Dr. Imani Walker

Picking a Psychiatrist’s Brain About Kanye, Racism, and the Rise of Karens

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Getting to the root of society’s toughest struggles with the realest shrink in L.A.: Dr. Imani Walker.

If you see her, you will never forget her. And if you hear her, you will hang onto every word.

Last year, Dr. Imani Walker shared her take on Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the Joker with us, and it spread around the web like wildfire, as her expertise as an L.A. psychiatrist who deals with mentally disturbed criminals mixed beautifully with her bold frankness.

The women of “Married to Medicine Los Angeles. Credit: Bravo

Walker is not shy, and she is not hard to find. When she isn’t telling it how it is on social media or her newly launched podcast, she can be found on Bravo’s “Married to Medicine Los Angeles.”

Now nearly a year later, we are back to ask her about the psychological roots of racism and why some people do not want to acknowledge Black Lives Matter. We also talk about the rise of the Karens and what those close to Kanye should do about his admitted mental illness.

One of the things you have said on your podcast is when white people ask you about Black Lives Matter or racism or something like that, you say, “You’re going to have to learn it on your own, or you’re going to have to pay me.” Which is funny, and it’s something I’ve heard from other people. But on the other hand, I feel like if I don’t educate people, they might get bad information from someone else. So I don’t mind spending a few minutes breaking it down.

I still feel that way just because of my own experiences over the course of my life. I went to private school, and there were times when I was the only Black person in my grade, and it just takes me back to those times where it was like, “No, you cannot touch my hair. And no, it does not feel like Brillo. But I swear I’m going to beat you if you don’t get out of my face.”

I have a lot of white friends, but I have never had to teach them. It was never an issue, even back in high school. That doesn’t mean we haven’t had spirited discussions about things, but I have never had to check somebody and say, “That was hella racist.” So that’s good.

But I do agree with you. If anybody is going to explain it, I think I’m a good person to do it.

I ask because recently, I posted a story on Facebook about my girlfriend, who is white, who popped open a can of soda inside the Rock & Roll Ralphs and I told her, “I’m going to go far away from you and buy my things way over there.” The response by my white friends was the same as from her, “Wait, what’s the problem? You can’t do that?”

No. No, we cannot! Keep your hands out of your pockets. Don’t do anything remotely suspicious. So that’s why I don’t mind the conversation because even well-meaning people may not know our true walk.

No, they don’t. I was watching John Oliver on Sunday about Juneteenth. Now, I’ve known about it because I grew up in Texas until I was 13. He said 48% of Americans didn’t know it existed. But no one Black is going to say, “I’ve never heard of this.” Because we are always the cultural translators.

First, we come up with the trend. Then, it becomes part of our culture. Then, we have to also learn how white people have recreated it. It’s something that we do innately. There’s so much that white people do not know about us. We know more about them than they will ever know about us. They don’t know because they don’t have to know.

It’s like you in the grocery store. “What are you doing? OK, I’m going to get killed because you gotta get that sip.” I know she didn’t think about it that way, but I don’t even eat grapes in a store.

That brings me to “Dave” and cultural appropriation, which comes up in the finale of the show. You said in your podcast how much you love the show. And the finale — which raised questions about appropriation — was wonderful. Even though “The Breakfast Club” was acting — they’re usually more hospitable than they were with Lil Dicky — Charlemagne was right, wasn’t he? Isn’t Lil Dicky appropriating?

But here’s my question: Everyone wants to be loved. We as Black folk want to be loved and accepted like anyone else. But when white people go that extra mile and start “culturally appropriating” and imitating us, we get pissed off. Are we the crazy ones here?

It’s interesting because I wrestle with that too. Let’s start from the beginning. I am as old as hip-hop because I was born in 1975. And hip-hop started in the Bronx. But when it started, it was so fringe that there weren’t any clubs in the Bronx, so a lot of the hip-hop parties were in downtown Manhattan. So you always had white folks around.

I’m not going to say they were artists, but they were drawn to the novelty of it, and some who were like, “I love this shit,” and saw it for what it was. And then, there were those who were very duplicitous about their desire to take more of our culture.

