The Intertwining of Racism and “Mental Health” Oppression

"Mental health” oppression holds back the ending of racism. In white-dominated societies, one is considered by society to be “normal” if one looks and acts like a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, middle- or owning-class heterosexual, adult, able-bodied male. Thus, people of color are not “normal,” not “okay.”

Chronic “normal” patterns are “acceptable” and “the way everyone is supposed to be.” They’re usually hard to see as patterns—people look “nice” and “okay,” but they often have difficulty feeling, discharging, and being themselves.

Because people of color are seen as “not okay,” as “other,” and are forced to assimilate into white cultures, they often feel like they don’t belong in white society, like they’re “strange,” “different,” or even “crazy.” White people are also made to see people of color this way, and the two sets of patterns reinforce each other. This is considered “normal.” People of color are expected to “fit in” in order to “succeed.” They are expected to be bilingual and bi-cultural. The burden is on them.

People of mixed white and people-of-color heritage don’t “fit in” anywhere: they are “too white” and don’t look or act “black enough” or “whatever-group enough“; they also aren’t “acceptable enough” or “white enough” to “fit into” white groups.


Classism and capitalism combine with “mental health” oppression to keep people from realizing there’s something wrong with capitalist society. Capitalist society blames individuals when they fall to the bottom of the economic system. When they “lose it,” when they can’t survive, they are labeled and locked up in “mental hospitals” or jails. They are isolated from the rest of society and seen as “failures” or “incurable defectives.”

“Mental health” oppression makes capitalism, classism, and racism seem “normal.” This makes discharging patterns of racism more difficult.


The reality is that without racism, people of all races would naturally enjoy each other and would celebrate all cultures. Segregated societies wouldn’t be tolerated. Indeed, the concept of race would disappear. Recognizing that racism is completely unnatural and “strange” provides a broader perspective for discharging.


Historically, racism has been reinforced by “mental health” oppression. The racism in psychiatry goes back to at least the 1700s, when, for example, “drapetomania” was the “mental illness” of runaway slaves.

Racism and “mental health” oppression were part of what was behind the Nazi holocaust. In the 1920s, the Eugenics movement, led by psychiatrists, was an attempt to “purify” the white race by getting rid of darker people through sterilization and, later, mass murders. Germany used the ideas of the Eugenics movement to justify racist policies against black people in German colonies in Africa, then against black people in Germany, then against Gypsies and Jews (who were stereotyped as darker than Germans and thus considered a “race”). In order to desensitize the German people to the killing of these groups, supposedly “defective” “mental patients” and physically disabled people were killed first in “mercy killings.”

A current trend in the United States in the fields of psychiatry and psychology is to promote biological and genetic theories based on ideas from the Eugenics movement. Attacks by biological psychiatry on oppressed groups focus on people of color—for example, the U.S. government’s “violence initiative”1 aimed at black people in inner cities, and the increasing amounts of psychiatric drugs sold to “Third World” countries.


 “Mental health” oppression tends to reinforce a “survival” pattern common to people of color of keeping going no matter what, not taking time for oneself, not being vulnerable, and never needing help. Slavery and other atrocities, combined with assimilation and “mental health” oppression, have created patterns of keeping quiet about one’s difficulties.

In addition, anger and other feelings caused by racism aren’t “acceptable” in white society. An African-heritage man on a recent panel at an RC workshop said, “You’re not supposed to notice racism. You’re supposed to pretend you don’t see it.” People of color know that they have to keep their feelings about racism in check2 when they’re around white people. If they don’t, they will be treated as if something is wrong with them; they may even risk being labeled “crazy,” or being put in institutions or jail, because white people are so terrified of those feelings. Thus, people of color often find it difficult to discharge their terror, rage, and deep grief from growing up in a racist society—especially when counseling with white people.


As Barbara Love3 pointed out at the International Blacks and “Mental Health” Liberation Workshop in 1999: “White people’s need to ‘look normal’ has kept them from discharging the terror installed on them about black people because they are not supposed to have that terror. White people have to first find a way to acknowledge their terror of black people. They are terrified that at any moment a black person is going to ‘go crazy’ on them—so terrified that they will cross the street if they see a black man coming toward them.” Because white people have been made to feel that racism is “normal,” to discharge the terror they may have to go to that place inside themselves where they feel completely confused, even like they’re going to “go crazy.”

Classism and “mental health” oppression exacerbate the separation of people of color and white people. People of color are “supposed” to live in substandard housing and have low-paying jobs. White people living in black neighborhoods, or having jobs in the inner city, are seen as “strange” in white middle-class society. White “successful” people often can’t “be bothered” to stop and talk with a marginalized person. They feel it’s important to associate with the “in crowd.”4 People of color are often ignored as white people struggle to be “in,”5 or one token person of color may be accepted into the “in crowd.” White people need to discharge on the reality that all people are okay, and realize that being “acceptable” in white society isn’t necessarily the best thing. White people may have to risk feeling “unacceptable.” (This will be easier if they discharge their feelings of not being okay or good enough.) If white people discharge their feelings of needing to be the center of attention, people of color might actually have space to be themselves in a white group.


