Psychoanalysis’ Latest Racist Blunder

The JAPA Prize for Best Article Ignites Another Firestorm

American psychoanalysis once again sullied itself by awarding Don Moss (2021), author of On Having Whiteness, a prize for writing about racism. The judges, select members of the editorial board of the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association (JAPA), rendered the beyond-astonishing decision a few days ago. In July 2021, I explored Moss’ April 2021 article in an earlier edition of this newsletter. I shared how many other psychoanalysts, as well as myself, felt dumbfounded by it.

Moss’ article ignited a firestorm of controversy. As I noted earlier, scathing reactions to it appeared in Newsweek, the New York Post, and the Washington Times. Unsurprisingly, Fox News went nuclear on it, ranting, as of course they would, about anti-white racism. Much as I hate to agree with the right-wing propaganda machine, they got it right. They called Moss out for writing phrases like:

Whiteness is a condition one first acquires and then has—a malignant, parasitic-like condition to which ‘white’ people have a particular susceptibility. (p. 356)

Psychoanalysis offers considerable insights into racism as well as other social injustices. Concepts like projection, condensation, and symbolization are useful in understanding how and why we human beings tend to identify and demonize certain groups. Emerging from the Kleinian (1946) school, ideas like splitting and projective identification offer additional ways of understanding racism.

Projections invite us to rid ourselves of whatever bad resides within by imagining it exists outside; condensation accounts for how these projections can be unconsciously gathered into groups of people, African-Americans, Jews, Armenians, etc, and; symbolization enhances both these prior processes. People form dangerous generalizations—a form of symbolization—like those of African ancestry learn poorly, Jews are cheap, and Armenians criminal. Splitting and projective identification (PI) describes how we humans can go digital (0 or 1). Normal for infants who need to simplify overwhelming stimuli, splitting allows them to organize the world into categories of good and bad. PI, also developmentally-appropriate for infants, works by allowing mature individuals to regress, project “badness” into groups (the projection part) and identify them with negative attributes (the identification part).

Contrary to these well-established psychoanalytic ideas, Moss proposes unsubstantiated, unscientific, and racist ideas. A perfect (yet painful) irony, he uses racism to justify racism. His style of addressing the theme in general, and in psychoanalysis specifically, is inflammatory, simplistic, and unsubstantiated. Moss seems ignorant of the splitting and projective identification running rampant within his own paper. The article injures rather than heals; it offers disinformation instead of information.

Shortly after JAPA published Moss’ article, I had a few email exchanges with Moss, a New York psychoanalyst. He seems a well-meaning person. Unfortunately for him, he received death threats after his article was published. Nonetheless, and with all due respect, Moss’ venture into the crucial social problem contaminated rather than contributed. He harmed other scholarly efforts to address the issue; further, he hurt the already teetering reputation of psychoanalysis in America (Karbelnig, 2021).

In one of his emails to me, Moss claimed he never used the word “Caucasian” in his article. I replied, “That’s naïve, Don; white equals Caucasian just like black equals African-American. Besides, how does that minimize the turmoil you create by turning one group, those with ‘Whiteness,’ against another?”

Here are a few of the key points in Moss’ controversial article followed by my rebuttal of them:

Starting with that alarming citation noted above, Moss identifies Whiteness with a capital W. He invented this category. Moss suggests people who, presumably Caucasian in race, are susceptible to a malignant and parasitic-like attitude. What about white people living in primarily non-white cultures, such as Brazil or South Africa, who feel discriminated against? What about the genocidal racism practiced by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 15th and 16th centuries?

Moss goes on:

Any infant is vulnerable to the parasite of Whiteness. (p. 357)

Here, the problem of his manuscript’s acceptance into JAPA without the usual peer review reveals a malignant form of editorial malpractice. No evidence exists within psychoanalysis, not to mention within any other relevant discipline like evolutionary biology, developmental psychology, or cultural anthropology, of infants being prone to the “parasite of Whiteness.” Moss concocted the concept. Even if he intended such phrases to be provocative, the injury his fabricated ideas cause overshadows any intended positive addition to the literature. How could JAPA’s editorial board publish it in April 2021, and this month award it a prize?

Along these same lines, and notice here Moss’ use of the first person plural, “we” (without clarifying who these “we” are), he proclaims:

We are licensed at birth, and therefore entitled, to find, capture, dissect, and overpower our targeted objects. As such, we will finally come to know and take dominion over them. (p. 358)

Perhaps Moss means here to create a separate category of Whiteness, distinct from Caucasians? Perhaps, by using the word, “we,” he incorporates all people who are racist? It remains unclear. In any event, Moss utilizes “us versus them” thinking, a dangerous form of aggressive tribalism, in his impotent attempt to explain racism. He fails to clarify whether or not non-white people can be racist.

Moss assumes, not only without empirical evidence, but with ample evidence to the contrary, that “we” feel entitled, “to find, capture, dissect, and overpower our targeted objects.” Who are these targets, one wonders? His paper is rife with these unfounded and demeaning generalizations. Imagine the reaction if Moss had substituted “Jews,” “African-Americans,” or “Asian-Americans” in the place of his word “Whiteness”? With such substitutions, his paper would have gained popularity in 1930s Germany.

