Month: April 2019

Racial trauma, silence and meaning

Discovering racism

My discovery of racism was quite a brutal one. I was perhaps 4 or 5 and had been playing with my sister and some of the kids from the neighbourhood in front of our Parisian banlieue tower block as was customary for poorer families during school holidays or week-ends. There was quite a few of us; 15 perhaps even more. Children of all backgrounds having fun, skipping, running around and laughing the summer afternoon away, still quite oblivious to the dire social deprivation we were accustomed to and, the hostility our existence in France, created. A White man erupted from a ground floor flat in the tower effing and puffing, clearly aggravated by the noise we were collectively making. After his rant, he ran directly toward my elder sister and pushed her from behind.

She must have been 6 or 7 at the most. He pushed her so violently that, she was propelled forward, fell and scraped the ground for a few meters. Once immobile, much of the skin at the back of her arms had gone. A bunch of children quickly ran to our second floor flat to alert my parents. A few seconds later my mother appeared downstairs to find my sister, me and other children in tears and, my sister covered in blood. Within moments she was at the assailant’s door furious and demanding an explanation. She was greeted by a barrage of racist abuse. Once that rant was over, the man proceeded to punch her in the face. So forcefully her skin turned blue-black, one of her eye became red with blood and half her face swelled up instantly. There was something so deeply dehumanising and ungendering in the violence and hatred contained in that punch.

This was not a half-hearted attack. It was a determined, completely unrestrained, chest out, full force knock-out hit. The kind of punch a charged man throws at another man he believes is his equal in power. The kind of heavy weight punch no woman should ever bear. It was full of misogynoir and unequivocally stated, you are not a human being, let alone a woman and, I want you down. Expectedly, all children by this point were crying hysterically. Utter terror. White terror. I am not sure whether it was the sight of my mother’s transformed and grotesque looking face or, the hatred in the White man’s eyes which scared me the most.

As a child my mother was the pillar of our family and community. She emanated the kind of grace and dignity you sometimes see in tall statuesque-like African women. Often, our home was the refuge for abused and other vulnerable women seeking her protection from patriarchal violence. But in that instant she had been rendered powerless, meaningless and disposable, she had no protection.

Trauma, violence and silence

And so it was more than a beautiful woman who was publicly violated. It was the entire community and with that, our sense of safety and meaning. She was hit on the head. We were all punched in the stomach. Things after the punch have blurred in my memory. But I can still see my mother standing after the assault. Standing tall. Defiant and in dignified silence. Not a single tear was shed by her. Not a word in retort. If resistance ever was a picture, it might well be it. Although I do not remember this; I am told the White man was arrested minutes later knife in hand, threatening to kill her in front of a full audience of distraught children. Imagine the scene. The loudness, the chaos. The screams, the distress. It sharply contrasts with the deafening silence that engulfed us all after the events. A silence that is typical but the significance of which, I only grasped as an adult.

I have repeatedly encountered it in therapy when working with those who have experienced racism, sexual or gender related violence, and other forms of traumatic events. As a child it felt as though speaking about white violence would mean wounding by reminding everyone. We were and still are a close-knit family and community, but that proximity did not facilitate the uttering of words. If anything I think, it made it harder to speak as we all wanted to spare one another distress. So we were all left to process this trauma together but alone as life took its course, the aggressor was jailed and my mother’s face and head very slowly recovered.

When I spoke to Black people about their experience of racism as children, as part of my thesis on racial trauma not so dissimilar stories were shared. Equally overtly violent direct or vicarious experiences such as witnessing one’s father being chased by an angry racist mob or being beaten up or spat at. As well as more verbally violent experiences such as being racially abused or denigrated by other children, or by adults, often teachers. From seeing one’s parents being mocked for their accent, dress, or hearing them being repeatedly asked to go back home, to the more subtle Othering and aversive behaviours which nonetheless tell you in no uncertain terms, you do not belong. The full panoply of racism had already been experienced by participants as children, including the denial, minimisation or invalidation of their experiences for the few who had attempted to verbalise them.

