When the dead speak

When my eldest son was about 6; he wrote a poem at school he entitled sadness; which eventually got published. I am reproducing it here, with his permission.

Sadness

It feels like pain
And it sounds like rain
And it reminds me of my mum’s dad who died
It smells like blood
And it tastes like blood
The colour is red

When he returned home on the day he wrote Sadness; elated and proud it had been selected for publication; I had to contain tears and shock. I instantly felt something significant was making itself manifest. I was not sure how to formulate. I can’t remember wether I cried or not in front of him but I know I cried, away from him.

My son was happy. Pretty much had always been. The sadness was not his. The connection between the imagery of violence, my father and loss clearly evaded him. Like a messenger, delivering a sealed parcel.

My father died about a decade before my son was born. My son had not known him. In fact, they had not known one another. I have not known much of my father either. Through the poem we were reconnected. Every family observes silences over certain events or experiences. Divorce in African families is something that often attracts silence.

And so, I had never discussed my feelings with my son about my father’s passing. I had never discussed the circumstances of his death either.

No one had.

Silence was observed almost religiously around this too. Collectively. When my son asked about my father, I simply said that he had been unwell and had died long ago. As he grew up, I was able to say, his biological maternal grandfather, had died of a stroke and to explain to him what a stroke was. Which is true. But it is only partly true.

He never asked more searching questions, perhaps he had picked up on the rule of silence.

My father did die of the complications of a stroke. That’s the ‘he was unwell’ part. Nonetheless; he sustained the stroke during war. There was blood around him. There was mass murder. And likely too, there was the smell and taste of blood. Red is the right colour. What my son had ‘remembered’, the vivid images his psyche had reconstructed were so troublingly accurate. Possibly even biographical.

Between 1997 and 1999, an ethno-political conflict erupted in Congo-Brazzaville, mainly located in the capital: Brazzaville, where my ancestry lies. This war was the second bout of political turmoil of the nineties and; a continuation of the civil war of 1993. Both conflicts were linked to attempts at removing president Sassou Nguesso and thus; were at least in part; attempts at freeing the nation from the grasp of neo-colonialism and from ‘Francafrique’.

But…this was not information I had shared with my son. I thought he was too young. Perhaps too, I was not prepared to face the violence of it all or perhaps, my own sense of displacement. And this is information no one had shared with him because of this sacred silence. Yet, it had been transmitted so precisely to him, somehow.

As a Parisian, born and bred, the political situation of Brazzaville had always felt somewhat removed from my day to day lived reality. Triply so. Removed through birth and upbringing. Removed because symbolically my biological father was the only tie which really attached me to Africa. That tie was not very strong because of divorce and almost evaporated when he died. Removed too through further displacement because of my own immigration to the UK.

But Africa, Brazzaville and my father claimed ties with my son. Him who is even more removed than me. A further displaced and obliviously happy British born & bred little boy; at the time.

An estimated twenty five thousand died in the two years of political violence that claimed my father’s life. It’s not clear how many died indirectly from the conflict. Likely many, many more. My father was one of them. He did not die at the hands of military or ‘rebel’ militias or by war artillery; but the war killed him nonetheless.

Partly the stress of it, what he might have witnessed, the conditions he lived under; killed him. Partly the unavailability of medical care as thousands were displaced from their home and flew from the capital into the rainy equatorial forest in their bid to escape death. No doubt thousands eventually met their death there. Often grotesquely butchered. 

A distant cousin died indirectly from the war too. In the forest. A toddler who experienced a slow and painful death amidst the heat and humidity, wasting away no doubt from some preventable and treatable minor ailment; which could not be medically attended to during the conflict. His surviving twin sister became a political migrant in France shortly after. A decade or so after the conflict; she started to have nightmares in which she was seeing blood and smelling blood. And rotting flesh. She would have been not much older than a toddler when her twin brother died. She developed nightmares years after exposure to the trauma of war. Her mind remembered. Even though she could not articulate.

So, there’s lot here to ponder on. And this piece is really to pose some of these questions more than it is to answer them. How did those images got transmitted and got associated with my father’s death so pertinently? Why did they get transmitted? Why to my son? Whose sadness was it he was touching upon? What’s the significance of the poem for me, for my son?  What learning is contained within it; for all of us? I don’t know what my father saw in the weeks or months that preceded his death, but I guess my son’s poem tells us a little bit of how things might have been like for his grandfather. Of the terror and horror he witnessed.

