Black faces and white workplaces (PART 1)

This post is the summary and write- up of a few Twitter threads I wrote focused on self-care for people of colour working in white institutions. The reflections presented below are based on conversations I have had with people of colour, some of whom have become seriously distressed and quite psychologically unwell in white organisational settings. A few have openly spoken of becoming suicidal. Others have retired on ill health grounds. Some have sought me as a friend or more formally as a therapist to help them make sense of their experience. 

The level of psychological injury and disability people of colour sustain at work because of racism, is still an unknown quantity. Nonetheless, my aim here is not to try and quantify but, using an analytic framework primarily, to attempt to formulate what I am recurrently entrusted with. I have to say though, that I too as a Black woman, am working through this shit. None of us have this completely figured out.

Navigating white spaces

I am starting this piece on three premises. Firstly, that workplaces are a microcosm of society and thus, that every dynamic and process which occur between groups in society will get mirrored within institutions. Secondly, that organisations generally do not want to change and will resist change in various and complex ways, regardless of what they may tell themselves (a Black or Brown body inhabiting a previously all white space is a fundamental change).

The final premise is related to both points above, it is that there is a level of communication, which is unseen and pre-verbal that neither employees of colour nor white employees or structures are adequately equipped (or willing) to unpack. It is likely, often, at this unconscious level of interaction, I would posit, that most race related conflicts between employees of colour and white institutions find their genesis and, that harmful social configurations and inequalities are reproduced.

The unhelpfulness of diversity rhetorics

Black and brown bodies have to navigate a tricky territory when working in white spaces. The associated demands are often trivialised partly because assimilation is the default expectation when it comes to whiteness and partly because white supremacy naturally needs to invisibilise the harm it inflicts upon people of colour to naturalise itself. There is thus a fundamental ambivalence at the core of the diversity agenda.

White institutions may go out of their way to recruit ‘BME candidates’ or to attract ‘difference’, however, once such (racial) difference enters the workplace, if it does at all, the expectation is usually that it must dress itself in whiteness. This rule is as powerfully enforced as it enforced tacitly. It is that very rule that dictates that we must remain silent when subjected to racism, that we must adopt organisational narratives, that we must overlook micro-aggressions and generally that we must keep white people comfortable. When there is no space for you to be, self-erasure becomes the modus operandi. The cognitive and affective efforts required are deemed irrelevant. Sometimes, part of your personal development… The ontological and social consequences rarely, if ever, considered.

There are of course ethical and legal requirements imposed on institutions in relation to equality and race relations, nonetheless, it is a sad fact that the impetus for diversity has created widespread tokenism. What is often sought is window dressing, something many workplaces themselves, having so internalised their own institutional discourses, may be oblivious to.

In this context any indication that an employee of colour may be refusing assimilation by for example, by speaking out or by seeking to address structural inequalities, will challenge the institution and within it fantasies of equality, of cohesion, symbolically, fantasies of symbiotic fusion.  Forcing an institution to face its shadow, usually sets in motion destructive dynamics, triggers a denigrating white Gaze and/or let loose violence and aggression towards the now disowned object.

Control or surveillance measures may become initiated. Institutional marginalisation, ostracisation and/or exclusion may quickly follow. These defensive moves are attempts to distance the collective self from the bad object and maintain a sense of institutional/collective (non-racist)  goodness. The splitting process may then give rise to a complex interplay of projections, introjections, transference and counter-transference mechanisms. On a more individual level, for example, for the employee of colour, specific individuals in the workplace may come to represent abusive figures from their past and/or reproduce known traumatic relational patterns. Someone who was bullied as a child, may come to relate to management or colleagues as they related to those who subjected them to abuse in their personal history. 

The intergenerational context

A faceless, yet unfaceable ‘monster’ composed of an amalgamation of all oppressive experiences/oppressors may come into being in the workplace which may as a result become an intolerable space. Trauma responses such as terror, nightmares, helplessness and powerlessness, sweating and panic…can be elicited in the worker of colour who may struggle to understand the intensity of their reactions. Such responses are rendered more distressing as the intergenerational context becomes embroiled. As institutional patterns echo more distal historical events, historical trauma is likely to become activated.  

This is what Alleyne refers to as the ‘internal oppressor’ which she defines as ‘memory imprints from the legacy of a painful historical past… marked, and re-opened with the occurrence of oppressive workplace practices’. In essence the ‘internal oppressor’ means that painful historical memories such as apartheid, colonialism, slavery gain cognitive salience increasing distress in the present and according to Alleyne, constellating into a post-traumatic ‘syndrome’. 

Whilst most theorists and thinkers interested in historical trauma have focused on the intergenerational archetypes triggering distress in people of colour, the limited attention paid to the impact of the intergenerational context on white people’s psyches and functioning fails to address the intersubjective nature of trauma and more generally, of all unconscious processes. 

There is no doubt in my mind that racial trauma is the response to racial persecution and that both relational processes exist co-dependently.  Wether at conscious or unconscious level. The employee of colour who is experiencing suicidal feelings or thoughts for example, probably does so because the work group they found themselves in, wishes to disappear them, and that projection is identified with. The experience is co-created. 

Intersubjectivity and the social unconscious  

Foulkes is credited with introducing the concept of the Social Unconscious which he used to highlight the internalised social world that people are unaware of and, its properties. His thinking led to two main schools of thoughts in relation to the social unconscious. The first qualifies the social uncounscious as automatic memories and sees it as triggered in us outside of our awareness. The second view, arguably more radical,  proposes that the social unconscious is part of our personal matrix, that it thus a structure of the psyche.

The social uncounscious offers a enlightening framework to make sense of racial conflicts in organisational settings particularly, the intersubjective dimension of intergenerational trauma. When people of colour re-experience the past and intergenerational wounds, it is not only because white people or white institutions come to represent figures or events from the past, I posit that it is because they embody them and to a large extend, become them. 

In other words, we create, fix and respond to each other, intersubjectively according to collective and historical configurations we share as member of a particular social system. Our group matrices contain these historical patterns of relational configurations and communications which are more likely to become embodied and reproduced under certain circumstances. Namely, I propose when those whose body do not belong, dare challenging power structures. 

The issues here are consequently not simply representational. In the same sense that Black and Brown bodies may experience terror and behave as though the historical traumatic agent was re-occurring, employers embody persecution and often sadism, by behaving as though they once again were colonial persecutory powers. Unconsciously. Sadistic tendencies/instincts can be awaken in those with power because they too may carry the historical blueprint of racial violence. 

The exclusion, the harsh discipline, the ostracisation…are not simply symbols, they are real acts of violence which have such deep historical resonance, it seems absurd not deconstruct them in that light. It is no coincidence that when challenged, institutions’s default setting is to revert to reproducing violent archetypes evoking collective memories, images, myths and fears for which people of colour came to be known for and constructed as, under imperialism. ‘Management’ strategies align perfectly when taking historical lenses, though contemporarily, they often appear disproportionate, knee-jerked and irrational. The intensity of the reactions here too, betrays the depth of the phenomenon. 

And so of course, it is no coincidence that those people who belong to groups who have been at the receiving end of white terror historically, respond in kind. It is this reciprocity, this interplay of uncounscious defenses (and offenses) which seem to me to be pointing in the direction of the social uncounscious, that highlights both shared integenerational material at polar ends of the same trauma.

Thank you for reading.

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Culturally Biased Therapy? (Part 2) Injustice and depression

In a previous article problematising Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) from a racialised perspective, I proposed that the epistemic assumptions underlying the model were capable, at group level, of subjecting people of colour (POC) to violence in part, by reproducing discourses of inferiorisation which help maintain the status-quo and thus, white supremacy.  In the present piece, I wish to continue to reflect on such assumptions focusing in particular on the conceptualisation of depression and its implications for people whose existence is plagued by inequality and injustice. I will draw in part, from my lived experience and posit that the invisibilisation of injustice or the pathologisation of injustice related wounds or responses, are further acts of violence which again disproportionately affect people of colour and by reproducing social hierarchies.

Mental health inequalities                                                                   

Racial inequalities within mental health services need little introduction. They have been the subject of hundreds of studies over decades which have consistently found that Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, as a group, are more likely to be diagnosed with ‘mental health problems’ and are more likely to be admitted to psychiatric hospitals. Further, such groups are more likely to experience poor outcomes from ‘treatment’ and are similarly more likely to be ‘treated’ coercively. More to the point here, we also know that people of colour are more likely to disengage from mainstream mental health services and to find them irrelevant or inappropriate. This state of affair is undoubtedly the interplay of various factors, including structural racism. And, in particular, mainstream mental health services’ continuing difficulties in providing support that is acceptable and accessible to racialised ‘minorities’.

