A psychological perspective on racism

The death of George Floyd in custody in the USA ignited global demonstrations against police brutality and racism. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic also unleashed racism and xenophobia. It is common for people to explain racism in terms of psychological phenomenon such as ingroup and outgroup biases. In fact, there is a more sophisticated psychological perspective that can explain why people in one racial group tend to perceive their counterparts in another racial group with prejudice, discrimination and antagonism.

Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein developed the idea of projective identification to explain human beings tendency to expel the unacceptable parts of ourselves and project outwardly to another person. In this way, the other person is not perceived as a holistic being with both good and bad qualities, but with fragmented bad qualities that the projector cannot bear within oneself. The recipient of the projection internalizes the bad qualities and believes that one is characterized by such. For example, a white university student projects her academic failure to a black student and subtly hints the black student should not be studying in the university. The black student internalizes this projection and thinks one does not deserve to study in the university.

When communication between different racial groups is interrupted, misunderstanding or misattribution may occur. This can cause one racial group projecting negative aspects to another group in order to get rid of ones’ negative feelings of owning these negative aspects instead. This justifies the projector to exhibit violence (verbal or physical) against the members of the perceived negative racial group. In real life, there are many instances of people in a racial group exhibits violence towards people in another racial group. The death of George Floyd is one example.

People with limited psychological development are more prone to the mechanism of projective identification. For a person with secure attachment developed from having a secure relationship with a responsive and caring mother, he or she will be able to be more aware of one’s negative aspects and take back the ownership of these dark sides. As a result, the person will be less likely to project these onto another person. For those adults who have traumatic childhood experiences, undergoing psychotherapy with a consistent and stable therapist may also modulate ones’ tendency to project ones’ unacceptable aspects to others.

Racism is a complicated issue. It is not possible to explain it with a single theory or mechanism. As our world is becoming more and more complicated, we need to incorporate knowledge of different disciplines to understand this global issue in a deeper sense. It is hoped that the awareness of racism can be enhanced through the integration of various disciplines for the creation of a better world.

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