5 Examples of Defense Mechanisms in Social Prejudice and Discrimination

Social justice movements and psychoanalytic therapists don’t often realize they both share a common aim: “to raise consciousness.” Social justice activists have historically emphasized social awareness, whereas psychoanalytic therapists have focused on the individual’s self-awareness. In this post, I aim to apply the psychoanalytic concept of defense mechanisms to five areas of social discrimination and prejudice. As the old adage goes, “the personal is political.”

This post also concludes the three-part series on defense mechanisms. If you haven’t read the last two posts yet, you can check them out here (the first one is more important) and here. You might even feel like you have an awesome ninja-like ability to psychoanalyze your cat after it’s all said and done. And if your cat’s name happens to be ninja, well, hang on because things are about to get serious.

In the following five examples, I provide a lay definition of the defense mechanism being discussed, an example of a social issue, and then give a brief analysis of how the defense operated in the social issue.

Tell your cat you’ll be busy for about ten minutes.

1. MICROAGRESSIONS AND ABLEISM

Definition: A microaggression could be an everyday casual comment that is not intended to reveal prejudice or discrimination, but actually reinforces social oppression. A microaggression is the only item in this post that psycholoanalysis doesn’t technically consider a defense mechanism, but I find it useful, and I’ll explain why in the analysis section below.

Example: Fernando uses a wheelchair and is meeting up for coffee with a colleague. He comments on how when he came into the café, he noticed a number of people staring at him, and this reminds him of other times he has felt marginalized in public for using a wheelchair. His colleague Marc replies: “That’s awful. When I’m with you, I never even notice your wheelchair. I see you as you.”

Analysis: When people use a microaggression, they are typically well-intentioned and don’t realize that they are displaying a biased belief. That’s because people consciously think of themselves as good, moral people. However, we are unconsciously conditioned to think in ways that are biased. In the example above, Marc’s comment is intended to be supportive (and Fernando might even feel it is). On another level, Marc’s comment denies Fernando’s experience as a person who uses a wheelchair and is treated differently. This denial of difference is, of course, unconscious. The same thing would apply to a white person who says: “I’m not racist; my best friend is Black. When I see him, I don’t see color. I see him as just another person like me.”

2. THE SPLITTING OF GENDER, SEX, AND SEXUAL ORIENTATION

Definition: Splitting is when our perception is distorted so that we see people and things as all good or bad, all-or-nothing, black or white, male or female, etc… Basically, we fail to see the whole of something, the full spectrum.

gender binary

Example: I used to live right next to a chocolate shop (a pretty ‘sweet’ situation, if you ask me) and talk to the owner there all the time because, you know, chocolate rocks. One day, he caught me off guard when he said he “just knew that the owner of the café next door was a masculine lesbian because of her short hair.” What he didn’t know was that this woman was also a friend of mine. She identified as a cisgender heterosexual woman, and she had often said to me that it was common for her sexual orientation to be assumed based on her appearance. She also said sometimes this perception of her was doubly assumed because of her working in a leadership role.

Analysis: The chocolate shop owner is demonstrating how he ‘splits’ gender and sexuality into discrete categories. His comment implies that a woman who is lesbian would not wear long hair – that short hair is a ‘masculine’ trait, and how a woman who is a cisgender heterosexual should present herself a particular way. When specific traits and behaviors get stereotyped as being male (masculine) or female (feminine), we maintain a binary and categorical perspective of gender and sexuality. This isn’t problematic to everyone, but for people who don’t feel they are accurately represented by such sharp and discrete categories, it can be frustrating. Most of us feel pressured to conform to images and behaviors that are consistent with how culture says someone who identifies the way we identity “should” be. When we don’t align so neatly with how culture says we should be, our identities may be assumed by others and leave us marginalized.

3. INTROJECTION (INTERNALIZATION) OF SKIN COLOR DISCRIMINATION

Definition: Introjection occurs when we take on the identity or qualities of others, like when adolescents change their dress and behavior to match the peer group they feel most aligned with. Introjection can also contain the attitudes and beliefs that others hold about the social groups we belong to.

Example: Sometimes when I teach an undergraduate course in Personality, I show the film Precious. The main character, Clarieece ‘Precious’ Jones, is a young Black female who is overweight. Up until the end of the film, whenever she looks at herself in the mirror, she sees an ideal image of herself as a thin, white, blonde female.

