Emotional Justice: The Principle Of Projection

“Projections change the world into the replica of one’s own unknown face.” – Carl Jung

A story: A brown-skin black woman walks into a room. Her hair is a bright fluorescent red, cut sharply into a bob. Her jeans are fitted, nails painted to match the color of her hair.

Even before she speaks, there are narratives that precede her. Stories written in the wrinkle of her brow, oral histories outlined in every pore of her epidermis. These narratives silence her voice; they override her individuality.

These stories exist in the subconscious of the people in the room. They interact with her through them; play them like broken records in their minds. The full range of her expression, the complexity of her humanity is narrowed. All they can see is Mammy, Welfare Queen, Jezebel, Pickaninny. They cannot see her. They can only see what they have projected…

There are projections that precede us. Historical narratives and stereotypes that are inscribed onto the subconscious of those who perceive us that act as holograms; distorting, amplifying, or erasing  the complexities of who we are.
These projections are  informed by many things; the perceiver’s own experiences, the bodies we inhabit— the skin tone, composition, (perceived) gender,and the subsequent social narratives that accompany those physical characteristics.

These projections distort our ability to relate with each other. They engender relational dynamics that perpetuate systems of emotional and institutional oppression. Whether we are cognizant of them or not, they often operate in our lives and perceptions of each other- informing our choices.  Projections are not always recognizable as ideas, but may instead spring forth from us as feelings  that may not be initially seen as linked to social conditioning.

In the context of an Emotional Justice framework,  I believe we must cultivate internal work that stifles these projections and prevents them from impacting our actions and our organizing. If we fail to develop a discourse that does this, the potential of  transformative healing spaces becomes an impossibility.  And as a result, thousands of black women such as the one described above (and individuals across the spectrum of identity) will never be able to speak their pain and have it heard.  Instead, people will continue to see them through their projections. For many black women, a moment of vulnerability will be seen as  just another “angry black woman,”  or the “mammy” who’s purpose is only to serve others emotions. The impact of these projections unchecked helps to foster unhealthy emotional, psychological and physical circumstances for all black women and the world at large.

In order to be able to address how projection is happening in emotional justice (and other) spaces, there is one thing that I believe must be pivotal to our understanding: Racism, sexism and all forms of oppression are infallible aspects of the American unconscious.

What does that mean? It means that all of the isms impact our behavoirs psychologically, spiritually and emotionally in a number of nuanced ways that are not always readily recognizable but perpetually omnipresent.

It means that whether or not one enacts behaviors which are prejudicial in nature does not detract from the fact that these narratives exist within each of us and always inform some aspect of our psychology. It would be impossible for us to say that is not the case, as everything in this culture, from cartoons to pornography, relies on the “isms” narratives’ in order to establish and concretize structure and familiarity.

The nature of how the isms are operating psychologically for each of us dramatically varies. Some may perpetuate concepts or ideas that are overtly oppressive, while others may act from “negative” emotions awakened within them, which they are not conscious of being connected to narratives of oppression. Some may even still, enact oppression through everyday acts or “micro-aggressions”. The realities are endless.

This is why I believe that part of an (EJ) framework is owning our projections. Taking ownership of our projections means that we have to be honest with each other and ourselves about how the ever-present “-isms” have distorted our visions of ourselves and others. It means we must become cognizant of how these distortions are functioning in our lives.

Projection is a complicated psychological concept; and the entirety of it could not be explored here. We have already explored (through the earlier example) how projection functions through stereotypes and social conditioning. However for the purpose of an emotional justice framework I am going to explore two other forms which I think would be useful for a dialogue on projection in activist/healer communities.

The Activists & Emotion:

Jerome and Mariah are co-executive directors of a small grass roots organization. They’ve been having many challenges as of late, the majority of them centered upon Jerome’s choices that  stem from his unchecked male entitlement and social conditioning. In response to this, Mariah has referred him to a group of feminist men to help him understand his actions. However Jerome is getting frustrated and embarrassed with the process and feels like he needs to leave the job, while Mariah is urging him to get feminist male support. A conversation between them goes as follows:

Jerome: Mariah, I can tell you feel that it’s time for me to leave, but you’re scared to say it. (Read: I feel like it’s time to leave, But I am  scared to say it)

Mariah says: Actually I don’t feel that way at all. I feel like you need to stay, and you need to get support from other men in changing the way you are behaving in the workplace.

