How Narcissism & Racism Are Connected, According To Research
Racism is not only feeling bias or prejudice toward Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. It's a system of oppression that maintains and inflicts power over them, through schools, police departments, court systems1, and health care.
But in a 1980 paper published in the Journal of the National Medical Association, the late psychiatrist Carl C. Bell, M.D., CCHP, pondered, "What characteristics cause an individual to accommodate to racist views which are in direct opposition to the value of a democratic free society?"
Bell's research, as well as subsequent studies2 by other psychologists, point to one potential psychological factor: narcissism.
The concept of the "narcissistic racist" was recently brought to light again in a widely shared Instagram post by Jacquelyn Ogorchukwu Iyamah, a user experience designer focused on racial justice education and decolonizing wellness. To better understand the association between racism and narcissism, mbg looked into Bell's research and spoke with licensed psychologist Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D., and psychoanalyst Babita Spinelli, L.P.
How narcissism can fuel racism.
According to Bell's 1980 study3, many racist traits are also traits of narcissism. Further, "racist attitudes may be indicative of a narcissistic personality disorder." Bell describes three different types of racists—the narcissistic racist, the stress-induced racist, and the socially misinformed racist—all three of which may actually be linked back to narcissistic traits.
The narcissistic racist
"The narcissistic racist is a person whose racism is primarily a symptom of a narcissistic personality disorder," the study says. A personality disorder diagnosis does not, however, relieve anyone of the responsibility for their behavior, Bell notes.
He describes various traits of narcissism that manifest into racism, including a grandiose sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy for others, and a likelihood to respond to criticism with defensiveness or indifference. Many of these are rooted in the narcissist's need for control and power.
"It is this need for a sense of absolute control which the racist feels justifies his self-given right to violate another's 'territory' by either a physical attack, segregation, or discrimination," the study says. "The 'territory' (in this country) being, for example, the individual's right to adequate health care, education, and housing wherever he can afford it."
The stress-induced racist
It's important to note that not every person with narcissistic traits has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), and, in fact, most people have some level of narcissism. With that in mind, the stress-induced racist is someone who acts in response to stress, rather than NPD. The study describes this type of racism as "a transient form of narcissistic rage" and is usually a response to feeling wronged and seeking revenge at all costs. Even those who don't have NPD can display this type of narcissism-fueled racist behavior.
"The main stressor that narcissists have to manage is the threat to their ego and sense of superiority," Durvasula explains. Anything that threatens their fragile egos and puts them in a vulnerable state (i.e., losing a job, marital issues, etc.) may cause them to react with victimhood, shame, and rage, she says. "They need someone to blame because they cannot take responsibility."
A racist would take it out on people of different races, and a narcissist would attach false rhetorics to groups of people in order to justify their blame, Durvasula says.
The socially misinformed racist
Socially misinformed racists with NPD need the people leading their institutions to be direct reflections of themselves and their ideas. This can then justify their unempathetic feelings and behaviors. Bell cites research by psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, who wrote of this type of racist narcissist: "They seem to combine an absolute certainty concerning the validity of their ideas with an equally absolute lack of empathic understanding for large segments of feelings, needs, and rights of other human beings and for the values cherished by them. They understand the environment in which they live only as an extension of their own narcissistic universe."
Bell does note there's another type of socially misinformed racist that may not have NPD and instead is a product of systemic racism. They are socially misinformed at an early age, though with enough exposure to different people and cultures, Bell says they can start to unlearn their ignorant beliefs.
How narcissistic traits manifest as racism:
Lack of empathy
Empathy is threefold, according to Durvasula. "First is the classical emotional piece—the ability or desire to feel the other person and shape your responses and behavior accordingly," she says. Then, there's the cognitive piece—to understand what the other person is experiencing. Finally, the self-reflective capacity piece, which she describes as "the ability to understand and reflect on the impact of your behavior and words on other people."
Narcissistic individuals lack all three aspects, and Durvasula says it is likely that racist individuals don't care about those around them and save the worst of their hatred for people who are different from them.
Gaslighting is when a person denies another person's reality, Spinelli says. Examples of gaslighting can sound like It's not a big deal, or Just let it go.
"This is similar to how a racist would dismiss the reality of racism and attempt to normalize racist practices," Spinelli explains.
Other traits include:
- Extreme sense of entitlement
- A need for power and control
- A superiority to others
- Tendency to bully and oppress others
So can a narcissistic racist change?
"A racist has the potential to process and recover from being a racist, if they take steps to face their racist stance and invest the time and effort to learn, grow, and take action to change," Spinelli says. "Narcissists, on the other hand, generally do not believe they need to change and refuse to change."
In rare cases, both experts say a narcissist may change, but it takes several years of intense therapeutic work. This may help them understand their core traumas, attachment issues, and early dynamic issues that led them to be racist, Durvasula says, but most often they won't be willing or interested in discussing their emotions in therapy.
Do not invest energy into changing the narcissist's view, Spinelli says.
What does this mean for the efforts to end racism?
If narcissists are hard to change, and narcissism and racism are linked, what does that mean for the efforts to end racism?
As previously mentioned, it's important to recognize that not everybody with narcissistic traits has NPD. Most of us have some levels of narcissism within us, and if we can recognize how our internalized racism may be rooted in narcissism, it may provide insights into what type of inner work we need to be doing to heal our racism.
But the connection between racism and NPD is also an important reminder that dismantling racism must go beyond individual-level change. The idea that racism is rooted in ignorance alone is too simple, Durvasula says. Since ignorance means a lack of education, that suggests people can seek more information and change their attitude. "That rarely happens," she says. Racism is deeper—it is privilege mixed with entitlement, contempt, fragility, shame, fear, arrogance, lack of empathy, hypersensitivity, and ignorance, she says.
While self-reflection is a critical part of committing to anti-racism, Spinelli recommends focusing on efforts like educating, challenging normalized racism, dismantling systems that embolden racism, and working toward changing the policies and procedures that keep them in place.
Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.