Speak Doctor, Speak!

Racism: A Mental Illness?

Some psychiatrists have advocated making racism a psychiatric disorder, whereas others have maintained that doing so is inappropriate because it would “medicalize” a social problem. It is amazing that neither side is willing to let scientific
inquiry answer the question.

Most would agree that racism—the practice of racial discrimination, segregation, persecution, and domination on the basis of feelings and ideas of racial superiority —is mainly a product of learned behavior. After all, research informs us that a majority of explicitly racist persons do not have any psychopathology.

However, isn’t it possible for racism to also be a symptom of a psychiatric disorder? For example, we know that patients with a paranoid disorder project their unacceptable feelings and ideas onto other people and groups. So isn’t it possible
for these patients to project their unacceptable feelings and ideas onto different racial or ethnic groups? Additionally, is it possible that an individual exposed to trauma that was inflicted on him or her by a person from a different racial or ethic group might harbor racist attitudes toward that group?

Furthermore, is it possible that persons with certain personality disorders—for example, paranoid or narcissistic personality disorder—might be more predisposed to racism than those who do not? These are all legitimate scientific questions that we as psychiatrists should be willing to test and answer.

Finally, isn’t it possible for a European American who does not have any psychopathology but who was taught negative stereotypes of African Americans to find himself or herself in a dysfunctional employee-employer relationship with
an African American who, although not anti-white, is pro-black. Wouldn’t this situation be best characterized as two persons who have a relational disorder? Because behavior is multidetermined, racism most likely has biological, psychological,
and sociological origins.

However, the psychiatric community has been reluctant to consider whether or not some forms of racism are manifestations of psychiatric disorders or constitute a psychiatric disorder. Maybe the question of racism as a mental illness is so contentious that it precludes consideration of the issue at all. We should let science, not our personal opinions, answer these questions.

Maybe we should go a step further, and if some types of racism are found to be a mental illness or a symptom of a mental illness, developers of the next DSM should consider including other extreme prejudices, such as sexism, ageism, and heterosexism. Accordingly, some have proposed to examine “pathological bias” in a clinical context, because such an approach may lead to effective intervention with and treatment of individuals who manifest such problems.

CARL BELL, M.D., Community Mental Health Council, Chicago, and the University of Illinois at Chicago

10 Responses to “Speak Doctor, Speak!

  1. Heard about your blog (and this particular story) on KBOO this morning. Interesting thought. But I simply see white supremacy as a social construct designed to categorize and separate the peoples of the earth. So the white folks who so religiously practise this system do so more out of fear rather than because of any illness. In other words, I just wont let them off the hook that easy ; )

    Peace bro, I turn up the radio every time you call in to one of those KBOO shows, you got an articulate voice. Keep it up. Now that I know you post blogs, I’ll be checkin em.

    stay up.

  2. John, I agree and I used to agree with you entirely. However, I believe that it originated as a social construct/form of social conditioning, but has morphed into something else. To me its like depleted uranium: the people exposed to it pass on the disease to spouses and unborn children alike, poisons the entire system. What really turned my head was when I started inquiring of my white progressive friends and seeing how they had default racist beliefs and thought patterns that THEY didn’t even know they had. And yet were politically ‘progressive.’

    Racism gets underneath any neat political designations: conservative, liberal, radical. Some of the worst racists I’ve met wear dreds, smoke blunts and listen to reggae all day. They support the ‘right’ causes and protest the ‘wrong’ ones. End of the day, they are unconscious racists – their behavior or lack thereof tells on them. And it ain’t no ideological stance, but an engrained dis-ease.

  3. Ok, I feel you. It’s like a disease in how it spreads and incubates within the minds of white folks (especially within the U.S.). It’s almost invisible to them. Yep.

    Portland is special in how you got so many white folks who think that they no more than we do about our own “race”. And will tell you that to your face if you let em. To me that’s far more racist than a redneck callin me out of my name. Infact, I would go sa far to say that the white liberal is the biggest cause of racism here in the U.S. that is taking black folks down in this new age. It’s that accepted invisible (Democrats) racism that catches us blindsided.

    Wish folks would wake up.


  4. […] Racism: A Mental Illness? – thefreeslave “is it possible that persons with certain personality disorders—for example, paranoid or narcissistic personality disorder—might be more predisposed to racism than those who do not? These are all legitimate scientific questions that we as psychiatrist (tags: racism healthcare) […]

  5. What’s up freeslave, your blog is cool. I appreciate this post, but it’s not clear how the APA identifying racism as a pathology will be helpful. Racism is a pathology, sure. It’s also an unusual pathology in that it is shared, collective, historical, normalized, and integrated into everything. Seems odd to take such an individualistic approach to such an overwhelmingly broad structural pathology.

    Also, the APA is part of the problem. They’ve practically made a name for themselves in pathologizing oppressed people for our perfectly rational responses to oppression. Drapetomania, anyone?

    The professional mental health industry in the business of assessing and diagnosing racism…just seems absurd, it’s like the pus calling the maggot white, if you know what I mean.

  6. ThatGirl: Welcome. I’m not lobbying for the APA to do anything. My point is that before we can treat/address racism, we have to understand it. I don’t think we understand it, the depth of it. From my vantage point, certainly many white people are active, conscious racists. On the other hand, many are not, including many liberals/progressives who masquerade as ‘friends’ or ‘allies.’ Some of them even have websites or blogs that deal with the issue of racism – and lead down blind alleys.

    So let me be clear: I posted an article from a psychiatrist only to support my point that the idea that racism is entirely volitional is bullshit. I wasn’t crawling in bed with ANY institution.

  7. LOL, alright brotha, didn’t mean to accuse you of crawling in bed with anyone in particular. I was just concerned about Bell’s assertion, “We should let science, not our personal opinions, answer these questions,” as if science — the objective god — will help us sort these things out. Ha! Good luck with that…

    However, I read more of the back posts and discussions on your blog and I now realize the context in which you posted this. The discussion under the post “Racism Drives Niggas Crazy, But Leaves White Folks Unscathed?!” is pretty ridiculous. God, why are white folks so irritating? Can’t believe they missed the larger point and got derailed by nature/nurture and ‘I have a mental illness’ tangents. Jeezus, gotta hold people’s hands thru everything…

    Well, to add to your argument, here’s a link that I think you might find interesting: Jennifer Eberhardt’s research. I’ve read one of her research paper’s in detail and it’s pretty fascinating.

    Again, cool blog, I’ll visit often!


  8. That,

    It is funny to see how intelligent white people stumble over themselves to highlight errors in punctuation and grammar in order to avoid the actual subject. It was clear their egos, brainwashing or both wouldn’t allow them to. Their reactions hint strongly at either racism as mental illness OR a masterful mind control program.

    BTW: my rhetoric is often more pointed than my intention. Thanks for the link, looks good

  9. I think the mental illness comparison is convincing.
    Two key points: a. as with mental illness, you can’t just wake up and decide, “OK, from now on I won’t be racist.” It takes more. b. as I said in a comment on a later post (I am reading this discussion backwards), trying to discuss racism with a racist, especially one who won’t admit they are one, is like trying to have a rational discussion with a mentally ill person. They just can’t/won’t see.

  10. OK, now I’ve read various threads on various blogs about this, and had various reactions. It makes me look incoherent.

    However, having slept on the matter, I STILL think the mental illness analogy is convincing, with one caveat: specific KINDS of mental illness. Just as you suggest.

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