Instead of Jerome saying that he himself felt that it was time for him to leave, he projected that feeling onto Mariah.  Why? Because projecting an uncomfortable emotion and having someone else perform the actions that such an emotion would engender is easier for many than owning it themselves. For Jerome to say “I feel like I should leave” requires an emotional courage that many, specifically the male embodied, often dramatically struggle with.  Projecting it, and attempting to get Mariah to own it; allows him to believe that the choice  for him to leave did not stem from him but from Mariah; a passive way to project one’s own desires as  external fate. Mind you this form of projection is often unconscious. Jerome may not be fully aware that he is doing it. Also, this form of projection only works if Mariah would have accepted that his feeling was hers, something that happens often in the context of interacting emotional bodies if one is not careful.

Intimacy & Activism

“The people in the world whom we hate, judge, or have strong negative reactions toward are {often} direct representations of our disowned selves.” – Hal & Sidra Stone.

Abani, for most of her adult life believed that as an activist she had to be “modest in income” in order to be apart of activist community.  As she grew older she started to believe that “poverty helps no-one” and she secured a considerable economic foothold through investments, connections and her academic privilege (advanced degrees).

Eli on the other hand grew up very priviliged, in an liberal family that owns a chain of hotels. As an adult, Eli  divorced herself from her wealth and income, and became as activists say “downwardly mobile” in an attempt to rebuke her class priviledge and, as she understands it, be in solidarity with poor and working class people.  Eli & Abani are in a romantic relationship and money is often a big problem for them both.

An argument:

Eli: Abani, you paid 180.00 for those shoes?! Why?
Abani: Why? Because I liked them, and I can.
Eli: I can’t believe you would pay that much for shoes when people in the world are starving.
Abani: Don’t go there. I work hard to help with what I have. I didn’t grow up with the chance to have nice things and so now that I can I am not going to feel guilty about it!!
Eli: Well you should!! The whole reason you have money is based on a fu** up system and centuries of oppression! How can you be so f***** selfish?!!”

This is the phenomenon where one partner is constantly triggered by the traits & characteristics of another partner, traits that they actually posses themselves and have repressed or habor subconsciously.

Eli’s responses to Abani’s spending is directly linked to her guilt about having money.  She has projected the part of her privileged self onto Abani, and is treating Abani like she treats that part of herself. Which means: make her guilty, and make her deny her economic privilege.

Meanwhile Abani’s battle with Eli is to overcome the shame that seeking and having money was wrong.  Abani pushes Eli to release the shame of having money, as she has pushed herself to release the shame of having money. She interacts with Eli the same way she does with this dismembered part of self; she forces it, aggressively so, out of the pit of economic shame.

The ferocity of such engagements are marked by both individuals inability to consciously see themselves in each other, and have compassion for the traits that the other possess.
For instance, Eli can not have compassion for Abani’s desire for nice things, until she recognizes that same trait within herself and has compassion for it. If their is no compassion for that in herself, she will continue to aggressively condemn Abani and her choices as she has condemned herself and her own choices.  The opportunity for healing and ending projection lies in seeing the other as a part of the self’s disowned face; and loving it.  The owning of it allows the exchange to invite transformation, instead of fighting for power, control and domination.

Oppression & Projection

In the context of systematic forms of oppression, projection functions when a culture of people project traits that they possess onto another culture or group of people, and from that standpoint, treat that group of people exactly like they treat that undesirable trait within themselves: they repress it, deny, or seek to/destroy it.

For instance,(a hypothetical):  When a white woman sees a black person and reacts by clutching her purse or crossing street, she is responding to a mental image based upon the way she has been socialized to perceive blacks. That internalization is then projected onto any black body that fits whatever schemata of “threatening black person” she has in her head.

