The glass of dirty water: working with shame sociopolitically

Shame and women of colour 

I have been working specifically with women of colour (and migrant women) for some time now. I am writing to share a few reflections. One issue I have been paying increasing attention to is shame. It has become a major clinical theme. Over the years, I have heard so many stories of shame. Many triggered by trauma, shame for experiencing humiliating and degrading acts of torture or abuse. Shame for surviving when loved ones might have died. Shame for feeling violated or soiled thus becoming ‘damaged goods’. Shame for dishonouring families. But also, many shame stories of powerlessness linked to shame for being unable to stop loved ones from being raped or killed…or shame for having to leave children behind in search for a place of safety or to make a better life for them. 

Those stories were usually played out within other broader shame stories about occupying devalued social positions. For example, shame for being detained against one’s will. Shame for being a lesbian. Shame for being an undocumented migrant. Shame for having a disabled child. Shame for being disabled…Shame for contracting HIV. Shame for being on benefits or otherwise dependent on the state. Shame for being confronted with various stories of inferiority. And shame for believing in them too. Many of the stories above are naturally not exclusive to women of colour. Nevertheless, the intersections of systems of oppression and the prevalence of trauma in this group, often render shame a prominent fixture in their lives. Doing this work, I have come to realise how difficult many women I have met, seem to find identifying shame and naming it. 

The psychosocial functions of shame 

Shame is not only used to ‘self-regulate’ often, it functions as an embodied compass to evaluate our value or, as evidence/reminder of our lack of the same. As a result, when we experience shame, we may become fearful that speaking of it may lead others to evaluate us in the way we evaluate ourselves. To know we are worthless rather to know that we feel worthless. Basically, to be found out. Perhaps this helps explain why shame can be difficult to ‘own up’. Perhaps too, this is about avoiding the pain and embodied manifestations. No doubt, however that it is also to do with the power of hemogenies to force us to comply and conform despite the violence they do to us. 

Shame has long been considered a marker of ‘psychopathology’. I have previously written about the problems with formulating shame from individualistic lenses. As a reminder, shame is a powerful and effective tool of social control. It is this understanding that I have tried to impart in my therapeutic work by connecting the sociopolitical to the lived experience of shame of the women I have seen. So, when working with women of colour, I do not consider the stories of shame I hear to be manifestations of intrapsychic phenomena or psychic conflicts. I consider them to primarily be social products handed to and internalised by certain bodies and, which serve various sociopolitical agendas, interests and functions.

Patriarchy and all perpetrators of gendered violence for example, clearly have stakes, in women or in their victims experiencing shame. Not least because it reduces the possibility of accountability, in fact it shifts it altogether, silently reproducing the oppression of women. Similarly, the myth of meritocracy is reproduced when poor and socially disadvantaged groups feel shame for not achieving the social success of their more privileged counterparts. When inadequacy rather than unjust disadvantage is internalised as an explanatory model, it is less likely that unfair structures will be dismantled. In other words, the burden of shame is placed on the shoulders of the less powerful, shame is handed to survivors rather than to perpetrators. To the oppressed rather than to the oppressor. And this is simply power protecting itself. Systems reproducing themselves. 

The glass of dirty water

I have used the above ideas in my practice by asking women, to think of shame as a glass of dirty or unsanitary water that has been and, indeed continues to be handed to them to drink. The choice of the word handed here is purposeful. It aims to establish a boundary or some distance between shame and the person who experiences it. Further, doing so implicitly counters individualistic and decontextualised notions of shame as something intrapsychically generated. This aims too, to highlight the possibility of agency in shame, since something which is handed symbolically can be handed back or refused. ‘Handed’, implies an external origin(s) encouraging the scrutinisation or personification of the ‘giver’, the gaze, so to speak shifts. Finally, the fluidity of water is quite useful here. It reflects that whilst shame can so easily be taken in, it can similarly easily be shared.

The dirty glass of water metaphor has led to interesting reflections and therapeutic conversations facilitated by the use of relevant questions such as: when was the glass first handed to you? How full was the glass? How much of it did you drink? What did drinking this water do to you? How much of it are you still drinking today? Who has been handing you the glasses? 