The thing about Lil Dicky, I don’t see him as appropriating because he is definitely talented. He has bars. We are not dealing with an Iggy Azalea situation. Maybe at some point in her life a long time ago she could rhyme. But then we all heard that gobbly-goo audio. That is disrespectful and appropriation. She even appropriated her body to look “more Black.”

But I don’t see Lil Dicky as somebody who has bad intentions. The thing that stood out for me when I watched the show, especially the episode where Gata revealed that he is bipolar, was Gata is legit his friend. He cares for him. He loves him. And that’s different to me.

It’s kind of like Snow. Recently, I read about him, and he did grow up in Toronto in a majority Caribbean neighborhood. And if that’s what he wanted to do with himself, that’s what he did.

Do you remember that Super Bowl ad for VW a few years ago? It was a white dude going around his office, and he had a Jamaican accent? It was so hilarious to me because I am Jamaican. Black people were like, “That’s racist, and he shouldn’t do that.” But the thing about Jamaica is, it’s very multicultural. There are white Jamaicans. They talk like that. My grandma was Chinese, but from Jamaica, so she talked like that.

Just like Black people are not a monolith, you can’t always assume that people are always appropriating. I want to, but the more I get to know them, I’ll say, “You know what, you’re alright.” And consider that person an ally.

The other thing that people who are not from the Caribbean wouldn’t know is that Jamaicans love country music and pop. Sunday mornings, all they play on the radio is country songs and remade country songs by Jamaican artists. Their Quiet Storm, the slow jams, goes all night. And it goes hard. And they take it seriously.

Celine Dion is a goddess on the island. I’m not even playing with you. They will fight you over some Celine Dion.

And that’s why I have questions about racism. It is so hard for me to understand that when wealthy people who have had the privilege to travel the world, who have seen some of these unexpectedly wonderful traits in people that you are talking about — that are rooted in love — how can they come back to America and pretend that all Latinxs are one way and all Black people are another way when they just saw it played out differently in the rest of the world? So what is at the root of racism? Is it a psychological thing or is it a learned thing?

There’s a term in psychology called folie à deux. Personally, I have never seen it, but it’s very interesting because usually when someone is delusional, they have a firm, fixed false belief about something. A folie à deux is when two people have the same delusion.

So usually when someone is delusional, you have to do something like reality test them.

For example, if I was delusional, I would say, “Tony, the sky is purple today.” And you’re like, “No, it’s not.”

So what would you do as a clinician is you would get other people and say, “Hey, what color is the sky?” And when they say the sky is blue, sometimes the delusional person will stick to his guns.

When it comes to racism, it reminds me of folie à deux. There really are white people who, when I was 13 years old, believed I was 18. Or the worst case ever, that still pisses me off today, what happened with Emmett Till. It was all a lie. And no one said to her, “Oh, are you sure?” Because it would be like, “How dare you question me, a white woman?”

So they’re all playing into this delusion that they’ve been taught: that white is right, that white supremacy — even though they don’t want to always admit it — is a thing, and they have to all stick together, or this racism shit will end.

Would another delusion be: “These Confederate statues are of heroes, our Southern heritage and we have to have them”?

And y’all lost. Remember? It’s like, back to John Oliver, while he was explaining how history books were being written to not be “unfair to the Confederacy.” It’s like, bitch, no. You all don’t want to deal with facts. To me, that’s a prime example of a delusion.

We know what happened. Everybody knows what happened. There would not be a United States of Anything if y’all won. But because your feelings got hurt and you can’t accept that, now you’re going to make up a lie and make everyone agree with you? That’s fucked up.

But that’s what racism is. We all — Black, white, Asian, Latino — everyone has to buy into this, or the construct won’t work.

Another so-called fact being challenged today is Christopher Columbus. People are pulling down his statue in Chicago for a number of reasons, while others are learning he didn’t actually discover the United States, despite what we were taught in school. And trust me when I tell you I know a few Italians in Chicago who are not very happy about anyone disrespecting Columbus.

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A friend of mine challenged me. I will say, “Oh, I’m West Indian, I’m Jamaican.” He said, “Well, you really should say your heritage is Caribbean. The West Indies are called that because Columbus went there and thought it was India.” Even though we have accepted it, I’m still playing into the delusion.

