On Whiteness and Narcissism
Understanding the Origins of White (Mis)Behaviors
The murder of George Floyd by police officers on May 25th, 2020 has sparked worldwide protests against racism and police brutality that are ushering in a new era of civil rights activism. Never before have so many people from different sociocultural backgrounds collectively participated in racial justice activism. Racism is shifting from being understood by white people as a Black person’s problem to a systemic form of oppression that is actively maintained by whiteness and implicates every single white person. White people are starting to catch onto the stark inequalities, injustices, and ritualized acts of domination and cruelty that maintain the tenuous facade of white superiority upon which white supremacy depends. Social media plays an integral role in this new era of civil rights activism by both helping organize racial justice efforts and publicly shaming white people who are recorded performing racist acts.
It is becoming nearly impossible to deny that there is something very wrong with white America; Black people and other people of color have probably always known this, and now, finally, after centuries of overt and covert white-sanctioned oppression, white people are developing this same realization.
If Donald Trump hadn’t already convinced the rest of the world that white America has some deep psychological issues, then Karen is putting the finishing touches on this collective realization. Donald Trump is a bona fide malignant narcissist, and his flying monkeys resonate so strongly with him for reasons that I will outline in this essay.
What, however, is wrong with white America? Why do white people act so terribly, and, more importantly, why don’t racist whites think they’re racist? How does racism and white supremacy make sense to white people? What kinds of psychological mechanisms allow racist white people to justify their oppressive behaviors without guilt or shame? What makes racism seem appropriate to white people? Why don’t white people think of themselves as racist even (and especially) while performing racist acts?
I’d like to offer an answer to these questions, which is that white supremacy socializes white people into narcissistic relationships to themselves and the world such that “acting white” means acting narcissistically. More specifically, both whiteness and narcissism involve investing in a false sense of superiority in order to cover up unconscious feelings of inadequacy. In this essay I will outline the core tenets of narcissism in parallel with white problematics to illustrate the conceptual and psychological similarities between whiteness and narcissism.
It’s important to note that I’m not talking about white people as individuals but instead about whiteness as the patterns of behaviors that describe how white people tend to act in general. Just as narcissism describes the patterned behaviors of narcissists, whiteness describes the patterned behaviors of white people. I am not claiming that all white people are narcissists, but I am claiming that acting white means acting narcissistically. You don’t have to be Caucasian to act white; all you need to do is imitate a position of superiority by demeaning others and/or overvaluing yourself.
Any white person who takes this essay personally is proving my point by not being able to tolerate negative feedback or criticism about whiteness… just like a narcissist. Bonus points to anyone who recognizes in themselves how they’d never complain about or take offense to generalizations made about Black or queer people but instead become victimized whenever someone says something critical about whiteness.
The core tenet of both whiteness and narcissism is a sense of grandiosity that is based in a false perception of superiority. White supremacy is false, meaning that whiteness isn’t actually superior to anything even though the purpose of white supremacy is to make whiteness seem superior, and narcissism is also “false” in that narcissists aren’t actually better than anyone else even though they’re convinced that they are. Grandiosity in terms of whiteness looks like believing in the inherent superiority of the Aryan race like Hitler did, and grandiosity in terms of narcissism looks like believing that oneself is inherently special, unique, and “exceptional, no exceptions” like Trump does.
The collective illusion of white superiority that white people so desperately aim to maintain in service to white supremacy by dominating others is similar to the illusion of superiority that narcissists devotedly maintain in service to their ego. Whiteness is to white supremacy as narcissism is to ego-love.
Narcissists believe that they are not subject to the rules and regulations that apply to others, just as whiteness involves not subjecting white people to the same law enforcement procedures as Black and brown people. Racist white people are quick to exempt themselves from histories of oppression by appealing to individual instances of personal excellence, which parallels how narcissists are quick to exempt themselves from criticism by appealing to their allegedly wonderful qualities. Narcissists summon their good deeds to leverage and defend against criticism just like how white people refer to their Black friend (or Instagram square?) to prove they’re not racist.
Narcissists believe they are entitled to getting anything they want because they perceive their wants as inherently more valid than anyone else’s, just as whiteness involves putting the wants of white people ahead of everyone else’s because white people think they’re better than everyone else. White ways of existing in the world are perceived by white people to be the only valid ways of existing, just like how narcissists believe that their way of seeing things is the only valid way to see them.