From these biographical significant  considerations, the sociopolitical context, and in particular power relations, can be introduced, continuing on with the metaphor. Who tends to be handed glasses of shame socially? In situations of abuse of power who hands the glass? What makes people more likely to drink the water and why might that be so? Specific examples may be discussed to highlight the role of racialised and gendered hierarchies in the distribution of shame. So I might ask, in situations of gendered violence (against women) who tends to be handed the glass? Or again, when it comes to economic exploitation who drinks the water? In colonial situations ect…And, knowing what we know, how might we respond to being handed a glass? Who does the water  belong to? 

As we consider illustration after illustration, it becomes clear that something is shifting in the room. I have seen demeanours almost transformed. Often women come up with their own examples, sometimes they remain silent and reflective. Sometimes they cry. For most, it is the first time, a conversation situating shame within wider socio-political contexts was had. They realise their emotions are no testament to their inadequacy. Their experiences are not inherently shameful.  It is quite humbling to witness this epistemic shift in the room. All the more so, because it seems to happen so quickly, often one session is all it takes. It is important, to remember the glass of dirty water is about engaging and primarily, about meaning making. It is also about avoiding epistemic ignorance. It is too about starting to chip at internalised social hierarchies and oppression and thus, it is a humble attempt at quietly dismantling inequalities in the ‘real world’. I often have a glass of water in the room, following a session on shame. I usually do not draw attention to it. Some women will do so. I find it has a grounding effect and perhaps too, it helps to bring the sociopolitical into the room.

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 its writers. 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.


Epistemic colonialism: A few thoughts 


On being taught my experience

A few months ago I was asked to speak at a community event on Fanon, decoloniality and radical mental health. There, I was approached, after my talk by a white man wishing to have a conversation. He said he wanted to invite me to a conference. We exchanged email addresses. When he later got in touch, he had made his way through Race Reflections on which he had posted half a dozen ‘private’ comments which he said were for my ‘benefit and learning’ only. Mainly, he was agreeing with my writing, indeed even commenting on the fact that I had a ‘very good understanding’ of the issues. He elaborated on some ideas, and suggested some reading.  All posts commented upon dealt with Black womanhood and my lived experience. That conference he had mentioned, he had no intention to invite me to speak at. Instead, he wanted to invite me to hear him speak. About Blackness and Fanon.

There was something quite violent if not slightly triggering, in the confidence with which that white man felt I would benefit from being schooled on my lived experience as a Black woman. It is quite disorienting and subtly objectifying to be doubted in or ‘assessed’ on one’s capacity to know especially when that knowing relates to one’s intimate relationship with oneself and the world. Something that mirrors the ease with which people with social power feel able to access and inhabit the phenomenological reality of the marginalised. And so… non-Muslim women have worn the Hijab for a day to ‘understand’ the gendered racism Muslim women have faced for generations. White people have gone black (face) to appreciate the continuing existence anti-blackness and, the wealthy and materially secure have slept rough in the streets of London (and of many other cities I am sure) to advocate for the homeless.

Knowing and inhabiting spaces

It is not only what we know about the world that is shaped by our ‘perspective’ but also what we cannot know. I have previously used a house analogy to try to illustrate that very point. When people speak about their (lived) experience, they describe what it is like to inhabit a particular space, which may be envisaged as a house. Clearly residing outside the house, would make any perspective on inhabiting the house impossible. One could not with any degree of validity agree, disagree or even comment on the experience of living in that space or assess what being inside might feel like or what the atmosphere may be experienced as, for example. Being outside the house actually means having no internal point of view, no perspective on living inside.

Even if one came to visit a few times, had friends living in the house, or if the windows were wide open, with the inside of the house in full view; one would not know about living inside and this would remain so, irrespective of how reflective one may be with regards to one’s social location and its map of power relations and whatever the relationship with the house’s residents. The above feel necessary to establish as there seems to be have been a shift towards more uncritical and quite oppressive adoption of ‘perspectives’ and positionality which give licence to more socially privileged people to speak and comment, with authority, on marginalised people’s lived experience while claiming to merely be offering a ‘perspective’. Nonetheless one which will often be strenuously defended as a right, and which will usually be claimed to be valid. As valid as our lived experience, if not more. 