That’s the fucked up part about racism. Again, in the John Oliver piece, there was the Black man from Tulsa who was saying, “What are you talking about? There was a race riot? I am from Tulsa. I’ve never heard of that.” And again, we all have to buy into it, or it’s not going to work.

But the thing about this year is a lot of people are saying, “I’m not doing this shit anymore.” And the funniest thing, think about it, overnight, statues were coming down. We all knew it was bullshit, but we still played into it!

There is a group of people out there who know why Colin Kaepernick knelt. But they want to pretend that he’s doing it to disrespect the flag, or the country or the troops. They know that’s false. They know he’s protesting police brutality.

Should we believe that they have not been educated by now? Should we give them the benefit of the doubt, or are they just trying to be obstinate?

I think it’s both.

But like even President Trump? By now, he must know why athletes are kneeling, or is there something psychologically wrong in a whole swath of white people, where they don’t want to believe that it’s about the police and not the flag?

They know what it’s about. Do you remember the Eddie Murphy “SNL” skit where he is Mr. White?

You cannot tell me that when white people are alone, they don’t do things for each other.

How would I know? They would never do it in front of me. When I saw it on TV as a kid, I thought that is funny as hell and I bet it’s true.

My mom was talking to my 13-year-old son. She said, “I need you to know that there are some nice people who support Trump.” Maybe before this last election, we could agree to disagree. But now it’s like, “I need you to agree with me, or I’m sorry, but I can’t.” That man is so malignantly narcissistic.

Did you see that Axios interview? It was so out of control, and it seriously made me think I was at work. That’s what it is.

When I first see a patient who is not medicated, who is acting bizarrely, who has been brought to the hospital because they are on a psychiatric hold, it’s that same thing. The look of confusion on that reporter’s face is why I say to people, “Don’t argue with a delusional person. You will never win. Because they believe that shit.” And I’m like, what are you talking about?

So I have had to learn over time to not have that reaction show up on my face.

So would you say that Trump has a mental issue, or is he just an old man?  Because if it was our grandfather, we would just say, “Oh, he’s just old, he should retire.”

I think it’s both. I think his niece broke it down, all the way to the ground. She’s a clinical psychologist. I saw one of her interviews and thought, “Well, I don’t know him like that, but she does.”

When it comes to someone like Trump, yes he’s racist, but I also believe he’s mentally ill. I think the worst parts of the reactions of racists is that … It’s bullying on a global scale.

Another thing I’d like your take on is All Lives Matter. It seems like some people are trying to be willfully ignorant about what Black Lives Matter is supposed to be. Is it because some people feel terrible about their involvement either directly or indirectly with the plight of Black folk, or is it something deeper than that?

I think that when it comes to white people, they’re just used to always winning. Even when they fail, they still win. If I am up against a white man for a job, nine times out of 10, he’s going to get it because we still play into the bullshit. It’s very hard for them not to be on top or not be considered.

White people have a lot of work to do. I say, “Y’all need your allies to tell your racist family or whatever. That’s the Civil War that y’all need to have amongst yourselves. Leave me out of it.”

So Black people should push their white friends any time we hear nonsense like All Lives Matter?

I think so.

So it is on us.

It is on us, but again, either we are scared to do it, or it’s like, “I don’t even give a fuck about y’all any more. Do whatever you’re gonna do.”

I ask because a few years ago, the L.A. Times had a mandate by its owner, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, the richest man in L.A., to hire 100 new people and to make sure they hired in diverse ways because the staff did not reflect what L.A. looks like.

This is a man who grew up in apartheid South Africa and wanted diversity in this great paper. And it did not end up that way. There is only one Black person on its largest desk, the Metro desk. And these are not racists.

These are some of the most intelligent, worldly, nicest, woke people. And still, they couldn’t complete the assignment. So is there something psychological ingrained even in good white people who know better?

I would say yes. I’m going to state a fact: White women have benefited the most from affirmative action, but even Black people don’t know that. And I say this because when white people think “diversity,” they think white women. It might be a Latino who presents as more Caucasian in their speech and mannerism, it might be someone who is north Asian who they feel more comfortable around because we all know of the stereotypes of the “Model Minority.”

