Racism and Psychoanalysis: Out of the Dark Night

Dr. Ignácio Alves Paim Filho

The way ‘out of the dark night’, out of structural racism, requires the participation of psychoanalysis, psychoanalysts, and their institutions in order to be achieved. Omission never more.


It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love,
so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness
(Freud, 2010 [1930], p. 4506)
[...] modern colonization was a direct outcome of doctrines that consisted in sorting humans into groups:
those who counted and who were counted, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, ‘the rest,’
those who were called ‘detritus of men’ or ‘wastes of men’
(Mbembe, 2021, pp. 218-219).

‘Out of the dark night’ is an expression from Achille Mbembe (2019) that refers to Africa’s work to decolonize itself and undo the epistemicide that fell onto this continent – the richest in the world. I borrow this expression to make a reference to one particular point of Mbembe’s wide and complex proposition. I circumscribe my path toward the strive to signify and re-signify racism’s history of thanatic obscurantism within the social structure; in favor of a psychoanalysis that can also decolonize itself from the racist heritage that dwells in it. Therefore, the way ‘out of the dark night’ will be approached metaphorically, aiming to shed some light onto this problematic that maintains a visceral relationship with the individual within the collective and the collective within the individual, in the interplay of the cultural cogwheel’s continuous feedback.

Racism, as we know, is a consequence of the concept of race, which begins to be constructed in the 14th/15th centuries during the Renaissance. It is the birth of the postulate that makes the European white man a synonym of humanity and its social organization a synonym of universal civilization. The other cultures will be considered primitive or barbaric. Europe reenacts the Greco-Roman legacy: ‘that who is not European is not civilized.’ This scenario is more strongly structured with the emergence of the Enlightenment, with its repercussions in the French Revolution – liberty, fraternity, and equality (for the European) – and in the colonization of Africa and America: ‘modern colonization was a direct outcome of doctrines that consisted in sorting humans into groups.’

With the idea of the white man as universal consubstantiated, he – the white man – gives himself the right to racialize the other, the different one: the black, the indigenous, the Asian, the Jewish… ‘To racialize’ means to transform this other in a being destitute of value, ‘the rest’; it is the hierarchization of races. Racism takes place with its structural fundaments based on economic, political, and social factors and has consequences on the production of subjectivities, with the aesthetics of beauty centered around whiteness. Here, alongside the development of structural racism, we have the process of construction of whiteness: ‘It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love’ – i.e., bind them in the magnetic power of white-centrism, with its inexhaustible privileges. It is time to racialize white men and women…

Therefore, the dark night is installed in the dawn of the 16th century, acquires more precise outlines in the 19th century and is structurally crystalized, with all its power of destruction and dissubjectivation, throughout the 20th century. Such a context makes the 21st century the active heir of an uninterrupted history of horrors and atrocities that continue to be perpetrated upon black men and women – these ‘other people left over to receive the manifestations of [people’s] aggressiveness’. It is a time that tries to solidify the assertion that black lives do not matter. Necropolitics is, par excellence, the central device for the maintenance of this endless ‘dark night’ orchestrated by the State and its institutions: ‘My concern is those figures of sovereignty whose central project is not the struggle for autonomy but… the material destruction of human bodies and populations’ (Mbembe, 2019, p. 68). Traumatic storylines known and lived especially by black bodies – ‘the perpetual recurrence of the same thing’ (Freud, 2010 [1930], p. 3726), the collapse of the temporal dimension with its potential of transfiguration – on the most varied stages in quotidian life. It is for the change of such storylines – within which we are entangled – that movements for the defense of black people’s rights have been for so long struggling to work and denounce: black lives matter.

In the face of this knowledge – which disrupts perceptions – racism’s longstanding negation is put on the line, as is its creating agent, white people. The people who materially and symbolically enslaved the Africans in a distant past and have determined the marginal position of black people in the present. Such conditions activate a temporal urgency to deconstruct structural racism: ‘everything is due yesterday’ (Emicida, 2019); the work to get ‘out of the dark night’ is the agenda for our time. Having such a realization as compass and staying committed to yesterday, how can we be antiracists today? And how about psychoanalysis? Or rather, psychoanalysts? Are they willing to take responsibility for their part in this antiracist process in themselves and in others? It is time to put whiteness on the couch…

In this essay, I will explore the racialization that has determined the racism affecting black Brazilians for 500 years, as well as the highly deleterious sadism of the social order of a past/present that keeps being prevented of becoming only past. A sadism that transits between the genocide of these people – seen as foreigners in their own land – and the non-less lethal indifference to them.

Psychoanalysis, with its transformative knowledge, has kept itself on the periphery of this problematic, of this heinous suffering. Still today, it behaves as an accomplice to racial democracy’s hypocrisy, with its pact of erasure of afro-descendants’ history. A history of struggles, of intense participation in the economic, cultural, and intellectual production, although without recognition. By having kept this position, psychoanalysis has, firstly, corroborated the racist theses that strove to make racism an individual problem of black people – an issue of low self-esteem; secondly, it has kept itself and its practitioners consolidated as something of white people’s concern only. The questioning ‘Where are – or rather, where are not – the black people in our institutions?’ cannot keep being silenced; not to silence, but to carry on. It is time to implement reparation actions in favor of the access of black women and men to psychoanalytical training…

Such a configuration is an emblematic example of the tragedy of the single story (Adiche, 2019) – the apex of narcissism’s totalitarian view – whose dismantlement is one of the tasks of the analyst’s craft, both in their clinic and in the culture. A story marked by coarse sketches of pseudo-truths that circulate within psychoanalytical and social circles, delineated by the negation/cleavage of repression, denegation, and rejection, with their multiple forms of violence that aim for the death, by symbolic erasure and/or extermination, of black bodies and souls. In this sense, the call is for us to listen to another story, a narrative told by those who are determined to refuse being ‘wastes of men,’ who have, in the psychic inscription of otherness, the great legacy of their ancestors: ‘For each black person who goes/ another black person will come/ to fight/ with blood or not’ (Simonal & Bôscoli, 1967).

