Projection in Race Relations

Considering America’s shadow side.

Posted Aug 22, 2017

authors photo/used with permission
Burning African Village Play Set with Big House and Lynching, artist Kara Walker (2006)
Source: authors photo/used with permission

Kara Walker’s “Burning African Village Play Set with Big House and Lynching” (2006) is one artwork displayed in the Brooklyn Museum’s current exhibit,“The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America.” This particular work informs our understanding of race relations and the recent rallies around Confederate monuments.

In a silhouetted mural, Walker expresses antebellum imagery: a plantation manor, slaves, a Southern belle in hoop skirt, and Confederate soldiers. This artist works in the tradition of the cut-paper silhouettes that were used in the 18th c. for analyzing facial features familiar to the study of physiognomy and racial categorization. A century later, this silhouette technique was a way of making portraits of European nobility and U.S. Presidents. Walker, though, uses laser-cut, painted black steel to represent scenes of the Old South that evoke what Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung called the "shadow" aspects of our culture.

The shadow refers to those parts of the collective psyche that are split off from consciousness because they are too painful to fully acknowledge. This country has “been holding in a lie,” states a video at the opening of this exhibit. This is a lie about our history of “racial terror lynching.” Research conducted by the Equal Justice Initiative documents over 4,000 of these public spectacles of torture between 1877-1950 throughout mostly our southern states.  The exhibit claims the history of lynching in this country is an aspect of our national narrative that we have not properly confronted or processed — it remains the shadow of American culture. While we have many confederate monuments where are our monuments commemorating the victims of lynchings and marking the horrors of African-American slavery?

author's photo/used with permission
Source: author's photo/used with permission

The shadow aspect of culture is irrational and therefore often subject to projection. Projection is a primitive defense mechanism that occurs in individuals, as well as within groups. A person disowns an unacceptable idea or impulse by projecting it or attributing it to another. This alleviates the anxiety and unfavorable self-perception it engenders in the projector. For example, no one likes to think of himself or herself as a racist.

There are two elements to the process of projection according to psychologist D. S. Holmes.  One that concerns the content of what is being projected and the other that addresses whether the projector is aware of possessing the projected characteristics onto another person who serves as a projective target or screen.

Regarding content, Holmes states, “individuals can either project onto others the exact same attribute that they possess.” (e.g., Tom is arrogant, and he also sees others as being arrogant).  “Or they can project onto others an attribute that bears a causal relation to the one that they possess.” (e.g., Tom is intimidated, and he sees others as intimidating.). Secondly, the projector is either aware or unaware of owning the personal affect or experience that is being emotionally exported onto another. If one is unaware of his own participation in the projective encounter, he denies his part and instead believes his disavowed personal quality or characteristic is produced independently from the other. This is a convenient self-deception when one doesn't want to face certain parts of who they are.

Projection often occurs between groups and within groups. Applying this concept of individual psychology to race relation in the US, some scholars argue that much of the dominant white community alleviates itself of anxiety or shame about the history of slavery and the oppression of blacks by projecting certain self-perceptions onto the African-American community.  This is in order to preserve its own good self-image and to diffuse psychological tensions — to relieve ourselves of those parts of our racial past, such as our history of lynchings, that engender guilt or remorse.

Following the end of the terror era of lynchings, this country began incarcerating a disproportionate number of blacks, and executing them through capital punishment, sometimes with false convictions.  Executive Director of EJI, Bryan Stevenson declares that, "Slavery was never abolished. It only evolved."  The quote is inscribed on one of the walls of this exhibit. One goes on to learn, in one video that the states with historically the highest rates of lynchings, now have the highest criminal executions.

Some scholars argue that in order to defend against the knowledge of its own criminality of the past, whites criminalize the black community. One cultural critic puts it this way: “Through projection the White community seeks to transform its… genocidal characteristics and intentions…to defend its own positive self-perception against knowledge  of its own criminality.”  Such projections distort one's reality like a veil of illusion insulating oneself from the real world and keeping one from a truer knowledge of reality.

Some members of the other group, the out-group, in this case Africa-Americans, internalize or introject these concepts of self, distorting their own self-perception and identity.  The media reinforces stereotypical characterizations of blacks and people of color.  The shadow side of our collective psyche is the cause for many of our societal ills, suggests Jung, and frequently fuels prejudice between dominant and minority groups. 

In Walker’s tableau, a façade of Greek columns graces a stately plantation manor and evokes the democratic ideals on which our country was founded. According to depth journalist Pythia Peay, 21st citizenship in our democracy demands cultivating more reflective capacities, fostering the skills and courage “to take up the psychological work and face the shadows within” (466).  Despite our materialist, consumer culture, a wiser American citizenship nurtures more ephemeral activities such as awareness of how our internal worlds function and how we sometimes deny aspects of our shared history in order to preserve a more positive self-image.


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The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America, is at the Brooklyn Museum until September 3  My first review of this exhibit can be found here.


Peay, Pythia. (2015). America On the Couch: Psychological Perspectives on American Politics and Culture. New York, NY: Lantern Books.