The picture for depression is less clear. The depression of people of colour is arguably still both poorly understood and poorly recognised by health professionals. Yet, economic and social factors and the increased occurrence of adverse life events and trauma in this group likely increases the incidence of depression. There are on-going concerns over the lack of statutory support for some racialised groups when they experience depression or low mood. The dominance of bio-medical frameworks and their associated individualistic interventions often fail to translate into service uptake for people of colour. Part of this disconnect, I believe, is epistemic and so we must return to the assumptions related to the nature and origins of wellbeing and of psychological distress of mainstream/dominant models, namely here, CBT.

 A cognitive model of depression

Beck’s cognitive theory remains one of the most influential when it comes to formulating depression. The model is composed of three elements as represented in figure a).  The diagram proposes that a person’s belief system when they experience depression, is underscored by a cycle of negative view of the self, negative view of world and negative view of the future. Each component of the model is posited to interact with and to strengthen the others so that attributions of events, for example, are believed to originate from dysfunctional beliefs about the self, the world, and the future and in turn, negative beliefs about the future maintain negative feelings about the self and the world. The cycle is believed to be fed by dysfunctional thoughts and behaviours which ultimately maintain depression.

Many have clearly found the model useful to make sense of depression. I’ve always struggled. Firstly because, of the assumption of irrationality or dysfunction rather than adaption. Further, the triad, is too removed from contextual factors which may provide the fuel, if not be the genesis for the triad, rendering it both highly individualistic and pathologising in its emphasis. And more critically, I think there is something quite perverse which is done; in the name of therapy; to marginalised groups when the violence they experience in the world is invisibilised by people who at the very least, may be charged with benefitting from the said violence.

The impact Injustice

I have been doing equality and justice focused work for the past fifteen years or so. Fifteen years. That’s a long time for someone still in their thirties. About half my life…If I take into account my lived experience; I have been doing this stuff for most of my life. There is no single part of my existence that has been untouched by injustice, one way or the other. As a child, I remember being very upset by unfairness. Almost at soul level. I was an unusually observant child. I cried many tears over things most children do not concern themselves with, most were equality related. And there was much to cry about for a child attuned to the world around her. I understood injustice left marks. I could see it on the slumped shoulders and almost vacant gaze of neighbours in the cité. One of the psychological costs of exclusion. It was in the way they walked and moved too, as though lifeless. I could see it in the eyes of my parents as they fought low expectations and navigated racialised xenophobia. They did not need to name it. 

I have recognised this embodiment clinically, this imprint on the soul. It is unmissable to the trained eye. To the sensatised body…It led me to the conclusion that the need for justice may well be anchored deeply within us. Social determinants of heath are getting increased recognition in relation to mental health inequalities. And while their distributions among different groups are known to affect health outcomes, there’s been little theorisation as to how they inflict harm psychologically.  Injustice appears to me to be a unifying factor. I would suggest that it is through our lived experience of injustice that most social determinants are mediated internally, that they take hold and lodge themselves within us. I do not think it is coincidental that the experiences that most accurately predict psychological distress such as bullying, discrimination, sexual abuse, poverty even bereavement and seem to all involve a breached sense of justice.

This breach of the principle or expectation of justice in the world seems therefore to be something that profoundly distresses us. It is capable of transforming us and our outlook on life. Reflecting upon my own clinical work, I do not believe that I have ever met a single person in distress who was not struggling with injustice. One way of the other. From the persecuted asylum seeker who feels god’s fury has turned onto them despite them devoting their entire life to religion, to the child who cannot comprehend why they are the one being picked on at school or who was born ‘different’. From the parents struggling to say goodbye to a dying child to those have been laid off because of ageism or sexism. From those whose historical trauma is constantly reproduced in the oppression they experience at work, to those whose body was objectified in the most degrading ways. Injustice automatises us. Injustice despairs us. Injustice wounds us. Deeply.

Injustice and depression

I was once told in a CBT class that seeking justice was pathological. That ‘demanding fairness’ was considered dysfunctional within CBT. I know many therapists believe this. But still…Imagine hearing this as a matter of fact, from a white man when your body is black and female. Just let this sink in. So I just want to say that as a black woman, the dysfunction to me, lays in adjusting and adapting to injustice and socialising the people who have suffered unspeakably at its hands into accepting it. The dysfunction is telling marginalised bodies that it is healthy, mature and desirable not to ‘demand’ justice while reaping the benefits of such manufactured powerlessness and apathy. I want to propose that maybe, just maybe, the dysfunction resides in the invisibilisation of the impact of injustice.

Let me also suggest that perhaps it is not pathological to be destabilised and affected by injustice in the world but that it is beautifully human and, that each time we socialise ourselves into accepting injustice we cut ourselves off from parts of our humanity, we normalise social inequality, we add an additional layer of protection to an already solid status-quo. Have you never wondered why children learn to say ‘it’s not fair’ and to comprehend injustice before they can say or grasp much else in the world? Perhaps this tells us something about us as human beings. Perhaps this is why people tend to experience distress or mourn or occupy space differently when they’ve been hit by injustice. And because some of us find ourselves at the intersection of various axes of oppression, we get hit more often. More deeply. More systematically. Our resources to remain unharmed, constantly tested. Sometimes they give. 

Injustice model of depression 

                                                

Those reflections led me to the above model (figure b). The injustice model naturally starts with and focus on the impact of injustice. It proposes that injustice leads a transformed a) sense of safety b) sense of security about the future and that both those components are mediated by an increased sense of ontological insecurity. By ontological insecurity here, I simply mean living in an embodied condition of fear, or dread, of threatening uncertainty in relation to one’s being in the world. Being able to maintain a sense of justice is central to our ontological equilibrium as human beings. It makes us feel secure both in the world and with others. It helps us trust ourselves and thus, trust others. It allows us to make predictions about the future. To have agency. Injustice shakes all of this. It is not therefore surprising that feelings of melancholia, of dread and helplessness can be triggered by injustice.

To conclude, there is nothing within people of colour’s cognitions or within marginalised bodies more broadly, that render us inherently pessimistic, prone to ‘dysfunctional beliefs’ and thus more likely to experience depression or ‘mental health problems’.  This is implied when intrapsychic formulations focus on some purported dysfunctions in the evaluation of the world at the expense of the harm which is done onto people. As though we were all gifted the same world.  The injustices we face also exist outside of our cognitions, at least in my worldview. They are material. They are sustained, for too many of us they are structural.

And, when injustice is done onto us and we recognise it as such, our self-image often shifts, our relationship with the world and with ourselves are often hit. Our sense of  belonging and being in the world can become shaky. This is more than a matter of  ‘viewing’ the world differently. This is not a matter of glasses being half full or half empty. I frankly find that this suggestion smacks of unpacked privilege. And arrogance. Our world is transformed by injustice. We are transformed too, possibly even epigenetically. 

It took me a while to try and articulate my reflections on the subject. When knowledge is embodied it can be difficult to translate it into words and to share it with the world, in way that speaks to others. Or perhaps this is my anxiety. So this is that first attempt. I ran a poll on Twitter earlier in the month, asking POC who had experienced low mood, which model (between the cognitive model and the injustice model) they felt best captured their experience and as the results below suggest, my lived experience seems to have resonated. The only validation I needed. And so, I am hopeful. I am hopeful that the model has the potential to help engage those who have traditionally felt alienated. Those who have felt invisibilised by mainstream therapy models. I believe this is how we start to heal. By being seen. 

I welcome feedback. 

Twitter poll results



Thank you for reading.
 

If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word. All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections. If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.
  

 

 

 

 

 

White women’s innocence, oppression and a can of Pepsi

Capitalism and white saviourism

Kendall jenner, the new face of white saviourism according to Pepsi, has faced global criticisms over the brand’s recently released (and recently cancelled) new advert. In the commercial, the young woman is seen handing a peace inducing can of Pepsi to a police officer during a protest troublingly evoking police brutality and more sinisterly, police brutality against black bodies. Actually, it may be more accurate to write that it is Pepsi which, by and large, has faced the backlash. Messages of support and words in defence of the reality TV star’s innocence are readily available.

