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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why I no longer argue about racism

These days I rarely challenge white people who dispute matters related to white privilege, oppression or racism. I simply let them be. Often, this means letting them feel intellectually superior and comfortable in their uncritical notions of objectivity. It is not because I could not debunk their naive rationalism and sometimes plainly illogical arguments. But…the emotional labour is really not worth it. And, there are simply too many more important things I must do with my time and energy. Life is short. I do not intend on wasting another single moment of it entertaining bigotry disguised as reason. 

I no longer challenge white people who dispute white privilege because I really don’t feel the need. I don’t feel I need to convince them when it comes to matters of my subjugation or to make a case that their privilege is my oppression. I do not seek to change people’s mind. Some have a hard time understanding this… arguing would be making my existence and my lived reality subject to agreement, disagreement or approval from those whose very existence and sense of self, is still rooted in the erasure of the violence they inflict upon me. I do not need for people to agree that it hurts to know that it hurts. It is enough that I feel that it does. Life is short. I have no intention of denying my wounds to protect or lick someone else’s. I’ve chosen to centre my pain and that of other marginalised groups. Have no doubt that this is a political act.

I have stopped challenging people who deny oppression because inter-rater reliability is really not necessary for me to accept the validity of my lived experience. I trust it. And, I will speak it. I’ve learnt that doing so is central to my liberation and perhaps that of others too. That it is central to carving out spaces where I can simply exist for me and not for others. Contrary to what society seeks to enforce onto me and onto those whose bodies were meant to make space for others. But life is short. And I want some space. We need to breathe too. There’s enough space for us all.

If I was to seek to evidence that my lived experience is legitimate, I would simply find myself constantly dragged into a battle of will and of power. I would sink into a world of violent denial or hostility where the only possible way out would be accepting that those who have no notion of what it is to live in a racialised & gendered body, have equal, if not better apprehension, of reality. Since there is only one reality, theirs. I would need to accept being schooled on the inaccuracy of my ‘perceptions’ so that the latter can be realigned more closely with their reality, as though reality was independent of the person who experience it. And in truth, I have no time for that. I have no interest in being a perpetual child.

I no longer challenge people on racism because I know my experience will eventually be framed as ‘perceptions’. And that to frame lived experience as perception is not a neutral act. It is one of the most common way marginalised and/or painful experiences are invalidated or trivialised because they are inconvenient. It is a speech act. It is a silencing act. If you doubt that, simply pay attention to whose experience is usually defined as ‘perception’ and whose become naturalised, objectivised and legitimised. In other words, what challenges the interests of dominant groups is always a matter of perception. Always.

These are the games power plays. But life is too short for silly games. And, I will not hand over the power I have to define the world and to use whatever language I see fit. I no longer argue with white people who deny racism because in a world that seeks to erase you and your experience choosing to self-define and to name your reality is imposing your existence.

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Blackness Centred Compassion Therapy DRAFT 1

Compassion and self-compassion

Compassion literally means to co-suffer, or to ‘suffer with’. It has been defined as the feelings that arise in us when we are confronted with the suffering of others and, which trigger an urge or motivation to alleviate that suffering. Self-Compassion thus, can be taken to mean extending compassion to ourselves when we experience suffering, pain or when we feel inadequate and taking actions to relieve our suffering. Kristin Neff who based her formulation of self-compassion on Buddhist teachings proposes that self-compassion is composed of three main components, namely: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

She defines self-kindness as being warm towards ourselves when faced with pain and shortcomings rather than ignoring our feelings or resorting to harsh self-criticism. Common humanity, she proposes involves recognizing that suffering and feelings of personal failure are part of what makes us human. They are part of a shared human experience. Finally, Neff conceptualises mindfulness as the act of being balanced towards our emotions and feelings by neither suppressing nor exaggerating them. To Neff, this is about observing with openness and non-judgementally  ‘negative’ or difficult feelings.

Compassion focussed therapy

Compassion Focussed Therapy (Gilbert, 2005) is an evidence based framework centred on self-compassion. It is currently the main model which has operationalised the use of self-compassion for clinical/therapeutic purposes with impressive results for various manifestations of psychological distress. CFT was designed to work with individuals who experience high levels of shame and self-criticalness. It may be described as an integrative framework in that it integrates ‘techniques’ and thoughts from various psychological models including cognitive behavioural therapy, relational approaches, Buddhist psychology, and neuroscience. The central therapeutic technique of CFT is ‘compassionate mind training’, which teaches the skills and attributes of self-compassion.

In summary, CFT proposes that human beings have inherited an emotional regulation system made of three main components: a ‘threat system’ focussed on dangers, a ‘drive system’ which motivates us to achieve or compete, and a ‘soothing system’ which promotes safeness and connectedness. Each system is posited to be associated with specific ‘feeling-states’, motivations, purposes, and corresponding neuro-chemical phenomena. The balanced use of all three of those systems is believed to be required for optimal psychological functioning. In individuals with high levels of shame, self-criticalness or who tend to be hostile towards themselves however, the ‘soothing system’ is not easily accessible or is under-developed.

As a result, these individuals are believed to have difficulties experiencing reassurance and safeness because the neural systems that activate such feelings are thought to have been underused often, as a result of abuse, neglect, or other chronic experiences of being at risk. Those experiences have made such individuals essentially learn to resort to using self-criticism and shame to manage psychological distress and pain. One may say, they have internalised the hostility of their environments and come to relate to themselves in the same way the world has treated them. ‘Compassionate mind training’ helps clients to counter such tendencies by developing compassion for themselves and others. It includes guided exercises to foster compassionate skills and attributes such as: ‘distress tolerance’, self-kindness, and/or self-soothing.

Self-compassion and Blackness

The belief that ‘therapy is for white people’ is a persistent one within Black communities (Black here is intended to designate communities of the African diaspora: those ethnic groups who descent from Africa, although this model may be more relevant to Black groups who live in contexts were they are minoritised). Of course, there is some truth to this notion, mainstream psychotherapy models generally take little account of race and racism and their effect upon the psychological world of people of colour. Many have asserted that white culture forms the foundation of the theory, research and practice of mainstream psychology. White culture has been taken to refer to ‘the synthesis of ideas, values, norms, beliefs, and behaviours’ centred on or created by descendants of white European ethnic groups. This criticism is of relevance to current models/use of self-compassion.

