• Gretchen Davidson

Narcissism in White America

"The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.”

― James Baldwin

Racism, and every other form of oppression, is a major factor in the construction of our current reality. It is built into every aspect of life in the United States and determines the roles we are given access to playing in this society. Racism affects all of us on collective, individual, relational, and even intrapsychic levels. This paper is concerned with exploring how racism is perpetuated in the white psyche. I will discuss intrapsychic processes that reinforce racism and offer suggestions for working with these processes to generate individual and collective change.

Societally, racism is perpetrated on a structural level, through our schools, housing, the criminal justice system and all other aspects of public life. Structural racism creates barriers for people of color in accessing basic rights and participating equally in societal structures. Structural racism also means people of color are targeted based on prejudice, being disproportionately incarcerated, disenfranchised, and killed in our society.

Individuals and groups of white people also perpetrate racism on a personal level when they act, think, or speak in racist and prejudice ways. Many of the everyday acts of racism committed by individuals are considered microaggressions. Microaggressions are acts of degradation and discrimination that occur regularly and create significant trauma for the people targeted by these acts. Many of the white people who commit microaggressions do not realize they are doing it, as racist ways of thinking, speaking, and acting have historically been so seamlessly woven into the fabric of the collective white psyche.

Though structural and individual forms of racism manifest differently, they are intricately related and reinforce each other. Racist norms exist in institutions, determining how individuals carry out their responsibilities. Additionally, individuals who represent societal institutions harbor racist beliefs that affect their actions while performing their function in the larger society. These forces working together fuel the perpetuation of racism in our society.

All forms of racism are perpetrated by people; at times by people who don't think of themselves as racist or would not endorse overtly racist beliefs. How is it then, that despite the work of thousands of dedicated activists to end racism over the past several hundred years, it has persisted, continuing to poison our society, and perhaps most insidiously, our minds?

Racism's continued presence can be attributed in part to the psychological attachment that white people collectively have to racism. A social construct developed to legitimize atrocities committed throughout history, racism continues to have its most compelling hold in the psyches of those who benefit from it. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed, "whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn". In the fifty years since this sentiment was spoken, little has changed.

One reason that most of white America has not followed through on deconstructing internalized racism and reeducating themselves is that many of these processes occur outside the realm of what people can actively observe in themselves, in the unconscious mind. Psychological defenses prevent us from knowing ourselves fully and from perceiving the many nuanced ways that racist thoughts, beliefs, and actions manifest.

Defenses, a psychological phenomena described by psychoanalytic theory, are a universal part of human psychological function. From early in childhood the human psyche engages defensive functioning to protect ourselves from thoughts, beliefs, and emotions that overwhelm us, that we don't want to believe we have, or that feel incompatible with our constructed view of who we are and how we interact in the world.

Because defenses are unconscious they reinforce themselves, making change difficult. Though people universally use defenses, people can be more or less rigidly defensive. People whose defenses are more flexible are more open to psychological growth and development. Defenses become more flexible when people are in safe relationships, when they engage in self-reflection and self-awareness, and when they are able tolerate experiencing a wide range of intense emotions.

White privilege, or the societal practice of affording white people preferential treatment, such as increased safety, security, opportunity, validation, and access to resources, works in concert with the defensive processes of individual white people to contribute to the perpetuation of racism. In white people raised in a racist society, defensive processes reinforce superiority thinking and other racist beliefs, affording racism safe harbor from deconstruction on the macro level.

White privilege sets up a scenario where white people unconsciously believe they deserve unearned privilege, preferential treatment, and increased safety. They are accustomed to the sense of superiority and protection that white privilege provides and engage defensive processes to avoid having to deconstruct and divest these privileges. The first step in making conscious the processes that reinforce racist beliefs and thoughts is to recognize that white privilege exists and examine how this privilege acts in white people's lives.

Though participation in white superiority thinking may be more or less conscious in any give white person, it can not be avoided in those raised in a racist society. Though they can work to understand, bring to consciousness, and transform internalized white supremacy, white people must accept how deeply this force is integrated into their construction of self and be in a constant process of change and growth.

One result of white privilege is that white people collectively often develop an unrealistic sense of security and immunity from pain and violence in life. White privilege allows white people to ignore human vulnerability and resist developing real empathy for those experiencing pain and suffering. The imagined bubble of safety protects white people from confronting their own fragility and propensity for human error. It protects white people individually from acknowledging the ways they have perpetuated racism or committed racist acts in their life. On a collective level it protects white society as a whole from facing in a meaningful way how racism has been fundamental to American history and how it underpins our present day society and individual narratives.

