Neil Altman’s White Privilege: Psychoanalytic Perspectives (Routledge, 2020) is a slip (80 pages including references and the index) of a book that reads as both addendum and antidote to some of the literature aimed at waking white people (Ta-Nahesi-Coates’ “dreamers”) up to the realities of racism. I say antidote as some of that literature (the work of Robin Di Angelo and Ibram X. Kendi come to mind) seems to depend on commands from the super ego to shed the scales from white eyes. On finishing Di Angelo’s White Fragility (which was required reading last summer) I felt both paranoid and ashamed and had to wonder how self-policing was going diminish my racism? Altman’s book intervenes precisely in this potentially deleterious cycle arguing that anti-racist thinking that relies on “should” and “oughts”, are potentially doomed to fail. By attacking the defenses rather than softening them, such efforts run the risk of hardening the racism they set out to transform.
Humans hate. Freud tells us it is our first feeling. Undeniably, hating can fill us with great and solidifying pleasure. Racism is one form of hatred. When acted on, it can and does destroy lives. Fully loaded with white privilege, white people are apt to act on our racism, and also to shudder, deny or dissociate when encountering our racist thoughts and feelings. When confronted with our racism and its impact, with our awareness that we in fact rely on denigrating stereotypes to feel a little better about ourselves, states of mortification (deathliness) emerge that do no one any good. Such a state is a purely narcissistic one where the other has been snuffed out. If you are white, as I am, you have likely found yourself more than once tossing the hot potato of your own racism as far away as from yourself as you can. And some part of you feels weakened by being this way but it is practically an involuntary reflex.
Thinking about this reflex, Altman employs Melanie Klein’s thinking about what it means to be human, which highlights our ineluctable destructiveness. If hate is a human feeling, not one to be gotten rid of but rather one to be accepted and contended with, there may be a way for us to take responsibility for being hurtful, for being racist. Hating hate or hating our racism can maintain the status quo. In fact, hidden hateful feelings seek justification and become reified, rather than being fleeting—as all feelings truly are.
Altman highlights the difference between making reparations based on guilt versus the descent into guiltiness. Guilt implies that one is interested in our impact on others because we know that in living, we will hurt many people along the way. Guiltiness, which we can see in white virtue signaling around racism, has much more to do with returning the self that has harmed to its happy and perfect place without addressing the harm done. While white people are primed, particularly in an American context, to say and do horrible and hurtful racist things, it is the disavowal of the destructiveness that perhaps does, from a psychoanalytic perspective, the most harm in the end. Altman quotes the journalist Leonard Pitts who captures the experience of white negation succinctly, writing, “If people who hate you would stand up and declare it you would not have to go through with your day on guard against the world.”
The refusal to take responsibility for the harm we do—and Altman makes the strong point that whiteness can be defined as an identity that is principally based on dehumanization—keeps white people on the run from reality. When we depend on delusions to shore us up, a part of us knows we are in real bad shape.
Finally, Altman reminds us that when we initially seek to transcend a problem, in the clinic or outside of it, we must first reproduce it—or as Freud would have it, we must remember, repeat and work through. But dehumanizing those who have dehumanized—really to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house—is a zero-sum game. “The question remains; how can one avoid dismissiveness toward people who strongly differ with respect to issues on which we have strong feelings?” To this query I would add, how can we feel everything, accept that we are powerfully irrational because we are human and riddled with contradictions, and not seek to defend our private madness nor make others carry that weight?
Tracy D. Morgan: Psychoanalyst, LCSW-R, M.Phil., Editor, New Books in Psychoanalysis.