Natasha Stovall | Longreads | August 2019 | 28 minutes (7,061 words)
“Father, Mother, and Me/
Sister and Auntie Say/
All the people like us are We/
And everyone else is They.”
— Rudyard Kipling
“England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses/
It’s the home of police who kill black boys on mopeds.”
The couch in my therapy office is occupied mostly by white people. Anxious white people and depressed white people. Obsessive white people and compulsive white people. White people who hurt people and white people who hurt themselves. White people who eat too much, drink too much, work too much, shop too much. White people who are bored, envious, guilty, numb. Racist white people and antiracist white people. White people who look across the room and see a white therapist listening. We talk about everything. Except being white.
An old saw about therapy is that the thing you don’t talk about is the thing. The therapist and patient together avoid this thing, this shameful and threatening thing. The thing is unconscious — sometimes partially, other times totally. You only know it by the silence and illogic that surrounds it, and the extremes to which the patient will go to erase any sign of it in their own mind, and in their therapist’s, too. The first step towards unpacking the thing is finding a way to talk about it. Just talk about it, moving step by careful step into a psychic place so raw that even acknowledging this unconscious thing is a threat to safety and sanity. Freud called this process “making the unconscious conscious” and it has defined psychotherapy ever since.
What if whiteness is the thing?
Depending on who you are, that question falls somewhere between obvious and sacrilege. That’s one sign that whiteness might be the thing. A spin of today’s media dial offers its own data, a smorgasbord of white people flailing within the confines of whiteness: Covington Catholic and Rachel Dolezal, Permit Patty and Baked Alaska. Everywhere we look, whiteness is folding deeply in upon itself: white power mass killers, paranoid Starbucks managers, intellectualized white “nationalists,” next door Nazis, itchy trigger police, well-meaning white-guilt sufferers, aspirational “identitarians,” privileged privilege-checkers, clean cut MAGA thugs, neo-pagan Islamophobes, self-segregating liberal elites, exponentially-multiplying white opioid addicts, anti-racist street fighters, offended NFL fans. Shitlords and allies and Proud Boys, oh my.
The couch in my therapy office is occupied mostly by white people. We talk about everything. Except being white.
Behind the curtain, we practice the old ways. Killers in uniform and brown-skinned people in cages. Stolen babies and powdered grandees. Daytime puritans and nighttime raiders. The fun-loving exploitation and the navel-gazing narcissism, the helicopter parenting and the high-wire religiosity. The blackface, the projection, the violence, the arrogance. The othering, the scapegoating, the appropriation, the gentrification. The conspicuous consumption and the environmental degradation; the implicit bias and the passive aggression. The binging, the purging, the hoarding, the decluttering. And deeper still: the emotional deprivation, the imposter syndrome, the hair-trigger rage, the self loathing. The narcissism, the status anxiety, the paranoia, the body alienation. The familial estrangement and the boundary violations; the persecutory delusions and the identification with the aggressor. The fear of invasion and the thrill of domination. The craving for pain relief and the hunger for blood and soil.
As Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke famously suggested, what is within surrounds us. For most white Americans, that is an increasingly thorny concept, a flickering awareness of a mountain of historical and personal debt that has suddenly become due, yet again. In the face of blatant white racial aggression —Dylann Roof or El Paso or Donald Trump — there is a reflexive instinct among white people to proclaim #ThisIsNotUs. But a deeper self asks, How much of this is us? If it is us, who are we?
What is whiteness, and which one? Farm-to-table white or Cracker Barrel white? Rust Belt white or Sunbelt White? Electric car white or pickup truck white? Digital white or analog white? One percent honky or precariat ofay? Italian? Irish? English? Ukrainian? Polish? The very idea of white identity — or race itself — is anything but settled. Whiteness appears in no therapy manuals, is absent from catalogs of psychological ailments, is rarely mentioned as a factor in diagnosis or treatment, yet we know it when we see it. Patient is irritable, defensive, obsessive and grandiose. Ego orientation fluctuates between superiority and vulnerability, with an underlying paranoia (trauma related?) focused on external threats and characterized by fantasies of domination, invasion and annihilation. Under the microscope, racism and white peoples’ ancient dance with it looks an awful lot like what in other contexts — an inpatient ward, a group therapy session — would be classified as psychopathology. Whiteness is self-perpetuating yet self-defeating yet self-reinforcing, inseparable from power yet quick to decompensate. “Whiteness is inherently fragile, unstable and prone to disintegration,” psychologists Arianne Miller and Lawrence Josephs wrote almost 15 years ago in their article “Whiteness As Pathological Narcissism.” There is a “vulnerability to states of narcissistic decompensation characterized by white shame and rage.” We are a danger to ourselves and others, from the defensive neurosis of white fragility to the paranoid brutality of mass incarceration and Jim Crow, down the psychotic-sadistic rabbit hole of chattel slavery, through the looking glass to the stone cold delusion of racial superiority itself. “I am not a nigger. I am a man,” James Baldwin said. “If I’m not the nigger here, and if you invented him — you, the white people, invented him — then you have to find out why.” He added, “The future of the country depends on it.”
