We are being called upon these days – for good reason – to confront racism wherever we should find it. It is being uncovered in some of the very institutions we depend upon to preserve order and justice in our society. The sense of anger and betrayal runs deep.   

There is also a growing realization that racism is systemic in today’s society – this despite holding equality as a supreme value. I would argue that racism is even more deeply rooted than this; it is an unfortunate offspring of our developmental beginnings.  

An essential aspect of development is for the child to divide the world into us and them. Every one of us has been guilty of believing that those who are like us matter more than those who are not like us. Our world of attachment starts off rather polarized. I remember well my own childhood in the context of a religious ethnic group, where ‘them’ referred to ‘the english’. This term was used for anyone outside of ‘our people’, regardless of race, nationality, language, or origin. This construct made it conveniently evident as to where evil came from, where the threat lie, who were the enemy. Polarized attitudes come rather naturally to a preschooler mentality, whatever the age, with or without the help of society. 

The construct of ‘we’ is absolutely essential to healthy development. It is rather unfortunate that the construct of ‘them’ comes with the territory, together with all the judgements that can ensue. If attachment polarization is part of everyone’s beginnings, then how are we to overcome this?  Many put their hope in education. Others in confrontation. As a developmentalist, I am convinced that the best answer lies where the problem originated in the first place. The maturational process needs a chance to finish its job. Division into ‘us and them’ was only meant to be a step towards integration or the coming together of opposing parts. Only true maturation can help us to transcend the preschooler within. 

If conditions are conducive, children should become rather conflicted about these simplistic polarizations, filled with on-the-other hand thoughts and ideas. This natural birthplace of equality should have its spontaneous beginnings around ages 5-7, if everything is unfolding as it should. Unfortunately, maturation is not inevitable. We don’t all grow up and out of racism, or the myriad of other manifestations of attachment polarization for that matter. As Robert Bly argued in Sibling Society, immaturity has become commonplace in today’s society, even among our so-called leaders. 

If inner conflict is truly the motor of moral development, why are mixed feelings lacking in so many adults these days? Part of the problem is that we can’t feel conflicted about something we do not even admit to. In my experience, it has been rather rare for anyone to admit being a racist, or a misogynist, or even a bully for that matter, despite it being rather obvious to those around them. When inner conflict is missing, one’s interpretations seem self-evident, similar to any normal preschooler in this regard. Theirs is a world of black and white thinking, good guys and bad guys, winners and losers, people who matter and people who don’t. Before we can take up a relationship with these polarized sentiments within ourselves and feel the inner conflict that would enable us to grow out of them, we have to admit them to ourselves in the first place. There is no other route to becoming fully converted to the equality of mattering, from inside out that is, and to the very core of our being.  

But emotional maturation takes time and conducive conditions to grow out of it. So what do we do with our children in the meantime? Furthermore, what do we do with immature adults who are in places of social responsibility, especially the ones who are meant to take care of us? And, finally, how do we compensate for our own immaturity and inevitable regression in times of exhaustion, stress and alarm? 

The answer is in social scripts. In order to compensate for emotional immaturity, we need to translate into simple scripts our values of equality and justice. Like actors in a play, if maturity is called for, it must be scripted in simple and doable ways. We cannot wait for actors to grow up, or to understand what maturity looks and feels like, from inside out. As parents, we need to be scripting our children. Teachers need to be scripting their students. Leaders of our institutions should be doing this with those under their responsibility or command. And we need to make these scripts for ourselves for when we lose the integrative functioning that makes us fully human and humane. Simply demanding maturity where it is lacking is an exercise in futility. Our challenge is to create and provide the scripts that enable us to act mature when there may not be sufficient emotional maturity to support it spontaneously. So we have some homework to do. 

Racism will not be addressed, at least not through social scripting, if we do not realize we have a problem in the first place. So we must confront racism where we see it, not forgetting to have a look at ourselves in the process. 

The deepest and most lasting solution to racism is true maturation. We at the Neufeld Institute will continue with our mission of helping parents and teachers provide children with conditions that are conducive to growing into their conflicting feelings and then out of their polarized attitudes. We hope we can make a difference. 

© 2024 The Neufeld Institute