White denial, Black mental health and ontological insecurity

On being (Black) in the world 

There are sharp and often irreconcilable differences in the way people apprehend the world based on how they are socially positioned. Nowhere is this possibly truer than in respect to race. Countless studies have demonstrated that white groups are far less likely than people of colour to both experience race discrimination and to believe that racism is still a serious problem. These attitudes filters down all aspects of life. Employment Tribunal litigated Race discrimination cases, for example, have a much lower success rate than other discrimination cases (four percent compared to about fourteen percent, aggregated for other types). Race related complaints are rarely upheld – last year 240 individual complaints of racial discrimination were made against the Metropolitan Police out of those, exactly… zero were upheld.

Post-‘Brexit’ hate crime reports reached a 60 percent increase and, they still remain 14 percent higher than at the same point last year. In the US, a record 867 hate crimes incidents were reported in the 10 days directly after the US presidential elections and Trump’s victory. The overwhelming majority of these incidents were race related. Despite this, media pieces and arguments by political pundits seeking to deny or minimise these increases abound. It is fair to say, that attempts to cast doubt on the rise in reported racial hate are not simply about methodological or conceptual limitations. They betray a fundamental scepticism and dubiousness when it comes to racism. 

It has been argued that this denial has not only ‘conquered all spheres and manifestations of racism but, that it is becoming the most typical and widespread modern form of appearance of racist attitudes, opinions, statements, actions and policies’. Petrova (2000) who refers to denial as the new ‘phenomenology of racism’ uses several illustrations to exemplify the way racism manifests itself in seemingly race ‘neutral’ policies and doctrines. She posits that the denial of racism is manifest, for example, in the belief in meritocracy and in equal opportunities. In the framing of racial (injustice) problems purely socio-economically, in the on-going denial of the hurt of racism and, in the everyday discursive normalisation of racial inequalities. One thing Petrova implies, but does not expressly state, is that this phenomenon of denial is by and large observed in white groups so to be clear, we are talking about white denial (of racism).

Mental health and racism

White denial is much more than a multi-layered social phenomenon. It is also a complex psychological process which equally fulfils deep rooted psychological and psychic needs. Such as the need for ego-world consistency: if I don’t experience or see racism there can’t possibly be any racism. Erasure of the past: if there is no racism, there is no need to revisit the shame and guilt loaded imperialism and its continuous effects. It helps maintain self-esteem or ego worth: if there is no racism then I can’t be racist and what I own is simply down to my own merit. Further, white denial acts as a mechanism to externalise accountability; if there is no racism there is no need for me to reflect on my own actions or on how I might contribute to this system of oppression. Whiteness is a protective factor when it comes to (current conceptualisations of) mental health, not only because it significantly decreases the likelihood on one being exposed to race related trauma/wounds but also, because the denial of racism plays an important protective role in terms of ego functioning and thus in terms of mental health. For people of colour, the situation is obviously different. 

Hundreds of studies have linked racial discrimination to both poor mental and physical health and unsurprisingly, people of colour who use mental health services have persistently identified experiences of racism both within and outside mental health services as core to their distress.  A recent study investigating the impact of harmful and repeated racial discrimination incidents on mental and physical health found ‘mental health problems’ to be significantly higher among racial minorities who had experienced repeated incidents of racial discrimination, when compared to ethnic minorities who did not report any experience of racism. The first study in the UK that unequivocally shows that more is definitely more (surprise, surprise) when it comes to discrimination. The more race discrimination you experience, the more psychological distress you will likely experience. All this, we must remember, against a backdrop of white denial.

Increasing evidence now establishes that experiences of racism are linked to ‘psychoses‘. This is of particular importance for people of colour given that studies, over the past few decades have consistently found significantly  higher rates of ‘psychosis’ diagnoses amongst many Black and Minority ethnic groups. Particularly within Black groups, the groups most likely to report (more frequent) experiences of racism. ‘Psychosis’ continues to be one of the most hotly debated (and stigmatising) psychiatric diagnosis. Nevertheless, regardless of one’s ontological positioning and of one’s views on the validity of the term as a scientific construct, most would probably agree that experiences which attract the label or diagnosis, usually involve to one degree or another, some sort of loss of contact with reality.