One defensive process that keeps white people from seeing how racism affects them is called a narcissistic defense. Narcissism, or over self-involvement, is a conflict between the image and the reality, a hyper self-focus that interferes with perceiving others' feelings, experiences, and motivations accurately. A much talked about concept, narcissism as a word is derived from from the myth of Narcissus, who was so enamored with his own reflection he wasted his life pining away, never realizing it was himself he was looking at.

Narcissism is both a psychological defense and a way of describing certain personality structures. Though people who use narcissism as a defensive reaction can also have a narcissistic personality organization, many people who are not charaterologically narcissistic utilize this defense in situations that cause them to feel vulnerable or exposed.

Different white people may have greater degrees of ability to recognize and confront a narcissistic reaction inside themselves. White people who have a narcissistic character organization, or who employ a narcissistic defense in relation to other areas in their lives are more likely to struggle with inwardly confronting a narcissistic defensive reaction when it arises.

Vulnerability is the aspect of narcissism that is usually left out of popular culture discussions of the concept. People who use a narcissistic defense, though they would not say it or even know that it's true, feel some kind of negative or painful emotion related to that experience. The narcissistic defense is only needed by the psyche to defend against and cover up feelings of shame, vulnerability, and emptiness. Narcissism is applicable to how white people are affected by racism because narcissism is the perfect defense for maintaining white privilege, an unearned feeling of superiority and unrealistic protection against human frailty.

A defensive narcissistic approach can manifest in two ways. One manifestation is demonstrated by the vain grandiosity of white people who defend racism and use white privilege openly to defend against an inner sense of inferiority. The other manifestation is the hyper self-critical or "thin-skinned" type of narcissist who blames themselves excessively (Rosenfeld in McWilliams, 2011). In these two polarized reactions, what the person is defending against may be different. The grandiose narcissistic reaction more likely defends against the reality that one is not truly superior, while the "thin-skinned" reaction is more likely defending against the presence of racist thoughts, beliefs, or actions in the psyche. Though these reactions appear to be opposites, what they have in common, under the surface, is a pervasive feeling of emptiness and shame bolstered by hyper self-involvement.

In both narcissistic reactions the person invests energy and attention into the self to avoid feelings of shame through either excessive self-deprecation or overblown arrogance. White people involved in the grandiose narcissistic defense are usually overtly and unapologetically racist. The structure of racism fits easily into the grandiose narcissistic defense, offering the person what feels like evidence of their superiority.

The self-critical narcissistic reaction can be found in many white people who consider themselves to be progressive and even anti-racist. White people utilizing a self-critical narcissistic defense are more likely to begin crying or describe the guilt they feel at being confronted with the realities of racism. In both instances importance is focused on the experience of the white person and not on the harm caused by racism.

In both types of narcissism, white people, through hyper self-involvement, avoid attending to the pain of people of color, and avoid a collective experience of the pain and suffering inherent to living in a racist society. This psychological maneuver passes the responsibility of coping with pain and working for change to people of color.

Experiencing other forms of oppression based on identity can cause some white people to be more awake to the inner dynamics of internalized oppression. For other people experiencing oppression in another aspect of self can reinforce racism and internalized white supremacy. For example, a white person who is also living in poverty will likely experience invalidation, discrimination, and prejudice from an early age. That person may have more access to the dynamics of power and supremacy thinking that accompany being raised white in a racist society. This wider range of psychological experience may allow increased self reflection about how racism is maintained intrapsychically, leading to internal transformation.

Conversely, the same person could become more defended about acknowledging internal racism if they fear that working to end racism will undermine or supplant their experiences of invalidation and discrimination as a person living in poverty. This example is apparent in the United States among low-income white people who politically align themselves with socially conservative figures out of fear that their needs will be overlooked. These people grow increasingly defended about racism, using racism to project negative feelings onto other groups and avoid confronting those feelings in the self. Attaching to racism, in this example, feels more tenable than acknowledging the disenfranchisement, invalidation, and discrimination that comes with being poor in the United States.

Defensive functioning is characterized by distortion of reality to maintain the ego's sense of continuity of the self. White people who use the narcissistic defense may respond to feedback that they are acting or thinking in a racist ways with hyperbole about how they are justified in their beliefs and actions. Such a response is evidence that a defensive process is functioning in the psyche. The person distorts reality, turning the situation around to avoid being confronted with the fault in their inner world.