Though current models do recognise that shame based self-relating tends to develop within abusive, neglectful or threatening relational contexts, they are not exempt from this criticism. Shame even within CFT has been largely removed from broader socio-political contexts resulting in unduly individualistic formulations. However, distinctively from dominant groups, people who are racialised as Black often experience shame because of their otherness, because of their Blackness. This shame is largely the result of trying to fit into a white society which consistently tells us implicitly or explicitly that our Blackness is inferior, threatening or otherwise problematic and that we must assimilate into Eurocentric ideals to be acceptable, alienating us from parts of ourselves which many of us then come to despise.

In other words, race related shame is a by-product of power structures and of racialised social hierarchies. In that sense, we may argue that it is a powerful tool of social control which serves the interests of dominant groups. Indeed, feeling ashamed of our Blackness reinforces whiteness and the subjugation of Black people. A Blackness Centred Compassion Therapy model would thus have at its core the socio-political and historical origin of race related feelings of shame Black groups experience trying to survive in a white supremacist culture and their performative functions. Further, whilst there is an explicit acknowledgement of the impact of unsafeness or recurrent stressors in the creation of shame and self-criticalness as ways of self-relating within self-compassion frameworks, the centrality of axes of oppression such as racism in creating feeling of unsafeness has received little attention.

Self-compassion and humanity

Neff ‘s conceptualisation of self-compassion reminds us that ‘the very definition of being human means that one is mortal, vulnerable and imperfect’. Facing feelings of inadequacy may be particularly painful for many Black people because of internalised racism. Admitting to them may be seen to amount to accepting racist notions of inferiority. Consequently, self-compassion may reengage us in our humanity. Treating ourselves harshly when we are experiencing pain, not attending to our suffering when we feel inadequate and silencing these experiences disconnects us further from our humanity, it isolates us. From a socio-political perspective, by harshly treating ourselves, we essentially do the ‘masters’ work: we dehumanise ourselves and reproduce societal contempt towards Black bodies.

People of colour particularly Black people have historically been expected to spend much of their existence attending to the needs of others, caring for ourselves or being kind to ourselves have been at odd with social constructions of Blackness and dehumanising beliefs around inferiority or worthlessness. Further, Black people have historically, had to focus so much on surviving that we may not necessarily have created a culture of self-nurture or self-care. For these reasons, centring our needs and experiences have become radical acts defying social expectations of servitude, subservience and notions of insignificance.

Using compassion and self-compassion as a way to relate to ourselves and each other also seem consistent with more Afrocentric worldviews. Striking similarities between the Buddhist conceptualisations of self-compassion and Ubuntu philosophy can be made. Ubuntu roughly translates as ‘human kindness’ though, several definitions of the worldview exist. Ubuntu posits that society gives human beings their humanity. It proposes that a person can only be a person through other people and because of their recognition. Being is therefore envisaged as a process by which we become aware of the us in others and the others is in us. Ubuntu places emphasis on the intersubjective nature of our human experiences. Humanity is seen as quality we give to each other. ‘We are because you are’ or  ‘I am because we are’ encapsulate the spirit of Ubuntu which closely link to the notion of interbeing within compassion frameworks. Both emphasise the state of being inter-connected to others and the world moment to moment, but also to the past (e.g. our ancestors) and to a co-constructed future.

Centring Blackness

The lived reality of race remains a factor that profoundly shapes the lives of people of colour. The visibility of Blackness and its loaded history continues to have deleterious consequences on life opportunities, course and expectancy. The invisibility of the impact of racism both historically and contemporarily on the psychological functioning of people of colour contributes to the marginalisation and silencing of formative race related experiences and their trauma, directly feeding into shame and internalised racism. Further, some evidence suggests therapy which explicitly includes cultural content may lead to increased intimate disclosures, greater willingness to self-refer and seek help and greater satisfaction than those models that use so called ‘universal’ content. There is therefore a strong case for expressly integrating Blackness related experiences within the ‘emotional regulation systems’.

Race related life events such as witnessing or experiencing racial assaults, harassment, institutional racism, discrimination have long been linked to feeling unsafe, hypervigilant and even suspicious/culturally paranoid. Racial oppression can lead to the distrust of white people. Whilst this mistrust is adaptive and serves a protective function e.g. alerting individuals to the threat of race related discrimination or assaults, this apprehension can translate in many Black people experiencing the world from a young age as hostile, unsafe and/or dangerous. Such experience would presumably lead to an inflated ‘threat system’.

Similarly, the ‘drive system’ may also be affected by race. The internalisation of racism can often mean that racial minorities are raised to prove that they are good enough, the notion that we must work twice as hard, to simply be deemed good enough by white society is still propagated and arguably grounded in reality. The belief that any ‘failure’ would confirm racial stereotypes or bring shame onto our family or the in-group, the constant striving for excellence (to defend against internalised racism or race related shame) or for socio-economic betterment in a context of structural disadvantage and racism can translate in the drive system becoming over-used in an attempt to keep at bay feelings of shame and inadequacy and their related fears, positioning many of us towards achievement or competition rather than self-soothing.

To conclude, there are strong empirical and theoretical reasons to posit that Black groups may benefit from interventions focussed on promoting, safeness and connectedness and that basing these interventions on Blackness appears particularly important. This is what the Blackness Centred Compassion Therapy model aims to achieve.

The (draft) formulation Model

Figure 1: Blackness Centred Compassion Therapy 


The above formulation diagram (figure 1) is proposed to make sense of race based shame and its connectedness to the historical and to the personal. Personal experiences of the world as racialised beings, experiences of racism and racial identity development will be explored. Formulation here aims to understand and explain survival or coping strategies which have been adopted in the context of a racist culture and the deriving creation of race based shame. Race based shame, concerns feeling of inadequacy which are related to racial otherness, they may encapsulate insecurities about intelligence, beauty, security, opportunities or shame of expressing anger over injustice, or cultural expressions, for example. The impact of survival strategies implemented to cope with race based shame (e.g. assimilation, resistance, striving for excellence) on the emotional regulation (drive, threat and soothing systems) will be explored at various levels of human functioning from micro to macro, the psychological, the relational and the socio-political.

Please note this model is still in development. Feel free to comment and feedback and, if you would like to join the reading group specifically created to comment on developing drafts and/or pilot the model, please use the contact page to get in touch.

Thank you for reading.