How does a reckoning happen without willingness? What about people who don’t want to become less racist, or have no pressing need to? What about people who secretly, or not-so-secretly, enjoy their racism? What about people who are genuinely disturbed? In the 1960s, a group of black psychiatrists petitioned the American Psychiatric Association to add “extreme bigotry” to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, citing the frenzied, often homicidal violence against civil rights activists. The APA rejected the petition, making the claim that “extreme” prejudice was so normative among American whites that it was more of a cultural phenomenon than an individual pathology. (An interesting piece of intellectual jiujitsu — who makes up a culture if not individuals?) Harvard professor and psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint has suggested that more intense strains of racist belief should be classified as a psychosis, specifically a subtype of Delusional Disorder. He described his patients who “projected their own unacceptable behavior and fears onto ethnic minorities, scapegoating them for society’s problems.” Poussaint interpreted this scapegoating as a symptom of deeper psychological dysfunction that presents a danger to the patient and those around them. He found psychotherapy to be an effective treatment: “When these patients became more aware of their own problems, they grew less paranoid — and less prejudiced.” Poussaint has called for guidelines to help mental health providers recognize “delusional racism.” Otherwise, Poussant warned, “delusional racists will continue to fall through the cracks of the mental health system, and we can expect more of them to explode.”
It is both necessary and unhelpful to separate racist violence from whiteness itself. “Mental illness and hatred pull the trigger, not the gun,” goes the latest iteration of “very fine people.” (Putting aside for a moment that the business of guns needs hatred to flourish, and racial hatred racks up nice, big numbers.) In order to treat and heal individuals, racist or not, who are vulnerable to extreme mental states and have the capacity for violence (an extremely small population, overall), it can be useful to harness the tools of psychiatry including diagnoses like psychosis or mania. On the societal level, the use of “mental illness” to explain racist mass murder — innumerable incidents over hundreds of years — is absurd. If it’s mental illness, it’s a societal one, a specifically white one, in which white males are singularly vulnerable to violent expressions of racial prejudice. These mass killers with their manifestos are the identified patient in the dysfunctional white American family, manifesting all the symptoms, hidden and obvious, of our race problems. Well known to all family therapists, the identified patient takes the family’s conflicts and manifests them in personal distress — anxiety, depression, mania, psychosis. When the patient begins to get better, the family unconsciously pressures them to stay sick, because without the identified patient the family’s illness is laid bare. Why would we want to take away our white boys’ guns? Why would we want to give them mental health care? Why would we want to understand their pull to extreme bigotry instead of just demonizing them? Then we would have to admit that there is a problem, and the problem is us.
The idea that whiteness is a problematic state of being, one that requires immediate intervention for the health of the nation, has been seeping into white consciousness since the 1960s, and even earlier. Therapists rarely think to question the role of racial identity in their white patient’s lives, but Benjamin Franklin noted white people problems back during the wars between indigenous tribes and settler Europeans. He puzzled that freed prisoners of war, Native and European, generally chose indigenous life over settler “civilization.” He diagnosed a problem in European culture, in whiteness: “With us are infinite Artificial wants,” he wrote. “No less craving than those of Nature, and much more difficult to satisfy.” Unpuzzling the paradoxes of the white psyche has been a pursuit of non-white people for centuries. Poet Phyllis Wheatley, kidnapped from West Africa and enslaved as a young girl, wrote in 1774 about the bizarre thought process she observed in her slave-owning fellow revolutionaries: “I desire not for their Hurt, but to convince them of the strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and Actions are so diametrically opposite. How well the Cry for Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the exercise of oppressive Power over others agree.” Olaudah Equiano, who lived out his enslavement as a sailor, wrote in his autobiography about the circular illogic he saw at work in the minds of whites: “When you make men slaves, you deprive them of half their virtue, you set them in your own conduct an example of fraud, rapine, and cruelty, and compel them to live with you in a state of war; and yet you complain that they are not honest or faithful!” One hundred years later Sioux chief Sitting Bull spoke to a similar psychic discrepancy: “What white man can say ‘I never stole his land or a penny of his money’? Yet they say that I am a thief. What white woman, however lonely, was ever captive or insulted by me? Yet they say I am a bad Indian.” From colonization to revolution, slavery to emancipation, O.J. to Obama, white America has engaged in an epic struggle to hide, avoid, and rationalize the glaring gulf between our egalitarian self-image and our repressive group behavior. And we aren’t fooling anyone. The confusion in white people’s hearts is the most poorly kept secret in the world.
