I am a therapist currently working towards a doctorate in Clinical Psychology in the UK. I have a passion for equality and social justice. I blog about psychology and mental health in relation to race, social justice and oppression.

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

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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

On Fear, Freedom and the Internal Master

On tasting freedom

I learnt to swim by throwing myself at the deep end. Quite literally. Pun absolutely intended. I was only a child. I had not learnt to swim unaided. But that day, I climbed my way up the highest point on the diving platform and jumped.

I was utterly petrified.

It was six to eight metres up from the pool. Quite a distance for shaky skinny black legs.

I absolutely did not have to do this. No one had asked me nor was I dared. But I took that plunge. Even at the age of eight or nine, I believed this was the only way I would not be controlled by my fears and learn to swim. I still remember every instant of the dive. The short-lived sense of free-falling then, the getting sucked deeper and deeper into a bottomless world of blue before I started emerging lighter than air, carried upwards by the determination that that day, was the day I would learn to swim.

And indeed I did swim. I swam up from the bottom of that pool of fears. Somehow, I wiggled myself all the way to the ladder and got out of the pool. I mundanely walked away from the water composed. Not hurried. Not even out of breath. Not elated. Just satisfied. I said nothing to anyone at the time.

I think about this story often. What it signifies. Its symbolism. How representative it is of my liberation praxis. My relationship with fear. How brave it may be seen as, by some. Or how reckless by others. I wonder what Sartre would have made of this jump, then I hear Freud. Then my mother. I think she would have found me courageous. Eventually. But only after a solid and lengthy telling off. That is probably why I had kept quiet.

Diving and writing 

Looking back on this anecdote as an adult, sometimes there is a sense of sadness I did not share it then. Mostly though, I feel quietly triumphant. And proud, the shy and scared child that was me, dared to dare the water. Daring to swim for the first time, while afraid and unaided is also daring to write. I have for long harboured insecurities about my writing. A bulk of these I have no doubt, are racialised.

English is not my first Language. However, I have not written seriously or academically in French for so long, it is starting to feel more homely to actually write in English. But that is not the whole story. If I am honest, as a child of African migrants, the command of my French has always been contemptuously scrutinised. I have learnt that as a child too. I have recognised the echoes of this ever so subtle mission civilisatrice in the extra attention in the enunciation, tone, grammar and syntax of Black children. We have surprised many with how well we speak our first and often our only language.

When the default position is that we cannot write or speak intelligibly, we forever are covertly evaluated to check that we can and, the policing of our words becomes kindness. It is for our own good. I know, I have the scars. Language policing is so often a relational way to reproduce power. Still… imagine being so deeply insecure about your words that you choose to expose your writing, for the world to read. Some may find it an odd manoeuvre. But it’s a familiar one. Feels like a dive.

The internal master 

I try not to force my writing on Race Reflections in particular directions, these days. I am deliberate in letting my words come to their own being. Sometimes this means bracketing any original idea about what I meant to write, writing the first words or sentences that come to mind and following them, not necessarily knowing where I am being taken. Words choose us as much as we choose them.

So here it is. When I decided to write this piece, I wanted it to be about assimilation. I aimed to write about people of colour policing other people of colour and the tyranny we often befall onto one another particularly onto those we deem to be falling out of line. Those trespassing the white line of our internal master.

My intention was to say a little bit about the many Black and Brown voices who over the years have attempted to convince me, always for my own good, of being silent and those voices who have shunned me when I have kindly refused, spoke out and took a stand anyway. Those who have tried to forcefully teach me how to be a less transgressive Black woman, a more compliant Black woman, a more likeable Black Woman, a less targetable Black woman, a more accommodating Black woman, a less radical Black woman. A Black woman who is less free.

Less free.

Less free.

Less free?

I wanted to think about those who have felt offended or angered, I did not choose to live my life the way they chose to live theirs and, have experienced my choice as a criticism of theirs. That critical voice they have been so hurt by, was never mine. It has always been theirs. The voice of their internal slave. But…the first thing that came to ‘the tip of my pen’ was the memory of that dive.

The fear. The blue. The plunge. The hope.

The fear. The fear. The courage.

Or the recklessness?

The satisfaction.

The freedom.

Choosing freedom

I usually write my articles in one go. But I put this piece down. I was supposed to go to bed. I struggled to articulate clearly how my learning to swim was connected to assimilation, and to internalised oppression. It was clearly in me somewhere. Otherwise, how could my mind produce such an association?

Then I picked up James Baldwin’s Dark Days which I was about to read for a few minutes, before I had hoped falling asleep. I read the first couple of paragraphs; and there it was again. The fall. The fear. The not knowing. The plunge. The yearning for freedom. The freedom. The freedom?

To be black is to confront, and to be forced to alter a condition forged in history …not one of us… knows how to walk when we get there, none of us know how to master a staircase. We are absolutely ignorant of the almost certainty of falling out of a five-story window’ (Baldwin, 1980)

Perhaps these words capture something of that connection. The fear. The blue. The plunge. The hope. That fear again. Not one of us indeed knows what the outcome of our liberatory or ontological choices will be. But history has taught us there is little protection to be enjoyed in silence, in toeing that white line, in smiling. History has taught us we are controlled through fear. Often white fear.

