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 unmanageable emotional distress and conflicts. 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.
My relationship with Jordon started with a phone call. He wanted help with overwhelming anxiety and low-self esteem. He was also depressed. 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 trauma in their pasts.
Jordan started our first session with a ten-minute rant about African American people.
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. What were the circumstances that gave birth to this way of being? How did it protect him? What psychological solution to an unbearable conflict was his racism providing? Once the reasons for the “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 while just on the subway traveling to my office. He described them as “entitled” and as “beneath him.” 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 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 racist 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 that people are not born hating.
“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 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, however, criticizing and judging every one 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 was 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 was 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.
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, 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.” Anthropomorphizing 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. His racist part shared how black people were inferior and he had contempt for their inferiority — it’s there fault they have it so bad. Where was his compassion? It reminded me of many of my patients who blamed themselves for the abuse and neglect they experienced. They believe they should have escaped their doom even though most knew intellectually that because they were children it was not possible to leave. The self-directed anger, however, is sometimes unconscious and leads to depression and generalized anger.
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 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 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 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. 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” 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. I refer to it as the hot potato of shame — now it’s yours: African Americans, Muslims, Latinos. Jordan’s feelings were mis-directed.
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 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 had been a victim and the fact that he felt badly 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 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 that Jordan, like most people with racist inclinations, have a path to recovery.
Patient details have been altered to protect privacy and confidentiality.
Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW is a psychotherapist and author in private practice in New York City. Her New York Times article, “It’s Not Always Depression, Sometimes It’s Shame” was the #1 emailed article on March 10, 2015 and lead to the book Hilary is currently writing on her work with emotions (Random House, June 2017). She also enjoyed being the Mental Health Consultant to the television show Mad Men. You can sign up for Hilary’s blog to learn more about emotions, tips for everyday living, and updates on the book at hilaryjacobshendel.com.