Race and the unconscious

By Martin L. Smith

I read with fascination recently the account of an experiment studying interactions between white and black Americans. In the first phase researchers set up individual conversations between African Americans and whites, and the African Americans recorded their impressions. Then the researchers divided the white participants into two groups. The first had made their racism obvious through their insulting tone. The second had conversed respectfully. A second round of conversations took place, and the researchers immediately subjected all the white participants to a set of cognitive tests in private. The results were very interesting. Most of the white participants who pleased the African Americans by their respectful behavior did far worse in these cognitive tests than those who had not been nice! However, if the tests were administered again an hour later the discrepancy in the results between the two groups disappeared.

The researchers propose this explanation: most of the white folk who were behaving respectfully to the African Americans were having to devote a huge amount of energy to the unconscious process of censoring their actual negative impulses. So much so, that it took the brain an hour or so to recover equilibrium and restore normal service to all its functions. The racist whites made no bones about the contempt they entertained for blacks, so their brains weren’t overtaxed at all when they talked with them.

Surely, these are the kind of explorations that should most fascinate and challenge Christians like ourselves. After all we inherit thousands of years of meditation on human experience, and scripture itself is a rich resource of reflection about the conviction that reliance on outer behavior alone to judge the condition of the heart is sheer folly. God is the one that sees through, sees into, sees behind the appearances many human beings can keep up. Episcopalians should be specially concerned since, generally speaking, we entertain a rather Anglo-Saxon devotion to good manners and correct appearances. Our standards of respectful behavior are fairly high, and when we embrace enthusiastically all sorts of slogans about inclusiveness and equality it can easily seem—at least to the white majority—that the work of purging the church of racism has been almost achieved. Actually, though the worst outrages might have diminished, the real work has only started. There is a vast difference between the ability to perform as if we regard one another as equals and relationships based on a far more profound change: conversion, what the prophetic tradition of scripture calls getting a new heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone, and a new Spirit.

Primarily because I am in an interracial partnership I’m keenly aware that it is a matter of conversion not cosmetics. Before I moved to Washington, I had taken the excellent anti-racism training our Church offers. I had been on the board of a non-profit dedicated to supporting inner-city youth, mainly black. I’d thought it had registered when black friends told me that they had come to expect on average about ten put downs a day from white folk. I could talk about the unearned privileges of being white. But it was only by actually being taken into friendships, into social networks, by many African Americans, and embarking on a partnership with an African American, that I really started exploring the reality of racism, beginning with my own. Of course, I could behave with superb manners to black folk, but what good were these if they successfully masked engrained attitudes, ways I was wired? Thus started a spiritual adventure of unlearning, rewiring, facing fears, listening for things I had never heard, sensing things I had never realized, jettisoning things I had thought were part of the fabric of reality and now know to be obscene deceptions.

The protocols of political correctness are worse than useless if they merely make people more adept in censoring inner negativity. They can deter us from dealing with the endemic affliction of the heart, our very brains that wired themselves to correspond to society’s perversions and made themselves recruits for reinforcing and transmitting them. Instead, we should be digging deep wells into our scriptural spirituality that really does insist that in order for a person to be in Christ, in order for there to be a new creation, the old has to pass away. Our polite, predominantly middle class religious culture doesn’t find the radical language of Paul to its taste at all, but I have never been more profoundly convinced that there we must stop avoiding his robust language about the pain involved in separating ourselves from the prerogatives of power: “I have been crucified with Christ.” And those of us who have enjoyed the majority’s unearned privileges need the insight that our built in sense of superiority can’t be just adjusted or ameliorated. It needs crucifying for our new humanity to emerge from within.

Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s in Washington, D.C.

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6 Comments
  1. But don’t you think acting is the first step? Acting our way into right relationship no matter how much energy it takes begins the way to being non-racist. And it is nothing compared to the energy those who are victims of racism expend fighting off negativity.

  2. I’m curious about when the study you mention was done.

    There is an older body of literature that suggests that changing a person’s behavior is the first step in changing attitudes. Nonetheless, your point is well-taken. We cannot politely masquerade to conceal negative feelings. But acting in a certain way may be, as Ann says above, the first step in changing–and hopefully eradicating racism–and all the -isms.

  3. Sometimes “acting as if” is all a person has going on one’s behalf. “Acting as if” is the principle behind good manners. Behind courtesy that allows us civil interchange with each other.

