The Unconscious Mind
Anyone who has taken an introductory psychology class should remember Freud’s iceberg theory – the conscious mind represents the visible part of the iceberg above water and the unconscious mind represents the part invisible to the naked eye. Just as the iceberg sinks into the depths of the sea, the unconscious mind represents the depths of the psyche; the mysterious realm of what is not yet known, seeking to reveal itself through our dreams.
Dreams are but one manifestation of the ascension of unconscious content into awareness. Defense mechanisms such as denial, projection, and rationalization are also pathways to the unconscious. Theoretical and technical advances in the field of psychology since Freud provide effective tools allowing us to peer into the unconscious and bring clarity to an often confused conscious mind.
Analyst D.W. Winnicott once stated, “We are consciously confused and unconsciously controlled.” Our decisions, choices, and actions are often dictated by unconscious forces, leaving us without explanation for much of our functioning.
We are typically content to move forward with little introspection, allowing forces beneath our awareness to dictate the course of our lives. Consumed by the busy-ness of life, we spend little time seeking to bring clarity to our confusion until the consequences of our behavior bring us to a pause.
A Call for Reflection
Collectively, our nation has been brought to a pause. The killing of nine innocent people in a house of worship left a nation wondering why and grappling, yet again, with the issue of race. The confederate flag waving, white supremacist rantings of the killer shown wearing a jacket with apartheid South African and Rhodesian flags provided a visible display of obvious racism.
In today’s United States overt racism, as evidenced by the average Klansman or Skinhead, is taboo. Most white folks are as offended at being labeled a racist as black folks are at being called a nigger; a far cry from the days when George Wallace passionately stated, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever” in his inaugural address as the newly elected governor of Alabama in 1963. Such is the desire to distance oneself from the traumas of a collective past yet to be healed.
In the 1960s, the nation was brought to a pause as it witnessed protesters being attacked by dogs and sprayed with fire hoses in the fight for Civil Rights. Legislative efforts to address the legalized racism of the Jim Crow era was the result; however, legislation does not change the human heart.
Centuries of racial conditioning, initially utilized to justify the inhumane treatment of African slaves and assert white supremacy, is not magically transformed overnight. However, negative generational and societally reinforced attitudes, beliefs, and feelings about black people became increasingly unacceptable in the years following integration.
In The Shadow of Race, the psychological transition of the United States to a post-overtly racist society is explored. Jung’s concept of shadow (what is hidden, repressed, and denied) is utilized to more fully understand the shift.
What exists today is an unconsciously racist society where acts of racism are committed, yet, the perpetrators deny racist inclinations. Essentially, the result is what some refer to as non-racist racism.
Guilt, Shame, and Shadow
Such mind-bending assertions make little sense without understanding the psychology behind them. Understanding shadow requires understanding shame and guilt. Guilt is a function of actions that defy moral conviction and its fraternal twin, shame, indicates a negative assessment of one’s personhood. The simple description is that guilt is an indication of wrong-doing and shame an indication of wrong-being.
My participation in racial healing endeavors reveals distinct reactions among the racial divisions of black and white. When exploring racism, in both past and present expressions, black people generally experience anger while white people generally experience guilt and shame. Guilt and shame are particularly evident when unconsciously held racial biases, stereotypes and prejudiced attitudes, beliefs, and actions become conscious.
Guilt and shame thrive in darkness and in darkness our shadows dwell. Casting light on the shadow of race is often met with resistance as the forces of guilt and shame are set in motion resulting in disconnection between self-perception (as a non-racist person) and emotions communicating a very different message.
Human emotion exists in both healthy and toxic forms. Guilt and shame are both indications of conscience and humility. When these energies are ignored, repressed, denied or unprocessed, they become toxic, generating equally toxic behaviors. Guilt, shame, and the dark shadows we seek to keep in the depths will find expression, leaving us confused in the wake of actions deemed “out of character” and seeking to justify them in some way.
I was engaged in a conversation with an older woman several months ago who claimed racism was no longer an issue in this country. She acknowledged that it was once dangerous for black men in this country, but “that ship has sailed.” This, in light of constant media coverage of unarmed black men being killed by police over the past year. She also felt the need to tell me about her one black friend and assert, as many do, that she does not see color.
In a recent discussion, a white male prided himself on not giving in to white guilt and shame during a heated interaction with a black male surrounding the subject of racism. Given the degree of hostility and anger directed toward me, it appears as if shame and guilt have been “cross-wired” and given expression as anger. Progress and healing will not occur if blacks succumb to anger and whites to shame and guilt. No one is served in that way. However, the suppression and cross-wiring of emotions is equally damaging. Healing occurs through identifying, owning, and processing one’s authentic experience. Such honesty requires great courage.
In both examples given, I am pretty certain neither party would accept the label of racist as an aspect of their being, or identity. For all the reasons expressed thus far, assigning a racist label to someone is an ineffective means of confronting racist behavior. The idea as outlined in this clip is to address the behavior, not the person. Still, defense mechanisms are powerful forces; especially in response to anything that suggests racist leanings.
A New Conversation about Race
Too few, across the racial spectrum, embark on the journey of learning about and healing racism. Most are content to live in the delusion that they are untainted by centuries of racial conditioning. Clearly, if one has been the beneficiary of racism (i.e. white privilege), it is easy to dismiss it as someone else’s problem, or, assert that we now live in a fair and balanced post-racial society. Only the psychologically and spiritually evolved among us would surrender privileged status and the advantages it affords for true equality and fairness.
I do not wish to imply that unconscious racism – racial biases, stereotypes and prejudiced attitudes, beliefs and actions that exist beneath conscious awareness – makes anyone a bad person. Many well-intentioned, well-meaning, good people simply lack awareness. No one is immune to the workings of the psyche; however, when the unconscious is revealed and a conscious choice to deflect or avoid is made, one loses credibility in being offended by accusations of racism.
The historical, social, economic, and political dimensions of racism frequently enter public dialogue. Rarely are the psychological dimensions of racism explored. While the unconscious component is but one facet, the psychology of racism is a perspective given too little attention and one that holds the potential to open new avenues for understanding, healing, and progress.