When I ended up in a “mental hospital” thirty-five years ago, a lot of old feelings were coming up and I was discharging profusely. I was raging, in metaphors, about racism being wrong. This was part of why I was locked up. Later, after I got into RC, I thought that what I was doing at that time was getting in touch with my oppression as a Jew and interpreting it through black people’s experience because it was too hard to recognize anti-Jewish oppression.

Recently I’ve realized that I was actually discharging racism and getting in touch with being connected to all humans. I think that at the heart of every white person there is someone raging that racism is wrong and wanting to end it immediately. This rage gets buried under so much discouragement and numbness that it’s hard to know it’s there. White people don’t usually notice the numbness and discouragement because they’ve been prevented from noticing or thinking about racism at all—it’s “just the way things are.”

In the past, discharging racism felt hard and hopeless to me—like I had to try to discharge it but would never be able to change things in a major way. I’ve learned that discharging racism is joyous work.

Janet Foner
International Liberation Reference Person
for “Mental Health” Liberation
New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, USA


To show ourselves as we really are, black people need to look at all that has stopped us from doing this.  At a support group on “mental health” oppression at the 2001 Black Liberation and Community Development Workshop, discharge was flowing. We all went straight for our chronic patterns. Pieces fell into place like a jigsaw puzzle.

The more I lead this work, the more I uncover the “mental health” system survivor inside of me. By putting myself out there, people “get it.” They seem to think, “If she can own being a ‘mental health’ system survivor, and life is great, then maybe I can look at it.”

Jenny Martin
Information Coordinator for Black
“Mental Health” Liberation Activists in England
Handsworth, Birmingham, England

 Racism never made sense to me. What was most “crazy-making” about it was the consistent devaluing, or denial, especially amongst white people, of my experiences regarding it. I often felt like what I was experiencing wasn’t real, because other people couldn’t see it, or chose not to name or acknowledge it. An all-too-common ritual for me was to have an experience of racism, not have anyone confirm its impact or injury, and then have to take my thinking, feeling, and discharging about it underground. Since everything around me conformed with the notion of racism’s non-existence, there was never a legitimate place to assign the blame. Thereby, I became both the “cause” and the recipient of my own mistreatment and oppression.

Focusing on “mental health” oppression has helped me better understand the forces that sustain racism and other forms of oppression, and the risks involved in stepping outside of society’s norms. I now have an explanation for this “madness”—I can see how racism has been “normalized.” I now feel more safety to visibly and loudly proclaim my truth. Thank you, Janet Foner, for saving my life.

L.G. Shanklin-Flowers
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA

I was drawn to RC because I saw it as a way to get help for feeling “depressed.” What has kept me in RC is the liberation theory and the work on ending all oppressions.

I have lived with a “big dark secret” called “depression.” I have shared it with only a few people outside of my Co-Counselors. It’s not safe to let people know on the job, I felt my family wouldn’t understand, and it wasn’t something I talked about much in the black community. Buried under the “depression” is a lot of anger, and it’s “not okay” to show that anger as a black woman in the black community, and especially not in the white community. The Blacks and “Mental Health” Liberation Workshop helped me break through a lot of isolation—not from black people, but as a black woman who was, and still is to an extent, afraid to breach in the black community the subject of “mental health” oppression.

The workshop gave me the space to really go for6 my anger, fear, and hopelessness. For all these years the “depression” had seemed to be a separate issue from sexism and racism. That’s the part that brought on the feelings of going “crazy.”

Sondra McCurry
Cleveland, Ohio, USA

I have known all along, since I was a young person, that much of the “information” I received about work, people of color, and myself contained a lot of misinformation. The more I fought against the misinformation, in my mind and sometimes out loud, the more isolated I became from myself and others around me. As a result, I minimized my thinking and my existence and ended up in a “mental hospital.”

I have moved forward in many ways. I have allowed myself to accept both my heritages. At a recent workshop on ending racism, I participated in both the white and people-of-color groups. I was able to embrace all of me and to recognize that oppression, not something wrong with me, was the cause of my patterns.

I have worked through a lot of shame due to racism—shame about where I live, how much money we didn’t have, all the secrets I don’t tell, and so on. The shame has interfered with discharge. Not wanting people, especially white people, to know my distress patterns is an effect of racism.

I’m now more able to connect with other people because of who they are—not because of what they do, have, or represent. I connect with them because the work they have done for their lives is so huge that my life is affected.

Due to racism and internalized racism, it’s been hard as a mixed-heritage person to fit into both white and people-of-color groups. And the idea of fitting in has been a big distraction from discharging and connecting with people.

Laura Bowlin
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA

Because we have lighter skin and other “more acceptable” traits, we Japanese-Okinawan Americans are offered a greater opportunity than some people of color to assimilate into white culture. Because of historical mistreatment, we may feel that it’s “better, smarter, or safer” to align ourselves with white people. We may feel that we have more in common with them than with non-European-heritage people. However, in assimilating, we not only lose connection with other people of color but also with ourselves.

