Have you ever considered what makes a home a home? Most probably, you have. Still, I’d like to invite you to take a few moments to try to explore this question with fresh eyes. What is it like to feel at home? What is a home?

I asked myself the same questions only to realise how hard it was to formulate a quick answer. So I turned to a much wiser person. My 9 year old. Her response which she gave without much hesitation was;

A home is where you live, we need a home to survive. Without a home we cannot have a shelter and food’ (MM, 2020).

She then went about her business as though I had asked her the most elementary of things. I thought her answer was beautifully simple and to the point. And, it did help me to focus. Through her child’ eyes she reminded me of the essence of homeness: safeness. That home is fundamentally about protection and about nurture. About food and about shelter. Thus, about survival.

Wombs as homes

So inevitably when we think about Home we think about mothers or more rightly about uterus carriers, we think about wombs. The womb is after all the first home. And, if the womb is the first home, birth, our entry into the world is our first displacement. At least for most of us. The cries of the newborn remind us of the trauma of birth. The disconnection. The terror. And the search for safeness. But as soon as we exit the womb, smells, sounds, and tastes, soothing touches take us back to familiarity. There is reconnection. With each new life we witness the human need to form bonds and to belong. The need for attachment.

Attachment has traditionally been conceptualised as the emotional connection formed between an infant and their caregiver(s). This bond is shaped by the manner with which the infant is responded to thus, by our early relational experiences. An infant whose distress is contained and whose needs are consistently reciprocated and attended to, learns to trust both their internal world and the world around them. Feeling contained, nurtured and safe is essential for optimal cognitive development. Feeling secure helps us think.

A ‘secure’ attachment helps the child to begin to develop abstract or symbolic ‘mastery’. In time, as the infant internalises the soothing attention and care they receive when in need, they learn to tolerate distress without undue terror or dread helping them to generally feel safe and trusting in intimate relationships. There is a HUGE amount of psychological and psychoanalytic literature on attachment. Most of which is premised on the idea that the first relationship, usually with our mother, the maternal object, shapes our internal configurations and becomes an enduring relational template which we use to manage relationships and know what to expect in the world.

Place attachment

Most of the attachment literature has unsurprisingly focused on the infant/care-giver bond and its long lasting impact on how we come to experience the world, that literature is not without controversies and powerful criticisms, there are deeper ramifications to homeness and to attachment that go beyond the family matrix (the family group) and that have received comparatively, very little attention within clinical practice and research. Such questions have occupied a central place in existential philosophy for example. And outside of mental health disciplines, adjacent fields of studies (e.g. social/environmental psychology, sociology, anthropology and cultural studies) have interrogated the place of places in terms of human functioning and orientation. Increased attention to the emotional bonds or attachments that exist between locations and people has been paid; outside traditional mental health scholarship.

Place attachment refers to the strong emotional bond we develop with a specific location. Like infant-carer attachments, our relationship with places is reciprocal and shaped by how we are responded to as well as by the nature of our experiences. Place attachment is posited to be composed of two intersecting dimensions, a sense of rootedness and of sense of place. Rootedness is related to history, ancestry and lineage. It is the sense of familiarity which arises with habitual residence over time. Sense of place on the other hand, is more subjective and affiliative. It is to do with meaning making, the symbolic connections and internal narratives we hold about locations. Place attachment thus also helps us think…

With homeness also comes a sense of being connected to the world and thus to ourselves and with that, a sense of being comfortable with ourselves. In the same way that a responsive parental object helps us to internalise safety and to make sense of our internal ‘chaos’, places of attachment soon allow us to start edifying homes within ourselves. Our internal homes. What is it like then to repeatedly experience not belonging and, to recurrently search for a home in the world? When we are displaced from places of attachments; when we are structurally excluded? Perhaps the soothing attention of our caregivers is not always enough for us to feel connected or safe in the world contrary to what so much psychological scholarship implies.

Cultural homelessness and mental health

Homeness and homelessness are central themes in my work and in my thinking. And that is of course not coincidental. When we write about the world, invariably we write about ourselves too. Like many, I have a history of displacement. I am the child of African migrants. Conceived in heat of tropical Africa, born in the coldness of a Parisian winter. My Home is France. I reside in the U.K.. My roots are elsewhere. But again, like for many people of colour in France, in the U.K. and elsewhere, this sense of homeness is rendered precarious by racism and xenophobia. How tough it is to feel secure in one’s home, when one’s skin forever marks you as outsider? As foreigner. As not belonging. As not really being from ‘here’. Making a sense of place as the Other, sometimes makes no sense.

With immigration comes dislocation. Individuals and groups are extracted from their homes and from what they know. This displacement shifts the experience of the self and of one’s identity. It disrupts the sense of the familiar. Contact with roots and cultural bearings lose their proximity. Family and friends often fade into memories. Sometimes bloodied memories. This sense of loss and disconnection can be profound and last for generations. Affecting those displaced. Their children. And the children of their children’s children. It is no coincidence that displacement is associated with psychological distress and poor mental health. Feeling disconnected causes depression. Depression causes further disconnection.

Distress related to insecure place attachment seems much more pronounced or prevalent in those generations deprived of rootedness. But, the threat of dispossession or deportation for those whose bodies do not belong, compromises cultural affiliation and the sense of home too. How can your home be truly your home if entry into it and your right of abode is conditional? When this right can so easily be denied under the racist fantasy that some other home will always be yours for you to claim and return to. Even when that connection barely exists. Even if that presumed home is in fact much more unfamiliar than your usual place of dwelling?

