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  • Writer's pictureJudy Ryde

Implicit or unconscious racism

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In my book ‘White Privilege Unmasked: How to be part of the solution’, and my subsequent blogs, I often refer to ‘implicit’ or ‘unconscious’ racism without explaining in much detail what I mean by that. I often suggest that merely providing a reasoned argument to the rational mind is not effective in bringing about much change.

Freud’s ideas on the unconscious was of a deeply hidden part of our mind that was not available to consciousness but affected our thoughts. He tended to see the unconscious as emerging from very early experiences of, for example, feeding at the mother’s breast. More recently writers such as Robert Stolorow have added a type of unconscious which shows how underlying attitudes and assumptions can also be unconscious and have a profound effect on thinking. These writers indicate how thinking and understanding can be shaped, as it were, into a structure in our minds. This structure shapes our thinking rather in the way that an architect’s drawing underlies the eventual building without actually being it. This is a useful notion when it comes to thinking about culture. My previous book, ‘Being White in the Helping Professions’, describes these ideas more fully. In it I describe what Stolorow and Atwood, in their book ‘Contexts of Being’, call the ‘pre-reflective unconscious’ which provides the ‘organising principles’ of our lives. These are not thoughts as such but are what shapes our thoughts and provides the assumptions that underlie them.

I say, for example:

The ‘prereflective unconscious’ consists of the 'organising principles' that unconsciously ‘shape and thematize a person's experience' (Stolorow and Atwood 1992:33). This idea 'fits' with an understanding of culture, as Stolorow and Atwood suggest that our experience is shaped by these 'organising principles' (Stolorow and Atwood 1992:33) of which we are largely unconscious, and which act as a sort of 'blueprint' (Stolorow and Atwood 1992:35) for life. These principles are soaked up naturally from our cultural milieux as we grow up. Learning to understand this 'blueprint' can free us from the assumptions that inevitably arise from it.

This way of understanding the mind is useful when trying to understand how racism is formed and maintained in the mind. That white is ‘normal’ (making black not normal) is not something white people consciously ‘think’ but is implicit and unconscious in most people – a thought that is shaped by our organising principles.

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