Month: May 2014

‘Why does it always have to be about race’?: Blocks to meaningful dialogues on race and racism (Part 1)

Talking about race

I like to think about race. I like to write about race. I like to talk about race. I find the subject matter fascinating.  I make absolutely no apologies for this. Critically, for me, like for many others from racialized groups, thinking, writing and talking about race is making sense of the world and processing difficult experiences. I accept that there are many Black people and other individuals from the racialized minorities who may not see race and racism as salient features in their lives and that of course, Black people do have other issues, joys, concerns and fears that are unrelated to racism, I hope no one would doubt that. Nevertheless, people find intellectual and personal fulfilment in various pursuits and passions. As a Black woman with Black parents and Black children, race and racism have shaped much of my existence hence, I believe I have become quite adept at identifying racism for what it is (to me, at least) and I have lost my inhibitions about naming it a long time ago. This may not make me a very popular person is some circles.

Whilst it is not always about race and racism, I do find the range of defences the subject matter attracts even more gripping and see no shame or
pathology in my choice of subject matter and passion. I have written a bit about my position and epistemology in a previous post (to access it, click here). Thinking and writing about race/racism isn’t exactly a walk in the park for those who experience race discrimination and other forms of race related violence on a regular basis, but, by far the most challenging is to talk about racism ,or more precisely, to create a dialogue on racism.   I have spent much of my career and personal life encouraging discussions and dialogue on these subjects but continue to find that similar processes often become engaged when attempts at broaching the subjects are made.  Contrary to what many may assume, I have not found that the blocks to such conversations are dependent upon intellectual ability, levels of education or even psychological and social ‘mindedness’. In the current post I aim to identify the three most common barriers I have come across in my attempts to make space for racism in discussions.

1. Cognitive dissonance: It can’t be that bad…

Cognitive Dissonance theory propose that people tend to interpret personal experience in a way that does not disturb prior beliefs. According to the theory we hold various cognitions about the world and about ourselves; when new information clashes with the latter, a discrepancy is evoked resulting in a state of tension: cognitive dissonance. As the experience of dissonance creates discomfort, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it to achieve consonance or harmony. When excessive dissonance is produced, intellectual defences may be triggered to restore cognitive consonance. If people are socialised to believe firmly in meritocracy and in the accessibility of justice and fair treatment for all, there is little wonder accepting the prevalence of structural racism would cause much dissonance. Moreover, people, by and large, like to think of themselves as good and many aspire to be ‘colour blind’ and ‘liberal’. Indeed, individuals from dominant groups probably more often than others, are projected images of themselves as benevolent, fair and ‘reasonable’, such expectations of course clash with the possibility of being capable of committing discriminatory and racist acts.

2.  Undue focus on the individual intention: We/I don’t mean it.

Following from the above point, many have noted that when racism is evoked, those with race related privileges often focus on intentions in the belief that the absence of discriminatory or racist intent diminishes responsibility.  A cognitively focused perspective. Undue focus on intention may be one of the manifestation of race related privilege and social power. People at the receiving end of racism, unsurprisingly, often emphasize consequences- an affective standpoint. Those differing frames of reference may problematize meaningful dialogue on racism.  However, it is important to bear the law in mind.  The Equality Act (2010) defines harassment as ‘unwanted conduct’ related to a protected characteristic, that has the purpose or effect of violating other individuals’ dignity or creating an intimidating or hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.  When it comes to racial harassment, Impact is clearly embedded within the law. Further, there is no legal justification for acts of direct race discrimination.  In other words, it can still be racism even if racist intentions are absent.

3. Misplaced guilt? Or, feeling responsible for the ‘sins’ of our forefathers.

I used to find responses based on such beliefs quite perplexing until I realised how pervasive and strongly they can be held. Guilt may well be a by-product of any race/racism centred discussions for many.  Guilt can be unhelpful and disabling because it often inhibits reasoning and encourages defensiveness rather than connection and reflection particularly if it cannot be contained. There is absolutely no rational reason for anyone to feel guilty over what their ancestors, great grandparents or even parents did in relation to racism, slavery and/or colonisation years if not centuries ago (no one chooses his/her lineage). Nevertheless, it may be legitimate to experience guilt for one’s failure to challenge racism and race related privileges that result in the perpetuatation of racial oppression which of course was started by long dead and buried forefathers. Emphasizing our distance from our ancestors’ actions can serve to distract from responsibilities we might personally hold for present actions or omissions and their associated feelings and emotions. The task then appears to be, for many, to transcend feelings of guilt (and at times, shame) and accept some personal and collective responsibility for making on-going race privileges visible today.

I hope this initial list will generate some input from others who may have got stuck in race discussions.  I’d love to hear what additional barriers/blocks people have encountered as naturally there are many others, some seemingly more elaborated and complex. I will aim to focus on these in the second part of this article and then suggest a few ideas to facilitate dialogues.

What are your thoughts?

To access the Equality Act (click here).

Thank you for reading, If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word.

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

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The Elephant in the room: Race Representation, Symbolism and Silenced Wounds.

