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) suffering or sadness, because our ontological choices clash with our racial Objects. 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.

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One comment

  1. This is illuminating. It made me think about about it’s being like having a codependency with whiteness but also I had a literal view of Black and White objects in terms of fashion in general and conspicuous consumption across races. This is because of my having read this 2011 paper by Rafferty, “Class based emotions and fashion consumption”. It’s following on a paper that raised the issue of whiteness perpetuated as aspirational to a majority black audience in South African version of the Glamour magazines titled, ‘Miss-represented: A critical analysis of the visibility of black women in South African Glamour magazine’.Thien compounded by how Panashe talks about recognizing the white object among Africans & its diaspora in a similar way you thread about solidarity with or showing empathy for the marginalized.

    For me it leaves me thinking how proximity to whiteness is commoditized and being able to buy into these “White Objects” is the site for such conflict or protest when Black people use them as they please yet their also being mocked for being new money or any other derogatory term to protect the status signaling of White Objects. So all in all I’m very impressed.

    1. Rafferty 2011

    2. Pilane, Iqani 2016

    3. Panashe Chigumadzi

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