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‘The strong Black Woman’: Reflections on trauma and survival

I was recently invited to sit on a panel to review and discuss a play centred on Black women entitled Still Barred. The play features four characters entangled in stories of sexual abuse, neglect, violence who are in constant dialogical exchange and disconnection with themselves and reality. A powerful mix of fantasy and reality and a compelling attempt at portraying the complexities of Black women’ s psyches. 

The panel discussion like the play, focused on mental health and in particular, how Black women cope with trauma, in a context of intersectional violence and invisibility. The panel discussion was pretty much led by the audience’s questions, comments and responses to the play. The audience composed primarily of Black women and the panel was entirely female and Black.

Unsurprisingly, discussions soon enough turned to ‘the strong Black woman’ trope and the burden it places on us. One panellist spoke of her hospitalisation for severe depression.  A depression which she felt was the effect of patriarchy and anti-Blackness and, which caused her mother to become alienated from her as the latter did not know how to be with a daughter who was struggling to bear the weight of everything that society threw at her.  A daughter who did not seem ‘strong’ enough. Another panellist spoke of having been told to keep strong ‘just like other women in her family’, when she disclosed the sexual abuse she had suffered at the hands of an uncle, as a child, to her mother. 

I have never experienced myself as particularly strong but I know that story too and the impossible standards it imposes. This expectation of strength did not simply come from my family. I discovered early that there was something very peculiar about living in a world that imagines you as unbreakable when so much of your breathing time is focussed on surviving. 

I was five or perhaps six when I first experienced that double consciousness. When for the first time I realised that there was a discrepancy between how I experienced myself and how the world viewed or defined me. It was after a silly dispute between children in the neighbourhood which got out of hands. One child who was being teased fetched her father. Unfortunately for me, I was not a fast runner. So while most of the kids involved disappeared within seconds, pretty quickly an angry father caught me, grabbed me by the collar of my shirt, lifted me into the air with one arm and, threatened me with a clinched fist with the other. 

It took the screams of a Black woman, a neighbour who happened to walk past, for this enraged man to release his grip on me, free me and walk away. ‘She’s a child’, ‘she’s a child’ she repeatedly shouted at him. I don’t remember the little girl’s name or what the argument was about but I recall that days or perhaps weeks after this incident, we were friends again. Such is the absurdity of childhood drama. Yet, that father had forgotten my vulnerability when his face turned red with heat and his fist was trembling with rage. It is clear that in that moment, he did not see fragility or childhood. And, I saw what he saw me as, in his eyes.  I never forgot. Anti-blackness sometimes has a look. 

When I was hit by a motorbike a few years ago, as I regained consciousness, I recognised glimpses of this look on the face of the police officer who I saw comforting the upset driver who had hit me as I was left unattended on the road. I was then encouraged to get up and walk away from the site of the collision. This was after I had been propelled a few meters into the air, fell onto the ground and lost consciousness albeit for a minute or two. And again, as though the universe was looking after me, I remember a passer-by (a Black woman again!) who had witnessed the accident screaming at the officer ‘Don’t move her’ , ‘don’t move her’. I must have looked pretty robust (to the policeman) then too.

So here lies my conflict with the demonisation of those who have had to reenact and reproduce the strong Black woman narrative. Historically, rarely has there been spaces where Black women could attend to their trauma and suffering. In fact, it is only fairly recently that the injustice of imperialism has been conceptualised as collective trauma. And still, this is contested. 

The constructions of us as superhumans, unable to feel pain or psychological distress has a long history which is rooted in slavery and in colonialism. It formed the foundation of the commodification of our bodies and of capitalism. This history has left an enduring legacy. Today still, there are few places where our vulnerability is seen and attended to because of perceptions that we are strong or fierce or resilient or whatever term en vogue, used to imprison us and to erase our wounding socio-political contexts.
To account for this by alleging that we have some kind of ‘superwoman syndrome’ (I’ve read this a few times) which we need to be ‘cured’ of, is quite frankly insulting.  So, to those who might struggle to see the link between social constructions of Black womanhood and smothered personal stories of sexual abuse, of violence or of maternal rejection or of distress, I would kindly ask that they consider the impact of social injustice on family stress and, of chronic stress on family functioning.

Or that they explore internalised oppression and the notion that marginalised groups must not expose their ‘dirty laundry’ lest they arm the oppressor with further ammunition against them. Or that they consider the origin of our, often fragile, sense of worth and its relationship with honour and respect. I would ask them to consider that perhaps, if families or mothers had experienced warmth, care and compassion themselves when in distress or if their trauma had been seen, perhaps they might trust that the world may show their daughters the same consideration.

Of course, there is much more than that but that would be a start. The truth is, there are very few other ways Black women have been allowed to be in the world than ‘strong’ and so, the prison of that fantasised notion has had to be internalised at least to a degree. It has served the fundamental function of our survival and as such has, on balance, served us well. Yes – and, I am the first person to say so – we do need to prioritise our wellbeing. We need to redefine ‘strength’ so that it leaves room for help seeking, for vulnerability and for self-care. But what we do not need, is the same old victim blaming and erasure of our histories and socio-political realities. 

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Fantasies and representations: Anti-Blackness, imagination and the police (PART 1)

Fanon, imagination and racism

The idea that White people’s fantasies play a central role in the perpetuation of racism and oppression is not a new one. Sixty years or so ago, Fanon had already proposed the notion of ‘overdetermination from without’ which described the way in which Black people are imprisoned by the White gaze. A gaze which contains and performs a long history of racial oppression, its associated colonial discourses and stereotypes. This led Fanon to describe the ‘inescapability’ of Blackness for people with black skin. That Blackness does not only objectify, it precedes our very essence. In summary, Fanon proposed a richly and negatively loaded irrational Blackness that exists independently of who we are, what we do and, which forces black bodies into racist fantasised worlds.

There seems to be renewed interest in the impact of racial fantasies onto social inequality from both social justice activists and theorists/academics. Claudia Rankine, for example, has recently posited that the failure of White people to ‘police their imagination’ is a reason why so many encounters between Black people and the police are turning deadly, stating : ‘when White men are shooting Black people, some of it is malice and some, an out-of-control image of Blackness in their minds. Darren Wilson told the jury that he shot Michael Brown because he looked “like a demon”…Blackness in the White imagination has nothing to do with Black people.’

