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Copyright 2020 Cynthia Alease Smith, Ed.D.

Understanding Root Causes Reveals Similarities in Racism and Narcissism

Unresolved traumas point to paths for healing and becoming the change we want to be, making the personal and political arenas options for impact.

I regularly make comparisons between racists and narcissists (based on traits part of someone’s core identity with a false superiority complex, extreme sense of entitlement and lack of empathy, among other qualities). Racism and narcissism share the same characteristics when you dig deeper into the puzzle to see both the big picture and notice nuances about how people with pathological personalities operate. A need for power and control to extreme degrees are the most common factors. This results in many people getting victimized and becoming caught in a vicious cycle akin to being placed between a rock and hard place. Since some practices become so normalized, few people ask deep enough questions to explore whether other options exist.


Racism itself is evil — it really is when boiled down to basics. It is also something that involves learned behavior. Everyone (people of color and whites) has been exposed to and socialized to accept racist premises to some extent. Black and brown people have greater incentives to reject racist ideology since they are most harmed by racism (white supremacy). Privilege (unearned advantages for whites) is the flip side of racism (unwarranted disadvantages imposed on black and brown people). Privileges lure many whites into being comfortable and/or complicit with systemic racism, even if not hardcore (actively causing harm).

So many affected by the racism and narcissism of others share common concerns. I have experienced the impact of both racism and narcissism personally and professionally as a black female. Here’s some of what I know about racists and pathological narcissists as a person trained to do professional psychotherapy and as an individual who took personal responsibility to overcome the dynamics of “psychological/emotional abuse:” When perpetrators of abuse label a victim as the bad or mean one (usually when victims take a stand by objecting to being continually victimized), they are projecting their disowned self /despised flaws. You can point to evidence that the perpetrators are the problem due to their own thinking and actions. Even when their patterns of behavior and habitual choices reveal them as the real “mean person,” they will deny facts and attempt to continually cause confusion.

This should help counter narratives that seek to unilaterally blame victims. Violence/abuse in various forms stem from racism and narcissism, traumatizing people and depleting their life energy. Those on the receiving end of systemic and unwarranted hatred and hostility need to know the shame and blame do not belong to them. Many who find themselves on a path for healing do so (and find some relief) because of being receptive and learning from life stories shared by diverse people. Those once isolated can now make connections that help them know they are far from alone. This matters for many reasons. Among them is that patterns become clearer and help point to root causes. Archetypes describing human behaviors come into sharper focus as we recognize how many things people say and do are unconscious. Many reactions are on autopilot, even in situations that leave many puzzled. Unresolved trauma can play a large role in much of this.

A white female who will turn 80 this month, recently wrote: “I had the mixed good/bad fortune to grow up in a family where my mother was a good and amazing woman who saw that we are all one people. My father was a redneck and a racist who used offensive language about people of color, despite my mother’s protests and attempts to prove otherwise. I loved and admired my mother, loathed and despised my father, and followed her good example. They finally divorced when I was 20, as he was getting increasingly violent. He had always been verbally abusive, but began to make it physical as well. I have always seen and known the truth — we are all one race — the human race. I address racism wherever I encounter it, and started it very young. I have never wavered from the truth. It is up to those of us who see the truth to speak out at every opportunity against racism.”

Of course, human behavior runs the gamut from good to bad. Most people have potential to unlearn negative habits and practice new ways of being in the world to interact in more life-affirming ways with self/others. Those whose racism is more about ignorance and not malice, will likely experience regret and/or shame at some point. The differences become clearer as people take diligent steps to un-learn, re-learn and grow, becoming anti-racism. Those in the process of “recovering from racism” willingly show real change through thinking and actions, not just talk. Extreme narcissists (who exist across diverse populations) generally resist feedback and refuse to change themselves, for different reasons (some professionals in the field of psychology believe their brains are impaired). Abusive people (racists and narcissists) tend to blame their victims and reject any personal responsibility.

Veronica Welles, who writes about narcissism, shared this via Quora on Jan 9, 2019: “A problem well-defined is half solved. Narcissists don’t define problems, therefore they can’t solve them. This is how it looks like when there is no truth in someone….What’s left when there is no love in you? Hatred, or apathy. Choose one. What effect does choosing hatred have? It makes you abuse, abuse abuse. What about apathy? It makes you callous. Callousness is naturally destructive. Towards self, and others. Whether you choose hatred or apathy, the outcome towards others is the same, you ruin people. The only difference is that hatred makes the narcissist enjoy ruining, while apathy makes the narcissist bored while ruining…Contempt for the truth cannot lead to correction. Hatred cannot lead to healing or improvement. Apathy cannot lead to healing or improvement. The narcissist made the choice some time ago to live in lies, see in lies, think in lies, feel in lies, and to be hard-hearted.”


