Racist States of Mind, by Narendra Keval

Rationalism and Racism: how modern racism has its roots in the Enlightenment

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The aim of my new book, Racist States of Mind: Understanding the Perversion of Curiosity and Concern, was to observe and understand racism as a psychological phenomenon – what I refer to as a ‘state of mind’ as it emerges in individuals, groups, organisations, and societal life.

Image B (1)I tried to speak to the lived experience of racism, mindful of the risks of sanitising or anaesthetising the subject matter. I felt this was crucial because the subject matter of racism is precisely about attacking the identity of the ‘ethnic other’ into invisibility and even putting their very existence at stake. Thinking, conceptualising and writing can also risk repeating some of the dynamics of racism.

To get inside the head of a racist state of mind, it was crucial to hear the voices or narratives of those inhabiting these states as well as those on the receiving end of it. Secondly, these narratives should in principle be found anywhere we care to look in our society and if analysed carefully enough, we might find some common emotional themes worthy of understanding.

Lingfield-graffiti (1)

Daily racism

So for example, I take a walk and see racist graffiti on the walls which reads ‘foreigners go home’ or ‘dirty f***ing pakis’. I then board an underground tube where I catch a disturbing glimpse of racist abuse between an irate passenger who has found a victim to hurl abuse about foreigners invading and taking up the spaces on the train. I open a newspaper and read of how migrants are being treated in Britain and abroad.


Daily inverted commas racism

Within my consulting room, amidst my patients’ varied preoccupations, our racial differences start to become more prominent in their mind. This appears to signal their potential curiosity about their own identity. I feel they are using me to deepen their potential understanding about themselves. In contrast, I find that the same or different patient is thinking and talking in such a way that does not allow either of us to explore what is going on with them. They seem to be oppressed in their mind in the way they talk to me with a sense of absolute certainty and conviction.

References to race may or may not enter into their thinking which signals something important about their anxiety and fear of thinking. I have the added advantage  of an unhurried space to think about  the immediate emotional context of what is going on between us to bring about this state of affairs. What kind of anxieties, fears, feelings and fantasies was the patient in the grip of  when a moment ago they seemed less oppressed and more curious about themselves or my presence? What change took place and why?  I start to think about their quality of thinking  and feeling, the type of mental space they may be inhabiting and how they convey this to me in the way they relate to me. I wonder about the kind of emotional pressures both the patient and I are now experiencing to think and feel in particular sorts of ways. I ask myself the question, could what I have witnessed on the street and underground tube and now inside the consulting room, serve as a free associative chain of narratives that could coalesce into a structure of meaning of what might be taking place in racism?

enoch powell

“the racist is stuck in a nostalgic haze about an idealised past, fuelled with bitterness and a profound sense of grievance”

This was how I approached the project for the book, which has three sections to reflect how racism in the mind intertwines with the social in complex and subtle ways, repeating a historical dynamic. In the first section, I examined aspects of Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech that brought me to the question, ‘what is the racist upset about and what does he want?  I suggest that the racist is stuck in a nostalgic haze about an idealised past, place, customs or a sense of the familiar that has been lost forever, but this gaze is fuelled with bitterness and a profound sense of grievance sited in different types of battlegrounds (eg, loss of employment, jobs, sense of community, immigration etc) but what is at stake is the sense of self. This is evident in Powell’s speech which portrays universal themes of an imaginary love, betrayal and loss that often pervades racist rhetoric.


“the symbolic potency of a couple (eg country, state, government etc) who in unconscious fantasy have produced and allowed ‘strangers’ to enter and contaminate an idealised relationship”

In a racist state of mind, these psychological injuries and their multi-layered losses cannot be accepted because the racist feels robbed or depleted. Instead of accepting loss, mourning and accommodating the other, this is replaced by entrenched grievances that reflect manic omnipotence, cruelty and violence with a particular strategy of revenge; namely to thwart the ethnic other by robbing him of any freedom, of desire or pleasures of living.

The origins of this attack appear to be aimed at the symbolic potency of a couple (eg country, state, governments etc) who in unconscious fantasy have produced and allowed ‘strangers’  to enter and contaminate an idealised relationship. In this way the shadow of the object of grievance is projected onto the ethnic other who is made to pay for narcissistic injuries.

In my view, this formulation links preoccupations with ethnicity, race and racism (the ‘racist scene’) with the fantasy of the primal scene (Freud, 1918b) in which complex psychic issues are being worked out. Thus while sexuality is central to the primal scene much more is being worked out through the child’s curiosity and imaginative reconstruction of how the parents in the mind are brought together or kept apart. Here, reactions to the primal scene vary from the destructively malignant to the more life- enhancing and benign.

Similarly, I argue that a distinction needs to be made between racial and racist fantasies where the former are used in the service of exploring the self through feelings of bewilderment that pave the way towards a sense of curiosity about the other, while the latter reflect a more malignant reaction, involving feelings of rage and revenge of being narcissistically wounded from the parents’ exclusive relationship. I suggest that both racial and racist fantasies can intermingle in a patient’s preoccupations in the consulting room, between racialized hatred to curiosity and concern, to give particular shape and form to the transference relationship.

