Political Issues and Debates

Broader conceptual or epistemological issues that have have political implications.

Internalised racism & the colour of power

‘It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity’

Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903, p.3)

With the appointment of three brown people to senior ministerial posts in the UK discussions and divisions over the significance of their presence abound. Some people of colour have shown fierce political and ideological support for the trio and for the new Prime Minister. A prime minister who has repeatedly made racist comments. There are those who see an important step forward in these appointments, stressing the symbolism of people of colour being invited to join the highest echelons of arguably the highest structure of power in society, regardless of their actual policies. Others speak of tokenism and window dressing; covert attempts at mitigating accusations of racism. Still, more stress the lurking dangers of having brown faces dressed in the colour of power, deliver oppressive policies which will disproportionately adversely impact brown and black communities.

I am going to reserve my position for the time being and instead invite you to look into the murky waters of internalised racism. The topic of internalised racism has a long history within black scholarship and black consciousness movements. A history of over one hundred years, to be precise. Its earliest conceptualisation is attributed to Dubois and his double-consciousness, which has been interpreted to (partly) signify the introjection of the devaluating gaze of society leading to black people looking at themselves through the racist eyes of white people and thus, internalising self-contempt, disgust or hate. Few are the black (and decolonial) philosophers who have not interrogated the phenomenon, and this is the case across continents. That alone should give us pause for thought.

Defining and recognising internalised racism

There are a multitude of definitions of internalised racism each emphasising different aspects but here, I will take it to mean;

‘the individual inculcation of the racist stereotypes, values, images, and ideologies perpetuated by the white dominant society about one’s racial group, leading to feelings of self-doubt, disgust, and disrespect for one’s race and/or oneself’ (Pyke, 2010, p.553)

In everyday terms internalised racism can take various forms. It can look like your dark skinned child receiving less hugs and affection than the darker one, in your own family. It can look like black men joining in online harassment campaigns against black women and bestialising them with the loudest voices. Sometimes it looks like exclusively dating ‘outside one’s race’ or forever seeking white sexual partners. Other times it looks like being treated more punitively by people who look like you and who are in position of authority. Many a times it looks like ‘diaspora wars’ and like anti-blackness within non-black communities of colour and their constant need to step on black heads as an attempt to reach a higher rung on the ladder of humanity, by claiming proximity to whiteness.

Sometimes it looks like black children bullying other black children because they look ‘too African’. Or they sound too African. Or their name is too African. At times it looks like the distance we create between us and our heritage or (coughs) that of our parents or between us and those Other migrants who are so unlike us. The less civilised ones. Those ‘fresh off the boat’. Sometimes it is about feeling honoured to manage racist immigration policies and to align with far right ideology to make sure those still on boats remain on boats or, die in the Mediterranean. Sometimes it looks like the pressure to work three or four times harder or three or four times harsher…and, sometimes it looks like refusing to condemn or name racism or like imposing respectability.

The subject of internalised racism can be difficult to broach and/or understand. There is a taboo and silence that often surrounds it too within communities of colour. I have found it to be so within both personal and professional spheres. This is partly because internalised racism is often taken to reflect some inherent pathology located in the oppressed or colonised’s mind, partly because it evokes complicity and shame in people of colour. There seems to be a political move to delegitimise its exploration with those black or brown bodies highlighting its influence often accused of racism or demagoguery. This is not incidental, naming it is indeed a direct challenge to white ignorance and to the social order. 

Whiteness and the social order

But the reality is this; there are those who will forever seek to assimilate into white supremacy hoping it will offer them protection and/or access to structures of power. In fact I have argued this impulse; which does not exist in a vacuum, is present in us all. I have tried to be open in relation to my own liberation journey in some of my writing on Race Reflections. I have started to explore my experience of motherhood and how it has been impacted upon by internalised social discourses and racialised stereotypes. I have attempted to formulate the phenomenon and think about it scholarly, mainly analytically.

In my piece on freedom, I offered a formulation of colonial configurations and the resulting conflicts they can give rise to between and within people of colour. In the follow up article, I used object relations theory as a framework to elaborate on those ideas and, proposed that the internal worlds of people of colour can become the site for Master-slave conflicts related to our wish to assimilate and, our opposing liberatory impulses. I hope to have laid the foundation for some reflections on internalised whiteness which may offer a relevant new set of lenses to reflect on current political configurations and their purported gains for people of colour.

This has now become a cliché but it is still worth repeating, the concept of race, has no sound biological basis, yet as a social fact it continues to have profound implications, for life course, opportunities, identity, and social relations. White racism, as a reminder, is perpetuated by whiteness; a ‘powerful fiction’ some have called it, which is enforced by the use of power and violence. Whiteness determines the allocation of privileges, protection and resources with white groups and those adjacent to them placed first in line receive to them and let’s face it, others set never to taste them.

Whiteness and the psychosocial order

A structural focus when talking about racism in necessary to emphasise the harm of whiteness at macro levels of society. They rest on the assumption of white superiority and result in racial inequality and injustice. Nonetheless, racism harms people of colour (and white people…but that’s not our focus here) in multiple and intersecting ways. The reproduction of whiteness is achieved through, socio-cultural, economic but also psychological and psychic mechanisms that thus impose whiteness overtly and covertly on people of colour, normalising and naturalising it and, rendering it legitimate and virtuous.