Analysis: Clarieece wants to see herself as thin, white, and blonde, because she cannot see herself as a Black girl who is overweight. Furthermore, she cannot see herself as a Black girl who is overweight because she has internalized the cultural discrimination she has grown up in – that the ideal beautiful woman is white and thin. A former student of mine once commented on the film by saying that “after you experience discrimination for so long, you no longer need an actual oppressor to remind you; you carry them inside of you and you just start to do it to yourself.” That’s exactly how introjection works. Some psychoanalysts also refer to introjection as “identification with the aggressor.”

4. DENIAL OF HEIGHT DISCRIMINATION

Definition: Denial is a form of ignoring reality. But unlike when people know something is true but avoid thinking about it because it is painful (such as in repression), denial is stronger because the person using denial is avoiding reality and doesn’t believe that they are in denial.

Example: Richard is a 38-year-old white heterosexual male whose height measures at 5’1”. He recently interviewed for a managerial position at his place of employment against four other internal applicants. Despite having worked at his company longer than the other four applicants, and carrying a more accomplished resume by all objective measures, he was turned down for the position and the tallest candidate was hired. When Richard suggested to a colleague that he had potentially faced height discrimination, the colleague replied, “Where do you see evidence of that? Maybe they just went with the best fit candidate and that happened to be the tallest guy.”

Analysis: The comment made by Richard’s colleague suggests that he can’t conceive of the possibility that Richard would be selected out because of his height. There is also a microaggression contained in his comment because he denies the reality that height discrimination happens (and really, who is ever explicit about it?). The reality is that height discrimination against males, especially in the workplace, is a consistent and statistical fact. Some even suggest it might be the most unacknowledged form of bias and prejudice, and that it is generally tolerated – even encouraged – in western culture. Because height discrimination is typically not discussed as explicitly in discrimination policies as race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, dis/ability, and religious affiliation are (and why is that?), there is a greater chance for denial of height discrimination when it occurs.

5. PROJECTIVE IDENTIFICATION IN RACIAL PROFILING

Definition: Projective identification is often hard to define. The simplest way I can think of to define it here would be to say that it is when people influence other people to behave in ways that fit with their own biased perception. Like denial, it is deeply unconscious, and it is often hard to show people how they are contributing to their own concerns.

Example: A white male police officer pulls over a speeding car being driven by an African American male. He approaches the vehicle and asks him with an aggressive tone if he knows how fast he was driving. The driver responds and acknowledges the offense. The officer interprets that the driver is speaking with some hostility in his voice, and so he tells the driver there is no reason for him to speak with anger. The driver is feeling provoked by the cop and so does respond with some annoyance in his voice that he feels targeted. The interaction continues to escalate until the driver becomes uncooperative, appears to be becoming aggressive, and the officer places him under arrest.

Analysis: Before they even exchange words at the car door, both the police officer and driver bring with them a set of unconscious assumptions that they are not even aware of regarding how the interaction will go. These assumptions are influenced largely by past experiences and cultural images of what to expect. In this example, the police officer may have unconsciously provoked the driver’s response to him by assuming that because he himself is white and the driver is African American, that the driver would be mistrustful of him and so potentially defensive. Of course, there is often some truth in a projection, and the driver himself was likely worried about racial discrimination. The officer is unaware of how he is projecting his own hostility onto the driver, and when the driver responds with some measure of annoyance, it confirms for the officer that his “hunch” was right.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Many fair-minded and morally upright people may think of racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination and prejudice, as acts that are committed by certain types of people who “have it out” for a minority group. We don’t see just how much biased and prejudice we carry in our own unconscious minds, and this is perhaps more dangerous because of how invisible it is.

Like it or not, we are all conditioned to carry assumptions about people whose identities differ from our own. No matter how good intentioned we want to be, not acknowledging and talking about our biases only gives them more power. I think we all worry so much about being called racist or sexist, or feeling guilty for having been programmed with biases, that we refuse to explore the issue at all.

One of the great things about psychoanalytic theory is that it names what is unconscious, thereby making it conscious. Defense mechanisms are a psychoanalytic concept that can be used to think critically about social problems. We can use defense mechanisms and theories about the unconscious mind to clarify how gender biases, racial discrimination, sizeism, ableism, and skin color prejudices operate outside of our awareness. We can use psychoanalytic ideas to learn about how our own cultural upbringing contributes to our personality development. Why leave it to only therapists and other psychology professionals?

There exists a lot of untapped potential in using psychoanalytic theory to talk about these issues at a level that simply not enough professionals use, so let’s talk about it. Talking helps.

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