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Yet the field of psychology, so intimately involved in all matters of the white heart, is nowhere to be found. Despite the outsize drama that whiteness brings to the public scene, it is still not much more than a cognitive wisp in most white Americans’ daily brainscape, including those of most, but not all, white therapists. The silence about whiteness in most therapies is deafening. Almost three hundred years after Franklin’s letter, “we still have no clue what being born white means,” as white NBA coach Gregg Popovich put it. We are white children of white parents, white descendants of white ancestors, yet we have few ideas and even less language with which to make sense of our whiteness. Hovering off-camera, whiteness works in silence, quietly defining our white families, our white marriages, our white jobs, our white government, our white schools, our white police. It courses like electricity through the walls of white American life — silent, comforting, frightful, binding, beneficent, shocking, avoided. “There remain critical forces at work perpetuating racism that operate below and outside the White radar screen,” writes white psychoanalyst Neil Altman. “These forces are built into the political and economic structures of our society, into the value structures by which we were raised, into the selves we construct in an effort to feel good about ourselves.”
Under the microscope, racism and white peoples’ ancient dance with it looks an awful lot like what in other contexts — an inpatient ward, a group therapy session — would be classified as psychopathology.
Coach Popovich’s words shocked people — not just in their bluntness, but that he said them at all. For most white people, whiteness is a minefield — a topic to gloss over, a mask to hide behind, a shame to cringe over, maybe a tool to use, a weapon to hurt with, or be hurt by. Certainly nothing to muse about publicly. “There’s often just this understanding that you’re not supposed to talk about it,” notes black educator and psychologist Beverly Tatum. “You’ve had a lot of lifetime experiences that have told you, ‘don’t talk about this’.” The conflicted silence around whiteness begins at home. We learn early that there is no safe place, no safe relationship in which to speak of whiteness. “Most white Americans believe they were born white, yet their own stories of early racial experiences describe persons who were bred white,” writes Reverend Thandeka, a black Unitarian-Universalist minister who intimately interviewed white Americans for her book Learning to Be White. “Becoming white is the product of a child’s siege mentality. It’s a defense mechanism to stop racial rebukes from one’s own kith and kin.” Reverend Thandeka’s subjects told her “the message they learned was repress, deny and split off from consciousness feelings that, if expressed, would provoke racial attacks from the adults in their own community.” This public silence is replicated in all the private rooms of whiteness, including therapy, the place you are supposed to be able to say anything, be anything.
The boil of bizarre behaviors, conflicting cognitions and overwhelming emotions that popped with our first “White” president have long been studied in psychology, but never as specifically white. At heart, mainstream psychology is the story of whiteness, written by mostly white authors trying to understand mostly white characters. If you want to understand the psychology of whiteness, look no further. It’s all there: cognitive dissonance, projective identification, malignant narcissism. Yet despite all the insights psychology could offer about white America’s inner workings and dysfunctions, the field is terribly and suspiciously late to the whiteness party. Scholars in other disciplines have analyzed whiteness for decades. Historians, sociologists, educators, social workers, and philosophers have long made peace with the idea that white Americans, like every other social group, have a unique set of group dynamics. In our case, those dynamics are profoundly and heterogeneously influenced by our history of migration from the peasantry of Europe to the top the bloody American racial caste system, which makes our ingrained habit of immigrant scapegoating a classic case of Freud’s “return of the repressed.” As historians have meticulously established, white (male) identity was the carefully cultivated mode of transmission for the old world’s interlocking hierarchies of religious and political haves and have-nots, and that identity has evolved its own set of often problematic psychological schemas.