There is a tendency to see the structural and the psychological as distinct and separate. This binary conceptualisation is illusory. No psychological world can exist independently of social structures and vice versa. Both domains are co-constitutive and mutually reinforcing. Indeed, many have argued that there is only one single field of human communication and interaction. As such, none of us can escape internalising social structures and social forces including; racial discourses, prejudices, symbols and historical configurations. This internalisation is central to the reproduction of social inequality and structures and, it is reliant upon key mechanisms and processes. A few of these are proposed below.

Intergenerational transmissions

The colonial project, slavery and all forms of massive collective trauma continue to have profound effects on our relational functioning. Violent imperial endeavours relied on the imposition of European consciousness on people of colour. With European colonialism came the vilification of cultures and the erasure of the histories of many people in order to replace local belief systems and understanding of the world with Eurocentric perspectives/epistemologies. Convincing the colonised of their dependency, subservience and immaturity was central to the ‘success’ of colonialism. Concomitant patterns of behaviours which have been transmitted as survival scripts across generations, persist today.

Such scripts include, treating white people with deference, working hard without complaining, keeping one’s head down or otherwise observing subservience. In other words, remnants of colonial configurations through the transmission of learnt behaviour and survival strategies centred around inferiority and appeasing whiteness are still in operation and, continue to influence how children of colour are raised, how we relate to white people and how we treat one another. Often times how we have historically been treated very harshly. In that light, I am not sure we can fully make sense of the stripping of Sharmeema Begum’s British  nationality by a man, then home secretary, of a similar background and religion, without considering internalised racism, its associated shame and need to distance oneself from those Other uncivilised and barbaric (brown) people.

Hegemonic forces

Cultural hegemony aims to make visible how the domination of diverse groups in society is achieved by the ruling class. At its core is the notion that dominant groups’ interests, explanations, perceptions, values etc…are imposed as the cultural norm. White racism can be indirectly internalised via hegemonic forces that inculcate through seemingly neutral ideologies inferiority. Such ideologies serve to justify and legitimise racist institutional practices (Pyke, 2010). Pyke (2010) suggests that one such an ideology is meritocracy. Meritocracy naturally obscures oppression by propagating the notion that race inequality reflects real, objective differences in attitudes, skills, talents and efforts rather that widespread discrimination.

Although the cultural myth and ideology of meritocracy seems to have little to do with race per se it reproduces a sense of inferiority in people of colour and conversely a sense of superiority in white groups since according to it, only those who are capable and sufficiently gifted gain recognition, success and power. Another such and related ideology, I would add, is colourblindness. Colourblindness reinforces the myth of meritocracy and positions race as non-operative in shaping and organising structural reality and social relations. In other words, hegemonic forces covertly legitimises the subordinate position and inferiority of people of colour in society and functions as social control. Once people of colour (and white people) are convinced that the social order is just and as it should be, they are much less likely to rebel, resist or demand the redistribution of resources.

Identification with the aggressor

Identification with the aggressor is a defence mechanism associated with Anna Freud and Ferenczi. According to the former whose theory focuses on children; children often impersonate those who abuse them by assuming their attributes or imitating them. This process allows the child to transform themselves into those they find threatening and in a way, master their fears. Ferenczi’s conceptualisation is slightly different and is focused on trauma. Accordingly, identification with the aggressor is an act of “helpless compliance”, an attempt at protecting the self by preempting violence and gratifying the sadistic or violent impulses of the aggressor. Moving from identification with the aggressor to identification with the oppressor is short but necessary leap and an important application. Fanon’s neuroses of blackness could be argued to do just that.

Fanon posits that the colonial subject identifies with his oppressor but that this identification is rooted in the trauma and process of colonialism and, in the unequal and oppressive historical and socio-political configurations. According to him, the desire for whiteness is underscored by the wish to be recognised as fully human, the wish to self-determine and thus the wish to access power. Wether by identifying with the oppressor we hope to avoid abuse, master trauma, seek connection with those who harm us or simply wish to reclaim power, our attitudes in the process invariably shift towards self-destruction since power configurations remain built on violence against black and brown bodies. One way to handle the cognitive dissonance evoked by this reality, is to idealise those who harm us.  It is not unusual even in situations of terror that those victimised develop admiration, gratitude, and deference towards those who have tortured them or put their life in danger.

Projective identification

Projective identification is another defence mechanism which occurs when aspects of the self or an internal object are split off and attributed to an external object aka someone else. These disowned and projected aspects may then be introjected and thus trigger associated behaviour or emotional states in the recipient of the projection, who may consequently come to feel and act in accordance with the material they have introjected. Protective identification thus involves a two-step process, firstly getting rid of aspects of one’s own psyche then, getting into the mind of the other either to acquire aspects that are desired or, to induce particular behaviour/ feelings in them. Projective identification is one of the more complex defence mechanisms, it can be difficult to grasp.