Racism and the conspiracy of silence

That very same all encompassing and familiar silence seemed to envelop most participants ‘experiences of racial injustice and racism. It came from various sources at individual, familial and structural levels. And always had ‘reasons’. Children in the main had kept silent about their racist experiences, sometimes out of shame, often, wanting to protect their parents by sparing them hurt and pain. Parents sought to protect children too by refraining themselves from naming, sometimes out of conviction speaking would damage children. That it would make children less able to function within white supremacy, causes them to lose innocence or confidence.

Social structures, schools, universities, the police … had all too often, been complicit in this ‘conspiracy of silence’. It has been forcefully enforced by punishing those who sought to speak. By discrediting them or dismissing their complaints. Of course there are good reasons here too. ‘Allegations’ of racism rarely meet that evidential threshold. They tend to be caused by misunderstandings after all. Complaints are ill-formulated or not communicated in the right way or in a nice enough tone. Those rare voices who manage to jump through all those silencing hoops, and threaten to make themselves heard, eventually get smothered via non-disclosure agreements and gagging clauses or orders. The rule of silence becomes the rule of law.

Racism always has a reason often, several reasons. There always have been and will always be ‘reasonable’ reasons for upholding silences in the face of racism, violence and trauma. Sometimes they can  appear protective. Rarely though, do they protect those harmed or serve the interests of those at the lower end of the power divide. Silence allows abuse to flourish. It reproduces and amplifies the damage of trauma. What is unnamed and unspoken is obviously not heard. Not seen. Not fully witnessed or recognised. Silence thus prolongs harm and extends the initial violence internally and externally by seeking to hide or disappear the violence.

And of course silences serve multiple functions. They can be about denial, dissociation or splitting off from intolerable pain. They can speak something of our overwhelmed capacity to process the experiential and translate it into units of meaning. They can speak of our anxiety about speaking into being and existence, what is feared. They can help us evade what is simply too ugly to contemplate, contain and hold. Silences can also tell us something about the intergenerational colonial or ancestral coping strategies which may have been learnt and passed down from our foremothers when their cries of despair, exhaustion and agony, fell into abysses of indifference, and their only way to survive was to keep quiet and keep going.

Structurally silence is performative. It fills a gap and, helps to ensure those cracks on the walls of appearances diversity and inclusion are filled so that institutions can continue to stand solid, as violence is reproduced, invibilised then denied. Psychologically too, silence leaves a void. A gap where compassion could have been. So, words do matter. And as children much more than as adults, we need words to formulate and mentalise. The failure to formulate traumatic experiences plays a fundamental role in the intergenerational transmission of trauma and wounds. After mass or group trauma, unspoken and incomprehensible part images of the trauma become intertwined with the identity and self-concept of subsequent generations.

Silence, containment and meaning

In my research it became apparent that those participants who as children were spoken about racism, responded with much less anxiety and distress when they encountered racism and racial injustice. These conversations we may propose, allowed the child then the adult, to make sense of their experience and retain a sense of epistemic confidence, particularly when their subjective reality was denied in situations of epistemic injustice. Further, parental conversations made it easier not to take in or introject racist projections and, to thus externalise feelings of shame, otherness, inferiority and/or deficiency.

Without words, traumatic experiences and representations are fragmented and devoid of meaning, and can contribute to a sense of overwhelm, epistemic homelessness and dread when confronted with racial injustice. In fact, all those research participants who struggled with meaning making had eventually taken ‘corrective’ steps to build their epistemic confidence as adults, such as engaging for instance, in Black feminist/epistemic scholarship which they reported had markedly reduced their psychological distress.
These findings are consistent with Bion’s (1960) theory of containment.

The above in summary proposes that an infant’s capacity to develop abstract thinking and to understand the world, is dependent upon their caregiver’s sensitively responding to their distress. By calmly taking in the distress (or projections) the infant cannot cope with and ‘metabolising’ this raw data, the mother teaches the child to 1) to internalise calmness 2) regulate emotions 3) process their emotions thus, derive meaning from the world of senses – linking the affective to the cognitive and epistemic. The core idea being that maternal emotional receptivity particularly when the infant is distressed is core to the infant developing conceptual thinking. Specifically, containment allows what Bion calls the ‘Alpha function’ that is to say, the process of turning unordered, meaningless, overwhelming data from the senses or chaos (what he calls the ‘Beta elements’) into conceptual meaning (‘Alpha elements’).

