IS RACISM A MENTAL ILLNESS?

The fact that this picture was taken in 2017 is staggering. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images. 

The fact that this picture was taken in 2017 is staggering.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images. 

I have seen a number of people asking this question recently. Thought I'd weigh in.

It's very easy for even the most intellectually minded to place racists into the big old 'ignorant bigot' bin and take no notice of their disturbing murmurings. However, what actually goes into making someone a 'racist'?

To simplify the definition, racism is a fear of diversity. Much like homophobia or xenophobia, the attitude stems from discomfort with the existence of someone that is different from oneself - be it their country of origin, their sexual orientation, their race or even the clothes that they wear. 

It's important also to note that classifying racism as a 'mental illness' absolves the racist of personal responsibility. It suggests that an attitude of racial prejudice/supremacy is something one is 'afflicted with', as opposed to a point of view that one is choosing to take. 

Whilst racism isn't officially or medically considered a mental illness, Oxford psychiatrists included 'pathological bias' in the Oxford Handbook of Personality Disorders - last revised in 2012. Pathological bias is defined as extreme racist/supremacist views that could lead one to commit acts of violence against a person or persons of another race. 

Neuroscientists suggest that our brain is wired to be cautious towards those that look our act differently to 'our own'. This makes sense - going back thousands of years, running into someone from an enemy tribe could have ended in a gory mess. This suggests, then, that racism is something of an age-old survival mechanism. Instinctive. Are open racists simply less evolved than the more open-minded amongst us?

A few years ago, I wrote an essay discussing whether or not the German population under Hitler genuinely supported his views, or whether they were brainwashed into supporting national socialism, or whether they simply obeyed out of fear. I concluded that it was a mix of all three amongst some other things (as was almost always the conclusion when doing essays for sixth form), basing my answer on a lack of education/poor upbringing amongst genuine supporters alongside the presence of mind amongst more intelligent 'supporters' to look out for 'me and mine' in a desperate and dangerous time. Racism is taught and is learnable, but self-preservation is instinctive. You can be self-preserving without harbouring hatred based on your own over-simplification of another human being. 

It's an interesting topic, especially in the current political climate. In my opinion, in the modern day, ignorance to the point of open racism has no excuse. I do not believe it is a mental illness. I believe that racists should be held accountable for their words and their actions, and should not be allowed to hide behind any kind of disorder when challenged upon them. 

Historian Sander Gilmann, co-author of Are Racists Crazy? How Prejudice, Racism, and Antisemitism Became Markers of Insanity, said “Let’s make sure people who say evil things, who do evil things, who believe evil things have to take responsibility.”

Racism may not be a mental illness - but its effect on the mental and physical health of its victims is very valid.  #oneworld #onelove

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Mikey Lord.

Founder of #WANDY. Singer of As Sirens Fall. Late to everything.