One of my colleagues recently pointed out that racism isn’t included in the DSM ( a guide towards understanding how mental health difficulties present). I was interested in this comment because some of my earlier work explored the importance of taking a critical (or social) approach towards ‘race’ and ‘racism’.
Critical psychology (and critical theory) explores the ways that the social world shapes possibility. What are our roots, and how does this open up or deny routes we can take? This doesn’t deny agency or an ability to respond. Neither does it aim to declare that people are passive. Instead, it tries to focus on the difficulties or struggles people face on a day to day basis. As Don Foster explains, when psychology disconnects people from what it means to be a social, historical and embodied person who exists in time and space, it creates a deceptive view of reality.
Looking at ‘race’ and ‘racism’ therefore means looking at people within a social context. The view of the ‘prejudiced’ or bigoted person from this perspective isn’t enough to create social transformation. Why not? Surely it is helpful to call people out on blatant racism or abusive behavior?
Critical theory sees ‘race’ as a social myth, as is gender. In a wold where body shape, skin couloir and hair type have been used to create barriers between people, and to make comparisons across groups, this has lead to social hierarchies, marginalization, exclusions and genocides. Foucault, in Society Must Be Defended explained that ‘race’ has been used to kill. The term is largely metaphorical, referring to killing off opportunities or possibilities. Foucault emphasizes the cobwebbed nature of power, and the way it spins itself throughout social institutions such as the education system, social welfare, medical care and the legal system, which are very often constructed to benefit dominant groups. Basic questions, such as ‘whose history gets taught in schools?’ Or ‘Who is protected by the law, and how is order imposed?’ Helps to give insight into this system. The question critical theorists use, when looking at a problem or situation is ‘who benefits when we present a story as we do?’
From this perspective, our views of the world are presented and repeated over and over again in the form of stories or myths. Every story has a historical root or origin. By digging up this root, we are able to bring about radical change. A world carved into nation states, upheld by the rituals off passports and visas had been created or imagined. What other imaginings or possibilities could exist if the shadow side of nationality is xenophobia or war? How else may we view people of different race of gender? Who benefits when we present the stories we do to the world? What is the picture we are presented with when it comes to poor people, immigrants or people of different ‘race’? How can we change this?
The emphasis here is the focus on social conversations produced over a great many years, until they are seen as indisputable facts. We have the myth that poor people are lazy or that ‘Black’ men are dangerous or violent. These myths lead to police brutality.
By deconstructing (or breaking down) social myths, it is possible to work towards change. By maintaining or repeating these myths, we maintain the status quo.
In a world built on slavery, land theft and sometimes the deliberately poor quality education given in order to maintain a labour force which benefits the very few, it isn’t helpful to focus on ‘racism’ as an individual personality trait.
To declare that ‘racism’ is an individual quality pathologizes racism instead of accepting it as a social norm which has been used to construct our everyday society. People who utter cultural beliefs which are seen as shocking or outdated in a liberal and politically correct world sometimes present an opportunity for discussion, dialogue, and, in extreme cases, arrest. But this isn’t enough to bring about transformation.
In a world where poverty is very often linked to racism, where people die everyday of preventable infectious diseases, where infant mortality is the shocking norm in many communities, and communities of people live without adequate sanitation, racism often determines the very fabric of he lives people lead. It is woven into the texture of society and that which we accept to be normal.
It is these norms which need challenging, so that all people are able to live with dignity, and so that all lives are seen to matter. When we see racism as pathological, carried out only by the violent or socially inept, and when we see the impacts of racism as individual qualities such as depression or a tendency towards violence or envy, the social word goes unchallenged. And who benefits?
This is why it’s helpful that racism isn’t seen to be a part of the DSM, and why exploring power imbalances helps towards creating a more just world.
Foucault: society must be defended.
Don Foster: Liberation Psychology in Critical Psychology edited by Derek Hook.
Derek Hook: Psychopathology and Social Prejudice