Unlike my cousin who was exposed to the trauma of war albeit as an infant, my son was not. I was not either. Possibly by luck of birth. But at the same time, we all were. And we have all been displaced. 

Currently, very few therapeutic approaches acknowledge historical trauma or the intergenerational transmission of trauma, let alone work with it. It certainly does not feature in DSM conceptualisations of trauma. And again, the argument here is not that it should. Not everything that manifests, and which is distressing is pathological or disorderly. Sometimes what causes distress is necessary and important and needs to be heard. Sometimes it connects us to the experience of those we left behind.

Trauma has no boundaries. Contrary to Eurocentric ideas of bounded individualism, the way that we are impacted upon and shaped by phenomena and experiences which appear ever so distant from us; by time and space remains something of a mystery. But perhaps a mystery worth attending to.

Psychoanalytic scholars; have theorised on the contagion of trauma. Acknowledging this communicable quality and; understanding the experience which distresses is central to limiting its contagion. It is believed. Dissociation; cutting/splitting off and other repressive strategies employed to avoid pain…silences, may increase the likelihood that trauma will become contagious. What we cannot face and what we cannot tolerate, has to express itself somewhere, somehow.

It is interesting then, that it is the communicability of trauma which is believed to reduce contagion (Boulanger, 2016). Allowing both the processing and transformation of trauma into an empathic and integrated understanding.

It’s almost a decade since my son wrote Sadness.

And when I set out to write the current article; it was meant to be about my work in Yarl’s Wood; but there you have it. I have really written about my father. Something just led me to this piece. And so, I listened. On reflection, maybe that’s why I ended up in Yarl’s Wood; supporting and listening to women subjected to the worse kinds of violence mankind is capable of. Women who had also seen the world through red lenses and; struggled to get rid of the smell or taste of blood. Maybe; through them I was bearing witness to my father’s trauma too. Perhaps those who have suffered trauma and; can no longer speak, express themselves through the voices of others. Maybe the dead do speak to us after all. Maybe that’s why trauma won’t leave us alone, until it is spoken. And heard.

Reference:

Boulanger, G. (2016). When Is Vicarious Trauma a Necessary Therapeutic Tool? Psychoanalytic Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pap0000089

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.

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Trauma Informed Care & people of colour

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it”                

                                         Zora Neale Hurston

There are different kinds of wounds. Not all pain is deemed legitimate. Oppression causes trauma. Amidst the (fairly) obvious, debates around what really constitutes trauma as laid out in criterion A of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM)’s diagnosis for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); are alive and well. Criterion A now requires that an individual has been ‘confronted with: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence’ in order to qualify as having experienced trauma. In contrast with the DSM-IV and previous versions, the DSM-V notably includes sexual violence but not racial violence…troublingly evoking the fight for racial justice.

Looking back in history, (white) women’s rights have always taken precedence over the rights of people of colour. For example, in the US white women were afforded the right to vote in both state and federal elections in 1920 but, it was only in 1954 that people of Asian heritage could vote and; well into the 60s that measures specifically designed to bar African Americans from voting (e.g. voting taxes, literacy tests or intimidation) were rendered unlawful. The recognition of racial violence and injustice historically takes much longer than the recognition of sexual violence. It is important to bear that in mind. With some luck, we may get some intersectional thinking within mainstream mental health systems within 50 years.

Still…many of us continue to exist under the weight of racial (and intersectional) violence and more critically; continue to be affected by smaller, less extreme but repeated traumatic experiences. They rarely involve threat to life or to the integrity of our body but, they nonetheless create threat to livelihood, affect life course and limit life chances. They may not cause us to be confronted with overt violence, all the same, they create unsafeness and insecurity, pain and, a sense of futility and resignation or helplessness. Often too, they lead to internalised silencing or self-censorship due to repeated experiences of denial, invalidation or minimisation.

I am amongst those who believe in speaking of our pain.  As marginalised people when we are silent when violence is done to us, we offer a hiding place to perpetrators and to oppressive systems. Oppression and abuse often create a felt sense of shame. And, shame thrives in silence. This is also how oppressive systems reproduce themselves, they locate the pathology, dysfunction or anomaly within those they harm. We do the master’s work when we internalise these (projective) beliefs. Moreover, when one cannot speak of the violence they experience or have experienced, they are done violence all over again. Silence is violence. Often.

