Is racism a community mental health problem?

In 2011, I earned a Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology from Adler University in Chicago, IL. Alfred Adler, for whom the school is named, was the founder of Community Psychology. A colleague of both Freud and Jung, he differed from them in some significant ways. Chiefly, he believed that no human being develops in a psychological vacuum, and that our individual perspectives are conditioned – first and foremost – by our communities.

It is easy to dismiss the idea that “racism is a mental illness” when racism is normalized in our communities. If everyone has the same mental illness in a community or a family, it’s pretty hard to recognize it as such.

Whenever I think about the reality of unconscious racism in this country, I think of the 18-year-old white girl I met at my Christian college during my freshman year. While describing a black boy in our class who had a pledged a popular fraternity, she described him to me this way “well, he’s black, but not like really black”. This woman does not think she is a racist. She did not see anything wrong with what she said to me that day. And she’s not a bad person. But when she said it, my heart sank into my shoes, and my stomach rose into my throat.

I remember hoping that this would be an isolated incident, but it was not.

On a mission trip to England a couple years later, a handful of the white college kids I was traveling with kept talking about how strange it was to meet black people with English accents because it made them sound “so smart”. That same heart sinking, stomach churning feeling came back.

Some months later, I was driving with one of my best friends through a Sonic drive thru, and she referred to a group of black teenagers sitting on one of the restaurant’s outdoor benches as a “bunch of hoodlums”, and laughed like it was clever thing to say. I think I laughed too because I know her, understood that she didn’t even understand the harm in what she was saying, and believe she is good and decent to her core.

When I was in college, I had a hard time understanding and reacting to these attitudes. Most often, I felt shocked and disappointed, and reacted by doling out some kind of angry tongue lashing. Ask any of my friends that have stuck with me through the years, and they will tell you two things: A) I probably responsded with unearned self-righteousness. B) this was not an effective way to change hearts and minds.

About a year or so into graduate school, I started to think about the phenomena of racism through the lens of community psychology. It was only then that I could remember how that freshman girl at Baylor had had grandparents who refused to shake hands with her prom date because he was black. My friend who threw out the word “hoodlum” like it was funny had an influential family member who often made racist jokes when I spent time with him. I also had an opportunity to get to know him fairly well, and despite how shocking some of his jokes were, I honestly don’t believe that he had ever been afforded the opportunity to understood how these jokes were harmful.

Then I thought about how I was raised. My parents both work in pediatric medicine. They met at a non-profit community hospital in Kansas City. And while Kansas City isn’t exactly a hub for multiculturalism, nor is it part of this new “coastal elite” category we’ve all been talking about lately, it’s still a city with many cultures. My parents raised me to regard all of our community members with respect. While they themselves are White Protestants, they had close friends and colleagues who were black and brown, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Atheist.

But, and I say this with all the love and appreciation towards my upbringing I can possibly feel, racism still crept into my life. For me, the racism I grew up with was so subtle and insidious that I would never have been able to look at it honestly without a lot of help – from courageous professors and challenging coursework, hard conversations with black and brown friends, sincere interfaith dialogues, and way-out-of-my-comfort-zone community engagement.

Most of the people I grew up around had shared ideas about “good” and “bad” neighborhoods that often translated into “white” vs. “non-white”. I have – on more occasions than I want to admit – felt nervous or hyper vigilant around people of color when I am by myself in an unfamiliar environment. I probably laughed at my friend’s “hoodlum” joke, at least in part, because I was vulnerable to similar ideas about a rowdy group of black teenagers in a highly segregated town.

As pediatric health care providers, my parents were often critical of corporal punishment, and I came to see the issue of spanking vs. not spanking as a “class issue”. I know plenty of white people who spank their children, and I myself have given my daughter one spanking when I was worried about her safety. But at the time I was forming my ideas about corporal punishment, my ideas about “class” fell a little too conveniently along racial lines.

I learned later that most slave parents beat their small, unruly children into submission so that they would not get killed by their masters. This persisted throughout the Jim Crow era as a way for parents to keep their kids in line, in order to avoid being beaten or killed by certain groups of white people. Today, there are still some families who would still prefer to dole out harsh physical punishments at home, rather than have their children beaten or killed by the police.

