Racism is a Mental Disorder, Not a Character Flaw

I came out of my meeting at the Medical Center feeling so rejected you would have thought I was returning from a blind date with a Nazi. I am no stranger to racism, being a black man with a Ph.D. in neuroscience, working in medicine, where anti-black racism is pervasive. However, I am one of those easygoing, non-threatening, well-educated, likable Negroes, who prides himself on being hyposensitive, and not angry or reactionary. Normally in a situation like this my reaction would be to just throw my head back, and put on my everyday armor: “I am a University of Michigan alum, with a Ph.D. in neuroscience, so do not ever mistake me for someone who cares what you think.” That has been a tried and true way to avoid the fact that I am human, and innately care very much what other people think. We are a social species. Caring what other people think is in our genome because human survival depends on being a part of the herd.1,2 For the ancients, exclusion meant increased vulnerability to the natural threats, starvation and predators. No matter how good of a game you talk, your neuropeptides are not buying it.3

Likewise, we utilize consensual realities like education and occupation to enhance our self-worth. I was trying to counterbalance the social rejection I felt with those consensual realities by going to my “I went to a prestigious university and I have impressive letters behind my name” place. However, my flight to the safety of education and occupation grading was not working this time. That was because my encounters with blatant racism in medicine, was usually at the hands of Pacific Rim Asians, or Whites. This person was a large, black woman, who could have been me in drag, if she had been (immodestly perhaps) prettier and better at applying mascara and eye shadow.

How could this be? Big brother is not supposed to be sitting across a desk, with a face full of Revlon “Dark and Lovely” wearing “Just My Size” cinnamon pantyhose. How could this woman have treated me like this? This is supposed to be a sister. A few years ago, this woman and I might have dropped to our knees together at the May Company’s make up counter and said, “Yes there is a God!” when we saw the Barbara Walden’s Walnut to Wicker foundation shades. She must have been there. I could see it in her lipstick. This woman should know better, I thought. Then I thought again.

Racism-driven behaviors are like flu viruses among humans. We are all susceptible to them from time to time. If we think we are not all vulnerable to racist thoughts and actions, we are just naïve and deluding ourselves. The brain consolidates and simplifies information. Stereotypes exist because of this.4 However, the reasons these stereotypes persist and become pervasive are complex and involve many variables, some individual, some global. Still, just as we all get the flu, we all get the “racism bug” at various times. Like any other bug, it affects some of us more often and more severely than others. The important thing to realize is that racism is a disease, not a character flaw. Different diseases survive in different ways. Racism is one of those diseases that can lie dormant and then flare up suddenly. For example, the liberal guy who “doesn’t have a prejudice bone in his body,” until his daughter brings home the Black or Hispanic boyfriend. A larger example of that would be many Americans’ reaction to the election of President Obama.

Generally, anti-black racism presents in Blacks as self-loathing. My experience was a prime example of that. Just as certain conditions promote physical disease, mental disease thrives better in certain places. Racism, or as I call it “the R-Bug,” thrives in media, the fashion industry, history, politics, business, the Internet and pornography. Regrettably, humans often frequent these places.

Because the R-Bug is like a virus among humans, Black people are no less susceptible to it than any other people are. Racism is a mental illness, like an anxiety attack, depression, bipolar disorder or any of the many mental maladies. The DSM IV generally describes a mental disorder generally characterized by dysregulated mood, thought, and/or behavior.5 This sounds like racism to me. It also sounds like something we may all be susceptible to, and likely to experience, though some more frequently than others. That is important to understand because we tend to single people out, label them as racists, demonize them, then think, “okay good, now we have had racial justice, let’s go have latte.” That is not a correct way of looking at it. You do not become a cold just because you catch a cold, or are highly susceptible to catching colds, or catch a bad one. Nor are you immune to colds because you seldom catch one.

Acts, not people, are racist. Not even people who endure this mental disorder display its symptoms all of the time. Some things humans do, do not involve race, so there is no opportunity to be racist. Believing racism is a character flaw is as misguided as thinking compulsive overeating is a character flaw, or that demons possess epileptics. Separating the mental malfunction from the individual is important, because as Hippocrates said, “The ability of a disease to do damage lies in its ability to go undetected.” Remain Fabulous and phenomenal.


1. Cacioppo JT, Hawkley LC. Perceived social isolation and cognition. Trends Cogn Sci. 2009 Oct;13(10):447-54.

2. Santos RV, Fry PH, Monteiro S, et al. Color, race, and genomic ancestry in Brazil: dialogues between anthropology and genetics. Curr Anthropol. 2009 Dec;50(6):787-819.

3. Carter CS, Lederhendler I, Kirkpatrick B. The integrative neurobiology of affiliation. Introduction. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 1997 Jan 15;807:xiii-xviii.

4. Fiske S. Stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination at the seam between the centuries: evolution, culture, mind, and brain. European Journal of Social Psychology. 2000;30:299-322.

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