Fear of losing face. Fear of losing that good job. Fear of jeopardising our position in the organisation. Fear of not paying the bills. Fear of losing credibility and network and support and friends and allies and of becoming the target of violent structures. Fear of losing the crumbs we’ve been handed. The fear of freedom always hides behind some other fear. Everyday we must decide whether we are going to choose freedom. I do not know that we can ever not be afraid. But I know that to not become consumed by fear, we must confront it over and over and over again.

Each moment we decide to embrace fear, we make the choice of no longer being controlled. We choose fear over the subjugation of the slave inside.

That’s what freedom is to me. The everyday choice of taking a dive amidst the disapproving voice of our internal master.

I do not force this praxis on anyone.

Please stop forcing yours on me.

Thank you for reading

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All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of Race Reflectionss. 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.

How to avoid talking about race while talking about race

In one of my most read pieces on Race Reflections ‘why I no longer argue about racism’, I attempt to explain why debating racism and oppression with people racialised as White is almost always a fruitless and doomed task that reproduces whiteness and, which I am no longer willing to engage in. By sheer coincidence, Eddo-Lodge’s excellent book (why I’m no longer talking to White people about race) was published shortly after. In it, she explains that not engaging in conversations on race with White people, was self-preservation and, sets out the historical and structural context for these ‘difficult’ conversations. It has been fascinating to see the apparent rising interest in some of the dynamics at play, when racism is raised.

Perhaps, there is an increased appetite for understanding what happens when our racialised lived experience is openly shared. Still, we have a long way to go and so, I have continued to resist getting drawn into race debates and arguments. It is of course not always easy. Nonetheless, I have learnt to pass and say, ‘I do not feel the need to have this conversation with you’. There is a lot at stake when it comes to confronting the reality of racism. Everything in this system of white supremacy requires racialised power configurations to be invisibilised or denied and, this is achieved via various linguistic and discursive devices. So in this article, I wish to start to explore some of them and how they turn conversations on racism into non-conversations.

Opinions as discursive tools

Opinions are excellent non-conversation devices. I am focusing here on the everyday/lay person’s use of opinion such as in ‘in my opinion racism is not as bad as sexism’ (believe it or not, an opinion I recurrently encounter from White women) rather than, on the use of opinion as synonym for expert advice as in ‘you need to seek a second medical opinion’. Below are a few definitions of opinion I have quickly googled;

‘Opinions are a thought or belief about something or someone’.

‘Your opinion about something is what you think or believe about it’.

‘A view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge’.

Collectively the above definitions propose that opinions are simply statements or at best judgements about a particular phenomenon. Beliefs, feelings or views about something which may be unsubstantiated or false. Given that whiteness is founded on the fantasy of ultra-logic and reason, it is notable that opinions are constructed as being exempt from falsification and extracted from logico-deductive frameworks. 

Well researched and/or lived experienced informed arguments on racism recurrently hit ‘white opinions’. In fact, I rarely hear the expression, ‘I am entitled to my opinion’ or ‘well, in my opinion…’ until racism is the subject matter, then suddenly, opinions are uttered left, right and centre. And since ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion’ apparently, this functions as a defensive conversation-terminating strategy. It is not so much that we often state fallacies, untruths and, problematic statements —often statements of incorrect facts we attempt to pass as ‘opinion’— that bothers me, it is mainly the cultural notion that problematic statements (even if they are not factual) should be left without challenge and, that this constitutes freedom of expression.

It is a rather bizarre logic to use freedom of expression to essentially stop challenges to problematic or indefensible opinions and, force those expressing dissent or disagreement into silence.

There is an enduring White liberal notion which posits that every opinion on any social phenomenon (or on anything, for that matter) has validity and deserves equal ‘respect’. This is part of the problem. The reality is some opinions are informed and some are not. Some opinions are educated others are bigoted. Some opinions are violent in that they lead to social harm and increased violence outside the discursive realm. Discursive harm often precedes harm in other spheres of functionning. Thus, the myth that every opinion deserves to be heard and more dangerously, be heard and left unchecked, helps ensure not only that discriminatory or otherwise socially harmful beliefs are uttered unchallenged but, that our understanding of the phenomenon of racism remains confused, since our epistemic field is crowded by so many unhelpful and unsubstantiated opinions constructed as equally valid, competing for ‘our’ attention.

The epistemic shiftiness of whiteness

‘Both sort of evidence is used to demonstrate the non-existence of racism…When there is a particular piece of overt racism then it is dismissed as anomaly as a one off, an aberration, the fact that this is anecdotal and not statistical is used to render it meaningless, particularly because it is said this evidence being a one-off is not part of a pattern and therefore says nothing apart from itself. On the other hand, when statistical evidence is marshalled to demonstrate that an institution is favouring group A or group B, then anecdotal evidence is used to undermine the statistics…It is part of the complexity of racism that things have different meaning depending on which side of the fence they occur’  Dalal Farhad (2002)

The passage by Farhad above highlights how statistical evidence and anecdotal evidence will each be positioned to deny the reality of racism depending of what argument is advanced, at a particular point in time. I have highlighted a similar process when White individuals focus on their subjective experiences in relation to power and privilege. This is important. One of the main reasons of course White people want to debate racism is to argue that there is no such thing as white privilege. That they have not benefitted from being White in a white supremacist society. They simply do not feel structurally advantaged.