Toni Morrison and James Baldwin both diagnosed whiteness as a coping mechanism, one that took the edge off the existential terror of American “freedom.” The fantasy of a pure and good whiteness must have felt as cozy as an old slipper to our European ancestors, warming them in the harsh New World. The familiar stories of saints and scoundrels, good and evil, carried in our ragbags from post-feudal Europe, smoothed the way as we untethered ourselves from millennia of subjugation to lords and clerics, and began the journey to the fearsome autonomy of a much wider world. Down through the centuries, European-descended fatcats offered “whiteness” as ruthless protection against the fear and pressure riding alongside the American dream of unlimited possibility — and charged unfathomable interest. Whiteness provides “an organization of experience around power,” “an omnipotent fantasy, a fantasy of fullness,” Altman observes, guarding against our most primal insecurities about ourselves, and the dangerous unpredictability of life in a world built on economic exploitation. Down to the present day, whiteness gives us a way out of “feelings of lack or ordinariness” and a fantasy that “human vulnerability and powerlessness can be overcome by achieving economic and political power and privilege.” Those who cannot grab the brass rings of whiteness, economically or emotionally, are destined for the scrap heap: the depression of debt and failure, the disorientation of a failed identity, and the confusion and rage of “the left behind white.” White writer Donna Minkowitz, who has covered white supremacist movements for decades, points out that it increasingly seems like 21st century capitalism needs white supremacy, perhaps pulling for the most extreme racism in order to keep itself intact. And here we are again, back to the thing, white identity in hyper capitalism, buckling under the weight of its own contradictions. “There’s room at the top, they’re telling you still,” John Lennon sang. “But first you must learn how to smile while you kill.” From the hip white urban capitalist to the exurban white reactionary, whiteness explains everything to us about who we are and who is to blame for our problems: non-white people or poor white “trash.” Lennon’s conclusion, from his working class millionaire’s perch: “You’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see.”
Ironically — or not — the field dedicated to uncovering, understanding and repairing our dysfunctional patterns can’t perceive the white elephant in the room. Having put numerous other social and racial groups under the microscope, psychotherapy continues to resist turning an eye inward to the group behavior of white people as white people. White psychologists, psychiatrists, researchers and other mental health workers have been content to treat white group behavior as if it were synonymous with plain old human behavior (ignoring all the ways that white Americans are a particular social group in a world of different social groups) or hyperfocus on white racist behavior (skirting the less dramatic ways that racism and prejudice operate in everyday white life). When challenged, those white mental health experts can get testy. Esteemed black psychologist and researcher Janet Helms faced a firestorm in the ’90s when she suggested that white psychologists “include themselves (that is, their own racial group) in the study of cross-cultural perceptions.” Informed by white colleagues that white people think so little about their racial identity it couldn’t possibly influence their behavior, Helms shot back with an article entitled, “I Also Said, ‘White Racial Identity Influences White Researchers.’” “I did not then nor do I now understand White people well enough to truly consider myself an expert on in their psychology,” she wrote. “But I also do not think many White psychology researchers or scholars can claim such expertise either.”
Whiteness is nothing if not unconscious. Whatever our intentions, whiteness does what most unconscious conflicts do: wreak havoc. It works through our bodies into actions, or non-actions, that seep into the world, and explode. We recoil in defense against our reflection in the eyes of “others” — when we hear words like microaggressions, white supremacy, basic — yet we are hard pressed to comprehend, explain, or address the racial dimension of our lives. When confronted, we feel shame, hopelessness, rage, aggression. Or we feel guilty, and we resent the guilt. Then we settle back into a cloud of vaguely shameful dissociation and begin to forget again. There is a cycle, familiar to any experienced therapist: Like clockwork the racial nature of American reality gets pushed closer to the surface and the pressure mounts on (and within) white people to acknowledge our thing: slave auctions, lynchings, fire hoses, Hurricane Katrina, Philando Castile, Unite the Right, Zero Tolerance, “Send Her Back.” It gets hard to hold on to white denial for awhile. We want to change, we swear we’ll get better. But hold on hard we do. Like addicts, we can’t live with our whiteness and we can’t live without it. And we have so few words to talk about it, we can’t even say why. In our wheel-spinning ambivalence we have achieved what prominent sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “racism without racists.” Bonilla-Silva’s skepticism about a post-racial America was pointed: he delivered a talk just days after Barack Obama’s election called “The 2008 Elections and the Future of Anti-Racism in 21st Century Amerika, or How We Got Drunk with Obama’s Hope Liquor and Failed to See Reality”.
