Month: March 2016

Our dreams are political too: individual tears, collective wounds

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

The tears of a friend

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

Making sense of dreams

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

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

The political content of dreams 

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

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

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

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Articulating oppression amidst privilege

A new ‘brand’ of psychologists?

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

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

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

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

The intellectualisation of oppression

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

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

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





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

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

The violence of privilege

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


Thank you for reading.

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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.