Now, while there is ample research to suggest that corporal punishment is not a terribly effective form of behavior modification long-term, as a mother myself this really speaks to me. I have a tiny, often unmanageable, public tantrum-throwing toddler whom I love with my whole heart (plus some). And while my current approach involves giving her as many time-outs as we both can bear in a single day, you better believe that I would absolutely hit her if I thought it could save her from being hit harder by someone who didn’t love her.

Of course, racism is not simply an issue of black vs. white, but really “familiar group” vs. “foreign group”.

My mom, who was raised Lutheran, often told me that her parents were very vocal about their religious contempt towards Catholics. (Insert eye roll, Lord have mercy on us). My maternal grandmother also often told me stories that revealed cultural suspicion between “country folk” and “city folk”, and how her parents had stereotypes about the virtues (or lack-there-of) between different Scandinavian subgroups. Raised predominantly Norwegian, the first person in the family to marry a Swede caused quite a scandal!

Right now, we are having a bit of a global crisis about “familiar group” vs. “foreign group”, as evidenced by the rise in Islamophobia throughout the globe. After publishing my family’s holiday card on the internet, I got a bit of an unwelcome front seat to this fear-based ideology, and I learned a lot. The people who wrote the most hateful, factually inaccurate things about Islam often lived in communities that promoted these ideas a gospel truth. Because of a handy bit of Facebook stalking, I was able to learn a little bit about almost every single person that wrote to me (or about me) after our holiday card went viral.

Almost no one who shared ugly accusations towards Islam communicated an accurate understanding of the difference between the practice and teachings of Islam vs. the practice and teachings of the terror groups who claim Islam. It’s important to understand that most of the terror groups originating from within the Middle East have hurt and killed more Muslims than anyone else.

Terrorism is designed to inspire terror, not faith.

By that measure, however, these groups have done an excellent job of fulfilling their function. Because we are all running around making decisions based on our own feelings of terror, instead of living in accordance with our aspirations of faith. Anyone can claim a religion as their own, but that does not guarantee that they are behaving in accordance with it’s teachings, nor does it guarantee that they are operating with an accurate interpretation of it’s teachings.

I can think of plenty of examples of this within the Christian tradition as well – myself included many times.

When I was a sophomore in college, I took a class on World Religions at a Baptist university in Texas, in a post-911 world. To his credit, my professor was relentless in his determination to help us understand Islam empathically. “No, a mosque is not like a church, please stop projecting your experience onto someone else’s. A mosque is a like a mosque. If you can’t demonstrate an understanding of this tradition from inside of it, you won’t be able to earn a decent grade in this class”.

But, here’s the thing: I often feel like one of the luckiest people in all the wide world for having been on the receiving end of countless opportunities to learn about how my ideas have been formed within unconscious biases. This is ongoing. I’m still learning about my biases nearly everyday.

So. What’s my point?

My point is this: ALL of our behaviors and beliefs are conditioned by our communities. And if we live in a community that participates in racism – no matter how subtle, or cleverly disguised – we will struggle to recognize it as such. Or perhaps, we will recognize it, but we won’t see it as problematic because our community keeps providing the necessary fodder to reinforce these attitudes, and we won’t recognize THAT for what it is either.

As a therapist, I can tell you this with 100% certainty: just because you don’t recognize a mental illness as such, does not make it less of one. In fact, it often exacerbates the symptoms.

Now, then. What am I suggesting we do about all of this? Well, we could start by being reflective. We could attempt to reach out beyond our usual habits of thought, and try on other people’s perspectives for a bit. See how that goes, etc.


One of the things I love best about a healthy spiritual practice is that it is often an excellent buffer against both personal and community mental health issues. To this point, I believe it is extraordinary that some of the earliest Judeo-Christian-Islamic scriptures (the verse referenced below is regarded as sacred bu all three faith traditions) speak to this very issue.

 “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19: 33-34).

It’s extraordinary, in part, because if you think tribalism, and humanitarian abuses are bad now, they were a WAY OF LIFE for the people living when the book of Leviticus was written. Tribalism was a necessary part of survival then. In some ways it is still a part of survival, but that’s another conversation for another time. For now, all I hope to accomplish here is more honest dialogue about how we might use spirituality to rise above learned fear and hate, instead of using it to reinforce the same.

Peace and Grace (I know I need it),