Many innocent and unarmed Black men, women and even children have indeed been described as dangerous monsters, wild beasts, evil/inhumanly strong beings  capable of inflicting injuries or death to those confronting them, even when the latter have been armed with state-sanctioned power, weapons and uniforms. However extreme or ludicrous those depictions may seem, and despite the fact that the terror described may be difficult to reconcile with the objective circumstances of the killings, it is important to remember that for the majority of cases*, those accounts of overwhelming fear by officers were absolutely believed by jurors and, led to non-indictments.

Melanie Klein and the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ position

What is at stake here thus, is not only the ways in which the Black body is represented as both subject and object of the White gaze but, how or why such fantasised representations may come to be activated during police encounters. And, perhaps the more primitive defences they may lay bare.  Most texts which investigate the psychology of oppression and racism examine how they become internalised and structured in the psyche of the oppressed eg. the inferiority complex or internalised oppression. And, though relevant models generally make use of psychoanalytical ideas, the particular mechanisms which are believed to be employed are not always clear and of course, ‘classic’ psychoanalytical theory has disregarded issues of race and racism.  The problem with this is, firstly, the process by which oppression and racism affect the psychology/psyche of dominant groups has escaped much needed scrutiny, analytically. The point of interest – which incidentally reproduces the White gaze – has tended to be Black or oppressed individuals’ psyche.  More critically also, we are left rather impotent in terms of preventing the activation of potentially deadly fantasies in the imagination of those who hold power, often of life or of death over us.

Fear and stress tend to make people revert to more primitive modes of relating to others and, to regress to less sophisticated forms of apprehending the world. High levels of anxiety are believed to arouse infantile aggressive (and libidinal) impulses and to evoke unconscious ‘phantasies’. In Kleinian theory, the ‘paranoid-schizoid position‘, would be of particular interest here. This mental state, which occurs early in infancy, is posited to be dominated by disintegration and by splitting of both self and objects (objects here are basically mental representations of people) into good and bad, with little to no integration between them.  Phantasies are thus ,according to Klein, the means by which infants can process the external world and relate to it through projections  and introjections. As infants – or arguably when we regress to this infantile stage – these phantasies are interpreted literally. This is because we cannot apprehend the objective reality in the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ position. As infants, we are not capable of integrating whole objects (with both good and bad aspects) or more importantly here, we do not understand that the representation (s) of the object is not the object itself.  

Though object relations theory is not universally accepted amongst analysts, most psychoanalytic theorists would probably accept that people often perceive reality through the lenses of unconscious fantasies.  The above analytical ideas seem to me to be quite useful in formulating police interactions with black people and particularly, the role imagination can play in the same. The possibility of regression taking place when police officers interact with people who they suspect often through stereotypes – which may be akin to micro fantasies here – to have committed an offence, would make supernatural  descriptions of Black suspects much more ‘befitting’. 

From experiencing to strategising fantasies 

Being unable to separate the fantasy situation from the objective situation, would mean experiencing high levels anxiety and a heightened sense of threat or danger when dealing with Black people and thus rendering an escalation in the real or objective situation much more likely. It then becomes relatively easy to formulate how the reality of the interaction, particularly in the most anxiety prone officers, may quickly become fantasised to the point where in the eyes of the officer, he/she may be dealing with a devil like creature. It must be noted that the escalation of such situations would require BOTH anxiety AND unacknowledged or disowned racist fantasies. 

The potentially litigious and inflammatory context within which Police killings of Black people must be examined and investigated, the possible consequences of any finding of negligence, incompetence or premeditation add another layer of complexity.  The blurring between reality and fantasy may then become strategised. So, it is likely that even if/when officers become able to objectively appraise the circumstances of their actions, assuming some do eventually become able to establish a firmer boundary between what happened in their imagination and what happened in the real world, that more problematic defences may be used by the officers and/or their representatives to ensure officers are not indicted or not found guilty, if indicted.

To discharge psychic anxiety and, protect  officers and police forces’ positions, at best, cliches and negative stereotypes are used to defend the police’s actions.  Often, character assassination is employed to help reduce both the public and jurors ’empathy and compassion for the victim. At worse, victims continue to be dehumanised and depersonalised so that the fantasy of their monster-like appearance and demeanour is actively exploited.  One may argue, jurors’ racist imagination is now intentionally evoked and that they are actively invited to collude with the fantasy, unconsciously. Of course such collusion can only occur if jurors themselves hold fantasised (and racist) notions about black people. A process of collective splitting and projection may be envisaged. The Black victim can no longer be appraised for what/who they are, instead they become a representation of projected aspects of jurors, the police officer(s) involved and an amalgam of their fantasies. Though this article may make for gloomy reading, I do believe, this analytical take on police violence against Black people brings with it the possibly of addressing those pre-verbal dimensions of policing. I am hoping to do so in the second part of this post. 

* I am mainly making reference to the US since Black deaths at the hands of the police is more frequent there and, relevant cases and their details are more freely available. 

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Our dreams are political too: individual tears, collective wounds

I don’t often remember the content of my dreams but on occasions I do, vividly. When I do, certainly rarely, if ever, do I remember the specific dates when I had particular dreams. I don’t keep a dream diary, maybe I should… But, there is a date that has stuck in my mind and a dream that has not faded from my memory. Despite sharing some initial thought on this dream and making it available for interpretations via social media as you do… (and via psychotherapy, of course), I feel quite self-conscious about writing this piece. It feels somewhat more personal than usual. More exposing. Perhaps something worth returning to. I had that dream in the early hours of December 29th 2015.

The tears of a friend

My dream was set in France. In the neighbourhood I grew up in. As I walked about, I bumped into an old friend of mine. It actually felt as though he walked into me. I remember him as one of the cool kids. He was also strikingly beautiful both in my dream and in my recollection. He is of Senegalese descent and one might say, a picture of virility. Tall, statuesque, ebony like dark skin, deep voiced and overflowing with charisma and confidence. I had not seen him since we were both teens but we instantly recognised one another. I asked how he was almost confused by the unexpected meeting and he told me his partner, who I also knew had died. Bow-headed, he started sobbing and never uttered another word. He was crying so profusely I felt completely disarmed. Utterly grief stricken.  That is what he was. I put my arms around him and he sobbed and sobbed there. We were in the middle of the street but there was no one else around. He sobbed until I woke up. Shaken.