It also challenges many Eurocentric beliefs. The idea that we can through our gaze and fantasies induce certain behaviours or emotional states in other people can seem far fetched. Yet, increasingly this proposition is empirically supported. For example, children who are expected to do well in class tend to do well and conversely children perceived to be more challenging well, tend to become more challenging. Similarly studies on stereotype threat are starting to evidence how collective or social prejudices and biases can induce specific stereotypical responses in targets. So perhaps, not so far fetched…the main point here in relation to internalised racism, is that white groups through their gaze, expectations and fantasies can shape the consciousness of people of colour, induce feelings of inferiority as well as bring into cognitive and experiential salience, colonial imagery and schemas. The passage below from Black skin white masks, powerfully illustrates the same.

””Look, a Negro!”

It was an external stimulus that flicked over me as I passed by. I made a tight smile.

“Look, a Negro!”

It was true. It amused me.

“Look, a Negro!”

The circle was drawing a bit tighter. I made no secret of my amusement.

“Mama, see the Negro! I’m frightened, Frightened! Frightened!’’

Now they were beginning to be afraid of me. I made up my mind to laugh myself to tears, but laughter had become impossible. I could no longer laugh, because I already knew that there were legends, stories, history, and above all historicity, which I had learned about from Jaspers. Then. assailed at various points, the corporeal schema crumbled, its place taken by a racial epidermal schema. In the train it was no longer a question of being aware of my body in the third person but in a triple person. In the train I was given not one but two, three places. I had already stopped being amused. It was not that I was finding febrile coordinates in the world. I existed triply: I occupied space. I moved toward the other . . . and the evanescent other, hostile but not opaque, transparent, not there, disappeared. Nausea … I was responsible at the same time for my body, for my race, for my ancestors. I subjected myself to an objective examination, I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics; and I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects, slavery…”’ (Fanon, p 112)

Concluding thoughts

Despite the centrality of internalised racism in the reproduction of race inequality, by and large, we continue to neglect to consider its workings, effects and significance. But the internalisation of whiteness is required for it to continue to be successful as a system. Without it, I am not sure unequal structures would effectively operate. I have previously argued that making internalised racism and its manifestations the problem of racialised ‘minorities’ is an act of violence. Not only because it amounts to victim-blaming, but also because it occults the very fact that white groups remain the primary beneficiaries and, source of such internalisation.

Internalised racism is the corollary of internalised superiority and one cannot exist without the other and without unequal social structures. That is why  sometimes I wonder wether it may be more helpful to speak of (race based) internalised inferiority and race based internalised superiority. In relation to the question regarding the current political terrain in the UK being a gain for people of colour and specifically for black people, I remain highly skeptical. Having brown people deliver violent austerity, racist immigration policies, neo-colonial agendas and, protect the wealthiest in the society will never serve the interests of people of colour. Let alone Black people who are likely the first in line to be harmed. Sitting at the master’s table to join deliberations on the running of the plantation and the distribution of violence is really no progress. At least not as far as I am concerned. 

 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.







On schools, institutional racism & everyday violence

This is not an academic piece.

But it is a necessary piece. Like most emotionally heavy writing, it needed that impulse and perhaps a little less head to get ‘on paper’. The threat of anger, sadness or hopelessness can make it difficult for words to come, and to make themselves heard. So I am getting on with it trying to think as little as I can. As a young child, I watched my mother fight many battles. As a mother, I look upon her struggles with incredible sadness. I remember her standing in front of White female teachers, having argument after argument, about their low expectations, proposed stereotypical trajectories for our future and recurrent queries about our intelligence. I will recount in this piece, a few of these experiences and other related anecdotes covering both the French and UK context, without much analysis.

When I was five my mother fought the primary school who would not allow me to start school. This is the first battle I remember. Being born in February and missing the official cut off point for admission by a week or so, the decision as to whether I could start or not; was at the discretion of the school and, while for White children starting school a little early was rarely an issue, the school took umbrage that my mother thought her child was sufficiently intellectually developed to start.

My entry was barred. A rare occurrence. My mother challenged the school. Mainly out of principle as she knew she and I were being treated differently. The school dug their heels in and, decided that the only way to prove I was sufficiently intelligent or ‘cognitively ready’, was to test my IQ. I was subjected to a battery of tests by a team of psychologists. Then, they wrote their report. The school’s own appointed psychologists had found I had a much higher ‘intelligence’ than average and was in fact advanced for my age. Reluctantly, I was allowed in.

Fast forward, as a teen, within a philosophy class, I questioned Descartes’ dualism, you will understand, quite a sacrilegious thing to do as a Black girl. The teacher responded by calling me a monkey who was incapable of thinking and was, instead looking at the finger of Descartes, as Descartes was pointing to the sun.

Between the age of 14-16 I had a history and geography teacher who taught us about the important job France did in civilising and enlightening Africa, as part of this module on colonialism. The course was so whitewashed, uncritical and steeped in nostalgia, it was violent. In the end, students of colour were authorised, off the record, not to attend this class. A compromise to avoid the disturbance of our questions and critical eyes or, to having to rethink the curriculum.

