A Therapist Tells You a Secret. Do You Really Want to Know Everything?

mirror-on-the-wall

In the search for information and closeness to your therapist you can’t predict what you might discover. I will use the subject of race to illustrate. Two subjects, then: racial bias and yours truly, a retired psychologist who was not always admirable as a stand-in for your counselor. The question of self-knowledge, too, is on my agenda, absent in most of our prejudices, replaced by the ability to rationalize our thoughts and actions.

Ugh, I hear you say: what can one offer about race that hasn’t been uttered to the point of numbness. I’ve groaned myself. More often I’ve grumbled about unfairness to minorities, blamed the big bigots, or written a check to a noble cause. My buddies from Mather High School even established a college scholarship program for disadvantaged teens of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, and religions.

Sounds admirable, right? Read on if you dare. You might find something out you don’t like, something to knock me off any pedestal given me by your generosity, a coin flip, or my own effort to climb on top.

We come by vulnerability to racial bias as part of our evolutionary inheritance. Humans who didn’t notice differences became someone else’s lunch. The tribe next door was quickly identified as “other.” Otherness made both sides wary. Those who were too welcoming too fast suffered a bad end. They are not our ancestors. Yes, cooperation was essential to survival, but care had to be taken about anything signaling danger.

We also want to think of ourselves as “better than” someone, more in control, deserving a more advantaged life than they. The “other” comes in handy here, too, for the sake of drawing contrasts. Read Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death to investigate this light subject.

Still more of us seek simple advantage by becoming a top dog over the Untermenschen, which has typically included benefits like money, power, status, and mating opportunities.

The trickle-down theory of prejudice applies as well. The one who is mistreated — the one who is hated — becomes the hater. And not necessarily aiming his animus at those who inflicted the injury. But sometimes racial resentment derives simply from emulating the deeds and words of the ones you love or the culture in which you live. Then, in bad times, the fire is fueled, whatever its first cause.

Such tendencies do not make anyone evil. But they do require that we catch ourselves leaning.

At least in my generation — the leading edge of the post-war baby boom — most of the white folk were not untouched by racist messages and, more significantly, many absorbed some of the bias. I was one such.

Maybe the most shameful day of my life happened early in graduate school. My roommate and I had a one-year lease on an apartment in residential Evanston, IL. He soon was swept away in romance and wished to move in with his girlfriend. Jim, a quiet, mysterious, handsome fellow — his new fiancé was a beauty too (and they both had terrific abs, having met in a fitness center) — was also a man of honor: he agreed to pay half the rent until I could find someone to take his space. He and I understood, “the sooner the better.” Neither of us was wealthy.

I advertised, of course. The first person to call sounded perfect on the phone, another student at Northwestern. He came with a companion to see my digs. We agreed on the timing for his move-in. Within a couple of days I backed out of the arrangement. Why?

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Though he was born in the USA, his skin suggested an Indian subcontinent origin. Do understand, what I’d learned about race never referred to people who lived in Pakistan or India, other than they might be starving. Such references were common among parents of the time. They wanted their children to “clean the plate,” encouraging us to benefit from the bounty that the unfortunates on the world’s far side lacked.

I had no additional opinions about people from the spot on the map from which this NU student’s ancestors launched themselves. Moreover, he wasn’t starving — he could have been the guy next to Jim in the weight-lifting room. This young man, just a bit more green than myself, was clearly intelligent, displayed good manners, and dressed in the fashion of college students of the day. Well, obviously, he was not green in every sense, the clear point of my prejudice.

By now I had another roommate in line who would replace my replacement for Jim. Larry, the newer guy, was whiter than white. Blond. No better or worse, probably not as smart, different only in individual peculiarities I did not yet know, except — a big exception — for the fairness of his skin tone. I make zero excuses. My act was reprehensible, prejudiced. I looked in the mirror (eventually) and learned from it, too late for the man I discriminated against.

Most of us don’t think of ourselves as racist. The group in denial includes those who behave in a way consistent with bigotry, tell jokes dependent upon stereotypes, and vote for candidates who intend to disadvantage minorities while wrapping themselves in their country’s flag. The last of these adopt a faux patriotism that Samuel Johnson called “the last refuge of a scoundrel.” We are, almost all of us, pretty well-rationalized. Our sleep is undisturbed, our friends shake our hands, and we receive applause for acts of public generosity. But there are secrets, too, and now you know one about me.

I offer you no grand take-away here. I cannot tell you the meaning of life or even whether one is waiting to be found. But I believe part of my guidance for myself is to do better, learn more, be more understanding — enlarge my humanity and add some little good to the world. Hard to do any of that unless you begin the endless and ancient task of knowing yourself.

The friendly social scientists at Harvard have made it easier. They offer a free psychological instrument designed to help you understand your implicit, unconscious preferences or beliefs: to be more precise, a tendency to prefer “white” over “black.” It’s called the  Implicit Association Test (IAT). Consider the measure akin to the mirror of the evil queen in Snow White.

There are actually a great many tasks you can undertake on the site, but the one I’m talking about is the one labeled Race IAT in blue.

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The Harvard creators take the time to quote Fyodor Dostoyevsky:

“Every man has reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone but only his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind.”

These lines from Dostoyevsky capture two concepts that the IAT helps us examine. First, we might not always be willing to share our private attitudes with others. Second, we may not be aware of some of our own attitudes. Your results on the IAT may include both components of control and awareness.