Pepsi who was quick to respond to the negative feedback, accepted it had ‘missed the mark’and pulled the plug on the commercial hours after it was released. In a rather neoliberal move though, the corporation went on to include Kendall in its public apology. That is to say, the brand issued an apology to both those offended if not distressed by this output, and the person who delivered the output, or the final blow. The hurt feelings of the person who was the vehicle literally, for the whole fiasco were coddled. Imagine. An apology directed at both the accomplices of a ‘crime’ and its victims. Some apology indeed.

This PR disaster is a perfect opportunity to stop and think, for a few moments, about the continued social construction of white womanhood and its role in the oppression of both people of colour and, of women of colour. A social construction Pepsi thought it could capitalise on without consequences. On the back of black pain. On the back too, of all those who have suffered violence and death at the hands of the state.

To be fair, I have had an earlier opportunity to consider these issues when I was asked on national television whether I could empathise with Rachel Dolezal’s position or claim to Blackness since she reportedly has experienced abuse and neglect as a child.  So I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect on white womanhood and the impact it has had on my life. I came to this conclusion. I am scared of white women. There, I said it. I am scared of white women. I am not scared of white women for I believe they are monsters or necessarily more dangerous or violent than any other group of women or human beings. I don’t believe so.

I am scared of white women as a group, for what they can do to me and get away with. I am scared of what society allows white women to do to black women and to other women of colour without ever being held to account. Without losing an ounce of that socially presumed innocence, or suffer any dent in the credibility of their sisterhood claims. And in truth, I’m scared because in this white patriarchal society, it is white women who have inflicted the most harm onto me. 

The unspeakable harm

As a feminist I can’t tell you how difficult this is to write. But nonetheless, this is the truth. A truth I am not expected to speak of. But white women have done harm to me. Serious harm. Probably more harm than all the men I have come across in my life. White men and men of colour combined. In my adult life. Whenever I reflect on the times I have experienced racism and discrimination related distress, it is the faces of white women I repeatedly see. Soft speaking and smart looking white women. Smiling. 

When I contemplated writing this piece, I  thought twice. In truth, I thought more than a few times. I was afraid. In fact, I still am a little. I know all too well the potential for my words to be twisted and convoluted so that they can tell the same old stories of that angry black woman with a chip on her shoulder, of reverse racism, of white women persecution. I know that if any white woman was to shed a single tear over these words, I could face structural violence or accusations of violence. Ironically. I know that some will invariably attempt to weaponise this reality, a reality which is not even only mine alone, and try to turn it against me looking for pathology or deficiency. But I am writing. And today, I am smiling.  Knowing fair well, no amount of sobbing from me and/or my Black sisters would ever get us the compassion I am asked to show or shift the gaze onto those who do us violence.

I chose to speak. I have an equal right to. I am tired of being asked to show kindness to those intent on not seing the harm they inflict onto me and others who look like me. I think I am getting too old for this. I have my own self-care to do.  I do not exist to serve the egos of violent white women or to protect their presumed innocence or claims to benevolence at the cost of my own sanity, because society will not recognise violence if it not obvious, male or gun/knife wielding. It is not in my interest to pretend I do not see the expectations of self-sacrifice here. They always find their way into my life… But I will not reproduce the very social hierachies which do violence to so many.

After the Pepsi scandal, Kendall relatives wanted us to know, ‘she  would have been absolutely mortified about the backlash anything offensive is just not her’ and that, ‘she means well, always’. And I have no doubt by the time I post this, liberals of all creeds will ask me to consider wether the harm white women inflict finds its source in patriarchy. Wether Jenner was used. Wether it is fair or intelligent even, to hold white women to account given they also suffer oppression and exploitation within these very social systems and, perhaps wether my words might cause me lose ‘allies’ and support when there’s so little of these around.  

All while the Jenners and Dolezals of this world sponge off Black pain and trauma maintaining that lucrative proximity to Blackness so many of us feel flattered by. So often dating or fantasising on Black men whilst treating black women with absolute contempt. Claiming benevolence whilst being unable to take responsibility for or reflect on any hurt occasioned since they are so clearly above racism. So no. I don’t need support and allyship that are contingent upon my silence. I don’t need a pat on the back in exchange for my empathy. Nor do I need my intelligence confirmed. I need for white women to quit weaponising innocence, their gift from white patriarchy, to navigate capitalism or to avoid accountability. Ultimately, I need for white women to stop being oppressive. That is what I need. So, it is what I am asking.

Thank you for reading.

If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word. All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections. If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.

  

The glass of dirty water: working with shame sociopolitically

Shame and women of colour 

I have been working specifically with women of colour (and migrant women) for some time now. I am writing to share a few reflections. One issue I have been paying increasing attention to is shame. It has become a major clinical theme. Over the years, I have heard so many stories of shame. Many triggered by trauma, shame for experiencing humiliating and degrading acts of torture or abuse. Shame for surviving when loved ones might have died. Shame for feeling violated or soiled thus becoming ‘damaged goods’. Shame for dishonouring families. But also, many shame stories of powerlessness linked to shame for being unable to stop loved ones from being raped or killed…or shame for having to leave children behind in search for a place of safety or to make a better life for them. 

Those stories were usually played out within other broader shame stories about occupying devalued social positions. For example, shame for being detained against one’s will. Shame for being a lesbian. Shame for being an undocumented migrant. Shame for having a disabled child. Shame for being disabled…Shame for contracting HIV. Shame for being on benefits or otherwise dependent on the state. Shame for being confronted with various stories of inferiority. And shame for believing in them too. Many of the stories above are naturally not exclusive to women of colour. Nevertheless, the intersections of systems of oppression and the prevalence of trauma in this group, often render shame a prominent fixture in their lives. Doing this work, I have come to realise how difficult many women I have met, seem to find identifying shame and naming it. 

The psychosocial functions of shame 

Shame is not only used to ‘self-regulate’ often, it functions as an embodied compass to evaluate our value or, as evidence/reminder of our lack of the same. As a result, when we experience shame, we may become fearful that speaking of it may lead others to evaluate us in the way we evaluate ourselves. To know we are worthless rather to know that we feel worthless. Basically, to be found out. Perhaps this helps explain why shame can be difficult to ‘own up’. Perhaps too, this is about avoiding the pain and embodied manifestations. No doubt, however that it is also to do with the power of hemogenies to force us to comply and conform despite the violence they do to us. 

Shame has long been considered a marker of ‘psychopathology’. I have previously written about the problems with formulating shame from individualistic lenses. As a reminder, shame is a powerful and effective tool of social control. It is this understanding that I have tried to impart in my therapeutic work by connecting the sociopolitical to the lived experience of shame of the women I have seen. So, when working with women of colour, I do not consider the stories of shame I hear to be manifestations of intrapsychic phenomena or psychic conflicts. I consider them to primarily be social products handed to and internalised by certain bodies and, which serve various sociopolitical agendas, interests and functions.

Patriarchy and all perpetrators of gendered violence for example, clearly have stakes, in women or in their victims experiencing shame. Not least because it reduces the possibility of accountability, in fact it shifts it altogether, silently reproducing the oppression of women. Similarly, the myth of meritocracy is reproduced when poor and socially disadvantaged groups feel shame for not achieving the social success of their more privileged counterparts. When inadequacy rather than unjust disadvantage is internalised as an explanatory model, it is less likely that unfair structures will be dismantled. In other words, the burden of shame is placed on the shoulders of the less powerful, shame is handed to survivors rather than to perpetrators. To the oppressed rather than to the oppressor. And this is simply power protecting itself. Systems reproducing themselves. 

The glass of dirty water

I have used the above ideas in my practice by asking women, to think of shame as a glass of dirty or unsanitary water that has been and, indeed continues to be handed to them to drink. The choice of the word handed here is purposeful. It aims to establish a boundary or some distance between shame and the person who experiences it. Further, doing so implicitly counters individualistic and decontextualised notions of shame as something intrapsychically generated. This aims too, to highlight the possibility of agency in shame, since something which is handed symbolically can be handed back or refused. ‘Handed’, implies an external origin(s) encouraging the scrutinisation or personification of the ‘giver’, the gaze, so to speak shifts. Finally, the fluidity of water is quite useful here. It reflects that whilst shame can so easily be taken in, it can similarly easily be shared.

