AMERICAN CRIME: What’s Made Barb The Racist She Is?

Racism is a symptom – a troubling and destructive one, to be sure. But, like any symptom, it has its personal roots. As a psychoanalyst, my work is to find the roots of any symptom brought into my office. And, with the multi-storied American Crime unfolding each week, the roots of Matt’s mother, Barb’s (Felicity Huffman)
racism are starting to be exposed. What’s made her how she is?

It’s not people of color that Barb hates or looks down upon – even though she treats them that way. What she hates is her own humiliation; circumstances that left her out of control. An outsider: less than others, in her mind.

Barb’s racism is what the psychological world calls projection. Projection can be cruel and it confuses reality. It makes people into something they’re not. It’s meant to get rid of feelings that are too intolerable to feel. Barb looks like she feels nothing.

One way she avoids her feelings – is to look down on those who are an easy target for her projections. Any one who punctures her armor – is spreading lies. Really she’s lying to herself all the time and her projections make that possible. If she gave them up, she’d have to know how terrible she feels about herself.

Projection is not Barb’s only psychological defense. Denial is another. So are her coldness, her judgments, and her intolerance of any differences. She has to be right. She must need no one.

Why is this? She says it quite clearly when she asks for help (maybe for the first time in her life) and finally cries: “hate crimes don’t happen to white people. Who is there for them?” The root of this feeling is not in her racism.  It’s in something very painful from childhood – “who is there for me?”

When no one is, resentments and hatreds are bred. And a rigid kind of self-sufficiency that let’s no one in. Barb’s racism, her bitterness, is like a barbed wire fence that warns: don’t go over the line.

And, never, never make her feel she hasn’t done something well enough; that she’s not as good as she needs to think she is.  “It’s not for me. It’s for my son. There’s nothing I won’t do for my child.” Likely, no one ever felt that way about her.

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