Month: July 2018

Learning from Group Analysis: PART 1 The reproduction of whiteness in the personal matrix

Group Analysis

I have recently been awarded Group Practitioner Status by the Institute of Group Analysis. 

It took the equivalent of two years of study to gain the diploma. This has included sacrificing many week-ends to attend seminars, personal group therapy and; reading those infamously dense and, often tear producing psychoanalytical and group analytic papers. Academically, this has possibly been one of my hardest undertakings to date, but nonetheless, the most rewarding. I have described it as home coming, as I feel group analysis has allowed me to unify and integrate different aspects of my scholarship, at least it’s theory…

Group analysis is still a relatively marginalised discipline within the field of mental health and within the social sciences. Contrary to what many may assume, it is not only about studying the dynamics, communication and processes that happen within groups/organisations or about fostering the healing powers of groups though of course, this is part of it. It is equally about how the configurations that exist or have existed in the wider socio-political and historical contexts get reproduced within groups, between groups, and crucially inside our minds/psyches. 

Group analysis thus has a much more political dimension which is perhaps less well known. I think the discipline offers some of the most powerful conceptual tools to formulate the links between the socio-economic, the political, the historical, the institutional, the relational and the psychological and consequently, the reproduction of whiteness, something I am, as previously written keen to do. That does not mean group analysis is not white, let’s be clear. I was this year, the only black person in the UK to be awarded the diploma…a story for another article.

The plan for now, is to present some of the key concepts of group analysis and, to demonstrate how they could be used to better understand whiteness, power and, oppression. I will start with the concept of the analytic group matrix. This is a fairly complex concept. I will try to make this post and the series, as accessible as I can. 

The group matrix

Foulkes, the founder of group analysis, was amongst the first Western scholars to centre the importance of the social on the psychological and; to locate the psychic within all material and institutional contexts. The group analytic concept of the matrix, a core tennet of group analysis is attributed to him. It is defined as the intersubjective field within which groups operate. As a ‘field effect’ which is primarily unconscious and, which interconnects all people in a network, within which we ‘meet, communicate and interact.’ (Foulkes & Anthony, 2003). The group matrix is believed to encompass all communications, conscious and unconscious, internal and external, past and present (Foulkes, 1973).

Traditionally, the communicational arrangements or configurations of the group matrix have been considered intrapsychically; as well as in relation to the group as an entity. They are posited to be in constant contact and interaction via two main locations; the ‘dynamic matrix’ – which refers to the level/type of interactions/relationships developing in the here and now of the group and; the ‘foundation matrix’ – which highlights the more fixed, shared and familiar communicational arrangements and meanings, existing beyond or arguably independent of the group. The foundation matrix has been posited to include, power relations, culture (in the broadest sense), intergenerational traumas/stories, social structures and the social unconscious.

More contemporary groups analysts have come to formulate the group matrix as a tri-partite communicational field incorporating 1) the personal matrix (the personal matrix is intended to highlight the more idiosyncratic aspects of our selves such as our psychological traits, relational history and possible interpersonal traumas); 2) the dynamic matrix and, 3) the foundation matrix; as specified above (Nitsun, 2018; Hopper 2017). Whiteness is of course, I propose, reproduced within each of those ‘levels’ of communication. The present post explores the reproduction of whiteness at the level of the personal matrix (of people of colour).

Defining whiteness

Whiteness may be conceptualised as the production and reproduction of the dominance, and privilege of people racialised as white (Green et al, 2007). Whiteness has been posited to be the cause of enduring racial inequality, injustice and power differentials between various racial groups and, the source of specific patterns of social relations within particular spatial contexts (Neely and Samura; 2011). Whiteness as a system of dominance, holds its power by the ways in which it has become woven into the fabric of ‘Western’ (and former colonised)’ societies so that all aspects of ‘our’ culture, norms, and values centre and privilege white people.

