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Psychological Defense Mechanisms and NPR

I have a habit of listening to NPR (88.5) while I’m driving. It was 12:40 PM, and an otherwise insignificant day. I decided to stop to get a manicure.

Kojo Nnamdi was on the air. The topics for today’s show included COVID-19, how it’s affected the education system, and the most recent wave of civil unrest sparked by the murderer Derick Chauvin. Just before I got out of the car, I heard Kojo welcome kids of all ages to call in with their questions and comments. I decided to wait to see what a couple of them would say. Eight-year-old Benjamin went first. He started with a simple greeting:


It was endearingly as-a-matter-of-fact.

I smiled.

Kojo ended the amusing awkward pause that followed by returning the greeting. He asked Benjamin a couple of questions to get to know a bit more about him. After receiving those answers, he told Benjamin that he could ask his question. Benjamin said:

“I’m scared of being a Black person. What should I do?”

Also, very: as-a-matter-of-fact.

However, this time, the subsequent pause wasn’t amusing at all. It was strained, heavy, and overwhelming.

Ibrahim X. Kendi, Kojo’s guest, and author of the award-winning book: Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You leapt into the fray to answer this solemn question. Kendi responded with expanded platitudes and affirmations. In my opinion, his answer was lacking.

But then again: how could it not be, considering the time, place, and gravity of the question the child had asked? Kendi couldn’t possibly have gotten as deep as he needed to go to respond to such a question on a mere radio show. "Anti-racism expert" or not.

Kendi began by telling Benjamin that he understands why he’s frightened. He continued, saying that his fear was shared by many others due to the troubled times that we live in. Kendi posited that despite all that, Black people in the USA have always endured, survived, and overcome them. He gave several historical examples to Benjamin of the bravery, creativity, talent, and skill that Black people possessed. He encouraged Benjamin to remember all that and take heart, as well as pride in being Black.

Next came a 17-year old white male whose name I didn’t catch because I was still thinking of Benjamin. The teen spoke of his concern about the way the media was increasingly polarized. He spoke about how what he saw on the news didn’t seem to be the whole story (if the media told the story at all). He mentioned how he found alternative renditions of the same issues on social media and that those seemed to give more angles than the traditional mainstream media. Kendi responded by telling him that this was a critical time for people his age, and that he indeed had to be careful how he got his information. He gave kudos to Gen Z (born in ~1997-2010???) for their activism…

I turned off the car and got out, resisting an eyeroll.

(I was not interested in the concerns of the teen. For, in the end, white privilege would likely protect him through his life.)

My mind turned back to Benjamin. I thought of many things. But for the purposes of this blog, I’ve summarized the gist of my thoughts below:

1) ‘Thank God for children.’

a. They are, in a sense, one of the only ways that we can meet our subconscious in person.

i. Often, they have not learned to mask their thoughts and feelings yet. So, they air them, and let others respond as they may.

2) I wondered about the type of people Benjamin lived around. I marveled at how he felt comfortable enough to openly say that he was scared.

a. ‘I never really felt comfortable verbalizing any of my feelings as a child—not even the good ones. And to verbalize my feelings to strangers? Hell no.’

i. The parents of Benjamin had done a really good job, creating a space where he felt safe enough to verbalize his feelings.

ii. I was grateful to them.

3) I was grateful to them because Benjamin’s question was a mirror.

a. I realized that at some level, I was probably scared too. Since this wave of protests, I thought of how my abhorrence of the police had hardened.

b. I thought of how I hold my breath as I walk past cops. Of how I do not respond if they greet. How I watched them closely or filmed them if I passed a scene in which a Black person was being arrested. I thought of the extra angst I felt getting pulled over recently in South Carolina by a cop. I thought of how quickly the biggest moments of my life flashed before my eyes and how disappointed I’d feel as I died if he fatally shot me. I thought of how all the efforts all my family’s efforts for the American dream would have been wasted on me indefinitely… I was with my sister that day. Just before the white cop got to the window, I briefly thought of the guilt I’d feel if my sister ended up having to witness me getting murdered…

c. I dropped that line of thought and hopped onto another:

4) How difficult it must be for a Black child to process racism, white supremacy and anti-blackness without the more complex coping mechanisms that their adult counterparts use.

a. Can you imagine? No compartmentalization, reaction formation, or intellectualization. No rationalization or sublimation either. Just…the bald horror of the reality of life as the American “other” until they learned tricks like denial or repression.

To think!

That every child ever born in the United States of America (including me) had to learn these tricks to carry on with their role in the great, gaping sin that is white supremacy… To think that one could master these tricks so well that they didn’t even notice when they pulled out the magic hat anymore…



Even more intriguing than that was the fact that I didn’t remember when I learned to do I these tricks myself. I distinctly remembered becoming a “conscious” person, but not one who actively engaged in psychological defense mechanisms to exist under the constraints of white supremacy. 'What would my pro-African, pro-Black ideals look like without these defense mechanisms? Would I even be mentally strong enough to still have them? Is this the difference between an activist and a revolutionary? I’ve always considered revolutionaries to have a higher grade of morality than mere activists or people in general because of their willingness to fight despite the odds and sacrifice for others. (Most people can’t do that.) But then, conversely, wouldn’t that mean that non-revolutionaries are more immoral than revolutionaries? Or were they just lazier? Or more cowardly? Or more deceptive? (In the western world, each of these behaviors connote poor morality.) Were these defense mechanisms that I employed to suppress my honest reactions to injustice immoral? It was clear to me that it was certainly immoral that I was put in such a situation (due to colonizing Europeans, white supremacy, and resultant forms of oppression) to have to consider using them to maintain my emotional equilibrium at all. But again, when did this “consideration” even happen?'

I bookmarked my thoughts at the mystification of this form of self-defense (employing psychological defense mechanisms). I needed to make sure they did my nails right this time, and for that, I had to focus on the nail technician.

I left the nail salon a couple of hours later.

They did it wrong again.

It was partially my fault because I have yet to learn to distinguish between acrylic and gel and whatever else they can do.

For all that, I could have just kept thinking…

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