The first time I sat foot on a psychiatric ward was just under 10 years ago.  I was engaged in doing Community Development and Community Research work within Medium Secure Units (MSU) in London.  This was my first day on a MSU and indeed my first time visiting any kind of psychiatric hospital. Following a brief introduction to the all White psychology team by the clinical lead and consultant forensic clinical psychologist (a White man); I was taken round the ward where a multi-ethnic, but still mainly Black staff base, composed the nursing team who was in turn, overseeing the care of a virtually all Black inpatient/clinical population. Upon entering the ward, I was so overwhelmed by the sea of Black faces staring at me in utter stoicism, that I had to work very hard to contain my urge to cry.

The visit felt surreal and oppressive in an almost suffocating way and; this had nothing to do with the (respectful) way I was being treated by staff. At the time, I was not entirely sure why this sight had provoked such a strong response in me.  I had some knowledge of the extent of race inequalities within mental health services and had also been briefed on the clinical population upon my induction. Yet, something happened in my very first few moments on the ward which took me by complete surprise. Although this ‘Elephant’ remained at the back of my mind as I did further work on the Unit, I became somewhat desensitised to its presence, particularly as the subject was hardly ever discussed with colleagues.  Hence, what I set out to do in the present post is to try and make sense of my experience and to consider some potential clinical implications.

The power of symbolism and representation

As human beings we all make use of symbols to categorize, convey and extract meanings from events and social interactions. From a systems perspective, to start with, the staff composition mirrored traditional power distributions so that at the top of the hierarchy was a White man and at the very bottom of the pyramid of power, were of course the Black staff, followed by Black patients. Thus, at team level, there was a representation of social inequalities in relation to income across staff roles.  Further, the Psychologist role is one of authority that socially occupies the sphere of expertise and; in the context of MDUs; as the role encompasses the assessment of patients’ readiness for release, another layer of power is therefore inherent to the role.

The meaning attributed to the role of the patient (or more accurately patient-offender) and that of the Psychologist cannot be interpreted outside of the racial make-up of the ward.  Connotations and associations whether consciously accessible or not; firmly remain when it comes to race dynamics.  Certain images have the power to tap directly onto this rich symbolic heritage.  Indeed, looking through history, one would not have to search for very long for many constructions of Black people as dependent and as psychologically, socially and intellectually deficient to surface (debates around such constructions are to some degree continuing today). Consequently, and in the context described, the sight of a virtually all Black patient population having been assessed as needing treatment, rehabilitation and indeed control cannot but evoke the historical inferiorization and pathologization of Black people.

Projection and Identification

Returning psychoanalytically to what had happened in my ‘here and now’ experience of the ward, Projective Identification may offer an alternative and viable framework to make sense of the dynamics.  In that line of argument, it may be notable that as the detained Black men appeared to display no feeling and emotion, I experienced an overwhelming sadness and a sense of suffocation. Such feelings appear consistent with experiences which may be triggered by compulsory detention, restraint and freedom deprivation. Thus, it could be envisaged that through my experience, I was acting out the patients’ s disowned and/or unacceptable feelings and wishes which had been projected into me.

There is a long psychoanalytical tradition of viewing racism as a mechanism by which dominant groups project intolerable aspects of themselves into racial minorities.  From an internalised racism perspective, those projected qualities can be said to become accepted as one’s own. The imagery evoked by the racial representation clearly echoes the worst things Black people are all too often socialised to believe about themselves. From a psychoanatytical standpoint, the projections from dominant groups. The Ward context may thus evoke the same images that often give rise to many identity difficulties and other internal conflicts amongst some of us. Thus, whilst working toward ‘Recovery’, Black mental health service users may be exposed to the very painful dynamics that may be be part of their parcel of suffering and that may have contributed to bringing about and/or exarcebating their psychological distress.

Working with the Elephant in the room.

Taking on the role of mental health patient, in the current context, may also means psychically, taking on a role which is consistent with racial stereotypes and which may be experienced as buying into the constructed racial hierarchy which naturally part of the self may resist. From that perspective, it may follow that the role of mental health patient may be an extremely conflictual one for many Black men which may bring to the fore feelings of inferiorisation, marginalisation, exclusion, subjugation, distrust and possibly self-loathing. Although I have not come across many Black mental health patients/service users who have described their experience using symbols, systems representation and psychoanalytical concepts as frames of reference, the sense of suffocation and oppression I experienced has recurrently appeared in my sessions with Black service users as did their experience of being stereotyped on psychiatric wards.

There is ample research evidence suggesting that Black mental health service users have the most conflictual relationships with their clinicians, that they are the most dissatisfied group of all mental health service users and that they continue to report experiences of racism (including racism within services) but; despite these well-established findings; it appears that the Elephant in the room remains too overbearing to acknowledge and to work with for many of us. The dearth of discussion, clinical and empirical attention to the extent of the impact of race dynamics in relation to the psychological functioning and the service use, experiences and outcomes of racialized minorities seems to me to be of particular concern.  Not only because it may be part of the reproduction of existing hierarchical structures that perpetuate the invisibility of race and of White privilege, but also because it prevents opportunities for race related wounds and institutional suffering to be seen and addressed. I believe it may well have been these wounds and suffering I was apprehending and reacting to on my first day on the ward.

Thank you for reading, If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word.