Making sense of dreams

The consideration of dreams in therapy has fallen out of fashion, arguably for good reasons. Perhaps this explains my feelings of discomfort too… And, when dreams are considered the political is often overlooked. Perhaps this is unsurprising given the epistemological bases within which dreams tend to be considered in the mental health field. In traditional psychoanalytical theory, dreams are thought to be ‘wish fulfilment’, representation of childhood material or of unresolved conflict which we cannot consciously tolerate. They consequently inform the dreamer and/or her analyst of repressed, unacceptable parts of the self which are to be discovered, decrypted, decoded. Their more public nature is rendered almost irrelevant, if not non-existent. As a result, some have likened dream work to colonialism. With western analysts, discovering the new territories of the unconscious and characterising their local inhabitants as too primitive to inform public or political matters.

Thus, those who may be analytically inclined may focus their curiosity on understanding who my friend might have been representing in the dream. Given that in our dreams we are believed to often see our own desires reflected in others, the most obvious interpretation might be that I was crying through him. That I was processing some unresolved personal grief or trauma, something related to my relationship with my mother, perhaps. Nightmares indeed commonly follow traumatic experiences. They can be a sign that one is struggling to make sense of a situation where our psychological or physical integrity might have been threatened or compromised. As there was nothing which was race or oppression related in the actual (literal) content, an apolitical and decontextualised interpretation of the dream may choose to omit these aspects.

The political content of dreams 

Worth noting however… On December 28th 2015, Officer Loehmann, was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing in the shooting of Tamir Rice. Loehmann was a white police officer in training who fatally shot Tamir on November 22nd 2014 in Cleveland. Tamir was a 12-year-old Black boy. When he was killed, he was playing in a local playground with a toy gun which was mistaken for a real firearm, within seconds of the police arriving at the scene. A wave of outrage, condemnation and protests at what was widely held to be an unreasonable and hasty use of deadly force, ensued. Primarily in the United States but also across the world. On December 28th 2015, Tamir’s death was essentially officially declared to have been caused by his own actions. This was despite the video of the killing and police records evidencing a range of failings and miscommunication. Also worth noting…Tamir reminded me of my middle son, not only because they were the same age, I also thought they looked strikingly alike.

Dream content is affected by the dreamer’s culture and more importantly, by the socio-political context. Consequently, it has a collective a dimension. Existing power relations are a precursor of our dreams and, our dreams are imbedded in power relations. When a woman dreams of being raped, for example, we might interpret that unacceptable repressed sexual impulses might have become fulfilled in her dream. Alternatively, we might consider that her dream may be an attempt by her psyche at trying to process the rape culture within which her life must be lived. Similarly, when we recurrently dream of public humiliation, one might suggest the audience in such dreams to be the dreamer’s own ‘super-ego’, an inner critic signalling disapproval of certain aspects of the dreamer’s life. Or, we might focus on how our collective need for self-esteem is deeply anchored in capitalism and its deriving need for competition. And, consider the latter dream to be a manifestation of the resulting psychological tension.

Like many dreams, mine was one of a meeting.  It was both personal and public. Personal in terms of the intimacy of the physical contact and the fact that no one else could be seen in the dream, and public because we were in the streets. My friend’s physicality sharply contrasted with his emotional state challenging constructions of masculinity and particularly of Black virility. A political issue. The underlying theme was death and associated feelings of grief, sadness, despair but also emotional overwhelm. Those feelings of loss were juxtaposed onto a context of racial injustice. Another political issue. In the material context of the dream, impunity seems to be the most likely response when Black people die at the hands of the state. Some of the people killed are bound to look like our sons and daughters or our sisters or brothers or fathers or mothers or friends… In the material world, the expectation of Black strength and of invulnerability kills and the collective trauma inflicted upon people of African descent is erased yet continually re-enacted so that we are not allowed to grieve and fully experience the injustices done onto us.  The personal does not cease to be political when we start dreaming. Social wounds do get imbedded onto our unconscious. Sometimes we relive them in our sleep and they may connect us to experiences that are more collective.  Perhaps, dream analysis needs to more routinely consider more political interpretations. 

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Articulating oppression amidst privilege

A new ‘brand’ of psychologists?

I facilitated a workshop on anti-oppression and activism as part the pre-qualification group of the Division of Clinical Psychology annual conference yesterday. This conference was primarily targeted at pre-qualified members of the division of clinical psychology, that is those who are still on their journey towards qualification as clinical psychologists. However, a significant proportion of attendees were qualified and well established clinical psychologists. The conference aimed to acknowledge and support aspiring clinical psychologists’ greater presence and voice in the public domain and to recognise their role in actively tackling social inequalities.

Further, the event aimed to highlight the role of critical and community psychology approaches to achieve those aims. I was very excited when I got the invite to facilitate a workshop. This is my element. But something was amiss. I usually get busy on social media when I attend such events. I tweet key messages, my thoughts and impressions on the talks & presentations. However, for most of the day, I was quiet. I did not tweet anything. There was a heaviness for me that I felt required all my emotional attention. As the day progressed all I wanted to do was to cry. After the workshop I facilitated, this was difficult to contain.

My workshop aimed to explore issues of oppression within activism and to invite attendees to better understand how oppression can become perpetuated within social justice campaigning. I have previously written about these issues here.  I also hoped to support attendees to implement some anti-oppressive strategies as part of their campaigning and organising. So really, nothing new as far as the issues I usually train and/or write about. Certainly nothing unheard of as far as social justice is concerned. And, again, I should have felt at home. But as the day went on, I found it increasingly emotionally laborious and had to fight off the tears for most of the afternoon.

I cannot fault the pre-qualification group’s beautiful running of the conference and I am sure the day would have been simulating and inspiring for most attendees who might have ‘learnt’ something new. Signed up for a few workshops. And then gone home with the option of not thinking about the issues raised on the day. Indeed, many would certainly have the option to never consider the ‘contents’ of the conference ever again. And this felt very lonely. To know that most attendees could go home and ‘sign off’ from issues of oppression for the day felt particularly difficult. For me, the struggles of my life as a Black and multiply oppressed woman cannot be left at the exit door of the conference. There is not much clocking out from my experience of oppression I can do.

The intellectualisation of oppression

And so, whilst most attendees may return to their life and provide feedback to their colleagues and/or relatives on what they might have learnt on the day, I have to face the fact that my everyday reality and that of many others will likely remain unchanged after the event. And, as many may consider how they might evidence their ‘understanding’ of oppression within their clinical psychology training applications and, possibly proudly hang onto their certificate of attendance to document their continuous professional development on the issues discussed on the day, I have to think about how not to let the same issues drive me or my loved ones to insanity or to death.

