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Why are evidence and reason largely absent from political discussion? Why are well-supported facts often no match for emotion? Much of it can be explained by a process called “splitting.” Though little known to the public, the term is used widely by mental-health professionals.

I first noticed splitting a few years ago, when I provided psychotherapy to a depressed college student. At first our sessions focused on her depression, but my patient, a white woman, took frequent detours into racial politics. She “loved” Malcolm X and railed against “white privilege.” Then she told me that she “identified” as black.

She said she felt “black on the inside” because she “got it” and wasn’t ignorant or hateful. Everything she said about black people was positive, even idealizing. They were always blameless, strong victims. By contrast, everything she said about white people was aggressively critical and shaming. They were ignorant oppressors, fragile, selfish and guilty. One had no power; the other had all of it, and so forth. This led me to believe that she felt black because whiteness for her was intolerably negative, whereas blackness was appealing.

I was unsure how to respond. If I asked her if she felt anything positive about her white identity, the question could have provoked her. Besides, I couldn’t think of anything positive about white people that didn’t sound racist, even to my own ears. Nor could I think of a single shortcoming in another ethnic group that didn’t sound racist. Even exploring the topic in my own thoughts felt somehow wrong.

As her therapist, I wanted to help, but it wasn’t clear how to do so. Would it have been racist to ignore her comments or racist to explore them? Should she be free to see herself as black if she wanted?

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