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

The Angry Black Woman: Covert Abuse, Overt Anger?

A Big Black woman on the train…

I had been on my train back home from University a year or so ago for about one hour when a Black woman entered the train carriage I was sitting in. She was of a fairly large built and was struggling to make her way through the carriage to get to a seat. She was casually dressed but looked somewhat umkept. As I noticed her, I started to observe the behaviours and faces on the train.  I picked up a sense of discomfort and I imagined that passengers may have been anxious about the possibility of her sitting next to them.  As she walked past, most people looked firmly down.

She took a seat within a section of the carriage which was unoccupied a few meters away from my seat and sat directly opposite me. To my left was a group of six middle aged women. They appeared to be friends or possibly work colleagues.  They were quite formally dressed. They were all White.  A few of their faint whispers attracted my attention. Upon observation, I noted smiles, sneers and ever so discreet short looks toward the other Black woman.  This went on intermittently for about 10 minutes. She and I were the only Black people in the carriage. I felt angered and disrespected. The Black woman’s face was looking increasingly aggravated as she was being denigrated-ever so subtly and politely.

Unexpectedly, the Black woman got up and walked up to the group. She asked them to stop what they were doing and said that she could see them. I could hear from the trembling in her voice that she was close to tears. The women looked surprised, denied any wrongdoing and took turn looking at each other and at other passengers feigning cluelessness. This infuriated the Black woman further who burst into screams, naturally, attracting looks of disapproval from most passengers.  She eventually walked back to her seat alone and in complete silence stared at by almost everyone as the women who were taunting her escaped scrutiny.  As the train was approaching my stop, I got up to exit and purposefully walked toward her. I said to her that I had seen what the women had been doing and put my hand on her shoulder at which point tears rolled down her face. She thank me.

Intersectionality

In popular culture and discourses, Black women are often characterized as angry, hostile, difficult and/or rude.  The stereotype of the ‘Angry Black Woman’ is a persisting one in many western countries that not only portrays Black women as one-dimensional beings but also prevent their voices and often painful experiences from being acknowledged and validated. I believe this stereotype has impacted on many of my social interactions, that of countless Black women and that of the Black woman on the train.  When she screamed, there is no doubt in my mind that she became the ‘Angry Black Woman’.  Nothing in that woman’s behaviour justified the treatment she received from the group of friends/colleagues. Nothing at all.  Except her being overweight and Black.

Being both of those things meant she had ceased to be a person the moment she was spotted by the group of women.  Not being a person meant derisory behaviour toward her stopped being reprehensible and, her experience could simply be denied. Becoming angry when denigrated and disrespected seems perfectly understandable to me.  In most circumstances, no one would bat an eyelid if someone who had just been abused screamed in indignation and in pain or in an attempt to seek the support of onlookers. It seems to me that, often, Black women are not afforded such liberties.  I accept that women’s anger is disapproved of socially in part because it threatens gender norms and role expectations. Nevertheless, the privilege of getting angry without fear of being stereotyped is also race dependent. Oppression does not act independently of the various social categories and axes of identity capable of their own of contributing to injustice and inequality.

Instead, it interrelates and create systems that reflect the combination of multiple forms of discrimination each in turn amplifying the other. It is notable that I was not targeted for ridicule. Perhaps being lighter-skinned, slimmer and thus (in the eyes of many) a more ‘attractive’ Black woman, mean I am afforded more ‘privileges’, one of which may be to escape abusive treatment because of my appearance.  Hence, whilst White women’s anger may similarly be disapproved of, it is not mocked or ‘Othered’ in the same way that Black women’s anger is.  Thus, it appears the lower your ‘rank’ the less tolerable your anger is and the more problematic your resistance to subjugation will be deemed.  The reality of the interaction was defined by the group of respectable looking White women and seemed to have been tacitly accepted by the rest of the carriage. What chance did that Black woman have to get her version of reality across when she became nothing but a stereotype?

On Invisibility

As she screamed perhaps in an attempt to get some form of validation of her distress; she disturbed the peace and became the problem within the train carriage. In this moment, whilst her presence became ever so visible, her pain and experience fell into oblivion, essentially annihilated by the stereotype. Symbolically, to me, the collective silence in the face of her dehumanization and the looks of disapproval she received when she raised her voice sent a very clear message to that woman: we see you but we do NOT want to see you, stop forcing us to notice you.

Some may find reassurance in the possibility that perhaps, the passengers onboard had not noticed that she had been taunted and was distraught, sadly, this does not fill me with much comfort.  Some people’s suffering simply does not appear to get noticed. In the hours preceding David Bennett*’s death, he was distraught because he had been racially abused but nursing staff did not notice the high level of his distress or the cumulative impact of the racism he had been subjected to on the ward. When his life was slipping away as he laid on the floor, face down, thrashing about trying to break free, the nurses involved in restraining him did not notice this either. He had also become a stereotype.  That of ‘The Big Dangerous Black Man’ also known as ‘big, bad and mad’. It thus appeared perfectly befitting that he was restrained by four to five men.

