This post is the summary and write- up of a few Twitter threads I wrote focused on self-care for people of colour working in white institutions. The reflections presented below are based on conversations I have had with people of colour, some of whom have become seriously distressed and quite psychologically unwell in white organisational settings. A few have openly spoken of becoming suicidal. Others have retired on ill health grounds. Some have sought me as a friend or more formally as a therapist to help them make sense of their experience.
The level of psychological injury and disability people of colour sustain at work because of racism, is still an unknown quantity. Nonetheless, my aim here is not to try and quantify but, using an analytic framework primarily, to attempt to formulate what I am recurrently entrusted with. I have to say though, that I too as a Black woman, am working through this shit. None of us have this completely figured out.
Navigating white spaces
I am starting this piece on three premises. Firstly, that workplaces are a microcosm of society and thus, that every dynamic and process which occur between groups in society will get mirrored within institutions. Secondly, that organisations generally do not want to change and will resist change in various and complex ways, regardless of what they may tell themselves (a Black or Brown body inhabiting a previously all white space is a fundamental change).
The final premise is related to both points above, it is that there is a level of communication, which is unseen and pre-verbal that neither employees of colour nor white employees or structures are adequately equipped (or willing) to unpack. It is likely, often, at this unconscious level of interaction, I would posit, that most race related conflicts between employees of colour and white institutions find their genesis and, that harmful social configurations and inequalities are reproduced.
The unhelpfulness of diversity rhetorics
Black and brown bodies have to navigate a tricky territory when working in white spaces. The associated demands are often trivialised partly because assimilation is the default expectation when it comes to whiteness and partly because white supremacy naturally needs to invisibilise the harm it inflicts upon people of colour to naturalise itself. There is thus a fundamental ambivalence at the core of the diversity agenda.
White institutions may go out of their way to recruit ‘BME candidates’ or to attract ‘difference’, however, once such (racial) difference enters the workplace, if it does at all, the expectation is usually that it must dress itself in whiteness. This rule is as powerfully enforced as it enforced tacitly. It is that very rule that dictates that we must remain silent when subjected to racism, that we must adopt organisational narratives, that we must overlook micro-aggressions and generally that we must keep white people comfortable. When there is no space for you to be, self-erasure becomes the modus operandi. The cognitive and affective efforts required are deemed irrelevant. Sometimes, part of your personal development… The ontological and social consequences rarely, if ever, considered.
There are of course ethical and legal requirements imposed on institutions in relation to equality and race relations, nonetheless, it is a sad fact that the impetus for diversity has created widespread tokenism. What is often sought is window dressing, something many workplaces themselves, having so internalised their own institutional discourses, may be oblivious to.
In this context any indication that an employee of colour may be refusing assimilation by for example, by speaking out or by seeking to address structural inequalities, will challenge the institution and within it fantasies of equality, of cohesion, symbolically, fantasies of symbiotic fusion. Forcing an institution to face its shadow, usually sets in motion destructive dynamics, triggers a denigrating white Gaze and/or let loose violence and aggression towards the now disowned object.
Control or surveillance measures may become initiated. Institutional marginalisation, ostracisation and/or exclusion may quickly follow. These defensive moves are attempts to distance the collective self from the bad object and maintain a sense of institutional/collective (non-racist) goodness. The splitting process may then give rise to a complex interplay of projections, introjections, transference and counter-transference mechanisms. On a more individual level, for example, for the employee of colour, specific individuals in the workplace may come to represent abusive figures from their past and/or reproduce known traumatic relational patterns. Someone who was bullied as a child, may come to relate to management or colleagues as they related to those who subjected them to abuse in their personal history.
The intergenerational context
A faceless, yet unfaceable ‘monster’ composed of an amalgamation of all oppressive experiences/oppressors may come into being in the workplace which may as a result become an intolerable space. Trauma responses such as terror, nightmares, helplessness and powerlessness, sweating and panic…can be elicited in the worker of colour who may struggle to understand the intensity of their reactions. Such responses are rendered more distressing as the intergenerational context becomes embroiled. As institutional patterns echo more distal historical events, historical trauma is likely to become activated.
This is what Alleyne refers to as the ‘internal oppressor’ which she defines as ‘memory imprints from the legacy of a painful historical past… marked, and re-opened with the occurrence of oppressive workplace practices’. In essence the ‘internal oppressor’ means that painful historical memories such as apartheid, colonialism, slavery gain cognitive salience increasing distress in the present and according to Alleyne, constellating into a post-traumatic ‘syndrome’.
Whilst most theorists and thinkers interested in historical trauma have focused on the intergenerational archetypes triggering distress in people of colour, the limited attention paid to the impact of the intergenerational context on white people’s psyches and functioning fails to address the intersubjective nature of trauma and more generally, of all unconscious processes.
There is no doubt in my mind that racial trauma is the response to racial persecution and that both relational processes exist co-dependently. Wether at conscious or unconscious level. The employee of colour who is experiencing suicidal feelings or thoughts for example, probably does so because the work group they found themselves in, wishes to disappear them, and that projection is identified with. The experience is co-created.
Intersubjectivity and the social unconscious
Foulkes is credited with introducing the concept of the Social Unconscious which he used to highlight the internalised social world that people are unaware of and, its properties. His thinking led to two main schools of thoughts in relation to the social unconscious. The first qualifies the social uncounscious as automatic memories and sees it as triggered in us outside of our awareness. The second view, arguably more radical, proposes that the social unconscious is part of our personal matrix, that it thus a structure of the psyche.
The social uncounscious offers a enlightening framework to make sense of racial conflicts in organisational settings particularly, the intersubjective dimension of intergenerational trauma. When people of colour re-experience the past and intergenerational wounds, it is not only because white people or white institutions come to represent figures or events from the past, I posit that it is because they embody them and to a large extend, become them.
In other words, we create, fix and respond to each other, intersubjectively according to collective and historical configurations we share as member of a particular social system. Our group matrices contain these historical patterns of relational configurations and communications which are more likely to become embodied and reproduced under certain circumstances. Namely, I propose when those whose body do not belong, dare challenging power structures.
The issues here are consequently not simply representational. In the same sense that Black and Brown bodies may experience terror and behave as though the historical traumatic agent was re-occurring, employers embody persecution and often sadism, by behaving as though they once again were colonial persecutory powers. Unconsciously. Sadistic tendencies/instincts can be awaken in those with power because they too may carry the historical blueprint of racial violence.
The exclusion, the harsh discipline, the ostracisation…are not simply symbols, they are real acts of violence which have such deep historical resonance, it seems absurd not deconstruct them in that light. It is no coincidence that when challenged, institutions’s default setting is to revert to reproducing violent archetypes evoking collective memories, images, myths and fears for which people of colour came to be known for and constructed as, under imperialism. ‘Management’ strategies align perfectly when taking historical lenses, though contemporarily, they often appear disproportionate, knee-jerked and irrational. The intensity of the reactions here too, betrays the depth of the phenomenon.
And so of course, it is no coincidence that those people who belong to groups who have been at the receiving end of white terror historically, respond in kind. It is this reciprocity, this interplay of uncounscious defenses (and offenses) which seem to me to be pointing in the direction of the social uncounscious, that highlights both shared integenerational material at polar ends of the same trauma.
Thank you for reading.
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