Further fanning the flames of his self-created inferno, Moss implies a hopelessness about the divisive social problem:

Whiteness, in its mature form, generates a volatile totality from which there is no clear exit, no clear escape. (p. 370)

Why consider racism irreparable? Earlier, Moss describes “parasitic Whiteness” as “incurable.” How can he know? And why such pessimism from a person apparently attempting to offer solutions?

In concluding the paper, Moss writes:

It [Whiteness] provides a reliable theoretical/technical structure, one we can count on, one that, in spite of its limitations, will hold up—has held up—as we all try to achieve the requisite conceptual, emotional, and personal nimbleness to grapple with the Whiteness that, whoever we are, infiltrates our interior and exterior surround. (p. 371)

Still more breathtaking, unbelievable, and horrid words and phrases. How can we “count on” these imaginary ideas? How can these contrivances “hold up?” Personally, I felt persecuted when reading that final sentence. I understand concepts like white shame. I take responsibility for ways I harm others; I am open to ways I do so unawares. However, why damn me simply and categorically by virtue of my skin color? It is racism, pure and simple.

Moss’ “contribution” to understanding racism, again, undermines courageous efforts by other scholars. Efforts to explore, reduce, or eradicate racism requires encountering a nearly infinite array of causative variables: historical, social, economic, ethnic, cultural, psychological, and more. As noted, psychoanalysts deserve a place at the table where well-meaning academic study, and strive to reverse, the dark human propensity. However, it is a human propensity, not a uniquely “White” propensity. Despite his qualifications in psychoanalysis, Moss fails to offer any revelations from the psychoanalytic opus. Instead, he delivers only absurd, hyperbolic, dubitable concepts of his own design.

In fairness to the other award recipients, the JAPA editorial board announced via a December 5, 2022 email that its Prize for best article of 2021 was being granted to six authors who contributed to the “Psychoanalysis, Race, and Racism” special issue (JAPA, 69:2, April 2021). Only Moss’ article contained the deficits delineated above. The other authors, namely Dorothy Holmes, Beverly Stoute, Alan Bass, Jyoti Rao, and Peter Lowenberg, offered thoughtful contributions. Unfortunately, their reputations, too, may suffer damage from their association with Moss as a fellow recipient of the award.

Regarding the reasoning behind the award, the website of the American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA), which sponsors JAPA, notes:

Each year, APsA and the Journal of the American Planning Association honor authors of excellent JAPA articles with the Best Article Awards. Members of the JAPA Editorial Advisory Board serve as judges, and selections are made based on several criteria, which include making a significant contribution to the literature of the profession, having the potential to change the nature of discourse on the given topic, and providing useful insights or implications for planning practice or public policy.

Please note how the excerpts I provided above reveal how Moss abjectly failed to contribute to the literature, how he harmed rather than helped alter the discourse on racism, and how he offered neither “useful insights” for professional practice nor useful implications for public policy. In brief, he met absolutely none of the criteria for the award as noted by the APsaA and JAPA.

After the JAPA award was announced, I talked with my friend Jon Mills, a psychoanalyst/philosopher who also writes about racism (see citations below) and shares my indignant reaction. In a subsequent Zoom meeting, we sardonically joked about likely public reactions. Perhaps, we discussed, readers may think:

Hey, look, psychoanalysis is doing something about racism! It contributes by promoting anti-white racism!

We wondered whether the award, and Moss’ article, will again be thrust into the public eye, perhaps with headlines like:

JAPA AWARDS AUTHOR TOP PRIZE FOR SAYING WHITE BABIES ARE BORN RACIST

My burgeoning weekly newsletter, viewed by around 300 readers per week, hit an all time readership high of 3,242 individuals after I published the July 2021 issue describing my initial reaction to Moss’ paper. Apparently, it garnered extra attention because so many psychoanalysts around the world, including myself, also felt enraged by the poor scholarship and, dare I say again, the blatant racism in Moss’ piece.

And now, once again, psychoanalysts around the world, as well as their patients and others interested in the field, legitimately feel tremulous at the risk of further damage to the already-troubled profession. Worse, how embarrassing, and socially injurious, that leaders in the field take a giant step backwards in addressing one of the most problematic social injustices of our era.

Read the Moss article here.

References

Karbelnig, A.M. (2021). Resuscitating the (Nearly) Dead Profession of Psychoanalysis A Review of and Comment on Zagermann, P. (Ed.) (2018). The Future of Psychoanalysis: The Debate about the Training Analyst System. International Journal of Controversial Discussions, 4(June 2021).

Klein, M. (1946). Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 27: 99-110.

Mills, J. (2022). On lunacy in the culture wars. Grapevine: Art, Culture, Food, Wine, Winter Issues, 88-91.

Mills, J. (2022). On the inevitability of racism. Merion West, Dec. 5.

Moss, D. (2021) On having whiteness. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 69(2):355-371. doi.org/10.1177/00030651211008507

Originally posted on Journeys Into the Unconscious Mind


By Dr. Alan Karbelnig, a training and supervising psychoanalyst in Pasadena, California. He is board certified in forensic psychology with doctorates in Counseling Psychology from the University of Southern California (USC) and in Psychoanalysis from the New Center for Psychoanalysis (NCP). He founded Rose City Center (RCC)—a not-for-profit psychoanalytic clinic serving economically disadvantaged individuals throughout California. Dr. Karbelnig writes extensively and also lectures locally, nationally and internationally.

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