The inhabiting of Others’ space geographically, geo-politically or phenomenologically, is naturally a function of social privilege. And, it is a reflection of the social order that the presence of the more socially powerful in such spaces is rendered automatically legitimate and thus deemed as such by those who may essentially be seen to be trespassing. There is no two-way street here. I struggle to imagine a Black woman asking a white man she’s just met to hear her speak on the ‘white experience’ or commenting profusely on his experience of white manhood. In fact, I even struggle to imagine a Black woman becoming an authority on the lived experience of white men. Similarly, geo-politically, whilst the Africanness of white people located in various countries in Africa is often taken for granted, the claim of people colour in relation to their Europeaness continues to be widely contested and mocked.

Phenomenological colonialism

White people will eventually acquire legitimate occupancy rights, if not native status; often above and beyond the indigenous populations whose land(s) they settled in. Privilege enables dominant groups to be blind to their ease of access and frequent feelings of entitlement to marginalised/colonised  spaces and to the various ways their claim to knowledge of our lived experience reproduces violence. The ideas that we can have a valid ‘perspective’ whilst holding ourselves almost as a kind of metropolis of every phenomenon or experience seems quite imperialist. Colonialism as a reminder, involved making illegitimate claims onto others’ territories and appropriating them for the purpose of economic, political and psychological exploitation, in addition, to taking at least partial, usually complete control of the said lands or alternatively, occupying them with settlers.

The justifications of colonial rule often rested upon strongly held beliefs in the supposed rights of colonisers, often thought to be divine, bolstered by claims of benevolence and/or superiority. Of course not everyone who speaks of the lived experience of the marginalised do so out of or with arrogance, saviourism or dominance or within settler colonialist fantasies. Nevertheless, knowing, particularly when it is made public, is not merely an individual act, it is also a social act. Certainly, it has social consequences.  The ‘invasion’ of the phenomenological worlds of the marginalised has effects which are harmful, notably because when voices deemed of authority give a name to a space, they transform that very space.  Those voices essentially bring a new place into existence (Creswell, 2004) and in doing so; erase any pre-existing notion of that space. In the same way America and Africa were ‘created’ as (meaningful) places at the beginning of their colonial encounter, the phenomenological field of the marginalised, despite claim of positionality, is at risk of becoming erased and replaced by the so called perspective of those with social power. This is what I call epistemic colonialism. 

The process of place making (and thus place erasing) is mirrored when voices of authority speak of a phenomenon or experience, even when they are located outside that experience. Perversely. As has been tirelessly theorised, knowing is inherently linked to power and, all marginalised groups within society are defined as non-knowers, to various extents. Offering privileged ‘perspectives’ crowds the field of our experiential knowledge with accounts that obscure our lived experience by those who are clearly located outside of the same but who are socially believed to have more elaborated capacities for analysis and whose knowledge can therefore be more easily trusted: the knowers.

The process of ‘perspective offering’ arguably here also reproduces a particular kind of violence which has been termed testimonial injustice by Fricker (2009).  Testimonial Injustice according to the Philosopher, is a kind of epistemic injustice whereby the legitimacy of marginalised people as knower, namely here of our own experience, is wronged in the main, because of societal prejudices and biases. ‘Testimonial injustice’ in addition to subjecting ‘minorities’ to violence, quietly reproduces material inequalities and social injustice. So…I did thank that man who congratulated me on my understanding of my own experience and proposed a take on it.  And, I thank him explicitly for that but, I was not flattered. And, I kindly declined to have anything to do with him.

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 its writers. 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.

Culturally Biased Therapy? (Part 1) Epistemic Violence and CBT 

For his first and rather controversial blog of 2017, the president of the British Psychological Society (BPS), Peter Kinderman took a critical look at Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Whilst acknowledging that the way that we make sense of the world has ‘profound implications’ for how we feel and behave and, referring to ‘acceptance and commitment therapy’ as a less individualist and pathologising ‘variant’ of CBT; Kinderman highlights in his blog, the serious limitations of focusing on people’s interpretations of events that are socially located and produced, to reduce psychological distress. He states:

‘CBT can rightly be criticised for adhering to an outdated and unscientific model of mental ‘illness’, for continuing to locate the blame for our distress inside our heads (rather than looking to social or even political root causes), and for sometimes implying both that people are responsible for “thinking errors” and that “positive thinking” can solve our problems’.