During the slavery period, our people was treated as non-beings, indisputable machines for work. It was radical dehumanization at the service of the production of wealth that would build the fortunes of Brazil’s white elite, as well as sustain the capitalist system. Therefore, after the abolition of slavery without reparation – ‘freedom with broken wings’ – the black person became a 2nd class being; a human, but regarded by former slave owners and their descendants as someone with scarce intellectual resources, destructive, demonized, hypersexualized… An eternal subaltern person, ‘detritus of men.’ The black person must know their place: free, but not freed from the colonizer’s chains and rulings – ‘compulsion of destiny’ (Freud, 2010 [1930], p. 3727) – condemned to live at the margins of the white-centric world. For the black person, living means confirming, via the exclusion and poverty instituted in the perverse relation of exploitation between capital and labor, the position of power and privilege of the white people – ‘those who counted and who were counted’. It was the era of the instauration of scientific racism and of the Brazilian government’s whitening project, based on the mass immigration of Italian and German workers.

Therefore, Brazil’s black population has found itself, from slavery until today, coerced to live in symbolic and material territories that have perpetuated the cultural, economic, and social apartheid – ‘freedom without wings/ hunger without bread.’ This context ratifies the significant absence of black men and women in spaces of power – ‘spaces of power:’ a meaningful expression. Power of putting new narratives into practice, of creating and recreating effective reparation possibilities for the people who have built and keep building this country but do not receive the recognition they deserve. It is a process of metamorphosis that demands the development of an unheard capacity of renouncement from white people. It requires them to take responsibility for the inheritance from the European patriarchal universe: having power comes from the mere fact of being white. It is the genesis of the simulacre of a meritocracy disconnected with its legacy, which is identified with the colonizer: I can do everything because I am white.

Pursuing this route toward the power that we have deserved since the time of our ancestors, I highlight a Yoruba saying that fulfills its role as a guardian of memory: Eshu killed a bird yesterday with the stone that he only threw today. The enigma of time is depicted here. This orisha is the deity responsible for communication and language, as well as the messenger between humans and deities. He is the carrier of a saying that evokes multiple comprehension possibilities, activates sensations of strangeness, and signals, in its execution, paths for the way ‘out of the dark night.’

Aiming for a psychoanalytical reading of the saying, I consider analyzing it through the concept of a posteriori (Nachträglich) and its developments for the signification of black people’s history and the opening toward a new time. Following this route, having Eshu’s trail as a guide and the unconscious temporality as a signaler, I propose that we transform the bird into memory and the stone into interventions. I then construct the idea that the past that was ‘killed’ yesterday – in the sense of forgotten, negated, rejected – by today’s intervention has two possible destinations: one option is to perpetuate its cleavage and stay outside of the range of conscious perception – which is the setting of psychic alienation that fits the silence still predominant in Brazil’s racism; the other potential destination is transformative, with the possibility of breaking away from the single story’s silence by being remembered beyond repetition and opening the doors for working through. This second option puts in motion the dynamics of signifying and re-signifying the history of our ancestors in Africa and in Black America.

The way ‘out of the dark night’ in which Brazil is immersed requires a collective effort, but more strongly from white people, the part of the population who have normalized the pathological – a stone in our way yesterday; a cornerstone today. It is time to demand sacrifices from those who ruthlessly sacrificed the principle of equality for all. It is a process that requires white people to rupture the memory of silence, take responsibility for their individual and transgenerational histories, critically revise the political, economic, and social system that has forged the issues of racism, gender, and class. A powerful democracy demands an equalitarian sharing of rights and duties, with the differences that constitute us as mediators – there must exist a justice that recognizes the white stain of racial segregation. This is a necessary acquisition in order for us to be able to ethically sustain the slogan racism never more.

To conclude, I cite a brief passage of the poem ‘Thirteenth of May’, written by the black poet Oliveira Silveira (1941-2009), who, just like Eshu, addressed a stone today toward the abolition of slavery in Brasil in 1888 – ‘white people did not do more than half of their obligation’. It was a precarious process despite the arduous work of black abolitionists who elaborated reparation projects envisaging legitimate and full emancipation of the freed people. People like Luís Gama (1830-1882), André Rebouças (1838-1898), and José do Patrocínio (1853-1905), among many others, must be rescued from the limbo of oblivion.

With hopes that our psychoanalytical institutions become antiracist and do not excuse themselves from making their part in the way out of the dark night.

Thirteenth of May treason
freedom without wings
and hunger without bread
Freedom with broken wings like this verse
Freedom wing without body:
suffocates in the air
drowns in the sea

to carry on
to banzo [1]
to silence
White people did not do more than half of their obligation

[1] Banzo is a word of uncertain African origin (possibly from Kimbundu or Kongo) that means deep depression, intense nostalgia. (TN)

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Freud, S. (2010). Beyond the Pleasure Principle in Freud – Complete Works, ed. Ivan Smith. Original work published 1920. Available online: https://www.valas.fr/IMG/pdf/Freud_Complete_Works.pdf. Accessed on 5 June 2021.
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Simonal, W & Bôscoli, R. (1967). Tributo a Martin Luther King.

Translation: Gabriel Hirschhorn