught us how ignoring its weight can influence the calamitous tide of fortune against what ultimately lies in the best interest for us all?
The opportunity to talk about racism occurs in my practice when this topic is introduced by my patient or when I feel it has relevance to their work in psychotherapy. For those who have difficulty understanding racism, drawing a parallel between the struggle to identify and change subconscious beliefs about oneself that are destructive and the difficulties changing beliefs about racism that are systemic in nature promotes an appreciation for the challenges those fighting racism confront. Others sympathetic to its cause may benefit from discussion about how they may contribute through political activism and, for those victimized by racism, empathic listening as well as guidance to navigate personal relationships or at the workplace provides the validation and skills necessary to confront racist issues at both a personal and systemic level.
Confronting racism is about investigating and challenging our beliefs about ourselves and “the other,” the historic foundations and rationality of their premises, as well as how they manifest our communities and society in general. These insights support efforts to heal the self through self-examination and establishing the self as agent for the purpose of learning how to put these insights into practice as it pertains to one’s personal life and through social and political action.
Robert Hamm Ph.D