The dirty glass of water metaphor has led to interesting reflections and therapeutic conversations facilitated by the use of relevant questions such as: when was the glass first handed to you? How full was the glass? How much of it did you drink? What did drinking this water do to you? How much of it are you still drinking today? Who has been handing you the glasses? 

From these biographical significant  considerations, the sociopolitical context, and in particular power relations, can be introduced, continuing on with the metaphor. Who tends to be handed glasses of shame socially? In situations of abuse of power who hands the glass? What makes people more likely to drink the water and why might that be so? Specific examples may be discussed to highlight the role of racialised and gendered hierarchies in the distribution of shame. So I might ask, in situations of gendered violence (against women) who tends to be handed the glass? Or again, when it comes to economic exploitation who drinks the water? In colonial situations ect…And, knowing what we know, how might we respond to being handed a glass? Who does the water  belong to? 

As we consider illustration after illustration, it becomes clear that something is shifting in the room. I have seen demeanours almost transformed. Often women come up with their own examples, sometimes they remain silent and reflective. Sometimes they cry. For most, it is the first time, a conversation situating shame within wider socio-political contexts was had. They realise their emotions are no testament to their inadequacy. Their experiences are not inherently shameful.  It is quite humbling to witness this epistemic shift in the room. All the more so, because it seems to happen so quickly, often one session is all it takes. It is important, to remember the glass of dirty water is about engaging and primarily, about meaning making. It is also about avoiding epistemic ignorance. It is too about starting to chip at internalised social hierarchies and oppression and thus, it is a humble attempt at quietly dismantling inequalities in the ‘real world’. I often have a glass of water in the room, following a session on shame. I usually do not draw attention to it. Some women will do so. I find it has a grounding effect and perhaps too, it helps to bring the sociopolitical into the room.

Thank you for reading.

If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word. All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections. If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.

Epistemic colonialism: A few thoughts 

 

On being taught my experience

A few months ago I was asked to speak at a community event on Fanon, decoloniality and radical mental health. There, I was approached, after my talk by a white man wishing to have a conversation. He said he wanted to invite me to a conference. We exchanged email addresses. When he later got in touch, he had made his way through Race Reflections on which he had posted half a dozen ‘private’ comments which he said were for my ‘benefit and learning’ only. Mainly, he was agreeing with my writing, indeed even commenting on the fact that I had a ‘very good understanding’ of the issues. He elaborated on some ideas, and suggested some reading.  All posts commented upon dealt with Black womanhood and my lived experience. That conference he had mentioned, he had no intention to invite me to speak at. Instead, he wanted to invite me to hear him speak. About Blackness and Fanon.

There was something quite violent if not slightly triggering, in the confidence with which that white man felt I would benefit from being schooled on my lived experience as a Black woman. It is quite disorienting and subtly objectifying to be doubted in or ‘assessed’ on one’s capacity to know especially when that knowing relates to one’s intimate relationship with oneself and the world. Something that mirrors the ease with which people with social power feel able to access and inhabit the phenomenological reality of the marginalised. And so… non-Muslim women have worn the Hijab for a day to ‘understand’ the gendered racism Muslim women have faced for generations. White people have gone black (face) to appreciate the continuing existence anti-blackness and, the wealthy and materially secure have slept rough in the streets of London (and of many other cities I am sure) to advocate for the homeless.

Knowing and inhabiting spaces

It is not only what we know about the world that is shaped by our ‘perspective’ but also what we cannot know. I have previously used a house analogy to try to illustrate that very point. When people speak about their (lived) experience, they describe what it is like to inhabit a particular space, which may be envisaged as a house. Clearly residing outside the house, would make any perspective on inhabiting the house impossible. One could not with any degree of validity agree, disagree or even comment on the experience of living in that space or assess what being inside might feel like or what the atmosphere may be experienced as, for example. Being outside the house actually means having no internal point of view, no perspective on living inside.

Even if one came to visit a few times, had friends living in the house, or if the windows were wide open, with the inside of the house in full view; one would not know about living inside and this would remain so, irrespective of how reflective one may be with regards to one’s social location and its map of power relations and whatever the relationship with the house’s residents. The above feel necessary to establish as there seems to be have been a shift towards more uncritical and quite oppressive adoption of ‘perspectives’ and positionality which give licence to more socially privileged people to speak and comment, with authority, on marginalised people’s lived experience while claiming to merely be offering a ‘perspective’. Nonetheless one which will often be strenuously defended as a right, and which will usually be claimed to be valid. As valid as our lived experience, if not more. 

The inhabiting of Others’ space geographically, geo-politically or phenomenologically, is naturally a function of social privilege. And, it is a reflection of the social order that the presence of the more socially powerful in such spaces is rendered automatically legitimate and thus deemed as such by those who may essentially be seen to be trespassing. There is no two-way street here. I struggle to imagine a Black woman asking a white man she’s just met to hear her speak on the ‘white experience’ or commenting profusely on his experience of white manhood. In fact, I even struggle to imagine a Black woman becoming an authority on the lived experience of white men. Similarly, geo-politically, whilst the Africanness of white people located in various countries in Africa is often taken for granted, the claim of people colour in relation to their Europeaness continues to be widely contested and mocked.

Phenomenological colonialism

White people will eventually acquire legitimate occupancy rights, if not native status; often above and beyond the indigenous populations whose land(s) they settled in. Privilege enables dominant groups to be blind to their ease of access and frequent feelings of entitlement to marginalised/colonised  spaces and to the various ways their claim to knowledge of our lived experience reproduces violence. The ideas that we can have a valid ‘perspective’ whilst holding ourselves almost as a kind of metropolis of every phenomenon or experience seems quite imperialist. Colonialism as a reminder, involved making illegitimate claims onto others’ territories and appropriating them for the purpose of economic, political and psychological exploitation, in addition, to taking at least partial, usually complete control of the said lands or alternatively, occupying them with settlers.

The justifications of colonial rule often rested upon strongly held beliefs in the supposed rights of colonisers, often thought to be divine, bolstered by claims of benevolence and/or superiority. Of course not everyone who speaks of the lived experience of the marginalised do so out of or with arrogance, saviourism or dominance or within settler colonialist fantasies. Nevertheless, knowing, particularly when it is made public, is not merely an individual act, it is also a social act. Certainly, it has social consequences.  The ‘invasion’ of the phenomenological worlds of the marginalised has effects which are harmful, notably because when voices deemed of authority give a name to a space, they transform that very space.  Those voices essentially bring a new place into existence (Creswell, 2004) and in doing so; erase any pre-existing notion of that space. In the same way America and Africa were ‘created’ as (meaningful) places at the beginning of their colonial encounter, the phenomenological field of the marginalised, despite claim of positionality, is at risk of becoming erased and replaced by the so called perspective of those with social power. This is what I call epistemic colonialism. 

The process of place making (and thus place erasing) is mirrored when voices of authority speak of a phenomenon or experience, even when they are located outside that experience. Perversely. As has been tirelessly theorised, knowing is inherently linked to power and, all marginalised groups within society are defined as non-knowers, to various extents. Offering privileged ‘perspectives’ crowds the field of our experiential knowledge with accounts that obscure our lived experience by those who are clearly located outside of the same but who are socially believed to have more elaborated capacities for analysis and whose knowledge can therefore be more easily trusted: the knowers.

The process of ‘perspective offering’ arguably here also reproduces a particular kind of violence which has been termed testimonial injustice by Fricker (2009).  Testimonial Injustice according to the Philosopher, is a kind of epistemic injustice whereby the legitimacy of marginalised people as knower, namely here of our own experience, is wronged in the main, because of societal prejudices and biases. ‘Testimonial injustice’ in addition to subjecting ‘minorities’ to violence, quietly reproduces material inequalities and social injustice. So…I did thank that man who congratulated me on my understanding of my own experience and proposed a take on it.  And, I thank him explicitly for that but, I was not flattered. And, I kindly declined to have anything to do with him.

Thank you for reading.

