There is no racism in clinical psychology: Personal reflections from another Black trainee.

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.

Final Reflections

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.

Thank you for reading. If you have found this article helpful or interesting, please share it with others.

Want to learn more?

Please see…

Adetimole, F., Afuape, T., & Vara, V. (2005). The impact of racism on the experience of training on a clinical psychology course: Reflections from three Black trainees. Clinical Psychology Forum, 48, 11-15. 6.

Care Quality Commission and National Mental Health Development Unit (2010). ‘Count Me In 2009 – Results of the 2009 national census of inpatients and patients on supervised community treatment in mental health and learning disability services in England and Wales’. Care Quality Commission: London.

Constantine, M. G., & Sue, D. W. (2007). Perceptions of Racial Micro aggressions among Black Supervisees in Cross-Racial Dyads. Journal of Counselling Psychology, 54(2), 142-153.

Department of Health (2005). Delivering Race Equality in Mental Health Care, Department of Health: London.

Fanon, F. (1967). Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto Press.

Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Hardy, K, V. (2001). Family therapy: Exploring the fields past, present and possible futures. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publication.

Hook, D. (2006). ‘Pre-discursive’ racism. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology. 16, 207-232.

Patel, N., Bennett, E., Dennis, M., Dosanjh, N., Mahtani, A., Miller, A., et al. (2000). Clinical Psychology, Race and Culture: A Resource Pack for Trainers. Leicester: BPS Books.

Patel, N. (2004). Difference and Power in Supervision: The case of culture and racism. In Fleming, I. & Steen, L. (Eds.), Supervision and Clinical Psychology: Theory, Practice and Perspectives. Hove: Brunner-Routledge.

Macpherson, W. (1999). The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: report of an inquiry by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny. London. Home Office Cm 4262-I.

NSCSHA (2003). Independent Inquiry into the death of David Bennett. An Independent Inquiry set up under HSG (94)27. Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire Strategic Health Authority: Cambridge.

Tan, R., & Campion, G. (2007). Losing yourself in the moment: The socialisation process of clinical psychology training. Clinical Psychology Forum (180), 13-16.

Van Dijk, T. A. (1992). Elite Discourse and Racism. Discourse and Society 3(1): 87-118.

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4 comments

  1. This was actually my thesis topic…the way that an out of context way of looking at people may perpetuate inequalities or prevent social transformation. Psychology’s insistence of the “bounded individual” rather than the social, contextual and historical person presents a deceptive picture of what it means to live in our current society (Don Foster, 2004, in Liberation Psychology). I looked at Nikolas Rose’s work on personhood, and who gets the right to claim personhood (In Governing the Soul), and at critical theory.

    I think it helps when psychology does focus on critical psychology or discourse as a part of training. In my research interviews, the practitioners understood very well the need to see people as part of a social world which could discriminate. Lesiba Baloyi has also written a phd thesis on the importance of African knowledge as part of clinical psychology training (for South Africa). There’s such a long way to go when it comes to the impacts of racism and colonialism as well. I guess it’s about rooting psychology in history.

    Do you know the Voices from the Margains blog? Carol Hand was a social work professor who fought to put context and a social justice component into social work practice. She reflects on her experiences and struggles and shares very insightful posts.

    Thank you for your own sharing and reflections too. It’s really interesting to read.

    1. Hiya, thanks for stopping by. I could not agree more re: psychology’s focus on decontextualised personhood. I think this fallacy does violence to all of thus but particularly to the less privileged. If you’d consider sharing your thesis that would be most appreciated 🙂
      Our social interactions provide internalised models and are also by-products of the social and historical. So what we do in the present both perpetuate history and shape the future social context: the cyclical nature of othering and oppression. Most practitioners may get the importance of contexts and histories but I don’t know many who are willing to consider what this really means for them and the implications for our practice on a daily basis, in and outside the therapy room, I think this is where the work may need to be done to effect sustainable change. Thanks for the references, will look them up. I look forward to more dialogues.

      1. Hi, thanks for replying! Do you have an email to send my research through to? At the moment, I am looking at radical ecopsychology, and how this connects into an awareness of historical oppression and land theft. My work (and studying) fell inbetween psychology and sociology (interdisciplinary). So the practice was more around systemic change. We looked a lot at race, class, gender and sexualities, and the need to ensure that the individual was not expected to adjust to an oppressive system. More James Hillman’s approach of the need not to be distracted from the social and the political.

        I agree, the reflexivity is just so important, and particularly because ‘other’ people risk having to do the work of convincing the privileged that context is real.

        It’s wonderful to engage, because this is my interest too.

    2. Powerful words which again echo my experience and views.
      I checked your Blog, great stuff. Need to take the time to go through your written contributions to equality. Interdisciplinary is such an interesting term…Our existences are multi-layered and multi-dimensional so any betterment of the social context or human condition will always be ‘multi-something’. Seems pretty obvious to me but I’ve seen ‘purists’ make cases against for example mixed approaches or methodologies. I am sure there are strong epistemological rationales against them but to me it all seems a little reductionist. Please keep in touch and share your findings on eco-psychology. I am hoping to look into historical and inter-generational trauma and possible inks with current social inequalities (as they are experienced or made sense of) for my thesis, seems pretty close to what you are doing:)

      Let’s keep talking via email. Best.

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