#025 - Racism: A culturally induced mental illness

A few months ago when the massacre at Charleston occurred, in which a young white man murdered nine African American parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, I experienced shock and disbelief by the brutality of this man. I heard the reports that maybe he, Dyllann Roof, had a mental illness. That information in some way allowed me to say, “yeah, this guy is sick that’s why this happened,” and to again push aside the history of racial violence in the United States. Later in the day I spoke with a friend, a black woman, about the shooting and said how the media was saying he had a mental illness. To which my friend responded, “Racism is a mental illness.”

This struck me and again shook me out of my complacency. How easy it is, from a place of white ignorance, to decide what I chose to see. The privilege afforded me because of my skin color allows me to conveniently say, “Oh, this is just some sick dude, not the cumulative affect of hundreds of years of racism, of which I am a participant.” If I can make racism something out there, that she has, or he has, or they have then I get to remove myself from acknowledging the benefits and costs I face participating in a racist culture.

So what are the effects of racism as a culturally induced mental illness? As White people living in this culture, steeped in racism, this is a sickness we carry with us. While it showed up in Dyllann Roof as an explicit act of violence, it is showing up in the lives of White people every day in implicit and, sometimes explicit ways. If you have been enjoying the benefits of your skin color without acknowledging the cost take the time to reflect on who pays the price for your privilege. We do not “deserve” the privilege we enjoy, it is taken through our ignorance and denial. 

Below are some symptoms of racism, which if you are white, are probably showing up in your life in various ways:

·      Fear: This is probably one of the biggest components that shows up implicitly within White culture. It’s in the White communities that are insulated. In the White people who will chose consciously or unconsciously to frequent places that keep them in the majority. An involuntary tightening of the body when a Black or Brown person approaches. An unwillingness to call out racist remarks (even if the other White person is just “joking”). Not speaking about race with White people for fear of being a “downer.” Or over compensating by treating people of color as special, and needing to iterate your “color blindness” or your ability to treat everyone equally.

·      Denial: When Obama was elected various news sources said the “race issue” is over. If a Black man can be voted president of the United States then racism is a thing of the past. Right? Wrong. Our culture, families, and history teach White people that we are better because we are White. No amount of people of color succeeding in this system will reach inside White culture and change this incredibly harmful view. Living in denial of reality, we deny the harm of internalized dominance and live in a fantasy world.

·      Shame and Guilt: In direct relationship to denial, shame and guilt are born out of knowing that, at least deep down, this dominance taught White people is a farce. When we act out of beliefs that are incongruent with reality we suffer as well. We lose connection, compassion, we become entitled and strive ever more to fill the whole caused by guilt and shame. If we are able to step out of denial we will be able to heal these shame and guilt wounds through greater connection to others, ourselves, and the world as a whole.

·      Apathy: Being a cog in the wheel of our racist culture can be exhausting! For those who are aware, no matter your skin color, the daily interactions with racism can feel insurmountable. The system can seem too large; our history to riddled with pain and suffering, and collapse and surrender the only option. What we miss as White people is that when others in our lives, in our culture are suffering, and we benefit from that suffering we become sick. We lose access to our hearts, to justice; we become unconscious minions of a sick and broken system and wonder why we have to keep building bigger and stronger walls to keep out the “other.” This can all stop. Your apathy can shift today with small, or larger acts, of speaking out and getting involved in the many organizations geared toward White people taking action against racism. You can talk to your children, open up dialogue with friends, challenge your own hidden racism, and own your place in this system.   

If you are white and living in the United States you benefit from racism. And you are also accruing harms day by day, by unconsciously upholding and participating in this culture. Ask yourself if you too can find yourself on the “racism as a mental illness” spectrum and what you want to do about it!