This subjectivist position is used to refute the existence of white supremacy as a system irrespective of structural reality and social inequality or indeed any objective evidence one might advance. Since I do not feel the existence of white privilege, it cannot be real. 

However, watch what happens when people of colour or marginalised individuals attempt to speak of their lived or subjective reality e.g. ‘I experience you as oppressive’ or, ‘I feel discriminated against’, an epistemic shift occurs, objectivity is now preferred and, instrumental rationality is employed to delegitimise and invalidate their subjective experience. Questions such as ‘do you have any evidence?’ may be asked. ‘Do you have any evidence’…Think about it. You have got to laugh.

No, seriously. You really have to laugh.

This is what I refer to as the epistemic shiftiness of whiteness. When one’s epistemic position shifts constantly depending on where threats to one’s ‘truth’ lie. Truth being the non-existence of racism, particularly racism ‘in here’ and, the invisibilisation of racial oppression. You could say the ultimate function of such epistemic practices is the protection of white ignorance and with that, its concomitant oppressive systems. Fundamentally, this epistemic shiftiness means nothing is set. Beliefs, ethics, politics, principles…everything can be shifted to support whiteness. Every cause is arguable…every argument can be made, every epistemic position can be occupied, if this is needed to support the invisibilisation of racism.

Debating as violence

There are various forms of violence. And, the above linguistic and discursive devices are employed to ensure non-conversations look like conversations, while violence is being enacted. I’m not arguing here that those tools are uniquely used to protect and serve white supremacy, however when they are used for that purpose wether intentionally or unintentionally, they do harm.  Firstly, they (to the untrained eye) help maintain racial tropes and stereotypes. Guess who appears irrational and intellectually inferior? I can’t tell you the number of times my intelligence has been questioned or that I have been otherwise insulted for refusing to get sucked into these sadistic power games and, be baited into toxic relational configurations. Another way to control and achieve silence. 

In our society the person who refuses to engage is usually seen as the ‘weaker’ party, when invited to ‘debate’. We are generally socialised to be suspicious of the absent and, draw negative inferences, particularly when the absent is a person of colour, but not educated on the linguistic tools power uses to sustain itself through everyday practices. Too few of us can recognise that often enough, it simply is not in the interest of the person colour to engage. Certainly not to engage recurrently. There is a cost. These repeated ‘debates’ can take their toll on our psychological and physical health, they place significant demands on our emotional resources.

Resources we would in all honesty be better off investing in our liberation rather than in convincing White folks of the existence of racial oppression. There is something utterly dehumanising and mad making in seeking to prove one’s reality and experience to those who benefit from and, have vested interests in not seing the same. Not only does it render people of colour vulnerable to racial violence and trauma through compulsive acts of denial and defensive retaliation, it reproduces the power configurations of whiteness by positioning White people as truths holders and arbitrators of reality. In other words, it reproduces epistemic inequality and violence. 

Non-engagement as resistance

A Black woman claiming expertise, even on her lived reality is an act of resistance. A Black woman saying actually you will not use my body and my mind as sites for the reproduction of whiteness and, the relational space that exists between us to perform white superiority and pseudo-rationality, is still socially transgressive. So transgressive that in fact, these acts of non-engagement can easily lead to violence and to racial abuse, of their own right. Fascinating, isn’t it? That racial violence and racism be used to demonstrate non-racial violence and the nonexistence of racism.

Actually, predictable and tragic. But such is the logic of whiteness. Try following a few Black women scholars on social media if you want to witness the toxicity and thickness of white denial. Certainly I get my fair share of trolling and abuse. But white ignorance is no accident. It is by structural design. Debate require access to the necessary conceptual and linguistic tools for all parties. And conversations presume equality. Openness. Willingness to listen and most importantly, a willingness to change. I seriously doubt these conditions are met when it comes to talking about racism. Until then, our exchanges will continue to be a spectacle of the enactment of white violence and denialism and, remain non-conversations. 

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.

Brexit, the body & the politics of splitting

‘We, as humans, are simultaneously social beings and biological organisms, the notion of ‘‘embodiment’’ advances three critical claims: (1) bodies tell stories about—and cannot be studied divorced from—the conditions of our existence; (2) bodies tell stories that often—but not always—match people’s stated accounts; and (3) bodies tell stories that people cannot or will not tell, either because they are unable, forbidden, or choose not to tell. Just as the proverbial ‘‘dead man’s bones’’’ (Kruger, 2005, p.350)

Brexit as a White man

When I think of Brexit, I think of a White man.

The day after the referendum, I woke up not quite knowing what to think or do. Vaguely worried about the future but in truth, still in a state of disbelief. Perhaps even of daze. But I had ran out of milk. So, I headed to my local Tesco, perhaps too this was an attempt at burying myself in the mundanity of everyday life, amidst the xenophobic and racist triumph that was Brexit. Once there, I got the milk and waited at the self-checkout. Someone was checking their items out. I positioned myself right behind them and, a small queue rapidly formed behind me.