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Culturally Biased Therapy? (Part 1) Epistemic Violence and CBT 

For his first and rather controversial blog of 2017, the president of the British Psychological Society (BPS), Peter Kinderman took a critical look at Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Whilst acknowledging that the way that we make sense of the world has ‘profound implications’ for how we feel and behave and, referring to ‘acceptance and commitment therapy’ as a less individualist and pathologising ‘variant’ of CBT; Kinderman highlights in his blog, the serious limitations of focusing on people’s interpretations of events that are socially located and produced, to reduce psychological distress. He states:

‘CBT can rightly be criticised for adhering to an outdated and unscientific model of mental ‘illness’, for continuing to locate the blame for our distress inside our heads (rather than looking to social or even political root causes), and for sometimes implying both that people are responsible for “thinking errors” and that “positive thinking” can solve our problems’.

It was perplexing to see the above words create uproar. To me they did not go far enough. The individualism of CBT and its very real potential (to say the least), to lead to victim blaming and even re-traumatisation ought to be nothing new. Indeed, these are long standing critiques of CBT and, personal testimonies of people who have experienced the model as such are not hard to find. Many of us have had concerns over the uncritical dishing out of CBT, particularly to people of colour and other more marginalised groups, for years. This post is a first attempt at articulating some of these concerns.

What exactly is CBT, do we know?

CBT is reportedly a broad school of therapy said to include many different models (such as Mindfulness based approaches, Compassion Focussed Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and many others) with various theoretical and empirical bases. In all fairness, I am no longer sure at all what is meant by CBT because of this rather ‘eclectic’ amalgam. The continuing difficulty in defining what ‘cognitions’ are, of course does not help. This is a serious problem. Without agreement on one of the two core elements of CBT, we cannot reliably delineate the model or establish inclusion and exclusion criteria.

Perhaps this explains why this church of therapy might appear to be expanding so rapidly. The power and legitimacy the model has acquired and its dominance within health systems is of course not incidental here. Given the above, and to be sure we are indeed talking about CBT… it makes sense to ground any critique on more traditional approaches. Approaches which nonetheless continue to shape the practice of CBT. No doubt the most influential of models and, which has arguably provided the blueprint for most other models is Beck’s (1979). The Beck’s institute defines the model as follow:

‘Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is a time-sensitive, structured, present-oriented psychotherapy directed toward solving current problems and teaching clients skills to modify dysfunctional thinking and behavior’

CBT from this model (and a plethora of others) is centred on addressing ‘dysfunctional thinking’ posited to be the cause of psychological distress and, to take (behavioural) steps to solve on-going difficulties maintained. Often, this is achieved through ‘behavioural experiments’ or internal dialogues/self-talks and reflection. The essence of CBT, as it was intended at least, is thus the identification and modification of thoughts and beliefs deemed maladaptive (though more recently, distance from distressing thoughts has been added as an alternative aim). It is highly contestable whether psychological models that do not have this basic (former) element actually constitute CBT.

CBT and empirical psychology more generally have been criticised for ‘disavowing’ the metaphysics and history of their objects of study, concepts and methodologies. These elements nonetheless remain, imbue the practice of CBT and, propogate a particular worldview. Worldview may be defined as the philosophy of individuals, groups or societies which encapsulate beliefs in relation to the nature of things, of being and of knowing. Worldviews influence how we interact and engage with the world around us. They are culturally located and, are tranferred through various means including, parenting, social interactions and educational institutions.

The silent assumptions of CBT

Critically, professional discourses and practices similarly transmit implicit assumptions related to the nature of human action, agency and wellbeing. CBT contains a number of such assumptions including: the division between the world (the objective) and us (our subjective reactions). The need for objective evidence to support our beliefs and related to that, the requirement to doubt and reject our subjective reality and lived experience, if it cannot be objectively backed-up. Added to this, is a heavy reliance on what is observable over what cannot be seen. And ultimately, beliefs that psychological distress can be overcome through reason so that the good and (psychologically) healthy life can be achieved by rethinking our thinking.

The epistemology of rationalism is often hailed as the hallmark of (white) European thought. Rationalism posits that reason is the ultimate source of knowledge and freedom. Rosen argues that two of the main forms of rationalism which have had the greatest influence on the theory are: discursive rationalism and pragmatic rationalism. The former identifies reason as the only means by which the self can emancipate itself from the world of senses and, asserts that human beings are motivated to reach their ideal self by the knowledge gained through rational reflections and considerations of the world. Pragmatic rationalism on the other hand, does not seek to achieve self-mastery by self-reflection but by taking rational actions aimed at changing one’s desires, impulses and urges.

According to that approach, all unwanted impulses can be overridden by repeated actions so that we may train ourselves through what we do, to be more rational and therefore exercise agency over both our subjective world and the world around us. CBT clearly embodies both approaches as illustrated for example, by the practice of challenging thoughts, ‘behavioural experiments’, rational self-talks or even therapists’ ambitions of  mastering ‘Socratic questioning’. However, it reproduces them silently. And, this requires attention. Many non-western worldviews do not uphold European rationalist ideals. African worldview obviously varies, nonetheless, many of its features have been held to demarcate it from the above.

‘A fundamental tenet of traditional African culture is that there is more to reality and to the realm of experience than that which is readily accessible through empirical inquiry, and that one can acquire an understanding of natural phenomena by appealing to experiences whose characterisations are not empirically confirmable but are nonetheless warrantably assertible’ (Brown, 2004).

African dominant ontology and view of reality are fundamentally different from Western rationalism and therefore clash with many of the assumptions of CBT. The centrality of notion that there is more that influences reality than is accessible through empirical enquiry, such as the spiritual or the ancestors, is core to a number of non-Western espistemologies and has been found not only in African worldviews but also in several indigenous, Asian and First Nations’ traditions. In addition to CBT indirectly problematising the validity of such worldviews and feeding into the superiority of European ideals, it may be charged with protecting oppressive systems in the ‘West’ by invalidating the lived experience of people of colour.

It is one thing to encourage people to seek objective evidence to help disprove the belief that everyone hates them but, quite another to ask people of colour to back up their belief that they are experiencing racism. Direct objective evidence of racism is rarely available. And it is precisely because of difficulties in objectively evidencing oppression that people living in racialised and in other bodies marked as Other, have had to develop ways to apprehend reality that are not dependent upon rationalism. Trusting our lived experience is a vital act of resistance and survival in a culture where objectivity is weaponised to dismiss experiences that are preverbal, embodied and often un/sub-conscious. In this context, invalidating our ways of knowing and navigating the world is not only potentially psychologically harmful; it is also a social act which negates racism and therefore reproduces white supremacy.

Epistemic violence

Epistemic violence is a term that has generally been used by postcolonial researchers to refer to the construction of the Other by Western thinkers and philosophers. According to Spivak (1988) ‘epistemic violence’ is the process by which non-Western methods or approaches to knowledge and worldviews are obstructed. Spivak posits that imperialist subjugation of non-Western understanding or the ‘Othering’ of the colonial subject’s mode of knowing/being and more generally, that of those who are at the bottom of social hierarchies, (whom she refers to as the ‘subaltern’) has been central to the colonial project. This dynamic represents attempts (varying in their success) at deleting the consciousness of the Other or to overwrite it with Western epistemologies.

Non-Western epistemologies have a long history of being dismissed as inadequate, ‘primitive’, naïve or otherwise inferior. Rationalist philosophers such as Hegel, Kant, Locke, and Descartes amongst many others indeed believed people of colour lacked agency, sophistication and that they were incapable of intellectual thought. In fact, many rationalists did not even consider Black people to be human beings.  Colonialism was based on this ideological framework. This is the history that the epistemology of CBT was built upon. Thus, it becomes problematic when it is practiced in some kind of ahistorical vacuum, particularly when people of colour are the clients whose worldviews or ways of knowing are so obliviously being ‘corrected’. This mirrors the social scepticism and denialism that continue to befall upon our lived experience.

In epistemic violence, the harm suffered in not physical and it may not even be direct. Nonetheless that violence has a subject, an object, and is perpetuated through subtle acts. The subject of violence in the case of CBT is the therapist, the object may or may or may not be the individual client in the room but it is in any event, people of colour, at least predominantly. There are various acts of epistemic violence to reflect upon: the invisibilisation of the epistemological origins of CBT, arguably removing choice and agency or again, the failure to challenge (Eurocentric) rationalism as the only/superior way to access truth. Consequently, each ‘therapeutic’ cognitive reframing attempt reproduces discourses establishing whose knowledge of the world is legitimate and valid and with it, misrepresentations and distortions of the Other.