This is my continuous personal development. To survive. The contents of these conferences is not merely contents. Turning experiences into contents can be objectifying. Perhaps another way to dehumanise, even if there is no such intent.  Our lived experience is not simply something to learn, understand and then put away…

About 40 people attended my workshop and I am grateful for their time, attention and engagement particularly as there were two other available options, they had no obligation to want to have this conversation with me. The majority of attendees were graduates, there were a few trainee clinical psychologists and several qualified psychologists too. When I asked attendees how many had received any teaching or training on oppression as part of their graduate, post-graduate or professional journey, not a single hand was raised.

Not.

A.

Single.

Hand.

So there was something about making the case for the existence and significance of forces and dynamics which do violence to you. There is something about making experiences of oppression and marginalisation suddenly appear or become real to many. There is something about our experience of the world as marginalised groups, being rendered alien. There is something about contending with the invisibility of certain traumas in a profession that specialises in supporting people to deal with traumatic experiences…There is something about the emotional labour of articulating the ugly warts and open wounds of one’s experience to a group of smiling, ‘optimistic’, noticeably attractive and, quite privileged aspiring psychologists (in the main).

There was something about wanting to scream please wipe the smile off your face, this is serious! People’s career are being destroyed. People are being damaged in ways that we can never repair. People are taking their life. People are being tortured. People are being killed. All because of oppression and our stubborn unwillingness to even see or acknowledge its existence, particularly in our mist. So there is something about explaining all of this in a way that can be tolerated. There is something about minding how angry one becomes. There is something about marching on. But all I wanted to do was to cry. I did not. At least not until I got home and felt safe enough to. Or perhaps, I felt home was where I could hide.

The violence of privilege

A few months ago, I met a qualified clinical psychologist. A woman of colour, like me. She shared with me that upon qualifying and applying for jobs, she was offered an interview and when asked by a smiley member of an all white interview panel ‘how was your experience of training’ she burst into tears and started crying uncontrollably. This is what we’re dealing with. Raw pain. Just beneath the surface. Sometimes it can’t find no hiding place. Of course, there is something about revisiting traumatic experiences that can be triggering but perhaps there is also something overwhelming about articulating one’s oppression amidst a display of privilege. Perhaps she too wished she did not have to educate her peers and supervisors on her experience. There is something about the pressure to appear hopeful and to end on a positive note. There is something about maintaining the smile. Today, I will not. Today, I will ask that you stay with the pain. Today, I will lick my wounds.

 

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The bastardisation of intersectionality

Growing in popularity…

Intersectionality has gone mainstream. Once the preserve of radical and critical thinkers, the beloved child of Black feminism, has gained much popularity over the past few years. It is now trending…and commonly features in the biographies of activists and academics. It is recurrently the subject of opinion pieces in ‘well regarded’ newspapers, it is discussed in or form the basis of academic theses, research projects and articles. It is even starting to pop in workplace diversity and equality policies and documents. To a great extent this is brilliant. I think.  However, there has also been some difficulties associated with the concept being more widely debated, some worrying developments. Privileged people have used the concept to claim, they too have had to endure oppression (since few are those who can possibly be privileged in relation to all identity domains…)

Increasingly thus, I witness conversations between more socially powerful people and individuals who belong to marginalised groups, within which the latter’s experience of oppression is likened to that of the former, all in the name of intersectionality and of different or ‘multiple oppressions’ disturbingly. People have attempted to use it as a questionable force for unity. So that you might overhear white gay people tell people of colour they ‘get’ their struggle because gay people ‘are oppressed too’. Or working class (able-bodied) people might say to disabled people that they’re on ‘the same boat’. Or again, white men may not think twice about saying to Black women that they too have experienced class oppression/discrimination and expect them to join hands (and to perhaps even sing we shall overcome in harmony).  This appears to suggest that despite its apparent rise in popularity, intersectionality still evades many.

Grappling with this black child…

Intersectional thought can get quite complex however, at its most basic, there are arguably two simple elements firstly, the proposition that oppressive systems (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, bi-phobia, ableism, ageism, xenophobia, classism, etc…) are inherently interconnected and as such, cannot exist independently of one another. As a result, people’s experience of oppression will be multi-layered and dependent upon the place they occupy within each of these institutions. Secondly, and more importantly, these different systems of oppression do not only interrelate, they are actively shaped by, sustained and amplified by one another giving birth to uniquely synthesised and socially situated oppressions.

It is clear then, that the above statements miss the point of intersectionality completely and indeed propagate a misconceived notion of the concept. There are people whose experience of oppression will be at the meeting (intersection) of racism and homophobia. Of course being disabled does not bar anyone from being working class too. Indeed, the impact of class oppression/classism will be mediated by whether or not someone has a disability (as well as where someone is located on other axes of oppression). And again, being both male and white will significantly buffer the impact of class oppression (due to the absence of the racism-sexism intersection) and, result in a qualitatively (and I would argue quantitatively) different experience of subjugation.

‘Intersection blindness’

Intersectionality has never been about the coming together of different social groups with various level of power, recognising some shared experience of oppression (and living happily ever after or feeling ‘as one’).  It has always been about making visible nuanced and differentiated forms of discrimination, subjugation and domination based on the place people occupy within social hierarchies. Its is arguably not surprising, many, amongst the more socially powerful, have sought to reduce intersectionality to simple equations and formulas by for example seeking to posit that each axe of oppression is equal to the others and/or by implying that being subjugated on one axe of oppression irrespective of other characteristics which may buffer, protect, minimise and indeed negate the impact of the same, means having an equal claim to oppression and thus to hardship (many of us feel a need to evidence ‘we’ve have it tough too’).

This to me sounds just like another but more elaborated form of ‘colour blindness’. Colour blindness may be defined as a racial doctrine which posits that in order to treat people as equal and to avoid race discrimination, we must completely disregard race, culture, or ethnicity. This is not only frankly naïve it is actually quite racist. Ignoring racism including our own, means letting it go unchallenged and often contributing to its reproduction. Of course by saying ‘we’re all oppressed in the end/we’ve all suffered some oppression’ not only are we choosing to be blind to the impact of racism and of other axes of oppression which may not directly impact on us, we’re erasing the effects of particularly harmful and life limiting if not life jeopardising, intersections. We’re achieving exactly the same effect: we are stopping ourselves from considering our privileges and the myriads of ways we might have benefitted from systems of oppression. This is not only bastardising intersectionality. It is in my opinion, turning it into a tool for oppression.

