Anti-Blackness, intimacy and the fear of death

‘How afraid we mortals are of such a closeness,

Perhaps we will be swallowed up and lose ourselves,

Perhaps we will die. 

We try to keep our separation at all costs, Afraid and afraid

Marjorie Pizer, ‘Intimacy’, Poems (2014).

Intimacy is one of these words that can be hard to put into words. An embodied word. A feeling word, that comes with baggage. It evoke closeness, nurture and safety, to me. But I also know so many of the fears it can give rise to. Intimus, in Latin is the superlative of inside. The primary meaning of intimacy is accordingly, to be in contact with one’s own inside, one’s internal world and by extension that of another. The capacity for intimacy is thus both the capacity for human contact and the capacity for self-contact. Something about how people communicate, separate and are willing or unwilling to merge with the Other, tells us something about intimacy and, about sensuality. Intimacy cannot happen without merger. It requires exposure and psychic penetration. The crossing of ego boundaries with another some have said, as such, the willingness to be permeable. And, vulnerable. In this piece, I use intimacy as a lens, together with sexual desire and death fears (thanatophobia) as an analytical framework to formulate anti-Blackness.

Intimacy, the other and the self

Although intimacy manifests in the domain of the interpersonal and specifically in how comfortable we are with others, it is arguably primarily an intrapsychic process. Or, it is at least based on an intrapsychic blueprint so that our capacity for intimacy with another is necessarily contingent upon our capacity to be intimate with ourselves. This may sound a little odd for some to read. But essentially, what is being said, is that our capacity connect with ourselves, to be at home within ourselves and to tolerate or bear all that we are, is intrinsically linked to our capacity to be in contact with and to tolerate others. And indeed Others.  

When we find proximity to others unbearable or too anxiety provoking, we are often said to fear intimacy. Intimacy fears exist on a continuum. Most of us will struggle with them to various degrees at some point, some much more than others. Those who have experienced abuse, neglect or other disrupted early attachment or losses often find intimacy more challenging. And for good reasons. Often, they would have faced the reality of annihilation and; the possibility and proximity of death. And so they have adapted, as human beings do, learning to keep others at bay as a way of protecting or defending against further existential threats, boundary breaches or violence.

The fear of intimacy is widespread. It is arguably the existential angst by excellence and, it can have many meanings and symbolism. At its most basic, intimacy fear is the fear of closeness, psychologically and/or physically. Usually both. It is the fear of connection and, the fear of psychological contact. It can mean the fear of being seen or the fear of seeing oneself thus, the fear of mirrors. But also, it is the fear of losing oneself in others, the fear of disappearing, of being ‘swallowed up’ or annihilated by the other. Consequently, the fear of intimacy cannot be meaningfully separated from the fear of death whichever way one looks at it. There is always that ‘perhaps, we will die’ conundrum. 

Individualism in its extreme form is said to inhibit connection, attachment and empathy. One may argue as a result, that individualism is a defense against human contact and intimacy. Another form of ego protection, and arguably too a tool to facilitate violence against the Other since detachment or dissociation mean brutality can be enacted without it ever being fully experienced. Any examination of the defensive functions of racism will invariably confront splitting (and thus projection). Indeed, what is splitting fundamentally, if not the fear of contact and intimacy with the self.

Fear of blackness, fear of death?

Racial hatred has long been considered to be a form of protection against these aspects of the self or the world, one cannot tolerate. Defense against one’s sexual urges. Defense against one’s immorality or sense of depravity. Defense against the fear of the unknown. Defense too against existential terror or threats. Thus, more broadly, protection against uncertainly, powerlessness, and again against fears of annihilation. Some of our most primal anxieties.  

That blackness has become the repository of disown and intolerable material or content is not a new thought. It is in fact one of the oldest psychoanalytic formulation of racism. Similarly the negative connotations or symbolism attached to the word black have long been noted (Malcolm X and Fanon, have written in my view the most compelling deconstructions of the linguistic and etymological origins of Blackness). From dirt, uncleanliness and illegality, to dishonesty, bestiality and depravity. There is one particular symbolism which is of particular significance here; death. Black has been used as a signifier of death and dying for centuries. Across various cultures. In western countries in particular, ‘we’ wear black in mourning practices as exemplified by the ‘black widow’.  

This is significant. Since as human beings we are constantly engaged in denial and in avoidance manoeuvres when it comes to death, if the black object has come to symbolise death, we will do all we can to avoid its proximity, in the same way we try very hard to avoid staring death in the face. We lie to others, particularly to children. We also lie to ourselves. We distance ourselves from those who remind us of our mortality. Blackness from that standpoint, like death, is the ultimate otherness, the ultimate unknown. Terror management theory proposes that death anxiety drives much our thinking and behaviour. We shift of our worldview, exaggerate our importance, construct fantasies of omnipotence because we cannot fathom the reality of our insignificance in the face of death. In that vein, we may see the controlling of the black body, as an act of displacement. As a way to master ‘our’ fear of death. Racism and in particular anti-Blackness can be conceptualised, it follows, as a defense against making contact with death.  

Whiteness and the fear of contact

Intimate potentialities differ from person to person as we have seen, often based on psychohistories and, in particular on experiences of interpersonal trauma. The capacity for intimacy also varies from place to place and from culture to culture. Corporal arrangements in space, tell us something about intimacy and thus about intrapsychic configurations. If we agree that fear of the black object, the ultimate Other, is necessarily the fear of projected material, including existential angst related to one’s mortality, then the fear of blackness is the fear of the self. So, avoiding contact with Blackness is fearing making contact with the self or at least, part of the self. It is fear of Intimus

One of the most basic fear related to racism is the fear of contamination. Of note, how does one get contaminated? Via contact. Foreigners, immigrants, racial ‘minorities’ have been constructed as the bearers of diseases and germs. The promotion of fear over health risks at times real but mostly exaggerated if not fantasised, is still central to immigration discourses and, it is instrumentalised to legitimise draconian border controls once more, echoing the recurring link between death anxiety, the Other, and other-self boundaries. 

This link at least in part reflects a deep-seated wish to maintain white racial purity without which whiteness could not stand. It is therefore related to the need to protect white supremacy. And of course, widespread concerns over racial purity (although today mostly expressed covertly or indirectly) would not exist in a context where sexual contact with and, sexual desire for or interest in the black (masculine) object, were non-existent. Blackness and in particular Black maleness is a constant threat to the reproduction of white supremacy because of the heterosexual desire it is feared to evoke in white women. 

Masculinities, sexualities and intimacies

There is a well-documented ambivalence towards proximity and intimacy in ‘the West’. The space between bodies is notable. In places populated by black and brown bodies, bodies are generally closer to one another. They are often confined to smaller spaces. Bodies touch, psychologies enmesh and co-shift. Any observant traveller would have noticed variance in corporal proximity. How much intimate sense, in the literal meaning, you can have of the other. How much or how little of the other you can access through your senses, your sense of touch, of smell, sometimes even of taste. The interconnection between empire, whiteness and masculinity has been amply theorised and, any attempt to explore anti-Blackness via the prism of intimacy, cannot be agendered.

Dominant masculine norms have been hypothesised to be in direct opposition to emotional expression, intimacy, and vulnerability. (Cishet) male gender role socialisation often leads to difficulties with intimacy. Western individualism has been generally thought to promote autonomy rather than dependence and interdependence and with, that less permeable boundaries; replacing some have argued, the desire for closeness and intimacy with competition and a thirst for destructive and abusive power.

It is no surprise in this context that intimacy has been feminised and that emotions have been attached to the beings constructed as less mature or intellectually sophisticated: women, children, and people of colour who, as we know are ruled by the world of senses, the body and libidinal impulses rather than rational thought, objective detachment and discernable judgement. The feminisation of intimacy and emotions mean that the suppression of psychological contact, has been used for the advancement of capitalism and the furthering of the colonial project under the guise of reason. Objective hatred. Rational violence. 

Although sex can entail intimacy, in the colonial context, it has usually been manualised and instrumentalised and,  devoid of psychological contact. Perhaps we may say, sex has been used as a proxy for contact when contact was prohibited and/or intolerable. The colonial encounter illustrates something of this ambivalence towards intimacy. And white intimacy with the black female body has been complex and contradictory. From the breastfeeding of white infants by black maids, to the keeping and impregnating of black ‘mistresses’ by slave holders and colonialists, violent sexual intimacies and non-consensual sexual contact have endured in the mist of segregation. Deep physical joining amidst psychological separation. In that sense, one may note that on the one hand, European colonialists carried out voyages spanning weeks if not months to get to or to get closer to these foreign lands and these ‘savage’ beings, on the other, once there,  elaborated Othering fantasies were constructed to establish a safe psychological distance. 

Christian complicity 

And again, on the one hand, one imposed violent geographical thus physical boundaries between whites and the colonial subjects, on the other, access to colonised bodies and their consumption were regular imperial practices.  

That anti-Blackness is founded on fantasised fears of black sexuality is significant here much beyond biological and racial purity concerns. The fear of Blackness encapsulates not only desire for the black body, as a sexual object and as a sexual subject, as often what we fear we desire…It represents a psychic pull (and resistance) towards all that is socially prohibited, unthinkable and intolerable thus repressed including, lust, dirt, temptation, greed. All that is improper. All that is so systematically split off from the self. All that is evil and ‘id’. All that is unchristian.

Christian history, as a reminder is an extremely brutal one. It is a history in which intimacy has meant exploitation, oppression and violent death. Of people of cultures, of ways of life, of epistemologies, of natural habitats. Christianity and what has been termed the Christian imagination has deeply coloured and shaped racial dynamics and, our understanding of the world. It provided the life blood of European colonialism. It helped whitewash white supremacy for centuries by enforcing a strict puritain ideology, racial divisions and, the dualist separation of body and mind/soul, which I have argued elsewhere fed racial violence, splitting and repression fuelled conflicts. In 12 years a slave, these issues are poignantly and viscerally captured. 

The brutalisation Pasty suffers at the hands of Epps her slave master in the mist of regular prayers and sermons speaks of the kind of violent intimacies Christianity promoted within the Antebellum period. Throughout the movie we watch Epps consumed and so painfully conflicted by the sexual attraction he feels towards his slave Patsy. We see him go from admiration to contempt, from ‘affection’ to hatred and from ‘care’ to sadism often within a matter of instants. One of the most powerful and distressing scene in the movie is the night we witness him rape her. Unable to contain his sexual urges Epps creeps into Pasty’s quarters and forces himself onto her as she lays motionless and expressionless, possibly in a dissociative state. Possibly in a survival posture, instinctively adopted because of the grave perils she is indeed under. 

After Epps climaxes, he stares at Pasty for an instant and as he sees himself, starts hitting and punching her in the face. Then attempts to strangle her. He has succumbed to the lust of the (black) flesh. He is almost instantly consumed by shame, then later in the movie, by fear. Not shame at the harm he has done to Pasty, as this would entail psychological contact, neither fear for Pasty’s welfare, as this would require less narcissism. Rather, Epps feels shame at what he was no longer able to repress. And fears the wrath of the Christian god he prays to, will turn to him because he has transgressed and trespassed the colour line. Pasty is left paying the price not only for Epps’ repressed then unleashed sexual impulses but also, for his damaged Christian and virtuous self-concept. 

