Finding a Way Through the Maze of Racism
by Dr. Carl BellDr. 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.
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.