The common failure to recognise  ‘depression’ amongst Black groups is a serious public health concern. Many Black people do present to primary care services but, it appears that often, their distress is not seen so that many end up not receiving the support and care they require in a timely fashion, if at all.  My sense is that Black people are simply not seen as vulnerable, are all too often left to cope alone and problematised by any manifestation of anger which can then attracts further dehumanisation. Who would dare ask someone being kicked on the floor to turn the volume down? Some forms of violence are extremely subtle and seemingly innocuous but their cumulative effects can be more toxic and equally traumatic. Next time you see a Black woman angry, please consider what you may not have noticed. This may help ensure our life’s journeys stop mirroring the train journey of that big Black Woman.

* David ‘Rocky’ Bennett was a Black mental health service user who died in 1998 at a medium secure mental health unit. An independent inquiry found that he died as a direct result of prolonged face down physical restraint and the amount of force used by members of staff during the incident. The inquiry made specific recommendations about the use of physical restraint, especially with regards to face down or prone position restraint and in relation to the need for culture competence training for Mental Health Staff. Critically, the enquiry accepted the presence of institutional racism within Mental Health services.

To access the Independent Enquiry Report into the death of David Bennett (click here).

Thank you for reading, If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word.

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

Don’t be scared, it’s only race!

I went to my local DVD store last week and sought to purchase more films that touched upon the issue of race. I searched this relatively large store but could not identify more than a handful of relevant movies, most of which I already owned.  I therefore approached a store person (he was the manager) and asked whether he could recommend some films with race as the subject matter or key theme.  The manager‘s instant utterance was:  ‘ouch…’quickly followed by:  ‘There is not that many… you know… it is such a sensitive subject, not many directors would go near it’.   There was so much in that minute long initial interaction both in terms of verbal and non-verbal communication that I could easily write an essay on it. Fear not! I will refrain.

I did not sense any hostility or racism in the interaction at all. I was dealt with courteously, warmly and, after the somewhat awkward start, the manager was in fact quite helpful.  Nevertheless, I thought about the ‘ouch’ much more than anything else he said.  I reflected on the beauty of its rawness and on what I thought was a genuine and uncensored expression of internal discomfort. I pondered upon what might have been revealed about that White man’s experience of me as a Black woman using the word race. This led me to the current post within which I aim to examine my use of the word race.  It seems to me that race has become a dirty word, arguably for good reasons.  It is a word that, as illustrated above, creates discomfort and controversies.  We are being told to stop using it and to replace it with ethnicity.

Race, ethnicity…does it matter?

Traditionally a distinction is made between race and ethnicity. Whilst race has for long been related to biological factors and physical features, ethnicity on the other hand, aims to highlight cultural factors such as a sense of shared ancestry, history, language, etc… Moreover, some may see race as having ascribed status as opposed to ethnicity which is usually envisaged as self-ascribed. In other words, the objectivity/subjectivity orientation appears to be one underlying but often unrecognized dimension of difference between the two terms.  In reality however, racial classification is both self-defined and externally-ascribed. The problem it seems to me, with the preferential use of the term ethnicity is that it establishes it as a somehow more valid and more significant concept.

I am no expert on social constructionism but one argument I often hear to support the use of the term ethnicity is that race is socially constructed but, isn’t ethnicity also a social construction? It seems to me that both race and ethnicity matter and that today’s insistence on the use of the term ethnicity rather than race, also needs to be socially situated and critically deconstructed. Like the “biological” theories (proved to be scientific fallacies) which were established by dominant groups as social facts to reproduce racial inequalities and perpetuate their privileges, it may be argued that insisting on the use of the term ethnicity today, may help distract from the structural inequalities and institutional oppression that derive from the social construction of race as a ‘social fact’ and thus, also serve to maintain racial hierarchy.  From that perspective it can be said that choosing the word race is also a political act on my part.  I do not believe that the continued use of the word race perpetuates racism.

Facing up to race and its dynamics

My personal view is that the denial of racism and colour blind explanations of inequalities are much more likely to perpetuate racism by leaving it unaddressed. It is because racism exists and continues to affect the lives of millions of people, that some of us prefer to use the word race as opposed to the more palatable and arguably more politically correct term, ethnicity, particularly in relation to inequalities and injustice. When we speak about ethnicity, the legacy of the constructed inferiority of certain groups can be disowned and there is usually no intended reference to continuing structures of hierarchy and power. When we speak about race however, there is- whether explicitly or implicitly. Racialization, in my view simply takes things a little further by placing the emphasis on the dynamic aspects of race and on how the process of categorizing people consciously or unconsciously only really become socially significant in the exercising of power and for creating/perpetuating disadvantage/inequalities. All terms are loaded with meanings, connotations and have inherent flaws.  My choice of term is not fixed.  It is not a ‘till death do us part’ position.  Rather,  at this point of my intellectual journey and life, I feel that the choice I have made word wise, allow me the lenses and framework to make sense of the world but also to advocate for change and equality.  Of course, I may be defined as having a chip on my shoulder and/or be problematized in other ways but, I have decided, that for now at least, this is a small price to pay in comparison to the pain I would inflict myself by remaining silent.

Thank you for reading, If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word.

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

‘I want to be White’: Fostering self-love amongst children of African Descent.