In other words we can say a child whose experience of racism was not contained, who thus was not supported in metabolising related ‘beta elements’ would be expected to become an adult with more difficulties in performing the ‘Alpha function’ when confronted with racism and racial injustice, in the absence of corrective actions. Bion’s containment theory, despite its arguably rather colonial imagery, offers a framework to consider issues of intergenerational wounds and, the transmission of racial trauma. As long as current power relations and racialised configurations remain of course, traumatised and distressed parents and, marginalised parents can be expected to need support to adequately perform the Alpha function when it comes to live racism related trauma, particularly where they are more intersectionally vulnerable.

Thank you for reading

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Masters, Slaves and Object Relations

‘The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed’ Steve Biko

Object relations theory

Object relations theory is concerned with how we internalise the relationships with our primary object(s) of attachment, chiefly our mother, during infancy and, how these internalisations continue to influence relational patterns throughout the lifespan. Melanie Klein who initially developed the theory of Object Relations, believed that human beings, during their infancy internalise or introject into their unconscious, whole representations of primary care givers: Objects. Objects function as relational templates or guides and help the infant navigate the world and, relate to other similar (or dissimilar) Objects.

In early infancy children are not capable of integrating whole Objects. Those Objects they experience as bad and those they experience as good are split into all good or all bad Objects. A mother who feeds and provides milk to the child when the child is hungry becomes a good Object (the ‘good breast’), an Object which is idealised and towards which the child experiences pure love and perhaps merging fantasies. A mother who is not immediately available when a child is hungry or distressed becomes a bad Object. An object towards whom the child develops intense aggression, hatred and murderous impulses or enactments, if only in fantasy (the ‘bad breast’). This is called the Paranoid-Schizoid Position as the child harbours fears of being destroyed by the bad Object. Of course projections of their own desire to kill the Object that frustrates.

However, with developing maturity and as the child grows, they become better able to integrate both (part) bad and good objects. They essentiallly learn that the breast that feeds is also the breast that frustrates. The maternal Objects become one. The mastery of this ambivalence leads the child to move from the ‘paranoid-schizoid position’ (where the child primarily experiences fears of annihilation) to the ‘depressive Position’ (where the child having reclaimed their projections, experience sadness and guilt) and, learn to live with the realisation that the good breast and the bad breast in their pure idealised or despised form do not in fact, exist.

Object relation theory is for me one of the most important psychological theory that exists to account for the configurations of our internal worlds, even if it is an incomplete theory when it comes to infants and people of colour. Occasionally, I hear folks including psychologists deriding the ‘good breast bad breast’ analogy or the whole scholarship. Truthfully, this leaves me perplexed. This is really not a difficult theory to grasp. And, although I can understand that some may have difficulties with the language or that the symbolism may appear odd, it is beyond my understanding that anyone would reject the core ideas today.

These are for me in their simplest form 1) that our experience of the world as adults is at least in part, shaped by how we experienced the world as infants and children, 2) that we internalise something of our ‘external’ world, which comes to shape our ‘internal’ world 3) that as we mature, we move away from binary or black and white thinking. I seriously do not understand why any of these notions would be controversial or ‘disagreement’ material. In fact, few are the psychological school of thoughts or modality that do not support these ideas one way or another, although they may use different terms or metaphors (as a PS do your own thinking).

Internal Objects and race

And whilst object relations theory is not social in the strictest sense, I think it has important socio-political implications, beyond Klein’s initial formulation and likely intentions. The theory can be easily extended to account for socio-political internalisations and associated internal conflicts. I note here that pretty much all Blackness and/or oppression scholars have for instance written in various degrees, about the introjection of the social world and therefore of white supremacy or, of white colonial configurations. Those ideas are not new. From Baldwin to Lorde in the United States, from Fanon and Césaire in France and the French Caribbean, from Biko to Sankara in Africa all the way to Freire in Latin America, to name but a few. Today, we would refer to these ideas as internalised oppression or internalised racism, more specifically here.

Internalised racism we may say is the introjection of the white gaze and thus, the self-stripping of our own subjecthood or personhood. I accept, the scholars mentioned above did not write with Klein’s theory in mind. All the same, internalised racism does refer, it could easily be argued in Kleinian terms, to the internalisation of White Objects (or their representations) in that it refers to the process of introjecting the racist values, beliefs and myths White people hold about people of colour, internalising violent or subservient configurations, and using some or all of the same, as the foundation for our self-relating. Internalised oppression is the enemy that lives within. The Master inside our mind. This White Object although often absent in classic analytical texts, is another presence that shapes our experience of the world and, our relationships both with White people and with other people of colour.

