Why racism is an addiction!

Just over a year after the Black Lives Matter movement, the country is slowly shifting the focus away from the voices of the omnipresent issue of racism. An issue which in my opinion can’t be simply changed through policy and education.

Racism is a multifaceted and international issue that many countries have been trying to combat for decades. Some are making more noise around it than taking actions, unfortunately. One great example of consecutive policy effort is Germany: Collective efforts to keep memories alive, educating the next generation and inducing laws that keep people in check. Nevertheless, the liberalization and inclusiveness of countries such as Germany, Norway, Netherlands, and others haven’t yet eliminated racism!

Many movements are focused on driving out the symptoms of racism rather than the source of racism. And while the symptoms of racism differ from country to country, the source stays the same.

Visually racism can be seen in voting laws, unequal job opportunities and salaries, segregated neighborhoods, and in interactions between individuals. It is never based on statistical efficiency or facts: although racists commonly try to justify their belief system by using “historical facts” and supposedly well-collected data, or even by using the Bible — to justify their racist actions. Ignoring their own subjectivity and their feelings and deferring from how peer pressure is impacting their judgment. They are inherently ignoring the fact that the way they speak about others is, in fact, based on how they feel about others.

Feeling fear of others.

The concept of fear goes beyond our ‘fight or flight’ system. Fear can be divided into three components. The first is fear of potential threat or danger such as a car accident, illness or anything that has statistical potential. The second component of fear is created by mental concepts, such as “they are not going to like my presentation”; “I am not doing enough” or “they don’t like me; “they are going to take everything away from me”. The third category is simply the fear of not being able to handle what comes your way. Susan Jeffers beautifully presents this concept in her work on “Feel the Fear and do it Anyways”.

Racism combines stage 2 fear with the need for belonging, meaning it creates the concepts of an insider versus an outsider, while developing myths to justify the fear of others. Through the use of symbols such as clothes, dialect, membership, specific handshakes and supposedly different behavior certain groups will create a border between them and others. Justifying their “superiority” and therefore the lack of something within the other group. Often arguing that the others represent a danger to their culture, traditions or way of living. Combined with power status — the human need to feel in power — it then becomes the perfect potion to change a feeling into a belief system that becomes addictive behavior.

Creating identity-based on your feelings.

Our personality and identity is an accumulation of experiences. Character traits that are being positively acknowledged by the environment, and that evoke positive feelings, will be played more often. The direct environment is the key factor here. Generally speaking, each of us strives to feel the best we can. Social acceptance and the feeling of belonging prescribes how a person behaves in the immediate and the longer term.

Research has shown that who we are and how we act depends on our primary and secondary socializing [citation?]. These, in turn, are based on how we experience ourselves in relation to our environment — meaning how we feel, sense, become involved through our physical presence (experience), within an interaction. The signals that we receive from others determine how we feel about ourselves and our behavior. We are seeking positive feelings and reaffirmation in that process.

This is how racism is being ingrained into society and culture and, through socialization, reaffirmed and recreated. Policymakers and politicians are focusing their efford on exactly that — they are changing the culture. But culture is also being re-created through primary socialization, meaning how we feel about ourselves in relation to our surroundings.

In relation to others.

For many, the Black Lives Matter movement happened in response to police lives matter, white lives matter or all lives matter. But the Black Lives Matter movement never excluded other lives, instead, it focused on prevailing racial issues within the US and then spread to other countries with a history of colonialism and segregation.

As portrayed clearly by Norbert Elisa, a German sociologist, in his essay The Established and the Outsiders, relationships are based on power/status relationships, which, in turn, are based on how we feel about ourselves and others. Inherently the Black Lives Matter movement had to become a question of ‘us versus them’, because it questioned existing power relations — clearly pointing out the difference between “us and them” / “the established versus the outsiders”.

Instead of detaching from their individual feelings, many interpreted the movement as a personal attack rather than a collective shift within the culture (because identity, as pointed out earlier, is being built through the collective relationship).

Our subconscious addiction to feelings.

We learn to feel a specific way, to interpret emotions in a specific form, and then relate to them. But more significantly, as I was able to show in my research on “masculinity and emotions in high-security prison facilities”, we interpret emotions as a part of our individual identity instead of as a compass that helps us to navigate through our surroundings.

If our emotions equal our identity, they are inherent to ensure that we continue feeling the way we feel, because ‘this is who we are’. Our body and brain are used to experiencing certain chemicals and giving our emotional identity a meaning. Reinforcement through collective behavior makes us believe that how we feel is good. In other words, our brain has the ability to reinterpret negative emotions into positive ones. This means that, rather than seeing the discriminatory pattern, believing that a person can’t do a job because of their skin color can be justified by the mind believing that the actions actually protect the company.

Every thought can be felt through two sides — positive and negative. Letting go of discriminatory thoughts means adjusting to how a person is feeling through shifting how emotions are being understood.

Detaching identity from emotions will disrupt the need for positive feelings through social approval: creating space to restructure how a person understands individual emotions and feels about them. How every one of us feels can be modified to a certain extent. Flexibility, growth mindset, scout mindset, variance or whatever you would like to call this area of modulation is where we can interject our own individual personalities. It is where we can really be who we want to be and detach ourselves from our addictive behavior, or, what I call our ‘standby mode’, where we make decisions without reflection or deep understanding of how our behavior relates to the environment.

When others act the way we call them!

Emotions are also being experienced in a collective manner. As Adam Grant just recently pointed out in an article, what makes one group feel good about themselves, can make another group feel bad. Feelings create an identity not just in relation to your emotions, but also through the feelings that you are experiencing in interactions. In certain areas of the country, the Black Lives Matter protest turned into riots: not because there was an intent for riot from the beginning, but because certain entities started naming the protests as ‘riots’. And as shown by Elias, certain behavior can be invoked by simply name-calling the other party — which invertibility leads to the justification of racial profiling, stigmatization and discriminatory actions ( described in “Established and the Outsiders” as a vicious cycle).

Breaking the cycle.

Letting go of your belief system doesn’t mean that you are letting go of your identity. It means that you detach yourself from believing that the way you feel is the only way you should feel. It also means that you invite the idea that you can change and evolve throughout life. Your personality is not set in stone and your emotional life is more complex than feeling good or bad. The word emotion is derived from the Latin word ‘emotus’ meaning in motion — moving through or steering up.

The intention was never for emotions to be understood as part of a set characteristic, but rather to be understood as an explanation for something going on. As our societies become more complex it is necessary to reconfigure the individual understanding of emotions and feelings and to develop a full spectrum of emotional understanding: meaning understanding the implications certain emotional interpretations can have on our feelings and how adversely these affect our actions and thoughts.

The emotional effect on your mind!

Your emotions and feelings are directly interlinked with your mindset. Your thoughts can trigger specific feelings and vice versa. Cultivating a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset is what will give you first the ability to move away from the belief that your self-worth has to be based on your feelings, specifically how others are making you feel. Secondly, it allows you to move away from the irrational understanding of fear and from believing that everything new is a threat. Thirdly, staying open to new ideas helps you be e more creative, be a better problem solver and define who you want to be on your own terms.

The more people become aware of their emotions and develop a better understanding of what they are and how they function within us, perhaps that’s when we as a society will be able to finally break free from limiting beliefs and concepts such as racism.

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Dr. Kinga Mnich

Social Psychologist I Educator I Speaker ➳ I help high-achievers & leaders transform their mind & surrounding by leveraging the power of emotions.