Concluding thoughts

To be authentically human, means coming to terms with our mortality and inadequacy. Heidegger famously calls this being-towards-death. Blackness offers a convenient hiding place for fears, anxieties and, projections of one’s inadequacies. Of one’s shadow self. It has allowed white groups the ability to maintain the illusion of superiority. And of freedom as they have sought so violently to restrict that of others. In doing so they have however, enslaved themselves too. Psychically. Using intimacy as a lens and, examining  concomitant fears of sexual desire for the Other and thanatophobia, can help us understand how racism has historically become enacted, as well as the gendered performance of anti-Blackness. Heidegger posited that it is only in being-towards-death that one can truly come to be. If so, perhaps being-towards-blackness is an imperative to connect to the self, to life and to learn to form authentic relationship with all others. 

Thank you for reading

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Finding Black Joy Amidst Black Pain

‘If you look at the world as one long brutal game between us and them, then you bump into another mystery. And that’s the mystery of the tree-shaped scar. There seems to be such a thing as grace, such a thing as beauty, such a thing as harmony. All of which are wholly free and available to us’ (Morrison, 1975)

Black joy as anomalous

As I write this piece I wonder about timing. Toni Morrison has passed, it was just a few days ago, and at this hour of deep sadness for so many, I am trying hard to remember one of the lessons that I take from her work. The mystery of the tree-shaped scar. The importance of finding joy and beauty within ourselves and in this brutal world. Beauty and joy amidst the dehumanising and violent reality of white supremacy. Joy in the mist of pain.  Powerful instructions in their simplicity. Powerful also in their humanity. Something that reminds me of the genius of Morrison. Her mastery of the art of making the complex and sophisticated not only accessible but so viscerally beautiful. And so relatably human. 

There are not many moments in my lifetime when I can honestly remember a collective sense of Black joy. Perhaps a handful of moments. The coming out of Black Panther last year was such a moment. Black joy could be found in abundance, and it was heart warming to experience. At least for some of us. Sadly with that joy came a significant backlash, or whitelash to be precise.

I have observed it mainly online. I have seen its bitterness in places of employment and in random conversations with white strangers too. Simply seeing Black people feeling joyous over a movie that centred them, attracted vitriol and much racism from white folk. I recognised this dynamic and how deeply loaded it was. I nonetheless took it to Twitter where I often check and test my thoughts and ideas. It resonated, as expected. Hundreds came out to comment and confirmed that they recognised it. Many shared experiences of the dynamic. Including white people. It was clearer than ever in my mind. So many find Black joy intolerable.

Black joy disturbs because it is humanising and because it is transgressive of the social order. If you think about it, the hoarding of material resources by those with social power is the hallmark of colonial and racialised capitalist relations. This structural reality still leads to internalised expectations of priority which can be observed for example, through everyday grievances such as ‘they’re taking our jobs’. They being of course, those racialised Others.

Black joy and whiteness 

The conviction that jobs that you have not performed, that have not been offered to you, that you may not even be qualified for or be willing to do, ‘belong’ to you or an entire group, simply based on whiteness is the height of narcissistic white entitlement. Between feeling entitled to material resources and, feeling entitled to psychological resources or states, there is a thin line, if indeed there is a line. A sense that good fortune, joy or other ‘positive’ affective states and experiences should first go to white groups, is omnipresent in society too. In that sense, ‘they’re taking our joy’, is a genuine grievance within white supremacy, although it may not be spoken in these terms. The anecdote below may help illustrate this.

A couple of years ago I was involved in a disturbing exchange at mother’s, in France. I had just returned from Paris (she lives just outside the city) with the kids who I had taken out for a treat. As we returned, I found one of her long-term friend, distressed. Her husband had been in a bad way and had had a double amputation as a result of complications from his diabetes. That friend, let’s call her Marie, had been coming to my mum, eating our food, crying hot tears for years and years. She had been in financial troubles, struggling on benefits for as long I can remember. Marie it is worth stating is a white woman. So, as I see her distraught, I ask her what is wrong and if her husband is ok.

She cries louder as my mother holds her hands. She’s sick of this shitty country she says then declares, ‘I’ll be voting for Lepen, because when you’re Black or Arab in this country, you get everything but people like me struggle, with no support’. She drops these words casually. In front of all of us, my children included as I repeat, my mother is holding her hands. Then she adds, ‘I’m sorry for people like your mother’ at which points, she almost stops weeping. I was so taken aback, words failed me. My mother did not flinch. I could still see the warmth in her eyes. She dried her friend’s tears.

Marie again, is a long-term friend of my mother’s. She’s been a permanent fixture in most of the family events. Births, weddings, birthdays. She knows of some of our struggles. None of us are actually dependent on state benefits. But in a moment of pain and suffering, her racism jumped out. She’s suffering and we’re comfortable or at least, look it. Something does not add up. We should be suffering since we’re Black, something is off and, she’s being scammed. Clearly these imaginary ‘socially progressive policies’ which provide for the ‘Blacks and Arabs’ and which leave her, a white woman behind, are to blame. White people should come first. She should come first.

Sadism and joie maligne

This experience hit me hard at the time. I tweeted about it and had to take a break to process it. Racism had found its way into our home and showed up in my mothers’ living room. Something in the image of my mother holding these white hands as she was being hit in the face, hit me right in the heart. This image will stay with me for a long time, if not for as long as I live. This disinhibited cruelty toward a friend who has shown you nothing but love, compassion and nurture needs attention. There is something about it which speaks to me about that so-called ‘economic anxiety‘ and of ‘white anger’. Something that so poignantly captures the whitelash and neo-nazism of our time. Something too that is about whiteness’ compulsion to inflict pain, particularly when it feels threatened in its place, in the social hierarchy, thus something about sadism.

Sadism is all about deriving pleasure often sexual, through inflicting pain, discomfort or suffering onto others. To derive such gratification, emotional (or physical) cruelty, manipulation or threats are often employed. There has been much theorising of sadism within the psychoanalytic literature not much though (surprise, surprise) has linked it to race dynamics. That is an oversight worthy of reflection too given so much of race relations is rooted in sadistic and sexual violence. I have written about these issues in my neuroses of whiteness piece. Within it, I posited that white envy is a core dynamic underlying racism. Envy and sadism are intrinsically linked. Envy often leads to sadistic acts and both psychological dynamics can result in pain and suffering in Others. The function of pain in sadism however, is pleasure per se, while in envy pain is more of a by-product (which can be equally gratifying) of the desire to destroy in order to return to some psychological equilibrium.

I have previously proposed that envy is a way of reclaiming in the targeted objects, something lost through our own projections. It would be difficult to make sense of Marie’s reaction without touching upon envy ‘s impulse to destroy and harm and jealousy’s impulse to possess. These are feelings and impulses in any event that are socially sanctioned. We ‘Blacks and Arabs’, including the Blacks who are feeding her, are living a good life, a pain free life according to Marie and, this is a cause of disturbance to her. The callousness Marie displayed in her being prepared to throw her best friend ‘under the bus’, and the disregard for the impact of her words and indeed vote on those she considers her friends, is further evidence that us experiencing pain and suffering would appease her turmoil. Even the anticipatory thought that we would suffer should Lepen be brought to office was enough to bring her some relief. Perhaps even some joy. She calmed down.

This anticipatory joy, is what the French refer to as joie maligne which would roughly translate as ‘malignant joy’ in English (Schadenfreude in German). The feeling of joy we experience when faced with the suffering of others. Others’ pain and affliction are conceptualised as a sort of psychological capital used as faire valoir or as a reminder that others suffer too in those moments unhappiness strikes us. This capital is believed to ease our pain. French philosophers have written we experience satisfaction through joie maligne because we all suffer from an existential malaise linked to inherent human insecurities, fear, anguish, pain, regrets, suffering etc… Joie maligne allows us to feel equal to others when we see them suffer, which helps us manage feelings of inferiority. It equalises us.

On being deliberate

‘There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilisations heal… I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.’ (Morrison, 2015)

Wether we formulate Marie’s reactions using joie maligne or sadism, there’s obviously something about black pain that is deeply, deeply satisfying to whiteness and therefore these psychological dynamics must be racialised. Doing so is complex and unpleasant nonetheless these very dynamics can be triggered when white supremacy is challenged. They have sustained centuries of white terror;  unspeakable violence, torture, lynching, rape, mutilation, mass murder. Today the violence of the past is arguably no longer. I stress here, arguably. Some of it has transformed and adapted in the same way white supremacy has shifted. Some of it however, continues to shape social expectations and relational configurations. Some of it has permeated our social unconscious. Some of it has been internalised by us all. All of it continues to impact how we relate and, our capacity to find joy. In Black people and in white people alike. Many come to see me because they struggle with finding joy.

Finding joy in intimate relationships. Finding joy in connection. Finding joy in sex. Finding joy just existing in the world, while Black. When you can’t find joy for long enough despair can come knocking and it is easy to let it in. Morrison reminds us, there is no time for despair and that we cannot afford to indulge in self-pity. Make no mistake, these are harsh words. They are harsh, but they are kind at the same time as they are also full of love. The kind of tough love Black mothers give, the gift of survival. I think about joy much more these days. Perhaps because I have had my own struggles, but I have learnt that many of us have to work hard at finding joy. And, that this quest must be strategic and that it must be deliberate.

But this can be hard to hear. Despair is easy. Some will resent me for writing this, but I am writing it all the same, despair is easy. I can so easily fall into its embrace. I know how to feel at home in the darkness. It’s a familiar place. But again, Morrison is right. There is no time to stay there for too long. We struggle in ‘our’ culture, I think to celebrate and to mourn at the same time. The few funerals I have attended were a mixture of sorrow and happiness. Of cries and laughter. Of pain and of joy. This is the part of my African ancestry that has survived migration and displacement. The capacity to contain that complex ambivalence, is a life force. Morrison dug deep into the depth of our human experience; she gave it central stage, always leaving us feeling seen. Including the scars we’re left with on our back. She shifted the gaze and unapologetically taught us we were worthy of love, of care and of experiencing joy. And above all that doing so was not only possible amidst Black pain, but that it was necessary.

What a wonderful way to honour her that is to practise seeking and experiencing joy. In its fullness. This is not about turning away from the painful and the violent but it is about making efforts to notice the beautiful. Intentionally. Every day. This is about deliberately trying not to drawn in the world’s misery or, to be disappeared by the fury of white supremacy and the entitlement and sadism it breeds. If only temporary, it is to breathe easy. And if only for a few minutes at a time, it is to engage with the fullness of our humanity. What a beautiful habit to try to form. It did not come naturally to me either. But I am deliberate in surviving and I see beauty in thriving, a beauty so many want to rob us of. It helps when I ‘count my blessings’. I try to be thankful for them. I try to catch the little acts of kindness. The smiles. The warmth. The support. The humorous aspects of the absurdity of racism. My indulgement in writing. My breaking of silences. But also the sun caressing my skin and emboldening my melanin. The music and art that move my soul, the food that feeds it too. And the holding of hands.

The humanising hands of my mother even while under assault.

I may not always succeed. But I try.

I try because I need to.

Centering on Black joy is not about dismissing or creating an “alternative” Black narrative that ignores the realities of our collective pain; rather, it is about holding the pain and injustice we experience as Black folks around the world in tension with the joy we experience in the pain’s midst. Black joy is healing, resistance and regeneration. The two, joy and pain, are not mutually exclusive, and often we need the latter to get through the former’ Kleaver Cruz, The Black Joy Project 

Thank you Toni. Eternally.

Thank you too for reading.

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On bodies that don’t belong

Home and belonging

The concept of home carries multiple meanings and symbolism. The ultimate home, arguably is the womb. As such it represents (although does not always provide) sanctuary, nurture and protection. Home also has a geographical and homogenising dimension. It is a place rooted in a particular socio-historical location wether real or imagined, which gives us a sense of ‘us’, a collective continuing identity sufficiently distinct from other groups.

