Denial has been said to be the trademark of addiction, and it has been long identified in the field of psychology. Denial is also relevant to experiences of trauma. These include witnessing trauma, inflicting trauma, and surviving trauma. Furthermore, white denial of racial trauma is the breath of racism.
What Is Denial and Why Do People Do It?
Denial is a refusal to accept reality in order to protect oneself from a painful event, thought, or feeling. It is a common defense mechanism that gives a person time to adjust to distressing situations. For example, a person with drug or alcohol addiction will often deny that they have a problem. People indirectly dealing with the addiction, such as family or friends of the addicted person, may also deny the severity of the issue.
It is possible to deny some aspects of reality while accepting other aspects. For example, a person may acknowledge there is an issue (such as addiction) while denying the need to take action (such as quitting the drug).
Denial isn’t limited to individuals. It has also been recognized on a cultural scale. Current examples include conspiracy theorists’ claims that the Holocaust never occurred or the renunciation of global warming.
Some experts theorize that denial occurs in linear, progressive stages. These types of denial include the following:
- Denial of fact (“That’s not true”)
- Denial of awareness (“I had no idea”)
- Denial of responsibility (“It’s not my fault”)
- Denial of impact (“That wasn’t my intention”)
Denial is initially an unconscious adaptive response. It can also be one of the most primitive, meaning that while it can be very effective short-term, it is ineffective and potentially harmful in the long-term. Staying in denial interferes with change.
How Denial Can Contribute to Racism
The stigma associated with being racist often fuels white denial—the refusal to accept that racism exists. Racism can be defined as the discrimination and/or oppression inflicted upon individuals belonging to a socially constructed racial category. Racism happens at three levels:
- Institutional—Discrimination through laws or social norms.
- Individual—When one person discriminates against a minority group.
- Internalized—When a marginalized person believes stereotypes about their group and/or blames themself for any discrimination they face.
The infamous photograph of the horrific lynching of Rubin Stacy in 1935 is a striking example of white denial. The photo shows a white child in the crowd dressed in her Sunday best. She is smiling while looking at the dead body of a black man hanging in the tree.
Transforming and healing the societal trauma of racism must include healing the numbness of people who benefit from racism.The child could be considered a visual representation of how the short-term coping response of denial evolves into a long-term strategy. The photo demonstrates how racism can be embedded in the culture we grow up in (institutionalized). It also shows how our belief system and our physiology can embody racism (individualized and internalized).
Studies on epigenetics reveal how trauma responses can be passed down through generations, not only through learning and conditioning, but also through genetics. One study shocked male mice while exposing them to the scent of a cherry blossom. The mice then showed a trauma response every time there was the scent, even without being shocked. The trauma response was also present in the mice’s children and grandchildren when they were exposed to the scent of a cherry blossom, even though they never experienced a shock. Their genes were altered.
The study suggests that a person may not have to directly experience a traumatic event to enact a trauma response. In other words, a traumatic response to a relevant trigger can occur even when a person doesn’t know what the original stimulus was. Regarding the photo, the loved ones grieving Rubin Stacy’s death could have passed down their trauma response to their descendants. Future descendants of the white child may embody her physiological response as well.
White denial, and the identified physiological response, may be relevant in the concept “the privilege of numbness”. The term refers to emotional numbness as an adverse effect of racism. This numbness may enable white individuals to ignore or perpetuate a system of racism that benefits them without feeling guilt about others’ suffering. Transforming and healing the societal trauma of racism must include healing the numbness of people who benefit from racism.
When Ignorance Is Intentional
Conscious acts of denying can also appear when people face ethical dilemmas. A study examining shopping behaviors found that if consumers were specifically told that a product was made in an unethical way, the consumers wouldn’t purchase the product. However, when consumers were given the choice to hear the backstory on the product, most people chose to not know.
Researchers asked participants to rank jeans by picking two of four categories to do so:
- Whether or not child labor was used to make the clothing
More than 85% of participants did not choose child labor as a category for their consideration. These results suggest the vast majority of participants were “willfully ignorant.” Researchers found the conscious act of denial was at least in part due to an unconscious fear of being upset by what would be discovered.
Next, researchers asked the willfully ignorant participants what they thought of consumers who chose to research a brand’s labor practices before making a purchase. The response? The willfully ignorant participants tended to degrade the ethical consumers, not just with criticism, but also with character attacks.
Why the hate? Research indicated the participants were unconsciously acting out due to their own guilty feelings. Perhaps even more concerning, a related study demonstrated that willfully ignorant consumers who degraded their ethical peers were less likely to support the social cause in the future.
Addressing Denial Through Self-Examination
Challenging denial is typically an ongoing process of self-examination and radical honesty. Denial is universal—everyone perceives events through personal bias. Therefore, confronting denial often starts at an individual level.
When challenging your own denial, remember to consider the following:
- Realize that denial and personal bias are largely implicit and unconscious processes. Uncovering and confronting social conditioning requires ongoing effort and outside feedback. We all have blind spots.
- Remove the blame and shame. Binary judgments of good/bad can further increase stigma. Stigma in turn can heighten defense mechanisms and trigger trauma reactions (i.e. denial).
- Replace blame and shame with vulnerability, curiosity, and humility. Embrace feelings that allow for growth. Seek understanding. Stretch your worldview.
- Befriend the body. Increase your awareness of your body. Understand how it reacts when you are stressed or ashamed. Learn to tell the difference between discomfort and pain.
- Focus on holding yourself responsible and accountable. Consider if your internal and external resources are being used in accordance with your values. Action often alleviates guilt.
Sometimes confronting personal bias or past mistakes can feel emotionally overwhelming. A licensed therapist can offer confidential support without judgment. You can find a therapist here.
- Aizenman, N. (2016). Do these jeans make me look unethical? National Public Radio. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/01/07/462132196/do-these-jeans-make-me-look-unethical
- Aldebot, S., & de Mamani, A. G. (2009). Denial and acceptance coping styles and medication adherence in schizophrenia. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 197(8), 580–584. doi:10.1097/NMD.0b013e3181b05fbe
- D’Angelo, R. (2011). White fragility. The International Journal of Pedagogy, (3) Retrieved from http://libjournal.uncg.edu/ijcp/article/view/249/116
- Kendi, I. X. (2018). The heartbeat of racism is denial. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/13/opinion/sunday/heartbeat-of-racism-denial.html
- Lewis, T. (2013). Fearful experiences passed on in mouse families. Live Science. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/41717-mice-inherit-fear-scents-genes.html
- Lynching of Rubin Stacy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida [Photograph]. (1935) Retrieved March 2019 from https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-lynching-of-rubin-stacy-in-fort-lauderdale-florida-49908098.html
- Raheem, M. A., & Hart, K. A. (2019, March). Counseling individuals of African descent. Counseling Today, 61(9). Retrieved from https://ct.counseling.org/2019/03/counseling-individuals-of-african-descent
- Winn, M. E. (1996). The strategic and systemic management of denial in the cognitive/behavioral treatment of sexual offenders. Sexual Abuse, 8(1), 25–36. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/107906329600800104
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