As one racialized trauma after another reverberates across the country, and raw racism becomes more and more overt, there is an ever growing call for white people to “do the work” and uproot the psychological structures that maintain the discriminatory status quo. White people are urged to unpack Peggy McIntosh’s invisible knapsack of white privilege and account for why, as White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo puts it, “we consciously or unconsciously believe that we are more important, more valuable, more intelligent, and more deserving than people of color.” And as the momentum toward white racial awareness builds, the other side of the cycle starts to spin. We clutch our denial ever closer, holding on to the safety of old defenses: “You will not replace us!” “It’s okay to be white!” “Send her back!” Mass shooters and tiki-torch-style white “nationalism” is the dramatic pale face of this regression, yet the cry is present at lower levels within all white Americans. Celibate 8-chan racistlings, defensive Bernie Bro dirtbags, histrionically persecuted intellectuals pursuing racial IQ differences to the ends of the (flat) earth — all triggered into core meltdown by white self examination and humility — are just the extreme manifestations of the profound dislocation most white Americans feel when we contemplate our whiteness.
Despite all the white silence and white fragility and white avoidance, psychology hasn’t shied away from studying whiteness altogether. There have been efforts to understand stretching back almost a century: a 1937 field study of psychological dynamics under Jim Crow (John Dollard’s Caste and Class in a Southern Town); a 1951 attempt to quantify the prejudiced personality (Harrison Gough’s Prejudice Scale); provocative psychoanalytic theories about the nature of the white psyche (Joel Kovel’s 1971 White Racism: A Psychohistory, Kimberlyn Leary’s “Racial Enactments in Dynamic Treatment,” Gillian Stryker’s 2004 “Race for Cover: Castrated Whiteness, Perverse Consequences, ”Melanie Suchet’s 2006 “Unravelling Whiteness”, and Dorothy Holmes searing 2016 “Culturally Imposed Trauma: The Sleeping Dog Has Awakened: Will Psychoanalysis Take Heed?”). Therapists like Ann Todd Jealous, Caroline Haskell, and Resmaa Menakem have explored how to treat the personal and intergenerational racial trauma carried by their white clients, while academics like Ellyn Kaschak, Andrea Dottolo, Abigail Stewart and Diane Adams have drilled down into how whiteness works in white therapists. Analysis of white prejudice took off in the wake of the Holocaust, when the past nineteen centuries of cyclical European violence against Jews and other “others” suddenly began to look like a core flaw in the white Christian operating system. Giants of the field like Theodore Adorno (The Authoritarian Personality) and Gordon Allport (The Nature of Prejudice) have parsed whiteness in depth. Even Sigmund Freud took a stab at whiteness, analyzing a middle aged aristocratic Southerner with vivid dreams of being pulled in a carriage by two horses: one black, one white. Freud interpreted the horses as symbols of the man’s conflicted attraction to African American women, which he linked to the man’s upbringing in the antebellum South. In this man’s social group upper class white women turned their babies over to enslaved black women to raise. The white children inevitably loved their caretakers until they were, in Reverend Thandeka’s words, “bred white”: taught to reject, sexualize, and dominate the women who reared them. As Lawrence Josephs and Arianne Miller have pointed out, Freud saw right through the symbolism of the dream to the twisted psychic structure underneath: the exploitation and debasement of interracial love, paired with the fetishization of interracial lust, all in service of propping up the physical and economic exploitation of black people for the benefit of a sadistically-inclined white elite. As far as Freud was concerned, the man’s psychological conflicts were the natural outcome of his cultural heritage. His whiteness.
If there is a diagnosis, shouldn’t there be treatment? If this is us, what are we going to do about it? Starting with Freud’s psychoanalysis, there are a century’s worth of psychological theories and tools at our disposable, all implicitly designed to guide white people through the complexities of white experience. Psychotherapy is always about behavior change, and behavior change can happen long before psychological healing is complete. Just like you don’t need to wait until the cravings stop to quit drinking, a white person can drastically decrease their racist behaviors and increase their willingness to undermine white supremacy long before their racist thoughts and feelings subside. If you want — and that’s a big “if” — to change the ways your actions are influenced by racial bias, conscious or not, then increasing your awareness of your bias and decreasing its influence over your behavior is a skill you can fairly easily learn and practice. The low-key discomfort with, and hostility toward, people from other races is extremely pervasive in white culture, and thus very challenging to consciously access. Racist behavior, on the other hand, is relatively easy to identify and undo. In therapy, this is called “surface to depth,” meaning you begin with the most easily accessible problems and move toward the core defenses and dysfunctions. A white person can commit to hiring people of color, or not calling the police on people of color who make them uncomfortable, long before they achieve total liberation from the negative thoughts and feelings they have towards people of color. Meditation and mindfulness practices are the keys to the realm of greater awareness, and methods like legal scholar Rhonda Magee’s techniques for using meditation to help law students dismantle their racial bias have shown promising results. LIke Robin DiAngelo’s recommendations for confronting white fragility, meditation-based practices work on the interaction of thoughts, feelings and behavior. These interventions have much in common with Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and have a high likelihood of effectiveness given that they are relatively simple to implement and designed specifically to address racial psychological processes.