Psychologists have long recognised that belonging is a primal human need, we are after all social beings. In Maslow’s hierarchy for example, belonging is located midway between basic physiological/safety needs and esteem/achievement needs and, self-actualisation, whatever that means. Belonging needs include having fulfilling interpersonal relationships, intimacy, trust and affiliation. Affiliative connections are fostered when we feel part of a group.

A home thus is also a place of kinship and connection to a cultural collective and from which we can draw a sense of who we are from. Nonetheless, it can also be a site of conflict or more precisely a site of contestation with clear links with power and whiteness. It is with that latter meaning that this article will primarily engage; although of course all meanings will bear some relevance. Considerations of homeness therefore include but go beyond, the individual and their sense of belonging and have serious implications for the psychosocial and the structural.

Where are you really from?

The mother of (racial) microaggressions… Microaggression have been described as brief everyday indignities. They can be verbal and non- verbal and either intentional or unintentional, but all the same communicate hostile, derogatory, prejudicial messages to marginalised bodies. Microaggressions as their name indicate are acts of micro violence but, they are full slights and leave their targets feeling othered, denigrated, devalued or excluded. Microaggressions can leave you somewhat disorientated too, as their subtle and contestable nature may make you doubt your own reality and leave you, questioning and second guessing yourself and your experience, over and over again, hours if not days, after the casual act of Othering.

Thus although, ‘where are you from?’ may appear to be an innocuous question, when your body is black or brown and in white supremacist contexts, it is a loaded question discursively and historically. And it is a question that often hurts. It hurts because of the invisible assumptions it contains. It is therefore a question that does more than ask a question, it is a question that makes statements. It states that you look like you do not belong here. It states you are not quite part of this ‘us’. It states that there is something exotic or unusual about your body that is worthy of curiosity and attention. It is thus a question that can violate your sense of home.

As a French migrant in the UK recurrently I find that my French accent attracts curiosity. ‘How come you have a French accent?’ I am often asked.  It took me a while to decrypt the implicit messages and make sense my body’s response to the question. I came to the realisation, it is really another way of saying ‘where are you really from?’ Your home is not your home or at least is not what appears to be your home. It’s all in the English subtlety…Many will not get it. They will argue that there are plenty of people with French accents who are not French.

This is how microaggressions work. And how they injure. Embodied knowledge is difficult to share and does not easily translate. But let me try. What if I was to write, I have been referred to as the woman with the French passport, the woman who speaks French, the woman with the French accent probably as frequently if not more so, than I have been referred to as the French woman, would the point land? It’s difficult to imagine that if my body was white and held a French passport, spoke French and had a French accent that so many would struggle to locate me as French.

If you don’t like it here, go home 

A few days ago the President of the United States told four congresswomen women of colour to ‘go back’ to their (‘crime infested’ and corrupt countries) instead of ‘loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States’ how to run the government. All of the women targeted are American citizens. Only one of the politicians insulted was actually born outside the country. And of course, part of their job as lawmakers is indeed to tell their country, the United States, how they think the government should be run. These facts became immaterial to the thousands who chanted in unison ‘send her back’ as Trump spat his racist bile. It is clear then that being black and brown, reduced both their claim to the land as their home and, their authority on the politics of the same.

As previously written, this country, which quite likes to see itself much above the politics of hate, saw a rise in hate crimes post-Brexit. Some have said many have taken their (white liberal) gloves off, emboldened by xenophobic and racist referendum campaigns. And quelle surprise, one of the most recurrent abuses to have made a comeback — though we could easily argue, it had really never left — is ‘go back to your country’.Fantasies that the leave win would result in black and brown people being sent back to some Other land, their *real* home, came out en force.

That the bulk of these abusive words were targeted at British people of colour with no other home tells us something important about home and belonging. Once again that these notions are racialised. More than they are nativist. Being home here is clearly not dependent on being born here. It is primarily about belonging and specifically looking as though you belong. In the same vein Trump did not target white skinned politicians born abroad. Nor has he ever asked white political opponents to leave the country if they don’t like it here. Pretty basic stuff. Still…many are continuing to deliberate on whether his words were racist, with many denying they were. This is the state of race literacy in 2019. Or the depths of white denial. 

Last February, Shamima Begum saw her UK citizenship removed from her for joining the so called Islamic State, while aged 15, by the then home secretary Sajid Javid. This was not a decision without controversy, but it was not a decision without support either. Stripping those who have committed serious offenses of their nationality may appear perfectly legitimate and racially neutral, until one realises that it is only possible to strip someone of their UK nationality if they are eligible for citizenship elsewhere and doing so would not leave them stateless. In the case of Begum, who is reported to have been born to a mother of Bangladeshi descent, it was assumed that she had in fact another home or, a real home in Bangladesh. This is despite Bangladesh denying her citizenship and her entry into the country.

Precarious homes, precarious identities 

Without engaging with the legal arguments, it is possible to assess one key implication of this decision. If both of your parents are British and you have no possibility of claiming citizenship anywhere else in the world, you will have no access to dual citizenship and, are therefore protected from ever being deprived of your UK nationality. In other words, it is really disproportionately people of colour, migrants and their children who are in reality at risk of losing Britain has their nation, rendering the policy at best racialised. At worst, white supremacist because it reinforces the pernicious and utterly racist discursive notion that ‘real’ Britishness is anchored in bloodline and, peddles the mythology that Britain is not the real home of people of colour. That they are eternal guests who can be sent packing, when required.

Precariousness to state homelessness intersects with experiences of homelessness at other levels and impact people of colour’ sense of identity. For example, people of colour and migrants are also at risk of cultural homelessness. Individual of dual or multiple cultural heritages are said to be culturally homeless when they report a sense of marginality and insecurity whereby they do not feel fully accepted within either cultures, leading to recurrent feelings of ‘not belonging’, isolation, identity confusion, and a constant quest to finding a home. Navigating two or multiple cultures can be emotionally taxing and when one feels no solid grounding anywhere or experience double or multiple discriminations, the psychological costs can be significant.

Racial violence today is often subtle, pernicious as such it can easily be denied (and indeed is constantly denied) which can also increase distress and isolation and, lead to what I have termed epistemic homelessness. You may think about it as response to racial gaslighting. I have proposed that epistemic homelessness is the subjective experience of losing anchor in a situations of epistemic injustice or when people in position of social power deny or invalidate your lived reality. The sense of homelessness here is a form of embodied displacement from one’s truth base causing self-distrust and the devaluation of our bodies and minds. Homelessness is again reproduced but not only does one loses their sense of internal home, it becomes inhabited or colonised by people with more social power.

Whiteness and homeness

I often say whiteness belongs. I have argued this is one of its fundamental characteristics. Belonging in that sense is independent of cultural affiliation rather, it is rooted in white supremacy. Hence, white Africans are naturalised. Black Europeans remain an aberration, in the collective imagination. Or at best a ‘new’ phenomenon, erasing the reality that Britain has never been exclusively white. In the same way that inhabiting of Others’ space geographically, geo-politically or epistemically, is a function of social privilege, belonging wherever one finds oneself, reflects the racialised social order.

I used to have this white ‘friend’, she had been born in the Congo, she spoke Lingala. She used to love telling me about her country the Congo but would still subtly raise her eyebrows when I spoke of my country France. I did not belong in France, but she sure belonged in the Congo. Belonging is rarely a two-way street, because power and colonialism has rarely been. That is why new white Europeans migrants to the US can, with full assurance, tell African Americans who have been on the land for centuries to go back to where they come from. They belong much more. Entitlement to space and claim to the same are rooted in the historical configurations of colonialism which are anchored in the white European psyche. They get reproduced at all levels of human functioning, often despite ourselves and unconsciously.

That is why the presence of white people in space is usually deemed legitimate hence, it takes very little time for them to acquire native status; often above and beyond the indigenous populations whose land they settle in. Imagine telling Trump that he is in fact a migrant living uninvited on colonial land whose rightful owners are people of colour. A historical fact. And that if he does not like people of colour telling him how the country should be run, he can always leave and go back to where he came from. It would amuse. But you can be certain that he would roll his eyes and, that society will, by and large, discount these words as an aberration.

He is a white man. He belongs. And that’s that on that.

Thank you for reading

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Internalised racism & the colour of power

‘It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity’

Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903, p.3)

With the appointment of three brown people to senior ministerial posts in the UK discussions and divisions over the significance of their presence abound. Some people of colour have shown fierce political and ideological support for the trio and for the new Prime Minister. A prime minister who has repeatedly made racist comments. There are those who see an important step forward in these appointments, stressing the symbolism of people of colour being invited to join the highest echelons of arguably the highest structure of power in society, regardless of their actual policies. Others speak of tokenism and window dressing; covert attempts at mitigating accusations of racism. Still, more stress the lurking dangers of having brown faces dressed in the colour of power, deliver oppressive policies which will disproportionately adversely impact brown and black communities.

I am going to reserve my position for the time being and instead invite you to look into the murky waters of internalised racism. The topic of internalised racism has a long history within black scholarship and black consciousness movements. A history of over one hundred years, to be precise. Its earliest conceptualisation is attributed to Dubois and his double-consciousness, which has been interpreted to (partly) signify the introjection of the devaluating gaze of society leading to black people looking at themselves through the racist eyes of white people and thus, internalising self-contempt, disgust or hate. Few are the black (and decolonial) philosophers who have not interrogated the phenomenon, and this is the case across continents. That alone should give us pause for thought.

Defining and recognising internalised racism

There are a multitude of definitions of internalised racism each emphasising different aspects but here, I will take it to mean;

‘the individual inculcation of the racist stereotypes, values, images, and ideologies perpetuated by the white dominant society about one’s racial group, leading to feelings of self-doubt, disgust, and disrespect for one’s race and/or oneself’ (Pyke, 2010, p.553)

In everyday terms internalised racism can take various forms. It can look like your dark skinned child receiving less hugs and affection than the darker one, in your own family. It can look like black men joining in online harassment campaigns against black women and bestialising them with the loudest voices. Sometimes it looks like exclusively dating ‘outside one’s race’ or forever seeking white sexual partners. Other times it looks like being treated more punitively by people who look like you and who are in position of authority. Many a times it looks like ‘diaspora wars’ and like anti-blackness within non-black communities of colour and their constant need to step on black heads as an attempt to reach a higher rung on the ladder of humanity, by claiming proximity to whiteness.

Sometimes it looks like black children bullying other black children because they look ‘too African’. Or they sound too African. Or their name is too African. At times it looks like the distance we create between us and our heritage or (coughs) that of our parents or between us and those Other migrants who are so unlike us. The less civilised ones. Those ‘fresh off the boat’. Sometimes it is about feeling honoured to manage racist immigration policies and to align with far right ideology to make sure those still on boats remain on boats or, die in the Mediterranean. Sometimes it looks like the pressure to work three or four times harder or three or four times harsher…and, sometimes it looks like refusing to condemn or name racism or like imposing respectability.

The subject of internalised racism can be difficult to broach and/or understand. There is a taboo and silence that often surrounds it too within communities of colour. I have found it to be so within both personal and professional spheres. This is partly because internalised racism is often taken to reflect some inherent pathology located in the oppressed or colonised’s mind, partly because it evokes complicity and shame in people of colour. There seems to be a political move to delegitimise its exploration with those black or brown bodies highlighting its influence often accused of racism or demagoguery. This is not incidental, naming it is indeed a direct challenge to white ignorance and to the social order. 