Once my turn came, I took one step or two towards the machine. A White man jumped in front of me. He placed his items on the holding area and proceeded to check out. Uncharacteristically, I said nothing and I watched him in silence. I felt something violent had been done to me. The sense of stupefaction and ‘out-of-placeness’ amplified. I turned and looked around for a friendly face to connect with. Everyone in the store was White, averting my gaze and eye contact. Without a word or glance at me, the White man left. I had been disappeared. Twice. First by the White shopper, then by the White crowd.

What better representation of Brexit than this White man?

Both as a messenger of the future but also as the personification of a dormant beast awaken. This was the first time in well over 15 years in the U.K. that, I had ever experienced anything like it. I immediately linked this incident to the referendum and became even more anxious about what was to come. Of course, though I did not know it at the time, hate crimes took a hike immediately post-referendum. And, I would find myself increasingly invisibilised in queues.

Bodies, space and racism

I have always been fascinated by how bodies occupy space. How we move, how much or how little space we take. The distance and/or proximity between bodies, the relationship between our bodies and particular locations, the merging of bodily movements with socio-political and historical movements. There are various ways to assert and communicate dominance and superiority. And, the ways bodies move through space often become reflective of political discourses, social struggles and psycho-historical configurations. They are good indicators of power relations. Indeed, our embodied stories are meaningless if divorced from the ‘conditions of our existence’.

Body, space and subjectivities are intrinsically connected. It is through space that bodies express themselves, that therefore they come to be. Without space there is no subjectivity and, communication cannot exist either. This interconnection means of course each ‘entity’ has much to offer us in terms of understanding the others. Racism will thus become manifest and experienced through bodies and through space; both of which will tell us something of our subjective/psychological and, socio-political worlds.

I have observed various forms of racial bodily struggles. I have no doubt that anyone who pays attention has. Public transports are rich sites for such enactments. When a Black body and a White body bump into one another, the White body will usually stand firm on the spot; expecting to be navigated around. I have observed that when White bodies exit a train carriage and face a crowd of passengers who anxious to board, obstruct the exit door, so often they will move to push the Black or Brown bodies out of the way, if they are amongst those waiting to board.

Once, in a busy central London bus, full of White bodies with no seat available, an older White woman got on and went straight to a Black woman to ask for her to get up. The Black body she displaced was disabled. This only became apparent when she got up and struggled to stand with a walking stick. A Black woman was asked to make space for a White woman amidst the sea of White bodies. The entitlement to space also reflects the entitlement to Black bodies, particularly to Black women’s bodies. As can be observed through overfamiliarity or through physical touch without consent.

I doubt very many people of colour will be unfamiliar with the body dynamics described above and/or, would not have observed or experienced them. If you are White though, and doubt that racism manifests insidiously through bodily gestures and movements, I suggest you start paying closer attention to your body. The data is here for all those who care to pay attention. From the spreading of legs, to subtly elbowing us out of proximity, to the disregarding of physical boundaries and the invisibilisation of our bodies. It is all there for those prepared to observe. Having little or no awareness of how whiteness operates in space, of how White bodies may infringe on the space, bodies or boundaries of others (something I have previously referred to as micro-colonialism), is most likely indicative of this body-mind split.

Splitting and racial violence

No understanding of racism can ever be complete without an examination of racism’s bodily, affective, pre and para-verbal manifestations. Here, the Eurocentric split between mind and body and its associated epistemic disowning of the body, is a massive stumbling block. Despite phenomenologists like Merleau-Ponty and feminist epistemologists who have challenged the notion that bodily conduct and psychological conduct are separable; the mind–body dualism, or mind–body split which proposes that psychological phenomena are, non-physical, or that the mind and body are distinct, remains strong; reducing our apprehension of the embodiment of racism and indeed the embodiment of all socio-historical forces.

This splitting goes much further though than mind and body. It is also present in the separation of bodies from social structures, and the extraction of the past from the present. Splitting as a result does more than just sustain white ignorance. It is a vehicle for whiteness thus white violence. Once you learn to split as your primary defense when navigating the world, it becomes almost automatic not only to disconnect from your own body, your embodied experiences but also from that of others, including the pain and violence you inflict upon them. The centrality of splitting in the reproduction of racial violence cannot be overstated. Whiteness survived all historical atrocities it produced by splitting.

It is splitting that allowed White people to hang Black bodies on trees and take selfies or have picnics on lynching sites. It is splitting that enabled slave masters to cherish Black children ‘as their own’, then inflict the most horrific sexual violence and torture upon them for the most minor of ‘infractions’, seconds later. It is splitting again that meant colonialists could hold onto the bible in one hand and, a riffle in the other; say a prayer then go on mass murder sprees. And it is splitting that makes it difficult for White bodies to be aware of themselves in space.

But our bodies tell stories that we cannot or will not tell.