Concluding thoughts

Whether the question of epistemic violence similarly applies to other models of therapy is of course an important one, to various degrees, it is likely arguable that it does. However, CBT is based on working directly on how people know and make sense of the world, on their worldviews, making it obviously more problematic in that regard. There is no denying that regardless of the model used, psychotherapy can be a violent and damaging experience. Epistemic violence highlights a different kind of harm. A violence which occurs beyond the individual, to groups designated as racial Others. Individuals may find various therapy models helpful whilst the assumptions underlying the same may actually, at group level, be problematic, reproduce discourses of inferiorisation and help maintain racism. Ironically, the reason so many people of colour experience psychological distress.

I am aware that some have attempted to or claim to use CBT in a culturally adapted manner. I remain sceptical. It is difficult to imagine how the necessary changes to the model could be made without shifting fundamental epistemic assumptions thus taking such practice out of the CBT school. Further, even if adaptations were feasible, this would arguably be equally problematic and not remove ethical considerations and questions. Most notably, why would people of colour continue to be supported by adapted models, or in other words, by models centred on others’ needs or experience of the world, on models’ not created for us?

A final point worth considering concerns the issue of effectiveness. Of course it is because of CBT’s record empirically (a record which is increasingly being challenged) that it has gained its dominance. On this point, it is important to remember that effectiveness is not a measure of violence. It is certainly not a measure of epistemic violence. An intervention which is experienced as violent may still yearn positive outcomes on individuals, if we look hard enough for them but, more to the point here, subject the Other to violence socially, discursively and epistemically. A violence, I believe, which remains to be seriously reflected upon in the profession. Perhaps to that end, we could all do with this kind reminder: ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’ (Audre Lorde, 1979). Words which kept coming to my mind as I wrote this article.

References (not hyperlinked)

Beck, A. T., Rush, A. J., Shaw, B. F., & Emery, G. (1979). Cognitive therapy of depression. New York: The Guilford Press.

Brown, L.M. (2004). Understanding and Ontology in Traditional African Thought in Brown, L.M. (ed.) African Philosophy: New and Traditional Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thank you for reading.

If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word. All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections. If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.

White denial, Black mental health and ontological insecurity

On being (Black) in the world 

There are sharp and often irreconcilable differences in the way people apprehend the world based on how they are socially positioned. Nowhere is this possibly truer than in respect to race. Countless studies have demonstrated that white groups are far less likely than people of colour to both experience race discrimination and to believe that racism is still a serious problem. These attitudes filter down all aspects of life. Employment Tribunal litigated Race discrimination cases, for example, have a much lower success rate than other discrimination cases (four percent compared to about fourteen percent, aggregated for other types). Race related complaints are rarely upheld – last year 240 individual complaints of racial discrimination were made against the Metropolitan Police out of those, exactly… zero were upheld.

Post-‘Brexit’ hate crime reports reached a 60 percent increase and, they still remain 14 percent higher than at the same point last year. In the US, a record 867 hate crimes incidents were reported in the 10 days directly after the US presidential elections and Trump’s victory. The overwhelming majority of these incidents were race related. Despite this, media pieces and arguments by political pundits seeking to deny or minimise these increases abound. It is fair to say, that attempts to cast doubt on the rise in reported racial hate are not simply about methodological or conceptual limitations. They betray a fundamental scepticism and dubiousness when it comes to racism. 

It has been argued that this denial has not only ‘conquered all spheres and manifestations of racism but, that it is becoming the most typical and widespread modern form of appearance of racist attitudes, opinions, statements, actions and policies’. Petrova (2000) who refers to denial as the new ‘phenomenology of racism’ uses several illustrations to exemplify the way racism manifests itself in seemingly race ‘neutral’ policies and doctrines. She posits that the denial of racism is manifest, for example, in the belief in meritocracy and in equal opportunities. In the framing of racial (injustice) problems purely socio-economically, in the on-going denial of the hurt of racism and, in the everyday discursive normalisation of racial inequalities. One thing Petrova implies, but does not expressly state, is that this phenomenon of denial is by and large observed in white groups so to be clear, we are talking about white denial (of racism).

Mental health and racism

White denial is much more than a multi-layered social phenomenon. It is also a complex psychological process which equally fulfils deep rooted psychological and psychic needs. Such as the need for ego-world consistency: if I don’t experience or see racism there can’t possibly be any racism. Erasure of the past: if there is no racism, there is no need to revisit the shame and guilt loaded imperialism and its continuous effects. It helps maintain self-esteem or ego worth: if there is no racism then I can’t be racist and what I own is simply down to my own merit. Further, white denial acts as a mechanism to externalise accountability; if there is no racism there is no need for me to reflect on my own actions or on how I might contribute to this system of oppression. Whiteness is a protective factor when it comes to (current conceptualisations of) mental health, not only because it significantly decreases the likelihood on one being exposed to race related trauma/wounds but also, because the denial of racism plays an important protective role in terms of ego functioning and thus in terms of mental health. For people of colour, the situation is obviously different. 

Hundreds of studies have linked racial discrimination to both poor mental and physical health and unsurprisingly, people of colour who use mental health services have persistently identified experiences of racism both within and outside mental health services as core to their distress.  A recent study investigating the impact of harmful and repeated racial discrimination incidents on mental and physical health found ‘mental health problems’ to be significantly higher among racial minorities who had experienced repeated incidents of racial discrimination, when compared to ethnic minorities who did not report any experience of racism. The first study in the UK that unequivocally shows that more is definitely more (surprise, surprise) when it comes to discrimination. The more race discrimination you experience, the more psychological distress you will likely experience. All this, we must remember, against a backdrop of white denial.

Increasing evidence now establishes that experiences of racism are linked to ‘psychoses‘. This is of particular importance for people of colour given that studies, over the past few decades have consistently found significantly  higher rates of ‘psychosis’ diagnoses amongst many Black and Minority ethnic groups. Particularly within Black groups, the groups most likely to report (more frequent) experiences of racism. ‘Psychosis’ continues to be one of the most hotly debated (and stigmatising) psychiatric diagnosis. Nevertheless, regardless of one’s epistemic positioning and of one’s views on the validity of the term as a scientific construct, most would probably agree that experiences which attract the label or diagnosis, usually involve to one degree or another, some sort of loss of contact with reality.

In considering the psychological impact of both racism and white denial, contemporary relational/psychoanalytic conceptualisations of psychosis seem quite pertinent. Such theories tend to view ‘psychoses’ as an attempt by the self to hold itself together and remain whole in circumstances where it has been/is so gravely assaulted. Usually, it is posited, in contexts where our fundamental need to have our subjective reality and world validated and affirmed, has been met with denial, hostility and invalidation resulting in a sense of overwhelming insecurity.

Racism and ontological insecurity

In The Divided Self (1960), Laing proposed that the experiences of people with ‘psychoses’ can be understood by locating them within ‘abnormal’ family relationships. Laing’s conceptualisation of ‘Schizophrenia’ or ‘schizoid’ mind states is based on what he called ‘Ontological Insecurity’. Ontological insecurity he proposed, is a state of being which begins in childhood and which is in the main, caused by an absence of reciprocity between a primary caregiver and their child. In that sense, the caregiver in not able to affirm or respond to the infant’s needs and feelings, and instead tries to mould the child’s experience to meet her own needs and expectations. The child is essentially objectified to fit a reality imposed by the caregiver.  Naturally, the child will try to fit such expectations and will consequently develop a ‘false self’ which will be affirmed and valued in the family context, leading the child to feel invisible. As a result, the child may experience chronic feelings of being unreal, worthless, empty, dead, and disconnected from both others and themselves. In time, the child may come to be suspicious of the world and ultimately cut themselves off completely from other people in an attempt to maintain their real identity. This may lead to a total repudiation of the ‘false self’ and their ego splitting into different parts.

Ontological insecurity has thus been hypothesised to be a mental state derived from a sense of discontinuity in relation to the events in one’s life. Or, when a sense of order vis-à-vis an individual’s experiences cannot be maintained. Ontological security can only be achieved, it is believed, when people are able to give meanings to their lives and lived experience. Although this formulation of ‘psychosis’ concentrates on immediate alienating contexts, such as in interpersonal relationships with important relational others, when it comes to the experience of Black people and people of colour, it would seem senseless and potentially harmful, to omit the impact of invalidating social contexts, particularly that of power relations and of the workings of oppression in the development of psychological distress and experiences of loss of touch with reality. 