Whiteness and the social order

But the reality is this; there are those who will forever seek to assimilate into white supremacy hoping it will offer them protection and/or access to structures of power. In fact I have argued this impulse; which does not exist in a vacuum, is present in us all. I have tried to be open in relation to my own liberation journey in some of my writing on Race Reflections. I have started to explore my experience of motherhood and how it has been impacted upon by internalised social discourses and racialised stereotypes. I have attempted to formulate the phenomenon and think about it scholarly, mainly analytically.

In my piece on freedom, I offered a formulation of colonial configurations and the resulting conflicts they can give rise to between and within people of colour. In the follow up article, I used object relations theory as a framework to elaborate on those ideas and, proposed that the internal worlds of people of colour can become the site for Master-slave conflicts related to our wish to assimilate and, our opposing liberatory impulses. I hope to have laid the foundation for some reflections on internalised whiteness which may offer a relevant new set of lenses to reflect on current political configurations and their purported gains for people of colour.

This has now become a cliché but it is still worth repeating, the concept of race, has no sound biological basis, yet as a social fact it continues to have profound implications, for life course, opportunities, identity, and social relations. White racism, as a reminder, is perpetuated by whiteness; a ‘powerful fiction’ some have called it, which is enforced by the use of power and violence. Whiteness determines the allocation of privileges, protection and resources with white groups and those adjacent to them placed first in line receive to them and let’s face it, others set never to taste them.

Whiteness and the psychosocial order

A structural focus when talking about racism in necessary to emphasise the harm of whiteness at macro levels of society. They rest on the assumption of white superiority and result in racial inequality and injustice. Nonetheless, racism harms people of colour (and white people…but that’s not our focus here) in multiple and intersecting ways. The reproduction of whiteness is achieved through, socio-cultural, economic but also psychological and psychic mechanisms that thus impose whiteness overtly and covertly on people of colour, normalising and naturalising it and, rendering it legitimate and virtuous.

There is a tendency to see the structural and the psychological as distinct and separate. This binary conceptualisation is illusory. No psychological world can exist independently of social structures and vice versa. Both domains are co-constitutive and mutually reinforcing. Indeed, many have argued that there is only one single field of human communication and interaction. As such, none of us can escape internalising social structures and social forces including; racial discourses, prejudices, symbols and historical configurations. This internalisation is central to the reproduction of social inequality and structures and, it is reliant upon key mechanisms and processes. A few of these are proposed below.

Intergenerational transmissions

The colonial project, slavery and all forms of massive collective trauma continue to have profound effects on our relational functioning. Violent imperial endeavours relied on the imposition of European consciousness on people of colour. With European colonialism came the vilification of cultures and the erasure of the histories of many people in order to replace local belief systems and understanding of the world with Eurocentric perspectives/epistemologies. Convincing the colonised of their dependency, subservience and immaturity was central to the ‘success’ of colonialism. Concomitant patterns of behaviours which have been transmitted as survival scripts across generations, persist today.

Such scripts include, treating white people with deference, working hard without complaining, keeping one’s head down or otherwise observing subservience. In other words, remnants of colonial configurations through the transmission of learnt behaviour and survival strategies centred around inferiority and appeasing whiteness are still in operation and, continue to influence how children of colour are raised, how we relate to white people and how we treat one another. Often times how we have historically been treated very harshly. In that light, I am not sure we can fully make sense of the stripping of Sharmeema Begum’s British  nationality by a man, then home secretary, of a similar background and religion, without considering internalised racism, its associated shame and need to distance oneself from those Other uncivilised and barbaric (brown) people.

Hegemonic forces

Cultural hegemony aims to make visible how the domination of diverse groups in society is achieved by the ruling class. At its core is the notion that dominant groups’ interests, explanations, perceptions, values etc…are imposed as the cultural norm. White racism can be indirectly internalised via hegemonic forces that inculcate through seemingly neutral ideologies inferiority. Such ideologies serve to justify and legitimise racist institutional practices (Pyke, 2010). Pyke (2010) suggests that one such an ideology is meritocracy. Meritocracy naturally obscures oppression by propagating the notion that race inequality reflects real, objective differences in attitudes, skills, talents and efforts rather that widespread discrimination.

Although the cultural myth and ideology of meritocracy seems to have little to do with race per se it reproduces a sense of inferiority in people of colour and conversely a sense of superiority in white groups since according to it, only those who are capable and sufficiently gifted gain recognition, success and power. Another such and related ideology, I would add, is colourblindness. Colourblindness reinforces the myth of meritocracy and positions race as non-operative in shaping and organising structural reality and social relations. In other words, hegemonic forces covertly legitimises the subordinate position and inferiority of people of colour in society and functions as social control. Once people of colour (and white people) are convinced that the social order is just and as it should be, they are much less likely to rebel, resist or demand the redistribution of resources.

Identification with the aggressor

Identification with the aggressor is a defence mechanism associated with Anna Freud and Ferenczi. According to the former whose theory focuses on children; children often impersonate those who abuse them by assuming their attributes or imitating them. This process allows the child to transform themselves into those they find threatening and in a way, master their fears. Ferenczi’s conceptualisation is slightly different and is focused on trauma. Accordingly, identification with the aggressor is an act of “helpless compliance”, an attempt at protecting the self by preempting violence and gratifying the sadistic or violent impulses of the aggressor. Moving from identification with the aggressor to identification with the oppressor is short but necessary leap and an important application. Fanon’s neuroses of blackness could be argued to do just that.

Fanon posits that the colonial subject identifies with his oppressor but that this identification is rooted in the trauma and process of colonialism and, in the unequal and oppressive historical and socio-political configurations. According to him, the desire for whiteness is underscored by the wish to be recognised as fully human, the wish to self-determine and thus the wish to access power. Wether by identifying with the oppressor we hope to avoid abuse, master trauma, seek connection with those who harm us or simply wish to reclaim power, our attitudes in the process invariably shift towards self-destruction since power configurations remain built on violence against black and brown bodies. One way to handle the cognitive dissonance evoked by this reality, is to idealise those who harm us.  It is not unusual even in situations of terror that those victimised develop admiration, gratitude, and deference towards those who have tortured them or put their life in danger.

Projective identification

Projective identification is another defence mechanism which occurs when aspects of the self or an internal object are split off and attributed to an external object aka someone else. These disowned and projected aspects may then be introjected and thus trigger associated behaviour or emotional states in the recipient of the projection, who may consequently come to feel and act in accordance with the material they have introjected. Protective identification thus involves a two-step process, firstly getting rid of aspects of one’s own psyche then, getting into the mind of the other either to acquire aspects that are desired or, to induce particular behaviour/ feelings in them. Projective identification is one of the more complex defence mechanisms, it can be difficult to grasp.

It also challenges many Eurocentric beliefs. The idea that we can through our gaze and fantasies induce certain behaviours or emotional states in other people can seem far fetched. Yet, increasingly this proposition is empirically supported. For example, children who are expected to do well in class tend to do well and conversely children perceived to be more challenging well, tend to become more challenging. Similarly studies on stereotype threat are starting to evidence how collective or social prejudices and biases can induce specific stereotypical responses in targets. So perhaps, not so far fetched…the main point here in relation to internalised racism, is that white groups through their gaze, expectations and fantasies can shape the consciousness of people of colour, induce feelings of inferiority as well as bring into cognitive and experiential salience, colonial imagery and schemas. The passage below from Black skin white masks, powerfully illustrates the same.

””Look, a Negro!”

It was an external stimulus that flicked over me as I passed by. I made a tight smile.

“Look, a Negro!”

It was true. It amused me.

“Look, a Negro!”

The circle was drawing a bit tighter. I made no secret of my amusement.

“Mama, see the Negro! I’m frightened, Frightened! Frightened!’’

Now they were beginning to be afraid of me. I made up my mind to laugh myself to tears, but laughter had become impossible. I could no longer laugh, because I already knew that there were legends, stories, history, and above all historicity, which I had learned about from Jaspers. Then. assailed at various points, the corporeal schema crumbled, its place taken by a racial epidermal schema. In the train it was no longer a question of being aware of my body in the third person but in a triple person. In the train I was given not one but two, three places. I had already stopped being amused. It was not that I was finding febrile coordinates in the world. I existed triply: I occupied space. I moved toward the other . . . and the evanescent other, hostile but not opaque, transparent, not there, disappeared. Nausea … I was responsible at the same time for my body, for my race, for my ancestors. I subjected myself to an objective examination, I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics; and I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects, slavery…”’ (Fanon, p 112)

Concluding thoughts

Despite the centrality of internalised racism in the reproduction of race inequality, by and large, we continue to neglect to consider its workings, effects and significance. But the internalisation of whiteness is required for it to continue to be successful as a system. Without it, I am not sure unequal structures would effectively operate. I have previously argued that making internalised racism and its manifestations the problem of racialised ‘minorities’ is an act of violence. Not only because it amounts to victim-blaming, but also because it occults the very fact that white groups remain the primary beneficiaries and, source of such internalisation.

Internalised racism is the corollary of internalised superiority and one cannot exist without the other and without unequal social structures. That is why  sometimes I wonder wether it may be more helpful to speak of (race based) internalised inferiority and race based internalised superiority. In relation to the question regarding the current political terrain in the UK being a gain for people of colour and specifically for black people, I remain highly skeptical. Having brown people deliver violent austerity, racist immigration policies, neo-colonial agendas and, protect the wealthiest in the society will never serve the interests of people of colour. Let alone Black people who are likely the first in line to be harmed. Sitting at the master’s table to join deliberations on the running of the plantation and the distribution of violence is really no progress. At least not as far as I am concerned. 

 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 Race Reflections. 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.







On schools, institutional racism & everyday violence

This is not an academic piece.

But it is a necessary piece. Like most emotionally heavy writing, it needed that impulse and perhaps a little less head to get ‘on paper’. The threat of anger, sadness or hopelessness can make it difficult for words to come, and to make themselves heard. So I am getting on with it trying to think as little as I can. As a young child, I watched my mother fight many battles. As a mother, I look upon her struggles with incredible sadness. I remember her standing in front of White female teachers, having argument after argument, about their low expectations, proposed stereotypical trajectories for our future and recurrent queries about our intelligence. I will recount in this piece, a few of these experiences and other related anecdotes covering both the French and UK context, without much analysis.

When I was five my mother fought the primary school who would not allow me to start school. This is the first battle I remember. Being born in February and missing the official cut off point for admission by a week or so, the decision as to whether I could start or not; was at the discretion of the school and, while for White children starting school a little early was rarely an issue, the school took umbrage that my mother thought her child was sufficiently intellectually developed to start.

My entry was barred. A rare occurrence. My mother challenged the school. Mainly out of principle as she knew she and I were being treated differently. The school dug their heels in and, decided that the only way to prove I was sufficiently intelligent or ‘cognitively ready’, was to test my IQ. I was subjected to a battery of tests by a team of psychologists. Then, they wrote their report. The school’s own appointed psychologists had found I had a much higher ‘intelligence’ than average and was in fact advanced for my age. Reluctantly, I was allowed in.

Fast forward, as a teen, within a philosophy class, I questioned Descartes’ dualism, you will understand, quite a sacrilegious thing to do as a Black girl. The teacher responded by calling me a monkey who was incapable of thinking and was, instead looking at the finger of Descartes, as Descartes was pointing to the sun.

Between the age of 14-16 I had a history and geography teacher who taught us about the important job France did in civilising and enlightening Africa, as part of this module on colonialism. The course was so whitewashed, uncritical and steeped in nostalgia, it was violent. In the end, students of colour were authorised, off the record, not to attend this class. A compromise to avoid the disturbance of our questions and critical eyes or, to having to rethink the curriculum.

