I’m happy to have spoken with Dr. Isaiah Pickens, an NYC psychologist and founder of iOpening Enterprises. I spoke with him about how implicit and explicit biases come into play when discussing racism, how some people manage to break out of racist ideology, and how we should engage in tough conversations about race, and where he hopes America is headed.
How does a young person come to accept what seem to be ideas that have died out? Because there a lot of people of color who are famous and are idols to so many people, some might think that racist ideology like that has gone away. How do those ideas still get a hold on people?
First, of course, I have to make a general disclaimer that I don’t know Dylann Roof and I don’t know what was going on in his head when he committed this atrocity. I can speak in general how kids are socialized. When we talk about the process of socialization, all we’re talking about is how people learn the messages that inform their beliefs.
Our messages that we get are sometimes explicit; we’re clear of the message—something like “You shouldn’t talk to black people” or “You shouldn’t trust police,” those are explicit messages. But there are also messages that are implicit, messages that are outside of our awareness. Maybe like if you walk a little further away from black people when you’re passing them at night or you say, “You better not bring home a white girl.” You don’t say [why] out loud, but it’s understood that that might not be good for your family. Those are implicit messages. It seems like from what we’ve seen from Dylann Roof, there were people in his life who weren’t fully aware of how extreme his views had become. But at least what he was exposing himself to through the sites he was visiting frequently and waving the Confederate flag…there were other messages that played a role into how he understood the world.
When we talk about some people when they do act like this, some people have mixed feelings about the concept of mental illness. An important note about mental illness—mental illness, even if it was present in Dylann Roof and even if it was something that drove him because he had delusions and beliefs about the world that don’t really make sense in the real world, even if he had all those things, you can still have insight into your actions being right or wrong. It doesn’t mean you’re necessarily driven to those actions or that you’re off the hook for what you’ve done. It’s a potential that there could be some mental illness, but that doesn’t take away from how much insight [Roof] had, how much understanding he had, how much control over his judgement he had in that act.
If the person is learning these behaviors, what psychological tactics are there for them to break out? Or how do they get to break out? Because I’ve been to school with people who have come from very racist families, and they try to act different from their families. How do some people manage to break out and others just get indoctrinated?
I think one of the keys, when we talk about breaking prejudice, is exposure. When people have exposure to another race, another sexual orientation or another religion—whoever they have shown bias or prejudice towards—they start to see the humanity in that person. It might be difficult for them at first, for them to generalize that humanity to an entire group, but when you get to know a person one-to-one, or you’re seeing images that counter the stereotypes on a regular basis, it starts to get incorporated into your belief system.
I can’t say specifically why one person who might seem like they’re in the same environment turn out differently than someone else who seem like they’re in the same environment. But in terms of general messages people are receiving, and how they are countering those messages, whether it’s through exposure or seeing models that don’t represent the stereotypes, those are definitely pathways to that [break from prejudice].
Another piece of this, though, is what people’s [experiences related to stereotyping] are. If someone has had a very intense experience around a group they are prejudiced against doing negative to them, that potentially has a greater weight that sticks with them. If that’s reinforced to them either implicitly or explicitly that that’s how these people are in general, it becomes more difficult to get out of that.
Actually, one of the biggest ways to move out of a situation is a shared goal. If you have a shared goal with a group that you’re prejudiced with and you have to work together to reach that shared goal, there tends to be just a natural respect that tends to develop and the potential to break beyond the stereotypes and barriers that are keeping you from understanding the other person.
How do you think America should be talking about racism? Is it a mental health issue, a social issue, or both?
First of all, I think we should be talking about it. That’s really the key. One of the things that’s difficult for people to come to terms with is that we’re all biased in some way. The way to deal with biases is to bring them to light and deal with them in some way. I understand—I feel this as much as anyone else. It can be draining to talk about why we feel there’s differential treatment between minorities and cops or why some people feel people are coming into the country and taking away resources from citizens here. All of those things are draining to talk about. But having a conversation centering around how do we get people to be as healthy as possible, how do we get not only towards an equal playing field in terms of…how people are treated and thought of, I think those are the conversations [we should have].
We’re really at a point—and President Obama echoes this as well—where we really have to take these conversations that we’ve had in our private groups about “those people” and really just bring them out into the open, not necessarily not with the immediate hope to fix them, but just to bring to the light that these things still happen and can we make a conscious decision to act differently based on knowing that we have these unconscious beliefs? …The follow-through has to come from policies that reflect where we’re going and leaders—in general, not just political—who are willing to facilitate this conversation between communities that might be at odds with each other.
When you spoke about being drained by these conversations, that reminds me of how I’ve felt when I’ve had these conversations and realized there are things some don’t realize are actually pertinent issues.
