By Carter J. Carter
Images retrieved from Wikipedia and other sources. Buddhas of Bamiyan https://gandhara.rferl.org/amp/afghanistan-bamiyan-buddhas-destruction-20-anniversary/31123939.html
I am part Afghan, among many other parts—WASP parts, Jewish parts, Portuguese parts. American parts. I watched news footage of the US pulling out of Kabul, the Taliban overrunning the country, people climbing on planes and falling from the sky to their needless deaths. I was feeling, not thinking, really. Had I been asked to put my feeling into words, it would have been something like: “fuck the United States of America. Fuck its citizens–including me–who allowed this to happen. Fuck the Taliban, for good measure.”
My Afghan grandfather was in charge of the preservation of the Bamiyan Buddhas, among the greatest treasures of Afghan history. He watched on the news as the Taliban destroyed them, leaving vast blank spots in the cliff walls into which they were carved. I bet he thought something on the order of “fuck the Taliban,” too.
Throughout the #MeToo era, Twitter has been full of postings by rightfully aggrieved women expressing their rage and anguish through the maxim “kill all men.” To my knowledge, this did not launch a vast array of mass and serial murders of men by aggrieved women.
I imagine that most people of color have had a moment of suffering a profound racist indignity and feeling, thinking, perhaps even saying–“fuck white people.” (Or, in the vernacular of Twitter, “wypipo”). I imagine that most women have suffered a profound misogynistic indignity and feeling, thinking, perhaps even saying “fuck men.” bell hooks famously wrote a book about this feeling—she called the feeling, and the book, Killing Rage.
The book is named for an eponymous essay in it, Killing Rage: Militant Resistance. It is an exploration of black rage, in part through a critique of how psychoanalysts “explain [it] away.” hooks exhorts the reader to “see black rage as something other than a sickness, to see it as a potentially healthy, potentially healing response to oppression and exploitation.” She critiques black activists whom she also sees as demanding a “repression . . .and silencing of the rage of other black people [as] the sacrificial offering they make to gain the ears of white listeners.”
hooks further argues that, for many black people growing up under “apartheid” conditions, cultivating the capacity to repress their rage was indeed essential to survival. “We learned when we were very little that black people could die from feeling rage and expressing it to the wrong white folks. We learned to choke down our rage.” For hooks, this experience is part and parcel of the ways in which “white folks have colonized black Americans . . . a part of that colonizing process has been teaching us to repress our rage, to never make them the targets of any rage we feel about racism.” Resisting this socialized repression of one’s rational rage is, in hooks’ view, essential to the project of refusing to collaborate with one’s own subjugation.
It would obviously be a bad faith reading of hooks, and of these moments of unvarnished rage so many of us feel in the face of discrimination, to interpret them as frank bigotry to be condemned. This is not, in any meaningful sense, anti-white racism, or anti-male prejudice. Plenty of people made this bad faith interpretation of Killing Rage, often without having read the book. These are what Eve Sedgwick calls “paranoid readings,” seeking to foreclose, to always already know the answer, to not need to see something in a text that one might find discomforting about oneself.
What happens if we approach such texts, such moments, from the stance that Sedgwick calls “reparative reading”? If we approached them with some empathic openness, some willingness to mentalize, I think we would clearly recognize that they all involve an oppressed person, subjected to violations and degradation and destructiveness, feeling an enormous rage at the powers that make such humiliations possible.
It is hard to be mad at a construct, difficult to really be enraged at The Patriarchy or White Supremacy or Capitalism, even if these are ultimately the proper target of one’s anger. Our minds don’t readily accommodate such abstractions in moments of crisis. Instead, normal human beings are vulnerable to casting a particular person or group as a synechdoche of the true focus of our outrage. In a calmer moment, we might frame the issue more abstractly; in the moment of crisis, as hooks notes, there is a needed emotional relief from unjust suffering that can come from letting our rage out.
And, to be frank, sometimes the synechdoche is appropriate, because it recognizes the complicity of a person or group with the larger structures of domination that cause us such harm. In Killing Rage, hooks famously feels murderous rage towards a white man who could easily have intervened when she and her friend were being discriminated against, and instead did nothing, to serve his own advantage. In that moment, this white man was standing in for The White Man, and reasonably so—he had done precisely nothing to differentiate himself, to make a more ethical choice. He had colluded with racism, and in so doing he collapsed the space between his specific white male subjectivity and the larger figure of The White Man, the structures of racism and patriarchy. He did that through his choices; hooks just recognized it, and felt some kind of way about it, as anyone would.
She did not kill the man, of course. She wrote down her feelings on a legal pad, right next to him, in big letters, so that he would be forced to read her mind on the page, to mentalize her rage.
