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The Problem of Powerlessness and The Dangerous Psychological Impact of Internalized Racism

For many, the case of Tyre Nichols presents a contradiction. Despite recent controversies and discoveries, The Black Lives Matter movement pricked the consciousness of Black Americans to value ourselves and emphasized to non-Black people that our lives are precious, meaningful and significant. This statement was to ring true not only for Black people who have reached certain heights and levels of accolade in our society, but for the everyday Black person. The Black Lives Matter movement asserted the dignity and integrity of Black life for the simple fact of the existence of that life.

The idea of Black lives mattering to anyone, to everyone, cries out to an aspirational truth, a simple statement of fact, but a statement of fact vulnerable to violation today and throughout the history of the United States. And so, supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement might find themselves dumbfounded and disappointed by a group of Black officers who beat and eventually kill yet another innocent, unarmed Black man. But then, those supporters forget that racism lives not only within the privileged, but also burns deeply within the psyche of the oppressed. Naming internalized racism in polite conversation or sterilized diversity and inclusion trainings is one thing; seeing it live, bloody and brutal is another.

The natural outcome of racism and of oppression more broadly, if taken to its logical conclusion, is violence.

For a human being to perpetuate and engage in racism, they must believe that the person before them, due to phenotypical and skin-deep variations, at best, represents a different kind of human and at worst, a lesser human. When oppression does its job, it convinces those outside of and within the “othered” group to absorb and accept this belief as a kind of fundamental truth. If oppression does its job really well, the oppressed perpetuate that lie onto others in the same predicament in subtle and at worst, in violent ways. Think of the enslaved Black men who worked as overseers to keep their fellow enslaved compliant or those enslaved who were used to brutalize those who tried unsuccessfully to escape bondage.

To survive in a society that undervalues your very being while relying on (and thus valuing) your work, skills, talents and what you produce, you have to adopt a kind of divided consciousness whereby acceptance into the privileged group becomes a goal to validate and confirm your humanity while simultaneously facing the naked truth in the mirror and in the reflection of those you love, that you in fact lack the basic, “natural” requirements for real inclusion.

Survival requires that you live with a cognitive dissonance where you are both yourself and not yourself.

You live both in the “in-Group” and the “out group.” However, this membership does not come without cost. (Of course, some reject this narrative altogether and create their own in and out groups, outside of the norms of the so-called mainstream).

Certainly, the police force in the U.S. represents one of the most exclusive, powerful, male dominated fraternities we know of. And like all fraternities, belonging comes with proving and proving comes with sacrifice. As obvious outsiders, Black police must consider the costs of this membership, to themselves and to the communities they serve. So, how then do these Black men kill another Black man who, even in his refusal to comply (by running away), poses no threat to them? Did they miss the Black Lives Matter movement? Have they not been paying attention for the past 3 years to the strides Black people and other people of color have made in every corner of industry and society? Have they not seen the boundaries breaking and the cultural paradigms shifting? Don't they know that as Black men who are also cops, that their job now, as ever is to protect these vulnerable and marginalized communities? The world is still watching.

But the confused must remember that the natural outcome of racism is violence. When we demonize the Other and keep them on the margins, we continue the myth of separation and where separation lives, we can more easily assume threat where no threat exists. And a threat from “the Other” can bring upon them a fate worse than death. Not all racists perpetuate racism in overtly aggressive ways of course, and yet threaded through racist and oppressive ideologies is the assumption that one of the duties of those within the “in group” is to protect the integrity of that group by limiting the Other’s access to the group in multiple ways. This looks like distorting history so the privileged stay at the center of our creation stories, organizing communities around the needs and desires of the most affluent while pushing the Others out, or continuing to define success within culturally narrow margins. The greater the distance between the marginalized and the privilege, the more desperate some can become to lessen that gap and the more tenuous their hold on the little power they have achieved, can seem.

Desperation plus fragility can create a special kind of powerlessness.

For the oppressed who live with unexamined internalized oppression, this powerlessness becomes further complicated by their unique positioning of having to prove their worthiness to the privileged group, despite the fact of their skin. So here we have these men, with a fragile hold on power, having maintained their position in a group which has lately fallen under so much scrutiny by Black and non-Black citizens alike, whom, in a moment where they can choose allyship with another human being, instead fall back on their internalized racism, the mechanism which will allow them to engage in the expression of their internalized hate onto their reflection. This performance reeks with the stench of similar performances enacted throughout the history of this country.

On the world’s stage, these men prove the fragility of the life of this other Black man even as they prove the fragility of their own. The repulsive irony of the performance of course is that their inclusion into the privileged group comes by dying to themselves. Since actually killing themselves presents its own intrapsychic and existential dilemmas, enacting that death on to someone who looks like them serves the same purpose. In killing Tyre Nichols, these men strive to kill the parts of themselves that they hate. And yet, even in this final act of murder and existential suicide, they prove themselves to be exactly the violent, abominable “Others” that the privileged group has painted them out to be.

Their efforts to belong cost them and him, their very lives.

One of the greatest dangers of powerlessness is that human beings innately strive for dominion, control, and agency, if not over others, at least over their own lives. When that agency cannot be realized in healthy ways, humans seek and express power in whatever ways they know how, even if that power leads to their own destruction and demise.

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