Throughout my teens I watched my mother continue to battle with teachers who were still unconvinced that my seven sisters and I had the intellectual capacity to study at university, let alone study what we wanted to study. None of us were destined for intellectual pursuits. It was best that we considered non-academic subjects, like most Black kids around. My mother was delusional apparently, and had unrealistic expectations. My baby sister’s physics teacher was so set against her studying physics he refused to support her university application. That’s sister number seven. To sister number two, who wanted to study economics, it was recommended that she studied management. I was discouraged from studying psychology…

Those are only a few examples. Remember none of us had what it took to go to university.  Despite all ‘odds’ and our limited intellectual capabilities, I count amongst my sisters one physicist, two economists, one accountant and wow…a psychologist. Seven out of eight of us did go to university, most of us obtained postgraduate qualifications. 

I studied English at La Sorbonne in Paris straight after my baccalaureate. As part of an American civilisation class, we were taught that the US was the number one economic power in the world due to its high national IQ, but that as a nation it was still being held back because of the low IQ of African Americans.

Fast forward again, a few years later and now a migrant to the U.K , I became a mother. And it was time to form my own race memories in school, as a parent.

When my first son was about five, he was racially abused in school. Children would call him monkey and do monkey chants. He came home upset. I contacted the school, who had not told me about the incidents. They did not appear to see any racism and no action was taken. A week or so later I was summoned into school because of an extremely serious incident. I was informed my son had been racist. He had said he wanted to marry a Muslim girl when he grew-up. This was so deeply offensive and so disturbing; I was informed the local authority needed to be informed of this hate incident. I told the school the meeting and bogus (counter) accusation amounted to victimisation under the Equality Act. No further action was taken.

Between the ages of four to six my daughter remained in the same infant school. Several times a week her father would pick her up. Very rarely was he not asked by anxiety filled voices who he was or what he wanted, when he went to collect her. The teachers would run out of smiles, banter and recognition for this dark-skinned Black man with dreadlocks, it appears. He was almost systematically feared and unrecognised. It became an experiment we would do, watch how teachers would engage with different parents. It was (colour) striking.

When she was six my daughter came home upset and asked me to re-do her hair. She had two ponytails (Afro puffs to be precise) and two cornrows at the front and two at the back of her head. She was alarmed and anxious. ‘The teacher said my hair is too big, I can’t wear a hat and I need to change it or I won’t be in the school play’ she declared. I said I would not change her hairstyle and that her hair was perfectly fine.

The following day her father took her to school and explained to the teacher her comments were out of line, that she needed to be included and further, showed her how to put her puffs in a single ponytail to fit her hat. In the afternoon I picked her up and one of her braids had been cut. She had not realised. Only the teacher had touched her hair. I contacted the school; they had no idea of course. They confirmed children had had no access to scissors. I insinuated this may have been an act of malicious retaliation, the headteacher was outraged since she herself had ‘mixed-race’ grandchildren which thus clarified no racism could take place in her school.

Last year I collected my girl from school she had tear tracks all over her face. I asked the teacher what had happened she said, ‘someone had teased her, and she never quite got over it’. I questionned my daughter, sensing something significant had taken place once we were away from the teacher. She said a white boy had been telling her all Black people deserved to die, making faces at her all day. She had told the teacher. I waited three days playing the devil’s advocate for the school. No teacher ever called to explain what had happened or, that they would be taking the incident all the way to the local authority. Eventually the White mother of the offending child, whom I was in good terms with, called me distressed and ‘ashamed’ to apologise. I comforted her, that is a story for another day. She had been contacted. We had not.

Last week, my middle son maths’ teacher called and complained my son had not done six pieces of work and, he was urging me to ask him to take his studies more seriously. I talked to my son. I was angry. We take homework seriously. He did the work that night, the pieces of work were in fact exercises which formed part of the same homework sheet. The following day he returned home and said mum, ‘you know the teacher who says I had not completed six pieces of work, I spoke to my friend he had not completed over 100, why did the teacher not call his mother’? I said to him perhaps the teacher cared more about his education. I did not really believe this.

Two months ago my girl came home upset saying she did not think her teacher liked her.

I asked her what made her think that. She had noticed the teacher spoke to the White children with a kinder voice and, did not spend much time with the Black children. I took my courage in both hands and arranged a meeting with the school. I explained to the teacher my daughter’s experience. She turned red and defensive. She did not believe this was the case of course, she was taken aback that I would take my daughter’s words so seriously. I asked wether she had heard of unconscious bias. She seemed unclear how this might apply to her. We left the meeting with no clear sense of direction other than, ‘she would look into it’. It’s been several weeks. I have not heard anything. The only difference is my girl being increasingly unhappy and, noticing her teacher responding differently to her. We take solace in the fact that in a few weeks she will change class, and I hope for a more clued up teacher. I do not hold my breath.

This shit is exhausting.

This shit is distressing.

Macpherson defined institutional racism as “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin”. He further added, that it can be seen in “processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantages minority ethnic people”.

Attitudes. Processes. Behaviour. Prejudice. Ignorance. Thoughtlessness. Stereotyping. 

Structural racism encompasses the complex ways in which the dominance, superiority and privileges of White groups are built into, maintained and protected by all structures in society. 

Schools are structurally and institutionally racist and they are continuing, by and large to get away with it, without the kind of scrutiny that the police attracts.

But not every act of violence draws blood. Not all harm is immediately visible.

Schools remain for way too many of us sites of trauma, often intergenerational whiteness related trauma. This truth may challenge teachers’ benevolent and nurturing self-concept, but it must be contained, if we are going to move forward.

Again, this was not an academic piece. And the above is not an exhaustive list, I have only recounted those instances which came to mind. There are hundreds more.

The present post was written without much structure or theory. What it carries nevertheless is shit loads of experience and with that exhaustion and bits of despair. In truth, I am sick of the infantilisation of schools and, of their presumed benevolence that protects their everyday, normalised discriminatory practices and, their systemised anti-Blackness. 

No other institutions on this land could get away with the micro and macro violence schools subject Black children and their parents to. And that is before we have even delved into inequalities of access, discipline and attainment. Another story for another day…However, anyone would be a fool to consider such inequalities in isolation from the lived experience described above.

There is absolutely nothing more heart-breaking than leaving your child at the gate of a school knowing they will be subjected to racism.

Actually that is not true. There is something more heart-breaking. Leaving your child at a gate of a school knowing they will be subjected to racism and, fearing that if you challenge the school you will be subjected to racism. And more importantly, that your child may well suffer further discrimination.

But yet, here we are. In 2019.

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 Race Reflections. 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 psychology of white fragility (Part 1)

Splitting, dissociation and oppression

In a previous piece on the embodied manifestations of racism, I put splitting at centre of the reproduction of oppression, inequality and racial violence. I posit that splitting allows people racialised as white; within white supremacist contexts, to dissociate from the harm and pain they cause and thus, to continue to reproduce it, blissfully. Splitting is often described as polarised or binary thinking but, the essence to remember here, is that the defence helps us manage conflicting emotional states or information we cannot integrate, enabling us to thus distance ourselves from those aspects we find irreconcilable with some perceptual entity, often ourselves or the world.

As such, we may say, splitting maintains white ignorance which is in turn fed by splitting. Splitting is an incredibly serious problem in race relations. Not only does it reduce white people’s self-awareness, including awareness of their own racial prejudices and biases, but it also limits insight in terms of how such prejudices may leak relationally, influence their behaviour; including their embodied conduct. Splitting consequently, keeps white people dissociated from the impact of the harm they cause and, how such harm is structurally located.

Robin DiAngelo’s (2011) concept of white fragility, one of the most recent influential sociological frameworks to formulate white responses to racism, may be particularly helpful here. White fragility refers to the range of defensive moves white people perform to disengage from conversations on race and racism, because of their reduced capacity to tolerate race-based stress or distress (lack of racial stamina). These defensive moves include physically removing themselves from the stress inducing situation (eg. walking away) arguing, denying or minimising the continuing significance of race or of white privilege and, sometimes becoming threatening and aggressive.

DiAngelo proposes that whiteness, provides ‘protective pillows’ to white people and that this protection insulates them from experiencing racial stress. As a result, white people come to expect to feel racially comfortable at all times. As this expectation is socially sanctioned within white supremacy, it is rarely challenged. Not being exposed to racial stress will naturally translate in a lack of experience in managing the strong emotions which can arise in race-based discussions, leading almost inevitably to defensive retaliation. Behaviourally, we may see this as poor coping, inefficient stress management or poor distress tolerance. And again, this lack of adequate behavioural strategy is bound to compound anxiety and fear, which will in turn increase the likelihood of splitting or other problematic responses.

The neuropsychology of white fragility

It is virtually impossible to take in differing perspectives and, to be reflexive when under acute stress. Our brains are simply not designed to do so. This is our first problem. The more acute the stress, the more difficult this task will be. Exposure to high levels of stress impairs our cognitive functioning, including our capacity to think flexibility and our complex reasoning skills. When we are stressed or scared, our autonomic system get into motion and, threat responses are activated. Another problem we have, is that many white people are so split from their body, they may not even realise they are feeling threatened. Whiteness elevates the white body above its physiology so this splits is seen as desirable although it limits our understanding of human suffering. This body-mind split is also encouraged within discourses of colourblindness which render the noticing of racial differences shameful.

There is thus a real socialised deficit in bodily self-awareness. This is significant. Research indicates that shame not only impedes cognitive processing, it interferes with our ability to appraise situations in a balanced way, our awareness/openness to potential implicit racial biases and, can lead to anger and aggression. We also know that despite many white people claiming to be colourblind, evidence suggests that our brain responds to racial differences and, skin colour is noticed by our brain within milli-seconds. Similarly, when presented with images of Black people, threat responses via increased amygdala activities have been objectively observed. Further, we know that racial stereotypes evoke more emotional responses and memories, than other kinds of stereotypes. So in summary, we have enough to posit that threat responses via physiological and neurobiological processes and events, underpin and, maintain white fragility.

Wanting to be soothed

Our cerebral threat system is designed to identify threats quickly. And, we are designed to focus our attention, memory and thinking towards threat-based information, as a priority and of course, for survival. Our brain does so by triggering feelings of anxiety, via relevant hormonal events that sustain fear or aversive responses to potentially threatening stimuli. Once triggered, our threat responses, motivate us to take associated behavioural action, in essence to fight or flight. If we believe consciously or otherwise, that we can overcome the danger by fighting, our brain will gear our body towards doing so. If we feel at risk but think we cannot overcome the danger by fighting, we will generally run away.

There is a thin line between the socially sanctioned belief that white people are entitled to racial comfort and, the expectation that people of colour should protect white people from race-based stress and thus safeguard the said comfort. That is to say, that the emotional states of white people and their feelings should be centred and prioritised in discussions or conversations about race. White centeredness is a core pillar of white supremacy and, expecting soothing from people of colour, is an enactment of master-Slave configurations which reproduce power relations. Not only is this exploitative, it deprives those with power from building self-awareness and develop the relevant ‘psychic muscles’.

Further, this soothing expectation not only position people of colour as superhumans and, in that sense dehumanises us; it turns us into objects. Specifically, into instruments of self-soothing. Staying with the discomfort of oppression related guilt, shame and/or distress without discharging it or projecting it onto the racially marginalised is central to learning to tolerate race-based stress. It is also important to break the cycle of relationally enacted oppression. As previously posited, white fragility splits white people off from pain. Black pain and the pain people of colour experience because of racism. It therefore stops white people from being authentically and humanely present in their relationships with people of colour.