Banksy anti-immigration birds mural destroyed

The next link I explored was between the way this internal connectedness or lack of it between the couple in the mind, is linked to the way thoughts and feelings are brought together to form links to create meaning as a prototype of creativity, giving shape to different types of mental space. This has important bearings for our clinical work as we listen to our patients and reflect on what kind of emotional environments they are inhabiting in their inner worlds at any given moment and what they may be trying to communicate to us about this.

The second section of the book describes this work in more detail with patients who sometimes retreat into a racist mind set at certain moments of the session and the kinds of emotional pressures that both patient and therapist can be put under. This also enabled me to make inferences about their inner struggles in the context of their early life and how this was being played out with me in the transference.

An apartheid notice on a beach near Capetown, denoting the area for whites only. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Crossing the line: An apartheid notice on a beach near Capetown, denoting the area for whites only

Of particular interest here were struggles to achieve an independence of mind under the grip of a corrupt alliance with a racist object in their inner world that oppressed any attempts to forge a separateness of the self. For example, when the patient took the risk of  ‘stepping out of line’, challenging the tyrannising aspects of their alliance with racist thinking and feeling, this was tantamount to a betrayal of themselves, risking the consequences of threats of covert thuggery and violence, they could wreak upon themselves. I linked this brutality of the inner world of racism to how racial apartheid operated under the old regime in South Africa where social spaces and privileges were demarcated along racial lines and the serious consequences faced by people of colour for stepping out of line if they crossed these visible and invisible etchings and boundaries based on hate.

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“it places the self into an emotional strait-jacket, curtailing the freedom to think and feel”: the ‘I Can’t Breathe’ protest movement in America following the death of African-American Eric Garner by New York police in 2014

In the chapter entitled ‘The Racist Gaze’, I considered the impact of internalising the ambience of this type of brutality which can be overt or extremely covert or hidden and often difficult if not impossible to pinpoint objectively but more discernible if you are its victim. I argue that it places the self into an emotional strait-jacket, curtailing the freedom to think and feel – to be more authentic. Those traumatised by racism require a capacity in the clinician to create and inhabit a triangular mental space where it is possible to have freedom to think, feel and become a ‘potent participant-observer’, to bear witness to the patient’s struggle to name an experience that is so caught up with feelings of weakness, shame and humiliation. I suggest that this capacity can act as a catalyst for the patient to reclaim a vitality in their self that is deadened by the murderousness of racism.

usa_human_rights_abuse_05-26-2015bThe third section of the book continues to explore some of these dynamics and themes in the context of group, organisation, and societal life to consider the pervasiveness of conscious and unconscious racism in everyday life. I argue that some of the key dynamics of racism that include thwarting the ethnic other in the structural racism of society can become mirrored in institutions, including psychoanalysis and the psychotherapies.

These institutions have the potential to unwittingly marginalise and even cleanse out those from the black and other minority ethnic communities. I put forward a hypothesis that this may be linked to the ‘return of the repressed’ (Freud, 1914) in which the historical denigration of psychoanalysis has failed to be ‘worked through’ and appears in a displaced form in the way  it treats ethnic others, particularly blacks. Not only is this symptom revealed in the inadequate representation in organisations but it is also evident in the relative silence or absence of attention given to the subject matter within theorising and the general body of knowledge, the supervisory space, or indeed in the content of training curriculums.

My work on exploring unconscious fantasies on race within a study group format was an attempt to look at how racist states of mind emerge in the face of bewildering anxieties. Here was a powerful example of the way in which ordinary individuals can start to develop a gang-type mentality in a group where ethnicity can become concretely equated with the aversion of learning from new experiences. Here, the group mind started to take on a potentially paranoid, menacing, and violent direction into targeting my ‘thinking black head’ as representing growth and development in the form of an image of acne produced by the group that was viscerally experienced as something that had to be bled and removed.


The Enlightenment’s self-flattering view of its own rationality: sadly, it was the unconsciousness of ‘Reason’ itself that produced its main monsters

This theme of how experiences of diversity and difference is reacted to with aversion at a visceral level is further explored in my organisational consultation in which a multi-cultural food menu was introduced into the canteen for patients which was met with racist hostility by the white patients. Here, new Afro-Caribbean food was felt viscerally as faeces – ‘foreign muck’ as one participant phrased it – which had to be flushed out of the psyche and institution to restore a mental equilibrium that became disturbed by new and diverse food for thought. These ‘social battlegrounds’ around the old and familiar cuisine revealed and concealed difficulties that all organisations face to different degrees, namely to be more collaborative and engage in joined-up thinking versus splitting and evacuation in relation to the negotiation of boundaries, roles, authority and tasks.