The Master and the Slave as Internal Objects

Both school of thoughts, therefore meet at the juncture of the historico-relational and the psychological/psychic. The recognition and/or dislodging of the Master that lives within, has been central to Black scholarship and liberatory politics although, they have been slow to be accepted, let alone used within mainstream psychological and psychoanalytic practice. Nonetheless, this premise remains central to formulating the experience of people of colour and their internal worlds. In my last piece on freedom, I offered an introduction to internalised master-slave configurations and to the conflicts they can lead to, between people of colour. Object relations theory provides a helpful analytic framework to elaborate on those ideas.

I will now use one anecdote as a ‘vignette’ to attempt to do so.

I was once a member of a therapy group with one Brown woman. The tension between us was palpable. I think it’s fair to say we did not particularly like one another. Although perhaps she seemed to have much stronger feelings toward me than I did toward her. She recurrently interrupted me when I attempted to speak of my experience of anti-blackness. In fact, she appeared much less able to contain my experiences than our fellow White group members. Indeed, she on more than one occasion said she had a hard time just tolerating me calling White people White. She repeatedly called that rude and, she called that racist.

She called me a bully on more than one occasion with the kind of intensity that betrays transferential processes. My response was usually to ignore her or, invite her to reflect on her relationship with whiteness and her internalised racism. To which she responded once or twice, are you saying I am a bounty? I had never uttered these words. Out of sheer exasperation I eventually responded, ‘I have not, but you may want to think about it’.

As human beings a part of us is always going to seek safety and security. Safety and security when racialised as Black or Brown and located within white supremacy often requires a particular posturing toward whiteness. Specifically assimilation. Assimilation we could say, is pleasing the Master and, attempting to be in the Master’s good books. This usually means idealising the White Object or as I have previously referred to it, the Internalised Master; in order to sustain this self-negation. Even if this posturing towards the White Object is borne out of survival necessity, as human beings again, we will forever yearn for self-determination, dignity and freedom. And so, another part of us will invariably want to be free and thus if only in fantasy, rebel and kill the Master, the White Object. That is what I refer to, as the slave part of us, the part of us longing for freedom. The Black Object, you could say. I have previously referred to them as the Internal Slave.

Mirror reactions

‘A person sees himself, or part of himself – often a repressed part of himself – reflected in the interactions of other group members. He sees them reacting in the way he does himself, or in contrast to his own behaviour…. He also gets to know himself- and this is a fundamental process in ego development- by the effect he has upon others and the picture they form of him.’ (Foukes, 1964).

Mirror reactions are important processes in analytic thinking and practice, particularly within group analysis. Foulkes described them as one of the most important group specific factor in group analytic therapy. Mirror reactions are a set of reactions triggered within us as a direct response to the behaviours of others. These reactions include identification, projection and contrasting. We could therefore say, mirror reactions force us to encounter and/or confront those parts of ourselves through their recognition in the behaviours of others, we have repressed or split off. Here we may say, our disowned (racial) Objects.

There is no perfect recipe to navigate white supremacy. If there was, we’d know it by now. This is what I was partly getting at in my piece on Freedom. And, because there is no perfect way to navigate the world to avoid the harm of whiteness at least, one must therefore decide how one wants to be in the world. However, that being in the world, that is to say our ontological choices, will regularly confront our internal Objects. If we take it as a given that we have to various degrees internalised all systems of oppressions, then our internal worlds will be governed by our White Objects and our Black Objects, in various configurations.

In other words, if you refuse to hear your Internal Slave, repress them, and your internal world is ruled by your White Object, your Internal Master then, you will experience very strong responses to anyone reminding you of your Internal Slave, that part of you longing to be free. The ontological choices you have made to try to survive eg. appeasing whiteness, will clash with your Black Object. Conversely, if you cannot bear being in the presence of those who choose assimilation and whose internal world is governed by the tyranny of their White Object, there is a good chance you have tried to disown your Internal Master, your White Object. That part of your internal world seeking the safety and security associated with proximity to the Master, the White Object. You are trying so hard the kill the Master or the enemy within, any reminder that they are still breathing, deeply disturbs you.