In the absence of disconfirming information whiteness is the assumption and the default. It is the standard against which all other cultures, groups, and individuals are measured and, usually found to be inferior, deficient or pathological (Dyer, 1997). Whiteness functions in state of unconsciousness, as such is it not consciously known to white people who are not socialised to see it nor to understand their racialised self, let alone how whiteness is experienced by non-white groups.

This unknowing or blindness, naturally serves to keep the status-quo undisturbed. As a result, conversations on whiteness are usually fraught. They often lead to collective denial of the very existence of the structure. To anger. To silencing. And, sometimes to violence. It may be argued that whiteness provides psychic insulation to white people leading to what has been termed white fragility, a state in which minimal racial stress becomes intolerable and triggers a range of defensive moves (DiAngelo, 2011).

Despite this, at times of actual or perceived threat, attempts to reassert the dominance of whiteness can be observed, so that its silent (and denied) configurations, become more manifest. The current rise in hate crimes and in neo-Nazism; the normalisation of racist and xenophobic discourses within many western nations constitute, it has been argued, more overt attempts at protecting/re-asserting whiteness.

The term whitelash has been coined to frame such backlash from white groups, in response to changes in racial demographics or to advances in equality. The dynamic of whitelash is of course underscored by a fear of losing power and, has been hypothesised to be central to the xenophobia filled Brexit campaigns in the UK and, the election of Trump and his whiteness centred nostalgic discourses in the US.

Beyond referring to race or skin colour thus, whiteness is a complex multidimensional system designed to structure and hierarchise the social thus, I will try to illustrate (over several posts) the socio-economic, the political, the historical, the institutional, the relational and the psychological. Blindness to whiteness (sometimes referred to as white ignorance or innocence) is one of its central feature. Whiteness is therefore a fundamental factor in understanding the psychological as socially and historically located. 

The reproduction of whiteness in the personal matrix

Vignette 1:

The vignette below is a composite of various people I have worked with rather than a specific individual.  

Sarah is a British woman of middle Eastern descent in her early 30s. Sarah struggled with depression for most of her adult life, most episodes were triggered by a racist encounter. Sarah felt alienated from her family and, had a stormy relationship with her parents. She refused to conform to the family’s cultural and religious expectations. During a group session where another (Black) group member discussed their struggle with internalised racism Sarah became tearful for the first time in the group. She came to the realisation that the anger she had experienced towards her parents, came from a deep sense of shame that had troubled her most of her life. A shame she experienced because her parents were not white.

Sarah’s shame for having non-white parents demonstrates how whiteness can invade the subjectivity of people of colour. Sarah’s distress and her internal conflicts manifested in a troubled relationship with her parents towards whom Sarah felt alienated (we might say analytically, that Sarah had located a disturbance in her parents). Over half a century ago, Fanon (1970) had already observed this phenomenon which he referred to as the epidermalization of racism or, the way in which the formerly colonised, often saw their internal worlds inhabited and governed (by design) by whiteness leading to a sense of internalised Otherness (today we generally refer to this dynamic as internalised racism).

Assimilation and more specifically, conforming to normative expectations lodged in the foundation matrix led Sarah to a lifelong quest to be accepted by white people and to self-alienation (one may say ego splits), whereby she projected desirable aspects of herself into the white British culture/norms (the social/dominant group) and her undesirable parts, into her middle Eastern parents (the family group/’cultural’ group). Sarah’s internal arrangements in relation to her parents (analytically, we may say her object relations) had clearly been shaped by whiteness and whiteness centred discourses/configurations located in the foundation matrix.

The sense of alienation she felt in relation to her family group, was a manifestation of the sense of alienation she felt towards her non-white self. This came about because her internal groups were in conflict. They were in conflict because discourses/configurations located in the foundation matrix had been introjected. One may say, Sarah’s personal matrix and the foundation matrix became mirrors of one another evidencing the reproduction of whiteness within her personal matrix. 

