As we are sure you are well aware, it was a very busy week in race. From President Carter's comments about Joe Wilson's outburst being reflective of racism (and Bill Cosby's support of that statement) to Rush Limbaugh's accusation that a White student being beaten by a group of Black teens on a school bus in Belleville, IL as a natural result of "Obama's America," there is much to discuss.
A lot of thoughtful analysis has already been put forth (see our Facebook page for an archive), so we will, as we generally do, try to step back and put the entire week into some context.
To do so, we offer an analogy in an attempt to capture the collective mindset of Whites who are understandably frustrated that they have been continually referred to as "racist." Last week, of course, we addressed their frustration with a concept we called "racism fatigue." THIS WEEK, we dig just a bit deeper to offer a look at "racial narcissism." This "disorder" is, we argue, a natural occurrence of being socialized into accepting a battery of (largely unspoken) "truths" about Whites and non-Whites.
We want to be very clear here that we are not using the term "narcissism" literally (i.e., in a clinical sense). That is, we are not saying that White people are all narcissists. Rather, we offering an extended metaphor to help characterize the way that Whites who are not bigots have collectively reacted to accusations of racism. This is not a diagnosis, and it is most definitely not designed to be an attack of any sort. To the contrary, our overarching argument is that until we understand that being referred to as "racist" is not an insult but a statement of fact about the internalized, largely subconscious acceptance of White supremacy that is applicable to everyone (irrespective of race) who is socialized in a racist culture, we cannot move forward. That is why we advocate using "racist" only as an adjective -- it describes all of us but does not define any of us. (It is what we are, not who we are.) We should reserve the word "bigot" for those who engage in overt displays of racist animosity (and who are not coy or embarrassed about those feelings). No one should ever be called "a racist," as using the term this way detracts greatly from the importance of the word as a marker of systemic power and institutionalized oppression.
According to the most current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), a personality disorder is defined as "[a]n eduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectation of the individual's culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment." Without belaboring the individual points too much, this nicely characterizes much of White America in the Obama era.
The difficulty of helping folks to understand systemic racism is reflective of the enduring quality of racial narcissism. Because non-bigoted Whites do not believe that they or people like them are racist but rather operate under the assumption of equality, there is clear deviation from the expectation of our culture. We expect that everyone is equal, so when our (or others') racist behavior deviates from that expectation, there is a violation of norms (what Tali Mendelberg has called "the norm of racial equality"). This behavior is pervasive in the sense that it characterizes all Americans (not just White Americans -- see the oft-cited Kenneth Clark "dolls" experiment for just one vivid example). Racism is certainly stable over time. Bigotry, however, is not. While no one can deny the progress that has been made from the 1600s to the 1800s to the 1960s to today, it is important to remember that progress is not the same as equality. White folks in America are still much more likely to "succeed" on any number of indicators than people of color because of systemic racism. Racial narcissism clearly leads to distress and/or impairment for Whites and persons of color. The one element of the definition that strains the analogy is the fact that an individual personality disorder has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, whereas recent developmental psychology literature suggests that racism is learned much earlier (conservatives flipped over the most recent Newsweek cover story on this issues).
So far, however, we have only explained how racism can be conceptualized as a collective personality disorder (to the extent that we collectively have a cultural "personality"). Narcissism is but one personality disorder, and its specific characteristics are similarly applicable.
From the DSM IV:
We will not go through each of these (you're welcome). Some of them are self-evident, and at this point, we are confident that you get the idea. We will leave it to your comments to elaborate or refute individual points, but while no analogy is ever perfect, we hope that this one works as analogies should -- to make a point by activating understanding of something more salient (in this case, individual behavior) to something somewhat less familiar (systemic racism).
