Month: February 2015

By challenging racism: could we actually be perpetuating it?

The Function of racism

‘The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.’ Toni Morrison

There seems to be two different kinds of people when it comes to dealing with experiences of racism or at least two main types of response.  On the one hand, we may react; indeed we may make it a point to react. People who react tend to be those who argue, who wish to demonstrate the folly of racial prejudice to those who utter offending comments. These may be principled people, conscious people, and/or rational or reasonable people.  People who may feel that they have an ethical or liberatory obligation to respond, to correct, to evidence or to have their voice and experience heard.

On the other hand, there are those who seemingly chose not to engage, those who ignore the offensive or bigoted comments or theories or who seem to turn a blind eye to them. They either appear to take no notice or seem not to care.  Naturally, most of us oscillate between these two poles and may spend much time somewhere in the middle.  Many believe that speaking out is an intrinsic part of the liberatory process.  That it is absolutely necessary and indeed that being silent amounts to complicity, to letting people off the hook and in doing so, to contributing to the perpetuation of oppression.  Not everyone however, is aware of the emotional demands of both challenging and being silent.

Reinforcing racism

Though mindful of the courage both positions require and of the potential material risks and perils associated with challenging racism, it has always felt as though there were higher psychological costs to being silent.  I had too been certain that in the longer term, gains in terms of equality and dignity could only be achieved if we spoke individually and collectively. Thus, for long, speaking out seemed a pre-condition to tackling racism. Tony Morrison’s quote somewhat challenges this position.  It proposes that such actions serve the function of racism.  Whilst she posits that distraction is the core function of racism and we may or may not agree, one issue I will reflect upon here is whether responding intellectually or emotionally to racism may be in the interest of those directly impacted upon by racism.

So, what if actually, some or all of our actions to combat racism actually perpetuated it, inadvertently?  I am aware that this is often a defensive premise which may be advanced by those with social power who are unwilling to contemplate the thorniness of the subject matter or to sit with their own racism or privilege. But do bear with me… As is plain to see from the above quote, Toni Morrison does not believe that expanding energy rationally disproving racist claims is necessary. Doing so according to her is futile because there will always be one more claim to disprove. I believe doing so is also a lost cause because racism does not belong to the realm of the rational. Critically, challenging racism may also be unhelpful if not harmful…Firstly, from a behaviourist perspective, every human behaviour serves a function.  Behaviours can naturally have multiple functions, some (or all) of which may well be obscure.

The core issue here is that when the function of a particular behaviour is served, then that behaviour will likely remain.  It would have been reinforced thus, maintained.  This is a fundamental behaviourist principle. This simple tenet may have significant implications for how we tackle racism. For example, if the function (or one of the functions) of racist ideologies is to inferiorize people of colour and, people of colour as a result of such ideologies internalise this inferiority, this function would have been fulfilled and racist ‘ideologizing’ reinforced thus likely to be perpetuated. Or, if a function of racist language is to offend or to hurt and, such language does get to us, then behaviourists would argue, the likelihood or such language being used again would have been increased.

Self-care and boundaries 

I am aware the above propositions have the potential of being seen as victim blaming. This is far from my intention. The responsibility for racist and discriminatory acts, in my book, remains firmly in the hands of perpetrator(s). However, if it is or can be within our control to reduce the occurrence or the impact of racism on us, then, we may start to reclaim some of the power oppression robs us of. It is clear to me that the impact (or consequences) of racism feeds into its existence, it is what gives it its potency.  Though I realise this may betray the dim view I have on humanity, my sense is, in a nutshell, that as long as racism works or hurts, it will invariably continue to exist.

This may help explain why in spite of major gains made in terms of race equality, it is quite evident that processes of othering and marginalisation remain and seem the most difficult to address.  Perhaps this is because the hostility, contempt and fear we have for the Other now manifest in more subtle and covert ways. So, if much racial bias and prejudice find their refuge in our unconscious and, become externalised without our awareness, could it be hypothesised some equally unhelpful processes may become triggered outside our awareness, as racial minorities, when we respond, argue, defend, and evidence our humanity, again and again?

Could it not be hypothesised that arguing our way out of racist encounters and discourses may actually also allow something in? And that perhaps, our psychic integrity or boundaries may somehow become compromised?  To challenge a proposition entails a degree of internalisation since we need to hold it in mind to consider it.  When such propositions are hate based and carry with them projections, trauma and violence one may be rightly concerned about potential impact of such repeated internalisation (in addition of course to the more observable psychological and health consequences).  Even though this internalisation may only be momentary, perhaps its potential impact on our psyche, on the struggle for liberation and also on the possible unconscious needs or processes which may get fed ( in those who other us) may need more attention.

