Can white supremacy be “cured” by therapy? In the 1970s, an attempt was made by a group of Black psychiatrists to classify extreme racism as a mental disorder. The American Psychiatric Association refused to do this, stating as its reason that extreme bigotry is so pervasive in American culture that it is normative. If anything, the association argued, it’s a cultural problem, not a sign of psychopathology. Now, the obvious problem with this position is that it passes the buck of responsibility for addressing a clearly psychological problem to… no one. The United States does not have a profession analogous to psychiatry or clinical psychology for addressing “cultural problems.” In fact, if you subscribe to the ethos that a problem without a solution isn’t a problem at all, but merely a circumstance, you could argue that the United States has no cultural problems at all. Just an overabundance of cultural circumstances. But in 2021, I think we can do better.
In the 1990s, Tema Okun wrote an article about the characteristics of white supremacy culture. The document has received a number of updates since then, and has given rise to a website examining the characteristics in depth. As an antiracist therapist working for collective liberation, I have always been interested in theoretical models that empower people to disentangle themselves from oppressive systems. This is why I appreciate Okun’s work, and in this post I would like to make the argument that the characteristics of white supremacy culture that Okun identifies are issues that any good therapist should understand and should be working to unearth in themselves and in their clients.
A point of clarity: it is not my intention to prove that these characteristics are indeed essential to white supremacy. I’m starting from that assumption. It is also not my intention to point a finger at “those” white supremacists who have all these psychological problems. A cultural problem affects everyone in the culture, and it is not a moral failing to be affected by it. I’m assuming that most people reading my blog are not self-identified white supremacists. So if you are reading this and you are committed to being a part of the solution to our many cultural problems, I encourage you to look within to see how these characteristics of white supremacy culture affect you, your life, and your relationships.
Fear, white supremacy, and therapy
A major reason that we go to therapy is that we are afraid of something. We might be afraid of rejection, of failure, of taking risks, of public spaces, of intimacy. This fear often stops us from engaging fully with life, and causes us to feel much less connected with our loved ones. What needs to be emphasized more in therapy is that it is normal to feel fear in our culture, because white supremacy is based in fear. Our country was founded by people fleeing persecution who quickly became the main persecutors of “the other” in their new home. (Hurt people hurt people.) Take any major national issue, and notice how fear is on both sides of it. Guns: you’re either afraid of gun violence or tyranny. COVID: you’re either afraid of illness and death, or tyranny. The War on Terror: you’re either afraid of terrorism, or tyranny. (I swear this isn’t a “rule of three” thing. We’re just really afraid of tyranny.)
Perfectionism, one right way, paternalism, objectivity
Rigid thinking is a major reason that people seek help in therapy. It is based on the false belief (illusion) that perfection is possible, that there is only one right way to do something, that this one right and perfect way is known by the most enlightened members of society who deserve more power than everybody else, and that this is all objectively true and arguing with it is a sign of intellectual or moral weakness. Depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem are hugely impacted by this way of thinking. Depression and low self-esteem are often associated with the belief that one will never measure up to some standard. Anxiety is associated with a frantic effort to do or learn the right thing. Both are rooted in fear, which is of course baked into the foundation of our nation. Fear results in the desire for control. If we believe that we can become perfect, or find the right way, or talk to the smart person, or somehow understand THE TRUTH, then we have nothing to fear. And if someone else disagrees, then they must be feared.
Either/or and the binary
This is another form of rigid thinking that is a common symptom of what the DSM calls borderline personality disorder. Sufferers will frequently shift between demonizing and idealizing people in their lives. Someone is either all good or all bad. Life is either going amazing or just horrible. It is hugely taxing on a person’s emotional stability and relationships, and, more importantly, it is a false perception. Life is more complicated than black and white. There are shades of grey. If we can’t see this, we’re going to have trouble getting around in life.
Progress is bigger/more, and quantity over quality
A highly materialistic way of looking at the world, dependent as it is on the ability to measure progress objectively, this way of thinking alienates people from the more subtle aspects of their lives. People who care only about making money will often see their relationships suffer. People who are always competing and comparing themselves to others will never be satisfied because there will almost always be someone who has more or who can do things faster.
Next week I will continue this analysis with four more characteristics of white supremacy culture and how they are ideal fodder for a productive therapy session.
Nauser Bear is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California (LMFT#123099; licensed with the BBS as Nicholas Jon Reynolds). To work with Nauser, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, call (510) 394-5373, or schedule a free 20-minute consultation by clicking here.
Disclaimer: This blog and comments on it do not constitute medical or mental health advice. If you are in need of support and live in California, contact me to set up a consult to see if working together is a fit. Otherwise, seek mental health support in your area. If you are in danger of hurting yourself or someone else, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention hotline, which is available 24/7, at 800-273-8255.