In the final two chapters of the book I briefly explore the problematic relationship between the forces of reason and racism, a dichotomy that gives the impression that reason is an innocent bystander, pounced on by the monsters of the racist imagination. This is not unlike Goya’s etching on the front cover of my book that depicts the sleep of reason that is thought to bring forth monsters of the imagination. I argue that there are complex psychic and socio-political investments, creating alliances and collusions between the forces of reason and racism that corrupt this relationship, which goes some way to explain the intransigence of racism in our society.

One of the difficulties I point out, which is more easily observable in the consulting room but also discernible in the outside world, is the problem of having one’s propensity for racism exposed. This often leads to feelings of shock and shame in the individual or organisation that can either result in managing feelings of guilt that can potentially drive constructive attempts to make reparation, or if the shame and guilt is too painful it can lead to manic (and thoughtless) attempts to repair the damage which can sometimes risk further escalation of racism, landing the person or organisation in deep waters.

Fortress-Europe-620x434 (1)By the time I was nearing the end of the book, the corrupt relationship I was describing between the forces of reason and racism were becoming even more poignant in the context of events on the international stage. I was particularly struck by the opportunistic use of racism in some of the political rhetoric that was surfacing again to manage the migration crises arising from the war in Syria and the rise of religious fundamentalism and terrorism.

Acts of compassion towards desperate people looking for a sense of security and home, turned effortlessly into hidden and not-so-hidden grievances and hatred in the fertile soil of the racist imagination obsessed with loss of borders, erecting fences and walls. One opposition political party in Germany, and now more recently Turkey, seem to declare ‘open season’ to shoot vulnerable people, already traumatised. How quickly racist fantasies can become infectious in ordinary human beings is most chilling to see, an observation that echoes other historical atrocities. It took me back to the opening chapter of the book with Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech made more than 40 years ago and brought to my attention that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In the final chapter on ‘thinking under fire’, I arrive at the following sobering conclusions about racism.


Serve and protect? “Those on the receiving end experience the murderousness of racism, requiring the observer to bear witness to the outrage in a considered way”

It is a phenomenon that is remarkably intransigent, with both the psyche, social, political and increasingly, market forces, calling upon and feeding into each other in opportunistic ways that are visible and invisible, to oppress human beings that are deemed the ‘other’. Racist thinking and feeling gives all human beings perverse pleasure in thwarting the designated ‘other’ and fulfils other complex motives and functions that I tried to convey through my clinical work. While social grievances and hatreds become the battlegrounds, what is at stake is the sense of self whose emotional turmoil is channelled into a predatory and socially sanctioned structure. Those on the receiving end experience the murderousness of racism seeping into their soul to corrode and deaden it, requiring the observer to bear witness to the outrage in a considered way, mindful that there is a distinction between courageous self-assertion and giving free reign to the internalised murderousness of racism that can corrupt legitimate outrage and turn it into emotional mayhem that is destructive to the self and others.

Racist fantasies are so tenacious that when we insist that people must change and learn how to get along better, these fantasies and ethnic conflicts become even more volatile. The challenge of psychoanalysis is to square up to the many faces of racism, and to do so not with the aim of eliminating this type of cruelty but to interrogate the psychic investments and the complex alliances that exist between the forces of reason and racism. Put simply, to understand that there are reasons for the sleep of reason.

Narendra Keval qualified as a clinical psychologist and trained as an adult and adolescent psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic, London. He also worked as a specialist in psychoanalytic psychotherapy in a range of outpatient settings, working in particular with patients suffering from complex personality disorders. He has been a clinical supervisor, trainer, and visiting senior lecturer at various universities and training institutes both in the UK and South Africa, and a consultant to staff teams in a range of organisations in the private and public sector on issues such as trauma and suicidal risk.  His latest book, Racist States of Mind: Understanding the Perversion of Curiosity and Concern, has recently been published by Karnac.

Reviews and Endorsements

Keval_thumbnail‘This is a wonderfully lucid, accessible and profound book. It is a triumph of human compassion and reason over the forces of racialised hatred. The sensitivity and breadth of his clinical observations, and clarity of thought, make this book required reading for professionals working across boundaries of ethnicity in today’s multicultural world.’
M. Fakhry Davids, Training and Supervising Analyst, British Psychoanalytical Society, and author of Internal Racism: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Race and Difference

‘This book examines aspects of racism and ethnic problems in individuals, organisations and societies and offers a theory about why we all have the potential to have prejudice against the Other. Psychotherapists and psychoanalysts, in general, have not given the necessary attention to external events related to race and ethnicity. At the present time incredible advances in communication technology and global awareness are taking place while voluntary and forced migrations create major headaches and heartbreaks. I consider Keval’s book to be most helpful in increasing our interest and our ability to examine the psychology of how external and internal worlds intertwine.’
–Vamik D. Volkan, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry, University of Virginia, and the author of Psychoanalysis, International Relations, and Diplomacy: A Sourcebook on Large-Group Psychology



One thought on “Racist States of Mind, by Narendra Keval

  1. Pingback: An author amongst us - Cardinal Clinic

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