Learning to tolerate racial distress

A big part of decreasing inequality and injustice is increasing connection between white people and people of colour and, bridging the gap between our experiential realities. Or, increasing  connection between our structural realities. Thus, remedying that socially sanctioned dissociation which is sustained by splitting, is fundamental. This is why I believe that soothing white people who experience race-based stress as they are being awaken to the harm they enact in the world and the unearned privileges this society continues to grant them; is the least helpful thing we can do. Doing so is depriving them of the chance to become more compassionate, more integrated, more human.

Consequently, it is important that all agents of oppression connect with the pain they cause. The pain they have avoided confronting all of their lives. We should let them taste it and, experience it in their body. Feel it in their bones. Reclaim the oppressive part of themselves, which will help them see what they are socialised not to see; structures of domination. This will not happen without increasing tolerance to racial stress and distress. Many of you will read this and now wonder what it is that could thus be done, to increase (racial) distress tolerance in white groups.

And, I wonder too. The honest answer is, I don’t know for certain. We do not have an evidence base to answer this question unequivocally. Partly because white fragility as a framework is relatively new. Further, it is derived from sociological scholarship rather than psychological scholarship thus, psychological research. Nonetheless, clinicians and psychotherapists do know quite a bit about how to generally increase distress tolerance and, how to work with anxious and distressed states. This is a core part of what we do. So, it makes sense to start with what we know. The steps below are derived from such clinical evidence.

Some practical steps

In psychology, distress tolerance comprises both our perceived capacity to withstand negative and/or aversive emotional states and; the behavioural act of withstanding the same. Building distress tolerance is helpful when working with those who have a tendency to feel overwhelmed by their emotions and/or find strong feelings unbearable or, when we have such a low tolerance for distress, that even mild levels of stress can trigger disproportionate responses and/or when we have learnt to manage difficult emotions and/or feelings by resorting to destructive or damaging behaviours. You can access distress tolerance exercises here.

Exposure methods in therapy simply focus on helping people confront rather than avoid their fears. As human beings, we tend to avoid what we feel threatened by, be it situations, objects or people. This avoidance may help us manage our stress and fears in the short term. Nevertheless, over time, it worsens our anxiety and, leads us to respond more strongly, feel more overwhelmed and/or become more sensitive to the feared stimuli. Hence, psychologists tend to see avoidance as a maintaining factor in anxiety. In the context of white fragility, exposure would imply creating an environment in which to progressively expose white individuals to race and racism stimuli, in time, reducing fear (thus threat responses) and decreasing avoidance.

A final step to help re-connect white people to their bodies and to the world around them, may include mindfulness. Mindfulness as a meditation is centred on helping individual focus their attention on the present, moment to moment by paying attention to their thoughts, bodily sensations, perceptions and feelings in a non-judgmental manner. Thoughts, bodily sensations and feelings are envisaged as mental events one can be distanced from, rather than inherent and constitutive parts of the self. Mindfulness helps us explore, understand and reflect on these events as transient moments that are separate from the self. It has been found to limit our tendency to react, self-evaluate and dissociate. Mindfulness may be particularly helpful in becoming aware of the responses triggered by race related material and to reconnect with the world of senses. Encouragingly and perhaps unsurprisingly, mindfulness has been found to have positive effects in the reduction of prejudice and implicit racial bias.


To conclude this article is a first attempt at using psychology to make sense of white fragility with a view of deriving useable tools which may help increase racial stamina and thus reduce relationally enacted oppression. There is no doubt that a lot more could be written and unpacked using psychological and psychoanalytical scholarship. I will aim to further explore the ways in which psychology can help us tackle white fragility. Finally, I am aware that some people of colour may be suspicious of approaches focused on supporting white people to deal with whiteness. I am ambivalent too. Nonetheless, my thinking is that we are all to gain from better understanding racial violence, it’s relational enactment and how it may be countered. I am hoping too, this article may serve as a helpful reference some readers may use when asked to provide a response or education to the forever recurring question ‘but what can we do’…

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Education requests, exploitation & oppression

‘Let me tell you what it feels like to stand in front of a white man and explain privilege to him. It hurts. It makes you tired. Sometimes it makes you want to cry. Sometimes it is exhilarating. Every single time it is hard. Every single time I get angry that I have to do this, that this is my job, that this shouldn’t be my job. Every single time I am proud of myself that I’ve been able to say these things because I used to not be able to and because some days I just don’t want to’ (McCleave-Maharawal, 2011)

The violence of public scholarship

Since I have started writing and speaking about race and oppression my intellectual and to some degree my professional lives have been transformed. In the main, for the better. I am thankful. There are however aspects of this public life that continue to be extremely violent. Navigating any public space particularly as a scholar when your body is Black, and female can be treacherous. There are those who will always have a hard time with women and Black bodies taking up space and, occupying any position that affords their voice a platform. Or their thinking an audience.

The worse I have had so far, is a rape threat. A single one though, and so I consider myself lucky. Some of my peers have to contend with recurrent threats of rape, death and mutilation and, sometimes even threats to their loved ones. That’s in addition to everyday racist and sexist harassment that is sadly so banal, it is not even worth a mention. This is the backdrop to our scholarly work. That our words alone would cause such intense aggressive impulses to freely become bare, in public, often in the most ardent defenders of free speech, requires sustained reflection.

One of the aims of such conduct is of course social control via intimidation. It is to remind us of our place. To trigger sufficient fear, or distress that we merge back into silence and return the space we’re occupying to some fantasised or constructed rightful owner. Or knower. Bodies with the ‘right’ gender and the ‘right’ colour. Women of colour, Black women in particular, are not supposed to know or, be scholars. Let alone public ones. How dare we think that what we have to say and that our thinking, particularly when it challenges established (white male) orthodoxies, matter enough to constitute and contribute to knowledge?

Still I rise… above my station.

Overt aggression is not the only form of violence marginalised scholars face. Recurrently and increasingly, I am asked to provide the emotional or intellectual labour of educating privileged folks on oppression, racism and (although much, much less frequently) sexism via requests for of ‘debate’, elaboration or information. These demands for education occur on and off social media. Publicly and privately. They reach me almost daily. Simply reading them recurrently leaves me exhausted. Often frustrated. Sometimes angry that so many would expect such a laborious service, from me for free and, the imperial echoes this has. Always, I am left feeling heavy.

Because of this, I have taken the political position of not responding. Of course, this attracts strong reactions too. Often anger, dismay and/or more insults. Much of it, and often unbeknown to the education seeker, becomes manifest because it is still socially transgressive for a Black woman to refuse to serve those who demand that she’d be of service. How dare I. Again. Moreover, not only am I a scholar but I am too a therapist. Surely, it is part of my role as a ‘helping professional’ to kindly and dutifully educate and explain, on request?

Well, it may be so, but I would argue that non-education here, is in fact education (on exploitation and on the de-centering whiteness) and that above all, that it is an act of self-preservation. And that I do indeed need to exist safe and sound to do my job. Even if that is the only contribution of value some may see in my existence. The continuing role of history in the structuring of power relations and, of the wider social world has long been recognised. It is central to group analytic scholarship including the concept of the social unconscious or indeed, the intergenerational transmission of cultural experiences and of relational/social configurations.

Oppression as trauma

Considering a different axe of oppression to hopefully make the point (yes this is not a perfect rhetorical device)… would we expect survivors of gendered violence and victims of male rape to educate men, on request, on what it is like to be groped and sexually exploited?  If you find this proposition more absurd or problematic you may want to take a few minutes of reflection. All oppressive experiences are traumatic.

As we still struggle to accept this simple statement as fact particularly in relation to racism, let alone embody it relationally, I am going to write it again. All oppressive experiences are traumatic. It hurts. It makes you tired. Sometimes it makes you want to cry. The cumulative effect of subtle and everyday or micro experiences of othering and discrimination is grinding. It is draining. And again, every single time it is hard. But more than that, it wears our health and mental health down. It renders us vulnerable to psychological distress and make us feel unsafe in the world, the very definition of insidious trauma.

Given this impact, the expectation that we should as a matter of course and at the drop of a hat, subject our bodies to such effects is frankly gross in its lack of compassion and consideration. It also has a sadistic element which needs attention. It is the ultimate stripping of our subjecthood. And, as such it is of course also historically loaded. I would thus argue, it is another way to reproduce the commodification of our bodies and to dehumanise us, maintaining both the status-quo and power relations, the education seeker purports to want to challenge and/or to understand. This extract from an I email received a few days ago via Race Reflections is a good illustration and, I hope a learning opportunity.

Education and oppression

The email above is from a therapist and someone who likely considers themselves an ‘ally’. Someone thus, who could reasonably be expected to be familiar with issues of boundaries, emotional distress and trauma. Indeed, their apparent grasp of the issues is expressly stated; ‘I understand how utterly emotionally draining it can be for the majority people of colour to have to get into these conversations’. It would appear, they get it. Some evidence of compassion or at least empathy for the taxing conundrums her request would expose people of colour to, seems to be present. Alas this empathy is not extended to me and, I am excluded from their circle of compassion.

It is unclear wether I have not been included in that ‘majority’, because I am believed to somehow possess some inherent protection from or resilience to experiencing the said emotional tax, in the author’s mind and if so, on what basis or; whether the writer’s needs ‘to understand’ in spite of their apparent awareness of the emotional costs to me, take precedence. Or again, wether they are completely split off from their impact on me. Indeed, the request is presented as a banal one. It has a ‘hey girl’ or ‘no biggie’ quality. ‘I’d appreciate your thoughts on how I can considerably learn more’. And of course, it would be a banal, nothing to see here request since at least in their mind, the author may be ‘a bit more educated than the rest’.

These education requests are thus clear communications. They state whose bodies matter and whose experiences or needs should be centred. They render our bodies instruments or territories to be exploited for the self-development and enrichment of those with more social power. When violence to our bodies and our welfare matter less than the curiosity our experience trigger and/or demands for ‘education’, we are once more albeit unconsciously or inadvertently, sacrificed by and for those who seek to grow at our expense. Often without our consent. Our psychological boundaries are tested and there is a desire or at least a move, albeit likely unconscious to intrude and exploit. An attempt, I would say, at psychological colonialism.

Projection and psychological exploitation

Each time we are asked to educate mindlessly, not only must we re-experience oppression and racism, we must often carry the weight of the privileged’s inability to tolerate their own responses, distress, discomfort and, the disturbance caused to their benevolent sense of self or worldview, which often gets passed on to us via projection. Projection, as a defense mechanism takes place when we unconsciously attribute feelings, drives or impulses located within us to someone else. Usually emotional states that are unwanted and, that we are unable and/or unwilling to carry or hold ourselves. It is not unusual for example, for those who challenge racism to be called racist, bully or some other persecutory term. One may say, attributes that are disowned and projected outwards onto marginalised bodies, here people of colour. 

Projection per se is not harmful. Projective identification however, often is. With projective identification we are induced to feel or act in accordance with the material that has been disowned and projected onto us. We lose our psychological agency and autonomy and with that, the capacity to distinguish what belongs to us and what belongs to the ‘projector’. Our thoughts, feelings and experiences become merged and/or replaced by those implanted into us. The breach of psychological boundary by excellence. We are made to carry someone else’s unwanted psychological baggage and, we experience it as being our own. Psychological pressure is unconsciously exerted to coerce us into being once more, of (psychological) service.

