In the 1940s my white father, who lived in Arkansas, was visiting Michigan for a Methodist conference when he found his assigned roommate was a black man. Outraged, he thought about requesting a different room, asking himself how he could accept and room with a man he perceived as inferior and hang onto his own self-esteem? Despite this inner conflict, he was polite to him and then was surprised to find that he liked the man. At that moment in his life, he faced white narcissism, and I will be ever grateful to him for stepping away from it toward a new way of being. His polite restraint allowed him to meet a black man who, he told me later, “was a better man than I am.”
Both men became trailblazers in the movement toward racial equality. Stories like this made me want to understand what was going on on the “other side of the tracks.” As soon as I could, I went to Union Theological Seminary in New York City to study black liberation theology under James H. Cone and black history under James Melvin Washington. Cone’s writings had enormous influence on me.
When I returned to the South a dozen years later, I found a very different place from what I had left. Kudzu was everywhere; country shacks were disappearing from farmlands; white flight and black migration had radically changed city demographics; black political power was growing; and neighborhoods all over were much more diverse. As a pastoral counselor in Memphis, my caseload was as diverse as my neighborhood. Black liberation theology and black history made me acutely aware of hints of residue from slave psychological trauma. At first I noticed it mainly in the black clients who sought my help, but my anger at the obvious racism of white people kept me from looking at the slave-owning trauma my own racial family was saddled with. Gradually though, I began to see that years of slave ownership and white privilege had deeply harmed white folks, too—just in a more subtle way. My studies in black history had made me more sensitive to the black anger that seemed so justified to me, but it had not made me more sensitive to the white narcissism that is also a gaping psychological wound.
The book I kept returning to was Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, published in 1853, the basis for the award-winning screenplay written by John Ridley and film directed by Steve McQueen. This autobiography told the story of Northup, who, as a free black man, was kidnapped into slavery, and liberated after 12 years. This story had long captured my attention, and the movie—strikingly true to the book—gave me new insight into the training in narcissism slave ownership includes. It helped me look in a new way at narcissism and its connection to being white in a country where my forefathers were either former slave owners or part of the continuing white privilege we live with. (Read more of McDonald’s reflections on the book and movie at fdsj.nl/mcdonald-12.)
Narcissism takes its name from Greek mythology. Narcissus was a youth who became enamored by his own image, spurning his love of the goddess Echo. Narcissism is defined as “excessive admiration of oneself.” Narcissistic Personality Disorder, a psychiatric diagnosis, is often referred to as the most difficult of disorders to treat, alongside Antisocial Disorder. It is characterized by grandiosity, entitlement, exploitation of others, self-righteousness, lack of empathy, and arrogance. The narcissist is the man who, dressed impeccably, enters the gathering late, sits down near the front, and immediately jumps into the discussion without acknowledging that he might have missed something important. We call female narcissists divas, those who demand that the show revolves around “me.” The narcissist’s opinion is very important, certainly more than yours or mine. The narcissist is depicted as the lady who asks, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” then is furious when another is named. He is the boss who looks out for “number one.” At least two movies portray the narcissist very well: The Great Santini and Mommie Dearest. In both movies the main character is quite charismatic at first, but becomes highly unlikeable as we get close to him or her.
There is another kind of narcissism that is positive, though. We’ve all had the pleasure of welcoming to a party or gathering a person who entertains everyone. They claim the center of attention without hogging it. They embody a childlike narcissism that is charming and fun. Children with good self-esteem and good manners will often climb into our lap, smile, and convey a narcissistic confidence that says, “You’re going to like me!” And they’re right. So let’s not throw out narcissism entirely or write it off as a disorder. Martin Luther King Jr. called it “the Drum Major Instinct,” making a distinction between narcissistic power grabs and the human desire to be noticed and appreciated. Even Jesus recommended you love your neighbor as yourself, which might be like saying, love yourself first like a child’s self-love, and then treat your neighbor with the same kind of appreciation.
The white narcissism inherent in our race relations today, however, is not charming. Slavery’s sadistic overkill can’t help but have a long-lasting impact on generations of people subjugated to such evil behavior. However, what we don’t see so easily is the psychological toll on the slave owners.
White narcissism is based on an ideology that was born from the terrible nature of slavery. If you are privileged enough to own another human being, define that slave as non-human, abuse and kill randomly and capriciously, then you begin to feel as if you must be truly special. It is a breeding ground for arrogance, grandiosity, entitlement, and exploitation of others. It makes “spoiling a child”—a process we usually refer to as bad—nothing in comparison. If you want to ruin a person psychologically, make him or her a slave or a slave owner. Both positions are psychological tragedies.
Maybe the most profound insight of Martin Luther King Jr. was his understanding that Jim Crow—the institutionalism of white narcissism—depended on violence. Violence was not going to change the South, for violence was the foundation of the South and the foundation of both white narcissism and Jim Crow. Violent revolution would not have worked. It had to be overcome by civility and extreme self-discipline. With nonviolence as his primary tool, King could lead people into an overthrow of the white narcissistic disorder of our Southern politics.