But it’s never Black people. The only time it is is if it’s “OK, we have to do this, or I am getting fired. We gotta find a Black person, guys. Right now.”

So let’s talk about the Rise of the Karens. Is there something psychological behind these women that they want to call the cops on Black people?

I just read this article that said 40% of slave owners were white women. So let’s start there. Then let’s go to the suffragette movement. The issue at the time was white women were pissed because according to the law, only men could vote.

They were pissed because Black men could vote, technically speaking, and they couldn’t. It was not, “Oh ladies … ” No, it was, “Y’all let those niggas vote, but we can’t vote?”

So then you move to Jim Crow. Then you have Emmet Till where that woman lied on him. Then you have all those millions of white women who voted for Trump.

It sounds like you’re saying this is more cultural and learned than it is psychological.

I think it’s cultural and learned, but because we, as a society, believe these things and we teach them to our children, then it becomes psychological.

It’s so funny to me that they get upset with us calling them Karens when they were the ones who would say, “Oh, your name must be Laquita or Shaneqa?” But you can’t take being called Karen for 11 months?

Let’s talk about allies for a moment. These movements do not happen without allies, especially white ones, of whom there are many.

One of the most beautiful sights during all of this was when Hollywood Blvd was packed for blocks with people of all backgrounds shouting Black Lives Matter. That is what LA looks like and there it was. It warms my heart when I see a $2 million house in Los Feliz with a Black Lives Matter sign in the window. It blows me away to see the Portland Moms out there, the opposite of the Karens, risking life and limb for the equality of people who don’t look like them.

But looks rarely matter. Look no further than Herman Cain, who not only went to that Tulsa rally but wanted to belong so badly he didn’t wear a mask.

I gasped. I was like, “He’s dead?” But you can be Black, Latino, Asian and still be racist toward your own.

Is that how you would describe him? Because I cannot wrap my head around him.

I can. He was someone who grew up poor, but let’s be real, he was likely given opportunities because he knew how to play the game to be liked by white people. So there isn’t much of a difference for me between him and Clarence Thomas.

They think, “I’m very dark-skinned. They’re never going to accept me. So let me do whatever I can, because I hate myself, to get approval from them.” And that killed him. That still haunts me to this day. It was like “Get Out,” the home game. He was like, “Whatever. We out here in these stands, me and my friends and family with no masks!” Some of the people who are most at-risk for COVID-19 are Black and elderly people. He was both. And I was like, “Love of whiteness KILLED you!” It’s like “Black Mirror.”

It is “Black Mirror,” it is “Get Out.” It’s every horror movie: the Black guy is the first to die. Which brings us to someone who we both love, who we are both probably worried about: Calabasas’ own Kanye West. Everyone knows the drama. And more will probably bubble up before this interview gets published. Since she is the only one who can save him, what should Kim do for Kanye?

When you start to care for someone who is very mentally ill, the person who is ill starts to lose their identity. And what you start to see more and more is their symptoms — to the point where you start to conflate their identity with their symptoms. I think that’s what a lot of people have been doing with Kanye.

I went on Twitter and started saying, “This is mania, and this is what it can look like.” There were people who were mad, and that’s proof of the stigma. This man is sick. Yes, you can be very passionate. But at some point, you have to ask yourself, would you ever say what he just said? Would you ever do that?

I think the only way for Kim to come out of this on the other side —  I’m not going to say she should divorce him — but two weeks ago, he was manic. Then he was, “Oh I’m so sorry,” because he started to come down. That’s the nature of mood swings. I don’t think I could be with someone who continued to not take medications, especially when we have kids. Especially when you’re going to go on TV, and do things that are completely illogical and very bizarre and very in tune with your bipolar disorder, which you have made public and spoken about.

I knew when Kanye started getting into this church, “Oh shit, his symptoms are coming back.” It’s one thing to be religious and spiritual, but there is a symptom of bipolar disorder known as hyperreligiosity.

When you mentioned it on your podcast, I wrote that phrase down because we have seen this before in others. Religious zealot is almost hackneyed because we have seen it so often.

Exactly. And Kanye has said it publicly, “I don’t want to take medications.” And I was like, “Oh, “Sunday Service”? OK.”

