Protests against the handling of racial tensions broke out this month on university campuses across the United States, and once again we find ourselves confounded by the deviltry of human nature. Why does skin color in 2015 still inflame animosities? Depth psychology provides us with deeper understanding of unconscious bias as a factor in racial tension.
Some white people remain intent on denying black people their humanity. These white people, unbeknownst to themselves, are not in touch with their own humanity. What exactly does that mean?
They don’t respect or love their own self. They’re burdened emotionally by self-doubt and self-rejection. They’re likely to be highly self-critical, and sometimes they despise themselves. Therefore, it follows logically that to love their neighbor as they “love” themselves is to dislike and perhaps to hate their neighbor.
Of course, they don’t usually hate their white neighbors—not all of them, anyway. Their animosity arises unfailingly for blacks or other minorities because they need someone or some group to which they can feel superior. Feeling superior is important to them because otherwise they feel inferior. Detesting others for their alleged inferiority is how they maintain an illusion of superiority.
The psychological mechanism of projection becomes a big player in racial tension. Projection is an unconscious process (it can be made conscious) whereby an individual transfers his own repressed emotional issues on to someone else. For instance, he “sees” in the other person the unworthiness and inferiority that he isn’t seeing (and doesn’t want to see) in himself. Unconsciously, he refuses to acknowledge the degree to which he identifies with himself through irrational negative emotions associated with being flawed, unworthy, and shameful.
As part of this projection, he detests the unworthiness that he “sees” in the other person. In this way, he disowns it in himself, largely through an unconscious defense that proceeds along these lines: “I don’t harbor feelings of unworthiness and identify with myself through them. That black person is the one who feels that way—and deservedly so. My contempt toward him proves I don’t want anything to do with those negative feelings.”
Even as he deludes himself with this false claim, he’s haunted or tormented by negative emotions—particularly conscious or unconscious shame and guilt—that arise from his entanglement in feeling unworthy and his disconnection from his authentic self.
This individual is acting out inner conflict: In his psyche, he’s on the receiving end of scorn and mockery from his inner critic for allegedly being a fool, a nobody, a failure, a weakling, or a loser. His great weakness—inner passivity—lies in his failure to protect himself from this self-aggression. However, he does manage to deflect some of that aggressive negative energy when he targets black people with the same allegations. Blacks thus become innocent targets of his projections and, ultimately, his psychological ignorance.
Highly neurotic people are the worst offenders. Still, everyday normal people can also contribute to the problem of racial tension. Even in situations in which a white person feels no conscious hostility toward black people, this individual might still fail to acknowledge their humanity. Imagine a white person walking along a university campus. A black person passes in the opposite direction, and this white person, as happens each time, makes no effort to make eye contact. This white person lacks the inner power to bestow recognition. If anything, he’s unconsciously interested in denying the black person that recognition. Why would he do that? He’s compelled to project his disowned emotional weaknesses onto a handy target. As he does so, he identifies unconsciously with the feeling of not being recognized, a feeling he’s quite familiar with in his relationship to himself and which he’s compelled to recycle within himself.
Often he makes eye contact with white people when they go by, though he does so not to recognize them in any sincere manner but to see if they’re registering any recognition of him.
To comprehend this more deeply, we have to be aware that, psychologically, we’re compelled to keep replaying, in some form or other, a negative emotion that’s unresolved within ourselves. In this example, the white person is burdened by his own self-doubt. He’s somewhat disconnected from his own worthiness and value. He can’t feel his inherent goodness, integrity, and courage, yet he’s prone to resent those qualities when they’re visible in someone else, particularly a black or other minority person. He resents the black person because, as he unconsciously compares himself to that person, he experiences self-doubt, sometimes to the point of feeling himself to be the lesser person.
So all he can offer black people are his projections onto them of the negativity that arises from his inner conflict. He also sees them as “an easy target” for his projections because he has bundled them up in stereotypical notions he picked up through the neuroses and insecurities of his culture. Black people, weary of being on the receiving end of such projections, are right to protest.
A tribal or nativist instinct is also at play. This instinct is experienced as an aversion to any encounters that might stretch the boundaries of one’s comfort zone. This fear of change is an obstacle to humanity’s developing consciousness. At this point in history, the tribal instinct has become a form of resistance, a liability that is inherently passive and that constitutes resistance to one’s personal development.
Meanwhile, some black people, in their self-doubt, also look unconsciously for this feeling of not being recognized or valued. They, too, can be in conflict: Consciously, they want to feel their value and be recognized for their humanity, yet unconsciously they’re expecting to continue to feel the hurt or pain of not being acknowledged. All of us need to become wiser about these deeper dynamics. The stronger and smarter we are, the more we can generate the feeling of value from within ourselves and the easier it is then to deflect or to neutralize emotionally the naïve and ignorant projections of others.
Just about every human being carries some deposits of these irrational impressions—being flawed, unworthy, and shameful—in his or her psyche. These negative emotions go back to childhood when each of us, birthing like a new star, had to navigate an inner cosmos of dynamic chaos. The pursuit of rationality and wisdom involves a passage through colliding irrationalities and emotional deviations into the light of self-respect and self-realization.
The first thing we need to shed is our negativity. Much of our negativity is unconscious. We’re seldom aware of how entangled we can become in feeling deprived, refused, controlled, trapped, criticized, rejected, and abandoned. When this dark matter churns inside us, it’s easy to feel victimized. Once we feel victimized, we go looking for the presumed victimizers, and we identify people or circumstances that we’re convinced are to blame. Now we project our unconscious negativity onto the world around us, determined to “see” the source of our misery in the misconduct, negligence, or unworthiness of others rather than to see it, where it actually arises, in our own psychological dynamics.
When we understand these dynamics and connect with our authentic self, we understand the heart and mind of all humanity. We can feel how much we have in common. We’re all yearning for inner harmony while bedeviled by inner conflict. We all seek love yet detour to rejection. A common psychology is our greatest intimacy and a common desire for love is our greatest strength.
Related: “Hidden Dynamics of Racism.”