This has been one of the strangest years of my life, living in the U.S. after ten years in Cape Town, South Africa. I could write a million different blogs, with a million different angles on this year alone, but for now, I’ll keep it focused. I want to talk about racism. And I figured Martin Luther King Jr. Day was a good day to do it.
Of course, in my ten years of living in South Africa, especially in the circles I moved in, I was confronted with racism on, pretty much, a daily basis. You could say it was one of the underlying “themes” of my life in Cape Town, that impacted most, if not all, of the situations I found myself in, whether it was acknowledged or not. One might say that would be “expected” in South Africa, only coming out of Apartheid in 1994. But we know South Africa does not hold the copyright to racism, and it is a global issue. This last year living in America, I haven’t been able to get the topic and existence of racism off my mind. It seems to have settled in there, and refuses to leave until I hear its plea; like the plight of anti-racism’s very own Occupy Protest, taking place in my brain. So, I’ve been listening.
One thing I’ve taken note of is how much racism plays a role in day-to-day American life, whether covert, overt, systemic, or what have you. It’s here, and it’s ugly. Another thing I’ve taken note of is how unwilling so many people are to speak about or engage the topic in any way, shape or form. Many have adopted the attitude of “we’ve just got to move on”, and they’ll even say that if we speak about racism, we are just making it worse. In a lecture about “Post-Racial Politics”, Tim Wise says there is no other social ill that we would adopt that kind of mindset with; like, “Oh, I know crime is bad, but if we just ignore it, it’ll go away,” or “AIDS is only a problem because we speak about it so much!” Kind of silly, really.
Vast majorities of people really and truly want to try to act like racism is not a problem, and therefore refuse to bring up this “tired, outdated topic”.
However, contrastingly, the very same people who are so unwilling to speak about the topic of racism are often the very same people you might hear delivering an emotional rant after a race-driven news story or life experience; possibly the same people who might say, “I’m not racist, BUT…” and what follows is the most racist statement ever. Yeah, “THOSE people”. Racism is still alive and kicking, and strong. It affects us all, whether we realize or acknowledge it. We don’t seem to want to speak about it. But if provoked, a beehive of emotions are stirred up. What’s up with that?! Why do we try and avoid something that plays such a enormous role in our life?
I think the answers range from simple denial, to people not knowing how to speak about it, from false senses of entitlement which leads people to believe there is no need to, to people being unwilling to stir up the emotions required to engage such a historically heated topic, and the list goes on. For every person who is unwilling to engage the topic, you will probably find a different reason as to why. Much like how individuals develop certain mechanisms to avoid unwanted emotions or experiences, devices otherwise known as Defense Mechanisms.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Defense Mechanisms lately. Freud theorized Defense Mechanisms as “unconscious psychological strategies brought into play by various entities to cope with reality and to maintain self-image”. There is a long list, and they range from extremely unhealthy to more healthy reactions to unwanted emotions, grouped in four categories: pathological, immature, neurotic, and mature. Freud developed the theory based on the behavior of individuals, and it is obvious how individuals apply defense mechanisms to the various responses stirred up by the topic of racism. But the more I have thought about the list of defense mechanisms, the more I have seen how society as a whole (or at least large sub-groupings), and its shared collective brain, seems to have adopted these same mechanisms when it comes to the topic of racism.
For instance, two examples of the pathological mechanisms are Denial and Distortion. Denial is obvious: people who merely refuse to admit racism is even a problem at all. Where as an example of Distortion could be white people who say things like, “Oh come on! Slavery and all that happened years ago! There’s no way it’s still playing a role now! People just need to move on! If anything, black people have it better than white people!” An example of a more mature mechanism would be Humor, a tactic comedians like Dave Chappelle and Louis C.K. apply, using extreme, race-driven anecdotes to highlight the ignorance and existence of racism.
Whether people want to admit it or not, racism still has a dominating presence in America, and it is most definitely not going anywhere, unless we are active and intentional in fighting it. It cannot merely be ignored. We can use various mechanisms, whether as individuals or as a society as a whole, to avoid the unwanted feelings and emotions the engagement of this topic stirs up, but avoiding the real issue only allows it to grow bigger and bigger. I long to see genuine, honest dialogue about the existence of racism; conversation that doesn’t just stir up emotions and leave people heated, but a dialogue that stirs all of that up, and leads us down the road to forgiveness and healing. Denial will take us no where.
Please feel free to comment below, and engage the topic if you would. Also, here are some of of the main Defense Mechanisms (Definitions and information about Defense Mechanisms sourced from Wikipedia Article), if you are interested in looking at them through the filter of how groups or individuals apply them to avoid unwanted emotions stirred up by the topic of racism:
Level 1 – Pathological
Delusional Projection: Grossly frank delusions about external reality, usually of a persecutory nature.
