Racism 101


What I like most about getting older is getting wiser. What if white people in America could admit that we are racist? It’s very hard to not be racist if you are a white person raised in the U.S.  Can we be honest? I have spent much of my life trying to find my truth. This morning, with racism on my mind and with that very important topic being exposed on the front page in all of the major U.S news outlets, I remembered that I wrote a short piece about racism that I will share below. First I want to ask you to imagine a world without racism and live your life that way.

Another brief comment before I share my thoughts on racism 101. There are many similarities between mental health oppression (which is an umbrella terms for what this blog/web site is about) and racism. I invite readers to contemplate the similarities and differences in these pernicious forms of oppressions. Sera Davidow has begun a wonderful MIA blog-discussion on this. (Thank you, Sera.) In the mean time let me admit to my own racism. Here is what I wrote previously. I offer it as an invitation to racism 101.

A book excerpt:

… I had to be informed about racism (my own white racism) and institutionalized racism. In working on my racism, it became clear that I did not agree to be racist – it was installed from the outside and it left me damaged, as is the case with all people in oppressor roles. The minds and spirits of those conditioned by society to act as the agents of racism are corrupted. The damage done to individuals targeted by racism — the hurts from being treated as inferior, denied basic material needs, denied a fair share of resources, demeaned, attacked, threatened with destruction and much more — is done to individuals through their contact with society’s institutions and by the actions of individuals….

Cycles of unhealed hurt perpetuate misunderstanding and miscommunication that may lead to further conflicts, intolerance and violence. The damage from oppression clouds thinking… dissemination of information about internalized oppression has the potential of healing painful wounds and stopping the cycles of hurts that have continued for generations.

This excerpt is from the chapter on Forgiveness, Living for Two: A Daughter’s Journey from Grief and Madness to Forgiveness and Peace, in which I write about how I came to forgive the seventeen year old who murdered my father.

In previous blogs I have written about the importance of dialogue, healing from trauma,  facing the unfaceable and other related topics. All forms of oppression are intrinsically linked and interact with one another. You can’t heal from one oppression without it impacting healing from another. It makes sense to me that the opposite is true as well – that is, as we form judgments and close our minds in one area (be it racism, sexism, able-bodyism, etc)  it increases judgments and occludes our clear thinking in other areas.

What happened that caused us individually and collectively to begin to lose our humanity, our sense of connection with ourselves and with others? I am happy to share what I have learned about my own process and perhaps it will be useful to you and your process. I go early in my search for my truth. At the time of my birth and soon after that I find many answers to some of my core struggles. I don’t think I am alone in these struggles, I think they are pervasive human struggles.

When I was born I was looking for connection – the same connection and sense of belonging and safely I felt in the womb. I eventually learned as a very young child that no one was really there, consistently present to protect me, hold me, and keep me safe from an unsafe world. In that early hurt where disconnect begins, the seeds of separation were planted. If I can’t trust a person who looks like me, how can I trust anyone?

I learned to disconnect from others and from myself – it was the best way I could figure out to survive. These seeds form early beliefs that allow the development of all forms of oppression. I began believing in the illusion of separation – that I am a separate entity from you.  My socialization process reinforced the sense of separation and the vital importance of protecting this illusion.  That created a trap wherein more and more judgments were created to justify my illusions such as beliefs like – I am right, you are wrong or you are right and I am wrong. All of this led to inner war which then got projected onto others which in turn sets up relationships based on separation and war. And I come to believe that war is necessary in order to hold on to what I came to believe was true and mine – whether it be protecting my property, my family, my political or religious beliefs.

For me, healing has meant transcending my social conditioning. How can we see other ways of thinking and being in the world as valid and good? As we approach that more possibilities and relationships open up. Our heart and mind expand, our perceptual barriers dissolve.

How do we free ourselves from racism, mental health oppression and all forms of human beings harming human beings? How do we create peace? Can we be with another person without judgment, holding multiple truths, standing firmly grounded in another persons moccasins? This is not easy but I think it is the work we need to do to embody inner peace. For me, it is the most important and very dynamic process I am involved in. It affects everything in my life – every relationship, how I view myself, every step I take. At least that is the bar I would like to hold myself to.

Can we hold Michael Brown and Darren Wilson in synchronistic harmony, holding both as correct? Why is it seemingly impossible to do this? Why do I keep forgetting to try? Those are the edges of oppression, where I get a taste of the work I need to do in order to find peace and healing.

What steps are you willing to take to end racism? I plan to continue to work to be more deeply aware of my own racism. I will also continue to build close relationships with people from my own culture as well as people from cultures different than my own.

I believe that we can end racism in our lifetime. It is worth repeating, imagine a world without racism and live your life that way.


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

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Lauren Spiro
Lauren’s vision of social justice and mental health liberation focuses on developing our capacity for feeling deeply connected, appreciating the vast creative intelligence of the human heart and mind, and inspiring compassionate action. Her life’s mission is to embody inner peace to co-create global peace, thus she curates transformative learning experiences. She co-founded two non-profit corporations and Emotional CPR (www.emotional-cpr.org) a public health education program that teaches people how to support others through an emotional crisis. She is a multi-media artist, a 20+ year practitioner of yoga and meditation, the first Director of the National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery, has been featured on national media, and consulted on numerous federal projects. Her memoir paints a poetic picture of her journey into madness and her pathway home. She has an M.A. in clinical/community psychology. For more information see www.Laurenspiro.com


  1. Lauren: What MIA provides me with is a sense of community from like minded souls who have experienced similar forms of oppression. I work with at-risk and foster youth to gain a paycheck, and I interface with many left-leaning and anti-imperialistic groups. Ferguson is the straw that broke the camel’s back, and it is heartening to see a multi-cultural protest movement spring up in its wake. As for the particular’s to the case, I direct readers to Sonali’s broadcast on Uprising on Pacific Radio yesterday in the second half of the broadcast. The proceedings of the Grand Jury were highly irregular in Ferguson, even if this is not the clearest case of over policing and discrimination in the criminal justice system.

  2. Lauren, I appreciate your bringing attention to racism at Mad In America. The fact that we are having these conversations in any form is so much better than not having them at all, which is what happens in most white-centered spaces! I appreciate that you have thought and struggled a lot with your experience of Racism, and I agree this is something we ought to be looking at closely.

    I want to express some confusion and concern about your repeated suggestion that we “imagine a world without racism and live your life that way.”

    To my eyes, this could be taken as support for liberal “colorblindness” where we pretend racism does not exist and think that merely by working to treat people of color with respect on an individual basis, we are contributing to ending racism.

    My understanding is that racism is endemic in our institutions, our culture, our power structures, our economy. Racism does exist in this country, in its particular form of white supremacy. It is a pattern that is killing people and destroying lives every day. I would suggest that to end racism, we first need to openly acknowledge this fact, rather than live as though it were not true. I can imagine my friends who are anti-racist activists and people of color feeling very marginalized and hurt hearing a white person telling other white people to live as though racism does not exist in a “Racism 101” article.

    From what I hear, I think they want, above all:

    *Accomplices and support in direct action
    *White people to initiate dialogues with other white people. (Thank you, again!)
    *Our willingness to take leadership and direction from people of color who are organizing for change.
    *A commitment from white people to do whatever we can to change systems (with direct accountability to what people of color in those systems actually want).

    Here is a related article that I think might shine some further light:

    “12 Things White People Can Actually Do After the Ferguson Decision”