Thank you for reading.

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Resisting the label: Black women, invisibility and mental health.

Most Black women I know are no strangers to what most mental health professionals would see as depressive and/or anxiety ‘disorders’. The majority of us consider this to come with the territory of having to navigate through injustice and oppression. We call that life.  The bio-chemical theories that may account for what seems to only become manifest in structures of domination and subjugation, don’t matter much to us. For me, it was only during the course of my psychology studies that I came to understand that this recurring feeling of imminent black out had a medical term: anxiety or panic ‘attacks’.  Calling this anxiety did not provide comfort or reassurance.  I did not think: ‘great, now I know what’s wrong with me’. I felt angry.  Angry and invisible.  Angry and re-traumatised. These categories erased the daily onslaughts on my existence whilst trying to put to me that there was something wrong with me, that I was diseased. I did not feel shame. I did not feel stigma. I felt insulted in my intelligence and in my experience.

Black women are absent from most ‘talking therapy’ rooms.  Many of my friends and relatives would rather drink a bleach cocktail than head for mental health services. So what is going on here?  Probably several things, nonetheless, one of these things is that many Black women do not call what they experience, depression or anxiety or mental ‘illnesses’. Although we are all too often conditioned to think so, for most of us, it is not our explanatory model.  And, why should it be? Why would you expect Black women to locate their distress within psychiatric frameworks, frameworks that have historically been used to inferiorize them, without resistance?

Do not be fooled into thinking for one second that Black women are oblivious to the normalization of the racism and sexism which is imbedded within psychiatric standards of normality. Many of us are not.  We may not have the language to articulate this but, given that there is no single aspect of our being that has not been imprisoned by labels, most of us have learnt the life limiting impact of being in a world that is preemptive of our existence. To me it seems perfectly adaptive and pragmatic for many of us to refuse yet another label and its associated prejudices and pre-conceptions. Refusing further pre-definition is indeed perfectly understandable as far as I am concerned.  And, it is highly disturbing that we would be pathologized for, essentially, resisting further oppression.

Putting a medical label onto an experience does not make the experience any more or less real or painful. Nor does it validate it; all it does is just this: it gives it a medical label.  It is perfectly within anyone’s rights to choose the name given to any lived experience, without being devalued. Black women do present to a range of services but, often, their distress is not seen. Perhaps this is unsurprising if we are forced to adhere to a worldview and language that invalidate our very pain and distress. Evidence of our distress and vulnerabilities is around for everyone to see if one chooses to pay closer attention and look at us without wearing stereotype tainted goggles.

The most rewarding work I do takes place at the heart of communities.  When I find and meet people where they feel at their safest.  I have recently facilitated a mental health resilience training session within a Black church.  Although a few women openly disclosed their use of mental health services, my attention was drawn to those who were less verbal. I knew there were many more women with untold stories of emotional distress and, they also disclosed something of their stories albeit, in different ways. They disclosed in the intensity of the gazes they gave me or in their teary eyes.  They disclosed in the loud silences they sought safety in when others spoke of the challenges they had faced as Black women. Some disclosed in the power of the hugs they gave to me when I had finished and/or in the proximity they sought with me at the end of the session.

Most never uttered a word. When we, as mental health professionals, expect Black women in distress to disclose in ways that make us feel at ease or that are less demanding cognitively or emotionally, we expect them to do the work.  We expect Black women to meet the needs of mental health systems. We force them to adhere to specific worldviews, to seek help in  particular ways and to use the language or modes of communication we value as conditions for us attending to them or seeing their emotional needs. We perpetuate centuries of oppression by charging Black women with caring for the more privileged or for those who subjugate or other us, erasing our experiences and histories and replicating the invisibility of our wounds.

More othering or labelling often follows: we call Black women ‘hard to reach’, ‘difficult’ or ‘difficult to engage’ and ‘resistant’ as though marginalisation was ever the solution to…marginalisation. Making mental health services more relevant to Black women is an ambitious task. However, it seems to me that some simple steps may go some way in reducing the gap that exists between Black women and mental health services: meeting them where they feel safe geographically, linguistically and psychologically. Allowing Black women to name their experience, this means accepting with humility, that psychiatric diagnoses are just lenses and as such, they are not the only framework to make sense of the world. And, recognising that much of the trauma Black women have to endure, is part of a shared history. A history that can get easily replicated within mental health services when the trauma attached to it, is rendered invisible.

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.