A framework which has been developed to describe the on-going struggle to find a home amongst those whose identities sit at the meeting of two cultures or more, is that of cultural homelessness. When one feels neither quite at home within the culture of their parents or heritage or that of the country they were born or reside in. Often, due to repeated experience of marginalisation, discrimination or Othering in both/all cultures. It is the sense of not feeling quite at home anywhere. Cultural homelessness can leave us feeling vulnerable, unprotected and forever in search of belonging. This cultural alienation and yearning is central to the experience of many people of colour. And I believe it is part of the ‘puzzle’ of mental health inequities.

Structural and epistemic homelessness

In my piece on epistemic homelessness, I argue that our capacity to know is dependent on our capacity to have a home. By that I meant that marginalised bodies are routinely displaced from their internal home because they are routinely gaslighted when they attempt to speak of their experience of the world. The home that is our sense of truth and reality particularly when it comes to oppression and power relations, is rendered precarious. Through the misuse of power, of epistemic power, we are alienised once more but this time, from what we know.

Subtle oppression through the enactment of micro-aggressions lends itself particularly well to this process of internal displacement. And this is what makes the subtlety of ‘modern’ racism mad-making and distressing. Often much more so than overt manifestations of bigotry. Not only must we manage the triggering effect of strategically ambiguous deeds or words, words or deeds usually loaded in racial unconscious material, we are left doing hours and hours of work. Hours of hypothesis testing. Hours of rumination. Hours replaying, often second by second, what was said or what was done; in the hope of trusting that we know what we do indeed know. Gaslighting ourselves repeatedly and in doing so, reproducing internally the contempt this society holds toward our capacity to know and our authority.

In my work I frequently coach senior professionals, lawyers, senior civil servants, academics of colour. I hear their experiences and help them navigate white spaces as black and brown dots on snowy white peaks. In my sessions, I very early ask when the subject seems to be avoided, which is often, what it is like to be the only black of brown body in these places of high authority. After this question, there are sometimes intakes of breath. Often silences appear in lieu of verbal responses. Here too it is hard to formulate a quick answer as that same sense of out-of-placeness emerges. There is also a sense resignation in the face of these structural experiences of homelessness. Still, an underlying sadness is never too far below the surface.

Those of us who stand out, for whatever reason, can so easily become repository of group projections. The location of disturbance. They/we are at high risk of scapegoating. Things get even more complex as we nonetheless start to expect to carry the burden and others’ fantasies and fears. We are displaced as we expect to get displaced. And, we internalise the notion that our raison d’être is to make the existence or the homes of those with more power, comfortable. Even if it means deserting the safety of our own dwelling. Even at the expense of our mental health.

Concluding thoughts

Clearly marginalisation is much more than simply being positioned at the margins. It is facing intersecting experiences of homelessness. Cultural, structural, epistemic. It is as a result to be alienised from the outside in and in turn from the inside out. It is not only to have to exist in spaces not designed for you, it is to deny ourselves internal homes within which we can freely be and belong. Like migrants, their children and their children’s children – when they are black and brown – who are constantly reminded they do not belong and come to accept that they simply don’t. Even though more of their blood and sweat keep the infrastructures of this country going. And their dead bodies paved the way for the freedom they are constantly denied of. Like migrants who lose their sense of familiarly including contact with their social networks, existing within white spaces can mean struggling to keep a sense of who you are, intact. It often means insecure place attachments and with that, recurrently mourning a sense of place. So perhaps the question ought to have been, what is it like to try to build a sense of home ‘here’ for those this piece might speak to. And perhaps, I can answer that more easily. It feels a bit like grieving. Grieving perpetually.

Thank you for reading

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3 thoughts

  1. “It feels a bit like grieving. Grieving perpetually.” Spot on.

    Maybe also it is the feeling of suffocation described by Mbembe in a talk I came across this week. It also hit ‘home’:

    “The visceral subject is one who is so disabled by all kinds of power structures such that he or she is rendered physically ill with rage, grief and fear, none of which seems to have an outlet. …He or she – this visceral subject – inhabits a frustrated body he or she cannot call home. In the sense that… what is a body? A body is a home to begin with. …A subject which is unable… or a body that is unable… to shout, in face of the inherent impunity and mercilessness of the violence and horror inflicted on it by the various structures of power. Finally, it is a subject who experiences a feeling of choking… of suffocation and choking…. A living body is, in the first instance, a body that can breathe. The path to madness begins with attempts at suffocation.”

    Full talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lg_BEodNaEA&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR3-GpXXcPrEi2oBckKcTwXifmZ4XUMmr8J04XK2x5aKXzh5fgz3b7x63d4

  2. Another beautiful intersection of internal and external dynamics and how they shape each other!

    This spoke to me on so many levels:

    Home as :

    womb – but what if the womb carried the foetus as a millstone around the neck of ambition ?

    mothering- What if the mother isn’t mothered -has no template to give – needs mothering ?

    place- when home is neither here nor there

    attachment- when attachment is insecure

    internalised mother- doesn’t exist or a harsh and critical one replaces it

    search for a proxy mother if the “enduring template” is not enough – then getting abandoned & re-traumatised b/c no one can become one’s mother

    intergenerational trauma – external and internal familial structural oppression – husbands, fathers, in-laws, bread winners, educated, wealthy etc etc

    defensive othering by own people we call ‘home’

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