As a white man, I can’t fully appreciate or speak to what it’s like to be Black in this country, although I’m trying to learn. But as the developer of the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model, I can offer some thoughts about helping people navigate their inner worlds to release the extreme beliefs and emotions they absorbed from our culture, including internalized racism.
Over the past several years, our country seems to have been reaching a critical point of reckoning with its legacy of racism. After seeing how the Trump regime has worked to legitimize white supremacy, after witnessing the way the pandemic has highlighted racial disparities in public health, after repeatedly seeing videos of the brutal spectacle of unarmed Black people being murdered by police, many white people have finally arrived at a tipping point in facing how deeply racism is woven into the fabric of our society and of ourselves.
So what are we to do with that awareness? While the Black Lives Matter movement has increased the country’s understanding of the pernicious impact of racism in all aspects of our national life, how do we do the internal work of recognizing and grappling with racist thoughts? Some recommend that, after becoming aware of them, we should confront, challenge, and expel them. But this head-on approach can have the unintended consequence of making our racism even more hidden, unconscious, and implicit—filling us with more blind spots that obscure awareness of our participation in structural racism and white supremacy.
Is there another way? I’m not an expert on racism, but over the past couple of decades, I’ve been using IFS to work with the coalition of parts (inner subpersonalities) in well-meaning white people, including myself, that may interfere with the ability to face, and act to change, the ongoing damage that’s been done to people of color. To understand how this process works, let’s start by looking at some of the reasons white people resist looking at their own racism.
The basic issue is that acknowledging you might have racist thoughts and feelings challenges your sense of being a good person. As the 17th-century Christian mystic François Fénelon observed, “As light increases, we see ourselves to be worse than we thought. We are amazed at our former blindness as we see issuing forth from the depths of our heart a whole swarm of shameful feelings, like filthy reptiles from a hidden cave. We never could have believed that we had harbored such things, and we stand aghast as we watch them gradually appear.” As you watch what seem like filthy reptiles slither to the surface of your consciousness, you can easily begin to hate yourself and your race.
The IFS view is that, rather than staying stuck in shame and self-hate, it’s more helpful to recognize that many of these thoughts are emanating from protective parts of you that took on extreme beliefs when you were young, parts that are now frozen in the past. Given how pervasive racism is in this country, it’s nearly impossible not to have picked it up in some form. Many politically progressive white people believe that if they acknowledge their racist thoughts, then they’re no better than a member of the Ku Klux Klan. This follows logically from the dominant paradigm that we have one mind, which then is either polluted with racism or not. When instead you believe, as I do, that we have many subminds—what I call parts—then it’s not shameful to admit that a part of me—not all of me—carries some internalized racism, and I can work to unload it of that burden with curiosity, rather than contempt. This is not to minimize the harmful effects of such parts or the responsibility we have to deal with them; it does, however, provide a clear map and process for doing that.
As I’ve worked with white people’s racist parts, including my own, I’ve seen how easily they can internalize extreme beliefs from some common sources: family, peers, or culture; perceived negative experiences or lack of relationships with people of another race; or the need to fit in, to identify an external scapegoat, or to justify privilege. When the source of bigoted thoughts is ignorance or socialization, then challenging and overriding them makes sense, and providing information and experiences that counter them is very useful. But, like many other cognitive-based interventions, education alone may not touch the emotionally charged parts that are embedded in our limbic systems. Desmond Tutu tells a story of getting on a plane and being proud to see that there were two Black pilots. When there was technical trouble during the flight, however, he caught himself worrying that there was no white pilot. It’s in all of us!
Mistaking parts for the burdens they carry is rampant in the mental health field and in our culture. We futilely go to war against addictions and eating disorders, against feelings of shame and rage. My experience is that attacking or exiling parts that fuel these feelings and behaviors generally makes them fight harder for their existence and ability to protect you. When protective parts of you carry racism, it’s no different. Trying to jettison the part carrying the burden of racism, and shaming yourself for having it, can increase inner and outer polarization. When those protective parts feel it’s safe enough, they can release those racist burdens—but for that to happen, you may first need to heal the other vulnerable parts of you they’re trying, in a misguided way, to protect.