This rage should not be difficult to mentalize, in this instance or generally. The failure to mentalize it is, I would argue, motivated—politically motivated and psychologically motivated. You would need to make a decision, conscious or otherwise, to turn off your empathy in relation to this experience; you would need to become, as Simon Baron-Cohen puts it, mind-blind.
Why would you do that? Most likely because you don’t want to actually contend with how you’re positioned in relation to the power and violence that are being critiqued. You don’t want to see yourself on the wrong side. Like the white man in hooks’ story, you wish to collude with power while having plausible deniability about your collusion.
As Kirkland Vaughans and Lisa Harris have noted, these kinds of failures to mentalize are decidedly dangerous when it comes to black and brown people. A refusal to actually extend normal empathy to this kind of pain and its expression amounts to what Christopher Bollas calls violent innocence, a sadistic desire to lash out while preserving an image of yourself as pure and superior. It is an extraordinarily racist, cowardly thing to do. And it becomes dangerous, because these failures to mentalize lead one to erroneously see an angry black or brown person as dangerous, unhinged, enraged for no reason. Psychotic. Terrifying. A person seen in that way is liable to get very hurt indeed, especially when a white person says they’re scared.
James Baldwin, in an essay about his own black rage, famously wrote that “negroes are anti-semitic because they’re anti-white.” His critique involves a recognition that American Jews of European ancestry, a persecuted people, found some protection in our inculcation into Whiteness, and that this protection was welcomed by many even as it came with a great moral injury. Karen Brodkin tracks this history in her landmark work How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America.
Consider the crux of Baldwin’s argument:
“Of course, it is true, and I am not so naïve as not to know it, that many Jews despise Negroes, even as their Aryan brothers do (there are also Jews who despise Jews, even as their Aryan brothers do). It is true that many Jews use, shamelessly, the slaughter of the 6,000,000 by the Third Reich as proof that they cannot be bigots–or in the hope of not being held responsible for their bigotry. It is galling to be told by a Jew whom you know to be exploiting you that he cannot possibly be doing what you know he is doing because he is a Jew” (emphasis mine).
Baldwin is recognizing in a certain sort of white American Jewish person a tendency towards violent innocence vis à vis people of color. I would regard that violent innocence as a strategy for managing profoundly conflictual identifications between Whiteness, a supremacist identity and ideology, and Jewishness, a persecuted identity and potentially a liberatory philosophy. One wants to be Jewish, because one is Jewish; one wants to be white, because it is safe. To square the circle, one finds a way of being Jewish that cooperates with Whiteness, that does not issue a frontal challenge to its supremacist, colonial logic. One finds ways to participate in supremacist and colonial practices as a Jewish person. Such compromise formations are clearly evident in both American and Israeli politics of late. They have also been in full flower in professional psychoanalysis.
Consider the recent controversy surrounding my colleague, Lara Sheehi. Lara is Lebanese, Arab, and a Canadian citizen. She is a highly regarded scholar of Palestinian resistance and a leader in the field of psychoanalysis, where her advocacy and activism have dramatically expanded the intellectual and social diversity of the profession. Lara’s advocacy on behalf of Palestinians has been a bugbear for some white Jewish people in psychoanalysis with more pro-Zionist politics, even as it has been embraced as vital and instructive by many other white Jewish people in psychoanalysis with more anti-Zionist politics, to say nothing of countless black people, indigenous people, and people of color broadly.
Like many pro-Palestinian activists, especially Arab activists, Lara has been targeted by pro-Israel groups that seek a pretext to frighten and humiliate her, to take her down. Of late, one such group, called StandWithUs, have run their customary playbook on her, filing a complaint naming her with the U.S. Department of Education against the George Washington University, alleging antisemitism in her dealings with two white Jewish students. Organizations including Jewish Voices for Peace have criticized StandWithUs, alleging that these complaints are often specious and designed to create an excuse for the subject of the complaint—often an Arab person—to be pilloried, harassed, doxxed, and threatened with death.
And pilloried, harassed, doxxed, and threatened with death Lara has been. The pillorying started outside psychoanalysis, but was eagerly taken up within it. It seems to me that many who had longstanding objections to Lara’s politics, and perhaps envy of her successes as a pathbreaking woman of color, leapt upon a pretext to vent their most Kleinian racist feelings and impulses at her. The full repertoire of supposedly polite and professional racist fearmongering has been deployed—concern-trolling, red-baiting demands for McCarthyite investigations, assassinations of character, demands for resignation, barely-veiled racial animus and insult. Two particularly rageful tweets about Israel and Israeli military forces have been passed around, as if they were smoking guns proving an abiding hatred of Jews, despite an open letter signed by hundreds of Jewish colleagues supporting Lara and attesting to her record of fighting all forms of bigotry, including antisemitism, and being an extraordinary ally to Jewish people fighting bigotry and discrimination worldwide.