You bring up a good point. I think when having that conversation, we just have to have compassion for people. I know that’s not what people really want to hear in these situations because there’s justified anger in a lot of these situations…I can imagine people in the south—and not all of them, because some of them are very much using [items like the Confederate flag] as a racist tool—but for some of them, it’s like, “I didn’t know it made that big of a deal for that flag to be up.”
We know that the idea of colorblindness reinforces some of those implicit racial messages…because it makes it seem like people who feel oppressed aren’t really important or aren’t worth thinking much about, so people don’t think much about them. [I’ve had my own moments] where I’m like, “Let me make a conscious effort [to think differently.]” We just have to make conscious decisions to act differently.
How does the media play into the narrative of race and confronting racial issues? Because on the one hand, the TV media might not talk about certain issues enough and social media might help alleviate some feelings of trauma, but social media also perpetuates some feeling of trauma by having the news cycle go on and on even more intensely than the TV news cycle.
I think it’s an important point about how the media plays an important part of shaping our views as a whole, beyond race. How is. The way a message is portrayed—was it a massacre or was it a troubled young man who was out to kill some people? Those are two different frames of the same event. How much does something get coverage? Just two weeks ago, Rachel Dolezal got a lot of coverage, and yet there were still other things relating to police and community that were still really important, but the conversation got shifted in this other direction. I think the media can highlight what people are talking about, but it can also heighten it in terms of what people are continuing to talk about and [furthering] that conversation.
Black Americans have inherited a lot of grief over the decades, and these past few years have been especially hard (perhaps because my generation hasn’t ever dealt with anything like this before-we’ve only heard about it). How can we as a country, and more specifically, those of us in the new generation, deal with these traumas that are both inherited and experienced for the first time?
I think every generation definitely faces their moment where we have to wake up to certain things that are hurtful and the true, but nasty reality of what we face. For many people, especially young people like you said, this is one of those first instances of that, at least collectively in our generation. I think what’s really important is that is first acknowledging that really bad things that have happened continue to happen, to a degree, but realizing that it doesn’t happen everywhere.
This is part of where media plays a role. It may feel that whenever black folks get stopped by a cop that there’s going to be a negative interaction or that there’s people getting shot all the time, but if we look at statistics, there are a lot more stops going on than what we see in these instances. These instances are awful and horrible and that’s not to take away from them, but it is to say that when we don’t have as accurate of a view of anything when it comes to trauma, we start to worry and freak out because we don’t know big this thing gets. It makes it difficult to take care of your day-to-day tasks. At the same time, you don’t want to be naive and act like there are no problems around and that there’s nothing going on. The best thing to do is have as accurate as a picture of how bad things are but observe and appreciate the good things that we have in our society.
The other thing in terms of dealing with trauma is self-care. We have limited resources in terms of our mental ability to deal with problems, our relationships, parents, jobs, school, all these different types of things. It’s important to take an inventory on a daily basis about what our energy level is at, how we recharge ourselves when we feel a little down and overtly anxious. What people are we connecting with to make that recharge happen? Make self-care a lifestyle, not just a fly-by-night luxury. I think seeing things accurately and that self-care component are two of the best ways to really take care of the stress that comes with past traumatic experiences and ongoing stresses that we experience day to day. Of course, get professional help if it’s just getting in the way of everything else you want to do.
America has been through tons in the past years and just months alone with policing, the Charleston murders, and now church burnings. How do you hope America moves forward or how do you see America moving forward psychologically?
I think with any issues that people are emotionally passionate abut, you’re going to see things that trouble you. Some of the things you see are not always coming from the majority; they’re coming from a fringe group of people. That doesn’t discount the damage they can do and the hurt they can [cause]. But it also doesn’t discount the degree to which they represent the views of people who are a little more moderate but still see the same way.
I’ll go back to where I started, which is that I hope this inspires a conversation. I think one of the most beautiful things President Obama’s eulogy for Sen. Pinckney was that Roof wanted to inspire a race war, but in fact, he’ll potentially do just the opposite. When you think about how does race play a role in our country and how does that impact all of our institutions, from policing to healthcare to education, so that we can really have honest conversations.
Hopefully, those conversations will lead to people saying, “We have to be more thoughtful about how we put policy in place, how we train people to be culturally competent, how we get diverse people in our workforce so we can connect to a lot more people.” I think…supporting those policy changes will, over time, help people feel like those conversations they had were meaningful and overall, improve a sense of well-being for a lot of people. Of course, I can’t predict these things, but as a whole, people want to feel safe…I think if we can move towards a place where people can feel safer, I think everyone will feel mentally and psychologically safer and healthier.