 

Want to learn more?

For a helpful bibliography on intersectionality please click: here.

 

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Beauty as resistance: On marginalisation, style & self-love

 

‘Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise?

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?’

Maya Angelou, Sill I rise.

 

On loving fashion…

I have, for much of my life got attention for the way that I dress. To some degree, this continues today.  I love clothes. This is no secret. I love playing with what the different fabrics, colour and styles can do to the female body form and correspondingly to our psyche and sense of self. I have for long treasured the fantasy of designing clothes. Maybe someday… I learnt quite early and by accident, that there was much power in beauty and in elegance. My days in high school, even during teachers’ meetings were filled with conversations about the clothes I wore. On one occasion, the teachers’ feedback I received from the class representative about my academic performance was: ‘they said you think you’re on the runway’.  That had been the only information provided to me about how to improve my grades on this particular term.

Even as a fourteen or fifteen year old, I knew there was something both fascinating and disturbing at play here. Something being contested. There was certainly violence and objectification in the interest so many white adults, primarily females, were paying to my clothes. But, I could not articulate what is was. Nothing I wore was extravagant. I have never got in trouble for wearing clothes which were deemed too ‘provocative’ or otherwise inappropriate, for example (French schools are non-uniformed generally). I think I just dressed beautifully. Even as a teenager -yes, I am going to say so myself.  And, that this went against expectations. Although I was an unremarkable student on balance, I did pretty well in philosophy and literature and, excelled in English. But this did not capture the imagination the way the dresses I wore did.

The socio-political and historical context

It is interesting to look back at these memories through intersectional lenses and to relate them to the colonial gaze. My high school years were in the late nineties, in the banlieue of Paris. A time and place where many people felt challenged in their identity. Where new generations of French people of colour were starting to assert themselves, demanding space and visibility. This was a time when the social order was much more racialised with migrants and people of colour, by and large, confined to the poverty ridden banlieues and viewed as second class citizen, if at all citizens. And though to date, still, the notion of Black elegance/beauty continues to be controversial, it would have been much more of a challenge to social hierarchies then, particularly in a country that holds elegance and sophistication quite dear to its national national sense of self.

Colonial discourses and its associated voyeuristic fantasised representations of the Other have long promoted the consumption, devaluation and denigration of the black body. Their white supremacist and capitalist agenda spread the view that white people were superior (more intelligent, more socially adept, more civilised, & generally more sophisticated) than indigenous populations. The promotion of white-cis-hetero-patriarchy has been central to the binary construction of femininity with, on opposite poles of the ideology, purity, grace and beauty arbitrarily accorded to white women and at the other extreme end, depravity, bestiality, androgyny fixed onto constructions of black femaleness. The ante-femininity. And, of course, conceptualisations of femininity only arose out of the need to assert (toxic) masculinity and manhood and to reinforce white men’s power.

Colonialism is directly engaged here. We are essentially taking about dynamics which occurred during the migration and settlement of populations from former French colonies and their children. The arrival of the colonial Other…Though colonial ideologies may seem absurd to most of us today, their legacy can still be felt. Constructions of beauty and femininity are intrinsically linked and, such constructions have always been central to systems of domination and marginalisation. They are strongly linked to privilege and can facilitate or deny access to structures of power. It is not coincidental that ‘low rank’ women (and people more generally) have been socially constructed as less beautiful, graceful and desirable and that correspondingly, elegance and style have for long been characteristics reserved for the more socially powerful groups.

Beauty as the ultimate resistance?

And so, the alleged lack of femininity of disabled women, Trans women, poor women, elderly women and women of colour continues to be used to dehumanise and marginalise them. Watch how, for example, women with the above identities and who challenge implicit notions of undesirability eg. Beyoncé and Caitlyn Jenner, are acclaimed or over-consumed. Marginalised women reclaiming beauty may be dismissed as vain, self-centred or as manifestation of internalised oppression by those whose appearance more closely resemble Eurocentric beauty standards and who are privileged enough to see themselves represented and in mainstream media, folklore, literary, artistic manifestations and outlets. Such analyses are nevertheless reductionist. Black scholars including Maya Angelou have written about the importance of style and beauty as means of defiance and self-actualisation.

In Still I rise, she powerfully articulates her capacity to connect with her beauty and her eroticism. Qualities which despite violent erasure attempts, remain.  Maya Angelou evokes the misogyny and racism, contemporarily and historically, that she and generations of Black women before her, have endured. Yet her poem is one of triumph: they have survived. Indeed, not only have we survived, we are thriving and gaining strength, beauty and power not despite but because of racial adversity. Though this may challenge common wisdom around the hierachisation and posited pyramids of human needs, there is a long history of marginalised people seeking affirmation through beauty. Black artists and others, for example have used fashion and style as means to resist oppression, for centuries. From the slaves who took particular pride in their appearance and beauty by dressing in their Sunday best, to the dandies of the Harlem Renaissance and the Sapeurs, of central Africa during and after colonisation.

These efforts were never simply about vanity, narcissism or emulating the master. They have always been about politics, about challenging colonial narratives about self-affirmation and self-definition. I have recently heard about the work of a human right activist who described how Muslim women in war torn Bosnia used beauty to resist war.  Wearing lipstick during the conflict had become a way for them to assert their humanity. This activist recounted the story of such a woman who had spoken about how important it was for her to die beautiful and that if she was to be killed by a sniper, she wanted her killer to know that he was putting to death a beautiful woman. Few domains exist where marginalised women can feel valued and take control of how they are represented. The subornation of our needs is socially expected and as part of that, self-negation and self-hatred are viewed as standard.

Marginalised women are bombarded with messages that explicitly or implicitly state that they have little to no value and that they are worthless.  This breeds feelings of helplessness and resignation in the face of injustice and, thus serves the status-quo.  To love oneself as a Black woman is ‘to love blackness’. This, according many theorists including bell hooks, is dangerous and threatening in a white supremacist culture.  bell hooks refers to self-love for Black women as a ‘serious breach in the fabric of the social order’. The ultimate power for any marginalised woman and indeed any woman of colour may accordingly be to reclaim beauty. Doing so has always been central to liberation praxes. It buffers the impact of racial injustices and of marginalisation. At its most fundamental, caring about the way we look, is caring about our body and by extension, our life. It is rejecting notions of inferiority and inadequacy. It is proclaiming I believe I am entitled to love and thus, to justice and equality. It is quietly saying I am a human being. Like you.  Perhaps, this is what so many, have a hard time accepting.

