This article asks whether the majority ethnic group may have a tendency to dismiss experiences of racism. Considering my lived experience, I reflect on some processes which may become engaged when racism is evoked and propose some potential implications for clinical psychology.
Subjective realities and embodied experiences
When individuals speak about their experiences of racism, they are often challenged about their interpretations and encouraged to consider more ‘objective’ reasons which may account for the behaviours or words that caused offense or hurt. Invariably, as there are multiple ways to interpret events, particularly in the realm of human interactions, experiences of prejudice and of discrimination can easily be discounted. Such dynamics are well documented and I, like other Black and minority ethnic (BME) trainees have encountered them in Training. Navigating a racist society may equip individuals from racialized minorities with the ability to recognize subtle pre-verbal and para-verbal cues of racism.
This embodied apprehension of prejudice may be the result of inner adaptations to the external reality of racism yet, it can easily be dismissed as it may not lead us to easily verbalise our experiences. There have been repeated calls for increased cultural competence within clinical psychology but, trainees continue to be socialised into rhetorics of social and power awareness. Diversity indeed commonly features within our professional discourse. A ‘better than’ position may be adopted whereby racism and discrimination become minimised and eventually envisaged as being ‘out there’ rather than ‘in here’. Being able to remain oblivious to the experiences of those who are racially subjugated and deny responsibility for racism may be the hallmarks of White privilege.
Expectedly, following experiences of racism from a supervisor, I painfully reflected upon my experience before alleging that the supervisor was prejudiced and racially offensive. When my concerns were raised, they were instantly discounted. I was interrupted in my account then coached into considering other possible motives for the conduct. The differential treatment and offending words did not provide ‘evidence’ of discriminatory intentions. Nevertheless, when the same supervisor questioned areas of my competence and intelligence without evidence, an epistemological shift occurred so that the supervisor’s perspective and judgement alone became sufficiently evidential. Meeting a positivist threshold was no longer necessary.
Managing cognitive dissonance
It is well documented that people tend to use prior beliefs to interpret personal experiences. This is the essence of Cognitive Dissonance Theory. Festinger (1957) posited that powerful motives to maintain cognitive consistency often give rise to irrational or unhelpful behaviours and that when excessive dissonance is produced intellectual defences can be triggered. Such defences may manifest in the refusal to accept the discomforting information, or in unduly questioning its validity. Refusing to consider the possibility that racial prejudice may indeed have been involved within the supervisory relationship, may help protect the safety of existing assumptions and truths whilst unabling a reflexive consideration of privilege. More disturbing perhaps, may be the implications that the purported competence/intelligence deficiencies seem to have been accepted in the absence of supporting evidence. Cognitive Dissonance Theory would posit that prior beliefs or worldviews were therefore not disturbed in this instance.
The denial of racism
Behaviours displaying overt prejudice are now relatively rare. They have been replaced by more covert forms of racism. Such behaviours although more subtle have been posited to betray deeply rooted prejudices. When BME trainees have spoken about their experiences of training, experiences of both overt and covert racism have been documented. The latter may be met with more scepticism however, when potentially painful and/or anxiety provoking information is instantly rejected, one may suspect that some level of denial may be at play. Denying racism may indeed serve multiple functions. Institutionally, and it may help avoid liability for potentially unlawful acts. Socially, it may be part of a strategy of positive in-group presentation and demonstrate adherence to social norms and values. Moreover, such self-presentation, may also serve to defend the in-group as a whole or its dominant discourse.
Thus, the failure to fully hear, document and investigate race related concerns may be interpreted as reiteration of the professional consensus and public discourse: ‘there is no racism in clinical psychology’ or ‘we are not racists’. This social denial has been theorised to also fulfil an individual defence. ‘She is not racist’ may therefore mean ‘I am not racist’ whereby staff rather than empathising with the trainee’s distraught come to identify with the supervisor accused of racism. This interaction between the institutional, social, and individual may make accusations of racism highly discomforting. Possibly more so than the potentially discriminatory acts complained of. To discharge such discomfort; counter-accusations are usually made e.g. ‘playing the race card’, ‘having a chip on the shoulder’, ‘being paranoid’, ‘being oversensitive’ or indeed ‘jumping to conclusions’.
Individual and/or institutional racism?
In the mist of scepticism and cognitive ‘reframing’ attempts, my distress became invisible. I was left with little support. Engaging with the pain might have shifted ‘the gaze’. Perhaps I was being punished unconsciously. Trainees, who challenge racism may be at risk of being ostracised, dismissed or penalised. The McPherson enquiry uncovered institutional racism within the police force which it defined as:
‘The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping’. (McPherson, 1999, 6.34)
Although this definition is not without problems, it does offer a framework to reflect on how systemic and unintentional discrimination may become manifest within institutions. The independent enquiry into the death of David Bennett found institutional racism within the psychiatric system, including persisting race inequalities, the widespread use of stereotypes and of particular relevance here, failures to take allegations of racism seriously. Its recommendations led to the ‘Delivering Race Equality in Mental Health’ programme. The action plan came to an end in 2010 thus; race inequalities may have fallen down the political agenda. However, they remain. In this context of suffering and alienation, BME service users’ experiences of racism continue to receive little empirical and clinical attention. Perhaps parallels may be drawn.
Although multiple versions of events and reality can and do co-exist, the most privileged amongst us may have vested interests in maintaining oppressive biases which locate truth where power is and assure that only those with power can define reality. The inter-connection between agency and systemic structures may mean trainees from racialized minorities are at risk of being silenced and dismissed in their experiences. It was to help ensure that they have a voice that I created ‘The Minorities in clinical psychology Training Group’. Indeed, in the context of continuing challenges in recruiting a more representative workforce and enduring difficulties in adequately serving BME communities; a failure to pay close attention to such voices may not only deprive the profession of opportunities to better understand and meet the needs of service users from traditionally marginalised groups, it may leave clinical psychology vulnerable to accusations of institutional racism.
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