I encourage you to try a similar process with other parts you are ashamed of or fear: maybe the one that gives you embarrassing sexual fantasies or wants to look at porn all the time, or the one that wants to punch Donald Trump, or the one that agrees with him. How about the part that secretly delights when your friends fail, or the one that believes that men are better than women? We all have parts we don’t want to admit to, even to ourselves. In general, they’re like misguided inner children, who, like actual children, need to be guided with compassion, rather than shamed and hidden away.
In a recent podcast called The Wonder Dome, Andy Cahill, the interviewer, who is white and deeply involved in antiracism activities, gave me permission to work with a young, protective part of him that he identified as racist.
Andy: This feels a little scary and vulnerable, but I wouldn’t be walking the walk if I wasn’t open to doing this.
Richard: Okay, then to start, focus on that part of you that says some racist things in there sometimes, and see if you can find it in or around your body.
A: It’s kind of hard to find—seems elusive.
R: Take your time and see if the parts of you that fight it or are ashamed of it could relax a bit. . . . See if you can find it now.
A: The image that’s coming through is of a snake or rope that’s coiled around my spine.
R: How do you feel toward it?
A: Kind of scared of it.
R: See if the scared parts can go to a safe waiting room inside you, so you and I can get to know this snake.
A: Okay, now I feel curious about it. It’s letting me know that it’s afraid to let me see it.
R: Ask it about that—what’s it afraid might happen?
A: It’s afraid that a lot of the people I love and care about would be hurt, and they’d hurt me in return. So it feels better to be invisible. That’s why it’s been coiling up and hiding. Sometimes it thinks things about people based on how they look—the color of their skin, how they’re dressed—and it knows that’s hurtful.
R: Tell it that we’re going to help it unload whatever makes it think those things; we’re not going to have it say anything hurtful to anybody.
A: Now I’m seeing myself at 13 in middle school being shunned because of my weight, my odd interests, who I hung out with and who wouldn’t hang out with me. That boy desperately wanted a way to feel better than other people. He was poorly treated for a long time and had to burrow inside.
R: Let him know you’re getting this—it makes a lot of sense that he’d start judging others to feel better about himself.
[The part then shows Andy a particular scene in the lunchroom where he and his group of friends were scorned by a popular girl, and he felt humiliated and angry. I encourage Andy to enter that scene and help the boy Andy see that her actions had nothing to do with him. Andy goes and talks to the girl on behalf of the boy, who’s shocked because he believed that you can’t stand up to popular kids. Then I guide Andy to take the boy out of that scene to be with him in the present.]
R: See if he’s ready now to unload all the feelings and beliefs he got about needing to feel better than others from those times.
A: Yeah, he’s ready—it’s all hunched in his shoulders and neck. He can’t look straight at people and has to turn his head.
D: What does he want to give all that up to?
The boy unloads the beliefs and feelings of inadequacy that were in his shoulders into the fire and is now standing a foot taller. He then brings self-confidence into his body and what he describes as “the ability to see that girl’s pain and how she was trying to feel better by shitting on us.”
This particular part no longer feels the need to use racism to feel better than others. However, if my experience with myself and others is any indication, this is only one of many parts of Andy that carry the pervasive legacy burden of racism. I’m still finding them in myself.
In IFS, a legacy burden is an extreme set of beliefs or emotions that entered your system, not through your direct life experience, but through your family or ethnic lineage, or through marinating in our culture. We carry many legacy burdens from growing up in the United States—patriarchy, individualism, materialism, to name a few. The legacy burden of white supremacy is a set of beliefs created to justify and perpetuate centuries of enslavement, beatings, murders, rapes, and discrimination. It lives in our culture like a virus that infects us all.