 

Maya Angelou

 

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Activism and psychology: A few thoughts

Like other citizens of the world psychologists are confronted with injustices. Many more of us are pledging to act on the world to change it for the better through the prism of activism. As a profession we have become much more vocal and visible when it comes to socio-political issues. Many of us are initiating political conversations, seeking exchanges with politicians, organising, publicly protesting and even demonstrating around social justice. Speaking out has become a recurrent theme both within social media and within formal professional conferences and engagements. I have welcomed these developments. I have supported colleagues who have put their head ‘above the parapets’ and I have myself probably been more vocal than most of my peers on issues of equality. I am now wondering whether, the time may be right to pause and to start to question ourselves and to perhaps even to re-evaluate.

The importance of activism

Using indignation and anger as catalysts for change has been what many of us have been doing for centuries, even when it could/has cost us our life. Political activism has been central to the survival and resistance of marginalised groups throughout the world. It gave birth to women rights, the emancipation of colonised nations, and the extension of civil liberties to oppressed minorities, LGBT and disability rights amongst many others. It is fair say, campaigning and organising have made the world a better a place. Now that the myth and harm of scientific neutrality have been thoroughly exposed, it may be befitting for psychologists to follow in these historical footsteps and emulate marginalised groups’ relationship with the world. Indeed, whether we intend it or not, we are bringing this historical context into the room when we address social justice. Clearly, there are many benefits to be drawn from activism which may help increase the influence of the profession.

Being more engaged politically may raise our profile. It may increase our profession’s relevance. It may help us to share psychological knowledge with larger numbers of people. It may even help us reach many of those who would not traditionally access our services. It may demystify our subject matter and thus make it more accessible. Indeed many psychologists have argued we have an ethical duty to tackle the causes of emotional distress invariably, this would include helping to reduce social inequalities, injustices and addressing policies and practices which damage psychological well-being. I would agree with these propositions. I can’t imagine any peer or colleague seriously taking exception here. How we go about achieving the above and defining the processes to follow may be more contentious questions.

My personal experience of activism

In honesty I have been conflicted by some of the campaigns and organising that I have seen. I have witnessed groups of privileged people speak on behalf of the marginalised and do so with very little awareness that they were reproducing social hierarchies and marginalisation. Becoming more vocal about oppression and injustice, embracing activism and taking discontentment to the streets does not suddenly make us immune to biases, prejudices and blind spots. It does not mean we develop sudden acute levels of self-reflection when it comes to our own privileges. I’d argue there are good chances,in fact, activism might allow us to perpetuate the very inequalities and injustices we’re protesting against as equality rhetorics can easily fool us and others into believing we’ve shed any oppressive skin we might have.  It is not part of psychologists’ training to be skilled up to become facilitative and anti-oppressive ‘allies’. Let’s remind ourselves that as a profession, for example, we are still to address issues of culture competence. How do these issues affect our activism? Do we need to think about this?

As a multiply minoritised person, there has been a certain degree of confidence from self-proclaimed allies and activists taking up social justice causes that has been painful to stomach. Many have campaigned while seeming to have little to no understanding as to the limitations, dynamics and structural difficulties of their ‘benevolent’ intervention(s). It is mind boggling to me that the scholarly and political contributions of marginalised thinkers and activists to social justice and political action ‘s bodies of knowledge remain invisible in the profession. This invisibility is problematic. And it is racialised. It is problematic and racialised because historically disenfranchised groups including Black women and other Black theorists who have been key contributors; have faced marginalisation and ridicule and worse, for embodying the very values and worldview psychology now appears to seek to embrace.

Interrogating activism

Any drawing from the legacy of minoritised lived experience and its resulting scholarship which is going to increase power and influence for psychology is arguably presently, going to raise ethical questions because power and influence are not equitably distributed along racial axes and others within the profession and, because by and large, people of colour and marginalised groups stand to benefit the least from any growth and development in psychology. The most important social justice work has always been done by the communities directly affected by the injustices they were fighting against: those who have been the hardest hit by poverty, those who have systematically endured state violence and those who have had to carry the burden of race discrimination, for example. This work has always been transformative. It has been transformative without the intervention of privileged allies and activists.

Does the above mean psychologists and other professionals should steer clear of activism?  Not necessarily.  I personally think anyone committed to equality, social justice and liberation should be given a chance.  People with skin, class, gender and other systemic privileges can of course pursue social justice activism.  However, being politically engaged on issues that one is privileged not to be directly affected by, may require different configurations thus, I am asking whether those of us who aspire to be ‘activist-practitioners’ need to pause to interrogate current processes and become better aware of the discourses and narratives they may propagate. I am asking whether we are sufficiently attuned to the systemic violence we may be enacting. There are multiples ways of being an activist or an ally, building the capacity of the groups, individuals and communities whose needs and experiences we may want to represent is one of them.  Seeking and recognising the skills and knowledge they have to offer is another.  I am asking that we consider committing more time to supporting those who have been doing the work that many of us have suddenly developed a taste for.  This support may not need to be visible.  Various evidence based models and conceptual frameworks for such participatory and anti-oppressive action exist.  They have been written by scholars we continue to exclude from our curriculums.  That so many, before us, have campaigned with little limelight, support or recognition whilst contending with serious structural backlash and violence is testimony to ‘our’ privilege. It is also, in my opinion, a call to reflect and self-evaluate.

The ally test (short version)

I have devised this very brief ‘test’. There is no scientific claim behind it. I am hoping it may be useful as a starting point to allies and activists in the profession to reflect upon their personal motivation, privilege and the processes of their activism.

  1. Do you call yourself an ally?
  2. Is this title self-ascribed?
  3. Are you socially privileged amongst most of the key identity domains (race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, cisgender)
  4. Have you led any social justice/equality campaign?
  5. Were you put in this leadership position by privileged individuals or groups?
  6. Is your activism/campaigning accountable to privileged individuals or groups?
  7. Have you personally benefitted from or received recognition for your activism?
  8. Have you personally promoted your activism?
  9. Have most of the people who have promoted/recognised your activism been privileged?
  10. Do you find the possibility that you may NOT actually be an ally ridicule or offensive?

If you answer positively to most questions above, I seriously doubt you can continue to call yourself an ally without doing some serious reflecting (and changing the current configurations of your activism).

 

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