Insidious trauma

There is nothing new in considering oppression as a traumatic agent, nothing new at all. Feminist scholars have long critiqued DSM conceptualisations of trauma. Many have advocated for a theoritical expansion so as to locate the experience of trauma within socio-political contexts. The concept of insiduous trauma is born out of this scholarship. Insidious traumatisation (Root, 1992) is centred on the daily ‘subthreshold’ traumatic stressors marginalised people experience which, when taken cumulatively, amounts to trauma because they are constant reminders of one’s precariousness and unsafeness in the world. Some feminists have sought to include insidious trauma within PTSD criteria or put forward conceptualisations of oppression-related psychiatric disorders.

Understanding insidious traumatisation is vital. Nevertheless, I am not sure that some sort of pathologisation parity is required or would be helpful. Nor that pathologising responses to trauma more generally is desirable. This is not because I uphold a hierarchy of suffering or injustice or, because I think, insidious trauma necessarily produces dissimilar physical or psychological reactions to more ‘classic’ traumatic events or experiences. I am simply not convinced that the legitimisation of the psychological harm of racial violence should be via an extension of the DSM/psychiatric classification systems; systems that are based on alleged ‘deviation’ from unpacked and unproblematised norms (and let’s be real which themselves have a long history of doing violence to marginalised groups and indeed may easily be charged with actively living up to that legacy) when being deemed ‘abnormal’ and treated as such in the world is, by definition, the root cause of insidious trauma.

Trauma Informed Care?

When a traumatic event is extreme or when we are able to identify a specific event, it is easier to see and recognise the need for support and care. When the damage is done covertly or more subtly over months, years or decades or; when it is part of the fabric of society culturally or ideologically, it can be much more difficult to attend to our suffering or to legitimise the need for support; even to ourselves. Such violence becomes the norm and our responses the pathology, our inability to cope. Smaller but repeated acts of denigration, of discrimination, of othering; constant reminders of structural inequalities and injustices do culminate into significant psychological distress. The evidence is there. There is nothing abnormal or deviant in survivors. The deviance lays in the violence.

There has been a global push towards what is often referred to as Trauma Informed Care (TIC). Various definitions of Trauma Informed Approaches (TIA) exist; all have at their core, a will to configure services and/or care around the developmental impact of trauma on all level of human functioning including on the psychological, neurological and on social development. TIA, further; seeks to ensure all social systems understand the impact of trauma on families, groups, communities and other social systems. TIC may be less stigmatising and, there are many benefits to understanding how trauma can affect attachment, worldviews and more generally people’s experience of the world and thus how structures can retraumatise.

I remain cautious though, when it comes to uncritically embracing the approach. I am not sure there is a huge conceptual difference between envisaging people as traumatised rather than as ‘mentally ill’.  For starters, most proponents of the medical model would probably argue that both propositions are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, it is precisely what has been proposed of late ‘there is something wrong with you… (in your brain, your emotional responses, your personality, your perceptions, your cognitive or relational processes etc…) because of what you have been through’. Thus, saying or implying, you are damaged because of trauma is no more humanising as a narrative, to me, than saying or implying you are damaged because of faulty brain structures.

Both explanatory models locate the disturbance or pathology within the individual.  In other words, you are still saying to me that there is something wrong with me as opposed to, there is something wrong with the way that I have been treated and everything ‘right’ in the way I have responded to try to survive. Further, and more importantly, the main focus remains on ‘treatment’ rather than on prevention, at least not on holding structures of power to account.  I have seen very little of this within TIA. ‘What has happened to you’ is infinitely more compassionate than ‘what is wrong with you’ no doubt, better still is asking ‘what has happened to you’ then, turning to oppressive systems and those with more social power; to ask ‘what are you doing to stop harming people’ or ‘how are you abusing your power’. Much more difficult questions of course but, necessary ones to balance the focus here and not lay our gaze exclusively or even primarily, onto individuals who survived violence or try to survive the harm done onto them but onto those who abuse their power, individuals and systems.

Trauma Informed Care and oppression

Psychiatry and mental health systems do not own distress or trauma. Or how it is defined. Or how it is or should be experienced. Trauma is not patented by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Our experience of the world does not cease to exist simply because a group of white American men at the APA, or dominant systems more generally have decided, the daily violence we suffer is not that traumatic or worthy of a name or of a mention in their (conceptually and empirically flawed) book. Or because mental health systems, by and large, continue to struggle to make themselves relevant to so many of us.

I note that despite the recognition that racism constitutes trauma within most TIA I have come across and, the expressed link between trauma and historical and cultural contexts as one the principles of TIC,  I am still to see a single intervention within the framework specifically addressing the damage of whiteness within any mainstream mental health system in the UK. This, I find quite ironic. Racism reproduced at cultural-symbolic level is a source of trauma too. This invisibilisation or disinterest is consequently quite rich.  There is thus no evidence that TIC would be more relevant and/or more centred on people of colour’s needs or experience. Although the potential that it could is certainly there.