Writing about the psychological needs and/or experience of people of colour always carries with it the danger of stereotyping and pathologising them further. I am very mindful of the need to resist such processes and often struggle with my own ambivalence when I reflect on my writing. To that end, it may be helpful to establish that I do not believe that Black people and indeed Black children as groups have lower levels of self-esteem and self-love than any other ethnic group.  Like most psychological variables and attributes, when it comes to self-esteem and self-love; within group differences tend to be much more significant than between group differences. Further comparative empirical findings on the matter are unclear and conflicting.

Having said that, I do however believe that even today, skin colour can have an influence on Black people’s sense of self. Colorism and racism are alive and well. As a result, there are many children within African and African Caribbean communities; and many others; who will develop difficulties with their skin colour and for a proportion of these; self-loathing will become an issue which may be harboured till adulthood if left unaddressed. Thankfully, it is not necessary to be an expert on internalised oppression/racism, social constructionism or even on racial identity development to be able to support these children (although some basic knowledge on the above will be of help-please do some research). Pragmatically, a good starting point may be to remember this: like most adults, children like to think of themselves as good, beautiful, kind and worthy of love.

A child who comes to associate any attribute they possess to qualities that contradict any of the above will start to relate to the attribute in question with some degree of comptempt and hostility and/or try to dissociate from it. The same can be said for skin colour. I do not believe there is anything pathological here. A child that voices a desire to be a different skin colour or to belong to a different racial/ethnic group than the one they belong to, demonstrates that they are starting to develop a racial/ethnic identity, that they are sensitive to the dynamics, images and/or language they have been exposed to and most importantly, that they have developed sufficient trust in the parent/care giver (or whoever this wish was expressed to) to be open about their feelings. So how might we start to address these experiences and help the child relate more positively to his race/ethnicity and/or skin colour? Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Keep your emotions in check

This may be both the simplest and the most difficult thing to do. Hearing ‘I hate being Black’, or words to that effect, can be tough for anyone especially for a Black parent.  It may take parents back to their own experience of racism and oppression. It may make some feel that they have somehow failed to instill pride and self-esteem in their offspring. Feelings of helplessness, powerlessness and/or guilt about not having been able to shelter the child from the reality of oppression may arise. Some parents may even feel betrayed.

A range of feelings and emotions may be evoked which will be picked up by the child. Many may be tempted to brush the child’s experience and words off or to ignore the child. For many, the temptation to stop the conversation, distract, change subject or laugh things off will be great. Please resist. Silencing the child may assign shame to their experience and/or teach them that the subject is taboo or, will cause offense, embarrassment or hurt to you. Consequently, the child may not bring the subject up again; learn to keep this potentially troubling experience to themselves. Silencing the child might even reinforce any potential association between themselves, Blackness and being ‘bad’.

  1. Engage the child

It may be helpful to try and remain curious and open. For every child that wishes they were White, positive qualities and/or experiences, that in all probability, the child may think they lack (or may actually lack), would have been associated with Whiteness. Do not assume associations that the child has not made e.g. you may think that the child says they want to be White because they think White people are more beautiful when in fact the child might think ‘I want to be White because White people live in big houses’. Ask questions such as: How different do you think your life would be if you were white/not Black? What do you think White people have that Black people don’t? Probe the child with open and neutral questions so that you can start to build a picture of their belief system and of the qualities that have been attributed to Blackness and Whiteness. This will make it easier to challenge such beliefs in due course and to provide counter narratives.

  1. Expose the child to appropriate Role Models

It is crucially important that all children have access to positive role models that they can identify with. Unfortunately, children are not immune to the effects of negative messages associated with Blackness and the positive images associated with Whiteness whether at home, in school or through the media. Mundane and apparently trivial things may erode a child‘s self-esteem. Are there only blond haired blue eyed dolls at home/school? Are the heroes in all the stories they hear White? A colleague of mine, who used to reside on a council estate in a predominantly deprived (and Black) area of London, once told me that he was constantly stared at by Black boys and on occasions asked whether he was a Bailiff Officer. Black men going to work and wearing suits were such a rarity on the estate. The only people who wore suits and came round the estate were debt collectors (he was a director).

We have limited control over the media. Some people may even have little control over where they live and who they live with but, we can exercise our professional and/or parental control to expose children to people who look like them and have the quality/qualities they feel they, or people who look like them, do not possess or aspire to possess. More often than not such a person can be identified within the child’s environment. If appropriate then facilitating contact should be explored. Mentoring organisations are another option. There are plenty of relevant role models within our communities. Doctors, lawyers, artists, community workers and activists, Entrepreneurs etc. Of course, our history is full of them. Identify Black people that your child can look up to in your community and teach them about ‘Black History’. You may even do relevant research together.

  1. Mind your words and actions…

Your behaviour will have much more of an impact than your words. The way you treat children will teach them about how to expect to be treated in the world. In relation to race and colour, deal with your prejudices. Everyone has some. They are capable of doing a lot less damage if you are aware of them and you keep challenging yourself. It is not unusual for Black parents* to display colorism e.g. show a preference towards lighter skin tones. Children will sense and pick on these preferences whether they are verbalised or not (more often than not they are). Do you only compliment women on their beauty when they have lighter skin tones?

