Khilanani: Psychiatry as a Defense Against Thinking

The self Aruna Khilanani reveals in her lecture at Yale and interview with Katie Herzog is, to be charitable, a mess. Her virulent racism is bad enough, but far from all. That racism distorts her mental faculties, self-concept and ability to understand others. She seems to inhabit a perfect world in which only her ideas and perceptions have validity; nothing contradictory is allowed in. Herzog tries to get her to reflect on herself, to engage intellectually on the subject of race, but without success.


Racism is, and always has been, based on ignorance of the other person, the other race. It’s also based on a failure of that most valuable of human traits, empathy. It’s an inability or unwillingness to see the other person as just that – a person like others, with strengths and weaknesses, confronting the same challenges, entertaining the same hopes. Is Khilanani capable of empathy toward whites? It’s not obvious.


Does it occur to Khilanani that not all whites are the same? Only to a very limited extent, if at all. Does it occur to her that not all blacks experience the type of wall-to-wall racism that she claims to? Yes, but only to dismiss them. Does she wonder if her sweeping generalizations about whites and POC may be flawed? Not apparently. Does she notice that she avoids thinking critically about herself and her ideas? No, the most absurd notions pass her lips unquestioned and seemingly unnoticed by her.


Khilanani’s racism, so frank in her speech at Yale, is equally so in her interview. According to her, white people and black people have little-to-nothing in common. And white people are, apparently, all the same, at least in their psychological makeup. When Herzog calls her on her generalizing about whites, Khilanani dons her sword and shield – psychiatry. To her, every attempt by a white person to engage her on the topic of race is met, not with a principled, intellectual response, but with a psychoanalysis of the white person that’s much the same for all white persons. Consider:


I think the unconscious is coming out right now between you and I (sic). This idea that I’m the one that's generalizing is, I think, a defensive reaction to my talking about whiteness. You feel put on the spot and so I'm the one that's generalizing.


Of course, generalizing about whites is precisely what Khilanani does throughout the interview. After all, generalizing about the “other” is one of the fundamental aspects of racism. But when Herzog asks for an explanation or a defense, Khilanani pretends that it’s Herzog’s “defensiveness” that’s the real issue. Needless to say, Khilanani’s unwillingness to even provisionally credit any viewpoint on race but her own fends off any need to justify her ideas. There’s an issue to be discussed – the absurdly broad brush with which Khilanani paints all whites- but to do so would mean questioning her own narrative, so, like a bullfighter with his cape, she gives it a pass.


Doing so becomes a sort of leitmotif of the interview. Time and again, Khilanani manages to avoid engaging with the intellectual aspects of white people’s take on race. Does a white person express the belief that he/she isn’t racist? Khilanani knows otherwise because she knows that white people are “demented,” so why engage with such a debased creature? Whites, especially liberal ones, are simply ignorant of their own racism, but Khilanani, in her wisdom, isn’t fooled.


I'm saying how it functions psychologically when someone says “You can’t say that,” and “Not all of us,” what you’re saying subconsciously is “I’m the exception to what you just said and you made me feel like I'm a racist and I don't experience myself that way.”


But of course, in Khilanani’s world, no white person is the exception to white racism. We all are racists. Period. Just ask her. So what can there be to discuss?


Do some black people believe some whites to be free of racism? Yes, but they suffer from “internalized whiteness.” Is it possible that those blacks have a point of view that’s worth listening to, taking seriously and engaging with? Khilanani imagines no such possibility. How does Khilanani know the thoughts of people she’s never met, i.e., the hundreds of millions of Americans who aren’t her patients? She doesn’t, but to allow them in would be to disturb her locked-and-barred worldview.


Khilanani’s generalizing about whites and blacks doesn’t stop outside her office door. No, she brings it with her when “treating” patients. So, for example, there’s no distinction between a person’s being white and the “whiteness” that “afflicts” every white person. If a white person consults her for a mental health issue, he/she is considered first and foremost as white and all else follows. What is “whiteness?” Khilanani never says, but whatever it is, it’s not good.


The same appears true for POC. Their emotional/psychological suffering and that of white people are irremediably different.


People of color, myself included, suffer from being positioned in the world, psychologically, and the stuff that goes with it: violence, this, that. Now, white people suffer from problems of their own mind. They suffer with trust, they suffer with intimacy, they suffer with closeness, shame, guilt, anxiety. They suffer with their minds.


So, a white person who walks into her office is necessarily different from a black person due to race. The black person’s problems stem from his/her “position in the world,” i.e., their eternally oppressed and disempowered status that makes them the object of “violence, this, that.” Necessarily then, a white person’s woes result from something else, because no white person can be a victim of violence, or feel a lack of power or agency. And no black person suffers from issues having to do with trust or intimacy, anxiety, etc.


It goes without saying that Khilanani offers no empirical support for her contentions. My guess is that’s because she considers empirical science to be a product of “whiteness” and so to be shunned, but must admit I don’t know. Whatever the case, Khilanani’s views are nothing but assumptions she prefers to make about whites and blacks. Given those assumptions, is it remotely possible for her to effectively treat suffering people of either race? I can’t imagine that it is, but would welcome the input of any mental health professionals reading this.


I’ll finish with Khilanani next time.

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