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Narcissism

Narcissistic Racism: Revisiting Carl Bell

When racism and narcissism collide.

Key points

  • "Narcissistic racist" refers to a person whose racism is primarily a symptom of a narcissistic personality disorder.
  • Stress-induced narcissistic racists experience a temporary stage of narcissistic rage in response to a stressful life event or situation.
  • Socially misinformed narcissistic racists are those who, through enculturation, demonstrate subclinical patterns of narcissistic racism.

Whether you are working in education, health care, industry, non-profit organizations, or government, there are a range of personality types you will encounter. Some people are kind and thoughtful while others may be rash or demeaning. Throughout one’s life, people will engage with a range of personalities. Sometimes people have unhealthy patterns of behavior, cognition, and engagement with others. At a certain point, these unhealthy patterns can be associated with a personality disorder. This can include antisocial, borderline, histrionic, and narcissistic personality disorders, to name a few. Beyond individual disorders, there are also social ills, such as racism, impacting the lives and experiences of people of color in society. Sometimes, a personality disorder and racism can be intertwined, as with "narcissistic racism."

Carl Bell (1978, 1980) introduced the notion of narcissistic racism, a type of narcissism where racism is an indicator of an individual’s personality disorder. Bell noted racism exists on a spectrum ranging from enculturation to pathology. In the case of personality disorders, Bell asserted racism can be a manifestation of narcissism. Narcissism refers to an individual who is characterized by self-centeredness and egocentrism.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Edition), narcissism is a personality disorder manifesting as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy” (American Psychiatric Association, 2022, p. 761). The concept of narcissism comes from Greco-Roman mythology, where Narcissus (son of the river god) falls in love with himself by looking at his own reflection in the water. He kills himself after realizing he could never achieve a beauty comparable to his reflection in the water (Bergmann, 1984). The term has been core to psychoanalytic literature as a long-recognized personality disorder.

Bell (1980) noted this disorder can manifest as racism in three ways.

First is the narcissistic racist, which Bell referred to as “a person whose racism is primarily a symptom of a narcissistic personality disorder” (p. 662). For instance, narcissistic racists may portray an elevated sense of self-importance via racial superiority. They may also be fixated on having unlimited power and success, another venue in which their views of racial domination can be apparent. Narcissistic racists may demonstrate exhibitionist behaviors for attention-seeking through overt acts of racism, such as displaying images of hate or using racially charged language. Although many narcissists may struggle with criticism, narcissistic racists respond to their feelings of inferiority and rage through White backlash (i.e., when White people lash out at people of color as a defensive mechanism). In addition to these qualities, narcissistic racists are prone to a lack of empathy toward the issues and pains experienced by people of color, a sense of entitlement to preferential treatment based on their race and exploiting people of color without regard for their rights.

Second is the stress-induced racist, which refers to “a transient form of narcissistic rage...which was a product of a stressful situation, and which given time” (Bell, 1980, p. 662) will return to equilibrium. Unlike the narcissistic racist, the stress-induced racist does not have an underlying personality disorder but rather displays characteristics of narcissism in response to stressful life events (e.g., the loss of a loved one). In response to the event, they regress to a level of operation until their mental sustenance experiences equilibrium, and then they return to normal.

Third is the socially misinformed racist. This manifestation of narcissism can be both a function of an underlying personality disorder and could be the function of socialization due to the institutionalized nature of racism in society. For the prior, their disorder “requires the merger with the archaic self-object in order for the racist’s unempathetic feelings and behavior to emerge” (Bell, 1980, p. 663). In contrast, socially misinformed racists are socialized through society to perceive people of color as racially inferior and to lack empathy toward them. Bell asserted the latter group can change, over time, through exposure to ideas and experiences that counter the misinformation to which they were exposed.

Narcissistic racism can be a function of pathology; however, it also can manifest subclinically as enculturated racism that has strikingly similar patterns to narcissism. This second category of the socially misinformed racist is subclinical and a function of socialization. Regardless of pathology, many people from the White community struggle with issues of race and racism, which informs how they perceive people of color and how they engage with them. This is evidenced by numerous behaviors, including a sense of White entitlement and preferential status; supremacist notions that White people, culture, and values are better than others; a lack of empathy toward the pain, issues, and challenges facing communities of color; and a defensive response ranging from fragility to rage in response to discourse on racism. These patterns mirror criteria associated with narcissism.

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2022). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).

Bell, C. C. (1978). Racism, narcissism, and integrity. Journal of the National Medical Association, 70(2), 89–92.

Bell, C. C. (1980). Racism: A symptom of the narcissistic personality. Journal of the National Medical Association, 72(7), 661–665.

Bergmann, M. S. (1984). The legend of Narcissus. American Imago, 41(4), 389–411.

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