News commentators have been trying to figure out what motivated a group of white University of Oklahoma students on an outing earlier this month to sing a racist chant laden with anti-black slurs and a reference to lynching.
The episode made national headlines after it was captured on video, and it led to the expulsion of two students, the disciplining of a few dozen more, and the closure of the university fraternity to which they belonged.
The students have apologized and appear contrite. Yet they probably don’t fully understand what possessed them to behave so badly. Commentators have attributed the action of the students to racism, bigotry, and cultural influences. But the episode can be understood, for the edification of everyone, at a deeper level.
The students were unwittingly expressing a hidden aspect of human nature. In varying degrees, all of us can feel vague doubts concerning our intrinsic value. At times, many of us feel deep inside a sense of being flawed, unworthy, bad, and insignificant. This is not something people readily talk about.
This impression can consist of a deep-down suspicion of being a fake, a fraud, a nobody. The existence in our psyche of this negative sense of self can, when acute, produce shame, anxiety, and guilt. People instinctively cover up or defend against the realization of how emotionally attached they can be, how identified they are, with this irrational impression. (The origin of this painful sense of self is discussed in an earlier post.)
The students, their inner checks and balances likely unmoored by inebriation and excitement, began to take pleasure in the experience of identifying blacks as lesser people. They were projecting their own acute self-doubt, which at times can produce self-loathing and self-hatred, on to black students and blacks in general.
Their racist chant was taken up as part of a psychological defense that can proceed as follows: “I’m not interested in feeling my own self-doubt and acknowledging my rejected, despised self. It’s not me who feels this way. They’re the ones (black people) who feel that way. And I mock them and despise them for it. I want to have nothing to do with them or with that feeling. It belongs entirely to them.”
Racist sentiments are just one symptom of such underlying self-doubt. Other symptoms include sexism, elitism, fundamentalism, and nationalism, along with emotional and behavioral problems. The expression of one symptom over another also hinges on family, cultural, and other influences.
Even people who appear to have sufficient or abundant self-esteem can possess hidden deposits of acute self-doubt. Deep down, they’re lacking some integral appreciation of their own humanity. Those with racist sentiments have a “need” to identify others who are allegedly inferior to them. They are trying to shift their self-reproach (instigated by their inner critic) onto others. The claim is made on an inner level, “At least I’m not as lowly as that black person.”
This defense and the primal self-doubt behind it need to be made more conscious if we are to free ourselves from inner pain. This self-doubt is a primary reason why vanity, celebrity, and narcissism—serving as unconscious compensations—have such commanding presence in our culture as measures of worthiness and superiority. “All is vanity,” as the preacher says in Ecclesiastes I. The vanity is a cover-up and compensation for that low-down slinking feeling that haunts our psyche.
The students felt a strong perverse excitement and delight while chanting their slurs. This excitement contributed unconsciously to the effectiveness of their defense. The students’ defense incorporated this rationale: “I don’t want to identify with my self-doubt and self-loathing. Look at how much pleasure I feel when I deny that feeling in myself as I cast it out (project it) on to others.”
In other words, the pleasure they experienced served to fortify their conviction that others, not them, were guilty of being worthless. Classical psychoanalysis has long contended that defenses can be “libidinized” (made pleasurable) for the purpose of making them more effective in covering up inner truth.
Another feature of psychological defenses—negative exhibitionism—was unconsciously employed by the students as part of the effort to make the defense more effective. The defense now incorporated this added dimension: “I’m not interested in being seen as a lesser person. Look at how vigorously I display my contempt, in front of all these people, for those others who are the truly lesser persons.”
Another related aspect of unconscious dynamics was also in play. The students, in belittling blacks, were identifying with what they imagined blacks would feel in being so denigrated. This means that the students—through identification—could “sneak under the skin” of black people to “snuggle up” to the feeling of being belittled. Such identification is an indirect manner by which to replay and recycle those negative emotions that are unresolved in one’s psyche.
Of course, doing all this would normally be painful. But people can find in it a perverse, bittersweet satisfaction. Our entanglement in suffering is accompanied by a quirk of human nature, namely our tendency to “libidinize” (make pleasurable through the agency of libido, the pleasure principle) our encounters with loss, sorrow, grief, heartbreak, rejection, self-pity, and feelings of unworthiness. This bittersweet pleasure is subtle and, for the most part, registered unconsciously. What else can possibly explain the fact that, despite the pain involved, people much of the time find it much easier to express negative rather than loving sentiments? The dark side is powerful, and when we deny it in ourselves we have a love-hate relationship with it.
The stronger that African-Americans become, the more that emotionally weak white people, unable to transcend superficial differences and unwilling to abandon their inner status quo, bitterly feel themselves to be lesser persons. This accounts for much of the rancor and hatred directed at President Obama. The weak white person can no longer use the old defense (“At least I’m not as lowly as that black person”) because his or her inner critic will refute it: “Look at all those black people who are more successful than you. How come you’re doing worse than them! You really are a loser if blacks are rising above you.”
As mentioned, we all struggle with the tendency—even compulsion—to experience ourselves through self-doubt and self-alienation. People of all races can end this misery by resolving the conflict between their inner aggression (the inner critic or superego which is an illegitimate inner authority) and inner passivity (the part in us that identifies with self-doubt and is defensive to the harsh inner critic).
One of the expelled University of Oklahoma students held a news conference last week at which he expressed shame and humiliation for his conduct and asked for forgiveness. The young man’s contriteness is, of course, appropriate to the situation. Yet his shame and humiliation have more obscure aspects. His inner critic is now likely condemning him for his conduct and, through inner passivity, he would be absorbing much of this condemnation. If he doesn’t understand this dynamic, he could allow his inner critic to punish him for his foolish behavior for a very long time. Yet there’s no need for him to go on suffering with shame once he has been forgiven, has forgiven himself, and has pledged to do better. He can make of the episode a powerful learning experience that produces a far better man.
He was accompanied at his news conference at an African-American Baptist church in Oklahoma City by black community leaders who graciously supported his attempt at redemption. The black leaders were strong and wise to take his mockery seriously but not personally. The mockery had everything to do with the ex-student’s hidden self-loathing and perhaps self-hatred and nothing to do with them.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.