One of King’s greatest essays, “Letter From Birmingham City Jail,” included a direct challenge to white narcissism. He wrote:
Few members of a race that has oppressed another race can understand or appreciate the deep groans and passionate yearnings of those that have been oppressed, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent, and determined action.
He wrote that white churches (havens for white narcissism), when faced with blatant injustice, “stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.” King’s disappointment was the realization that the backbone to segregation was not just the Jim Crow “law and order.” It included “a completely otherworldly religion” that “largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a taillight behind” those forces of oppression “rather than a headlight leading [people] to higher levels of justice.”
King wrote that he had found himself asking, “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?” Was it a God of liberation, or a God of social stability in a society where white is right and black is wrong? What he did not articulate was what a white person has to name for him- or herself. He saw the narcissism in our hearts that still upholds a conflicted racial view. He challenged white folks to have the courage to let go of segregation, just as he challenged black folks to have the courage to nonviolently demand equal access to opportunity and power.
What he could not do was overthrow white cultural narcissism. That is a job for whites to do for themselves. When my dad hesitated before dismissing a black man as an inferior human being and was just polite enough to meet the man before him, he saw himself in a different mirror, and he didn’t see the admiration of self that Narcissus thought he saw. Instead, my father saw his white narcissism, and fortunately for him—fortunately for me—he didn’t like what he saw. It ignited a fire in him to burn away the white narcissism he had accepted as normal.
White narcissism might be the norm for our white culture, but it is not normal in the sense of healthy. It is a sickness that is found in expressions like these:
- “Blacks are the ones who are prejudiced.”
- “Since some of my best friends are black, I can criticize them.”
- “White people are treated just as badly as blacks.”
- “I know more black racists than white racists.”
Each of these defensive/offensive statements imply that I, the white person, is the one who needs to be understood. I am the center of attention, and I resent any black person who tries to take that away from me.
An African American man once said to me, “White people have to figure out for themselves what the meaning of race is.” What I understood was that black people long ago had to be aware of race as a major issue in American culture. For a black person in America, race’s meaning is obvious, for race and racism are key factors blacks must wrestle with as they develop an identity. White people, though, filled up with white narcissism, can ignore race or, more specifically, can ignore their position as a race, for white privilege is almost imperceptible for white people. White privilege is found in many places:
- no one checking your ID when you use a check card, preceded by a black person’s ID being checked
- getting service with a smile just after a black customer gets served with a frown
- not being carefully and conspicuously watched in a store
- walking into fancy places without being questioned
- being treated like royalty when buying a big-ticket item like a new car
- not being stopped while driving in an all-white neighborhood
- not hearing car doors locked while crossing streets at stop lights
- not being murdered in Florida for wearing a hoody and resisting a neighborhood watch fanatic
- being treated politely on the telephone, then, upon being seen in person, not being turned away with rudeness or pseudo-polite rejection
If you are white and any one of the scenarios I just suggested pushes your button and makes you angry or defensive, you are probably suffering from white narcissism, the residue of white slave ownership’s psychological damage passed down through the century and a half since emancipation. White narcissism makes us defensive and argumentative. Try dropping it for a while and, like my father, look at what I’m saying through another lens. What you’ll see is that black people are still annoyed at white privilege because it happens to your advantage every single day. And as long as you accept that advantage without question, you are nurturing sickness in yourself and in our society.
I go for a run every morning in Memphis. Often I like to run sprints on the Rhodes College track. Next to the track is a stone wall that is easy to climb and is a shortcut to the track from my house. Of course the wall is not there to be climbed, so I sneaked over it onto the track for about 20 years, knowing that if I was caught I’d be asked to not do it again. But when I was running with my black friend, we didn’t even consider climbing that wall. We talked about it and laughed at what I could get away with and he couldn’t. I stopped climbing the wall, for it just isn’t fair. My black running buddy is just as honest, maybe more so, than I am.
When I studied black liberation theology, my teacher, James H. Cone, asserted that you can’t understand liberation if you are white. What I came to realize is that what Cone meant by “white” is what I mean by white narcissism. I can’t do anything about the color of my skin short of a dangerous tan, but I can resist white narcissism. I can stop climbing that wall. I can be friendly to the black man ahead of me in the check-out line and encourage the clerk to act similarly. I can offer my ID without being asked. I can nurture friendships with people regardless of race, something that I have to be intentionally conscious of.
In my counseling work I noticed years ago that when people emerge from depression, they start thanking those who have loved them and held them up through the debilitating lows, isolation, and deep hole. Depression includes perceiving life as nothing but a burden. Shakespeare called it “a tale told by an idiot.” Yet as depressed people emerged from this hole, I saw in their thankfulness a spiritual antidote. Thankfulness is the spiritual antidote to depression. In another way depression, the lack of thankfulness, is a descent into narcissistic panic, a place where not only am I unappreciated, but no one is really deserving of my appreciation. Narcissistic panic is a place where torment rules. I torment myself and anyone who tries to relate to me. Dory Previn wrote in one of her songs, “Kick a person when she’s down, and all you’ll break is your toe.” Depression and narcissistic panic is the place where one’s negativity is so bad that even being in the vicinity of the cloud of depression (which used to be called “the vapors”) is painful.