Understanding similarities between racism and narcissism point to root causes. This is important for legitimate solutions to emerge that can help reduce harm on individual, institutional and collective levels. There is no getting around the fact that extreme inequality makes it possible for those with too much power and control to continually benefit from oppression of diverse others. The status quo makes allowances and excuses for the severe damage done to so many from cradle to grave. Societies that demand compliance and prefer collusion prevent progress. It severely compromises basic human rights and needs, and strangles quality of life in many areas. Those most affected cannot afford to wait on goodwill from racists and narcissists who lack motivation to change.

Some key factors: Do not argue with existing reality — it is what it is. Recognize when people are invested in victimizing others. Determine when it is a waste to try to change them and whether energy can be better focused on what is within our own control. Having boundaries matter, and part of that means what sacrifices one is willing to make to embrace one’s own authentic self, both strengths and limitations and a reduced ego to know many things with a sense of humility. No one is required to volunteer as ongoing victims to try to force abusers (racists and narcissists) to change. No one needs to allow others to guilt them into feeling obligated to some things beyond reason. Pain and emotional labor can be avoided in many situations. Energy can readily get depleted when attempting to teach some adults (who should already know basics) how to be a decent human being. Walking away instead of arguing or trying to convince people who refuse compassion, may be an option.


Taking responsibility is required for all personal healing, even if someone else inflicted the wounds. Victims of abuse who have become survivors often have encouragement or expertise to offer others. Those who still feel stuck in victim mode do not need to internalize shame and blame despite best efforts to improve their situation. But they can consider options within reach. This might involve seeking help from others when they feel truly sick and tired of being sick and tired. Individuals also can learn to stop seeking saviors in everyone else by exploring neglected parts of themselves. An examined life is not the easiest path, but taking the road less traveled can lead to discovering things that got tucked away due to unresolved traumas.

Thinking and feeling our way through challenges can help us shift perceptions in order to actively model and support positive change. Reforming systems so that narcissism and racism are not normalized requires more people willing to reflect, reject, question and challenge unnatural human hierarchies. We can collectively help reduce some things that make the masses stagnant and sick, even if many people are seemingly well-adjusted on the surface. Options for healing exist to help processes for breaking through cycles of pain, shame and suffering. Root causes of ongoing, generational trauma can be replaced by something more life-affirming.

The Crazy Making and Toxic Toll of Superiority Ideology

If your self-esteem or sense of importance depends heavily on thinking shallow factors make you inherently superior, your own mental health is at risk and you are a potential threat to other people’s well-being. The reality is that all people inevitably fail to live up to any lie of superiority since no one is perfect in all ways or all things. Unrealistic expectations and cognitive dissonance create conflicts internally and externally due to disruptions of identity based on ego (a False Self) more than true substance (Authentic Self).

We see this playing out daily in the words and actions of Donald Trump. Memes are being created, but it is increasingly hard to laugh when someone requires dismissing basic facts so they can feel stable and legitimate. It’s part of what I meant when I said privilege will become poison. Who is giving Trump a reality check when he operates in a fantasy world of his own making, based on major lies?

Many people lose touch with objective reality and try to force others to become stereotypes who operate from lies about diverse humanity. It’s one reason those socialized to view themselves as superior get easily intimidated by people who are not inferior to them, after all. When other people do not easily fit into boxes or follow scripts, they are perceived as problems because their very existence does not reinforce the status quo of superiority and inferiority ideologies.

Lack of racial responsibility is the core problem related to the social construct of whiteness that promotes perceptions of superiority. White people actually are very conscious of race despite many making claims of being colorblind, but they want to maintain a system that provides unearned, undeserved special treatment for them. White privilege amounts to white people not holding themselves or each other accountable in practical terms that go beyond talk, for what is required to co-exist well among diverse populations. Civility and compassion are necessary to demonstrate clear interest and consistent actions to support the common good as opposed to extremist approaches related to corruption and competition that rely on a rigged playing field.

It can destroy the ability to have mutually-supportive relationships with other people when a false superiority ideology guides interactions. It prevents people from knowing how to love, and results in ongoing power plays and passive aggressive behaviors. It shows up in people’s denial of their own real limitations. It promotes arrogance, insecurity and narcissism. Indeed, the mental health aspects of living a lie can take a serious psychological toll over time. The consequences accumulate beyond individuals. 

Listen to these insights from Dixon D. White. He talks about the serious costs for white folks, men and elitists when they try to promote the lie of supremacy, by living a delusion in trying to make some figments of their imagination, real. “You are not free…you are a slave to that lie,” Dixon makes clear in this short video. For the sake of our own mental health and overall well-being of humanity, it’s time to reject notions that race, gender and other characteristics can make anyone inherently superior.