When I was working on my PhD, quite a few years ago by now, I read a book that made a deep impression on me: The Impossibility of Sex by psychoanalyst Susie Orbach. This was an important book for me in many ways, maybe mainly because I got ideas for how to interweave real people’s narratives with theory and debates in a way that really engages. Another thing that made an impression was Orbach’s open and unpretentious way of sharing her personal thoughts and feelings.
The book has really been quite groundbreaking, mainly because Orbach writes so openly about her work and experiences as a psychoanalyst. This is a rare treat. Doctor-client confidentiality makes it tricky, but Orbach solves that by creating fictive characters based on real-life experiences she has had during all her years as a therapist. None of the clients in her book are, in other words, real, but they are based on real situations.
However, gaining insights into the ongoings in a psychoanalyst’s office isn’t the only thing that makes the book so special. It’s also Orbach’s openness and candidness when it comes to her thoughts, feelings, and reactions in therapy situations. It’s quite unique, really. She’s so honest, open, and thoughtful about it. It’s powerful, but also helpful and valuable, not least to other therapists or those training to become therapists.
But that’s not actually what made such a great impression on me when I read the book. It was rather what she wrote about racism. When Orbach analyzed her reactions to different clients and situations, she at one point kicked herself for being racist. She had a client of a different ethnic background and skin color than herself, and she noticed that she was extra careful not to do or say anything that that would seem racist and to treat this person just as she would treat anyone else. I was baffled by this because I just couldn’t see how that was racist. Wasn’t that what she wasn’t?
Well, years later, I now think I know what she meant. The reason it was racist was that she was so conscious of the other person being of a different race, that she invariably ended up acting and treating the person differently anyway, Maybe she concerned that her client wasn’t perhaps getting the best possible care after all; at least not the care a white person would have gotten.
I have grown up abroad and gone to school with kids from all over the world. I have had friends with all possible different shades of skin color and I have never considered myself racist. I mean, how can I be racist since I don’t care where people come from or what they look like?
But the truth is, it isn’t that simple. The reason is that we aren’t just individuals, we are also all a part of our cultures and the social and societal structures that surround us. We are given values to live by as we grow up – sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly. Much of what we have learned and gotten, we aren’t even aware of. And even if we are aware of it, it isn’t something that is easily changed or unlearned.
I know this now. I also know that I can’t just say that I’m not racist. The reason is that racism is such an integrated part of what I have been given in my culture, even though it hasn’t been conscious or consciously racist.
We know that racism is ubiquitous, but still no one – or few anyway – consider themselves racist. We are not aware of it, or if we are, it’s very hard to admit because most of us don’t want to be racist.
But as long as we don’t see it or admit it, we are a part of the problem. Because as long as we don’t, we are part of maintaining the existing structures instead of building new ones. This is actually not only true for racism, but all questions pertaining to different aspects of equality. It feels uncomfortable to think that you can both believe in equality and be a part of the problem.
I recently read an excellent book that explains all this very well: White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo.
DiAngelo is a sociologist. She has been a professor but now works as a diversity educator. She writes openly and disarmingly, without pointing fingers. She explains how our society is built on a racist foundation and how racism is integrated in the very structures that surround us. With us, she means us white people.
Racism of course exists elsewhere too, not just among white people, but this book is explicitly about white people’s racism and white supremacy. DiAngelo is able to explain, in a way that is easy to understand, that our actions and what we say can be unconsciously racist even though we don’t mean them to be. Most of us don’t want to be racist and consider ourselves good people, but also good people do and say unconsciously racist things just because we have grown up with racist principles and assumptions without even being aware of it.
If we realize that this isn’t about whether or not we are good people, but about societal structures that we need to learn to recognize and question, we can work with ourselves and learn to gain a greater understanding of these underlying processes without feeling wrongly accused. If we can assume that we are good people and that this isn’t about our character as individuals but about the society that surrounds us, we don’t have to feel uncomfortable or insulted when the word racism comes up. Only then can we have a constructive dialogue around racism and work for a more open and equal world.
Let’s do that! Oh, and please read DiAngelo’s book!