Why Sly, Why?!

“Racism is a mental illness”

I can’t read past that. Just can’t. I really freaking wish you hadn’t said it that way.

Sly, tell me more, tell me more.

13 Responses to “Why Sly, Why?!”

  1. A great deal of my energy and writing go into working towards a model of mental illness that, say…doesn’t help people treat us like crap. I’m twitchy about it, no doubt.

    But there’s something there, and it has to do with a very gut level revulsion against the incredibly heinous things people are willing to do to “cure” folks that they have come to understand as mentally ill.

    On the other hand, I think it’s a bad way of conceptualizing something you want to do something about. From somebody who experiences mental illness…it just doesn’t strike me as a productive parallel. The choices i make have little to do with if I’m going to experience depression or not. I can’t interrupt my panic attacks the way one might be able to interrupt an expression of white privilege. Moreover, a medicalized model of “bad thing as mental illness” often gets used to imply that there’s simply nothing to be done…that person, concept, whatever are just beyond the pale. Thus enter my objection to the casting of bush loving, anti-whatever, extremists as “crazy.”

    No! They have a choice about what they do. What they’re doing is wrong and hurtul to others. And they should change their behavior. Folks with mental illness had jack shit to do with how they developed it, make the choices they are entitled to in terms of coping and living their lives as they see fit.

    Nobody has a moral obligation to “cure” themselves on account of the social compact. I believe that people have the right to the most autonomous existence that is possible for them, regardless of if they are neuro-typical or not. Mental illness isn’t about pain for other people.

    And this is what brings me full circle. I believe that most ill-treatment, stigma, and fear of persons will mental illness revolves around observers imagining that they are the victim. That being forced to exist in the same world as somebody who thinks, feels, and perceives differently than they do is terrible. And then the cure gets a whole lot worse than the disease.

    That kind of language just doesn’t work for me…i think it risks an incomplete theory of racism, and it may well imply a toxic understanding of mental illness.

    I’d be having about the same level reaction as if you’d posted that racism was a sexual orientation, or a gender. Or a race, for that matter.

  2. […] Sorry, folks. As written in response to Max Julian, a brief missive on why I can’t stomach comparisons of racism and mental illness. […]

  3. Sly, I have had panic attacks and I have found that I can interrupt them, breath through them, accept them and allow them to pass. Of course, I never looked at them as a mental illness. Maybe I should.

    Are pedophiles mentally ill? Are racists not groomed in a similar manner – from an early age, before they can even think? Are we not given the symbols and language of racism/white supremacy and sexism for that matter – with our Barbies and GI Joes?

    Do you think that alcoholism is a disease? A mental illness? Does it not cause harm to other people besides the alcoholic? As one, I recognize now that I am fully resonsible for my actions, though I disowned that responsiblity when I was using. And I know that my thinking was acutely sick while I imbibed. I didn’t have a choice. And then I did – once I hit bottom. But white supremacy doesn’t have a downside for white folks, there’s no hangover – evidently. Its an illness that harms others, but not the white person, at least not enough to allow them to see the damage being done to them.

    The reason I conceptualize racism/white supremacy as a mental illness, is not because I don’t want to do something about it, but because of the chronic nature of the illness. I’ve talked to more than enough white folks about racism, seen their inability to grasp plain English (and these were highly educated people), cringed at their illogic, observed them strain and do verbal and mental backflips in order to sidestep the implications of their own behavior. From what I’ve seen, my diagnosis still stands.

    Whites do have a moral obligation to cure themselves and their racism. And, because they receive racism in the womb, I truly believe that, like fetal alcohol syndrome, they have no way to avoid the disease of racism. And on a certain level, it isn’t their fault – but it is. There is treatment for it. The truth. The mirror some of us are trying to hold up so that they can see what they do is a part of providing these addicts the truth. Talk about race and racism is a part of the cure. For racism.

    Maybe I’ll create a black t-shirt and start with a local 5K here in Portland – ‘Race For the Racist Cure’ – and take it global from there.

  4. hmmm. I have to agree with Sly, Max. sorry.

    I understand what youre getting at, of course. I think perhaps a more productive analogy is that racism is brainwashing, which I firmly beleive that it is, it is a problem that exists in the minds of people but is not like mental illness because racism can be undone in ways that mental illness cannot. I fully agree that race and racism is encoded in discourse and applied to bodies before people are even born – before they are even conceived, actually. But I think that racism is also an active choice – although I think people don’t have much choice about how they develop attitudes about race and what those attitudes are, I do think that once information becomes available to them that challenges and corrects recist attitudes (and this does happen at some point, because information about racism’s harmful effects is prolific), then it becomes an active choice to continue holding those attitudes and behaving in accordance with them.

    I really think that the mentally ill have it tough. In fact, I know so, having had family members and friends who have been mentally ill, and having suffered from depression myself at one very difficult time in my life. The mentally ill have it hard enough withou comparisons being made between mental illness – something that they cannot help but continue, something that if their treatment were to fail they would not be able to help, something that perhaps the nature of their illness prevents them from being successfully treated and “cured” – and something that is an active choice to continue, like racism. I’m not saying that the mentally ill are not responsible for their actions, but I am saying that racists are more responsible for their actions because they actively participate in those actions.

