Fear of Humiliation as the Root of Racism

We Want White Tenants in Our White Community

Arthur Siegel, Office of War Information Harry S. Truman Library & Museum

No one is born a racist. The question is what happens to the newborn child as he or she is introduced to the world that leads him or her to develop this terrible affliction that causes so much harm and social violence.

At the moment of birth, every child longs for loving connection with the other—with mother, father, every social being whom he or she encounters through the blessing of holding, through the sentience of the body, eventually through the eyes. Because we are inherently social beings, the other is the source of our completion, and our relation with him or her is the basic unit, so to speak, of our very existence.

But although the other may be able to partly be available to us through holding and other manifestations of love, the other may also be afraid to become fully present to us, to surrender completely to the bond of love. We have not yet created a society in which the full extension of love, one to the other, has been realized as the very basis of our social life. Instead, we have felt compelled to pass on to each new generation the legacy of fear of the other that we have inherited from prior generations, which as we know have engaged in one after another catastrophic form of war, domination, and cruelty.

Alongside the experience of love, we therefore inevitably come to experience also a residue of fear. This fear is manifested as a kind of universal holding back or non-presence that from our earliest days haunts the otherwise openhearted impulse that we each have to extend ourselves toward the other, to seek the true and full mutuality of presence that would manifest the bond of love-without-fear that each of us aspires to.

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We experience the missing part of what the other extends toward us, the withdrawn part, or the holding-back part, as an original humiliation.  If I originally extend myself entirely and with a whole heart towards you, but you respond by in part holding back, I cannot avoid the shame of non-reciprocation. And if this is my original experience of social existence itself, the pain of that original humiliation cannot but be a kind of trauma, as essential vulnerability encounters the legacy of social alienation. And so I vow, unconsciously, to never repeat that original experience of humiliation of my very social essence if I can avoid it.

But how can I avoid it, if the longing for the other’s full presence, the other’s love itself, is at the heart of who I am as a social person? By becoming the self that the other recognizes. In response to the other’s non-recognition of who I am most fully in my heart, I begin to become the self that the other does recognize by adjusting my social manifestation of my self to the way I sense the other sees me, is willing to see me, is willing to love me as best he or she can.

In this way, I begin to develop an “inside,” in which my deepest desire for fully reciprocated love subsides unrecognized, and an “outside,” in which I become visible as the social person whom the other is able to partially embrace, haunted nevertheless by the fear that that other has also felt compelled to pass on to me. In this mixed nature of the earliest social encounter, the outside is a denial of the inside, and in this way makes the inside unconscious. Seen as a single social unit, self and other form a kind of partnership of outer selves which both affirm each other’s socially visible self and thus allow each other to enter social existence, and deny each other’s deeper longing for the completion of, and the full vulnerability attendant to, unmediated love and unguarded mutual presence.  That deeper denied longing never ceases to pulse toward the surface of each person’s being-towards-the-other, but the fully loving impulse is always short-circuited by the memory of the original humiliation, and the fear of re-experiencing that earliest rejection and the trauma associated with it.

Much of our social life and social world is reflective of the beauty of our effort, as a collective humanity bound together by our inherently social nature, to make manifest this longing in our hearts in spite of the legacy of fear that we have inherited from prior generations (though it was of course not their fault). The reason that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice is that this invincible longing in each of us remains the very foundation of our social being and presses ineluctably against the alienated surface of the world toward eventually fully realizing itself in the social body, in the social world that we actually manifest. As Martin Luther King Jr., said, justice is love correcting that which revolts against love, and this corrective work of love exerts an upward pressure on the visible surface of our world that tends, in spite of the counterforce exerted by fear, toward our fully, and with grace, entering into each other’s presence.

But on our way towards that promised land of which King spoke, the power of fear seeking to prevent us from re-experiencing that original trauma of humiliation is very great, and one form that this fear takes is actual violence by the outside self against the inside self that would seek to dissolve and transcend its boundaries. Here we come to the kernel of racism.


To the extent that we feel we are prohibited, by how we have been recognized by the other, from fully seeking the love and mutual recognition to which we aspire in our social being, we cannot but adopt strategies to realize that basic need, that basic longing, in imaginary, substitute ways. Narcissism at the personal level seeks to compensate for the lack of true relatedness with the other by imagining and enacting a relation with the other that is “great,” even perfect. To give the simplest example, I may look in the mirror and imagine the other sees me as utterly desirable in order to deny my inner humiliated feeling that I am undesirable because actually not seen at all, a kind of vacuum of inner nothingness. And because my narcissistic attachment to my image is merely a mask covering my inner emptiness, I know unconsciously that my imaginary relation to the admiring other is false, is untrue. And therefore, I must constantly inflate the image, which I actually experience as a puffed-up cover always about to deflate because of being revealed for the chimera, the nothing, that it actually is. The narcissist never feels that his or her image is connected to the soul, to the center of his or her being.