Family contexts are a microcosm of power relations in the wider social world and there is no rational reason to posit that violent power dynamics experienced at macro level would be less significant to the psyche, particularly when they are experienced chronically and across life domains. Racism implies the systematic negation of the other coupled with a wilful effort to deny them every attribute of humanity including, the fundamental capacity to know reality and indeed trust the reality as they apprehend it. As such, white denial can be thought of as depriving people of colour of the opportunity to know themselves and to integrate all aspects of their self as we are socialised into cutting ourselves off from our phenomenological reality.

Like the child who is not seen as a person of its own and, whose existence is strategically moulded to fit the caregiver’s needs and prerogatives, when racism is denied, people of colour are not recognised as autonomous, thinking and feelings beings. The lack of reciprocity central to ontological insecurity is also mirrored here as there can never be reciprocity in objectification, racial or otherwise. In objectification, the other is fixed, either in the gaze of an invalidating caregiver or in the White gaze. In either case, the world may come to be experienced as chaotic as personal meaning cannot be ascribed to events and experiences. The frameworks imposed clash with one’s lived reality. The foundation of ontological insecurity, according to Laing.

The present is an attempt to offer an interpretation of the excessive rates of ‘psychosis’ diagnoses which have been consistently found in the UK and in the US within the most marginalised populations of colour. No explanatory claim is made, clearly the situation is extremely complex. Nonetheless, currently little attention has been paid to the psychological impact of white denial, this needs to be remedied and, various potential clinical and therapeutic implications could derive from linking ontological insecurity to racism and its denial. Both in terms of supporting people of colour who might have experienced psychological distress and/or come to lose touch with reality, and also in terms of promoting better psychological health in that group (perhaps this will be the focus of a different article). It remains, that if ‘psychosis’ is conceptualised as a desperate attempt to live ‘an authentic life’ by fundamentally disconnecting from others, and from one’s own body when our sense of self and our reality is under systematic threat, if we are serious about healing such experiences within Black groups and, communities of colour more generally then, racism and white denial may need addressing as a matter of urgency.

Thank you for reading.

If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word. All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections. If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.

Eros and Thanatos: A Freudian take on activism 

#Predatorypeacekeepers

A few months ago, Sam Asumudu (Editor in Chief and Founder of Media Diversified) and I felt compelled to launch a campaign to hold UN soldiers; whose abuses have been documented in nearly every country where they have been stationed; to account. The campaign #predatorypeacekeepers which started on twitter came about shortly after a Canadian AIDS charity published a report accusing UN and French troops in the Central African Republic (CAR) of sexually abusing at least 98 girls. Harrowing details of the report include Black (African) girls being tied up and raped by multiple soldiers and, the death of one of the victims. The campaign has been one of the most difficult actions I have been involved in, laying bare intersecting issues of racism, sexism, colonialism and geo-political violence, amongst many others.

I am no stranger to experiencing despair and hopelessness and, in all honesty there have been times during this campaign when escaping the call of the darkness within has felt virtually impossible. Times when both my body and mind were so consumed by the suffering of the children in CAR, that it felt as though my energy and passion were being sucked out of me. During these times every silence around the campaign felt like an assault and; the apathy which continues to plague the campaign; became torturous. I am passionate about what I do. I care a lot.

‘Activist burnout’? 

Caring that much about stuff can make it difficult to disconnect and to disengage from the pain and hurt injustice creates and this in turn, makes it incredibly easy to become drained of life. The psychological demands of activism have been widely noted. For people of colour though, fighting for racial justice is naturally, particularly psychologically trying. It is trying because as we campaign for racial justice, we continue to suffer attacks caused by anti-Blackness or racism and, there are few places, where the injuries these attacks cause are taken seriously. It is trying because repeatedly proclaiming our humanity, means necessarily facing the fact that one is still not fully human, in the eyes of many.

‘Activist burnout’ is now a well known phenomenon. It is believed to occur when political or social activists feel overwhelmed, frustrated, hopeless, or depressed, usually after extensive periods of activism. The above definition whilst helpful as a starting point is quite limited in that it does not specify the mechanisms which may bring about ‘burnout’, nor does it seem to quite explain the more serious and intense impact of activism. Organising and campaigning can be effective ways of processing the trauma of living in an unjust world. There is definitely a feeling of liberation that comes with working towards dismantling structures that have done injuries to the self. Activism can allow us to escape white supremacist patriarchal capitalist society and to transcend the pain of the inevitability of being structurally located within it. Perhaps though, sometimes the pain cannot be transcended.

On February 8th 2016, Marshawn McCarran a young Black Lives Matter activist took his own life. He was only 23. The reasons behind his suicide remain unclear. But we do know that Marshawn was at the forefront of racial justice campaigns, that he helped organise protests in Ohio following the death of Michael Brown in 2014 and, that he was instrumental in organising around the Black Lives Matter movement. Karyn Washington is another Black campaigner who took her life. About two years ago. Karyn was the founder of the website For Brown Girls, and instrumental to the project of #DarkSkinRedLip project. She had dedicated her life to celebrating the beauty of darker skinned black women and to their empowerment. More than that, Karyn encouraged black women of all shades to love themselves. But on April 8th, 2014 she took an overdose. She was only 22.

Trauma and activism

There has been increased interest in examining the wounding effects of trauma on those who support people who have experienced trauma or who are exposed to trauma stories. These studies have however, in the main, focused on the impact on those in clinical roles such as doctors or therapists. Various formulations have been put forward to make sense of this vicarious traumatisation including: secondary stress, emotional contagion and, compassion fatigue. 

Secondary traumatic stress or secondary trauma refers to the severe emotional distress believed to occur when an individual hears about the first hand trauma experiences of another. Emotional contagion on the other hand, describes the phenomenon by which one person’s emotions, feelings and behaviours are triggered in other people and finally,  ‘Compassion Fatigue’ has been described as ‘a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper’.

Those theories though slightly different in focus, are centred on the role of empathy as the primary mechanism by which trauma may be communicated and become harmful to people in supportive roles.  These formulations, tell us little nevertheless, in terms of why some people may be more likely to feel the urge to expose themselves to trauma and thus its risks and, which particular individuals, if any, may be at an increased risk of vicarious (re)traumatisation. Given the potentially high psychological and health costs of getting involved with trauma, the existence of similarly powerful motive to indeed get involved seems presumable.

Eros and Thanatos

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) Freud described the concept of the death instinct, in the book he proposed that ‘the goal of all life is death’. Of particular interest here, is that Freud noted that people who experience a traumatic event often feel compelled to reenact the experience. This led him to posit that human beings hold an unconscious desire to die: our death instinct (Thanatos) but that the life instinct (Eros) largely keeps this wish in check.

Thanatos conflicts with Eros, our natural tendency toward what is life-producing such as survival, sex, and creative productions and, one could argue organising or campaigning. From this Freudian perspective, activism may, for many, be seen firstly as a way to reenact our traumas and secondly, as a strategy to transform our pain and our death urges into something more socially acceptable perhaps through sublimation. Sublimation is a defence mechanism by which unwanted impulses are transformed into something less harmful or ego-threatening. Sublimation is said to channel the energy created by the tension between Eros and Thanatos into life-producing activities.

This energy thus takes us away from destructive impulses and into something that may be more socially acceptable and/or creative. It follows that the energy and passion we have as activists may stem from that very tension and thus may well mask a real vulnerability. Perhaps it is that vulnerability that attracts some of us to activism in the first place. Perhaps too, it may be helpful to think of activists as wounded healers. In that vein, one may easily formulate how a less effective sublimation defence, perhaps because of fatigue, would make activists quite vulnerable to succumbing to the death drive particularly, if sublimination has been the main defence which may have been used to manage the tension between life and death.

All this analytical talk may seem quite removed from where some readers may be located or from their experiences but, they resonate with me, immensely. Though my activism has definitely made me more acutely aware of my wounds and forced me, on so may levels to consider death, it has also allowed me to take a more participative and active role in how the reality that continues to shape them is created. Through activism we may attempt to repeatedly heal and help ourselves, by acting on our social contexts, whilst seemingly helping others. This may be particularly true for those whose fields of action engage the very social conditions which gave rise to their trauma or wounds and for many, the urge to become activists in the first place. Consequently, understanding the balance between healing and hurting ourselves or Thanatos or Eros may well be central to activists practising self-care and self-preservation.