Denial: Refusal to accept external reality because it is too threatening; arguing against an anxiety-provoking stimulus by stating it doesn’t exist; resolution of emotional conflict and reduction of anxiety by refusing to perceive or consciously acknowledge the more unpleasant aspects of external reality.
Distortion: A gross reshaping of external reality to meet internal needs.
Splitting: A primitive defence. Negative and positive impulses are split off and unintegrated. Fundamental example: An individual views other people as either innately good or innately evil, rather than a whole continuous being.
Extreme projection: The blatant denial of a moral or psychological deficiency, which is perceived as a deficiency in another individual or group.
Level 2 – Immature
Acting out: Direct expression of an unconscious wish or impulse in action, without conscious awareness of the emotion that drives that expressive behaviour.
Fantasy: Tendency to retreat into fantasy in order to resolve inner and outer conflicts.
Idealization: Unconsciously choosing to perceive another individual as having more positive qualities than he or she may actually have.
Passive aggression: Aggression towards others expressed indirectly or passively such as using procrastination.
Projection: Projection is a primitive form of paranoia. Projection also reduces anxiety by allowing the expression of the undesirable impulses or desires without becoming consciously aware of them; attributing one’s own unacknowledged unacceptable/unwanted thoughts and emotions to another; includes severe prejudice, severe jealousy, hypervigilance to external danger, and “injustice collecting”. It is shifting one’s unacceptable thoughts, feelings and impulses within oneself onto someone else, such that those same thoughts, feelings, beliefs and motivations are perceived as being possessed by the other.
Projective identification: The object of projection invokes in that person precisely the thoughts, feelings or behaviours projected.
Somatization: The transformation of negative feelings towards others into negative feelings toward self, pain, illness, and anxiety.
Level 3 – Neurotic
Displacement: Defence mechanism that shifts sexual or aggressive impulses to a more acceptable or less threatening target; redirecting emotion to a safer outlet; separation of emotion from its real object and redirection of the intense emotion toward someone or something that is less offensive or threatening in order to avoid dealing directly with what is frightening or threatening. For example, a mother may yell at her child because she is angry with her husband.
Dissociation: Temporary drastic modification of one’s personal identity or character to avoid emotional distress; separation or postponement of a feeling that normally would accompany a situation or thought.
Hypochondriasis: An excessive preoccupation or worry about having a serious illness.
Intellectualization: A form of isolation; concentrating on the intellectual components of a situation so as to distance oneself from the associated anxiety-provoking emotions; separation of emotion from ideas; thinking about wishes in formal, affectively bland terms and not acting on them; avoiding unacceptable emotions by focusing on the intellectual aspects (e.g. isolation, rationalization, ritual, undoing, compensation, magical thinking).
Isolation: Separation of feelings from ideas and events, for example, describing a murder with graphic details with no emotional response.
Rationalization (making excuses): Where a person convinces him or herself that no wrong was done and that all is or was all right through faulty and false reasoning. An indicator of this defence mechanism can be seen socially as the formulation of convenient excuses – making excuses.
Reaction formation: Converting unconscious wishes or impulses that are perceived to be dangerous into their opposites; behaviour that is completely the opposite of what one really wants or feels; taking the opposite belief because the true belief causes anxiety. This defence can work effectively for coping in the short term, but will eventually break down.
Regression: Temporary reversion of the ego to an earlier stage of development rather than handling unacceptable impulses in a more adult way.
Repression: The process of attempting to repel desires towards pleasurable instincts, caused by a threat of suffering if the desire is satisfied; the desire is moved to the unconscious in the attempt to prevent it from entering consciousness; seemingly unexplainable naivety, memory lapse or lack of awareness of one’s own situation and condition; the emotion is conscious, but the idea behind it is absent.
Undoing: A person tries to ‘undo’ an unhealthy, destructive or otherwise threatening thought by engaging in contrary behaviour.
Withdrawal: Withdrawal is a more severe form of defence. It entails removing oneself from events, stimuli, interactions, etc. under the fear of being reminded of painful thoughts and feelings.
Level 4 – Mature
Altruism: Constructive service to others that brings pleasure and personal satisfaction.
Anticipation: Realistic planning for future discomfort.
Humour: Overt expression of ideas and feelings (especially those that are unpleasant to focus on or too terrible to talk about) that gives pleasure to others. The thoughts retain a portion of their innate distress, but they are “skirted round” by witticism, for example Self-deprecation.
Identification: The unconscious modelling of one’s self upon another person’s character and behaviour.
Introjection: Identifying with some idea or object so deeply that it becomes a part of that person.
Sublimation: Transformation of negative emotions or instincts into positive actions, behaviour, or emotion.
Thought suppression: The conscious process of pushing thoughts into the preconscious; the conscious decision to delay paying attention to an emotion or need in order to cope with the present reality; making it possible to later access uncomfortable or distressing emotions whilst accepting them.