Having put numerous other social and racial groups under the microscope, psychotherapy continues to resist turning an eye inward to the group behavior of white people as white people.
Anti-racism interventions geared toward motivated white participants often hit a predictable snag. When white people process “racial issues” in mixed company — racial justice activism or diversity training, for example — we are often seen venting our obsessive racial defenses, sucking all the air out of the room. This defensive lack of awareness, which Robin DiAngelo skewers as a privileged vulnerability to “race-based stress,” often lands on people of color as yet another incidence of ignorance at best, and at worst, further emotional trauma. What is a treatment plan for whiteness that doesn’t simultaneously inflict more pain? The twelve-step model — Whiteness Anonymous, if you will — offers the benefit of anonymity and privacy, thus protecting people of color from the inevitable messiness of white racial self-exploration, as well as encouraging white people who are too inhibited to participate in a public discussion. It offers a framework that balances reducing harm (abstinence from racially biased behavior, a fearless moral inventory, making amends when necessary) with growth (self-awareness, self-compassion and a commitment to taking reparative action and helping others access the benefits of recovery). Dr. Gail Golden, a white clinical social worker, has rewritten the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, with white supremacy as the addictive substance: admitting powerlessness over our socialization into a racist society is the first step. Individual psychotherapy, if you can access it with a therapist willing to address whiteness, also offers confidentiality and privacy. Its implements are specifically tooled to unearth and pry free the parts of ourselves that we unconsciously, jealously guard and resist changing.
Janet Helms remains the most significant figure in the theorizing of the thoughts behaviors that make up white identity. Helms began her career as a counselor and came to see white American racial identity — like all American racial identities — as healthiest when it faces head-on the complexity, pain and shame of racial reality, past and present. Her White Racial Identity Model is still, after three decades, the most thorough explication of how white people evolve, or don’t, in their relationship to people of color and the racial hierarchy at large. One of Helms’ core tenets is that racial identity permeates every aspect of our lives, including every relationship, even the one between therapist and client. She didn’t see that as a bad thing. (Helms titled her self-help book for white people A Race is a Nice Thing To Have.) As an African-American working in an almost exclusively white field, Helms’ theory was informed both by research and personal experience. She put her model to use as a tool for helping white clinicians better understand their own racial identities, in order to be more aware of their racial biases with non-white clients. It has since been taken up and expanded by a generation of psychological researchers and clinicians, especially in the field of diversity training.
Despite developing ‘cultural competence’ through a required multiculturalism class in graduate school, and contemplating my own racial and ethinic identity from time to time, I never thought of my whiteness as a source of psychological vulnerability.
Helms saw race as an inherently conflicted part of how Americans understand themselves. Like any psychological conflict, white identity could be resolved. Or not. Helms called whiteness “a culture shock experience, with race being the source of shock.” Her theory of white identity, built on interviews with average white people, acknowledged the possibility, even likelihood, that most white people would never come to terms with the shock of their whiteness. The shock is blinding, and that is where most white people start, at color-blindness, which Helms calls Contact. The next phase is Disintegration, when a person first acknowledges being white and becomes ambivalent about the unearned racial privileges they enjoy. This is the “white guilt” phase, which is followed, paradoxically, by Reintegration, in which a person tries to lower the cognitive dissonance of whiteness by doubling down on the idea of superiority. This is the overt racism phase, the alt-right phase. An easy place, Helms observed, to get stuck. She hypothesized it would take something emotional — a painful or shocking experience, perhaps — to jackknife someone into the next phase, Psuedo-Independence, when they begin to yet again question the structures of racial discrimination, albeit in a superficial and intellectualized way: the Bernie Bro phase. The next step is Immersion/Emerson, in which the person continues questioning the role of race of their life and society, and becomes increasingly active and personal in their growth, which captures the spirit of many left-leaning white activists. The ultimate goal is Autonomy, in which the white person finally allows themselves to surrender to the emotional weight of America’s racial history. The paralysis of guilt and resistance is overcome by an acceptance of one’s, and one’s people’s, place in the racial landscape. What emerges, phoenix-like, Helms predicted, is an emotionally-charged commitment against racial prejudice, both within oneself and society. The Jimmy Carter phase. Helms acknowledged Autonomy to likely be an ideal, at least for now, a state of consciousness and action to be worked towards and occasionally reached but never fully achieved. Helms’ experience as a counselor therapist informed her ideas about white racial identity, but her work is rarely used in actual therapy sessions with white clients, despite its potential as a template for understanding and reducing racist feeling, thought and behavior.