Now here’s the thing, is Kanye talented? Yes, he is. Is he bipolar? Yes, he is. Both of those things can coexist. I am not trying to stigmatize him or bash him or say anything negative about him. This is his truth. And because he has means it is very difficult for him to get the help that he needs voluntarily.

All I can say is, Kim Kardashian, I don’t know you, girl. And I never thought I’d ever say this because she is the biggest cultural appropriator, she and her whole family, but I cannot believe how badly I feel for her. Because he’s like, “Nope. All I have to do is keep being manic because my music will keep being great.”

People worry that when they get better, their creativity will go away. But the illness isn’t like that. When you get better, you will still be creative. But what happens is, over time, when you’re manic, your output is shitty.

Kanye West performing at the Forum.
Kanye West at the Forum. Photo by Tony Pierce.

I listened to “I Hate Being Bi-Polar, Its Awesome.” I tried. But I was like, Kanye, hell no. Now, his newer stuff is actually good. Does that mean he created it when he was manic? Maybe. But, again, mania and creativity — they don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but sometimes they should be.

In the case of Kanye, he needs that because if he and Kim were to separate, it’s going to be a pretty steep downward trajectory because he doesn’t seem to have anyone to say, “Yo, you are sick. You’re sick!”

Let me ask you this about Kim. Would it be wrong for her to make him some soup — and put the meds in the soup?

It’s wrong because even though the person might be better, he might think, “Oh, I’m just getting better naturally.” For someone who is on medications, who is taking medications, you will probably be on them for the rest of your life. That’s how the brain works.

He’s not getting the support that he needs to know that, yes, you have this illness, and this is what makes it better. What makes it better is not doing a bunch of coke and coming up with music. That’s not what it is. The fact that he won’t take his meds despite the fact that he has four kids — I only have one son. If I was bipolar out the ass, would I get help? Of course, I would.

I went on Prozac in February, and my whole life is better now. I did not know I was depressed for as long as I can remember. But my son told my mom, “This is the happiest I’ve ever seen my mom.”

There are patients who are so mentally ill they will never accept the fact that they are sick. And those are the people who have to go into facilities sometimes. Kanye is getting to the point that he is getting on that spectrum.

One thing I loved about your podcast is you and your best friend talk about your therapists. It made me wonder, do you think everyone would benefit from going to therapy? Is it a healthy thing for everyone, the same way a gym teacher would say everyone should jog a couple of times a week? Should we all be checking our heads? Even if we think we are healthy?

I would say yes. My friends who are millennials are all in therapy. They go to individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy. They are not ashamed of that.

There are things we have to come to grips with as we develop and grow as people. Maybe it doesn’t mean you have to have a severe mental illness, but I think it’s always good to talk with an outside objective party about things that are bothering you. Because you can always convince yourself that you don’t need help. Or you can compare yourself to your friend and say you’re way better.

I think it’s really like a seventh sense. There are six, but the seventh would be evaluation of one’s self.

Most people have had some sort of trauma, maybe not sexual or physical or mental, but there are things in everyone’s life where they may have been deeply hurt, and they didn’t have the ability to really express themselves. So yeah, I’m down for everyone going into therapy.

Finally, I want to ask you about Ellen. How do you feel about cancel culture? Is it a necessary phase of this era?

I am someone who definitely sees the worst — as in symptoms — in certain people, and as someone who went into psychiatry because I like to see the 180 that occurs when people do get proper treatment and therapy and the proper medication.

When it comes to Ellen, I understand that people are upset. But I am also, like you, Gen X, and we grew up with some highly un-PC TV shows and art and all that.

For me, I am someone who does believe in redemption. Some of my patients will commit a crime and have to go to the state mental hospital, and they’ll get released conditionally.

There are a number of my patients who have killed their parents because they were ill. And now they are the sweetest people. They are so nice. And it was because it wasn’t them, it was their symptoms. I’m not saying Ellen is mentally ill.

Sometimes it’s nice to see someone progress. And cancel culture is dangerous sometimes because you don’t allow the person to actually get better.

Sometimes, it’s nice to see someone say, “I was super fucked up. I’m really sorry. I get it. Y’all was right. I was wrong.”

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