Finding a Way Through the Maze of Racism
by Dr. Carl Bell
Dr. Chester M. Pierce, a professor of psychiatry at the Harvard University School of Medicine, calls racism an abuse of human rights which is identical to, supplementary to and complementary to torture and terrorism and should, therefore, be given the same international attention.
Torture is a deliberate, systematic infliction of physical and mental suffering, for the purpose of forcing one to conform. Racism inflicts suffering for the purpose of making all citizens either accept or conform to the submission of African-Americans and the dominance of whites. Terrorism is actual or threatened violence to gain attention, causing people to exaggerate the strength of the terrorist and the importance of their cause. The common thread between racism, torture and terrorism is that all three require the victim to be dehumanized and degraded.
In any effective and efficient submission-dominance system, it is critical for the oppressor to control the perception of the victim. The oppressed must stay preoccupied with their overall inferiority and the uselessness of their puny efforts in resisting the demands of the victimizer. One is victimized in proportion to the quantity of space, time, energy and mobility that one must yield (or has yielded) to the oppressor. Conversely, the more one regains or commands control of these elements, the less one is victimized.
African-Americans are subjected to daily, minute insults and aggressions; situations Dr. Chester Pierce calls microinsults and microaggressions. These offensive mechanisms are designed to operationally keep Blacks in the inferior, dependent, helpless role. The mechanisms are nonverbal and kinetic, and they are well suited to control the space, time, energy and mobility of an African-American, while also producing feelings of degradation. An example of a microinsult occurs when a white person (who is 'innocently' operating under the stereotype that any African-American in a hotel must be a bellhop) asks a well-dressed African-American male waiting in the lobby to carry his luggage. An example of a microaggression is when a white person edges in front of an African-American at a sales counter, despite being the second to arrive. In both instances if the offended African-American shows ire, the perpetrators wonder why African-Americans are 'so sensitive'.
African-Americans are confused about racism in four ways.
First, they are confused about whether they are being tolerated or accepted by whites. Though some whites truly accept African-Americans, many more harbor negative stereotypes of them and only tolerate them. Rejecting the legitimate good will of whites is as big a mistake as trusting a white person who harbors racist attitudes The problem is that Afican-Americans can rarely tell who's who.
A second problem concerns an African-American's inability to distinguish between the supportive efforts of individual whites and the destructive actions of whites as a collective. This confusion occurs when an African-American is accepted by an individual white person and, as a result, mistakenly believes that racism no longer exists.
A third problem is knowing when, where and how to resist oppression, versus when, where and how to accommodate it. There are times and places when racism should be fought bitterly, but other times are not suitable. For example, the African-American employee whose white boss tells a racist joke, has a difficult choice to make.
The final confusion is whether an African-American's locus of control is internal or external. An internal locus of control implies that you attribute your successes to yourself and your failures to your lack of effort. An external locus of control implies that you attribute your failures or successes to something outside of your control. A major problem for African-Americans is determining when they are in control of their destiny or whether there are external factors imposed by racism. If Blacks assume an external locus of control (i.e., the "white man" controls everything we do), then we will lack motivation to help ourselves. On the other hand, if Blacks don't recognize the external constraints imposed upon Blacks by a white-racist society, they could be blaming African-American shortcomings on Blacks and not the real culprit.

Dr. Bell is President/CEO of the Community Mental Health Council in Chicago
and Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the University of Illinois School of Medicine.