It was perplexing to see the above words create uproar. To me they did not go far enough. The individualism of CBT and its very real potential (to say the least), to lead to victim blaming and even re-traumatisation ought to be nothing new. Indeed, these are long standing critiques of CBT and, personal testimonies of people who have experienced the model as such are not hard to find. Many of us have had concerns over the uncritical dishing out of CBT, particularly to people of colour and other more marginalised groups, for years. This post is a first attempt at articulating some of these concerns.

What exactly is CBT, do we know?

CBT is reportedly a broad school of therapy said to include many different models (such as Mindfulness based approaches, Compassion Focussed Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and many others) with various theoretical and empirical bases. In all fairness, I am no longer sure at all what is meant by CBT because of this rather ‘eclectic’ amalgam. The continuing difficulty in defining what ‘cognitions’ are, of course does not help. This is a serious problem. Without agreement on one of the two core elements of CBT, we cannot reliably delineate the model or establish inclusion and exclusion criteria.

Perhaps this explains why this church of therapy might appear to be expanding so rapidly. The power and legitimacy the model has acquired and its dominance within health systems is of course not incidental here. Given the above, and to be sure we are indeed talking about CBT… it makes sense to ground any critique on more traditional approaches. Approaches which nonetheless continue to shape the practice of CBT. No doubt the most influential of models and, which has arguably provided the blueprint for most other models is Beck’s (1979). The Beck’s institute defines the model as follow:

‘Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is a time-sensitive, structured, present-oriented psychotherapy directed toward solving current problems and teaching clients skills to modify dysfunctional thinking and behavior’

CBT from this model (and a plethora of others) is centred on addressing ‘dysfunctional thinking’ posited to be the cause of psychological distress and, to take (behavioural) steps to solve on-going difficulties maintained. Often, this is achieved through ‘behavioural experiments’ or internal dialogues/self-talks and reflection. The essence of CBT, as it was intended at least, is thus the identification and modification of thoughts and beliefs deemed maladaptive (though more recently, distance from distressing thoughts has been added as an alternative aim). It is highly contestable whether psychological models that do not have this basic (former) element actually constitute CBT.

CBT and empirical psychology more generally have been criticised for ‘disavowing’ the metaphysics and history of their objects of study, concepts and methodologies. These elements nonetheless remain, imbue the practice of CBT and, propogate a particular worldview. Worldview may be defined as the philosophy of individuals, groups or societies which encapsulate beliefs in relation to the nature of things, of being and of knowing. Worldviews influence how we interact and engage with the world around us. They are culturally located and, are tranferred through various means including, parenting, social interactions and educational institutions.

The silent assumptions of CBT

Critically, professional discourses and practices similarly transmit implicit assumptions related to the nature of human action, agency and wellbeing. CBT contains a number of such assumptions including: the division between the world (the objective) and us (our subjective reactions). The need for objective evidence to support our beliefs and related to that, the requirement to doubt and reject our subjective reality and lived experience, if it cannot be objectively backed-up. Added to this, is a heavy reliance on what is observable over what cannot be seen. And ultimately, beliefs that psychological distress can be overcome through reason so that the good and (psychologically) healthy life can be achieved by rethinking our thinking.

The epistemology of rationalism is often hailed as the hallmark of (white) European thought. Rationalism posits that reason is the ultimate source of knowledge and freedom. Rosen argues that two of the main forms of rationalism which have had the greatest influence on the theory are: discursive rationalism and pragmatic rationalism. The former identifies reason as the only means by which the self can emancipate itself from the world of senses and, asserts that human beings are motivated to reach their ideal self by the knowledge gained through rational reflections and considerations of the world. Pragmatic rationalism on the other hand, does not seek to achieve self-mastery by self-reflection but by taking rational actions aimed at changing one’s desires, impulses and urges.

According to that approach, all unwanted impulses can be overridden by repeated actions so that we may train ourselves through what we do, to be more rational and therefore exercise agency over both our subjective world and the world around us. CBT clearly embodies both approaches as illustrated for example, by the practice of challenging thoughts, ‘behavioural experiments’, rational self-talks or even therapists’ ambitions of  mastering ‘Socratic questioning’. However, it reproduces them silently. And, this requires attention. Many non-western worldviews do not uphold European rationalist ideals. African worldview obviously varies, nonetheless, many of its features have been held to demarcate it from the above.