The origin of pathological grandiosity differs between whiteness and narcissism, however. In terms of whiteness, grandiosity functions to cover up the scandal of white supremacy’s falsehood (i.e., it obscures the fact that whiteness and white people aren’t actually superior to anyone), whereas in terms of narcissism grandiosity functions to cover up primordial feelings of shame and inadequacy that were borne as a result of lacking adequate caretaking during the first few years of life. The function of grandiosity is thus similar between whiteness and narcissism even though its origins differ.
Using Fantasy to Distort Reality
Whiteness and narcissism both involve using fantasy to distort reality in order to maintain the illusory sense of grandiose superiority upon which both depend. Narcissistic personalities utilize fantasy to maintain the repression of fundamental feelings of shame and inadequacy, whereas whiteness utilizes fantasy to obscure white supremacy’s falsehood, i.e., the fact that whiteness isn’t actually superior to anything.
Narcissists maintain significantly distorted perceptions of the world and themselves to keep shame at bay, which is why narcissists routinely ignore facts, gaslight, lie, and rationalize behaviors that would otherwise force healthy personalities to reconsider their beliefs and behaviors. Donald Trump is a prolific liar and conman, but he doesn’t believe that he is because of how thoroughly narcissism distorts his perceptions of himself and the world. The concept of “Fake News” is a sublimation of Trump’s narcissism that is a quick and easy way to neutralize any information that threatens’s Trump’s ego. Fake News resonates so strongly with his supporters because both he as a narcissist and they as racist white people depend on distortions of reality to protect their ego investments. Fake News is a quick and easy way to neutralize threats posed by reality, but reality is only threatening to people who have something to hide — and both narcissists and racist white people have a lot to hide.
Whiteness also utilizes fantasy to distort reality by ignoring facts and rationalizing white-sanctioned oppression that has been going on for centuries. The distorted version of US history that is taught in American public schools is a concrete example of how fantasy functions to maintain the illusion of white grandiosity upon which white supremacy depends. Instead of learning about minstrel shows and eugenics, for example, American students in public schools instead learn about the valiant efforts of heroic white men who established the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. Students learn that the United States military helped defeat the Nazis, but they don’t learn that Hitler was inspired by American racism. Students do not learn that the United States was borne of and is maintained by genocidal bloodshed because of the distorted ways US history is taught. Even the name of our country is a distortion because the United States has never actually been united, and probably never will be.
Narcissists become enraged whenever their fantasies are challenged, which parallels how white people become enraged when their lack of superiority is identified. This white tendency toward rage has been called white fragility by Robin DiAngelo, who frames this response as one that is triggered by anything that threatens white racial dominance. My understanding of white fragility is that it is triggered by losing a superiority that doesn’t exist, which parallels symbolic castration anxiety in contemporary psychoanalytic theory. Regardless of the framing, narcissistic rage and white fragility are similar phenomena that are triggered by engagements with the reality that lies beyond the grandiose fantasies upon which narcissism and whiteness depend. White fragility is to whiteness as narcissistic rage is to narcissism.
Needing Praise and Admiration
Continual praise and admiration are important for both whiteness and narcissism because this feedback provides social evidence to validate the grandiosity and distortions of reality upon which both depend.
In terms of narcissism this need is called narcissistic supply, which is the steady stream of attention upon which narcissists depend to maintain their grandiosity. Solitary distortions of reality are easily pathologized, as is the case in schizophrenia, which involves idiosyncratic hallucinations that typically make sense only to the schizophrenic person themselves. Narcissists would also be pathologized if their reality distortions were not validated by others, which is part of why narcissists depend on attention from others in order to maintain their sense of grandiosity.
Narcissists are very good at manipulating the thoughts and feelings of others in order to maintain their supply of attention — so good, in fact, that the term “flying monkey” describes those who act in service of the narcissist’s grandiosity. Flying monkeys accept their narcissist’s distortions as unquestionable, indubitable facts because they are hopelessly devoted to the narcissist. The narcissist’s flying monkeys are important elements of the narcissistic personality, for without them the narcissist would not be easily able to remain convinced of the truth of their distortions or the perceived validity of their grandiosity.
Whiteness also depends upon constant praise and admiration to maintain illusions of white superiority. Racist white people praise and affirm one another to validate their racism, which is why pleasure is an important affective component of how racism is maintained within white communities. Police officers provide each other the validation they need in order to participate in brutality just as racist white parents praise their children for saying or doing racist things. Praising behaviors reinforces their continuation, as models of reinforcement in theories of learning demonstrate. Minstrel shows — which involved white people on stage in blackface demeaning and making fun of Black culture — are a clear example of how racism is maintained by the pleasure of praise and affirmation from other white people. The pleasure of being praised for racist acts is a key component of white racism that needs to be more thoroughly examined and interrogated by white people.