I hope this piece has started to demonstrate how group analysis can be utilised to map how the social (and specifically here, group & power relations) can get reproduced internally. This is a first step in formulating how we can and must move well beyond individualistic lenses when attempting to grasp the human psyche and, the psychology of people of colour, in particular. 

The next posts will explore the reproduction of whiteness within the dynamic matrix, the foundation matrix and the social unconscious and the series will end with an integrated, inter-subjective formulatory framework.

References 

DiAngelo, R. (2011) White Fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3 (3) 54-70

Dyer, R. (1997) Matter of whiteness: Essays on race and culture. London: Routledge

Fanon, F. (1970) Black Skin White Masks, London: Paladin

Foulkes, S.H. (1973) The Group as a Matrix of the Individual’s Mental Life. In Foulkes, E. (ed) (1990): Selected Papers, 223-233. London: Karnac Books

Foulkes, S.H. & Anthony, E.J. (2003) Group Psychotherapy: The psychoanalytical approach

Green, M.J., Sonn, C.C. and Matsebula, J. (2007) “Reviewing whiteness: theory, research, and possibilities”, South African Journal of Psychology, Vol. 37 No. 3, pp. 389-419

Hopper and Weinberg (2017) The Social Unconscious in Persons, Groups, and Societies: Volume 3: The Foundation Matrix Extended and Re-configured, London: Karnac Books

Neely, B. and Samura, M. (2011) “Social geographies of race: connecting race and space”, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 34 No. 11, pp. 1933-1952

Nitsun, M. (2018) The Group Matrix: Presentation at NLE York

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. 

Advertisements

Reflections on being a black client & black therapist: PART 1 Mind the Gap

For about three years now, I have been holding a private psychotherapy and psychology practice where I see almost exclusively women and non-binary people of colour; in one to ones, in groups and in the community. This is one of my most cherished personal and professional accomplishments.

I have carved my practice out of my struggles and hopes as I continue to battle through the whiteness of clinical psychology and of psychotherapy. A whiteness I felt all the more sharply because as an inner-city child, I have grown up within communities of colour and, because the bulk of my clinical experience pre-doctorate was supporting black people and other communities of colour.

I have carved my practice out of my struggles and hopes as I continue to resist and exist within a society that still does not know how to treat people who look like me equally and decently regardless of its proclamations, and within which finding a therapeutic space where collusion is not reproduced; is in my experience the exception rather than the rule.

I have carved it out of the thousands of ‘personal’ micro and macro experiences of discrimination and Othering I had to navigate. I have refused to ignore this rich data and the intellectual gifts contained therein. Exploring and reflecting on my own lived experience, my lived evidence, has been central to understanding patterns of harm and domination, but also patterns of resistance at various levels of functioning. As I have come to be more and more familiar with the relevant empirical evidence bases, I have found very little, if anything, that has contradicted, what I already knew.

As women and more so as black women, we are socialised to minimise and distrust what we know and often times we stop ourselves from using our gifts or, we wait for someone to give us the go ahead or to tell us how to start. I had little support or direction when I decided to set-up, simply a strong will or perhaps a strong need to have a space where as a black woman psychologist/therapist and mental health professional, I could engage with mental health and psychology from the vantage point of being a black female body in the world.

Where I could make selective use of what psychology has to offer in a way that did not extract it from sociology or from history. Where I could think deeply and complexly about intersectional violence, about intergenerational trauma, about everyday resistance, about cultural homelessness and about structural violence and all the intersections of the socio-economic, the political, the historical, the institutional, the relational and the psychological.

This is the stuff that does not reach clinical psychology or psychotherapy ‘teaching’ in the UK but, the stuff that colours and shapes the existence of many whose needs simply cannot be adequately served within mainstream mental health provisions without doing much damage, and I knew, I knew enough to start.