In considering the psychological impact of both racism and white denial, contemporary relational/psychoanalytic conceptualisations of psychosis seem quite pertinent. Such theories tend to view ‘psychoses’ as an attempt by the self to hold itself together and remain whole in circumstances where it has been/is so gravely assaulted. Usually, it is posited, in contexts where our fundamental need to have our subjective reality and world validated and affirmed, has been met with denial, hostility and invalidation resulting in a sense of overwhelming insecurity.

Racism and ontological insecurity

In The Divided Self (1960), Laing proposed that the experiences of people with ‘psychoses’ can be understood by locating them within ‘abnormal’ family relationships. Laing’s conceptualisation of ‘Schizophrenia’ or ‘schizoid’ mind states is based on what he called ‘Ontological Insecurity’. Ontological insecurity he proposed, is a state of being which begins in childhood and which is in the main, caused by an absence of reciprocity between a primary caregiver and their child. In that sense, the caregiver in not able to affirm or respond to the infant’s needs and feelings, and instead tries to mould the child’s experience to meet her own needs and expectations. The child is essentially objectified to fit a reality imposed by the caregiver.  Naturally, the child will try to fit such expectations and will consequently develop a ‘false self’ which will be affirmed and valued in the family context, leading the child to feel invisible. As a result, the child may experience chronic feelings of being unreal, worthless, empty, dead, and disconnected from both others and themselves. In time, the child may come to be suspicious of the world and ultimately cut themselves off completely from other people in an attempt to maintain their real identity. This may lead to a total repudiation of the ‘false self’ and their ego splitting into different parts.

Ontological insecurity has thus been hypothesised to be a mental state derived from a sense of discontinuity in relation to the events in one’s life. Or, when a sense of order vis-à-vis an individual’s experiences cannot be maintained. Ontological security can only be achieved, it is believed, when people are able to give meanings to their lives and lived experience. Although this formulation of ‘psychosis’ concentrates on immediate alienating contexts, such as in interpersonal relationships with important relational others, when it comes to the experience of Black people and people of colour, it would seem senseless and potentially harmful, to omit the impact of invalidating social contexts, particularly that of power relations and of the workings of oppression in the development of psychological distress and experiences of loss of touch with reality. 

Family contexts are a microcosm of power relations in the wider social world and there is no rational reason to posit that violent power dynamics experienced at macro level would be less significant to the psyche, particularly when they are experienced chronically and across life domains. Racism implies the systematic negation of the other coupled with a wilful effort to deny them every attribute of humanity including, the fundamental capacity to know reality and indeed trust the reality as they apprehend it. As such, white denial can be thought of as depriving people of colour of the opportunity to know themselves and to integrate all aspects of their self as we are socialised into cutting ourselves off from our phenomenological reality.

Like the child who is not seen as a person of its own and, whose existence is strategically moulded to fit the caregiver’s needs and prerogatives, when racism is denied, people of colour are not recognised as autonomous, thinking and feelings beings. The lack of reciprocity central to ontological insecurity is also mirrored here as there can never be reciprocity in objectification, racial or otherwise. In objectification, the other is fixed, either in the gaze of an invalidating caregiver or in the White gaze. In either case, the world may come to be experienced as chaotic as personal meaning cannot be ascribed to events and experiences. The frameworks imposed clash with one’s lived reality. The foundation of ontological insecurity, according to Laing.

The present is an attempt to offer an interpretation of the excessive rates of ‘psychosis’ diagnoses which have been consistently found in the UK and in the US within the most marginalised populations of colour. No explanatory claim is made, clearly the situation is extremely complex. Nonetheless, currently little attention has been paid to the psychological impact of white denial, this needs to be remedied and, various potential clinical and therapeutic implications could derive from linking ontological insecurity to racism and its denial. Both in terms of supporting people of colour who might have experienced psychological distress and/or come to lose touch with reality, and also in terms of promoting better psychological health in that group (perhaps this will be the focus of a different article). It remains, that if ‘psychosis’ is conceptualised as a desperate attempt to live ‘an authentic life’ by fundamentally disconnecting from others, and from one’s own body when our sense of self and our reality is under systematic threat, if we are serious about healing such experiences within Black groups and, communities of colour more generally then, racism and white denial may need addressing as a matter of urgency.

Thank you for reading.

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