Helms’ model assumes something that, when she suggested it 30 years ago was considered controversial, but now is almost mainstream: that white supremacy is bad for white mental health. An Angel Kyodo Williams, a black Zen Buddhist teacher puts it, “how intolerable it is to be so intolerant.” Helms predicts that white people’s conflicts and confusion, racial or otherwise, will only be relieved by ending structural racism in the present. White people commit and tolerate racism for many reasons, and effective therapy for white people will have to reframe — and combat — the ways that white people interact within the dysfunctional status quo, from the sadistic and self-defeating pleasure of being racially elevated over other people to the convenient and invisible (to us) subsidies to our purses and power. A patient in a psychiatric emergency room once told me, “I don’t want to hurt anybody. And I don’t want to be hurt.” The treatment for white supremacy should be guided by the same principles: the hurting and the hurt are intertwined. “The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks — the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind,” James Baldwin wrote, arriving decades ahead of time as usual. “The white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being.”
In my years as a therapist, I have often recognized white patients as being out of “fruitful communion with the depths of their beings.” Until recently, I never chalked it up to their being white. Despite developing “cultural competence” through a required multiculturalism class in graduate school, and contemplating my own racial and ethinic identity from time to time, I never thought of my whiteness as a source of psychological vulnerability. Despite my familiarity with the DSM concept of “culture bound syndromes” — the culturally and socially determined mental health issues of other racial and ethnic groups — I never considered that white Americans could have their own culture bound syndromes, like anorexia maybe, or mass shootings. (Sudden individual acts of mass violence, or amok, were until recently listed as a culture bound syndrome in the DSM — among Southeast Asians). That is, until a few years ago when I noticed that white people were literally and figuratively running amok in ways that were all too familiar to me as a psychologist and a white person. I began to look for guidance in cultural competence for treating American whites. I found nothing: no recommendations from the American Psychological Association or the American Psychiatric Association, no therapy manuals, few scholarly articles. What I found instead was a patchwork, almost secret, history of white and non-white people in and out of psychology, trying to understand whiteness. And almost synchronously, research became reality: white patients began to bring whiteness into our sessions, in the form of cross-race friendships that got complicated, or resentment toward “woke” coworkers of color who express anger about racism, or just distress over the relentless build of racist violence in the last three years. And once I began to consider that white people could be a separate social group, with particular psychological dynamics, influenced by our specific cultural history, all meticulously detailed in the annals of psychological theory and research, I couldn’t stop. And by coincidence or not, the world wouldn’t let me stop, because whiteness in 2019 wants you to rub your nose in it and inhale deeply.
But all that is a lot of intellectualizing, another culture-bound syndrome, or at least typical psychological dodge, of whiteness. All of the above happened in the course of my own non-professional experiences, my own feelings, my own questions about whiteness. All of this happened in the shadow of my own history as a lost-track-of-the-generation white American woman, descendant of indentured servants and slave owners, daughter of white parents who tried to slip around whiteness and rebel against it, of grandparents who held on for dear life on one side and tried their darndest to reinvent it without losing it on the other, all of us never escaping, always returning to drink from the well of whiteness when our thirst for comfort and security overcame us. All of this happened inside the frame my own whiteness, whatever it is, whatever that means.
Psychoanalyst Melanie Suchet is one of a handful of practicing therapists who have thought deeply about whiteness in therapy. She echoes Helms’ prescription for greater white racial awareness as essential to the psychological health of America as a whole. Suchet, a white South African, has a unique perspective on the national and cultural pathology of American whiteness. In her essay “Unraveling Whiteness,” she reflects on the “grip of whiteness” in both nations, “a space we have inhabited for centuries, crystallized and sedimented so firmly in our psychic structure we can feel as if it would be impossible to shift.” She is particularly deft at deconstructing liberal “woke” whites like herself: the well-off urban therapy-providing-and-consuming class who do not see themselves as racist but freely judge other whites as such. Suchet looks at her own history uncovering, resisting and surrendering to the denied parts of her white self: the “racial shame, the shame of the abuser, the despised.” Despite her initial, “white fragility” reaction, Suchet found that submerging herself in racial shame was a portal to deeper understanding. “The work,” she writes, “lies in a deep acceptance of all the parts of the self and the conflicts that accompany me. I am the colonizer and the colonized, the oppressor and the oppressed, the racist and the anti-racist. In accepting this I can occupy a different space with a different awareness and openness to how race is lived and experienced.”