In the vignette above we may formulate that Black and White Objects or the Internal Slave and the Internal Master were engaged in a power struggle. A struggle for dominance. And whilst again, there is no right way to survive… the intensity of the responses observed when a Black Object was confronted through a mirror reaction, caused an intolerable disturbance which could not be reclaimed and processed and became located between the only two people of colour in the group. With aggression more overtly displayed toward the Black Object despite projections of bullying and racism possibly exposing the persecutory preoccupations typical of the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ position.

In the same way that with increased psychic maturity the infant grows to integrate both bad and good Objects into one, one needs to come to the realisation that both the Black Object and the White Object exist within each of us. This posturing may allow us not only to show other people of colour compassion and ourselves self-compassion, in those moments when we experience (defended) shame, suffering or sadness, because our ontological choices clash with our most salient Racial Object. Further, and perhaps more importantly, it may help us remember that whiteness is fundamentally not inherently about whiteness, but that it is about power and, thus similarly; help us come to terms with the fact that the good Black and the bad White Objects or the Good White and the Bad Black in their pure idealised or despised form, similarly, do not in fact, exist.

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 Race Reflections. 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.

Race Reflections en Français! 

Five years of Race Reflections

It’s been over 4 years since I started writing for Race Reflections and what a journey it has been. 

I can’t believe the places it has taken me (as far as Australia) and, the interest it has generated. Last year about 25 000 unique views spread from 102 countries were recorded. 

Over 100 countries…From China to Israel, from France to Finland, from India to Kenya, via so many Caribbean islands, about one quarter of all views were located in the UK and US and a about half overall, were from English speaking countries.

This is a fairly niche and challenging site, so I am quite proud, especially as the story behind Race Reflections is such a painful one.

I am ready to go French!

As a Black French woman who is a EU migrant to the UK, my relationship with the French launguage is complicated. That’s before we even get into my Congolese ancestry.

But I know from my lived experience, that there is a need to get s0me race related conceptual and liberatory tools in French. Having the linguistic and conceptual tools to formulate one’s experience of oppression is still a privilege that is far from mainstream in France. 

Further, despite being written in English France features in the top 3 countries when it comes to readership and, I am recurrently asked to translate articles on Race Reflections into French. Many have translated pieces without my consent, and I would like this practice to become redundant.

A French Content Assistant

So as I said I am ready but, I need some help.

I do not want to spend all my week-ends translating…And this is where a French Content Assistant comes in.

The role is freelance, at least initially.

I expect it to last 6-12 months.

I would like to work with a native French speaker.

Someone who has some lived experience of anti-Blackness and/or other form(s) of racism.

They must of course be bilingual, French-English.

Being passionate about social justice and anti-racism is a must.

Ideally I am after someone who is social media savvy and already has a well-established social media following/platform.

There is no additional educational requirement strictly speaking but, an understanding of and familiarity with some of the core concepts and, scholarship when it comes to race and oppression, will be a distinct advantage as would a psychology or sociology background.

The focus of the role will vary from week to week but will include help with translations, literature reviews, administrative assistance and supporting the growth of Race Reflections in the French speaking universe on and off-line.


At present the hours are likely to be between 7-1o hours a week.

Perhaps more if we can sucessfully fundraise. We’ll discuss that.

Pay rates 

I am flexible (somewhat) on this front, this will depend on the calibre of the applicant.

I can offer hourly, weekly or monthly freelance payments to be agreed.

I am happy to pay in Euros or in Sterlings.

I do not care where you are based. This work can be done online and from home. Although I would expect occasional meetings (we can discuss).

Next steps…

Would you like to work with me pleeeeeease and help me develop Race Reflections?

If you are interested in finding out more about the role, or would like to submit an application please send me your CV and a covering letter in French (as One Drive docs, with links) via the contact page.

Feel free to also get in touch to have an informal chat or if you have any other query via the contact page or via twitter @kguilaine.

All applications must be received by May 15th 2019.

Selected applicants will be contacted within 7 days of this deadline for an informal interview.

As part of the interview I will ask you to translate a short passage from Race Reflections.

I can’t wait to start that French mission libératrice ✊🏿

Thank you for reading.

Guilaine Kinouani