Throughout my teens I watched my mother continue to battle with teachers who were still unconvinced that my seven sisters and I had the intellectual capacity to study at university, let alone study what we wanted to study. None of us were destined for intellectual pursuits. It was best that we considered non-academic subjects, like most Black kids around. My mother was delusional apparently, and had unrealistic expectations. My baby sister’s physics teacher was so set against her studying physics he refused to support her university application. That’s sister number seven. To sister number two, who wanted to study economics, it was recommended that she studied management. I was discouraged from studying psychology…

Those are only a few examples. Remember none of us had what it took to go to university.  Despite all ‘odds’ and our limited intellectual capabilities, I count amongst my sisters one physicist, two economists, one accountant and wow…a psychologist. Seven out of eight of us did go to university, most of us obtained postgraduate qualifications. 

I studied English at La Sorbonne in Paris straight after my baccalaureate. As part of an American civilisation class, we were taught that the US was the number one economic power in the world due to its high national IQ, but that as a nation it was still being held back because of the low IQ of African Americans.

Fast forward again, a few years later and now a migrant to the U.K , I became a mother. And it was time to form my own race memories in school, as a parent.

When my first son was about five, he was racially abused in school. Children would call him monkey and do monkey chants. He came home upset. I contacted the school, who had not told me about the incidents. They did not appear to see any racism and no action was taken. A week or so later I was summoned into school because of an extremely serious incident. I was informed my son had been racist. He had said he wanted to marry a Muslim girl when he grew-up. This was so deeply offensive and so disturbing; I was informed the local authority needed to be informed of this hate incident. I told the school the meeting and bogus (counter) accusation amounted to victimisation under the Equality Act. No further action was taken.

Between the ages of four to six my daughter remained in the same infant school. Several times a week her father would pick her up. Very rarely was he not asked by anxiety filled voices who he was or what he wanted, when he went to collect her. The teachers would run out of smiles, banter and recognition for this dark-skinned Black man with dreadlocks, it appears. He was almost systematically feared and unrecognised. It became an experiment we would do, watch how teachers would engage with different parents. It was (colour) striking.

When she was six my daughter came home upset and asked me to re-do her hair. She had two ponytails (Afro puffs to be precise) and two cornrows at the front and two at the back of her head. She was alarmed and anxious. ‘The teacher said my hair is too big, I can’t wear a hat and I need to change it or I won’t be in the school play’ she declared. I said I would not change her hairstyle and that her hair was perfectly fine.

The following day her father took her to school and explained to the teacher her comments were out of line, that she needed to be included and further, showed her how to put her puffs in a single ponytail to fit her hat. In the afternoon I picked her up and one of her braids had been cut. She had not realised. Only the teacher had touched her hair. I contacted the school; they had no idea of course. They confirmed children had had no access to scissors. I insinuated this may have been an act of malicious retaliation, the headteacher was outraged since she herself had ‘mixed-race’ grandchildren which thus clarified no racism could take place in her school.

Last year I collected my girl from school she had tear tracks all over her face. I asked the teacher what had happened she said, ‘someone had teased her, and she never quite got over it’. I questionned my daughter, sensing something significant had taken place once we were away from the teacher. She said a white boy had been telling her all Black people deserved to die, making faces at her all day. She had told the teacher. I waited three days playing the devil’s advocate for the school. No teacher ever called to explain what had happened or, that they would be taking the incident all the way to the local authority. Eventually the White mother of the offending child, whom I was in good terms with, called me distressed and ‘ashamed’ to apologise. I comforted her, that is a story for another day. She had been contacted. We had not.

Last week, my middle son maths’ teacher called and complained my son had not done six pieces of work and, he was urging me to ask him to take his studies more seriously. I talked to my son. I was angry. We take homework seriously. He did the work that night, the pieces of work were in fact exercises which formed part of the same homework sheet. The following day he returned home and said mum, ‘you know the teacher who says I had not completed six pieces of work, I spoke to my friend he had not completed over 100, why did the teacher not call his mother’? I said to him perhaps the teacher cared more about his education. I did not really believe this.

Two months ago my girl came home upset saying she did not think her teacher liked her.

I asked her what made her think that. She had noticed the teacher spoke to the White children with a kinder voice and, did not spend much time with the Black children. I took my courage in both hands and arranged a meeting with the school. I explained to the teacher my daughter’s experience. She turned red and defensive. She did not believe this was the case of course, she was taken aback that I would take my daughter’s words so seriously. I asked wether she had heard of unconscious bias. She seemed unclear how this might apply to her. We left the meeting with no clear sense of direction other than, ‘she would look into it’. It’s been several weeks. I have not heard anything. The only difference is my girl being increasingly unhappy and, noticing her teacher responding differently to her. We take solace in the fact that in a few weeks she will change class, and I hope for a more clued up teacher. I do not hold my breath.

This shit is exhausting.

This shit is distressing.

Macpherson defined institutional racism as “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin”. He further added, that it can be seen in “processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantages minority ethnic people”.

Attitudes. Processes. Behaviour. Prejudice. Ignorance. Thoughtlessness. Stereotyping. 

Structural racism encompasses the complex ways in which the dominance, superiority and privileges of White groups are built into, maintained and protected by all structures in society. 

Schools are structurally and institutionally racist and they are continuing, by and large to get away with it, without the kind of scrutiny that the police attracts.

But not every act of violence draws blood. Not all harm is immediately visible.

Schools remain for way too many of us sites of trauma, often intergenerational whiteness related trauma. This truth may challenge teachers’ benevolent and nurturing self-concept, but it must be contained, if we are going to move forward.