In doing so, we become estranged from our own mind which is turned into a vessel for the exploitation of those who project onto us, here those with more social power, indeed specifically White people. It can be difficult to know when we’re identifying with a projection, it requires a fairly high level of self-awareness, and often support from a therapist or an analytically orientated supervisor. One way to tell if you have access to neither, is you may start to experience confusion about your experience and, your feelings may appear disproportionate and/or seem out of place (and could plausibly be attributed to the other entity). In the case of projections following race education  thus, you may become the container for strong feelings or shame, guilt, inadequacy or distress which do not belong to you, whilst their rightful owner will be blissfully split off from them and therefore, free from carrying their own shit.

Education and epistemic exploitation

Another way to conceptualise the exploitative nature of education requests in the context of oppression, is in terms of epistemic practice. Berenstain (2016) ‘s framework of epistemic exploitation is particularly helpful here. Epistemic exploitation according to her, occurs when privileged folks force marginalised folks to educate them about the nature of their oppression in an unpaid capacity. This educational labour leads to a double bind since there are costs associated with both meeting the demand for education and, costs associated with refusing to meet it. If one decides to comply with the request, one must face testimonial and hermeneutical injustice and scepticism by virtue of one’s very belonging to a marginalised group.

Thus, despite education demands, marginalised perspectives and knowledge are usually dismissed and subject to unattainable epistemic or truth thresholds. Refusing the request on the other hand, because it is socially transgressive, exposes marginalised bodies to violence or hostility via retaliation, affront and anger. According to the philosopher, epistemic exploitation despite being ubiquitous is rarely recognised as a form of epistemic violence which is part of wider macro systemic socio-political oppression. Rather, it is often dressed as a practice deemed epistemically virtuous, as a necessary part of social exchanges and knowledge acquisition; creating an unjust burden on the marginalised to educate and enlighten all while limiting their capacity to do so and, exposing them to violence and harm.

Concluding thoughts

To conclude, relational and psychological configurations will invariably mirror socio-economic and historico-material configurations, if relationships are left to their own devices. I doubt that enacting oppression can ever lead to anything other than oppression and, therefore to the reproduction of the status-quo, even if there was no other, less harmful way to acquire the education sought. Which there is. As we say on Twitter street, Google is your friend. Liberation is something we do in the material world, not uniquely something we conceive and intellectualise. Burdening, harming and marginalising the needs and experiences of those whose freedom and liberation we say we seek to support is the height of white ignorance and as such, does nothing but reproduce whiteness as a structure. Thus, if you take just one sentence from this piece, remember this one; ‘it hurts, it makes you tired, sometimes it makes you want to cry‘.

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Racial trauma, silence and meaning

Discovering racism

My discovery of racism was quite a brutal one. I was perhaps 4 or 5 and had been playing with my sister and some of the kids from the neighbourhood in front of our Parisian banlieue tower block as was customary for poorer families during school holidays or week-ends. There was quite a few of us; 15 perhaps even more. Children of all backgrounds having fun, skipping, running around and laughing the summer afternoon away, still quite oblivious to the dire social deprivation we were accustomed to and, the hostility our existence in France, created. A White man erupted from a ground floor flat in the tower effing and puffing, clearly aggravated by the noise we were collectively making. After his rant, he ran directly toward my elder sister and pushed her from behind.

She must have been 6 or 7 at the most. He pushed her so violently that, she was propelled forward, fell and scraped the ground for a few meters. Once immobile, much of the skin at the back of her arms had gone. A bunch of children quickly ran to our second floor flat to alert my parents. A few seconds later my mother appeared downstairs to find my sister, me and other children in tears and, my sister covered in blood. Within moments she was at the assailant’s door furious and demanding an explanation. She was greeted by a barrage of racist abuse. Once that rant was over, the man proceeded to punch her in the face. So forcefully her skin turned blue-black, one of her eye became red with blood and half her face swelled up instantly. There was something so deeply dehumanising and ungendering in the violence and hatred contained in that punch.

This was not a half-hearted attack. It was a determined, completely unrestrained, chest out, full force knock-out hit. The kind of punch a charged man throws at another man he believes is his equal in power. The kind of heavy weight punch no woman should ever bear. It was full of misogynoir and unequivocally stated, you are not a human being, let alone a woman and, I want you down. Expectedly, all children by this point were crying hysterically. Utter terror. White terror. I am not sure whether it was the sight of my mother’s transformed and grotesque looking face or, the hatred in the White man’s eyes which scared me the most.

As a child my mother was the pillar of our family and community. She emanated the kind of grace and dignity you sometimes see in tall statuesque-like African women. Often, our home was the refuge for abused and other vulnerable women seeking her protection from patriarchal violence. But in that instant she had been rendered powerless, meaningless and disposable, she had no protection.

Trauma, violence and silence

And so it was more than a beautiful woman who was publicly violated. It was the entire community and with that, our sense of safety and meaning. She was hit on the head. We were all punched in the stomach. Things after the punch have blurred in my memory. But I can still see my mother standing after the assault. Standing tall. Defiant and in dignified silence. Not a single tear was shed by her. Not a word in retort. If resistance ever was a picture, it might well be it. Although I do not remember this; I am told the White man was arrested minutes later knife in hand, threatening to kill her in front of a full audience of distraught children. Imagine the scene. The loudness, the chaos. The screams, the distress. It sharply contrasts with the deafening silence that engulfed us all after the events. A silence that is typical but the significance of which, I only grasped as an adult.

I have repeatedly encountered it in therapy when working with those who have experienced racism, sexual or gender related violence, and other forms of traumatic events. As a child it felt as though speaking about white violence would mean wounding by reminding everyone. We were and still are a close-knit family and community, but that proximity did not facilitate the uttering of words. If anything I think, it made it harder to speak as we all wanted to spare one another distress. So we were all left to process this trauma together but alone as life took its course, the aggressor was jailed and my mother’s face and head very slowly recovered.

When I spoke to Black people about their experience of racism as children, as part of my thesis on racial trauma not so dissimilar stories were shared. Equally overtly violent direct or vicarious experiences such as witnessing one’s father being chased by an angry racist mob or being beaten up or spat at. As well as more verbally violent experiences such as being racially abused or denigrated by other children, or by adults, often teachers. From seeing one’s parents being mocked for their accent, dress, or hearing them being repeatedly asked to go back home, to the more subtle Othering and aversive behaviours which nonetheless tell you in no uncertain terms, you do not belong. The full panoply of racism had already been experienced by participants as children, including the denial, minimisation or invalidation of their experiences for the few who had attempted to verbalise them.

Racism and the conspiracy of silence

That very same all encompassing and familiar silence seemed to envelop most participants ‘experiences of racial injustice and racism. It came from various sources at individual, familial and structural levels. And always had ‘reasons’. Children in the main had kept silent about their racist experiences, sometimes out of shame, often, wanting to protect their parents by sparing them hurt and pain. Parents sought to protect children too by refraining themselves from naming, sometimes out of conviction speaking would damage children. That it would make children less able to function within white supremacy, causes them to lose innocence or confidence.

Social structures, schools, universities, the police … had all too often, been complicit in this ‘conspiracy of silence’. It has been forcefully enforced by punishing those who sought to speak. By discrediting them or dismissing their complaints. Of course there are good reasons here too. ‘Allegations’ of racism rarely meet that evidential threshold. They tend to be caused by misunderstandings after all. Complaints are ill-formulated or not communicated in the right way or in a nice enough tone. Those rare voices who manage to jump through all those silencing hoops, and threaten to make themselves heard, eventually get smothered via non-disclosure agreements and gagging clauses or orders. The rule of silence becomes the rule of law.

Racism always has a reason often, several reasons. There always have been and will always be ‘reasonable’ reasons for upholding silences in the face of racism, violence and trauma. Sometimes they can  appear protective. Rarely though, do they protect those harmed or serve the interests of those at the lower end of the power divide. Silence allows abuse to flourish. It reproduces and amplifies the damage of trauma. What is unnamed and unspoken is obviously not heard. Not seen. Not fully witnessed or recognised. Silence thus prolongs harm and extends the initial violence internally and externally by seeking to hide or disappear the violence.

And of course silences serve multiple functions. They can be about denial, dissociation or splitting off from intolerable pain. They can speak something of our overwhelmed capacity to process the experiential and translate it into units of meaning. They can speak of our anxiety about speaking into being and existence, what is feared. They can help us evade what is simply too ugly to contemplate, contain and hold. Silences can also tell us something about the intergenerational colonial or ancestral coping strategies which may have been learnt and passed down from our foremothers when their cries of despair, exhaustion and agony, fell into abysses of indifference, and their only way to survive was to keep quiet and keep going.

Structurally silence is performative. It fills a gap and, helps to ensure those cracks on the walls of appearances diversity and inclusion are filled so that institutions can continue to stand solid, as violence is reproduced, invibilised then denied. Psychologically too, silence leaves a void. A gap where compassion could have been. So, words do matter. And as children much more than as adults, we need words to formulate and mentalise. The failure to formulate traumatic experiences plays a fundamental role in the intergenerational transmission of trauma and wounds. After mass or group trauma, unspoken and incomprehensible part images of the trauma become intertwined with the identity and self-concept of subsequent generations.

Silence, containment and meaning

In my research it became apparent that those participants who as children were spoken about racism, responded with much less anxiety and distress when they encountered racism and racial injustice. These conversations we may propose, allowed the child then the adult, to make sense of their experience and retain a sense of epistemic confidence, particularly when their subjective reality was denied in situations of epistemic injustice. Further, parental conversations made it easier not to take in or introject racist projections and, to thus externalise feelings of shame, otherness, inferiority and/or deficiency.

Without words, traumatic experiences and representations are fragmented and devoid of meaning, and can contribute to a sense of overwhelm, epistemic homelessness and dread when confronted with racial injustice. In fact, all those research participants who struggled with meaning making had eventually taken ‘corrective’ steps to build their epistemic confidence as adults, such as engaging for instance, in Black feminist/epistemic scholarship which they reported had markedly reduced their psychological distress.
These findings are consistent with Bion’s (1960) theory of containment.

The above in summary proposes that an infant’s capacity to develop abstract thinking and to understand the world, is dependent upon their caregiver’s sensitively responding to their distress. By calmly taking in the distress (or projections) the infant cannot cope with and ‘metabolising’ this raw data, the mother teaches the child to 1) to internalise calmness 2) regulate emotions 3) process their emotions thus, derive meaning from the world of senses – linking the affective to the cognitive and epistemic. The core idea being that maternal emotional receptivity particularly when the infant is distressed is core to the infant developing conceptual thinking. Specifically, containment allows what Bion calls the ‘Alpha function’ that is to say, the process of turning unordered, meaningless, overwhelming data from the senses or chaos (what he calls the ‘Beta elements’) into conceptual meaning (‘Alpha elements’).

In other words we can say a child whose experience of racism was not contained, who thus was not supported in metabolising related ‘beta elements’ would be expected to become an adult with more difficulties in performing the ‘Alpha function’ when confronted with racism and racial injustice, in the absence of corrective actions. Bion’s containment theory, despite its arguably rather colonial imagery, offers a framework to consider issues of intergenerational wounds and, the transmission of racial trauma. As long as current power relations and racialised configurations remain of course, traumatised and distressed parents and, marginalised parents can be expected to need support to adequately perform the Alpha function when it comes to live racism related trauma, particularly where they are more intersectionally vulnerable.

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Masters, Slaves and Object Relations

‘The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed’ Steve Biko

Object relations theory

Object relations theory is concerned with how we internalise the relationships with our primary object(s) of attachment, chiefly our mother, during infancy and, how these internalisations continue to influence relational patterns throughout the lifespan. Melanie Klein who initially developed the theory of Object Relations, believed that human beings, during their infancy internalise or introject into their unconscious, whole representations of primary care givers: Objects. Objects function as relational templates or guides and help the infant navigate the world and, relate to other similar (or dissimilar) Objects.