‘A fundamental tenet of traditional African culture is that there is more to reality and to the realm of experience than that which is readily accessible through empirical inquiry, and that one can acquire an understanding of natural phenomena by appealing to experiences whose characterisations are not empirically confirmable but are nonetheless warrantably assertible’ (Brown, 2004).

African dominant ontology and view of reality are fundamentally different from Western rationalism and therefore clash with many of the assumptions of CBT. The centrality of notion that there is more that influences reality than is accessible through empirical enquiry, such as the spiritual or the ancestors, is core to a number of non-Western espistemologies and has been found not only in African worldviews but also in several indigenous, Asian and First Nations’ traditions. In addition to CBT indirectly problematising the validity of such worldviews and feeding into the superiority of European ideals, it may be charged with protecting oppressive systems in the ‘West’ by invalidating the lived experience of people of colour.

It is one thing to encourage people to seek objective evidence to help disprove the belief that everyone hates them but, quite another to ask people of colour to back up their belief that they are experiencing racism. Direct objective evidence of racism is rarely available. And it is precisely because of difficulties in objectively evidencing oppression that people living in racialised and in other bodies marked as Other, have had to develop ways to apprehend reality that are not dependent upon rationalism. Trusting our lived experience is a vital act of resistance and survival in a culture where objectivity is weaponised to dismiss experiences that are preverbal, embodied and often un/sub-conscious. In this context, invalidating our ways of knowing and navigating the world is not only potentially psychologically harmful; it is also a social act which negates racism and therefore reproduces white supremacy.

Epistemic violence

Epistemic violence is a term that has generally been used by postcolonial researchers to refer to the construction of the Other by Western thinkers and philosophers. According to Spivak (1988) ‘epistemic violence’ is the process by which non-Western methods or approaches to knowledge and worldviews are obstructed. Spivak posits that imperialist subjugation of non-Western understanding or the ‘Othering’ of the colonial subject’s mode of knowing/being and more generally, that of those who are at the bottom of social hierarchies, (whom she refers to as the ‘subaltern’) has been central to the colonial project. This dynamic represents attempts (varying in their success) at deleting the consciousness of the Other or to overwrite it with Western epistemologies.

Non-Western epistemologies have a long history of being dismissed as inadequate, ‘primitive’, naïve or otherwise inferior. Rationalist philosophers such as Hegel, Kant, Locke, and Descartes amongst many others indeed believed people of colour lacked agency, sophistication and that they were incapable of intellectual thought. In fact, many rationalists did not even consider Black people to be human beings.  Colonialism was based on this ideological framework. This is the history that the epistemology of CBT was built upon. Thus, it becomes problematic when it is practiced in some kind of ahistorical vacuum, particularly when people of colour are the clients whose worldviews or ways of knowing are so obliviously being ‘corrected’. This mirrors the social scepticism and denialism that continue to befall upon our lived experience.

In epistemic violence, the harm suffered in not physical and it may not even be direct. Nonetheless that violence has a subject, an object, and is perpetuated through subtle acts. The subject of violence in the case of CBT is the therapist, the object may or may or may not be the individual client in the room but it is in any event, people of colour, at least predominantly. There are various acts of epistemic violence to reflect upon: the invisibilisation of the epistemological origins of CBT, arguably removing choice and agency or again, the failure to challenge (Eurocentric) rationalism as the only/superior way to access truth. Consequently, each ‘therapeutic’ cognitive reframing attempt reproduces discourses establishing whose knowledge of the world is legitimate and valid and with it, misrepresentations and distortions of the Other.

Concluding thoughts

Whether the question of epistemic violence similarly applies to other models of therapy is of course an important one, to various degrees, it is likely arguable that it does. However, CBT is based on working directly on how people know and make sense of the world, on their worldviews, making it obviously more problematic in that regard. There is no denying that regardless of the model used, psychotherapy can be a violent and damaging experience. Epistemic violence highlights a different kind of harm. A violence which occurs beyond the individual, to groups designated as racial Others. Individuals may find various therapy models helpful whilst the assumptions underlying the same may actually, at group level, be problematic, reproduce discourses of inferiorisation and help maintain racism. Ironically, the reason so many people of colour experience psychological distress.