Again, this was not an academic piece. And the above is not an exhaustive list, I have only recounted those instances which came to mind. There are hundreds more.

The present post was written without much structure or theory. What it carries nevertheless is shit loads of experience and with that exhaustion and bits of despair. In truth, I am sick of the infantilisation of schools and, of their presumed benevolence that protects their everyday, normalised discriminatory practices and, their systemised anti-Blackness. 

No other institutions on this land could get away with the micro and macro violence schools subject Black children and their parents to. And that is before we have even delved into inequalities of access, discipline and attainment. Another story for another day…However, anyone would be a fool to consider such inequalities in isolation from the lived experience described above.

There is absolutely nothing more heart-breaking than leaving your child at the gate of a school knowing they will be subjected to racism.

Actually that is not true. There is something more heart-breaking. Leaving your child at a gate of a school knowing they will be subjected to racism and, fearing that if you challenge the school you will be subjected to racism. And more importantly, that your child may well suffer further discrimination.

But yet, here we are. In 2019.

Thank you for reading

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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

The psychology of white fragility (Part 1)

Splitting, dissociation and oppression

In a previous piece on the embodied manifestations of racism, I put splitting at centre of the reproduction of oppression, inequality and racial violence. I posit that splitting allows people racialised as white; within white supremacist contexts, to dissociate from the harm and pain they cause and thus, to continue to reproduce it, blissfully. Splitting is often described as polarised or binary thinking but, the essence to remember here, is that the defence helps us manage conflicting emotional states or information we cannot integrate, enabling us to thus distance ourselves from those aspects we find irreconcilable with some perceptual entity, often ourselves or the world.

As such, we may say, splitting maintains white ignorance which is in turn fed by splitting. Splitting is an incredibly serious problem in race relations. Not only does it reduce white people’s self-awareness, including awareness of their own racial prejudices and biases, but it also limits insight in terms of how such prejudices may leak relationally, influence their behaviour; including their embodied conduct. Splitting consequently, keeps white people dissociated from the impact of the harm they cause and, how such harm is structurally located.

Robin DiAngelo’s (2011) concept of white fragility, one of the most recent influential sociological frameworks to formulate white responses to racism, may be particularly helpful here. White fragility refers to the range of defensive moves white people perform to disengage from conversations on race and racism, because of their reduced capacity to tolerate race-based stress or distress (lack of racial stamina). These defensive moves include physically removing themselves from the stress inducing situation (eg. walking away) arguing, denying or minimising the continuing significance of race or of white privilege and, sometimes becoming threatening and aggressive.

DiAngelo proposes that whiteness, provides ‘protective pillows’ to white people and that this protection insulates them from experiencing racial stress. As a result, white people come to expect to feel racially comfortable at all times. As this expectation is socially sanctioned within white supremacy, it is rarely challenged. Not being exposed to racial stress will naturally translate in a lack of experience in managing the strong emotions which can arise in race-based discussions, leading almost inevitably to defensive retaliation. Behaviourally, we may see this as poor coping, inefficient stress management or poor distress tolerance. And again, this lack of adequate behavioural strategy is bound to compound anxiety and fear, which will in turn increase the likelihood of splitting or other problematic responses.

The neuropsychology of white fragility

It is virtually impossible to take in differing perspectives and, to be reflexive when under acute stress. Our brains are simply not designed to do so. This is our first problem. The more acute the stress, the more difficult this task will be. Exposure to high levels of stress impairs our cognitive functioning, including our capacity to think flexibility and our complex reasoning skills. When we are stressed or scared, our autonomic system get into motion and, threat responses are activated. Another problem we have, is that many white people are so split from their body, they may not even realise they are feeling threatened. Whiteness elevates the white body above its physiology so this split is seen as desirable although it limits our understanding of human suffering. This body-mind split is also encouraged within discourses of colourblindness which render the noticing of racial differences shameful.

There is thus a real socialised deficit in bodily self-awareness. This is significant. Research indicates that shame not only impedes cognitive processing, it interferes with our ability to appraise situations in a balanced way, our awareness/openness to potential implicit racial biases and, can lead to anger and aggression. We also know that despite many white people claiming to be colourblind, evidence suggests that our brain responds to racial differences and, skin colour is noticed by our brain within milli-seconds. Similarly, when presented with images of Black people, threat responses via increased amygdala activities have been objectively observed. Further, we know that racial stereotypes evoke more emotional responses and memories, than other kinds of stereotypes. So in summary, we have enough to posit that threat responses via physiological and neurobiological processes and events, underpin and, maintain white fragility.

Wanting to be soothed

Our cerebral threat system is designed to identify threats quickly. And, we are designed to focus our attention, memory and thinking towards threat-based information, as a priority and of course, for survival. Our brain does so by triggering feelings of anxiety, via relevant hormonal events that sustain fear or aversive responses to potentially threatening stimuli. Once triggered, our threat responses, motivate us to take associated behavioural action, in essence to fight or flight. If we believe consciously or otherwise, that we can overcome the danger by fighting, our brain will gear our body towards doing so. If we feel at risk but think we cannot overcome the danger by fighting, we will generally run away.