Understanding our body goes a long way in helping us understand the world and the contents of our thoughts. Even those thoughts we dare not think ‘aloud’ or say to ourselves. Similarly, bodily and affective experience help us understand the racism that is not only enacted through the occupation of space but also at discursive and symbolic levels, arguably evidencing the existence of an embodied racial (sub) consciousness or bodily memory which is inseparable from our social and historical consciousness. I guess there is a case to argue then that helping White people connect and reclaim their body may be an important step in reducing splitting and thus racial violence. Particularly more insidious and subtle bodily manifestations of racism.

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Neuroses of whiteness, white envy and racial violence

‘Don’t you understand that the people who do those things, who practise racism are bereft that there is something distorted about the psyche? It’s a huge waste and it’s a corruption and a distortion. It’s like it’s a profound neurosis that nobody examines for what it is’ Toni Morrison

Neuroses of blackness

‘What does the Black man want?’ In White skin, Black masks , Fanon (1952) asks, in the same way Freud had wondered earlier ‘What does a woman want?’ (Hook, 2004).

For Freud women want to be men. For Fanon, Black men (and Black people more generally) want to be white. The desire for whiteness may for example, manifest in the longing for White sexual partners or, in the mimicking of white people (e.g. assimilation or skin depigmentation). Nonetheless, rather than being the manifestation of some latent intrapsychic mechanism, as was originally postulated in ‘penis envy’, for Fanon, the wish for whiteness is the consequence of power and material inequality, of the on-going cultural and historical trauma and, its resulting alienation in Black people i.e. the using of inferiorasing racist and colonial myths as the basis for self-relating. (The same has of course been argued about penis envy, mostly post-Freud).

It is this wish for whiteness in Black groups (extended to the colonised more generally) that Fanon refers to as the neurosis of blackness. In classic psychoanalytic theory neuroses usually refer to the intense anxiety produced by repressed material that thus cannot express itself directly or consciously. Neuroses of blackness though (contrary to the prevailing Freudian formulation of neuroses at the time) are rooted in the historical and socio-political. They are still however believed to be at least partly, underscored by envy as the oppressed/colonised is theorised to want to be in the position of the oppressor, indeed, to be the oppressor. According to Fanon (1952), the wish to be white is essentially the wish to be seen, the wish to be human and, the wish to self-determine.

In essence, it is power and freedom that the colonised/oppressed envy, having come to believe that only by becoming white, will these ontological aspirations materialise.

Much has been written about the internalisation of racism, of whiteness, of the social order and, its psychological and socio-structural impact on oppressed groups. Comparatively, little has been said about the psychological worlds of white people and the sequalaes of racial oppression, for them and on them. I continue to find this absence troubling. While some may argue that by focusing on Black people’s psyche, we stand a better chance at building their/our psychological or psychic resilience and, at understanding racial oppression, my  view is that such an unbalanced attention continues to place Black people under the (colonial) white gaze at best, and at worse, actively locates the (racial) disturbance in them, arguably reproducing dynamics and discourses of scapegoating, Othering and dysfunction.

White envy

‘White folks are really jealous, and that shit could get a Black man killed’ (Davis, 2017).

A decade or so ago, a ‘mixed’ (cishet) couple was murdered in rural France. The husband was Black. He was a Doctor. He was also one of the few Doctors practising in their village and simply, one of a few Black people. His wife was white. They had, I think, two kids. Everyone was killed. When the killer, a white man was caught, he explained fairly calmly that he simply could not stand seeing the family doing so well and…that looking at the kids ‘always looking nice & well dressed’ was causing him distress.

When this tragic event occurred, I was already living in England, the affair was big news in France. I remember discussing it with my sister who was also living in rural France, whose family was similarly the only Black family around and, who was doing equally well materially. I have occasionally revisited this story as I grappled with understanding envy in racism. I think it struck a chord and had a chilling effect partly because it contained the essence of a dynamic; albeit to its extreme, we recognised and have experienced at more micro and everyday levels.

Klein defines envy as “the angry feeling that another person possesses and enjoys something desirable – the envious impulse being to take it away or to spoil it” (Klein 1984, 176).

Envy is not uniquely the domain of the colonised or the oppressed. Envious racial feelings experienced by white people vis á vis Black people, exist and are central to racism. I would argue, that the (unconscious) envy oppressor groups feel towards the people they oppress is fundamentally or qualitatively different from what has come to be described as envy in the colonised/oppressed. In fact I question the idea that the feelings the colonised experience towards colonialists, are best understood by characterising them as envy. Although it may be tempting to posit that both parties are envious of the other, and therefore set-up an equivalency; there isn’t one, for reasons I will try to explain below.

To be envious is firstly to feel an absence of something in oneself. It is secondly to feel afflicted and/or angry by the existence of that actual or fantasised something in someone else. Thirdly, it is to experience a drive or impulse to destroy that something or that someone possessing that something. In other words, it is feeling deeply disturbed that another entity possesses something one desires for oneself, but one that cannot be obtained. Thus envy, at least analytically is more than wanting for oneself a something we identify in others. It is the impulse to obtain it (at all cost) and failing this, to destroy it in the other. One may say it is to seek retribution for that sense of lacking.