The motivation was also born out both of an unsatiated intellectual appetite for a deep understanding of the psychological and mental health needs of marginalised people and my own psychological need to practise in a way that was more consistent with my personal ethics, politics and epistemology. Many mental health professionals still believe politics belong outside of our therapy rooms. That therapy is not political. The whiteness of this position is still to be accepted as a fact. Let alone as a problem.

But I did need to practise in a way that could sustain my place in this white space that is psychology. I am forever grateful to the hundreds of people of colour who have trusted that I knew enough and entrusted me with their stories and experiences adding to the evidence I already had, to further help others.

To a large degree I have grown with them. And to a large degree this is not right. But the truth is this work is still in its infancy, particularly in the UK, there are so few of us who aspire or are willing to hold that space.

I often say I have become the therapist I needed, when I needed therapy. A few years ago, I was myself in therapy. This experience has been damaging and enlightening in equal measures. I had sought to be with a therapist of colour to manage whiteness related violence as I struggled with experiences of race discrimination. In all fairness, she struggled too. I don’t know that she knew or knows she did. I knew.

Still, it took me a while to accept it and see her need to create in me, a version of what she felt being a well-adjusted person of colour in the world looked like. Her. Someone who despite all her proclamations; continued to define maturity as acceptance of the status-quo. As assimilation. Someone who typically as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, considered structures distractions from the real issues or a vehicle to the real issues.

And, the real issues for way too many psychotherapists and psychologists still lay in our relationship with our mother. Or to a lesser extent with our father. So, unless you get to a place of anger then grief, for some often grossly exaggerated failure in your primary caregiver, the healing cannot take place. You are simply too ‘resistant’ or perhaps lack psychological mindedness, another fluffy psychological term which has been used for centuries to exclude and pathologise those primarily damaged by social structures.

Imagine a slave in distress at their condition, being asked to reflect on their relationship with their mother, to get to the real issues.

I have drawn support from my former therapist but I have also obviously had many what the fuck moments with her. I am grateful for each of them, they provided additional and priceless sources of data and evidence to me. Often, there was nowhere to go but an impasse. There is very little by way of theoretical knowledge that links the socio-economic to the political, the historical, the institutional, the relational and the psychological. And so I found myself recurrently in that gap, while sitting in that chair, in her room. In that gap trying to reach out. In that gap, aware this was the best psychotherapy could do for me as a political black body. In that gap, voiceless.

But of course, it is because I am defensive. Not being angry at my mother because her capacity to be a mother was affected by the structures within which she mothered me, the abject xenophobia, the racism, the patriarchy, the poverty, is defensive. I clearly cannot face my anger at her. I should be angry at her, this is what good therapy clients do.

Showing love and compassion to my mother for the pain this society has put her through and doubting I could have done a better job, all things being equal, is defensive too. It is not because I know nor because I struggle too, under the same structures. I cannot possibly know. And so, it is because I cannot face some failings in her, obviously. 

My mother did ok. I think she did the best she could. She is not in the best of health. All the battles she had to fight for her eight daughters over the years have taken their toll. Imagine having eight black daughters within a white patriarchal society. And imagine not wanting to stay in your place and raising your daughters to not stay in theirs either. With social transgressions always comes violence. It is not the transgressing that is the problem, it is the systems that seek to convince us that demanding the same rights and opportunities as others, is a transgression. That is the violence. 

My mother’s back is pretty much broken out of the hard physical labour she had to do for decades as a nursing assistant and a carer, the second job she needed to keep us just above the abject poverty line.  The social symbolism of a black woman with a broken back is such a powerful one. So many of the first generation migrant women I know have broken backs. Being the mules of society does carry a heavy price.  And, so many of their daughters have sore throats or are losing their voices trying to speak, this is what being silenced can do.

This is why I set up.                                                                                                                           To kiss rather than flog or add loads to those broken backs. To help some of us find our voice. And, to bridge that gap between the socio-economic, the political, the historical, the institutional, the relational and the psychological. That gap, I had to sit in so many times.

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.