Although I am still ambivalent but open about TIC in relation to people of colour and their experience of oppression particularly, I do believe that we could benefit from using insidious trauma to make sense of our lived experience and to render visible and legitimate, the psychological effects of racial oppression. Although here too, the danger of individualising social trauma by narrowing analytical lenses looms very near indeed, constant efforts are required to avoid this process. Sill, by claiming the term, irrespective of dominant groups or systems’ approval, we are choosing self-definition. We are too, asserting our right and power to define reality. We are choosing to centre our experience of the world and hopefully to orientate ourselves towards self-care. And, to be clear, self-care in my book absolutely entails organising and resisting. History, teaches us that it makes little sense, to seek social approval for our struggles before taking action. Eventually, we tend to be proved right.  TIC and particularly, oppression-focused TIA may well prevent more debilitating manifestations of oppression-related or insidious trauma in people of colour, but the evidence base is simply not there and, I cannot say I have seen a rush for it.

References

American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.)

Root M. P. (1992). Reconstructing the impact of trauma on personality. In Brown L. S., Ballou M. (Eds.), Personality and psychopathology: Feminist reappraisals (pp. 229-265). New York: Guilford.

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.

 

A support group for women & non-binary people of colour 

I am really excited to be able to offer this new and forming support group which I hope, will become a healing and reflective space for women and non-binary people of colour. Below, you will find all you need to know about the group in a Q&A format.

Why this group?

I have been running self-care workshops for over a year and one piece of feedback I recurrently receive is how very few safe spaces exist where we can be with each other and support one another in the business that is life and existing, as marginalised people. This group is an attempt at facilitating such a space. 

What is the aim of the group? 

The group’s ultimate aim is to support our wellbeing and our increase our capacity to reflect and feel connected. Nonetheless, it has no specific purpose other than being an open space to just be and, as such it will be fairly unstructured. My hope is that it will provide an opportunity to be/feel seen, heard and feel supported by others with shared lived experience.

Who is the group for? 

This group is for women of colour and non-binary people of colour. Those who identify as trans women, are welcome to attend.

When is the group starting?

The group will start to meet in October, either on an evening during a weekday or during the week-end. It is anticipated that the group will meet weekly.

How long will the group meet?

This group is intended to be open, how long attendees use the space for, will be discussed and negotiated with each person concerned, it is likely that those able to attend for 2-3 months will derive the most benefits. 

What is the duration of each meeting? 

Each group meeting will last 1h30.

What is the group format? 

There is no set structure to the group and it will become what we make of it. Nonetheless, the group will meet regularly for a set time (1h30), on a set day (to be confirmed).

Who will facilitate/conduct the group?

I will be facilitating/conducting the group but I hope that the space itself and the presence of others in the group, will be similarly supportive and healing. 

Where will the meetings take place?

These will take place in London Euston at the Marchmont Community Centre which is at 62 Marchmont Street, London WC1N 1AB.

What if I am not sure I can attend every week or I am not sure I am suitable? 

Please contact me and we can have a chat.

Will you continue to deliver your self-care workshops? 

Yes. However, my capacity over the next few months is extremely limited so this support group is likely to be the only regular space I will be holding in the community.

Is there a cost?

Yes. As I need to cover my own costs. However, due to generous donations, I am able to offer each group session at the heavily subsidised fee of £7.50 per attendee. If this proves difficult for you, please contact me. 

Are places limited? 

Yes. Places will be strictly limited to 10 people maximum in any given group. They will be allocated on a first come, first served basis and a waiting list may be held so that when a place becomes available, it may be offered to someone waiting. 

How can I join/find out more? 
                                                                               To manifest your interest please email me with either your Skype ID or a mobile number (bookings.selfcare@gmail.com) so we can arrange a brief chat. You can also contact me on Twitter @Kguilaine.

Thank you.

PLEASE NOTE THIS GROUP IS NOW FULLY BOOKED AND HOLDING A WAITING LIST. IF YOU ARE INTERESTED TO JOIN US WHEN A SPACE BECOMES AVAILABLE PLEASE GET IN TOUCH. 

There is a small possibility that another parallel/different group may start next year, subject to capacity, do get in touch to leave your details if interested, and I will contact you if it materialises. 

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.

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.

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 reproduce 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 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.
 

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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.

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.

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.

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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.