The good news I stumbled onto many years ago is that, when a part carrying a legacy burden feels ready, it can send beliefs and emotions out of your system in a process I call unburdening, which we saw with Andy. After unburdening, the liberated part transforms into its naturally valuable state. The challenge is that the burden of racism is so culturally reinforced that it can be embedded in many parts that are good at hiding and ally with denying parts that are afraid to let us see them for many reasons, including losing privilege.
My parents were active in the civil rights movement, and I’ve been supportive of progressive movements all my life. So, when I decided two decades ago to work more directly on issues of racial justice, I was initially mortified to discover my internalized racism. Despite all this time and work, I’m painfully aware that it’s still with me to some degree, influencing my choices, which speaks to how deeply embedded it can be. But when I get those thoughts now, I try to gently counter them in the moment, as you would a confused child, and then use them as a trailhead to find and heal the part they came from. Noticing how they affect my actions can be more challenging and I often need consultation to help with that.
I grew up in Evanston, Illinois, as the only Jew in a peership of tough Christian boys who were openly antisemitic, as well as racist and homophobic. Like Andy, I was insecure and desperate to be accepted, so parts of me eagerly absorbed those attitudes and remained frozen in that time period in Evanston until I found and worked with them decades later. I wrote about them in a 2001 article in the journal Visions.
The part I found first was the angry protector that demonized or objectified any person it felt threatened by. It kept track of dangerous events in my environment, like how many crimes in my area were committed by Black versus white people, and wasn’t afraid to generalize wildly and use racial stereotypes. As I got to know it, it turned out that this part was highly protective. It found fatal flaws in anyone, including white people, if they seemed at all threatening.
The part I had the most trouble acknowledging was an entitled voice that hated weakness in my clients, my family members, and myself. He had little patience for those who weren’t making it in our society, or in my office, and wished they’d quit sniveling or trying to make me take care of them. He wanted me to look out for number one and not worry about people he believed didn’t really want help anyway. He was jaded and cynical and, to rationalize my inaction, used bigoted explanations for the plight of those less privileged.
His attitude is captured in this passage from author Michael Lind’s description of the American oligarchy: “We prefer to assign good fortune to our individual merit, saying that we owe our perches in the upper percentiles of income and education not to our connections but solely to our own IQ, virtue, brio, genius, chutzpah, gumption. Had we been switched at birth by accident, had we grown up in a ghetto or barrio or trailer park, we would have arrived at our offices at ABC News or the Republican National Committee or the ACLU in more or less the same amount of time.”
It took a lot of work for me to admit to myself or anyone else that this entitled, macho guy existed in me. He was detested by most of my other parts, including the one that makes me constantly guilty because people are suffering while I’m comfortable, the part that gets enraged by injustice of any kind, and the part that reminds me of how my privilege was built on the backs of enslaved people.
As I try to help white clients find and unburden their racism, I commonly find an entitled part like mine. To live in privilege, we need parts that can justify, ignore, or deny blatant, systemic inequity so we can remain inactive. Recent events seem to have pierced this entitled protector’s shield, touching what I call the Self (like the soul) in many white people, and releasing the Self’s clarity to see injustice and courage to act against it. If this protector doesn’t climb back into the driver’s seat, I’m hopeful that many things will change.
My entitled guy often teamed up with another protector who wanted to keep me from failing or humiliating myself. This inner pessimist said that nothing would help some people or their problems, so I’d fail if I tried. Or he said that I don’t have what it takes to change anything and would only embarrass myself with my ignorance if I got involved. He kept a video bank of incidents when I did embarrass myself, particularly when I said something that was offensive to a person of color. He asked why I’d want to go into that minefield when I can stay in the peaceful, familiar meadow of relating to white people of my class and education. This guy has eased up a lot inside me, but I notice that as I’m writing this article, he’s concerned that people will shame me for it.
