Racism and the Unconscious: Why Higher Education Needs Freud
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Racism and the Unconscious

Why higher education needs Freud

By Adam Schneider and Daniel Skinner

June 24, 2021

Sigmund Freud visited the United States in 1909 to detail a basic but provocative idea: people’s actions are predominantly governed by internal forces beyond their conscious control. At the same conference, Freud’s colleague Carl Jung also presented findings on his development of a word association test to identify such forces within the unconscious.

The implications of their discoveries are the foundations for many efforts in higher education to address institutional bias. Search “association test” today and you’ll encounter Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test, which serves as the basis for implicit bias training at many colleges and universities. Social psychologists Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji developed the test to measure “attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report.” While debate continues within the field of psychology as to the accuracy of the test, these internal quibbles are nowhere near as consequential as the discursive slide from unconscious to implicit bias.

The focus on implicit bias risks losing the conceptual depth that an understanding of unconscious bias affords us. We risk losing sight, in particular, of the serious challenge bias poses within higher education. In our rush to show stakeholders we are taking a defining issue of our day seriously, we are tempted to embrace quick, surface-level fixes.

As Freud made clear throughout his career, there is no quick fix for deep-seated phenomena residing within the unconscious. As a Jewish refugee who fled Nazi terror before World War II, Freud would see firsthand how deep the hatred of others could run. His home was raided, his scholarship was burned, and—after he died from cancer in 1939—his sisters were murdered in concentration camps.

The word implicit precludes a more complex understanding of bias and the forces that keep it active within us. It relies on ambiguous notions of storage and retrieval, converting racial bias and stereotypes into phenomena based in memory of past experiences, “forgotten” but placed in a neural web of associations. When triggered, these memories and associations influence present decisions. This process helps explain the expression of racial bias, but not how and why racial biases become implicit in the first place.

The Freudian unconscious (das Unbewusste) could offer a better account of a problem based not in the brain but the mind. Among the most important discoveries of the twentieth century, the unconscious was a tectonic shift in our understanding of metacognitive processing. The primary mechanism for unconscious bias is repression triggered by an internal conflict between a biased thought or desire and internalized social norms against such thoughts and desires. The thoughts are removed from consciousness but reappear in forms such as slips of the tongue, bungled actions, and deferred action.

Taking the Freudian unconscious seriously means recognizing that conscious interventions are unlikely to lead to mastery over these unconscious phenomena. As Freud said, “The ego is not master in its own house.” Yet this kind of mastery remains the unspoken goal of too much of what is taking place within higher education. Instead of fostering increased vulnerability, reflection, and even humility, we see a proliferation of implicit bias training programs designed to tame the unconscious.

With these critiques in mind, we offer three recommendations for higher education to move forward in addressing systemic bias in our institutions.

First, the term “implicit bias” paints too optimistic a picture of the capacity of higher education’s preferred tools—trainings, webinars, and reading groups—to act upon mechanisms of bias and discrimination. If implicit bias is an outgrowth of deeper psychological phenomena, we would not expect these approaches to fully solve the problem. Understanding the limitations of focusing on implicit bias is the first step.

Second, we recommend a serious reconsideration of the Freudian conception of the unconscious. While Freud’s insights have far-reaching consequences for how we think about a wide array of human suffering and social discrimination, we barely hear his name today. Widely cited studies on implicit bias—even “unconscious bias”—often do not cite Freud. In Unconscious Bias in Schools, for example, Tracey Benson and Sarah Fiarman note their use of “unconscious bias” allows them to “decouple intention from racism.” And yet, important as their theoretical move is, they fail to grapple with Freud’s theories and tools to wrestle with the unconscious. While such a return to Freud would likely make the problem of bias appear more intractable than ever, it could help us to better see the extent of the problem. Individuals and systems will have to be challenged directly and honestly.

Third, this reorientation positions us to incorporate newer developments in psychoanalytic theory regarding bias. Many trainings and publications fail to cite more modern theorists who built upon Freud’s theories. For example, M. Fakhry Davids, a psychoanalyst who was raised in a Muslim community in Cape Town, South Africa, developed the notion of the “internal racist organization.” This theory, which builds on the work of the French West Indian psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon, portrays an unconscious defense against anxiety and fear of the other. In addition, Sheldon George, a scholar of American and African American literature at Simmons University, draws on the theories of Jacques Lacan to conceptualize racism as an impulsive drive to pursue excessive pleasure by acting out unconscious fantasies. Ignoring such contributions risks reinforcing the obstacles described above.

Rethinking the language of “implicit bias” is an important step toward understanding the magnitude of the challenge before us. Given its ubiquity, this language will be hard to dislodge from well-meaning and extremely important institutional attempts to address systemic bias. Only after we take the time to explore these theories can the hard work begin.


  • Adam Schneider

    Adam Schneider is a licensed mental health counselor in Washington state and a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute.

  • Daniel Skinner

    Daniel Skinner is a political theorist and health policy professor at Ohio University. Follow him on Twitter at @danielrskinner.