I am aware that some have attempted to or claim to use CBT in a culturally adapted manner. I remain sceptical. It is difficult to imagine how the necessary changes to the model could be made without shifting fundamental epistemic assumptions thus taking such practice out of the CBT school. Further, even if adaptations were feasible, this would arguably be equally problematic and not remove ethical considerations and questions. Most notably, why would people of colour continue to be supported by adapted models, or in other words, by models centred on others’ needs or experience of the world, on models’ not created for us?

A final point worth considering concerns the issue of effectiveness. Of course it is because of CBT’s record empirically (a record which is increasingly being challenged) that it has gained its dominance. On this point, it is important to remember that effectiveness is not a measure of violence. It is certainly not a measure of epistemic violence. An intervention which is experienced as violent may still yearn positive outcomes on individuals, if we look hard enough for them but, more to the point here, subject the Other to violence socially, discursively and epistemically. A violence, I believe, which remains to be seriously reflected upon in the profession. Perhaps to that end, we could all do with this kind reminder: ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’ (Audre Lorde, 1979). Words which kept coming to my mind as I wrote this article.

References (not hyperlinked)

Beck, A. T., Rush, A. J., Shaw, B. F., & Emery, G. (1979). Cognitive therapy of depression. New York: The Guilford Press.

Brown, L.M. (2004). Understanding and Ontology in Traditional African Thought in Brown, L.M. (ed.) African Philosophy: New and Traditional Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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 its writers. 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.

White denial, Black mental health and ontological insecurity

On being (Black) in the world 

There are sharp and often irreconcilable differences in the way people apprehend the world based on how they are socially positioned. Nowhere is this possibly truer than in respect to race. Countless studies have demonstrated that white groups are far less likely than people of colour to both experience race discrimination and to believe that racism is still a serious problem. These attitudes filter down all aspects of life. Employment Tribunal litigated Race discrimination cases, for example, have a much lower success rate than other discrimination cases (four percent compared to about fourteen percent, aggregated for other types). Race related complaints are rarely upheld – last year 240 individual complaints of racial discrimination were made against the Metropolitan Police out of those, exactly… zero were upheld.

Post-‘Brexit’ hate crime reports reached a 60 percent increase and, they still remain 14 percent higher than at the same point last year. In the US, a record 867 hate crimes incidents were reported in the 10 days directly after the US presidential elections and Trump’s victory. The overwhelming majority of these incidents were race related. Despite this, media pieces and arguments by political pundits seeking to deny or minimise these increases abound. It is fair to say, that attempts to cast doubt on the rise in reported racial hate are not simply about methodological or conceptual limitations. They betray a fundamental scepticism and dubiousness when it comes to racism. 

It has been argued that this denial has not only ‘conquered all spheres and manifestations of racism but, that it is becoming the most typical and widespread modern form of appearance of racist attitudes, opinions, statements, actions and policies’. Petrova (2000) who refers to denial as the new ‘phenomenology of racism’ uses several illustrations to exemplify the way racism manifests itself in seemingly race ‘neutral’ policies and doctrines. She posits that the denial of racism is manifest, for example, in the belief in meritocracy and in equal opportunities. In the framing of racial (injustice) problems purely socio-economically, in the on-going denial of the hurt of racism and, in the everyday discursive normalisation of racial inequalities. One thing Petrova implies, but does not expressly state, is that this phenomenon of denial is by and large observed in white groups so to be clear, we are talking about white denial (of racism).

Mental health and racism

White denial is much more than a multi-layered social phenomenon. It is also a complex psychological process which equally fulfils deep rooted psychological and psychic needs. Such as the need for ego-world consistency: if I don’t experience or see racism there can’t possibly be any racism. Erasure of the past: if there is no racism, there is no need to revisit the shame and guilt loaded imperialism and its continuous effects. It helps maintain self-esteem or ego worth: if there is no racism then I can’t be racist and what I own is simply down to my own merit. Further, white denial acts as a mechanism to externalise accountability; if there is no racism there is no need for me to reflect on my own actions or on how I might contribute to this system of oppression. Whiteness is a protective factor when it comes to (current conceptualisations of) mental health, not only because it significantly decreases the likelihood on one being exposed to race related trauma/wounds but also, because the denial of racism plays an important protective role in terms of ego functioning and thus in terms of mental health. For people of colour, the situation is obviously different. 