To me, the murderous wish to kill an ex-partner who has moved on under the twisted yet common patriarchal thinking ‘if I can’t have you, no one will’ best illustrates the crux of envy. As does the example given above. Therefore, I do not believe this drive to destroy the goodness in others one so desires for oneself, best conceptualises racially oppressed groups’ relationship with white people or whiteness. Historically and contemporeanously, this cannot be sustained. Not according to a Kleinian definition of envy. This is thus a point upon which I depart from Fanon’s scholarship.

There is an important although subtle distinction between envy and jealousy. If I experience jealousy, I experience a fear of loss or a sense of deprivation which I cannot tolerate, I therefore seek to possess the object triggering the jealous feelings. If one experiences envy on the other hand, there is a sense of being bereft rather than deprived. I am not sure one can obtain what is envied or at least that one thinks one can obtain it, not without doing harm. One therefore makes no move to possess but, to spoil. To destroy. To kill whatever or whomever contains the object of one’s envy. In doing so, one seeks to rid themselves of any trace of that feeling of lacking or absence and, the sense of inadequacy it produces.

This is an important distinction when it comes to racial and colonial dynamics. It is the difference between possession and annihilation.

Neuroses of whiteness

To posit that white people and by extension people with more power can be envious of those they oppress/those with less power may seem counter-intuitive. It is also counter-cultural for, it challenges taken for granted notions of white superiority. In addition, it shifts the location of disturbance onto white bodies by constructing them as lacking or at least as experiencing themselves, at some level, as lacking. This challenges whiteness.

White envy is underscored by the basic psychological defence of projection upon which colonial constructions of the racial Other and of blackness rely. Projection entails splitting off unwanted and intolerable aspects of oneself and, inputting them onto others. Here, the racial Other or the Black body. Projection is therefore a way of sanitising the self by ridding it of those aspects that clash with it’s sense of goodness. ( For those less familiar with this defense mechanism, it may be helpful for them to think about an unfaithful party in a relationship becoming preoccupied with their partner’s ‘inevitable’ infidelity).

In relation to race dynamics and at group level, in a society where ‘rationality’ and reason as the only or superior ways to know and access truth, are overvalued, the emotional and more embodied self will naturally be difficult to tolerate, so… the Black body will serve as a convenient repository of irrationality and bodily impulses. Similarly, if aggression and sexual impulses clash with white (Puritan-Christian) constructions of innocence, purity and bodily mastery then of course, Black and colonised groups will become the carriers of sexual depravity, aggression and impulsivity in the white imagination. White ego structures require these constructions to maintain their consistency and equilibrium.

For Fanon too, Black bodies act as repositories of white groups’ unacceptable desires, drives and wishes, particularly their disowned or repressed sexual urges. According to him, the fear of the constructed unbounded sexual power of Black bodies lead to neuroses in the white man which are rooted in a fear of sexual inadequacy/impotency.

This envy Fanon posits, lays at the centre of colonial relations. In other words, the white man despite claims and behaviours to the contrary, is envious of the Black man’s fantasised ‘primitivism’ and its associated constructed sexual potency. According to Fanon, this envy breeds racial paranoia. Exaggerations and deformations of the Other (and particularly here of his alleged monstrous sexuality) not only lead to sexual anxieties but, to fears of persecution in white groups (e.g. fantasised risks of rape and other sexual violence) which perpetually legitimise the need for violence against Black men (Hook, 2004).

Feeling the absence of what is projected

Using Klein’s conceptualisation of envy, I would propose an alternative but not so distant formulation to that of Fanon. Having so discarded aspects of itself it could not tolerate via projection, the white ego comes to experience the lack and, the absence of these parts; which do indeed belong to it. At this juncture, a psychic conflict or dilemma arise.  White people cannot tolerate or integrate those parts…Thus they cannot allow themselves to ‘take’ or re-claim them yet, simultaneously, long for them. What to do? Destroy them and/or kill the object of envy.

Contrary to White peoples’ ego structure and self-esteem which are to a large extent dependent on colonial constructions and thus, the disowning of part of themselves, Black people have not located at least not at collective or group level, unwanted parts of who they/we are onto white people. I do not believe that they/we are threatened ontologically by the dismantling or reclaiming of colonial projections. If anything such dismantling would free them/us. This is why I do not believe there is really bi-directionality or equivalency in racial envy and why I do not speak of racial envy but of white envy.

The key difference here I think, is the drive to be the white Other vs the drive to annihilate the Black Other, because being the Black other would entail reclaiming parts of the self that simply remain too intolerable. In other words, when it comes to formulating colonised-colonisers relational configurations, it may be helpful to remember the distinction between jealousy and envy as proposed above. The colonised’ s yearning is primarily rooted in the material and unequal social arrangements, it is a yearning for power. On the other hand one may argue, the colonialist’s yearning is primarily rooted in a self-inflicted intrapsychic dispossession and, the fear of themselves.

