Thursday, October 04, 2007

Early Morning Quote: "Working Through" Racism

As you may have guessed, these are taken from whatever random academic book I've picked up off my desk at the moment. This one is from a volume giving psychoanalytic responses to Black/Jewish tensions.
Educational programs against white racism, including Jewish racism, have usually been based on the assumption among pedagogues and social engineers that the most effective way to combat racism and prejudice is to expose students to information and values that contradict their racist attitudes. So, for instance, students are encouraged [*6] to learn about other marginalized and negative stereotyped groups and the importance of respecting others who are different from themselves. While these programs have been successful to some degree, from a psychoanalytic viewpoint they don't go "deep" enough into the motives that usually sustain racist attitudes and drive individuals to racist behavior. As Bracher further points out, "the more profound and intractable causes of intolerance includes the presence of a rigid but threatened sense of identity and the use of primitive defense mechanisms, such as projection, to maintain this sense of identity by refusing to recognize elements of one's own being that contradict this idealized self-image.' From a psychoanalytic viewpoint then, an effective intervention emanating from this way of conceptualizing racism would focus on increasing the student's self-acceptance of his unacceptable tendencies, in contrast to the received view, that aims to increase the student's self-esteem by stressing attributes and achievements that they take pride in. That is, to reduce racist and bigoted attitudes and vehavior, it is precisely those unacceptable feelings, attitudes, and attributes that students are ashamed of and have disavowed, repressed, and projected that need to be "worked through."

[Alan Helmreich & Paul Marcus, "Introduction: Black-Jewish Conflict," in Blacks and Jews on the Couch: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Black-Jewish Conflict, Alan Helmreich & Paul Marcus, eds. (Westport: Praeger, 1998), pp. 1-13, 5-6]

The last sentence is the important one -- the rest I added for context. One of the reasons I try and keep "racism" at the fore of my analysis I that I think it is impossible to "work through" its problems when it is constantly shunted off into the darkest, most remote corners of discourse. We are ashamed of racism, we don't want to admit to elements of our personhood that conflict with our idealized self, so we push it away and repress it -- better than openly celebrating it, to be sure, but also not the sort of thing that will ultimately eliminate its effects. Racism that is repressed, rather than addressed and ultimately redressed, will always find ways to burble up to the surface, and will be infinitely more difficult to identify and remedy when it does.

The corollary to this outlook, of course, is that by asking that we take the tough step of admitting our racist behaviors and mindsets, the interlocutor cannot then turn around and condemn, shame, or otherwise malign the people who hold them (simply for holding them). This is rightfully seen as an ambush, and is not conducive to the type of "working through" that Helmreich and Marcus say (and I agree) we need to do. Recognizing that racism is a moral wrong, and that it hurts people, does not automatically mean condemning its perpetrators -- particularly when so much of the problem is psychological and unwillful. A bargain must be struck between the anti-racism activists and those they seek to "reform", in which both agree to work through the issues and problems of racist mentalities without judgment on the part of the former, and without defensiveness on the part of the latter. This does not mean we do not aggressively respond to racism when we see it. It only means that, in the educational context of folks genuinely seeking to overcome the racism they admit they have, we announce a truce -- a cease-fire.

It is important, too, to remember that even while recognizing the facet of ourselves which is still tied into the racist under- and overtones of our society, this part does not define us. Just as there is a segment of ourselves which is hateful and prejudiced and biased and cruel, we can similarly draw on other aspects of our identity which value justice and ethics and dignity and solidarity. Following Bracher's lead, a crucial step in formulating a healthy self-image is one that can recognize both elements of self, while enlisting the latter to battle and eventually overcome the former (if you have tolerance for another academic quote, Slant Truth's Kevin Andre Elliott has a wonderful excerpt on "tolerating ambiguity" from Gloria Anzalda). The only way one can truly count oneself as being a follower of the light is to recognize that there is (and likely always will be) dark spots inside you as well. Being a bystander is not an option.

This isn't to say that the endeavor is easy. No matter how understanding our fellows are, it is still difficult to openly work through issues of racism without going into that reflexive "shell" mode that seeks to deflect or deny that there is a problem. Nonetheless, it is a necessary part of the anti-racism project. Deep problems, such as racism, are rarely solved without some sort of deep, often painful, commitment, from the society from which it emerges. This one is no different. But fixing it will open the doors to a brighter, more just, more egalitarian, and ultimately more prosperous existence for all of us.

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