Both types of narcissistic reactions are insidious and difficult to confront. Until white people, those who unapologetically engage with racism, and those who like to see themselves as non-racist, are able to cease using the narcissistic defense and face the vulnerability that living in a racist society protects them from, racism will continue to be perpetrated.

Focusing on how racism is perpetuated through the psyches of white people counters the concept that racism is something individual white people are powerless to combat. Every time a white person turns inward to deconstruct the racism harbored in the unconscious, that person has the opportunity to transform a small piece of the puzzle that keeps racism alive. There is a great deal written in the psychological literature about shifting narcissistic defenses or personality organizations. A very reduced version of those approaches can be described as somewhere along a spectrum from confrontation to nurturing. From either end of this spectrum, the intervention must come from a place of compassion.

White people who have begun the work of liberating their minds from racism and who are able to see the stage we're truly playing on have a responsibility to challenge the racism they encounter from other white people and to challenge it with compassion. Why should white people who have been willing to begin this work of unlearning racism have to demonstrate compassion for those who haven't? Compassion reduces shame, making it easier for those doing the confronting and those being confronted to both generate intrapsychic change and psychological development. People who have worked to understand the unconscious mechanisms in their own psyche are able to recognize when a defensive reaction to racist thinking is occurring and to attend to the shame that is behind the defense.

In order to influence the future in a positive way we have to know where we come from, where we are now, and have a vision for where we are going. White people have a responsibility to understand the terrible and the horrific in American history and how these events and circumstances have shaped who we are as a nation today. White people also must look inside to examine how history, and the evil forces of the past, continue to live inside us. Deconstructing internalized racism is a process, a constant exercise in self-awareness.

White people who become able to have some degree of objective self observation can notice when superiority thinking creeps in, or when an automatic racist belief surfaces. Noticing these reactions, attending to them, and acknowledging them without guilt or denial, instead of pretending they don't exist, leads white people more directly to the eradication of racism. Changing a narcissistic reaction within takes self compassion, the ability to challenge the self's faulty thinking while not jumping to excessive guilt and deprecation. Change takes being willing to be uncomfortable, experiencing painful emotions. Change takes really hearing what is coming at the self from the outside world including all the ways that racism is harming people everyday.

Compassion towards other white people is called for because underneath the narcissistic reaction is a deep well of shame and fear, a well that can never be accessed by contempt. In fact, contempt will only strengthen the defenses, making change less likely. Compassionately helping other whites to change is one avenue of change for white people working towards liberation; it is the reconciliation that individual white people can enact. Remembering the function of narcissism, to be a facade between the self and feelings of shame, emptiness, and vulnerability, may help promote a compassionate approach for white people interested in helping other white people to change.

Compassionately confronting racism doesn't mean tip toeing around what the white person is doing that is hurtful. In fact, it is important to be clear about the offensive behavior, belief, or statement, and for white people to confront racism every time it is encountered. Compassionate confrontation means acknowledgement that white people are partners in this work and that the same ugliness distorts all white people's vision of the world.

One trick of privilege is that it embeds the feeling of superiority into the very sense of self white people construct from an early age. White people who begin to reeducate themselves can fall into another version of superiority thinking, imagining themselves to be more evolved than other whites.

Maintaining a compassionate position towards other white people is not only the most effective way to challenge narcissism in others, but it is also a powerful antidote to narcissism in the self. Compassion towards other whites humbles the self to remember that racism is an ever-present evil that must be consistently challenged in the self and in the world outside if we are to have a chance of changing the script we are working off of as a society.

What I've presented is a theory, open to debate, dissection, disagreement, and further discussion. I submit these ideas with the hope that white people will consider how racism affects them psychologically and take up the work of eradicating racism from their minds and from our society. Individual white people can work to undo the defensive structures that have allowed racism to continue incubating in the fertile spaces of the unconscious.

I'll end with another James Baldwin quote: “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state on innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster". Participating in the process of deconstructing internalized racism is empowering and invigorating. It invites white people to become more fully engaged in reality without walls of defense between self and other, individual and society. By breaking down intrapsychic walls we enter more completely the human drama in mind, body, and spirit.


Baldwin, J. (2016). Quotes by James Baldwin. Retrieved from: thor/quotes/10427.James_Baldwin

McWilliams, N. (2011). Psychoanalytic Diagnosis: Understanding personality structure in the

clinician process. New York: Guilford Press.

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