    What this piece highlights for me is the very deep divisions there are between people. For sometime now, I have believed that we are all racists, really. IMO we are all innately afraid of that which is different from one’s self to the extent that we will try to make the other like one’s self or drive the other away.

    I assign no value to this observation because I consider it a very bald fact. Feelings are. The question is what do with them. The real issue is what do with this dynamic.

    Bigots in their varieties are perhaps more honest than liberals like I. All I have going for myself is the knowledge that I want to be better and do better.

    In his sermon yesterday, Fr. Mike Russell (All Souls, San Diego) said that while the Light had pierced the darkness and became human and the Light had been made manifest for the whole world, the Light also draws us inexorably to Good Friday and finally to the Resurrection, where all things are made new.

    Because the Resurrection is, that which divides us is undone. We Christians live our lives with one foot on the earth and one in heaven. There is now neither Jew nor gentile, male or female, slave or free, white or non-white, gay or straight: we are all one in Christ Jesus.

    What I find unfortunate is that while all this has been made true within us at baptism, it takes us all our lives and then some to grab a hold of this ontological change.

    In the meantime, “acting as if” is all I have going for me.

    Sister Gloriamarie Amalfitano,

    San Diego, CA

  4. Lelanda Lee

    Well, the study reported by Martin explains a lot. And it sounds like the study whose url was posted by John might indeed be related.

    As a Chinese-American, I, too, like the Blacks, have come to expect subtle and not so subtle instances of racist behavior to be directed at me or around me everyday when I interact with the community outside my household’s doors, which community is primarily White here in Longmont, CO. I often find myself “lost” in my emotions when a racist event happens to me and am unable to respond in an assertive and holistic way, and now I know why — it’s because I’ve been derailed into an alternate reality and am no longer present in the moment. I’m processing (dancing) as fast as I can.

    I wrote an article a few months ago, entitled, “If I Say It’s Racist, Will You Still Be My Friend?” in which I described the loss of a long-term friendship because I could no longer be silent about a racist remark that had been repeated numerous times over many years. I knew it would be risky to point out that the remark was racist, but I had reached my limit and I was trying to live into “Telling the truth,” the platform under which I ran for election to Colorado’s Standing Committee and for a General Convention Deputy slot (and, incidentally, fyi, I was elected to SC and as Lay Deputy 5).

    Even though I have, it turns out, lost that friendship, I don’t regret telling the truth about the racist remark. The internal emotional and spiritual cost of not telling the truth is much greater to bear and really not what we’re called to suffer as Christians. We’re not supposed to be martyred for what others do to us, but for what we do to stand up for Christ’s truth of love and reconciliation for all. It is my hope, and I hope it’s not a naive hope, and prayer that my sisters and brothers to whom I tell the truth about racism will walk with me in Christ’s loving embrace towards a time when we don’t hurt each other so much or so often in such small, but sharp ways.

  5. Lou

    The study reported by John Chilton includes this observation: “Psychologists have some theories about how the experience of racism plays out in the brain—and what that means today compared to before. All human beings are driven by a few core needs, including the need to understand the world around us. When people do things to us, we must know why, and if we are uncertain we will spend whatever cognitive power we have available to diagnose the situation.”

    That particular study focused on responses when observing incidents of racial discrimination, and focused entirely on the impact of that discrimination on the victims. As the study reported by Martin Smith suggests, there is an urgent need to examine the cognitive effects of racist behavior, thoughts and culturally socialized assumptions upon the “white” people originating them.

    The piece of this psychic and spiritual mess most needing attention is the very concept of “whiteness,” itself. There is substantial historical ground to suspect that the positive metaphors associated with “white” and contrasting metaphors for darkness provided the cognitive framework for the very concept of “race” as it morphed from a word mainly supporting anti-Semitism into one conceptualizing multiple, color-based divisions of humanity.

    Theologically, to extend James Cone’s association of the lynching tree with the cross (see pbs.org, Bill Moyers’ Journal archive), it seems fair to suggest that racist cultural and institutional practices continue to administer psychological crucifixions daily, and the modern challenge of “The Way” is to help all who identify themselves with the dominant culture to transform their own self-identity. We need to erase that blond, blue-eyed Jesus from our favored consciousness and understand, as Cone has said, that God, in today’s American context, is black.

    That, in turn, can free our minds to address our cognitive awareness of race and human colors in new ways and to ally ourselves effectively with those victimized by the racist system.

    Lou Schoen

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