Most notably, there has been a near-total refusal to recognize that what has transpired is a large-scale effort by white people to doxx, hobble, humiliate, and banish the first woman of color to run Division 39, one of the largest psychoanalytic organizations in the world. This is a mob of white people seeking to destroy a person of color and get away with it. It’s an old American story.
Lara is circumspect about her own experiences of endangerment, persecution, and trauma, both regarding recent events and by the Israeli state over her lifetime. Despite being a vocal and visible activist, she mainly keeps her own experiences private. I knew her for nearly a decade before I learned details of some of her own more harrowing stories. Stories of living through bombardments in Israeli-occupied south Lebanon during high school, including one less than a mile from her school; stories of friends, whole families, being blown apart by Israeli mines, the locations of which the Israeli government had evidently refused to release even after the occupation ended. Stories of needing to flee her home country for Canada in order to be safe.
Can we look at a woman who has lived this life, who spends her entire career studying and advocating for the rights of a persecuted people being subjected to what all credible human rights organizations regard as gross violations of law and decency—can we see her? Can we dare to see ourselves in a person with that history saying “fuck Israel” and “Israelis are so fucking racist”–in private (for her Twitter was private), to her friends, at a moment when Israel had once again done something massively violent and destructive and then made a violently innocent offer of aid. Are we really prepared to condemn that? Are we really going to be so parsimonious and selective with our empathy as to be unable to see the legitimate critique and suffering inside of those statements? Or are we going to recognize our own suffering and vulnerability in the life of another who is saying things that might hurt some of our feelings?
We are therapists. We do this kind of vicarious introspection every day—we are very good at empathy, in theory. A failure of empathy for this person, in this moment, amounts to a cynical choice that serves to protect one’s own Whiteness and the Whiteness of our profession.
I think there is a lesson for psychoanalysis in these recent events, a lesson about its profound investment in Whiteness and its concomitant denial of that investment. These are issues I am trying to write about at greater length in other venues, but in brief—our history as a profession is rooted in Jewish flight from what one might call big authoritarianism into the petty authoritarian arms of British and (especially) American psychoanalytic institutes that were envious and hostile towards them. In order to make a new home in this White authoritarian environment, refugee Jews and their American-born counterparts were obliged to pass to a great extent—this history is well documented in Emily Kuriloff’s Contemporary Psychoanalysis and the Legacy of the Third Reich and in Douglas Kirsner’s Unfree Associations. Both Kuriloff and Kirsner write of the profound pressure on Jews to pass, and to conform; both frame the passing as being about American-ness or Gentile-ness, but in so doing they misunderstand the unenviable Faustian bargain that our psychoanalytic ancestors were making. It was all about Whiteness, and passing as white. Having fled a White Supremacist movement in Nazism, they had to find a place for themselves in the American version that had inspired it.
If psychoanalysis cannot fully countenance its own investment in Whiteness, it will die. Its most luminous insights are those that shed light on dynamics of abuse, hatred, shame, and persecution. These insights are most relevant to those of us with considerable personal experience with such things—people of color, queer people, poor people, disabled people, people at all kinds of margins and those who come near the margins to love us. The Whiteness of professional psychoanalysis is absolutely noxious to us. We might be the new life blood of this field, if Whiteness does not insist on segregating us out of the profession by being unsurvivably hostile to us. We should be watching closely what happens to Lara to see if psychoanalysis might be capable of seeing the errors of its white ways and making room for the rest of us.
Carter, your piece moves me.. I am in awe of your clarity, articulated, and contexualized discussion of what is happening to our colleague and sister in the psychoanalytic community , and elsewhere. I am powerfully touched by your expressed rage, and (what I believe I’m hearing, or may just be own) incredulity and disappointment in the flurry of responses on the D39 list-serve. I want to echo back the words you wrote to me in a chat a couple of years ago… “VITAL.”
Such a powerful piece I will keep returning to, as it resonates deeply for me. Thank you for writing this.
Thank for this great piece Carter. So many wonderfully elaborated moments to go back to. Love this movement here:
“…It is an extraordinarily racist, cowardly thing to do. And it becomes dangerous, because these failures to mentalize lead one to erroneously see an angry black or brown person as dangerous, unhinged, enraged for no reason. Psychotic. Terrifying. A person seen in that way is liable to get very hurt indeed, especially when a white person says they’re scared. “
Carter, what a thought provoking essay. I have many thoughts about your critique of Jewishness, but cannot pull them together clearly. Suffice to say Jews were oppressed though differently from African Americans It isn’t a contest. Passing as white didn’t matter when your last name was Schwartz All Jews were white when gassed by the Nazis. I think the struggle for survival for both African Americans and Jews has been similar, yet different. I wish it weren’t so but appreciate your bravery in speaking the truth as it exists in our field.