White narcissism is a kind of depressed place. Slavery is oppressive. Slave ownership was depressive, and the residue of slave ownership has been the generational transmission of this depressed narcissistic panic. It has been left dormant in the souls of white people for centuries. As long as there are no waves of protest from black folks, it can lie happily dormant, for all seems normal. When a black person peacefully complies with the request for an ID to accompany the credit card just after a white person’s credit card purchase has been enough, it does not mean there’s no conflict. It just means that the black person doesn’t want to fight right now. White narcissism can stay hidden for another day. Or when a black man, being followed by a suspicious store clerk, doesn’t ask why he’s being followed, white narcissism can rest easily. Yet when protest happens, and the clerk says “I’m just doing my job,” the long-dormant pathology peeks out and lashes out.
Generational transmission is a concept we have learned from our studies of families. It was first expressed in the biblical saying, “The iniquities of the fathers are visited upon the children and the children’s children for the third or fourth generations.” As psychotherapists learned more about patients’ family conflicts, we began to see that most personal problems have their roots in problems that appear to have been passed down from generation to generation. An obvious example is the transmission of alcoholism. Alcoholics almost always have relatives from many generations who have been alcoholics or problem drinkers. And the more we looked, the more we saw depression as inherited, anxiety as inherited, psychosis as inherited. Just as some kinds of heart disease are obviously transmitted from generation to generation, psychological problems are, too. White narcissism is generationally transmitted also. Originating in our slave/slave owner fragmentation of the eighteenth century, the psychological damage of white narcissism is still evident today. If you are Caucasian, particularly if you are a Southern white, you have within you the white narcissistic gene. You are part of the problem. The sins of the fathers have been visited onto you.
The same is true for blacks and slave psychology. The trauma of oppression, of losing family connections, of inward powerlessness and rage, of a sense of worthlessness, lies dormant within, looking for a fuse to ignite an implosion or explosion. Without awareness of the horrible infection within, the ignition will almost always be destructive and self-defeating. One reason why organized black protest movements in the 1960s were so effective was because (1) they acknowledged the negative infection within the hearts of black people, naming it and disarming it; (2) they channeled the rage into effective and life-changing action; and (3) nonviolent action is a repudiation of the violent roots of white narcissism.
It was easier for me to see slave psychology in my black patients than the white narcissism within myself. We’ve spent so much time looking at the trauma of being a slave or powerlessness in the Jim Crow South, but so little time admitting that we white folks have a very serious infection in our very hearts. This is the infection of white narcissism.
Ghosts have to be named. Name the ghost that haunts you, and it loses its power. This is the principle behind all those children’s fairy tales when the young boy or girl has to stare into the monster’s eyes without fear, and call it by name. Then it will tuck its tail and go away. Of course, it’s not that simple, but in a way it is. It’s just that this ghost is one heck of a monster. It’s been having its way for centuries, and thanks to all the liberation movements we’ve been blessed with over this last half century, we are the generation called to the task of staring it down and naming it.
The two liberating shifts from oppression (name it and defy it) that happen when people finally have the power to do something are different from what white narcissism calls upon us to do. White narcissism is a pathological justification for negativity. It is an infection that begs to be named for what it truly is. It is a way of being that gives us an illusion of innocence and justification. Even though we are not the ones who literally owned slaves, we are still the ones who are haunted by slave-owner psychology. We are the ones who have white narcissism. We are the ones who are sick.
I live in a majority black city: Memphis, Tennessee. Despite that fact, I’m surprised at how many gatherings are all white or all black. It has long struck me as terribly wrong, but I hardly know what to do about it. It almost obscures the beauty of the many integrated places we have together. I have seen this all my life—integration and segregation living side by side as if there’s nothing that can be done about it.
My young father’s black roommate at that Michigan conference in the 1940s had become a United Methodist Church leader and college president when my dad recognized him at a conference 50 years later. Dad approached him to thank him for being gracious enough to accept a Southern white young man as his roommate, saying, “You were the first black man I ever roomed with, and I had to wrestle with my own prejudices. It was good for me.” This man, an old man like my dad, replied with a warm smile, “Charles, you were the first white man I ever roomed with. It was good for me, too.” It was a healing moment, precipitated by one man’s recognition and working through of the plague of white narcissism to a place of gratitude, and the other man’s warm appreciation for the change they were both open to. I have no doubt that between the bookends of those two experiences—rooming together and meeting and talking about it years later—was the reconciliation they needed. It is the reconciliation we need today.
If you let go of your defense against the inevitable confrontation with the narcissistic and rage-filled walls of segregation in our personal lives, choosing thankfulness instead, I predict that you will be relieved of a major burden. I know plenty of black people who testify to the release they felt when they let go of the inner rage that racism had infected them with, and I can testify to how much more moral and political strength they embodied afterward. Peaceful strength is always more powerful than conflicted strength. Peace is rooted in thankfulness. It is what King meant when he spoke about the mountaintop during his last night in Memphis. He was at peace with himself even while he refused to accept the evils of racism. We need to peacefully and thankfully let go of white narcissism so that we too can be free at last.