We can adopt Sara Ahmed’s framework of the happy object to explain how praise functions to maintain racism in white communities by saying that continual associations between racism and pleasure are how racism is felt to be acceptable within white communities. Racism, in other words, is exchanged as a happy object in white communities via continual praise of racist acts so that racism is experienced as something that “makes white people happy.” Any white person who dares challenge associations between pleasure and racism within white communities is excluded from their community as an affect alien, or someone who does not experience pleasure in relation to a happy object. Affect aliens are blamed for “making people feel bad” even though what they’re actually doing is exposing the injustices that are embedded in the happy object. Failure to praise white racism within white communities will result in the same kind of defensive rage and exclusion that narcissists display when their praise is disrupted or behaviors are challenged.
The number of people who Trump has fired and disparaged during his presidency is an example of how anyone who challenges a narcissist will be promptly removed from their world and then disparaged to neutralize whatever threat they posed to the narcissist’s grandiosity. Trump needs his rallies to feel justified in his behaviors because this is where he gets his praise. His flying monkeys are mostly white and love him with the passionate fervor of a cult because Trump embodies both whiteness and narcissism, which, as I have been outlining, are very similar to one another.
Exploitation and Remorselessness
Whiteness and narcissism involve remorselessly exploiting others for selfish aims. American slavery is an obvious and clear example of remorseless white exploitation of Black people for socioeconomic gain. Racist white people do not care about or understand the pain and suffering caused by slavery, which is why racist whites are apt to tell Black people to “get over it” because formal American slavery ended on June 19, 1865. The subsequent eras of Jim Crow racism, police brutality, and Black imprisonment that followed the abolition of slavery is a testament to how thoroughly whiteness is informed by remorseless exploitation for personal gain, except after slavery the gains became more psychological and affective, feeding white power complexes and appropriating Black culture for entertainment. Madonna did not invent voguing, but she did receive credit for it, and also talked solely about herself to honor the legacy of Aretha Franklin after she died.
Narcissists are similarly invested in exploiting others for personal gain, regardless of the consequences or inhumane violations involved in the exploitation. People are objects to narcissists, which is why narcissists will use others for whatever purpose they desire, and will discard anyone as soon as their use-value diminishes. Subjectivity in others does not register to the narcissist because the narcissist’s subjectivity is the only one that exists in the narcissist’s distorted world.
A lack of empathy is also endemic to both whiteness and narcissism. Racist white people simply do not care about anyone other than themselves and their racist peers, which is part of why racist white people are so angered and victimized by Black Lives Matter, for this movement addresses how thoroughly Black lives are devalued by white people, which makes racist white people feel inferior and look like assholes. Racist whites do not care about the well-being of Black or brown people, and indeed probably experience sadistic pleasure in relation to Black suffering.
I think histories of inbreeding within white communities is another reason why whiteness involves a general lack of empathy, for rednecks joke about fucking their cousins, and our British ancestors bred within royal families to “keep the bloodline pure.” There’s no need for empathy if you are solely committed to your own kind, for empathy is what allows us to emotionally connect with others who are different from who we are. White supremacy depends on forestalling connections to those who are not deemed “normal” by white America, so it makes sense that there would be a lack of empathy within white communities.
Narcissists also do not care about other people, and hurt others if they think it will get them what they want. Narcissists strategically exploit others for personal gain without any concern for how doing so impacts those they exploit. Narcissists are likely to become sorely victimized or frighteningly cruel if their exploitativeness is identified in order to deflect attention away from their abusive behaviors.
Trump does not care about the suffering he has caused Latinx families whose children continue to live in cages, and is instead aiming to exploit these families by charging them $800 for a DNA test to reunite the children with their parents. The level of cruelty embedded in this gesture is truly gut-wrenching but unfortunately not surprising given that Trump embodies both whiteness and narcissism, which both involve the ruthless exploitation of others for personal gain.
This essay has been in my head for a while, and I hope that reading it helps provide readers with a better understanding of why so many white people (mis)behave in such bizarre and harmful ways. I am publishing it today on the day after Juneteenth in recognition of both the strides that have been made toward Black emancipation since 1865, as well as the amount of work we white people still need to do in understanding and bettering ourselves, for we are the ones who created, maintain, and have the most leverage in changing these oppressive patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior. I don’t think we can make much progress toward dismantling systemic racism until we better understand how white supremacy registers to and is justified by white people. I hope that by paralleling whiteness and narcissism I have helped contribute better understanding toward the kinds of problems we need to face as white people. We have a long way to go, and it’s time we white people go inward instead of acting out our problems for the world to witness and suffer through.