At the collective level, precisely the same lack of true relation can manifest itself in very much the same way, as in the kind of “inflated nationalism” in which one imagines one is part of the image of a great nation in which everyone is perfectly, ideally connected. Because the inflated nationalist at the collective level, like the narcissist at the personal level, is using the outer image as a mask that both substitutes for and also denies the inner emptiness or “vacuum of nothingness” that haunts the outer self, that outer, substitutive image, knowing unconsciously that it is merely a mask, must constantly puff itself up to prevent its imminent deflation. Thus the evocation to “Make America Great Again” seeks to channel collective awareness toward a common image that surrounds an emptiness and lacks any center, and that is why today the evocation must be to “Keep America Great” because it is about to no longer be so. In this sense the evoked image is like a balloon with a small hole in it requiring continual inflation. And behind the inflation of the image, in both narcissism and inflated nationalism, is the terror of humiliation, which at the deepest level is the terror of re-experiencing the original humiliation of never having been loved and fully recognized as worthy in one’s core, in the core of one’s inherently social being.

Racism is born of this dynamic. Racism is like a disease in the sense that one may have a mild or severe case of it (thought never mild to its victims), depending upon how traumatic the laying down of one’s inner humiliation of non-recognition has been. And since the legacy of social alienation stretching across our generations has been pervasive, racism can be systemic or structural in the form of a mild case affecting a whole culture, or virulent as expressed through a traumatized subculture (the Ku Klux Klan) or a deeply traumatized individual (the author of Mein Kampf) who may then galvanize a subculture and even inspire the mild case to turn virulent. But the underlying dynamic remains the covering over of an inner humiliation by an image, attached in the imagination to the insubstantial and unanchored outer self offering a kind of substitute connection to the other, “packaging” or surrounding a vacuum of nothingness, a withdrawn and unseen and unembraced inner being aware unconsciously of its own unrealized need and longing. And because human beings are essentially social, are social in their very being, racism is always a social phenomenon spreading from one to the other through a kind of unconscious conspiracy of denial and substitute connection.

In racism, as distinct from narcissism and inflated nationalism, the self fixes upon an outer feature or group of features that it imagines makes itself “better” than others who lack the feature or feature. The most common of these features relates to the skin, as in skin color, but the shape of the nose may become fetishized (to return to my Mein Kampf example when Hitler singled out the Aryan as opposed to the Jewish nose) or really any other feature at all such as the shape of the eyes or the texture of hair. This feature or group of features attached in the mind to what I have been calling the insubstantial or unanchored outer self is then inflated to become a source of “pride”—here meaning false worthiness—that, because it is false and merely a cover for an inner humiliating sense of unworthiness, never is sure of itself. Therefore, in order to maintain its sense of “pride,” the self must find a way to keep inflating in the mind or imagination the value and worthiness and distinctiveness of the chosen feature or features.

This is the true origin, in being, of the necessity of demonization of the other. Because racism involves a false fetishization of “outer” features congealed into a substitutive image that unconsciously knows its own falsity, it requires continually constructing an other who lacks this feature in order to re-inflate itself.  If I am “proud that I am white,” I must constantly locate and diminish the non-white in order to re-enact the elevation of my whiteness. And why is this re-enactment so urgent? Because the pressure of my own true need and desire for true mutual presence and love is constantly exerting pressure on the surface of my being, threatening to break through my false, outer self in a desperate cry of longing that would expose me to a risk of humiliation that I imagine would be too traumatic to bear.  Thus it is the pressure of the inner desire for true connection with the other, with others, coupled with the reciprocal felt sense of this desire as about to be manifested in the other also, that makes the “white” racist perpetually seek out the non-white to demonize, in the service of re-inflating the outer self’s “white pride”—a delusion haunted by its own inner emptiness and threatened by a desire always too explosive for its own gossamer container.