There is a thin line between the socially sanctioned belief that white people are entitled to racial comfort and, the expectation that people of colour should protect white people from race-based stress and thus safeguard the said comfort. That is to say, that the emotional states of white people and their feelings should be centred and prioritised in discussions or conversations about race. White centeredness is a core pillar of white supremacy and, expecting soothing from people of colour, is an enactment of master-Slave configurations which reproduce power relations. Not only is this exploitative, it deprives those with power from building self-awareness and develop the relevant ‘psychic muscles’.

Further, this soothing expectation not only position people of colour as superhumans and, in that sense dehumanises us; it turns us into objects. Specifically, into instruments of self-soothing. Staying with the discomfort of oppression related guilt, shame and/or distress without discharging it or projecting it onto the racially marginalised is central to learning to tolerate race-based stress. It is also important to break the cycle of relationally enacted oppression. As previously posited, white fragility splits white people off from pain. Black pain and the pain people of colour experience because of racism. It therefore stops white people from being authentically and humanely present in their relationships with people of colour.

Learning to tolerate racial distress

A big part of decreasing inequality and injustice is increasing connection between white people and people of colour and, bridging the gap between our experiential realities. Or, increasing  connection between our structural realities. Thus, remedying that socially sanctioned dissociation which is sustained by splitting, is fundamental. This is why I believe that soothing white people who experience race-based stress as they are being awaken to the harm they enact in the world and the unearned privileges this society continues to grant them; is the least helpful thing we can do. Doing so is depriving them of the chance to become more compassionate, more integrated, more human.

Consequently, it is important that all agents of oppression connect with the pain they cause. The pain they have avoided confronting all of their lives. We should let them taste it and, experience it in their body. Feel it in their bones. Reclaim the oppressive part of themselves, which will help them see what they are socialised not to see; structures of domination. This will not happen without increasing tolerance to racial stress and distress. Many of you will read this and now wonder what it is that could thus be done, to increase (racial) distress tolerance in white groups.

And, I wonder too. The honest answer is, I don’t know for certain. We do not have an evidence base to answer this question unequivocally. Partly because white fragility as a framework is relatively new. Further, it is derived from sociological scholarship rather than psychological scholarship thus, psychological research. Nonetheless, clinicians and psychotherapists do know quite a bit about how to generally increase distress tolerance and, how to work with anxious and distressed states. This is a core part of what we do. So, it makes sense to start with what we know. The steps below are derived from such clinical evidence.

Some practical steps

In psychology, distress tolerance comprises both our perceived capacity to withstand negative and/or aversive emotional states and; the behavioural act of withstanding the same. Building distress tolerance is helpful when working with those who have a tendency to feel overwhelmed by their emotions and/or find strong feelings unbearable or, when we have such a low tolerance for distress, that even mild levels of stress can trigger disproportionate responses and/or when we have learnt to manage difficult emotions and/or feelings by resorting to destructive or damaging behaviours. You can access distress tolerance exercises here.

Exposure methods in therapy simply focus on helping people confront rather than avoid their fears. As human beings, we tend to avoid what we feel threatened by, be it situations, objects or people. This avoidance may help us manage our stress and fears in the short term. Nevertheless, over time, it worsens our anxiety and, leads us to respond more strongly, feel more overwhelmed and/or become more sensitive to the feared stimuli. Hence, psychologists tend to see avoidance as a maintaining factor in anxiety. In the context of white fragility, exposure would imply creating an environment in which to progressively expose white individuals to race and racism stimuli, in time, reducing fear (thus threat responses) and decreasing avoidance.

A final step to help re-connect white people to their bodies and to the world around them, may include mindfulness. Mindfulness as a meditation is centred on helping individual focus their attention on the present, moment to moment by paying attention to their thoughts, bodily sensations, perceptions and feelings in a non-judgmental manner. Thoughts, bodily sensations and feelings are envisaged as mental events one can be distanced from, rather than inherent and constitutive parts of the self. Mindfulness helps us explore, understand and reflect on these events as transient moments that are separate from the self. It has been found to limit our tendency to react, self-evaluate and dissociate. Mindfulness may be particularly helpful in becoming aware of the responses triggered by race related material and to reconnect with the world of senses. Encouragingly and perhaps unsurprisingly, mindfulness has been found to have positive effects in the reduction of prejudice and implicit racial bias.


To conclude this article is a first attempt at using psychology to make sense of white fragility with a view of deriving useable tools which may help increase racial stamina and thus reduce relationally enacted oppression. There is no doubt that a lot more could be written and unpacked using psychological and psychoanalytical scholarship. I will aim to further explore the ways in which psychology can help us tackle white fragility. Finally, I am aware that some people of colour may be suspicious of approaches focused on supporting white people to deal with whiteness. I am ambivalent too. Nonetheless, my thinking is that we are all to gain from better understanding racial violence, it’s relational enactment and how it may be countered. I am hoping too, this article may serve as a helpful reference some readers may use when asked to provide a response or education to the forever recurring question ‘but what can we do’…

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Education requests, exploitation & oppression

‘Let me tell you what it feels like to stand in front of a white man and explain privilege to him. It hurts. It makes you tired. Sometimes it makes you want to cry. Sometimes it is exhilarating. Every single time it is hard. Every single time I get angry that I have to do this, that this is my job, that this shouldn’t be my job. Every single time I am proud of myself that I’ve been able to say these things because I used to not be able to and because some days I just don’t want to’ (McCleave-Maharawal, 2011)

The violence of public scholarship

Since I have started writing and speaking about race and oppression my intellectual and to some degree my professional lives have been transformed. In the main, for the better. I am thankful. There are however aspects of this public life that continue to be extremely violent. Navigating any public space particularly as a scholar when your body is Black, and female can be treacherous. There are those who will always have a hard time with women and Black bodies taking up space and, occupying any position that affords their voice a platform. Or their thinking an audience.