Concluding thoughts

Inversing racial configurations in the original tragedy recounted, it may be easier to imagine that the motive for such a hateful crime had the murderer been Black, (and the victims a white family) would well have been robbery or theft. It seems less likely that simply seeing two white children dressed well would have been material in triggering a murderous envious rage, in the absence of material interest. There are other factors of course and other ways to conceptualise white envy. One may think about it more discursively and consider that social resources’ allocation is the raison d’etre of whiteness and neo/colonialism so that white entitlement is a function the racial hierarchisation/stratification. In that sense, one may see the contemporaneous rise in racial hatred, in neo-nazism and the normalisation of racist and xenophobic discourses (under placating expressions such as ‘economic anxiety’) as simply a cover story for white envy. And, as white groups feel collectively challenged in their sense of superiority and entitlement, they are attempting to reclaim power through more socially sanctioned ways of saying, how dare you be above me? My comfort and success should always come first. I am entitled to what you have. And, if I cannot take it from you, I will destroy you. Or at least spoil it for you…

Let’s end on a few important questions raised by Morrison (1993):

‘What are you without racism ? Are you any good? Are you still strong? Are you still smart? Do you still like yourself? If you can only be tall when someone is on their knees, you have a serious problem’

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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 study the link between 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).

Nowadays, the group matrix is though os of 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).


Whiteness as a system encompasses the production and reproduction of the dominance, and privilege of people racialised as white (Green et al, 2007) and is believed to be the enduring cause for race based inequality, injustice and power differentials. It is also the basis for specific patterns of social relations (Neely and Samura; 2011). Whiteness as a system of dominance is so normalised it has become woven into the fabric of societies.

Whiteness is the assumption and the default. It is the standard against which all other cultures, groups, and individuals are measured (Dyer, 1997). Whiteness operates in state of unconsciousness, as such is it not consciously known to people with racial privilege who do not as a result understand their racialised self, or how whiteness is experienced by non-white groups.

Yet, at times of threat, attempts to reassert the dominance of whiteness can be observed and more silent (and denied) configurations, become manifest. The 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.

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 in relation to her parents demonstrates how whiteness can come to invade our internal worlds. Sarah’s distress and sense of alienation manifested in a troubled relationship with her parents (we might say analytically, that Sarah had located a disturbance in her parents).  Fanon (1970) referred to this, 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).

The drive to assimilate led Sarah to a lifelong quest to be accepted by white people and to her feeling alienated both from herself and from her culture of origin, desirable aspects of herself were projected onto the white British culture/norms (the social/dominant group) and the 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.

The sense of alienation Sarah felt was a manifestation of the sense of alienation she felt towards her non-white self. This came about because Sarah had internalised social discourses/configurations located in the foundation matrix. 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.


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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Reflections on being a black client & black therapist: PART 1 Mind the Gap

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 inequality 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 continues to help 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. Certainly little that feeds into everyday therapy practise. 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. Or resistant. 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 pathological. I clearly cannot face my anger at her. I should be angry at her, this is what good therapy clients do. Those with insight. 

Showing love and compassion to my mother for the suffering 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 many of these same structures. I cannot possibly know. And so, it is because I cannot face some failings in her, obviously. Immaturity. 

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 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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Formulating racial conflicts at work: PART 1, adapting Malan’s triangles


As human beings we are constantly engaged in sense making. We make hypotheses about the world, others and ourselves. We revise them. We seek to connect the… dots. Partly, this helps us achieve a sense of mastery in the world. Psychological formulations follow these same principles. They essentially aim to derive meaning from a client’s material in a way that allows a shared understanding, usually of a situation that might have led someone to experiencing psychological distress.

Formulating includes reflecting on what might have brought a situation, problem or crisis into being and, what may keep it going. At their most fundamental, formulations are therefore explanatory narratives about the stuckness we may come to experience, at certain moments in our lives. There are various types of formulations dependent on theoretical models and orientations. The present is concerned with a psychodynamic formulation (of racial conflicts in the workplace) and the dangers of exclusively applying individualistic lenses to structural issues. The following vignette will be used as illustration.


The vignette below is a composite of various people I have worked with rather than a specific individual. 

Sara, is a Black British woman (of Caribbean  heritage) in her early thirties who works as a manager in the civil service. Sara had been experiencing severe anxiety, debilitating shame and difficulties working with her manager, a white man towards whom she seemed to have developed a ‘phobic’ response/extreme fear. Sara was frequently finding herself advocating for less senior employees of colour facing discrimination or other racial slights. This added much tension in her relationship with management. She essentially became the voice of racism, thus the ‘troublemaker’, was treated with hostility and regularly covertly disrespected. Sara was finding the workplace increasingly oppressive and presented as tearful, hopeless and overwhelmed in the assessment. Exploring the transferential relationship between Sara, and her manager and the workplace as a structure; formed a significant part of the intervention. Of particular note, Sara had a history of bullying, including racial harassment in her childhood, and had been the carer for her widowed father, who spent most of her life in and out of severe depression.

Malan’s two triangles formulation

Malan finalMalan (1995) posited a ‘universal principle of psychodynamic psychotherapy’ which he illustrated using two triangles to organise defensive and relationships patterns: the triangle of conflict and the triangle of person. This schema allows ideas and concepts derived from a client’s material to be organised in a formulation. The triangle of conflict proposes that the expression of feelings (F) is kept at bay by various defences (D) and anxieties (A). The triangle of person considers interpersonal factors and, aims to represent how conflicted relational patterns in the client’s past relationships (P) are enacted within current relationships (C) and, transferred onto a therapist (T).