If one has a mild case of racism, to return to the disease metaphor, one may simply “proudly” inhabit one’s superior social position by choice of neighborhood, clothing style, or bodily posture, among many other possible ways of enacting the respite of the false self. In severe cases, one may join marauding gangs and engage in violence toward non-whites, or become obsessed with social or geographical boundaries as a way of recreating the other as a threat through “keeping them out” of some imagined and actually hallucinated safe and superior location (as in not allowing immigration from “shithole countries” or guarding a border against “infestation”). And as I have said, the mild case may always become severe, as was the case in Nazi Germany when the legacy of mild anti-semitic racism in German national identity was awakened to panic under the pressure of the anticipation of the collapse of that identity following the Versailles Treaty at the end of World War I, the emergence of uncontrolled inflation and near economic collapse, and the apparent internal threat of a communist revolution. In that circumstance, Hitler was able link his own personal trauma at first to a subculture of violent gangs and then eventually to an “entire nation” leading ultimately to the death camps and the final solution, the actual extermination of Jews and other non-Aryans. In the context of the description I am presenting here, that “final solution” was actually the solution to the threat of dissolution of the German, Aryan collective self as a false cover for an inner emptiness that knows and seeks to deny both its own emptiness, and simultaneously its own internal longing for love, for true mutual presence too humiliating to reveal.


In the above example, we can see the relationship, to use philosophical language, of the historical to the ontological. The ontological dimension of racism is the universal foundation of this idealization of the collective false self seeking to avoid humiliation by aggrandizing itself through fetishism of racial features, and the construction of and demonization of the other’s collective false self as a means of “leveraging up” that substitutive, idealized racial identification. The historical dimension of racism grounds this universal dimension of racism in the particularity of actual distorted historical processes.  By attending to what is universal about racism as social being masking the fear of humiliation through compensatory fantasy and collective image-attachment, we can see the commonality at the core of racism across its historical manifestations. But to fully understand any one of these manifestations, we must illuminate the particularity of historical circumstances, as in the building of the Nazi identity out of a particular humiliation of German nationalism in the early 20th century, accompanied by the  Nazis particular idealization of certain outer features (the blond body) and symbols (the swastika) as over and against the construction and demonization of features and symbols of the Jews, the gays, the disabled, the Poles.  In each circumstance, the ontological-universal and the historical-particular are fused in a way that can be illuminated by what Clifford Geertz called “thick description,” but only by understanding (ontologically) what one is describing (historically).

In the United States today, the outpouring of support for the Black Lives Matter movement—the pouring out into the streets of hundreds of thousands of people who had not been visible to each other—expresses an ontological upsurge of our collective being against the horrific legacy and continuing manifestation of historically particular racism, suddenly symbolized in the killing of George Floyd.  That upsurge is a universal collective response, a ricochet of refusal to accept the repressive surface of the outer self that had been serving as a routinized form of collective denial of the longing within all of us for a world in which we can recognize and affirm one another as fully human beings, as the white policeman Derek Chauvin should have recognized and affirmed the black George Floyd. In other words, although the mass protests are expressions of an internal longing with all of us, they have only been able to emerge and rupture the world’s alienated surface through the particularity of the Black Lives Matter movement, through the particularity, at this historical moment, in this country with its particular legacy of racism by whites against Blacks, of the revolt against specifically Black oppression. The ontological dimension—the cry of Being itself against its own denial and containment in a way that oppresses all of us—is expressing itself through the movement for Black lives against the specific way that whites have stigmatized, demeaned, and done violence to Blacks over the course of 400 years.

And this is why the slogan “all lives matter” is a kind of diffusion of and resistance to the Black Lives Matter movement. By abstracting away from the specific racial oppression of Blacks, the insistence that “all lives matter” seeks to evade and thus cool out the joinder of the universal and the particular in the Black struggle, right now, against the legacy of white racism as a concrete and real truth of Being in denial of itself in our real history as opposed to an abstract and unreal world.  It is the fear of humiliation in whites, manifesting itself across hundreds of years in racism toward Blacks, that is the specific historical context in which the revolt against the whole system that produces this racist pathology has been able to be manifested.

Yet on the universal side, we can see that the allyship with Blacks that is called for at this historical moment is also a source of our own liberation as whites, as social beings longing for the creation of a decent and loving world. For the very act of forming into a rising movement allows all of us who are “rising” to ricochet into a great force of solidarity for the liberation of all humanity from a world in which racism can continue to occur.  In this way the movement for Black lives is also a movement for our own lives as social beings longing to transcend a world in which we and our communities are imprisoned in the residual fear of the other that continues to produce such horrific, anti-human consequences.  To become free of the carapace of fear that everywhere encloses us in the normal patterns of an alienated world, we identify with all of our might, and go out into public to join, the movement for Black liberation that has become the historically specific manifestation today of the struggle for universal justice, or to against quote King’s words, the struggle of love to correct that which revolts against love.


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