    I think the biggest problem I have with characterizing racism as a mental illness is that it kind of lets racists off with more sympathy than is deserved. I have all the sympathy in the world for the mentally ill, even those whose lives have been completely ruined and who have ruined the lives of their families. They simply can’t help it. Racism is not like that. Racism is a social disease in a different way than is mental illness. Mental illness is a social disease in that it is a disabbility, and if society provided proper support and care to the mentally ill, it would not be a disability. Racism is a social cancer – socially caused, socially perpetuated, socially damaging.

    I think it’s a great idea to organize an event around ending racism. Go for it!

  5. eh.

    I don’t mean that dismissively, but on account that i should have left my original reaction as it stood. I can’t deal with that image. And my explanation doesn’t seem to be making things clearer than mud. Frankly, this brings us to a much broader discussion of disability issues, not as medical cure model, but in terms of identity politics. Which I’m sure I’ll write up sometime, but that’s too tall an order before class this morning…so I’ll come back to that when i get the chance.

    To answer, sure, I’d say that alcoholism is a disease. And if you really want the term mental illness, I’d probably hand that over, too. But then I’d start talking about neuro-atypicality instead of using mental illness to describe what I’m talking about. I was looking for a more positive term anyways. The core of what I’m looking for is language and thought that respects the right of people to interact with their psychological/emotional life in a way that respects their agency and humanity.

    Alcoholism is a disease because people interact with it as one. There’s no single way in which people abuse alcohol, or a sole neuro-chemical, biological trigger. On a basic theoretical level, there’s no “there” there, only a collection of experiences that we group together for our conceptual benefit. Alcoholism is the word that sums up a descriptive process of people in contact with behavior, symptoms, and responses that they find to be deeply negative. And the application of a medical/therapeutic model helps many people change that reality into something they prefer.

    But that’s not how I deal with what gets currently called mental illness. Put it this way. There’s no cure for what I’ve got. In one sense, that’s true because medical interventions thus far have been entirely unsuccessful and have endangered my life significantly. In another, it’s true because despite the fact that it can be painful or disruptive at times, I honestly don’t think there’s anything wrong with me, least not as far as that goes.

    People medicalize homosexuality. It’s a “disease” to the extent that people think of it as such. People also use it for the basis of identity politics. I clearly think one of those responses is better. But i don’t have any ontological basis for saying it beyond my own personal assessment of the effects. The flu doesn’t have a metaphysical tag on it that says “disease.” We call it that because we don’t like getting sick.

    Racism as disease has a lot working for it. There are parallels to medical/therapeutic models of change that are helpful for understanding and opposing that system. But by using the phrase “mental illness” you accidentally stepped into the middle of my identity politics.

    For what it’s worth. Use the images you want to use…I’ve said my piece.

  6. TG,

    Methinks you commit yourself to a ‘side’ prematurely. I’m not letting white folks off the hook as you put it – at all. What I’m doing is seeking a descriptor that best characterizes what I observe in white folks.

    One advantage I have over both you and Sly, besides being a person of color is that I have experienced, not only the brunt of racist behavior, but I have sat in rooms of white and other people of color and taken part in dialogues on race – as a facilitator and as a participant. Many times, most recently on Friday.

    To listen to and observe white people who can barely speak about race, to listen to the illogic, the nonsensical leaps of verbiage – is to be a witness to a form of insanity.

    A black woman said something to me a while ago that I still haven’t processed. ‘What does it do to someone who claims on the one hand to be superior; who then claims the subhumanity of people of African descent; and who then has SEX with the supposedly subhuman beast?’ Look at that one act of rape, which was perpetrated on thousands, if not millions of black women – and perpetrated by thousands if not millions of white men – and consider how that act filters out into the culture. Into people’s minds.

    The routine rape, the legalized rape of black women, over and over again; its acceptance by the society. AND the fact that you have men telling themselves that these are beasts, yet they are having forced sex with them. Bestiality. What does that do to one’s mind? How do you reconcile your own humanity and maintain your sanity, when you are capable of that behavior? And when you are a part of a society that condones it? For centuries? How injurious is this behavior to the mental health of the masses?

    What does it mean for white mental health, to create a government based on the consent of the people and a society based on freedom and liberty – that is not free and does not possess liberty? What do these perpetual, cruel contradictions do to the people who allow them – for generations? At some point there is choice; at another, the behaviour becomes incoded in the DNA.

    And if racism is not a mental illness and is simply a matter of choice, how is it so easy for folks, when confronted straight up about it – to deny its existence and their participation in its practice? Why don’t they just admit, ‘this behavior is my preference/I choose’ instead of looking horrified, like a deer in the headlights/like you’ve spoken Greek to them?’

    I’ve looked too many white folks in the face and seen a lot more than just – “I choose to be a racist.” These people are tied in knots. Nuts. But like the alcoholic, they have to learn to take responsibility.