Paying close attention to their response to the client (countertransference) is central to the triangle of persons. This is posited to provide an important source of data about the client’s mental state and difficulties e.g. the way the client may be experienced by others or how they may more generally function relationally. Countertransference though, is just one source of hypothetical information which may or may not be supported. And, because countertransference taps onto the therapist’s own unconscious conflicts, it is vital that the therapist attempts to find within the client’s material and/or other evidence, corroboration for their reactions.

Sara’s formulation using Malan’s (1995) two triangles.

Disclaimer: some may find this initial formulation, written to examplify how individualistic approaches to distress have the potential to victim blame, pathologise and re-traumatise; difficult to read. 

Using the above vignette, the triangle of conflict may formulate that Sara becomes overinvolved in (racial) conflicts and projects onto the white manager or workplace abusive feelings (D) to block herself from attending to her sense of badness, the (hidden) feeling (F) and; to manage feelings of worthlessness and shame (A). The triangle of persons on the other hand, should Sara trigger feelings of safeness in the therapist (T), could propose that she saw the therapist as a mother figure to protect/save or impress. Perhaps, others in Sara’s current relationships (C) may have similarly been protected (such as the employees of colour in the workplace) or feared (such as the white manager) and; this splitting pattern may potentially reflect unresolved grief over the loss of her mother (which she could not protect), the caring role towards her father she fulfilled most of her life and, the terror she experienced towards the perpetrators of her racial abuse as a child (P).

This basic formulation is naturally one of a number of possible options and, would only hold true so long as it made sense and was helpful to Sara. As demonstrated, the formulation entailed attempting to triangulate relational data in order to draw a meta-theory (of relationships and ego functioning) for the client. Thus, at the core of Malan’s formulation is 1) the therapist’s reactions (countertransference) to Sara, 2) the mechanisms/defenses which may be employed by Sara to avoid pain, 3) Sara’s relational history.

A proposed reformulation: Malan’s adapted triangles

The above conceptualisation would be of limited use in organisational settings indeed, one may argue it may be weaponised to further position Sara as the problem, locate the disturbance in her and/or absolve the workplace from considering its contributions to the conflictual situation.  Doing so reproduce racial tropes and unequal social configurations. This is very problematic. Whilst it is important to consider the employee’s relational history and defenses as this will undoubtedly influence the nature and outcome of any conflict, it is equally crucial, if not more so; given power differentials and thus the unequal capacity to harm and do violence, to consider the organisation’s defense patterns.

An organisational triangle of conflict and of person

adapted finalIn this reformulation, which makes proposed adaptations to the classic two triangles, the organisation’s functioning is centred, rather than Sara’s. One may consider hostility and acts of shaming as organisational defences (D) enacted towards the issues Sara wishes to bring, as attempts by the organisation at keeping race and racism unspoken or silent. This may be hypothesised to be a means by the organisation of managing its anxiety around the legitimacy of Sara’s concerns or in other words, that it may well be racist (A) and; that the underlying impulses are shame and, an overwhelming fear that racism cannot be contained and/or that it may annihilate the organisational structure (hidden) feeling (F). The organisational triangle of conflict would focus on the employee’s response to the Organisation (O) (which thus replaces the T of Malan’s model) and, would of course relate to the organisational defenses. We may propose that Sara’s experiences of shame and distress in the workplace are appropriate responses to real acts of exclusion and marginalisation enacted towards her in her current relationships at work (C).

And finally, posit that current organisational acts are particularly injurious to Sara due to her past, including her history of bullying and racism, the death of her mother (P) and thus, her likely vulnerability to loss and rejection. In other words, we may formulate that Sara is being re-traumatised within an organisational context that has put up violent defenses to protect itself structurally and thus psychically, from its fear of racism.

Concluding thoughts

Conflicts are co-created; often intersubjectivity and unconsciously. They serve multiple needs and functions for organisations, teams and individuals and indeed for the macro society at large. This is true of racial conflicts as well. Sara may well have a propensity or valency to be victimised due to her early victimisation and/or for standing for race equality, a role that socially invites violence within white supremacist structures. We may also even interpret that Sara’s activism in the workplace amount to a sublimation of the impulses created by her unmet needs as a bullied and bereaved child and/or that by seeking justice for others, Sara may vicariously be attempting to obtain justice for herself. And to a large extent; none of this matters. These are simply hypothetical interpretations which cannot really be put to test. We will never know, for sure.

What we do know though, is where we choose to lay our attention as psychologists and therapists, can have significant implications and consequences for individuals particularly, for those with less social power and, for the social order. Our focus may well mean the difference between a marginalised employee unfairly losing their job, being re-traumatised (thus a reproduction of social inequality) or an organisation shifting its gaze onto itself. Consequently, while the adapted model by no means holds more (or less) truth than the initial formulation, it provides a level of analysis which is all too often absent from the conversations people of colour have in therapy and at work. Formulations do not seek to impose particular meanings or truths onto experiences, but do have the potential to amplify more marginalised and silenced truths and thefore shift the balance of power. The present is an invitation to reformulate; wherever we can. And of course, this too is political.

I welcome feedback and alternative formulations.

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