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.

Not.

A.

Single.

Hand.

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.

 

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7 comments

  1. A powerful discussion of the challenges one faces when speaking truth to privilege, Guilaine. Thank you for sharing with such honesty, and for your courage to give voice to the pain of oppression and invisibility.

  2. Our education systems have been largely designed by people who have through generations benefited from oppression, colonialism, and tyranny. We cannot therefore be surprised that oppression isn’t a core part of the curriculum. If space is not created though, it will be taken. I also attended the pre-qual conference and came away feeling, hope, fear, inspired, angry… a whole mix of emotions which culminate in a desire to act. We must change the narrative, we must articulate and challenge oppression, we must create a better more honest future.

    1. Hi Ste, thanks for the comment. I agree our education system has largely been designed by and for the benefit of dominant groups. It will therefore always be biased towards their needs, experiences and reality. It’s one thing to rationally know that and another to experience the violence this produces, continually particularly within discourses of power awareness, equality & diversity.
      I don’t expect that the study of oppressive forces, their impact and manifestations will ever be a core part of our curriculum. However, it is possible to give the issues more attention given we’re starting pretty much from almost zero….Other disciplines eg. social work and other countries eg. USA have been incorporating oppression as part of their clinical & counselling psychology programmes for years. They still have a long way to go but are well ahead of us. In the UK psychotherapy and counselling are also much more ahead of ‘the game’ when it comes to the visibility of issues of the difference and oppression. So hemogenic forces exist absolutely and they are a factor, but they’re only part of the story. Perhaps, professional defensiveness, limited critical self/privilege-awareness particularly around race, issues of representation, increased precarity within the profession also feed the status quo?
      I have worked in the MH field for 15 years or so and have experienced social marginalisation for most of my life, I know it very well and I can tell you that clinical psychology training has been the most oppressive and institutionally violent professional environment I have ever been in. Hands down.
      Of course this may be due to the particularities of where I am located. However, research suggests this goes beyond idiosyncrasies. So there is urgent work that needs to be done. And we can do it. But only if we’re willing to see the damage and pain we’re causing.

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