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  • The Perverse Pact: Racism and White Privilege
  • Adrienne Harris (bio)

Introduction

This essay takes up, from a psychoanalytic and cultural theory perspective, the underpinnings and psychic structures of racism, as it is lived out and practiced in the North American context. Considering the investment of white people in many projects of denial and historical amnesia, this is the most daunting task facing communities, large and small. This essay, which I have worked on with considerable anxiety, is focused on the tenacity of the conscious and unconscious commitments “white” people make to white privilege. I believe this reluctance to take on the questions of white privilege is currently a major impediment to progress in overcoming racism in many communities and social circumstances. In this essay, however, I have tried to center my attention on my own experience, particularly my own resistances, as a white person, citizen, and psychoanalyst.

The overarching concept with which I will be thinking about these matters is one developed by Ruth Stein (2005): the perverse pact. This pact can be observed in individuals, in couples, in social formations, and in intersubjective space. What is powerful in this concept is Stein’s attention to social links that are both very close and intimate and simultaneously very violent and drenched in hostility. Both terms—“perverse” and “pact”—are necessary ingredients.

What I am concerned to do is to examine in myself and in other white persons, singly or in groups, the combined force of dissociation and violence that keeps racism in place. Dissociation [End Page 309] and violence are an odd combination. This is precisely where the notion of a perverse pact can be useful. There is continuous racial violence in the United States. White people both know and “blank out” knowing these indisputable truths. I am using this concept—the perverse pact—to examine some of the self-imposed limits in regard to reflection and action, along with the unconscious conditions in which white guilt and white fragility inhibit our progress towards genuine civil rights (DiAngelo, 2018). We need to appreciate the power of dissociation and amnesia and be much more scrupulous and suspicious about certain common ideas about guilt. Guilt needs to be distinguished from “guiltiness.” This was an important idea in the work of Stephen Mitchell (2000): “A contrived sense of guiltiness can serve as a psychological defense against a more genuine sense of pathos or sadness for oneself” (p. 730). Guiltiness is riddled with narcissism and anxiety rather than genuine reparative impulses—it is actually a barrier to mourning and reparation.

In the contemporary context of Black Lives Matter, there is a new level of demand on white power structures and white individuals to understand the meaning of reparation, which would actually be an offering and not merely a symbol. Reparation is a process that acknowledges indebtedness and change that means a giving up, a losing of space and place and material conditions for the entrenched dominating presence of whiteness and racism.

My argument here is that to do the real and deep work of reparations, white people will need to face the power of white privilege over conscious and unconscious thought and action. Acknowledging and undoing the perverse pact of white privilege is one pathway to the new vision of genuine social freedom. I am not suggesting that the examination and dismantling of the perverse pact is the only right movement in the dominant white culture. I try to say here that we need to understand the depth and tenacity of the perverse pact on our minds and actions. In the Four Notes1 that follow, I make a case for the power of the perverse pact in warding off our judgment and appreciation of the stark realities of contemporary and historic racism. I think that this notion of the perverse pact, illustrated [End Page 310] in the following, may speak to the ongoing difficulty we are having in its dismantling.

The perverse pact, as Stein imagined it, was built on a negative link and an overturning of reality. Stein was thinking of perversion as a way of responding and interacting that was built on destruction and alienation, and on a wish to derail...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1085-7931
Print ISSN
0065-860X
Pages
pp. 309-333
Launched on MUSE
2019-10-05
Open Access
No
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