Part II: How to Challenge Systemic Racism through Cognitive Restructuring

This blog post is PART TWO of a two-part series. The first post was published on June 11, 2020: click here to catch up!

In Part I of this series I exhort white readers—who may be unfamiliar with and/or resistant to the cause of antiracism—to educate themselves about systemic racism in the United States, and the immeasurable social, political, and economic devastation it has wrought throughout history up through the present day. I would not presume to provide anyone’s primary education on systemic racism, which is why Part I included a modest anthology of resources which I have benefited from in learning about it. These resources are composed, or are heavily influenced, by Black people and people of color—the best teachers in this subject area.

The despotic force of systemic racism, I contend, is both so dangerous and so immutable in part because in most circumstances it is invisible to white people. Ignorance of this system is a comfort of the privileged; however, even those of us whose daily lives are most comfortably insulated from the worst consequences of this system still live under its weight, and pay the heavy tolls it exacts—not on our wallets, families, homes, and bodies—but on our humanity:

I have often made the mistake of intellectualizing racial violence and injustice as the psychological, material, political, and biological burden of non-whites only. This is a massive disservice to my white clients. Systemic racism harms everyone: white people living in this system—benefiting from it, sometimes perpetuating it, often ignoring it—incur harm that is rarely discussed or analyzed (Dawes, 2019). Therapy can and should be a context in which white people can also rebel against the conditions of systemic racism. (Joly-DeMars, 2020)

However, I cannot expect my clients to do work in therapy which I have failed to tackle my own life. The focus of this installment, therefore, is to reveal some of my own work—work which is imperfect and ongoing, but may nevertheless contain some useful insights for others who are also on the path away from complicity and towards compassionate and effective antiracist action.

I am modelling my self-work here on the idea of cognitive restructuring, which is one of the basic tenets of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT teaches that by identifying and challenging automatic thoughts, people have the power to change behavior which constrains progress and maintains pathology; over time, we can replace maladaptive thoughts with thoughts that are supportive of and conducive to adaptive behavior and emotional satisfaction (iwanttochangemylife.org/cbt, 2020). Below are some of the maladaptive, automatic thoughts I experience while exploring the subject of systemic racism, and some of the fruitful ways I have learned to challenge them:

1. “I am not a bad person, and I want to live in peace.”

What are the problematic outcomes of this thought? This thought opposes antiracist action by suggesting that systemic racism is not my problem because it did not originate with me.

How useful and/or true is this thought? While it is true that systemic racism did not originate with me—nor with any one person—it is neither completely true nor completely useful. For one, I am not a “bad” person, but what do I think this designation entitles me to? A life of safety and convenience, unmarred by awareness of the suffering of others? The idea that any amount of my own goodness—let alone “not-badness”—precludes compassion is inherently contradictory. If I am indeed good, then I cannot accept peace that allows for, and in many ways depends on, denigration of, disregard for, and often outright violence against others.

What might be a more useful and/or true alternative? Peace is not an individual goal but rather a relational one: I want peace in my marriage,  my family, my community, my country, and all of humanity. To live in peace, I must constantly attend to the relationships within these systems, and actively look for the ways I can be helpful and affirming of their other members; I cannot passively relying on my default not-badness to generate the peace I want.

What positive belief about myself does this new thought support? “I can be a force for good in the world; if I act with compassion and accountability, peace can be an achievable reality for myself and for others.”

2. “Black people hate me.”

Problematic outcomes? To give some context, I noticed this thought in response to some of the antiracist editorials and social media posts I have been reading recently. It is problematic because it misconstrues the legitimate, historical grievances of BIPOC folks as an ad hominem attack on myself.

Useful and true? It is never fair or accurate to ascribe feelings and motives to another person, and even less fair or accurate to do so with a massive, diverse group of people. Moreover, this thought inspires me to shrink and to pity myself—and to use self-pity as a shield to protect myself from any plea or admonishment to reconsider my beliefs and behaviors, or to recognize the truth of any story that is not my own. Thus, I remain self-centered and ignorant.

More useful and/or true alternative? Systemic racism has caused humanity untold damage and pain for centuries. More than any other time in history, BIPOC writers and activists are empowered to tell these human stories, and to plead with and admonish those who would continue to dismiss or devalue them. Many of these writers want, to some extent, to invite white readers to join the cause. Sometimes this takes the form of frustration, particularly while citing past harms or failures to act, of which there are many. However, rather than hearing these admonishments as “you are bad, we don’t want you,” I can instead hear “the world is in pain, you need to know about this.”

Positive self-belief? “I can hear and validate others’ pain without internalizing it as an attack on me and my character; I can view others’ grievances as an opportunity to exercise my moral conscience, rather than as an attack on it.”

3. “If white privilege is real, it means that I have no excuse to fail or struggle.”

Problematic outcomes? This thought centers myself and my perceived failure in my contemplation of racial injustice, leaving me feeling disempowered, inadequate, and completely alienated from practical knowledge or action. Left too long, this thought makes me outwardly defensive and bitter; I am compelled to use conversations about systemic racism as a context to defend my own adequacy.

Useful and true? Neither useful nor true, this thought creates a false conflict between having compassion for myself and having compassion for others. Perhaps even more damningly, this thought seems to presume that ease and success are the normal state of human existence, with failure and struggle being odd and distasteful anomalies. This denial of white privilege is a way of tightening my grip on it: if I prize ease and success above all else, I will—consciously or unconsciously—comply with a system that unfairly favors my achieving them, even at the expense of others.

More useful and/or true alternative? Failure and struggle are a normal part of life, and my enduring them suggests resilience and adaptability. By viewing my own struggles with a lens of compassion, I become more sensitive to the pain other people experience. By reflecting with awe and gratitude on all the ways I have been helped and have grown as a result, I become more aware how I can be a force for healing and justice—which is of greater value to me than either ease or success.

Positive self-belief? “I am worth more than the sum of my individual success; I can acknowledge my privilege without invalidating my own pain.”

CBT also directs practitioners to identify and execute further actions which support the newly identified positive belief (iwanttochangemylife.org/cbt, 2020). One of mine was actually to write this blog post. Other actions I am trying to include reading and listening to content by BIPOC writer and creators, donating money to antiracist causes, and interacting with other white people in way which motivates accountability and awareness of systemic racism. If you suspect that your knowledge of and ability to act productively in response to racial injustice is hampered by maladaptive, automatic thinking, therapy can help.

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