In early infancy children are not capable of integrating whole Objects. Those Objects they experience as bad and those they experience as good are split into all good or all bad Objects. A mother who feeds and provides milk to the child when the child is hungry becomes a good Object (the ‘good breast’), an Object which is idealised and towards which the child experiences pure love and perhaps merging fantasies. A mother who is not immediately available when a child is hungry or distressed becomes a bad Object. An object towards whom the child develops intense aggression, hatred and murderous impulses or enactments, if only in fantasy (the ‘bad breast’). This is called the Paranoid-Schizoid Position as the child harbours fears of being destroyed by the bad Object. Of course projections of their own desire to kill the Object that frustrates.

However, with developing maturity and as the child grows, they become better able to integrate both (part) bad and good objects. They essentiallly learn that the breast that feeds is also the breast that frustrates. The maternal Objects become one. The mastery of this ambivalence leads the child to move from the ‘paranoid-schizoid position’ (where the child primarily experiences fears of annihilation) to the ‘depressive Position’ (where the child having reclaimed their projections, experience sadness and guilt) and, learn to live with the realisation that the good breast and the bad breast in their pure idealised or despised form do not in fact, exist.

Object relation theory is for me one of the most important psychological theory that exists to account for the configurations of our internal worlds, even if it is an incomplete theory when it comes to infants and people of colour. Occasionally, I hear folks including psychologists deriding the ‘good breast bad breast’ analogy or the whole scholarship. Truthfully, this leaves me perplexed. This is really not a difficult theory to grasp. And, although I can understand that some may have difficulties with the language or that the symbolism may appear odd, it is beyond my understanding that anyone would reject the core ideas today.

These are for me in their simplest form 1) that our experience of the world as adults is at least in part, shaped by how we experienced the world as infants and children, 2) that we internalise something of our ‘external’ world, which comes to shape our ‘internal’ world 3) that as we mature, we move away from binary or black and white thinking. I seriously do not understand why any of these notions would be controversial or ‘disagreement’ material. In fact, few are the psychological school of thoughts or modality that do not support these ideas one way or another, although they may use different terms or metaphors (as a PS do your own thinking).

Internal Objects and race

And whilst object relations theory is not social in the strictest sense, I think it has important socio-political implications, beyond Klein’s initial formulation and likely intentions. The theory can be easily extended to account for socio-political internalisations and associated internal conflicts. I note here that pretty much all Blackness and/or oppression scholars have for instance written in various degrees, about the introjection of the social world and therefore of white supremacy or, of white colonial configurations. Those ideas are not new. From Baldwin to Lorde in the United States, from Fanon and Césaire in France and the French Caribbean, from Biko to Sankara in Africa all the way to Freire in Latin America, to name but a few. Today, we would refer to these ideas as internalised oppression or internalised racism, more specifically here.

Internalised racism we may say is the introjection of the white gaze and thus, the self-stripping of our own subjecthood or personhood. I accept, the scholars mentioned above did not write with Klein’s theory in mind. All the same, internalised racism does refer, it could easily be argued in Kleinian terms, to the internalisation of White Objects (or their representations) in that it refers to the process of introjecting the racist values, beliefs and myths White people hold about people of colour, internalising violent or subservient configurations, and using some or all of the same, as the foundation for our self-relating. Internalised oppression is the enemy that lives within. The Master inside our mind. This White Object although often absent in classic analytical texts, is another presence that shapes our experience of the world and, our relationships both with White people and with other people of colour.

The Master and the Slave as Internal Objects

Both school of thoughts, therefore meet at the juncture of the historico-relational and the psychological/psychic. The recognition and/or dislodging of the Master that lives within, has been central to Black scholarship and liberatory politics although, they have been slow to be accepted, let alone used within mainstream psychological and psychoanalytic practice. Nonetheless, this premise remains central to formulating the experience of people of colour and their internal worlds. In my last piece on freedom, I offered an introduction to internalised master-slave configurations and to the conflicts they can lead to, between people of colour. Object relations theory provides a helpful analytic framework to elaborate on those ideas.

I will now use one anecdote as a ‘vignette’ to attempt to do so.

I was once a member of a therapy group with one Brown woman. The tension between us was palpable. I think it’s fair to say we did not particularly like one another. Although perhaps she seemed to have much stronger feelings toward me than I did toward her. She recurrently interrupted me when I attempted to speak of my experience of anti-blackness. In fact, she appeared much less able to contain my experiences than our fellow White group members. Indeed, she on more than one occasion said she had a hard time just tolerating me calling White people White. She repeatedly called that rude and, she called that racist.

She called me a bully on more than one occasion with the kind of intensity that betrays transferential processes. My response was usually to ignore her or, invite her to reflect on her relationship with whiteness and her internalised racism. To which she responded once or twice, are you saying I am a bounty? I had never uttered these words. Out of sheer exasperation I eventually responded, ‘I have not, but you may want to think about it’.

As human beings a part of us is always going to seek safety and security. Safety and security when racialised as Black or Brown and located within white supremacy often requires a particular posturing toward whiteness. Specifically assimilation. Assimilation we could say, is pleasing the Master and, attempting to be in the Master’s good books. This usually means idealising the White Object or as I have previously referred to it, the Internalised Master; in order to sustain this self-negation. Even if this posturing towards the White Object is borne out of survival necessity, as human beings again, we will forever yearn for self-determination, dignity and freedom. And so, another part of us will invariably want to be free and thus if only in fantasy, rebel and kill the Master, the White Object. That is what I refer to, as the slave part of us, the part of us longing for freedom. The Black Object, you could say. I have previously referred to them as the Internal Slave.

Mirror reactions

‘A person sees himself, or part of himself – often a repressed part of himself – reflected in the interactions of other group members. He sees them reacting in the way he does himself, or in contrast to his own behaviour…. He also gets to know himself- and this is a fundamental process in ego development- by the effect he has upon others and the picture they form of him.’ (Foukes, 1964).

Mirror reactions are important processes in analytic thinking and practice, particularly within group analysis. Foulkes described them as one of the most important group specific factor in group analytic therapy. Mirror reactions are a set of reactions triggered within us as a direct response to the behaviours of others. These reactions include identification, projection and contrasting. We could therefore say, mirror reactions force us to encounter and/or confront those parts of ourselves through their recognition in the behaviours of others, we have repressed or split off. Here we may say, our disowned (racial) Objects.

There is no perfect recipe to navigate white supremacy. If there was, we’d know it by now. This is what I was partly getting at in my piece on Freedom. And, because there is no perfect way to navigate the world to avoid the harm of whiteness at least, one must therefore decide how one wants to be in the world. However, that being in the world, that is to say our ontological choices, will regularly confront our internal Objects. If we take it as a given that we have to various degrees internalised all systems of oppressions, then our internal worlds will be governed by our White Objects and our Black Objects, in various configurations.

In other words, if you refuse to hear your Internal Slave, repress them, and your internal world is ruled by your White Object, your Internal Master then, you will experience very strong responses to anyone reminding you of your Internal Slave, that part of you longing to be free. The ontological choices you have made to try to survive eg. appeasing whiteness, will clash with your Black Object. Conversely, if you cannot bear being in the presence of those who choose assimilation and whose internal world is governed by the tyranny of their White Object, there is a good chance you have tried to disown your Internal Master, your White Object. That part of your internal world seeking the safety and security associated with proximity to the Master, the White Object. You are trying so hard the kill the Master or the enemy within, any reminder that they are still breathing, deeply disturbs you.

In the vignette above we may formulate that Black and White Objects or the Internal Slave and the Internal Master were engaged in a power struggle. A struggle for dominance. And whilst again, there is no right way to survive… the intensity of the responses observed when a Black Object was confronted through a mirror reaction, caused an intolerable disturbance which could not be reclaimed and processed and became located between the only two people of colour in the group. With aggression more overtly displayed toward the Black Object despite projections of bullying and racism possibly exposing the persecutory preoccupations typical of the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ position.

In the same way that with increased psychic maturity the infant grows to integrate both bad and good Objects into one, one needs to come to the realisation that both the Black Object and the White Object exist within each of us. This posturing may allow us not only to show other people of colour compassion and ourselves self-compassion, in those moments when we experience (defended) shame, suffering or sadness, because our ontological choices clash with our most salient Racial Object. Further, and perhaps more importantly, it may help us remember that whiteness is fundamentally not inherently about whiteness, but that it is about power and, thus similarly; help us come to terms with the fact that the good Black and the bad White Objects or the Good White and the Bad Black in their pure idealised or despised form, similarly, do not in fact, exist.

Thank you for reading

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Race Reflections en Français! 

Five years of Race Reflections

It’s been over 4 years since I started writing for Race Reflections and what a journey it has been. 

I can’t believe the places it has taken me (as far as Australia) and, the interest it has generated. Last year about 25 000 unique views spread from 102 countries were recorded. 

Over 100 countries…From China to Israel, from France to Finland, from India to Kenya, via so many Caribbean islands, about one quarter of all views were located in the UK and US and a about half overall, were from English speaking countries.

This is a fairly niche and challenging site, so I am quite proud, especially as the story behind Race Reflections is such a painful one.

I am ready to go French!

As a Black French woman who is a EU migrant to the UK, my relationship with the French launguage is complicated. That’s before we even get into my Congolese ancestry.

But I know from my lived experience, that there is a need to get s0me race related conceptual and liberatory tools in French. Having the linguistic and conceptual tools to formulate one’s experience of oppression is still a privilege that is far from mainstream in France. 

Further, despite being written in English France features in the top 3 countries when it comes to readership and, I am recurrently asked to translate articles on Race Reflections into French. Many have translated pieces without my consent, and I would like this practice to become redundant.

A French Content Assistant

So as I said I am ready but, I need some help.

I do not want to spend all my week-ends translating…And this is where a French Content Assistant comes in.

The role is freelance, at least initially.

I expect it to last 6-12 months.

I would like to work with a native French speaker.

Someone who has some lived experience of anti-Blackness and/or other form(s) of racism.

They must of course be bilingual, French-English.

Being passionate about social justice and anti-racism is a must.

Ideally I am after someone who is social media savvy and already has a well-established social media following/platform.

There is no additional educational requirement strictly speaking but, an understanding of and familiarity with some of the core concepts and, scholarship when it comes to race and oppression, will be a distinct advantage as would a psychology or sociology background.

The focus of the role will vary from week to week but will include help with translations, literature reviews, administrative assistance and supporting the growth of Race Reflections in the French speaking universe on and off-line.


At present the hours are likely to be between 7-1o hours a week.

Perhaps more if we can sucessfully fundraise. We’ll discuss that.

Pay rates 

I am flexible (somewhat) on this front, this will depend on the calibre of the applicant.

I can offer hourly, weekly or monthly freelance payments to be agreed.

I am happy to pay in Euros or in Sterlings.

I do not care where you are based. This work can be done online and from home. Although I would expect occasional meetings (we can discuss).

Next steps…

Would you like to work with me pleeeeeease and help me develop Race Reflections?

If you are interested in finding out more about the role, or would like to submit an application please send me your CV and a covering letter in French (as One Drive docs, with links) via the contact page.

Feel free to also get in touch to have an informal chat or if you have any other query via the contact page or via twitter @kguilaine.

All applications must be received by May 15th 2019.

Selected applicants will be contacted within 7 days of this deadline for an informal interview.

As part of the interview I will ask you to translate a short passage from Race Reflections.

I can’t wait to start that French mission libératrice ✊🏿

Thank you for reading.

Guilaine Kinouani