Where is the other?
The contemporary proliferation of racism in spite of our knowledge about its wrongs suggests that we have an unconscious investment in racism that continues and multiplies. Armed with education and a belief in racism’s fundamental immorality, people today should have no problem leaving racist ideas and practices behind. But education and morality are not enough. They are powerless in the face of an unconscious investment, which provides the foundation for racism’s continuing appeal for those who indulge in it. The unconscious investment is the central pillar of racism’s intransigence. Unless one takes the unconscious as the starting point for making sense of racism’s appeal, the mystery of the enduring power of racism is almost impossible to decipher. Today, there is a proliferation of historical accounts of all the various manifestations of racism. These accounts make clear the extent of the problem, but they do not help us to resolve it because they never attack racism at the point where it has a hold over us. The struggle against racism requires an engagement with the unconscious, but deciphering the unconscious appeal of racism places us on the difficult terrain of psychoanalytic interpretation.1
When we look at the terminology deployed in the contemporary combat against racism, one might mistakenly assume that the combatants have already taken the unconscious into account. The predominance of the term unconscious bias
specifically names this aspect of the psyche. But this apparent nod to psychoanalytic thought is ultimately misleading. Although the term unconscious bias
has become a regular part of the anti-racist lexicon, the analysis of the unconscious has not. In fact, the proponents of the term often take pains to distinguish their thought from Freud’s. In Blindspot
, their leading work on unconscious bias, Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald assure us that “an understanding of the unconscious workings of the mind has changed greatly in the century since Freud’s pathbreaking observations.”2
According to Banaji and Greenwald, Freud’s unscientific conception of the unconscious has given way to a scientifically verifiable one: we have now collectively moved beyond Freud’s failure to be scientific enough.3
But in the process of this shift, what has been lost is Freud’s insistence on the radical otherness of the unconscious in relation to consciousness.
The problem manifests itself in the second part of the term unconscious bias. Bias suggests a distortion of knowing and suggests that the problem is confined to how we know. This term indicates the belief that racism represents a failure to know accurately. But once one begins with the premise that the problem of racism is a problem of knowing, one necessarily misses the radicality of the problem. Armed with this understanding, to correct our unconscious bias, we just need a little diversity training that teaches us that our biases are unfounded. All we need to do, in short, is to fill in the gaps of our knowledge.
But if racism is unconscious, this means that it is not simply a problem of knowing but a problem of enjoying.4
We enjoy at odds with how we know. That is to say, we enjoy not in spite of knowing better but because we know better. Our unconscious investment in racism delivers an enjoyment that comes at the expense of what we know, when we transgress the norms that we know we should obey. No matter how much we know better, this enjoyment will find a way to manifest itself. Instruction alone cannot alter how we enjoy. The interchangeability of the term unconscious bias
with implicit bias
makes clear the problem. The reference to the unconscious is superficial and does not have anything to do with the unconscious that psychoanalysis theorizes. The type of theorizing about racism that sees it in terms of unconscious bias
implicitly categorizes racism as an epistemological problem.
denotes racism that persons have without knowledge, not the part of racism that resists knowledge, which is the effect of the unconscious. The unconscious isn’t simply a lack of knowledge. It is what one does without being able to know it prior to acting. The unconscious acts ahead of our knowledge. Taking this understanding of the unconscious as our point of departure, we must reverse the relationship between racism and knowledge. Racism is not the result of a bias in our knowing, but rather we have a bias in our knowing because of racism. To find the root of racism we must look not at mistakes in knowing but at successes in enjoying. These successes occur through fantasy. An analysis of racism that focuses on the unconscious must take fantasy as its starting point.5
While not every society relies on a foundational racist fantasy, every society that has structural racism does.
Fantasy organizes enjoyment in a way that highlights threats to this enjoyment, which is why it provides a foundation for obfuscating social inequalities.6
Racism manifests itself first and foremost not through an exclusionary legal or social apparatus that gives one race an elevated social position that it denies to others. The primary manifestation of racism is the racist fantasy. The racist fantasy serves as the foundation for the legal and social apparatus of discrimination that arises around it. It has primacy because it provides a way of organizing enjoyment for the members of a society that enables them to sustain the image of an unlimited and complete satisfaction. This fantasy becomes especially necessary in the capitalist universe. Without the racist fantasy, people in capitalist society would lose faith in this image of
total satisfaction. Racism keeps the image of an unlimited satisfaction alive by erecting the racial other as a barrier to it.
In order to confront racism, it is not enough to make reference to what is not conscious, to our implicit biases. We must recognize the unconscious fantasy that sustains racism and resists efforts at education or consciousness raising. This fantasy remains despite the efforts at educating away the society’s racism. Without broaching the fundamental role that the racist fantasy plays in the formation and perpetuation of racism, we will have no chance at addressing the racism that resists enlightenment and awareness. This combat has to involve itself in the enjoyment that the racist fantasy produces.7
Although there are purely individual fantasies, there are also collective ones that enable societies to cohere around them. The racist fantasy is the primary example of a collective fantasy.8
It establishes a bond between members of the society by separating those who belong from those who don’t belong through their mode of enjoying themselves. The irony is that the enjoyment of those who belong depends on their identification with the enjoyment of those who don’t. This identification occurs through the racist fantasy.