The worse I have had so far, is a rape threat. A single one though, and so I consider myself lucky. Some of my peers have to contend with recurrent threats of rape, death and mutilation and, sometimes even threats to their loved ones. That’s in addition to everyday racist and sexist harassment that is sadly so banal, it is not even worth a mention. This is the backdrop to our scholarly work. That our words alone would cause such intense aggressive impulses to freely become bare, in public, often in the most ardent defenders of free speech, requires sustained reflection.

One of the aims of such conduct is of course social control via intimidation. It is to remind us of our place. To trigger sufficient fear, or distress that we merge back into silence and return the space we’re occupying to some fantasised or constructed rightful owner. Or knower. Bodies with the ‘right’ gender and the ‘right’ colour. Women of colour, Black women in particular, are not supposed to know or, be scholars. Let alone public ones. How dare we think that what we have to say and that our thinking, particularly when it challenges established (white male) orthodoxies, matter enough to constitute and contribute to knowledge?

Still I rise… above my station.

Overt aggression is not the only form of violence marginalised scholars face. Recurrently and increasingly, I am asked to provide the emotional or intellectual labour of educating privileged folks on oppression, racism and (although much, much less frequently) sexism via requests for of ‘debate’, elaboration or information. These demands for education occur on and off social media. Publicly and privately. They reach me almost daily. Simply reading them recurrently leaves me exhausted. Often frustrated. Sometimes angry that so many would expect such a laborious service, from me for free and, the imperial echoes this has. Always, I am left feeling heavy.

Because of this, I have taken the political position of not responding. Of course, this attracts strong reactions too. Often anger, dismay and/or more insults. Much of it, and often unbeknown to the education seeker, becomes manifest because it is still socially transgressive for a Black woman to refuse to serve those who demand that she’d be of service. How dare I. Again. Moreover, not only am I a scholar but I am too a therapist. Surely, it is part of my role as a ‘helping professional’ to kindly and dutifully educate and explain, on request?

Well, it may be so, but I would argue that non-education here, is in fact education (on exploitation and on the de-centering of whiteness) and that above all, that it is an act of self-preservation. And that I do indeed need to exist safe and sound to do my job. Even if that is the only contribution of value some may see in my existence. The continuing role of history in the structuring of power relations and, of the wider social world has long been recognised. It is central to group analytic scholarship including the concept of the social unconscious or indeed, the intergenerational transmission of cultural experiences and of relational/social configurations.

Oppression as trauma

Considering a different axe of oppression to hopefully make the point (this is not a perfect rhetorical device)… would we expect survivors of gendered violence and victims of male rape to educate men, on request, on what it is like to be groped and sexually exploited? If you find this proposition more absurd or problematic you may want to take a few minutes of reflection. All oppressive experiences are traumatic.

As we still struggle to accept this simple statement as fact particularly in relation to racism, let alone embody it relationally, I am going to write it again. All oppressive experiences are traumatic. It hurts. It makes you tired. Sometimes it makes you want to cry. The cumulative effect of subtle and everyday or micro experiences of othering and discrimination is grinding. It is draining. And again, every single time it is hard. But more than that, it wears our health and mental health down. It renders us vulnerable to psychological distress and make us feel unsafe in the world, the very definition of insidious trauma.

Given this impact, the expectation that we should as a matter of course and at the drop of a hat, subject our bodies to such effects is frankly gross in its lack of compassion and consideration. It also has a sadistic element which needs attention. It is the ultimate stripping of our subjecthood. And, as such it is of course also historically loaded. I would thus argue, it is another way to reproduce the commodification of our bodies and to dehumanise us, maintaining both the status-quo and power relations, the education seeker purports to want to challenge and/or to understand. This extract from an I email received a few days ago via Race Reflections is a good illustration and, I hope a learning opportunity.

Education and oppression

The email above is from a therapist and someone who likely considers themselves an ‘ally’. Someone thus, who could reasonably be expected to be familiar with issues of boundaries, emotional distress and trauma. Indeed, their apparent grasp of the issues is expressly stated; ‘I understand how utterly emotionally draining it can be for the majority people of colour to have to get into these conversations’. It would appear, they get it. Some evidence of compassion or at least empathy for the taxing conundrums her request would expose people of colour to, seems to be present. Alas this empathy is not extended to me and, I am excluded from their circle of compassion.

