With all the news about Donald Trump and his racist, populous rants against Mexicans and Muslims, I keep thinking about how people become racist.
As a psychotherapist, I view racism as a symptom, a clever adaptation the mind makes to deal with emotional distress and emotional conflicts.
As with any symptom, I welcome it into the therapy room and engage my patient with a mutual stance of curiosity.
My goal is for us to understand when that racist part of him came into being. What were the circumstances that gave birth to it, so to speak? What purpose does his racist stance serve? How does it protect him? What solution is his racism providing?
Once the reasons for the symptom are clear, my patient and I work to find more adaptive ways to deal with the underlying emotions.
My relationship with Jordon started with a phone call. He wanted help with overwhelming anxiety and low-self esteem. He was depressed as well. This 30-year-old 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 some trauma in their past.
Jordan started our first session with a ten-minute rant about Black people. On the subway getting to my office, he complained that black people were everywhere. The site of a black person caused him agitation. They pushed, shoved and blocked him from walking at a pace he felt comfortable. He described them as “entitled” and as “beneath him.”
Searching For My Empathy
The gross generalizations that came out of his mouth shocked me so much it was all I could do to stay connected to him. I was disgusted and I felt myself shutting down. As a therapist, however, my job was not to judge but to remain curious. I tried hard to foster a connection with Jordan searching hard to find my empathy.
“Jordan,” I asked in our first session, “I know this sounds strange but I wonder if I could get you curious about this part of you. It sounds like it uses up a lot of your energy.”
Referring to a symptom as a part suggests it is not fixed but subject to change or healing. At first Jordan said it was not a part, it was all of him.
I explained, “You were not born feeling this way about black people, you learned to judge and hate.”
He thought for a moment and nodded in agreement. I validated that this part of him must have good reason for being.
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, however, criticizing and judging every one they knew. His father often bragged about his superior intelligence and how everyone else was an idiot. The closest times Jordan had with his parents was bonding over their judgments of others.
I imagined the relief Jordan felt when the focus was on someone else’s inadequacies and flaws.
I assumed from the beginning that Jordan’s depression and low-self esteem was from early emotional neglect. His hate was redemptive for those weak and fragile parts—it gave him power. The hatred would be the antidote to his deep-seated feelings of inadequacy and weakness.
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. Also, a black kid in middle school bullied him. Perhaps these formative experiences combined with his stewing hatred for himself and his parents created a mind ripe for developing racism.
To find out more, 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 asked. “I am sure it has something important to share.” I hoped to create safety to explore something new. Anthropomorphizing parts of us that hold symptoms helps us learn about them and communicate with them as if they were separate people.
Jordan relished the invitation to speak from that part of himself. His racist part shared how black people were inferior and he had contempt for their inferiority—it’s their fault they have it so bad. It reminded me of many of my patients who judge themselves for the abuse and neglect they experienced even though they were children and victims of the adults around them.
They believe they should have escaped their doom even though when I ask how they might have escaped, they intellectually know it was not possible. Their emotional brain has a different narrative.
When I asked Jordan specifically what he meant by inferior, the argument broke down and he really could not answer. This made sense to me since it was a smoke screen for deeper issues.
Protection from Shame?
Here’s another possible story: Abuse and neglect cause shame. Shame is an intolerable experience. Shame is annihilating to the core Self, the soul. Shame makes people feel weak and vulnerable. Jordan’s racist part protected him from his shame, his fear, his anger and his sadness. The superiority helped him counter the shame by making him feel big and powerful.
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. My questions were intended to ignite the neural networks that could lead us down the road to 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 was struggling to manage and how did becoming racist help.
I asked, “What emotions do you feel as you rant about back people?” “Superiority,” he said.
This reply gave me an opportunity to explain that superiority wasn’t an emotion. It was more like a state. Then I listed the core emotions for him so we could see what he might be feeling when he rants about black people: sadness, fear, anger, joy, disgust, and excitement? He could identify anger and disgust.
“Where in your body do you sense the racist Part?”
“In my chest,” he reported.
I asked if he floated back in time, how old was he 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 remembered 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.
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 feels like a worthless “piece of crap” on to an entire group of people is the only way Jordan had to expel the toxicity of the feelings caused by his childhood traumas.
Take rage, shame and contempt, add in some anxiety and despair—it all mixes together to form a toxic soup that has to be expelled, as it is intolerable. Instead of hating himself, it feels better hating another group. I refer to it as the hot potato of shame—now it’s yours: African Americans, Muslims, Latinos. Jordan’s feelings are mis-directed.
Jordan’s racist Part of his personality offered Jordan protection from his weak, powerless and vulnerable Parts.
When he was ranting about black people he felt powerful and superior. But, as I explained to Jordan, 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 offer 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 was a victim and the fact that he felt badly was not his fault. His parents hurt him. Black people were just the scapegoats to avoid the real people who he hated and who gave him their shame.
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 over-powered 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 felt hopeful he had a path to recovery.
Patient details have been altered to protect privacy and confidentiality.
Fosha, D. (2000). The Transforming Power of Affect. New York: Basic Books.
Fosha, D., Siegel, D., Solomon, M. (2009). The Healing Power of Emotion: Affective Neuroscience, Development & Clinical Practice. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
Kaufman, G. (1996). The Psychology of Shame. New York: Springer Publishing Company.
Nathanson, D. (1992) Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
Schwarz, R. (2004). Internal Family Systems Therapy. New York: Guilford Press.
*Details have been altered to protect privacy.
Racism image available from Shutterstock