This unconscious racism impacts the choices of white people everyday.  Police officers routinely attack and kill black people, not always because they perceive a threat, but instead due to a steady projection of ideas and concepts about black bodies that triggers irrational and unmitigated fear.

White people’s inability to acknowledge these deeply held racist projections and work through them is a facet of our cultural psychology that helps to keep racism intact.  For those projections to come undone, white people would have to acknowledge the deeply rooted history of racism and its connection to their collective projection of people of color as “savages.”

Let me explain further:

In the early days of Western Racism, Europeans justified their exploitation and murder of indigenous people by saying they were “savages.” This concept has continued to be an integral part of racism until this day. There are many definitions of savagery that could offer insight into this phenomenon,but I found this one the most useful:  Savageness: “the property of being untamed and ferocious”

Consider this: how curious is it that Europeans went forth to commit unprecedented acts of colonial genocide, murder, and exploitation, traits that are irrefutably  “untamed and ferocious” all in the name of civilizing “savages”?

The reality is European cultures projected these traits onto people of color communities across the world, and then enacted the very trait they proclaimed themselves to be free of. And don’t get it twisted, many Europeans, even in the midst of committing these heinous acts, actually believed they were not savages, or acting savagely. The dis-association was and still is just that strong. Even in the context of global white supremacy where white people still extol tremendous power to exploit and desecrate the world,(and do) racism still makes white people unable to see their own behavior as “savage”.  That my friends, is the power of projection.

Another form of oppression projection can be found in the context of sexism, where most men and masculine embodied individuals are socialized to psychologically divorce themselves from their emotionality (and a host of so called “feminine traits”) and instead project that emotionality onto women or feminine embodied people.

Once projected, they of course, treat women the way they have been socialized to treat their emotional selves: they ignore, repress, or silence them in favor of “rationality”, which in American culture is inextricably linked to masculinity and maleness.

In my work with men and anger, this became very clear to me.
I can recall specifically one scenario working with a  young man, let’s call him “Marlon”, who kept going on and on about how his wife was “too emotional and “too sensitive” and how he and all other men were not like that.

Upon hearing this, I invited him to revisit the scenario that led him to work on his anger. He then recanted how he threw a chair, screamed at his wife, broke two mirrors and pushed his wife up against the wall.

After he finished his story I asked him, “Now tell me Richard, was that..emotional?”
His response: “I was angry, that’s… different.”
Here we see clearly how many men are taught to not see their hurt and rage as an emotion. Instead the women in their lives are the embodiment of emotion, and they themselves they perceive to be completely rational.  In this case, the emotional disconnection of patriarchy has performed its function, which is not to remove emotionality from male embodied people, but to disconnect & push them into deep denial about their emotional complexity, and project/unload that onto women.

Unfortunately, when a group of people psychologically represent to you something you have been taught to repress within yourself, that repression will show up in the physical world, and institutional sexism, trans phobia and heterosexism are all a shining testament to the reality of our culture’s troubled sexual and gendered concepts.

The fact that the fiercest of anti-gay conservative‘s and religious leaders are perpetually exposed as engaging in same sex behaviors reveals just how much oppression is intertwined with projection and our own psychologies. Therefore, the next time you find yourself against something you may want to inquire what is at the psychological root of your disdain.

This, my friends, is the only the surface of “the principle of projection”. There is much more that can be said here (and will be) in the future. For now a quote to conclude this chapter:

“It is in the image of the enemy {and those that we do not like} that we will find the mirror in which we may see our own face most clearly.”-Sam Keen

In the spirit of love and peace always,


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  1. once again i am truly impacted by your passionate vision,this peice reminds me to constant check the Lens thru which i am experiencing something and/or approaching it. Though i question whether my internal resistance to having to be considered… A Feminist; in order have merit from others or validation from others. why must i subscribe to any title? I.E. when questioned about my choice of nutritional practices
    folk immediately ask, so you are a vegan? which gives credence to your whole piece. yet why do i need to have a title? can i share the exact LENS regarding womens rights, insidious male privilege or the systematic precepts of male privilege and how they promote unhealthy realities for the whole of our society. without a label??

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