Someone pointed out that I refer to racism as a disease a lot. They thought it was a great analogy. While I appreciate the complement, I felt the need to clarify that it’s not an analogy for me. I perceive racism quite literally as a disease and believe it should be treated as such.
Last year while recording an episode of the podcast I curate, my co-host Aaron half-jokingly lobbied to have racism considered a mental disorder, citing that if you walk around thinking, in earnest and as a guide for your behavior, that you are superior to other people because of the color of your skin there is something psychologically wrong with you. How is that different than walking around thinking you’re Napoleon or Jesus? That’s textbook delusion.
Except the textbook doesn’t agree on what a disorder is, and again, I am not speaking allegorically. There is a generally used textbook – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association – and people with lots of letters behind their names disagree on the finer points of what a mental disorder is in more ways than I could keep track of, down to the very use of the words “mental” and “disorder”. It’s a deep and fascinating debate, especially when the average level of mental health discourse I encounter is with people for whom “retard” is still a frighteningly common pejorative. Based on the arguments I’ve read, the average person isn’t even close to coming to terms with the implications of how defining mental disorders one way or the other – sometimes by a sliver of logic – could have great impact on their daily lives, and not just in medicine. Lawmakers and insurance companies use this book too. Considering an initial run of the book in 1840 largely classified Blacks as insane highlights the relevancy of getting at better definitions to the point of stark relief.
When I encounter a stone cold bigot, I treat them like I might treat someone who’s escaped from a mental hospital: I avoid them, and I might call someone to pick them up. When I hear someone talking about how Black people are ruining their country and it makes them despair relentlessly, I see in them the traits of a manic depressive. When someone is scared of Black people on the basis of their perceived Blackness I find it helpful to process them as a chromophobe (fear of colors, or when I’m the target, a melanophobe) unless they’ve experienced some genuine trauma with a Black person in the past. Then I might see them as suffering from PTSD. If the trauma is “stood in an elevator with one once”, then we’re back to kleptophobia triggered by choromphobia.
And then there is the treatment of racism, which I have found is most effective when you see it, not as a series of external effects on your person, but as an insidious cancer you already have. Whenever someone asks me how they should deal with whatever level of racism they may have internalized I suggest that they do whatever they would do if they discovered they had cancer: They should test for it. Diagnose how racism has infected their daily lives. Uncover which parts of their lives have been clearly infected, and which ones may still be dormant. They should check for racist lumps in their character, their worldviews, their common rituals. They should check their habits and diets to see if they have long-standing behaviors that have contributed to their condition. They should read up on the most current literature about their condition and possible treatments. Seek expert advice and second opinions from people in the field. They should know that heredity has a lot to do with it, that they have a predisposition for it if they come from people who were racists. They should understand that it may never go away no matter how kind, rich or well-meaning they are. They should accept that they weren’t chosen out of the crowd and that it’s not rare; the crowd has the same condition and it is exceedingly common. They should know people die from it if left untreated. They should know that long-term exposure to certain social elements will prolong their suffering. They should know there is no cure. We should be dumping vast amounts of resources toward trying to help people with their condition. We should recognize that its causes are so deep-rooted in our environment that we may never extract its effects, that the contagion is living, that every house in America sits in the shadow of an electrical tower.
Everyone in my family dies from cancer. All four of my grandparents, my father, at least one aunt. I am sure I have family members who have or have had cancer that I am unaware of. Every Woods I share blood with that has died has done so at the hands of cancer. It is how my people go. I have to assume that, despite the fact that I have never smoked or that I rarely drink, it is how I will go. I say this to clarify that I do not speak of cancer lightly. It is not a thing that might happen to someone I know one day. It is not an analogy for me. If I say something is like cancer, I know what that conjures, what that looks like, what that implies. I am not being poetic. Still, perhaps it is still just an analogy, maybe even a prescient and most excellent analogy. Maybe there is poetry in its naming. If there is I wouldn’t know.
Is racism a disease? The APA hasn’t directly ruled it as such, if they have ever considered it at all. Something tells me they haven’t, and if they have, they found it a bar napkin discussion at best. I do know that many in the field are content to leave racism up to the social illness set, which I wouldn’t take them to task for even if they weren’t a bunch of PhDs. Racism is so many things all of the time. It winds through so much of the fabric of all our lives that, if we’re honest, almost any analogy could be applied to it and fit. At the same time, no hotep? I think it’s wholly possible that it’s both a social and a mental illness.