Asians who have benefited economically from the class system may have a hard time showing our struggles because we fear losing security or feel guilty that we “don’t have it as bad” as other people of color. We may also feel that if we complain, we are betraying our parents who urged us to “succeed.”

Lois Yoshishige
Eugene, Oregon, USA

I was first-generation born and raised in the United States and experienced heavy assimilation. My parents didn’t speak Korean at home until I was in high school, when my grandparents came to live with us. My siblings and I learned enough Korean to say “hello,” “goodnight,” and “thank you.” We were overwhelmed with the drive to get into “good colleges,” believing that our survival depended on it. This made it difficult to remember that our grandparents loved us and that we could have close, loving relationships with them. They became a constant reminder of “what we weren’t doing” and further restimulated fears about returning to Korea, because of lack of language.

Kyoungho Koh
Information Coordinator for Korean-Heritage People
Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, USA

Isolation, putting people into locked “seclusion” or “quiet” cells, is exactly the opposite of what’s needed. It merely increases people’s feelings of separation from society. I have consistently heard Aboriginal people talk of the terror this isolation brings up and how they would rather die than stay there. I have heard Aboriginal men talk similarly about prison. I have heard the surprise in the voices of health professionals and corrective services staff at this response, as if Aboriginal people aren’t “normal” because they don’t accept this. We have all heard of instances of deaths in cells.

Murris7 have been told that being locked up “helps” them to “feel safe.” This is absurd. The public is told that it’s therapeutic for them to be locked up for “their own safety” and the “safety of society”—playing on the fears and stereotypes of them as “raving lunatics.”

Kerrie Tim
International Liberation Reference Person
for Indigenous Australians
Forest Lake, Queensland, Australia
From a speech to clinical psychologists
at the University of Queensland

The more we are able to discharge about racism, the more our minds will be independent from the norms of society, including its oppressive patterns. We are going to seem more and more “different” from the people around us, so we need to keep discharging about that, too.

Unless we are discharging our feelings about being “different” or “not normal,” when we are around other people we’ll be afraid to show our true selves—relaxed and proud of who we are, our commitment to end racism, and the work we’ve done to free ourselves from racist patterns.

I grew up differently from the way most white people grow up because some of my relatives were (and are) black. The racism I saw aimed at the people closest to me distanced me from white people and made me feel closer to people of color and identify  more with them.

In groups of white people (especially when I’m not leading) I often forget how smart it is to end racism. Instead I feel bad about how “strange” or “odd” I am. My fear keeps me from making more of a difference with other people. It makes me feel like retreating when I should be moving forward, makes me feel “weird” in the areas in which I’m the smartest.

I’m discharging the distresses that make me apologize when I should be proud, feel like a client when I could be a counselor, and try to fit in when I could be leading.

As I discharge, I can more easily talk about RC from my own voice, from my own unique and “different” experiences—giving myself credit for everything I already know.

It has helped me to look at society and RC through the lens of “mental health” liberation—I am more pleased with myself and am leading more confidently.

Joe Fahey
Santa Cruz, California, USA

At the Boston (Massachusetts, USA) “Mental Health” Liberation Workshop, people’s working on the intertwining of racism and “mental health” oppression seemed to create safety for the black people there. Black people don’t often get to see white people looking at really hard stuff. I can see how it might be reassuring to find that white people have stories of awful things happening in the name of “mental health” oppression. At the workshop, this seemed to create a space in which the black people could talk about some of the worst of what had happened to them.

Just seeing a black person’s face can bring up huge feelings for white people. We have grown to ignore those feelings, to not even notice we’re having them. Those of us who are white liberals have been afraid to acknowledge feelings that might be considered politically incorrect. Obviously, this includes racism. The statement, “I don’t see racism, I’m color blind,” is clearly a denial of a basic fact: that white people have distress recordings that are oppressive toward people of color (as a result of living in a racist society).

Glenn Johnson
Greenfield, Massachusetts, USA

I have reaized that all people, including me, are okay—that everyone matters and deserves full respect, just as they are right now. I have also learned that things sometimes feel bad for a long time and that if one keeps discharging, eventually things change for the better. These understandings have been a lifeline for me as I’ve taken off the blinders to how deeply I’ve been hurt into the oppressor role as a white person.

As someone who has identified mostly with oppressed roles, I’ve felt “crazy” and bad about myself as the pretense has fallen away. I have also felt bad for feeling bad, and powerless to stop feeling bad, except to try to pretend harder. During all of this, I have had many sessions and have discharged the best I could. It is only because of “mental health” liberation that I can remember that I am okay, even with my restimulation; that I can belong to RC, even if I feel like I am a failure.

Things do move, discharge does heal, and over time I can be honestly hopeful that we can end racism. It is hard work, but our bad feelings are dischargeable and it won’t kill us to feel them as long as we have to, until they are gone.

Joan MacKenzie
Asheville, North Carolina, USA

Last modified: 2015-03-24 23:37:45+00