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Dreaming, Racism, and the Unconscious

Dreams, racism, and the unconscious—what do they have to do with each other?

In May 2010, Anderson Cooper of CNN broadcast a supposedly scientific experiment using hand-drawn pictures of cheerful, smiling dolls, all identical except for variations in skin tone, and asked young children of widely varying skin color and ethnicity to choose the pictures "of the dolls they liked best." Not too surprisingly, virtually all the children, regardless of their own skin color, chose the lighter-colored pictures. When asked to explain their choices, the children all said things like, "because this one's prettier," and "I like this one better."

Since its original broadcast, the video has apparently gone viral and become the focus of increasing public attention and debate.

Cooper and others offered this simple "experiment" as dramatic evidence that educational efforts to overcome racism in the nation's schools and churches are failing. While this conclusion may have a certain validity, its basic assumptions are still fundamentally flawed.

Despite appearances to the contrary, the issue here is not "skin color." The issue is the much deeper human tendency to associate the direction "up" with light, consciousness, and "goodness"—while at the same time associating the direction "down" with darkness, unconsciousness, and "uncertainty and anxiety." Everyone, regardless of his or her ethnicity, dreams of "dark scary figures" and "situations" on a fairly regular basis.

Racism itself is a consequence of literalizing this universal, (archetypal), instinctive set of associations, not a direct cause. We human beings, regardless of skin color, age, gender, language, culture, and passionately held convictions (or the lack of them) are inherently predisposed to feel relaxed and cheerful in the presence of warm illuminating light, and increasingly anxious and uncomfortable in the midst of cold, impenetrable darkness. We also have a distressing tendency to literalize these associations and apply them "in an unconscious blink of the eye" to skin color.

This primary instinctive response to "light" and "dark" in our shared environment and evolutionary history is not racism in itself; it is the unconscious source of racism. It is because it is unconscious that the problem of racism is so ubiquitous, "automatic," and difficult to overcome. As psychologist Carl Jung was so fond of saying, "The problem with the unconscious is that it really is unconscious!"

This is where dreams come in: Our dreams regularly give us a symbolic images and experiences that point to the nature and content of our unconscious lives, particularly those things in our unconscious lives that injure and limit us. Because this deep association between light and dark is so deeply collective and unconscious, it is "automatic"—that is to say, it is not subject to thought, consideration, or conscious choice. "Racism" is the direct result of interpreting these instinctive responses to light and darkness literally.

For this reason, "anti-racism efforts" that focus exclusively on conscious and learned behavior are always going to have limited effect. The source of racism is unconscious, and for that reason practical transformation of racist attitudes and behaviors can only be achieved by increasing our conscious understanding of the symbolic nature of "light skin" and "dark skin."

I'm suggesting here that dreams offer an immediately accessible route to understanding these unconscious motivations. Because racism, (and all the other "isms"), disrupt our health and wholeness, both individual and collective, on a daily basis—our dreams regularly address these injuries and roadblocks to our evolving consciousness of relationship and deep shared common humanity.

Deeper conscious understanding of the symbolic quality of these dreams regularly leads to transformations of perception and behavior in the waking world. Understanding our dreams always carries this potential for expansion and reconciliation at a collective as well as an individual level.

It is my experience as a professional dream worker for more than 40 years that leads me to this conclusion. I have been working with very diverse groups of dreamers, particularly addressing the unconscious underpinnings of racism, (as well as sexism, classism, ageism, prettyism, etc.), beginning in Oakland, California, in 1969, and continuing to today. This work currently includes groups and individuals as far away as Korea and Australia. In all of this work, the ideas outlined above have proven to be not only correct, but also practically useful in revealing the deep unconscious sources of racism, and as a result transforming previously unconscious racist attitudes and behaviors in the waking world.

The Anderson Cooper "experiment" does indeed indicate that our literalistic efforts to overcome racism are failing, but the reason those efforts are failing is that up until now, they have failed to directly address the true unconscious source of the problem.


About the Author

Jeremy Taylor

Jeremy Taylor, an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, is the author of The Wisdom of Your Dreams.