    I think ya’ll need to leave this idea in the oven a little longer. Your objections seem to be based more on theoretical consiserations than how racism actually plays out and how racists actually think and act. At least in my experience.

  7. “Your objections seem to be based more on theoretical consiserations than how racism actually plays out and how racists actually think and act. At least in my experience.”

    I’m not leaving that alone. Slag me for over processing if you like, but theory is my polite way of explaining that as a person living with mental illness, I find that metaphor to be deeply hurtful and offensive.

  8. Why do you find that metaphor deeply hurtful and offensive?

    I don’t know what mental illness you have and I don’t even know if I believe that depression is mental illness, but if it is, I have had it. I’ve also had anxiety/panic attacks.

    But mainly, I’ve been black in America which has a set of features that makes me crazy. And if someone said being black can drive you crazy, I wouldn’t disagree. I’ve seen it, it happens all the time.

    There’s no disgrace in being mentally ill or racist. Or shame to me.

    I ain’t tryin’ to hurt you so understand that, Sly. Sorry that you feel hurt

  9. I think I maybe take it back, the active participation/choice part of my earlier comment. I failed to express there that racism is the default ideology in our society, and it actually takes more work to unlearn racism than it does to simply continue on practicing it, for a white person. Further, it continues because it works. Racism works for white people. Plain and simple. And in that regard, I suppose there is an element of choice involved – the choice to continue what works.

    However, I still don’t like the analogy between mental illness and racism. I don’t think you’re letting white people off the hook for racism, but I do think the potential is there for white people to let themselves off the hook on the model of racism-as-mental-illness. Not trying to negate your experiences as a POC Max – just pointing out that you’re falling down with this analogy and causing harm to another group of people who don’t need that extra baggage. You’d point it out to me if I was making a statement you found to be harmful – we both know that’s true! I just don’t think it’s a helpful analogy. You gotta find a more constructive one. Call racism a disease if you like – but not a mental illness.

  10. I also disagree with the analogy of racism to mental illness and agree with Thinking Girl that brainwashing is the best way to describe it.

    Mental illness is something that is beyond the control of the individual. You can’t help it if you have bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. You can be helped with medications but never cured. There certainly may be some racists who are mentalaly ill but I don’t think psychiatric disorders account for the majority of it.

    Racism, on the other hand, is practiced with intent and awareness. What gets me is that people will hang onto racist attitudes or spout ephitets even though they know deep in their souls that it’s wrong, grossly wrong. Sometimes that knowledge is glaring, sometimes it’s more subtle, like when I rooted for Frazier over Ali when I was a kid.

    If you’re doing something and, deep down, know it’s wrong, it’s incumbent upon you as a human and member of this species and planet to try to make the changes needed inside yourself to stop doing those wrong, hurtful things. It’s a matter of morality and much of America is sadly lacking its moral compass.

  11. […] Found a couple interesting comments in the usual random and divergent blogreading today. A post by Sly Civilian was the jumping off point, this is from the current interblog dustup about racism as mental illness, which it is not; racism, unlike mental illness is volitional. I leave the finer points of the debate in the hands of the theorists, and move to Sly’s take on social control of the mentally ill, and just who the hell is suffering here– A great deal of my energy and writing go into working towards a model of mental illness that, say…doesn’t help people treat us like crap. I’m twitchy about it, no doubt. […]

  12. OK, so I read the thread at Sly Civilian and decided mental illness may be too broad a term, although I still think it’s suggestive.

    What I said over there was that perhaps a look at ideology in the Althusserian definition might be yet more helpful. Ideology is not just a set of beliefs but is what’s in “the air we breathe.”

    For instance: the whole psychology and world view set up by late capitalism, which we see as natural and normal. It is terribly hard to think how it would feel to be in the world without that lens or frame. And the things we think, and the ways we think about things, are informed by that worldview, which people from outside it might well
    see as “insane” (or at least very limited).

    Hmmmm. Random thoughts:

    – I still relate to the mental illness analogy, though, largely in that talking to racists is like talking to a wall – an experience similar to talking to, say, psychopaths.

    – If it is productive to think of racism as a disease, why is it not ok to think of it as a ‘mental’ disease?

    – Are depression and panic attacks mental illnesses? Maybe not. Is bipolar disorder a mental illness – or a neurological atypicality? What is mental illness?

    – I keep coming back to: ideology, in the Althusserian definition: ideology is one’s imagined relationship to the conditions in which one lives. I want to think more about that, am mulling it over.

  13. P.S. Sorry I’m not being more incisive/coherent here. I guess I am typing before processing. Blithering on, then: is the reason people are so upset by the “mental illness” analogy that they know racism is a bad thing, and think that the use of this analogy implies that mental illness is “bad” in the same way?

    Also: people ARE ashamed of being racist. That is why they want to deny their racism: they do not want to feel shame.

    What about this: there’s no shame in being racist, only in not wanting to become conscious? Because I do think that in this society, being racist isn’t entirely ‘volitional’. To the contrary, it’s the default position, what one is raised to. What IS volitional is the decision to become more conscious, less racist.

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