The racist fantasy creates an avenue for members of the society to find enjoyment in a direction that doesn’t threaten the structure of the society but instead affirms it. The danger that enjoyment poses to the social order lessens when it occurs through the organizing principle of the racist fantasy, which channels it in socially innocuous ways. Even though we imagine that racism has deleterious effects on our bond with each other, that it harms the social order, the racist fantasy nonetheless can provide a social glue that holds a society together. Through the shared enjoyment that comes from a mutual investment in this fantasy, members of the society have a clear connection to each other. Those who don’t share in the fantasy, however, exist outside of the bond and are inherently suspect as members of the society. They are members of the society but don’t belong.9
Although those invested in it have some conscious knowledge of the racist fantasy, the way that the fantasy organizes enjoyment is unconscious. It is thus impervious to knowledge. The fact that the racist fantasy is responsible for much of the deployment of enjoyment in contemporary society means that efforts at correcting our knowledge about racism will come to nothing. The racist fantasy organizes the society’s enjoyment around racist resentment. We can learn about the wrongs of racism, but we need something more to undermine the racist fantasy that underwrites racism’s staying power.
Fantasies are resistant to greater knowledge because they concern how people enjoy rather than how they know. Racism is a fantasy problem, not a knowledge problem. Racism sticks around in our era of increased knowledge about its wrongheadedness because we are psychically invested as a society in a fundamental racist fantasy. Although people may consciously want to put racism behind them, their unconscious desire clings to it as a source of enjoyment. The path to this enjoyment runs through the underlying racist fantasy.
The structure of the fantasy
The racist fantasy is a structure that operates regardless of the actual identity of those occupying the various positions within the fantasy. It is a shared social structure rather than the product of a certain individuals. Although individuals are necessary to sustain the fantasy, it is a part of the basic social structure that forms individual existence within the society. In this sense, while it is possible for individuals to opt out of or reject the racist fantasy, these individual victories are insignificant as long as the fantasy remains foundational for the society.
To say that a society is racist is to say that a racist fantasy underlies its social order. Fantasy provides a structure through which subjects can envision a path to obtaining the fantasy object, whatever that object is. The fantasy object might be a particular commodity, a lifestyle, or even a type of social status. But whatever it is, it promises unrestrained enjoyment for the subject. For the fantasizing subject, the object appears to have the utmost importance. It seems as if it is the nodal point of the fantasy. But despite this belief, the actual fantasy object can be anything at all. The specific object is insignificant. What is important is the position that this object has in the fantasy, not what the object is.
In order to be a fantasy object, the object need only be unattainable. The unattainability of the object is the source of its value. Because it is unattainable, the fantasy object appears to hold within it the secret of a perfect enjoyment. If one could attain it, one would quickly recognize that it is an object like any other and cannot provide the enjoyment that it promises insofar as it remains unattainable. It is with the object that the fantasy performs its magic for the subject’s prospects of enjoyment. Fantasy has the effect of rendering an inherently unattainable object attainable and thereby making an unrestrained enjoyment seem possible. Even if the fantasy shows the subject deprived of the object, it nonetheless depicts the object as possible. Outside the fantasy structure, the subject simply confronts the traumatic impossibility of its desire.10
Fantasy doesn’t just make the impossible possible. It does so, ironically, by placing a barrier between the subject and its object. The fantasy object is possible only insofar as something blocks the subject’s access to it. By prohibiting the impossible object, fantasy creates the illusion that the object is attainable but for the prohibition. This barrier enables the subject to avoid encountering the disappointment of actually obtaining the object and thus plays the pivotal role in the fantasy. As the fantasy stages it, if the subject were to attain this object, it would achieve an enjoyment without any restriction. As a result, the fantasy must place an obstacle in the way of the object. The obstacle, not the object, is the crucial ingredient.
The fundamental task of fantasy is to transform an impossible satisfaction that no one could attain into a prohibited satisfaction that becomes unattainable due to the fantasized obstacle that prevents the subject from having its object. There is no such thing as complete satisfaction. But complete satisfaction comes to appear possible through the erection of an obstacle to it. This operation enables subjects to believe that if they eliminate the obstacle they can attain the impossible and overcome their status as lacking subjects. Fantasy allows one to imagine an enjoyment without lack, but it does so only by creating an obstacle who bears responsibility for the failure to attain this enjoyment.
In the racist fantasy, as in any fantasy, the object is unimportant. The only significance that the object of the racist fantasy has is that it is unattainable. The object can be any unattainable object. But what characterizes the racist fantasy and differentiates it from other forms of fantasy is that the obstacle to the object—what bars the subject’s access to unrestrained enjoyment—is the racial other. The fantasy’s key player is the racial other because this figure makes the object unattainable. As the obstacle to complete enjoyment, the racial other is responsible for all the subject’s—and the society’s—failures.11
This figure gives the racist fantasy its racist hue. The fantasy defines the subject through the racial other that threatens it, which gives the subject a wholly secondary and insignificant status within the structure. The racial other bars the subject from enjoying the object by monopolizing the object for itself. The illegitimate enjoyment of the racial other occurs at the expense of the fantasy’s subject.
This other enjoys in the subject’s stead, triggering resentment for the racial other. The racist fantasy produces a...