A Psychiatrist Explains Why Racism Is Not a Mental Illness

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As Black people and people of color continue to fight for racial justice the conversation surrounding racism cannot be ignored. Racism manifests in many ways — individual, interpersonal, institutional, and structural — and when it comes to people perpetuating racism, some wonder whether or not it’s taught, if it’s out of one’s control, and even if it should be considered a mental illness.

Is Racism a Mental Illness?

“No. As a psychiatrist living in the United States, I generally use the DSM-5 (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ) as what represents a mental illness,” Rebecca Kuhns, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist, founder of Nourish-A Healing Space said. “Racism is not listed in this reference manual, and I think this is appropriate,” she continued.

As a Black woman and a student of history, Kuhn believes that racism, particularly anti-Black racism, is an American societal norm rather than the exception. “I believe it is something that has to actively be unlearned. I also believe that it is a societal and systemic phenomenon rather than an individual condition,” she said.

When it comes to defining mental illnesses, Kuhns says they are “inextricably bound to culture.” She explained that “Mental illnesses are conditions that impair our ability to function in a certain society or certain culture.” For example, in American culture, we expect people to wear clothing when they’re out in public, and if they do not, we may suspect that the person has some sort of mental disorder, Kuhns said. “So in a very real way, our culture decides what is mentally ill and what is not.” And, in her opinion, racism does not impair how one functions in society.

“I would argue that racism allows individuals to function perfectly well in American society; in fact, the [American] society was formed and shaped with racism at its core,” she said. Because of how widespread, accepted, and ingrained racism is, Kuhns doesn’t think people should classify racism as a mental illness. “Framing racism as an individual problem, and framing it as something that is anomalous in our society, evades the need to look closely at just how endemic racism has been for hundreds of years,” Kuhns argued.

What Causes Racist Beliefs?

If racism isn’t a mental illness that people can’t control, you may be wondering what causes someone to adopt racist beliefs. “My understanding is that racism is caused by a desire for power and resources,” she explained. According to Kuhns, prejudice is a natural, preferential pull towards others who we perceive as being more similar to ourselves and a natural drawing away from those we perceive as different. “Racism adds an element of power into the mix. Racism is the combination of prejudice as well as a preferential distribution of resources (e.g. education, housing, and employment),” she said.

Is It Possible to Unlearn Racism?

Unlearning racism won’t happen overnight, but it is possible for those who are racist to do the work and unlearn racism. “The first step is to recognize that it exists,” Kuhns said. In her opinion, studying the true history of America is a step towards enlightenment. “Reading great books, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, can help provide a fresh perspective on just how pervasive racism is.”

For those who come from racial or ethnic groups that carry more “relative privilege,” Kuhn says the next step to unlearning racist thoughts and behaviors “might be to routinely place oneself in closer proximity to folks from racial/ethnic groups who carry less relative power and privilege.” For example, examining where you shop and the schools you send your children to. Finally, to unlearn racism, Kuhn said one must commit to actively joining the fight against systemic racial injustice.

As you participate in the steps outlined above, and others provided by anti-racism experts, seeking professional help from a licensed online therapist may be necessary, Kuhn said. As one begins to recognize the differences in how certain racial or ethnic groups have historically been treated, and continue to be treated, you may need to work through these feelings with an expert.

The same goes for those who have realized that they or their family members have perpetrated acts of racism. “Talking to a trusted mental health professional who is competent in discussing race and racism can be helpful support on your journey,” Kuhn’s said. Unlearning racism isn’t easy as it’s intertwined in every institution and every aspect of our daily lives, but it’s necessary if we want equality for all.

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