Racism or Narcissism?

Black Lives Matter protests have generated an enormous backlash towards a variety of actions and attitudes flagged as “racist”, especially on the internet. The general discourse has turned dichotomic for my taste, considering the fact that we live—or I like to believe—on a democracy, where a plurality of voices should enrich the society, or at least that was what Greeks thought before giving it to the world. This polarization of discourse pushes the population for taking sides, either you are on favor or against the movement without room for considerations nor midpoints. This hard line drawn on the sand to decide who should and should not be considered as racist, raised my concerns about how poor our understanding of racism is, and how the lack of this knowledge can allow that accusations of racism to be “weaponized” against a persona that according to the internet mob should be “cancelled.”

This situation made me ponder during some time about what could be the criteria to be used to identify a person as racist, and understand if these criteria are hard defined (binary), or rather are a spectrum, which could conform a scale of “degrees of racism.” Such hypothetic scale could be used to classify the level of the “offense” and determine the “guiltiness” of the hate crime, which could be more comprehensive than the black and white judgement.

So, I started listing my criteria based on the personality traits I have seen the racist persons possess:

  • A racist person could have a grandiose sense of importance to feel superior to other races.
  • A racist person could have a lack of empathy to disregard the suffering of others.
  • A racist person could have a sense of entitlement, in which they deserve a special treatment above other race.

And when I finished writing the third criteria, I halted on my tracks and realized I was describing the criteria for the Narcissistic Personality Disorder. With this “revelation” pricking my curiosity, I turned to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth version, (DSM-5), which is the “bible” of the American Psychiatric Association, and explored the Narcissistic Personality Disorder to better understand the familiarities with Racism.

My conclusion was that there is a huge overlap between the criteria of a “Racist Personality” and a person suffering Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), concluding that a racist person could be easily diagnosed with NPD. But my curiosity made investigate if there is a specific disorder or variant of NPD focusing on covering the so-called Narcissistic Personality, however, for my surprise there is none. The DSM-5 does not include racism, prejudice nor bigotry in its text or index.

Trying to establish a rationale for this situation, I considered the definition of mental disorder according to DSM-5, which includes the following:

“Socially deviant behavior (e.g., political, religious or sexual) and conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are not mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict results from a dysfunction in the individual, as described above” [1]

Then according to American Psychiatric Association, Racism, is a “socially deviant behavior,” and not a personality disorder, hence there is no diagnosis, no treatment, etc.?

Not satisfied with my findings, I extended my investigation for studies exploring the idea of Racism being linked to Narcissism, and surprisingly, I discovered that this idea is everything but new.

Doctor Carl C. Bell in his research paper “Racism: A Symptom of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder”, considers that “racist attitudes may be indicative of a narcissistic personality disorder or of a regression to primitive narcissistic functioning secondary to environmental forces” and also discusses how “life experiences and religion are possible aids in the transformation of primary narcissism into secondary narcissism,” and identify three main types [2]:

  • The Narcissistic Racist. Is a person whose racism is primarily a symptom of a Narcissistic Personality Disorder and reveals the same type of psychopathology found in a murderer, child molester, rapist, child abuser and a sadomasochist. This type fits the criteria of a) Grandiose sense of self-importance, b) Lack of empathy, c) Entitlement, d) interpersonal exploitiviness, e) fantasies of success among others. This individuals have a need for a sense of absolute control, which the racist feels justifies his self-give right to violate another’s “territory” by either physical attack, segregation, or discrimination, and by territory this means the individual’s right to adequate health care, education and housing wherever he can afford.
  • The Stress-Induced Racist. This group comprises people who have been exposed to life or death circumstances, what produces a regression to a narcissistic level of functioning. The patients evaluated present a dependency for idealized figures or in other words external probation, to maintain the narcissistic balance. The example used is the US soldiers that fought in Vietnam which were convinced that they were confronting an inferior race, what lead to believing that raping Vietnamese women was a necessary soldierly duty.
  • The Socially Misinformed Racist. This considers the socially induced form of racism that is adopted by persons in the culture, who are not necessarily suffering from individual psychopathology. Socially Misinformed Racists have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with different racial types, and theoretically, this education would eventually eliminate a great number of myths about racial differences, and thus destroy the base of the racial differences.

After going through this research paper and others delving on the same subject, my next question was, how is that these studies showing a profound understanding of the Racist Personality, it has not been included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders?

It turns out that has been proposed multiple times, first by a group of black psychiatrists after several racist killings in the civil rights era, asking to have extreme racism classified as a mental disorder. However, the officials American Psychiatric Association rejected the recommendation, arguing that (brace yourselves) “because so many Americans are racist, even extreme racism in this country is normative—a cultural problem rather than an indication of psychopathology.” [3]

I need to confess that when I read that answer, my mind was blown away… “extreme racism in this country is normative,” I kept repeating to myself wondering why to hold into such approach when is considered that “continue perceiving extreme racism as normative and not pathologic is to lend it legitimacy” [3].

What is the aversion towards the discussion of personality disorders surrounding Racism?

And I ask this not as a professional on the field of Psychology or Psychiatry, but as a rational human being. A human being which analyses a hate crime, like the one perpetrated by Dylann Storm Roof, who killed nine Afro-American individuals in a church in South Carolina, and the authorities and media immediately jumped on the wagon of “suffers a mental illness” as legitimate explanation of Dylann’s behavior, without addressing the racist conducts and attitudes, and only focusing on the “sociopath” side of the equation, and I cannot avoid questioning if is this really the right explanation? The explanation that we need for heal as society? As if it was like “yes, it’s fine to have racist attitudes and publish your racist manifesto, but you can’t mass-kill everybody”?

After finishing my investigation, it is in these socially troubled times is when I ponder if it’s time to re-start the discussion about racism as a personality disorder.

Because during my life I have learned that in order to heal, first I need to understand my ailments. Hence there is no proper treatment without proper diagnose.

What do you think? Do we as society have the proper diagnose for Racism?

M. Ch. Landa



  1. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th edition. (2013), p. 20.
  2. Bell, Carl C. (1980) Racism: A Symptom of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Journal of the National Medical Association, Vol. 72, No. 7 p-661-664
  3. Poussaint, Alvin (2002) Yes, It can be a Delusional Symptom of Psychotic Disorders. West J Med; 176 (1)

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