Over the past 20 years, I’ve met a number of other parts involved in keeping me in denial and passive about obvious injustice in my community or in the world. They still keep me less active than my Self would be if fully released. They made it hard for me (and still make it hard, but to a lesser extent) to see not only the injustice of my white privilege, but also the harm generated by insensitive things I might say or do. Separating from and working with them has been painful, but ultimately healing in that it’s allowed me more access to caring and playful parts that they’d held at bay; it’s freed up the energy they were using to protect me. The legacy burden of racism is most harmful to people of color, of course, but it’s toxic to white people as well.
When I first realized how much my racist parts organized my perceptions from behind the scenes, my fierce self-critic and outraged-by-injustice parts took over and were able to stifle that coalition’s voices for a time. I was also vigilant to any subtly racist statements made by people around me and, when I encountered one, confronted the person in a righteous way. I think I was quite ineffective in that state. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Parts cannot unburden parts; only Self can do that.
I find that racism isn’t just the product of ignorance or indoctrination: it’s also a way we protect our emotional pain, or the young, scared parts that fear not belonging or losing privilege. If we focus only on the former understanding and ignore the latter, I fear we’ll become increasing polarized as we go to war with protective racist parts within and around us. In contrast, if we understand the protective role these parts play, we can reeducate them with compassion rather than contempt, and we’ll know that before we can expect them to totally disarm, we must heal the wounds they protect.
But for any of that to happen, we have to really look inside. We can’t bring light into the darkness in our country or our family if we haven’t shone it on the dark places in ourselves. As Buddhist author Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “There is a lot that needs to be done in society—work against war, social injustice, and so on. But first we have to come back to our own territory and make sure that peace and harmony reign there.” We avoid doing that when we’re afraid we’ll find and have to expose to filthy reptiles, so we curse the racists outside us and leave those within stewing in their caves.
James Baldwin put it succinctly: “One can only face in others what one can face in oneself.” It’s easier to face it in yourself when you know it’s a protector—like Andy’s misguided, lonely, inner teen—than when you believe it’s shameful, immutable racism that’s safer denied and hidden away. It’s also easier to call out and effectively dialogue with a person who is racist when you know he or she is sitting on a lot of insecurity and pain. As Longfellow wrote, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
One goal then is to access your Self by helping your protectors trust that it’s safe to allow that. From Self you’ll intuit that secret history. The clarity of the Self allows us to see injustice, and Self’s courage leads us to speak out and act, forcefully when necessary, against it. And the curiosity and compassion of Self allows white people to stay present to, and honor and witness, the anger and outrage communities of color feel due to the past and current impact of this horrible legacy burden.
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Ultimately, I and other white people must keep facing what our privilege has done—and is still doing—and make reparations. But to do that, we must also move toward our locked-in memories of pain: toward the feelings of worthlessness that make us believe we need to protect our privilege to survive, toward the feelings of powerlessness that make us want to dominate, toward the feelings of humiliation that make us reluctant to speak out or get close to people of color, toward the feelings of shame that make us apathetic. We need to unload all of that so the Self can shine through.
And it’s not enough for us to do this work individually. Racism-based bias and injustice is systemic in our institutions. If we don’t act to counter it, we’re complicit in it. How can we help leaders recognize and take action without triggering their defensive parts? The IFS approach, along with some expert consultation, is helping me recognize and work with my blind spots; and know that I have a long way to go.
But we don’t have to wait until we’re fully healed to begin to act. Action itself is healing. As we open our hearts to and collaborate with the exiles of our culture, we open our hearts to the exiled parts of ourselves, and vice versa. It’s all parallel. How you are inside will mirror how you are outside. Demonizing and going to war in either realm is not the answer. Inner and outer love-based action is necessary.
Richard Schwartz, PhD, director of the IFS Institute and originator of the Internal Family Systems therapy model, is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School.
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