Whiteness on the Couch

Natasha Stovall| Longreads | August 2019 |

“Father, Mother, and Me/

Sister and Auntie Say/

All the people like us are We/

And everyone else is They.”

Rudyard Kipling

“England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses/

It’s the home of police who kill black boys on mopeds.”

—Sinéad O’Connor


The couch in my therapy office is occupied mostly by white people. Anxious white people and depressed white people. Obsessive white people and compulsive white people. White people who hurt people and white people who hurt themselves. White people who eat too much, drink too much, work too much, shop too much. White people who are bored, envious, guilty, numb. Racist white people and antiracist white people. White people who look across the room and see a white therapist listening. We talk about everything. Except being white.


An old saw about therapy is that the thing you don’t talk about is thething. The therapist and patient together avoid this thing, this shameful and threatening thing. The thingis unconscious — sometimes partially, other times totally. You only know it by the silence and illogic that surrounds it, and the extremes to which the patient will go to erase any sign of it in their own mind, and in their therapist’s, too. The first step towards unpacking the thingis finding a way to talk about it. Just talk about it, moving step by careful step into a psychic place so raw that even acknowledging this unconscious thingis a threat to safety and sanity. Freud called this process “making the unconscious conscious” and it has defined psychotherapy ever since.

What if whiteness is the thing?

Depending on who you are, that question falls somewhere between obvious and sacrilege. That’s one sign that whiteness might be the thing. A spin of today’s media dial offers its own data, a smorgasbord of white people flailing within the confines of whiteness: Covington Catholic and Rachel Dolezal, Permit Patty and Baked Alaska. Everywhere we look, whiteness is folding deeply in upon itself: white power mass killers, paranoid Starbucks managers, intellectualized white “nationalists,” next door Nazis, itchy trigger police, well-meaning white-guilt sufferers, aspirational “identitarians,” privileged privilege-checkers, clean cut MAGA thugs, neo-pagan Islamophobes, self-segregating liberal elites, exponentially-multiplying white opioid addicts, anti-racist street fighters, offended NFL fans. Shitlords and allies and Proud Boys, oh my.

The couch in my therapy office is occupied mostly by white people. We talk about everything. Except being white.

Behind the curtain, we practice the old ways. Killers in uniform and brown-skinned people in cages. Stolen babies and powdered grandees. Daytime puritans and nighttime raiders. The fun-loving exploitation and the navel-gazing narcissism, the helicopter parenting and the high-wire religiosity. The blackface, the projection, the violence, the arrogance. The othering, the scapegoating, the appropriation, the gentrification. The conspicuous consumption and the environmental degradation; the implicit bias and the passive aggression. The binging, the purging, the hoarding, the decluttering. And deeper still: the emotional deprivation, the imposter syndrome, the hair-trigger rage, the self loathing. The narcissism, the status anxiety, the paranoia, the body alienation. The familial estrangement and the boundary violations; the persecutory delusions and the identification with the aggressor. The fear of invasion and the thrill of domination. The craving for pain relief and the hunger for blood and soil.


As Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke famously suggested, what is within surrounds us. For most white Americans, that is an increasingly thorny concept, a flickering awareness of a mountain of historical and personal debt that has suddenly become due, yet again. In the face of blatant white racial aggression —Dylann Roof or El Paso or Donald Trump — there is a reflexive instinct among white people to proclaim #ThisIsNotUs. But a deeper self asks, How much of this isus? If it isus, who are we?


What is whiteness, and which one? Farm-to-table white or Cracker Barrel white? Rust Belt white or Sunbelt White? Electric car white or pickup truck white? Digital white or analog white? One percent honky or precariat ofay? Italian? Irish? English? Italian? Irish? English? Ukrainian? Polish? The very idea of white identity — or race itself — is anything but settled. Whiteness appears in no therapy manuals, is absent from catalogs of psychological ailments, is rarely mentioned as a factor in diagnosis or treatment, yet we know it when we see it. Patient is irritable, defensive, obsessive and grandiose. Ego orientation fluctuates between superiority and vulnerability, with an underlying paranoia (trauma related?) focused on external threats and characterized by fantasies of domination, invasion and annihilation. Under the microscope, racism and white peoples’ ancient dance with it looks an awful lot like what in other contexts — an inpatient ward, a group therapy session — would be classified as psychopathology. Whiteness is self-perpetuating yet self-defeating yet self-reinforcing, inseparable from power yet quick to decompensate. “Whiteness is inherently fragile, unstable and prone to disintegration,” psychologists Arianne Miller and Lawrence Josephs wrote almost 15 years ago in their article “Whiteness As Pathological Narcissism.” There is a “vulnerability to states of narcissistic decompensation characterized by white shame and rage.” We are a danger to ourselves and others, from the defensive neurosis of white fragility to the paranoid brutality of mass incarceration and Jim Crow, down the psychotic-sadistic rabbit hole of chattel slavery, through the looking glass to the stone cold delusion of racial superiority itself. “I am not a nigger. I am a man,” James Baldwin said. “If I’m not the nigger here, and if you invented him — you, the white people, invented him — then you have to find out why.” He added, “The future of the country depends on it.”


