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.

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6 comments

  1. Your analysis of the issues faced by first-generations immigrants is spot on. Raising their children in an hostile society they find themselves spending more hours caring for white people’s well-being than that of their kids (which in turn created feelings of inadequacy which they freely transfer to their children). It has been a treacherous road for us to navigate; coping (or not) with our parents (perceived and experienced) form of neglect and trying to fit in a society where none of us are recognised as valuable individuals unless we perform various humiliating and alienating acts to prove that we are here to satisfy the agenda of others. Moreover, the violence with which our struggles are interpreted by others is baffling ; how many times have I spent hours listening to white friends going on about some trivial family matters while their reaction to me announcing tragic situations/ deaths in my family could have been met with a speedy ‘ I am so sorry .. pass me the salt’ kind of reaction. We are expected to suffer, to live a lesser life.

    The work you are doing is supremely important (for yourself, first) for our community. I truly wish I had continued to pursue my psychological studies and be one more of you. I am passionate about giving people the chance to give them access to themselves by making them feel at ease and creating safe spaces and moments where imperfections and differing experiences are welcomed and celebrated (art and culture are great tools to achieve this as long as you do not expect or impose the pressure of ‘la culture generale’). I never miss a chance to share my own experiences of abuses with others always indicating that I am aware and conscious of how it might have damaged or enhances my life experiences and resilience.

    I was in therapy too and believe me when I say made sure that they understood who was selecting who in our relationship (some could not withstand my corrections on their limited ‘cultually-tinged’ take on my life and others understood that they needed to shift their inheritant racism and truly engage with me at the next ‘make or break’ therapy session- with good results).
    As you pointed out, the societal and historical cannot be taken out of the equation when interpretating experiences. When in therapy I always felt that I had to educate the clinician on my multi-layered identity (cape-verdian, born in Lisbon, dragged up in France and educated in London); never assuming his priviledged upbringing and white-centred studies and practice was enough. I was well-intentioned because I am also aware that so few non-White experiences of modern life is available to them.

    I can totally appreciate what you mean when stating that therapist are very quick to condemn our parents shortcomings towards us. To them, I should be angry at them (my therapist was amazed that I held no feelings of anger towards my family or jealousy and envy towards my friends). I believe that my parents were not competent for their parental role because they themsleves had not had a chance to explore and forgive themselves for the hurt that was caused to them or that they have caused. They are hyper-fragile under a crust of mistrust for sharing and exposing themselves to their hurt interiority. It’s heartbreaking.

    Anyway I could go on.
    Just want to finish by saying: Strength and success to you!

    I shall continue to feast on your posts and hope to meet you and thank you personally one day!

    La lutte continue, la victoire est certaine.

    Px

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. Although I do not recognise my mother or my story in much of what you have shared, I am humbled by your courage.

      We all have our stories and it’s important we feel able to share them, if we find that healing.

      I do hope you get to a place of healing from the abuse you have experienced. This makes everything more complicated and more wounding. I am sorry those around you have not been able to contain your experience. Humans hate complexity, generally.

      I have been fortunate not to suffer abuse in the way you describe, but watching your mother being treated unfairly is significant enough to shape your politics and your way of moving in the world, but I have always felt loved, never doubted this. I think this is significant.

      I have never felt neglected either, but perhaps I have had to grow up too quickly, this was not my mother’s making, there was not much she could have done to protect us from systems of oppression.

      Thank you very much for the support and kind words, I wish you peace, healing & resistance 🙏🏿

      Ps: A psychology career is never too late.

      1. Thanks for your words!

        Fortunately for me, I have made the right choices in whom I surround myself with and while expriencing some harsh experience I simultaneously enjoyed solid friendships and loving relationships.
        Suffering separatiion from family from an early age has caused attachement and trust issues for me which were dismantled as I got accustomed to receive and give love and confide in friends and family without shame.

        As I often say (metaphorically) I spent all of my life putting ‘my organs’ in the right place by cultivating self-love and compassion while learning to not feel guilty for seek ‘pleasure’ in my (pro, social, emotional) life experiences. Not into sacrificing myself for others as I believe that there is enough for everyone. I have always loved life and I am so grateful to be living mine.

        I have found peace and inner serenity.

        Px

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