Do you call straight/curly hair good hair and afro and kinky textures ‘nappy’? Do you comment on people being ‘too dark’? Refrain. If people in your environment do so, challenge them. Many people say things without realising the impact of their words or that they may play a part in systems of devaluation until the experience of others is shared. Finally, being loved, nurtured and attended to, are probably the strongest buffers against the internalisation of oppression and racism and may help the development of a more secure cultural identity and a healthy self-esteem. A ‘secure base’ help teach children that they are lovable and that they matter; arguably the most important factors in fostering self-love.

* These attitudes are not only found amongst people of African descent but have been found amongst people of South Asian, East Asian, Latin American, Middle Eastern origins and, even amongst people from some European countries-to name but a few. Further, White people (and systems) can similarly show colorism towards individuals from racialized groups. 

Please note the above are just ideas. Although they are psychologically informed, they reflect my own reflections and experience. I am really curious about the experience of others either as parent or as clinicians/therapists. If you have any other suggestion please post a comment. Similarly, if you feel any part of the post does not make sense write a comment.

Thank you for reading, If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word.

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

The Rocky Road to Clinical Psychology training for BME applicants: A personal Perspective.

The question I am the most often asked when I meet people considering a career in Clinical Psychology (CP) or preparing their applications for CP training courses is: how did you make it -meaning how have you managed to obtain a training place?  When the person asking the question, like me, is from a ‘Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) background’, an added sense of bewilderment can often be sensed from their gaze.  The subtext being communicated is instantly understood.  In the non-verbal communication what is left unsaid essentially reads as: ‘How did you make it as a Black person’.  Of course, many a time people have been less subtle and made explicit reference to my race/ethnicity.

The latest figures reveal that for last year’s entry only 2 % and 3% of Black and Asian applicants were respectively accepted onto CP training. It appears it may be about 10 times more difficult for Black and Asian people to get accepted onto CP than to get into medicine! I do believe that there are systemic issues which make gaining a training place more difficult for BME applicants (more on this in due course) some of these may become evident in the rest of this post.  Nevertheless, in the first instance, I simply aim to share my experience and learning in the hope that they may be of some use to someone.

So I did I ‘make it’?

I often think that I got into the field through the back door. I decided relatively late that I wanted to train in clinical psychology which meant I had to return to university to obtain the degree needed, work toward acquiring the required ‘relevant experience’ later than average and in the main via non-traditional routes.  I have never been an Assistant Psychologist (AP) or a Research Assistant (RA) as I had to focus on getting jobs which paid the bills, with children and living in London at the time, the salary of an AP or RA post was not an option for me, let alone volunteering on equivalent ‘Honorary’ posts (the overwhelming majority of applicants selected for training have held such posts).

Most of my pre-training experience was acquired working at management level in the field of community engagement.  Many recruiters may simply not have given my application a second look.  Indeed, I was told several times by, I have no doubt, well intentioned people; that I did not ‘fit the mould’. Some of those helpful individuals were University tutors.  I could understand that a more mature Black mother of a different cultural background with English as a second language may be at odd with the training mould.  However, why it seemed so important that I fitted it baffled me as did the apparent lack of reflection upon such expectations. Aware that my work experience would not tick the boxes of many courses (or at the very least not earn me sufficient points to hope to get an interview) I sought to incorporate AP and RA skills and activities within my roles.

What did I do?

I gathered the courage to knock on the door of people I did not know; told them about me and my work and sought support and opportunities.  Most people* were beyond supportive, heard me, suggested some strategies and strongly encouraged me to apply and to persevere. They helped me own and appreciate the skills and experiences I had acquired professionally outside psychology and to realize how valuable they could be to clinical psychology practice. Eventually, I managed to get some research supervision by a clinical forensic psychologist on a couple of community research projects I was leading on within my main Job. Subsequently, and through my newly established network, I obtained an additional paid part time post (as a Carers ‘s Group Facilitator) under the supervision of another CP within an Early Intervention in Psychosis service.  It was tough going. I had two jobs, one full time and one part time; both demanding.  I was also doing my MSc full time and running a home with two kids well under 10 at the time.  After completing my Masters, I decided to enrol on a counselling psychology course as a possible alternative career plan. I was able to do this because I had managed to secure a revenue stream doing some consultancy and management work. Counselling psychology allowed me to get further supervision from yet another CP within a Medium Secure Unit where I completed a yearlong placement (I also simultaneously completed a shorter placement with a bereavement service).

So, what have I learnt that could be passed on to aspiring clinical psychologists who may not fit the mould?

Relationships, professional connections and being kind go a long way.  Being friendly may be the easiest to manage but relationships and connections can be built even if you start from not knowing anyone in the field. Brush on your networking skills. An easier place to start for those expecting a First Class Degree may be to ask their research project‘s supervisor(s) at University for any volunteering opportunities and/or for ways to continue with some aspect(s) of their research thesis under his/her supervision or that of a colleague, even if only for a few hours. Aim to get to know everyone within the teaching team.  There is no doubt about your academic skills if you’ve achieved a First Class degree (yes, I do believe anyone serious about CP should aim for a First Class degree especially those who belong to groups whose academic abilities have traditionally been questionned). It is a lot less competitive to get research experience in this fashion. For those who wonder, I did not get a First (I ended up with a mid 2.1).