Now, you are likely to ask whether there is a connection between preferring “white” over “black” (or the reverse) and acts of discrimination/racism. The answer is in the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) section of the site. In general, they inform us, “not necessarily.”

Of course, I don’t know how you, dear reader, will score. Are you, to quote Dostoyevsky once more, a hostage to “those things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself?”

Do you have the courage to find out?

Again, here is where you can: Implicit Association Test.

Now, say, after me: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall … ”

For sure, this psychologist is not the fairest of them all. In any sense.

Following the Disney images of the evil queen and her mirror (from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) comes Vasily Perov’s 1872 portrait of Dostoyevsky, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

11 thoughts on “A Therapist Tells You a Secret. Do You Really Want to Know Everything?

  1. Wait! What? You can’t tell me the meaning of life????? Damn! Now where am I supposed to go for that?
    Just saying….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So true Gerald, no one is above being subject to the human condition. We are all ignorant until someone or something teaches us otherwise. There are specific incidences where I’ve said and done hurtful things to others without thinking and when I look back now I cringe. It’s so easy to look at others and judge their choices until we are put into a similar situation and find we are making the same choices as they did, then that mirror pops up and hopefully we learn. The tragedy would be if we didn’t see ourselves with honesty. To quote a scripture ” this one is like a man looking at his own face in a mirror. For he looks at himself,and he goes away and immediately forgets what sort of person he is.”

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  3. Wise words from you and the Bible, Claire. Thanks for sharing them.

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  4. Dr. Stein, thanks for your courage, as a white American, in raising this very sensitive issue of racism in America. Until white people are able to look within – and acknowledge as you have done in your article – at their own racial prejudices, there can be no meaningful progress in narrowing our racial divide.

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  5. greetings Dr G
    so are we dealing with the subject of racism or the subject of your uncomfort of being put on a pedestal and thanked for your insight and compassion, are we dealing with your guilt of a racist act or your guilt of being put on a pedestal and liking the view – is this your attempt at self-sabotage and knocking yourself off through sharing this act of racism with us – should we be shocked and enlightened in seeing your flaws, your humanness?
    sorry Dr G – if that’s the case I would have preferred a confession of yours regarding you standing on a national monument in fishnet stockings and a g-string singing “I will survive” at the top of your lungs
    now I was born and bred to be racist, in a country that made it a national pastime – it’s in my blood, my ancestral tree roots – second nature and first thought – my fault, my parents fault, their parents – who knows it just got passed on down
    having a mental illness I have come face to face with mental disorder racism, you see racism isn’t just about your skin colour – it’s the classic flock of same colour sheep mentality, we’re all the same, and suddenly a rainbow sheep gets born into the flock, it’s different, it smells different and acts different and is just different in all the essence of different – and we don’t like different – so we ostracise, eradicate, unwelcome the different – we are afraid of it
    so let’s replace racism with different – you decided to choose the blond Greek God over the guy who might possibly be from a different racial background and country – and why – cause the guy was different and we choose familiar over different – and why – because different scares us, it challenges us to face what we’ve been brought up to believe, it challenges us that our parents and other ancestors could be wrong – and that rocks our foundations – never accept the different – it’s easier to be racist, to stick with what you know – every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind and if you face your fears, look at the different full on you will see something different and you fear that because fuck me (sorry) you might just become different yourself and then you will find yourself outside of the flock facing the fears on your own and being ostracised and blamed – it’s safer to stay narrow minded and racist inside the flock
    being a fruit loop I’ve hit this head on being on both sides of the racism – being overlooked for the normal, non-mental disordered one, facing my fears and in consequence being pushed out of the flock and to be honest scared shitless (apologies again) in being so out in the open and being so vulnerable – but do you know the freedom that gave me, being able to breathe my own air and not the claustrophobic, used up, tired air of the flock
    so Dr G you made a mistake and most probably missed out on an amazing friendship or you could have been killed in your bed – we’ll never know
    and back to pedestals – I put people on pedestals so I know where to find them otherwise they tend to get lost in all the chaos – better to elevate them for better recon purposes
    I’m not going to apologise for sticking you on a pedestal – in my mind it’s not a crowning and offering you gold and pillaging privileges and a kingdom all for you – it’s more like making you into a utility pole, a signpost so I know where to locate you, pop in for tea and biscuits – I see you as an alternative source of understanding stuff, it expands my limitations and makes me think and get pissed off (do I have to apologise for that one too?) and I am eternally thankful in a non-worshipping way for your gift of sharing with us
    so sorry Dr G – I do road trips not guilt trips – so though I am eternally grateful that you shared something so personal with us and I hope you don’t see this as the last time for sharing the personal stuff – it’s a privilege to see inside your mind right through to your soul, I am blessed for your couraging and putting it all out there – you are ultimately human, created by your own consequences and those of your ancestral personages
    keep on keeping it real Dr G – I’m off to go see how genuine my racist genes are – just love those online quizzes xxx

    Liked by 2 people

    • I am happy about being on your pedestal, Rosie, and my guilt has long since vanished. As to the fishnet stockings, that was supposed to be for next week, but now you’ve blown my cover! 😉 Thanks for your always delightful thoughts.

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  6. I wish there was a “Love you comments” button, Rosie. So beautifully phrased and superbly expressed! Ditto for me.

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