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

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