Clinically, if you cannot get an AP post, do not be disheartened aim instead to work toward gaining clinical and/or research supervision by clinical psychologists. Try and prioritise posts that will give you direct contact with service users ideally; within the NHS. It is easier to have or establish some contact with clinical psychologists if you’re in the NHS. However, it is possible to work outside mental health services or within the voluntary sector and to forge links with (and even obtain supervision by) local NHS clinical psychologists but, you may have to be more pro-active and/or creative. Make yourself known. Gather staff’s research interests, develop proposals in these areas and ask them for some input/supervision.  Any fear of rejection definitely needs to be under control. If you come across as prepared ‘professional’, confident and clear in terms of the level of input you require, I believe most people will try and help.

The most valuable lesson I have learnt is to strategize.  The odds are largely against you. Thus, having a clear strategy will help you identify ways to increase the odds in your favour.  I suggest taking a project management approach and working toward a plan.  You may also find that having clear objectives and targets support you when you feel like you are not getting anywhere. This will help you keep the small victories in mind. Do not sell yourself short however, remember every job opens the door to the next one and provides learning opportunities.  It is incredibly important that the profession becomes more representative of the population it serves.  Your skills, experience and knowledge are extremely valuable.

Having an alternative career plan does not make you any less committed or suitable for training.  If you’re developing one, consider sister disciplines.  Many professional psychology and psychotherapy courses offer Practitioner Doctorates that have various exit points and are modular or flexible.  Such disciplines would also offer the possibility of acquiring relevant experience and may therefore strengthen any potential CP application.  Naturally and best of all, you could then work toward a plan B simultaneously.  If successful in your application to CP training, you can always exit plan B and possibly even obtain dual qualifications ( if you’re willing to continue with plan B where you left off when you qualify as a CP, assuming you’re not sick of books by then).  There are of course cost implications and I realize I was quite fortunate to be able to put some money towards further studies. However, studying part-time may make the payment of fees more manageable. Further, the impact of working in low paid jobs potentially for years in the hope of getting onto CP training also has financial consequences namely, on earning potential, especially if you eventually do not acquire a professional qualification.

Finally, be prepared for the arduous journey ahead.  Being ‘different’ may not get easier once you get onto training …more on this in a different post.

* I feel hugely indebted to South London and the Maudsley and the Institute of Psychiatry as this is where the people who answered my knocks on their door were based. Thank you.

To download the Clearing House 2013 Equality Monitoring Data for Clinical Psychology Training Acceptance Rates (click here)
To download the British Medical Association 2009 Equality Report (click here).

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Improving access to Psychology Services for marginalised communities: Where might we start?

I have come into contact with many remarkable clinical teams. Teams whithin which levels of commitment and clinical expertise were outstanding and from which I have learnt immensely. Yet, even amongst these, when it came to increasing equality of access to the service for traditionally marginalised groups; feelings of powerlessness and anxiety appeared to dominate discussions. The task seemed too vast, too impregnable (these sentiments were not aided by the length and/or complexity of some of the relevant documents available on the issue) or; beyond’s one’s remit and/or expertise. The activities below may be a helpful starting point for those who may not have engaged with the matter.

1. Improving Equality data collection/monitoring

Addressing inequality has to start with the systematic collection and analysis of demographic data across all nine protected characteristics within all services. Collecting such demographic information at several points may help increase response and recording rates (which are notoriously low). It may also be helpful to include agreed definitions as part of any data collection exercise e.g. people vary in their understanding of what may be a disability, so including the Equality Act (2010) ‘s definition and asking in relation to it ‘Do you consider that you have a disability’ may be more productive than simply asking ‘do you have a disability?’ This may help ensure a shared understanding. Similarly, in terms of ethnicity, meaningful comparisons between service use data and local demographic information can only take place if similar categories are in use.

2. Carrying out of Equality Analyses and Equality Impact Assessments at micro level?

NHS Trusts are required to publish evidence of the analysis they have undertaken to establish whether their policies or practices would further or would have furthered the aims of their Public Equality duty*; to provide details of the information considered and describe the engagement(s) they have undertaken when doing the analysis. Thus, Equality Analyses have become a standard part of policy and decision making processes at Trust level. Many Trusts have developed Equality Impact Assessment (EqIA) tools to assist staff in assessing and addressing potential unintended adverse consequences. Access to Clinical Psychology Services could be vastly improved by the completion of such analyses at micro level. This may support the regular consideration of the effects of team practices on different groups by clinicians.

3. Establishing stronger links with community organisations

Partnership work with organisations that represent and/or work with diverse communities may be a means to ensure more equitable and inclusive services. Perhaps undertaking mapping exercises to locate such community resources/groups in the locality may be helpful for some services. There is no doubt that Clinical Psychologists have much expertise and knowledge to offer community groups but similarly; community groups and culture/identity specific services could impart valuable skills and experience in terms of working with minority groups and marginalised communities.

