Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Racism and Mental Illness

I'm a white woman. I'm also writing this post while I'm very upset, which is never a good idea. I'd really like to hear from woc/poc in comments, because I know the power of racism and white privilege, so I know that maybe I'm not getting something so fundamental, so important, that I'm missing the whole point.

There's a discussion over at Sly Civilian's about whether racism is a mental illness. Max Julian says:

The reason I conceptualize racism/white supremacy as a mental illness, is not because I don’t want to do something about it, but because of the chronic nature of the illness. I’ve talked to more than enough white folks about racism, seen their inability to grasp plain English (and these were highly educated people), cringed at their illogic, observed them strain and do verbal and mental backflips in order to sidestep the implications of their own behavior. From what I’ve seen, my diagnosis still stands.

The chronic nature doesn't mean that racism is an illness. Hate fuels itself and has remarkable staying power. White people refusing to see racism, to see the damage done by racism, comes from obstinacy. A person who is psychotic is truly incapable of seeing reality. A racist chooses to be racist. I've seen a lot of highly educated white people, and I'm not impressed on any level by them. They choose to be hateful and to do stupid things on a regular basis. Their actions don't spring from an illness, they result from both deliberate and unconscious choices that each individual makes.

Max Julian is right that all white people are born into a system of white supremacy, and that there is no escaping being in that system. But I maintain that all white people have a choice: go along with the status quo or fight. Racism is learned, mental illness is not. People don't learn to develop mental illness, just like they don't learn to have lupus. People have to avoid thinking critically, avoid seeing the harm they cause to continue to be racists.

Racism deserves to be stigmatized; mental illness does not. Unfortunately, the amount of stigma attached to racism is still very small, while the amount of stigma attached to mental illness is huge. I simply can't understand why anyone fails to see why I find classifying racism as a mental illness to be highly offensive. Please, offer your thoughts.


sly civilian said...

se- i'm grateful that both you and piny were commenting...i got bogged down in my own personal reaction and anger to a point that made it difficult to respond.

that's not a bad thing, in and of itself, but it made it very difficult to respond.

animeg said...

I personally don't think it's right as the stigma is keeping people from help!

*I suffer from bad nerves.

spotted elephant said...

Sly-I was having the same type of trouble-I was afraid I was so hurt and angry that either I'd miss what he was trying to say, or I'd be aggressive. Sigh.

Shannon-That's a good point-any kind of stigma is likely to make people hide instead of trying to deal with the issue. I guess I'm stuck on white people deserving to feel shame about racism since so many don't.

RenegadeEvolution said...


i am with you, i think racism and mental illness are two very different things.

kyagyn said...

Racism pays off for white people thats why many of us don't want to
think critically. Mental illnes does not pay off for anyone, the two are very different. Equating them is another example of replacing political thinking with theraputic thinking.

Thanks for the very clear post.

taught_to_despise said...

Sadly I think the very fact racist people can 'help it' but mentally ill people cannot, is the difference.

If you cannot 'help it' then that is totally scary. Apparantly.

If you CAN 'help it' and you are a total shithead then that's okay 'cause at least you could 'turn it off'. That the shitheads don't **want** to 'turn it off' doesn't come into it.

I'd guess most mentally ill people wish they were not mentally ill and they try damn hard to recover, too. Trying to recover in a society which says you are shit and better of dead is not the easiest task either.

spotted elephant said...

Thanks everyone.

The fundamental difference is in responsibility. I *cannot* get my head around any other way to think about either racism or mental illness.

Winter said...

The fundamental difference is in responsibility.

I agree; if you're saying racism is a mental illness, surely you're saying they can't help it! This is not the impression I've got from talking to racists.

spotted elephant said...

Winter-Either you're saying racists can't help being racist (in which case, there's no hope). Or you're saying people with mental illnesses can find a way to get over it. Both of those ideas offend me deeply.

RachelsTavern said...

I agree with you. Here's a link to an old post I made about this issue. http://www.blackprof.com/archives/2005/12/is_racism_a_mental_illness.html

I have different reasoning, but I come to the same conclusion.

spotted elephant said...

Rachel-That's an excellent post. Medicalization is a dangerous process. As you pointed out, how would that begin to address institutional racism? Sure, individuals design the system, but really, isn't labeling it a disorder too easy?

One question for you that's off-topic: you listed several things that had been medicalized, and one of them was depression. Do you still feel that depression is a social problem rather than a mental disorder?

RachelsTavern said...

Spotted elephant said, "Do you still feel that depression is a social problem rather than a mental disorder?"

I feel it is both. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Part of my concern with the medicalization of depression is that it is part of this larger trend where we expect everybody to be happy all the time. I had a student one time who was having some troubles (her mother was gravely ill and she had some immigration problems). SHe went to the campus doctor, and the doctor wrote her a prescription for some psychotropic drug. I thought that was ridiculous based on one encounter this doctor decided to handout these drugs like candy. She needed somebody to talk to; it's perfectly normal to be depressed about those kind of events.

I think there are cases where medication works for people, but even if people do need medication, I am convinced that other social/behavior interventions are also useful and should be done simultaneously.

Moreover, the consequences of depression (clinical or others) are social. In my view it's not just something that exists in a person's brain, and then it ends. In fact, we are probably doing more harm than good by teaching people this.

I suppose my views contradict psychiatry, but I guess that's the social constructionist in me. I think we should always look at how changes in society reflect changes in individuals and vice versa.