Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Unconscious Prejudice: Freud Lives

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on August 3, 2015


We treat people differently based on reasons we would adamantly deny. We live lives of contradiction and confusion. The one slight benefit to all of these racially based shootings is that we can now acknowledge that, although we do not like to admit it, first impressions cause us to make conscious and unconscious assumptions about people, which cause us to act, at times, in unkind, and hostile ways. The story in this report of a white mother with her African American son who is slowly crawling out of anesthesia, where she sees her son as scared, and the staff see him as threatening. This disparity, clearly racially driven, highlights the notion that, under stress we work off assumptions which may have historical value, but in the current context is inappropriate. The staff perceived this young man’s anxiety as potentially violent, because in their minds, agitation could result in aggression, whereas if he were female, and/or white, they may have been inclined to try to soothe, as opposed to ignoring and avoiding. The bad news is not about unconscious assumptions, since we are all “guilty” of that, but the bad news is that we, as a society, deny that we behave that way. It is only with the advent of hand-held video cameras can we begin to penetrate this denial, and say, hey, the person in authority reacted out of proportion to the situation at hand. Let’s be honest that we have prejudice, which is rooted deeply within us. Then, we can attack the problem. Otherwise, we repeat. Geez. It sounds a lot like psychotherapy. Freud lives. Here is our “evidence”.

6 Responses to “Unconscious Prejudice: Freud Lives”

  1. Shelly said

    This is a no win situation. If someone says that they are not prejudiced, then you would point to the implicit bias model; if someone knows they are prejudiced, then of course they know it. So basically, you are saying that everyone is biased, whether or not they admit it. That is not exactly a great endorsement of humanity. A woman alone in an elevator immediately becomes more wary when a man enters the elevator. She knows that she could get caught in an uncomfortable situation alone in the elevator. The man also may realize that he could be blamed for something which he never had any intent on doing. If one is of one race and someone else is of another–no matter what, the race card will always come up–even if everyone makes a point not to bring it up. Like I said, lose-lose situation, according to you.

    • Not exactly. I think that our past influences our present, and as such, we carry forward ideas from our parents that we are sometimes not aware of. To accept this as a truth allows for a discussion about how our behavior could be improved by expanding our minds and becoming comfortable with the idea that parts of our mind repeat our past, without our awareness. is this the frailty of human nature, as you suggest? Maybe. However, I would like to think that it is also the strength of humanity that we can see our faults and grow from that experience. Thanks, as always.

  2. Eleanor said

    Good post Shirah….It would be beneficial for we humans to make ourselves aware of the part our unconscious assumptions, actions, etc. play in our, and others, lives…….I have a habit of looking, thinking about, analyzing my opinions, actions, reactions, etc. on a regular basis. “Do I really have a good point regarding something, someone else, or am I projecting or is this really “my problem”?? ….maybe all of these”…..maybe not… Anyway, I realize I have biases and prejudices and have strong personal opinions on somethings but I make an effort to see a “middle road” when possible. I also tend to be a bit “anti establishment” which gives me more reason to not let myself off the hook so to speak, and try my best to self analyze and be fair and realistic (certainly not always easy and can take some real thinking in many directions :-)!!. Anyway, one of the benefits of being in analysis for so long. I know, I always have to put in a little “plug” for the psychodynamic approaches I am biased on this one 🙂

    • Yes, Eleanor, you nailed it. Considering that perhaps our strident ideas have more than face value opens the door to an exploration of understanding our biases and our history. There are just too many shootings these days and too many examples of police brutality leading us a mandate to evaluate how anger is so often displaced. Thanks

  3. Anonymous said

    I feel like this is a false dichotomy; while the unconscious isn’t directly perceivable, its effects (emotions, hallucinations, etc) are, and a sufficiently introspective person will notice and will hypothesize on the cause of these emotions. For example, I am uncomfortable around ‘Asian’ people (in quotes due to the demonym’s imprecision), and am fairly confident that it’s due to low exposure; where I grew up, the black/white dichotomy didn’t exclude many.

    • Hello Anonymous,
      Thank you for chiming in. Yes, an introspective person will have clues to their unconscious, but many people are not introspective and those that are have inevitable blind spots. Thanks Again.

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