4. Supporting staff learning and development needs around Equality

Increasing staff knowledge of the Equality Act (2010), their responsibilities and that of the service under the same may be similarly important. All NHS staff have to attend Equality and Diversity training. In my experience however, such mandatory training is often relatively basic and can be somewhat removed from service level/delivery issues. The workings of unintentional, institutional and structural discrimination, key issues in terms of inequality of access; tend not to feature much, if at all. It is difficult to see how services may start to tackle inequalities without having a firm grasp on such dynamics. In practice, service specific training on Equality and Diversity could be much more helpful in terms of facilitating a dialogue on the issue and ideally, staff at all level of the service should be involved. Given the standard distribution of power within the services, it may be that those at the ‘bottom’ of the hierarchy and service users have particularly useful contributions to make.

Evidently, not all services have issues with equality of access and many may well have become experts in managing it. Nevertheless, such inequities (in addition to inequalities of outcome and experience) remain national concerns. The above list is not exhaustive and many services and clinicians will have undertaken different actions (I would be grateful for the sharing of such examples of practice). It must be borne in mind that increasing access to Psychology Services is only one part of fostering better psychological wellbeing for marginalised groups. Getting engaged in helping reduce inequalities at societal level and diversifying the models and interventions available within services may also encourage the inclusion of Service Users from marginalised groups and support their engagement once they access Psychology Services. Naturally services’ capacity to manage any potential increase in demand and thus in workload, are added complicating factors that would need careful planning.

*Under the Public Sector Equality Duty, NHS Trusts must have due regard to the need to:
• Eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation and other conduct prohibited by the Equality Act 2010;
• Advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not; and
• Foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not

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Unfair stop and search practices and the psychological wellbeing of Black men: Is it time we scrutinized the relationship?

Much has been written about the impact of stop and seaches and racial profiling.  That the unequal use of such powers has far reaching devastating consequences on community relations and in particular, on Black and Minority Ethnic Communities (BME) ‘s relationship with the police has become a truism. One aspect of the debate that has received little attention is the potential effects such practices could have on the psychological wellbeing and mental health of communities disproportionally affected by the practice, particularly on their most vulnerable members.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has reported that in some areas Black people are 29 times more likely to be stopped and searched with the overall figures nationally documenting that as a group, they are six times more likely to be subjected to these powers, than their white counterparts. In a recent inspection, the EHRC identified that more than a quarter of all stop and searches carried out under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act in (2013) –that is hundreds of thousands, could have been unlawful.  If these findings leave you staggered chances are you’re not a Black inner city young man having to deal with various other social injustices and social stressors (on top of the usual adolescence and young adulthood related stuff) who has been stopped and searched repeatedly for no legitimate reason. Indeed feeling staggered may be a relatively mild emotion for such a person to experience.

Over the years I have come into contact with hundreds of young Black men in community, forensic and clinical settings.  I can say with no hesitation, that young Black men’ s experience of the police has been one of the most virulent and recurrent issue I have been presented with. Expectedly, it was often accompanied by feelings of rage, despair, helplessness, distrust and alienation. Feelings strongly associated with psychological distress. The most resilient and resourceful young Black men may easily manage the slight, indignation anddehumanisation of repeated or unlawful stops and searches without being shaken to the core. However, the longer term impact of such experiences particularly if recurrent, do have to be reflected upon.  But, how about the others?  Those with little or no social support, those with no voice or with a reduced capacity to articulate their experiences?

The level of unmet psychological and mental health needs is high amongst Black men.  I once supported a Black man in his thirties within a forensic unit with a string of offences against the police. He recurrently got into conflict with police officers when he was stopped and searched.  I also remember an extremely bright nineteen year old Black man who had been convicted of assault for punching the fourth or fifth police officer who had wanted to stop and search him in the same day.  These are tragic stories for everyone involved, particularly for the Black men who, shortly after their incarceration became severely distressed and were diagnosed with psychosis.

There is no claim here that the experiences of those two men are representive of those of Black men generally or indeed of those Black men who may have mental health support needs. These stories may be purely anecdotal, nevertheless, it is a fact that Black men are the most likely group to access mental health care through coercive routes and/or through the Criminal Justice System.  It is also a fact that there is little (if, any) empirical evidence scrutinizing the impact of such policing practices on the mental health or psychological wellbeing of Black people and specifically, on that of young Black men.

As a Black woman from an inner city background and a psychologist, these issues disturb me profoundly.  I personally know many people of colour who have been subjected to unfair, discriminatory and even brutal police treatment.  I can recognize the wounds.  And worryingly, at present, I am not sure these invisible injuries can be healed within mainstream mental health services if anything, current provisions may well be exacerbating them either as a result of the traumatic pathways to ‘care’ too many black men are forced to take or, because of the types of intervention(s) they receive. It is too early to say whether Theresa May’s projected overhaul of stop and search powers will have an impact on the experience of Black men in our inner city streets or elsewhere. However,  I personally think it is an overdue step in the right direction that has the potential to foster better psychological health for this group. As for the hundreds of thousands of young Black men who have already been negatively affected by the abusive use of stop and search powers, one can only hope that services will offer these young people appropriate support and a space to process their experience.  And crucially, that the latter will still have enough trust in authority, to accept their offer. 

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