Suchet suggests that the “loss of the idealized white self is a necessary step in the undoing of whiteness.” This loss paves the way for “racial melancholia,” a term coined by therapists David Eng and Shinhee Han writing on the emotional reality of Asian American assimilation. Suchet and others have adapted Eng and Han’s work to describe the feeling when the defenses of whiteness lower and the weight of racial reality sinks in. It is “the melancholia of the beneficiary…the recognition that under the mantle of whiteness there is the perpetration of violence, terror and the infliction of psychological damage.” Racial melancholia is an essential stop on the road to a less toxic, less defensive way of whiteness. It is by definition devastating. “It is with horror that we come to own the destructiveness that is a part of whiteness,” Suchet writes. “We benefit despite ourselves, despite our beliefs, values, and ideas.”
Like any therapeutic process, the healing of whiteness involves significant ‘discomfort,’ — mental health’s favorite euphemism for emotional agony.
There is hope in this process, but also profound pain: “In the acceptance of who one is,” Suchet predicts, “there is an opening up of the inner space….It is only through surrendering the brittle defensiveness of whiteness that a space for mutual recognition can be created.” The pain breeds resistance: to change, to awareness, to the vulnerability that whiteness so expertly smooths over. “Is there is a small part of me that wishes to remain white?” Suchet wonders. “Are we always the unwilling beneficiaries of whiteness or are we more willing than we care to acknowledge?” Suchet is well aware of how much we would like to avoid the reckoning our whiteness both demands and resists. Like any good therapist, she knows the only way out is through: “Bear with me in this struggle. I want to offer you a solution, yet I also know there is none, only a continual process of opening up.”
Janet Helms also predicted that a reckoning with whiteness would be required for white Americans to free ourselves and our country from our racial debts. That is where white America exists now. In the wake of Contact, and of Disintegration following Barack Obama’s election, we see ourselves exploding into Reintegration, the flight back to our collective security blanket, the disturbing and disturbed comfort of racial superiority. White Americans are in the midst of a public mental health crisis — just check the acting out: suicide, addiction, mass shootings. The concurrent return to “white pride,” whether from “very fine people” in Charlottesville or from the president himself, is a dramatic symptom of a broader decompensation of our national psyche. The cries of “white genocide!” and “send her back!,” simultaneously threatening and panicked, are a direct line into the fears of a people regressing into paranoia, lashing out against shadows. According to recent polling, almost half of white adults see the country’s future pessimistically, and a third look with trepidation to the days when we become a racial minority. The violent escalation of scapegoating of immigrants and people of color is, all or in part, a reaction to the recognition that the days of white wine and roses are over. And we are not well equipped for the New World to come.
Melanie Suchet emigrated to the United States, ironically she admits, to escape race. She returned to South Africa years after the fall of apartheid. “I was struck by the precariousness of whiteness,” she wrote, witnessing South African whites adrift in “a profound sense of insecurity, marginalization, a sense of having lost one’s place, of being out of place, not knowing exactly what that place might be.” She noted the fearful coping mechanisms used by white South Africans to manage their sudden (perceived) vulnerability as a racial minority: “the retreat into a fortified world as exemplified by the high walls topped with barbed wire or electrified fences, security checkpoints, and guard dogs.” Despite the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South Africans continue to struggle with the psychological damage of apartheid, alongside the economic and societal aftershocks. “The dismantling of white authority is not a smooth process,” writes Suchet. ”There is no linear absolution,” for whites; “the colonizer within can never be shed, only disrupted again and again.” Like any therapeutic process, the healing of whiteness involves significant “discomfort,” — mental health’s favorite euphemism for emotional agony. It is likely the only way out of the morass in which we find ourselves. In the absence of a white political leadership willing to engage in racial healing — which much of the white population rejected from an African-American president — it is left to average Americans to try to solve the puzzle. What Melanie Suchet saw in South Africa is not promising. When people do not have a safe way to surrender their destructive patterns, the potential for healing stalls, and people get stuck. As Janet Helms predicted, the temptation to retreat from the challenge of racial melancholia and reverse into comforting notions of white superiority and racial resentment is strong, nearly automatic. Without the psychological wisdom white people have been building for ourselves for more than a century, we are even more lost in the grip of whiteness. “When violence and mistrust is the norm, then this complex process of internal reorganization is less possible, and the precariousness of identity is more evident,” Suchet writes. And then? “And whiteness, as it was, will continue to unravel.”
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Natasha Stovall is a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City.
Editor: Sari Botton