Someone who suffers from Narcissistic Personality disorder (NPD) has at least 5 of the following characteristics:
- has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
- is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
- requires excessive admiration
- has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
- is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
- lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
- is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
- shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
Part of the reason that systemic racism is so unfamiliar (in thought -- it's quite familiar in experience, we just aren't always aware of the name for it) is that our primary reference text for language, the dictionary, does not generally distinguish between individual-level bigotry and systemic racism. Indeed, on a number of occasions folks have argued against our argument to disentangle the terms because "racism" is listed in a power-neutral way in most dictionaries.
Harry Allan, the "media assassin," ran into this issue THIS WEEK as he was criticized for his take on the Kanye West controversy from the MTV Video Music Awards. Allan responded to a critic in a follow-up post titled, "'Why Can't Black People Be Racist?': A Brief Primer on White Supremacy." It's a thoughtful piece (as usual) that would be largely unnecessary if dictionaries would accurately describe racism as having a power component to it.
Similarly, Jesse Washington wrote a piece for the Associated Press that centers on the all-too-common "cry wolf" allusion. Washington wisely ask, "if everyone is racist, is anyone?" If the appropriate conceptualization of the term is adopted (i.e., "racism" refers to systemic and internalized, subconscious White supremacy), the answer is "yes." By the colloquial (and dictionary) definition, however, the answer is more complicated. Everyone is not a bigot, but some folks are. Folks who are not bigots, however, are racist, too, and have the same burden (irrespective of race) as everyone else to honestly, meaningfully and radically deal with racism. The "cry wolf" criticism only holds if racism is conceptualized as individual-level rather than systemic. If it is appropriately conceptualized as systemic, it is impossible to "cry wolf" because the wolf, indeed, is always actually there!
A fair question at this point would be, "Hey RaceProject guys: who the hell do you think you are, trying to change the dictionary?!" Our response would be, "Who else?"
We are not suggesting, of course, that we alone are best qualified to influence such an important reference book. But who, if not scholars in their respective areas, should be influential on shaping the denotation of complicated constructs that lexicographers consider as they go about their work? And, we must add, we did not (by a long shot) invent the conceptual difference between these terms. The distinction is understood so well by academics who study race and ethnicity that it is virtually assumed in those conversations. But as race has moved back into the forefront of White consciousness over the past few years and the Internet has provided more material about the topic, we have been persistent in our demand for the language to catch up with the concept.
This is an important point. Folks like us who argue that "racism" and "bigotry" should be distinct terms are not arguing that the concepts should be distinct. They already are distinct. That is not a point of contention. What is being advocated here is that our language must be precise enough to capture the conceptual differences. Part of getting treatment for a disorder involves recognizing that one has the disorder. If non-bigoted Whites do not feel as if they are racist because they understand the term to mean conscious resentment for persons of color, they are not likely to seek the much-needed "treatment." This, too, is reflective of collective racial narcissism.
To that point, Joanna Ashmun notes that "[n]arcissists rarely enter treatment and, once in treatment, progress very slowly. . . .It's difficult to keep narcissists in treatment long enough for improvement to be made -- and few people, narcissists or not, have the motivation . . . to pursue treatment that produces so little so late."
The "treatment" in our analogy is reflection about the power and complexity of racism and our inability to fully come to terms with it so that we can dismantle it. Well-meaning White folks have spent the last couple of decades stomping their feet and covering their ears while screaming that everyone is equal, that we/they are color blind, and that we/they have Black friends. There is a steadfast refusal for us to get treatment for our collective disorder.
Like personality disorders, however, racism is not the "fault" of the culture who suffer from it. As Whites are quick to point out, no one in America today ever owned a slave, and few have even engaged in conscious discrimination of a person of color. Much of our resistance to our own racism comes from an unwillingness to take responsibility for its existence. But we do not have to take such responsibility. We do have to recognize, however, that once it is revealed to us, we must deal with it with honesty, focus and persistence. We cannot continue to ignore the uncomfortable reality of our collective ignorance. There has never been a more opportune time to seek treatment. We can leave our guilt at the therapist's doorstep and work together (not against one another) to better understand our collective condition so that we can move forward.