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 had already learnt.
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 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 support 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 gendered race discrimination. In all fairness, she struggled too. I don’t know that she knew or knows she did. I knew. Or at least I know now.
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 the social structures psychology had helped maintain.
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 weight of these 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 and actually much better than many would. 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.
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