For those interested…

So what of #predatorypeacekeepers? The campaign (petition) has reached over 10 000 signatures, thanks to it, media pieces on the issues have burgeoned and we have written a couple. High profile celebrities spoke out, the UN has engaged with us and, critically adopted resolution 2072 (2016) – a resolution concerning the repatriation of troops when evidence emerges which suggests systemic sexual abuse. As a result, France withdrew their troops from CAR.  A major achievement for the campaign and one of our core demands.  We are continuing our action to ensure the needs of the victims get more visibility.  But at present, we are determined to taking a self-care break, hopefully that will help ensure we can continue on to amplify the voices of the victims and survivors in CAR whilst looking after ourselves.

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FREE Self-Care Workshops for Women of Colour

Blackness Centred Self-care Workshops for Women of Colour

Following the success of Race reflections’ first ever community workshops,  organised in partnership with the Women’s Campaign Office of the National Union of Students (NUS), we are pleased to be able to bring to you a new set of dates!

The next workshops** are being offered as follow:

On Friday January 27th 2017 at Tindelmanor London.

Rationale

Much in the current socio-economic climate requires constant digestion and processing. From the spike in hate crimes following ‘Brexit’, to the images of distressed or dead Black and Brown bodies recurrently displayed on our social media pages or ‘timelines’.

This, in addition to having to navigate everyday instances of injustice, micro-aggressions and/or structural violence can have a deep impact on our wellbeing and our sense of safety.  The self-care workshops have been designed to promote safeness, connectedness and grounding in the context of our lived experiences as marginalised women.

These workshops will offer an opportunity to examine our condition, social realities and histories and their impact on our experience of the world, in order to better understand the importance of self-compassion as a way to practice self-care.

The aims of the workshops include:

* Sharing information on self-compassion and on Blackness Centred Self-Compassion

* Providing a space to reflect on our wellbeing in the context of our historical & social realities

* Exchanging practical suggestions to practice self-care and self-compassion

*Creating opportunities to network with and to both support and gain support from other women of colour attendees

Details of the workshops to be held on Friday January 27th 2017

Two workshops have been scheduled to last 2 and a half hours.

A morning workshop

From 10h30 to 13h00

And…

An afternoon workshop*

From 14h00 to 16h30

*The afternoon workshop is for women who identify as Black only.

 
Who is the event for?

We are inviting women of colour that is, women from Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds who feel they could benefit from the workshops.

Booking a place

To reserve a place, please email:
bookings.selfcare@gmail.com with your full name, indicating clearly your preferred workshop* (see above).

We will send you an email to confirm your place has been booked within 48 hours.  

Please note, places are strictly limited and will be allocated on a first come first served basis. If you are unable to attend after booking a place, please let us know as soon as possible so that your place may be given to someone else.

Facilitaror 

These workshops will be facilitated by Guilaine Kinouani

Additional information

Travel contributions                                                                                                                                                                                                    Currently, we are not able to fund or contribute towards attendees’ travel costs.

Catering
Light snacks will be provided however, if you require a full lunch please make your own arrangements.

Accessibility                                                                                                                                                                                                                 The venue is accessible for wheelchair users. Please contact us for additional information about access.

** The present workshops are offered to women who did not attend the initial round of workshops. Follow up workshops for initial attendees are in planning and will be offered to those concerned directly. For details of dates of workshops in Manchester, please get in touch.

 Getting there:

We look forward to meeting you! Please do not hesitate to contact us in case of query: bookings.selfcare@gmail.com

The ‘Burkini’, The Colonial Gaze and The body: A few thoughts

A few days ago armed policemen ordered a French Muslim woman who was lying and peacefully relaxing on the beach in Nice to partly undress. They then proceeded to fine her. All that under the watchful gaze of hundreds of silent beach goers. The incident quickly gained global attention and put the spotlight onto the so-called ‘burkini ban’ in France (which has now been suspended) although, the woman was not actually wearing a ‘burkini’ at all but, what appears to be a light blue tunic and a headscarf. These details became somewhat lost. The photographs of the incident went viral and appeared on my twitter timeline on Tuesday evening.

It is quite difficult to describe the wave of emotions which went through me as I saw them. Or how my body witnessed and experienced the pictures of the interaction. I watched with watering eyes. Shocked. Anger came later. The series of photographs documented the public dehumanisation of a fellow French woman. A fellow woman of colour who through her ordeal has become the focus of an international sadistic appetite for all things Muslim, her humiliation globally available. A woman whose body has been turned into an ideological spectacle. Because she happened to be on the beach, while Muslim. In France, specifically in Nice.

The power dynamics between the police officers and the Muslim woman are naturally worthy of attention here. As are the symbolic and social functions of the fine given, in terms of its reproduction of certain discursive notions. The notion that Islam and Frenchness are mutually exclusive and, the corresponding and powerfully enforced, hemogeny in relation to France’s misconceived and selectively enforced secularism. Subtly evoked too is the notion that people of colour and immigrants are a burden to France.  And, equally worthy of note, is the act of undressing itself, publically, which cannot but evoke colonialism and specifically, France’s relationship with the colonial subject both historically and analytically.

As a French woman of colour who’s made England her home, I am regularly questioned on my experience of racism. I am asked to make comparisons between racism in England and racism in France. Usually, such requests are initiated by British people who for various reasons have convinced themselves that they are more tolerant than their French counterparts and actually want me to confirm the same. They essentially expect me to give their ego a tender caress. I usually refrain, smile and try not to engage in such conversations. Either because I do not want to bruise egos, disappoint or, do not have the energy to get into the depths necessary to meaningfully make my point.

I am not a Muslim woman. Yet, those pictures did something to me. They awoke something in my body before my brain could process the human right violation captured on camera. Before I could assess how significant this moment was for women’s rights.  Even before I could utter or think the word discrimination, or the word racism, or sexism, or islamophobia.  My body got there first. Perhaps, it remembered the kind of racism I have experienced in France. I do believe that when one’s body is repeatedly placed in the position of the Other through a particular and highly sexualized gaze, that this trauma may well become marked in its physiology.

The truth is, I do not believe that French people are more racist than the English but I do believe the racism I have experienced in France is of a different breed. Not only because it is often more overt and unapologetically so, but also because it has always felt more sexual. Undoubtedly so.  There is a long and complex history of sexualised imperialism that France has engaged in. From the unveiling of North African women which was common practice within North African colonies as, was/is the feshitisation of the Black female – or more generally indigenous – body. To the naked exhibition of colonial subjects, notably that of Saartjie Baartman.

France’s obsession with assimilating the colonial subject has also manifested in high rates of mixed relationships (and thus, of slave rapes) within its empire. It has given birth to the continuing exotisation of women of colour and the idealisation of ‘métisses‘ (mixed race people). As Fanon and others have articulated, assimilating is ultimately possessing thus annihilating the Other. It is denying its independence as an object. It is blurring physical and psychological/psychic boundaries. This blurring of boundaries, that yearning for possession of the object of both contempt/fear and desire, is experienced through the body. This may explain the embodied response described above and perhaps also, why France’s racism has always made me more conscious of my body.

Sex is the ultimate of act assimilation. It is therefore not coincidental that, to France, it appears, more acceptable forms of relationship with the Other must involve sexual availability, if not consumption. Consequently, the undressing of a Muslim woman, is not only a political act. It is also a colonial act which betrays a particular psychological relationship with difference. In that sense, it is completely unsurprising that Muslim women would be the focus of discussions on Islam in France. That they would become an object of patriarchal obsession and bear the brunt of islamophobia. Muslim women who wear the Hijab, burka or ‘burkini’ pause a psychic threat to those whose only mode of relating to the Other is to consume it, often through its gaze.

‘Covering up’ may essentially represent a refusal to be consumed by France’s (neo) colonial patriarchy. If only symbolically. Anyone who believes the act of wearing a hijab or Burka or Burkini for most Muslim women constitutes an act of submission, should really reflect on  their assumptions. I would argue quite the opposite. Contrary to what the mainstream narrative may be or what white feminists may choose to posit. Psychically, one may argue that French Muslim women are in fact fiercely resisting and holding onto their independence in a country with very, very dodgy boundaries indeed. France needs to develop resources to be able to exist independently from the colonial subject. Currently, it cannot do so. Neither psychologically nor economically. It is France who fears independence and liberation, it is not French Muslim women.

Thank you for reading.

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All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections. If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.