It is unclear wether I have not been included in that ‘majority’, because I am believed to somehow possess some inherent protection from or resilience to experiencing the said emotional tax, in the author’s mind and if so, on what basis or; whether the writer’s needs ‘to understand’ in spite of their apparent awareness of the emotional costs to me, takes precedence. Or again, wether they are completely split off from their impact on me. Indeed, the request is presented as a banal one. It has a ‘hey girl’ or ‘no biggie’ quality. ‘I’d appreciate your thoughts on how I can considerably learn more’. And of course, it would be a banal, nothing to see here request since at least in their mind, the author may be ‘a bit more educated than the rest’.

These education requests are thus clear communications. They state whose bodies matter and whose experiences or needs should be centred. They render our bodies instruments or territories to be exploited for the self-development and enrichment of those with more social power. When violence to our bodies and our welfare matter less than the curiosity our experience provoke and/or demands for ‘education’, we are once more albeit unconsciously or inadvertently, sacrificed by and for those who seek to grow at our expense. Often without our consent. Our psychological boundaries are tested and there is a desire or at least a move, albeit likely unconscious to intrude and exploit. An attempt, I would say, at psychological colonialism.

Projection and psychological exploitation

Each time we are asked to educate mindlessly, not only must we re-experience oppression and racism, we must often carry the weight of the privileged’s inability to tolerate their own responses, distress, discomfort and, the disturbance caused to their benevolent sense of self or worldview, which often gets passed on to us via projection. Projection, as a defense mechanism takes place when we unconsciously attribute feelings, drives or impulses located within us to someone else. Usually emotional states that are unwanted and, that we are unable and/or unwilling to carry or hold ourselves. It is not unusual for example, for those who challenge racism to be called racist, bully or some other persecutory term. One may say, attributes that are disowned and projected outwards onto marginalised bodies, here people of colour. 

Projection per se is not harmful. Projective identification however can often be. With projective identification we are induced to feel or act in accordance with the material that has been disowned and projected onto us. We lose our psychological agency and autonomy and with that, the capacity to distinguish what belongs to us and what belongs to the ‘projector’. Our thoughts, feelings and experiences become merged and/or replaced by those implanted into us. The breach of psychological boundary by excellence. We are made to carry someone else’s unwanted psychological baggage and, we experience it as being our own. Psychological pressure is unconsciously exerted to coerce us into being once more, of service.

In doing so, we become estranged from our own mind which is turned into a vessel for the exploitation of those who project onto us, here those with more social power, indeed specifically White people. It can be difficult to know when we’re identifying with a projection, it requires a fairly high level of self-awareness, and often support from a therapist or an analytically orientated supervisor. One way to tell if you have access to neither, is you may start to experience confusion about your experience and, your feelings may appear disproportionate and/or seem out of place (and could plausibly be attributed to the other entity). In the case of racial projections, you may become the container for strong feelings or shame, guilt, inadequacy or distress which do not belong to you, whilst their rightful owner will be blissfully split off from them and therefore, free from carrying their own shit.

Education and epistemic exploitation

Another way to conceptualise the exploitative nature of education requests in the context of oppression, is in terms of epistemic practice. Berenstain (2016) ‘s framework of epistemic exploitation is particularly helpful here. Epistemic exploitation according to her, occurs when privileged folks force marginalised folks to educate them about the nature of their oppression in an unpaid capacity. This educational labour leads to a double bind since there are costs associated with both meeting the demand for education and, costs associated with refusing to meet it. If one decides to comply with the request, one must face testimonial and hermeneutical injustice and scepticism by virtue of one’s very belonging to a marginalised group.

Thus, despite education demands, marginalised perspectives and knowledge are usually dismissed and subject to unattainable epistemic or truth thresholds. Refusing the request on the other hand, because it is socially transgressive, exposes marginalised bodies to violence or hostility via retaliation, affront and anger. According to the philosopher, epistemic exploitation despite being ubiquitous is rarely recognised as a form of epistemic violence which is part of wider macro systemic socio-political oppression. Rather, it is often dressed as a practice deemed epistemically virtuous, as a necessary part of social exchanges and knowledge acquisition; creating an unjust burden on the marginalised to educate and enlighten all while limiting their capacity to do so and, exposing them to violence and harm.

Concluding thoughts

To conclude, relational and psychological configurations will invariably mirror socio-economic and historico-material configurations, if relationships are left to their own devices. I doubt that enacting oppression can ever lead to anything other than oppression and, therefore to the reproduction of the status-quo, even if there was no other, less harmful way to acquire the education sought. Which there is. As we say on Twitter street, Google is your friend. Liberation is something we do in the material world, not uniquely something we conceive and intellectualise. Burdening, harming and marginalising the needs and experiences of those whose freedom and liberation we say we seek to support is the height of white ignorance and as such, does nothing but reproduce whiteness as a structure. Thus, if you take just one sentence from this piece, remember this one; ‘it hurts, it makes you tired, sometimes it makes you want to cry‘.

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Racial trauma, silence and meaning

Discovering racism

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

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

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

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

Trauma, violence and silence

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

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

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

Racism and the conspiracy of silence

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

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

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

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

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

Silence, containment and meaning

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

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

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

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

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Masters, Slaves and Object Relations

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

Object relations theory

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

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

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

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

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

Internal Objects and race

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

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

The Master and the Slave as Internal Objects

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

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

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

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

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

Mirror reactions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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

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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.

Thank you for reading

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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.