How does a reckoning happen without willingness? What about people who don’t want to become less racist, or have no pressing need to? What about people who secretly, or not-so-secretly, enjoy their racism? What about people who are genuinely disturbed? In the 1960s, a group of black psychiatrists petitioned the American Psychiatric Association to add “extreme bigotry” to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, citing the frenzied, often homicidal violence against civil rights activists. The APA rejected the petition, making the claim that “extreme” prejudice was so normative among American whites that it was more of a cultural phenomenon than an individual pathology. (An interesting piece of intellectual jiujitsu — who makes up a culture if not individuals?) Harvard professor and psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint has suggested that more intense strains of racist belief should be classified as a psychosis, specifically a subtype of Delusional Disorder. He described his patients who “projected their own unacceptable behavior and fears onto ethnic minorities, scapegoating them for society’s problems.” Poussaint interpreted this scapegoating as a symptom of deeper psychological dysfunction that presents a danger to the patient and those around them. He found psychotherapy to be an effective treatment: “When these patients became more aware of their own problems, they grew less paranoid — and less prejudiced.” Poussaint has called for guidelines to help mental health providers recognize “delusional racism.” Otherwise, Poussant warned, “delusional racists will continue to fall through the cracks of the mental health system, and we can expect more of them to explode.”


It is both necessary and unhelpful to separate racist violence from whiteness itself. “Mental illness and hatred pull the trigger, not the gun,” goes the latest iteration of “very fine people.” (Putting aside for a moment that the business of guns needs hatred to flourish, and racial hatred racks up nice, big numbers.) In order to treat and heal individuals, racist or not, who are vulnerable to extreme mental states andhave the capacity for violence (an extremely small population, overall), it can be useful to harness the tools of psychiatry including diagnoses like psychosis or mania. On the societal level, the use of “mental illness” to explain racist mass murder — innumerable incidents over hundreds of years — is absurd. If it’s mental illness, it’s a societal one, a specifically white one, in which white males are singularly vulnerable to violent expressions of racial prejudice. These mass killers with their manifestos are the identified patient in the dysfunctional white American family, manifesting all the symptoms, hidden and obvious, of our race problems. Well known to all family therapists, the identified patient takes the family’s conflicts and manifests them in personal distress — anxiety, depression, mania, psychosis. When the patient begins to get better, the family unconsciously pressures them to stay sick, because without the identified patient the family’s illness is laid bare. Why would we want to take away our white boys’ guns? Why would we want to give them mental health care? Why would we want to understand their pull to extreme bigotry instead of just demonizing them? Then we would have to admit that there is a problem, and the problem is us.


The idea that whiteness is a problematic state of being, one that requires immediate intervention for the health of the nation, has been seeping into white consciousness since the 1960s, and even earlier. Therapists rarely think to question the role of racial identity in their white patient’s lives, but Benjamin Franklin noted white people problems back during the wars between indigenous tribes and settler Europeans. He puzzled that freed prisoners of war, Native and European, generally chose indigenous life over settler “civilization.” He diagnosed a problem in European culture, in whiteness: “With us are infinite Artificial wants,” he wrote. “No less craving than those of Nature, and much more difficult to satisfy.” Unpuzzling the paradoxes of the white psyche has been a pursuit of non-white people for centuries. Poet Phyllis Wheatley, kidnapped from West Africa and enslaved as a young girl, wrote in 1774 about the bizarre thought process she observed in her slave-owning fellow revolutionaries: “I desire not for their Hurt, but to convince them of the strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and Actions are so diametrically opposite. How well the Cry for Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the exercise of oppressive Power over others agree.” Olaudah Equiano, who lived out his enslavement as a sailor, wrote in his autobiography about the circular illogic he saw at work in the minds of whites: “When you make men slaves, you deprive them of half their virtue, you set them in your own conduct an example of fraud, rapine, and cruelty, and compel them to live with you in a state of war; and yet you complain that they are not honest or faithful!” One hundred years later Sioux chief Sitting Bull spoke to a similar psychic discrepancy: “What white man can say ‘I never stole his land or a penny of his money’? Yet they say that I am a thief. What white woman, however lonely, was ever captive or insulted by me? Yet they say I am a bad Indian.” From colonization to revolution, slavery to emancipation, O.J. to Obama, white America has engaged in an epic struggle to hide, avoid, and rationalize the glaring gulf between our egalitarian self-image and our repressive group behavior. And we aren’t fooling anyone. The confusion in white people’s hearts is the most poorly kept secret in the world.

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Yet the field of psychology, so intimately involved in all matters of the white heart, is nowhere to be found. Despite the outsize drama that whiteness brings to the public scene, it is still not much more than a cognitive wisp in most white Americans’ daily brainscape, including those of most, but not all, white therapists. The silence about whiteness in most therapies is deafening. Almost three hundred years after Franklin’s letter, “we still have no clue what being born white means,” as white NBA coach Gregg Popovich put it. We are white children of white parents, white descendants of white ancestors, yet we have few ideas and even less language with which to make sense of our whiteness. Hovering off-camera, whiteness works in silence, quietly defining our white families, our white marriages, our white jobs, our white government, our white schools, our white police. It courses like electricity through the walls of white American life — silent, comforting, frightful, binding, beneficent, shocking, avoided. “There remain critical forces at work perpetuating racism that operate below and outside the White radar screen,” writes white psychoanalyst Neil Altman. “These forces are built into the political and economic structures of our society, into the value structures by which we were raised, into the selves we construct in an effort to feel good about ourselves.”


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