Hundreds of studies have linked racial discrimination to both poor mental and physical health and unsurprisingly, people of colour who use mental health services have persistently identified experiences of racism both within and outside mental health services as core to their distress.  A recent study investigating the impact of harmful and repeated racial discrimination incidents on mental and physical health found ‘mental health problems’ to be significantly higher among racial minorities who had experienced repeated incidents of racial discrimination, when compared to ethnic minorities who did not report any experience of racism. The first study in the UK that unequivocally shows that more is definitely more (surprise, surprise) when it comes to discrimination. The more race discrimination you experience, the more psychological distress you will likely experience. All this, we must remember, against a backdrop of white denial.

Increasing evidence now establishes that experiences of racism are linked to ‘psychoses‘. This is of particular importance for people of colour given that studies, over the past few decades have consistently found significantly  higher rates of ‘psychosis’ diagnoses amongst many Black and Minority ethnic groups. Particularly within Black groups, the groups most likely to report (more frequent) experiences of racism. ‘Psychosis’ continues to be one of the most hotly debated (and stigmatising) psychiatric diagnosis. Nevertheless, regardless of one’s epistemic positioning and of one’s views on the validity of the term as a scientific construct, most would probably agree that experiences which attract the label or diagnosis, usually involve to one degree or another, some sort of loss of contact with reality.

In considering the psychological impact of both racism and white denial, contemporary relational/psychoanalytic conceptualisations of psychosis seem quite pertinent. Such theories tend to view ‘psychoses’ as an attempt by the self to hold itself together and remain whole in circumstances where it has been/is so gravely assaulted. Usually, it is posited, in contexts where our fundamental need to have our subjective reality and world validated and affirmed, has been met with denial, hostility and invalidation resulting in a sense of overwhelming insecurity.

Racism and ontological insecurity

In The Divided Self (1960), Laing proposed that the experiences of people with ‘psychoses’ can be understood by locating them within ‘abnormal’ family relationships. Laing’s conceptualisation of ‘Schizophrenia’ or ‘schizoid’ mind states is based on what he called ‘Ontological Insecurity’. Ontological insecurity he proposed, is a state of being which begins in childhood and which is in the main, caused by an absence of reciprocity between a primary caregiver and their child. In that sense, the caregiver in not able to affirm or respond to the infant’s needs and feelings, and instead tries to mould the child’s experience to meet her own needs and expectations. The child is essentially objectified to fit a reality imposed by the caregiver.  Naturally, the child will try to fit such expectations and will consequently develop a ‘false self’ which will be affirmed and valued in the family context, leading the child to feel invisible. As a result, the child may experience chronic feelings of being unreal, worthless, empty, dead, and disconnected from both others and themselves. In time, the child may come to be suspicious of the world and ultimately cut themselves off completely from other people in an attempt to maintain their real identity. This may lead to a total repudiation of the ‘false self’ and their ego splitting into different parts.

Ontological insecurity has thus been hypothesised to be a mental state derived from a sense of discontinuity in relation to the events in one’s life. Or, when a sense of order vis-à-vis an individual’s experiences cannot be maintained. Ontological security can only be achieved, it is believed, when people are able to give meanings to their lives and lived experience. Although this formulation of ‘psychosis’ concentrates on immediate alienating contexts, such as in interpersonal relationships with important relational others, when it comes to the experience of Black people and people of colour, it would seem senseless and potentially harmful, to omit the impact of invalidating social contexts, particularly that of power relations and of the workings of oppression in the development of psychological distress and experiences of loss of touch with reality. 

Family contexts are a microcosm of power relations in the wider social world and there is no rational reason to posit that violent power dynamics experienced at macro level would be less significant to the psyche, particularly when they are experienced chronically and across life domains. Racism implies the systematic negation of the other coupled with a wilful effort to deny them every attribute of humanity including, the fundamental capacity to know reality and indeed trust the reality as they apprehend it. As such, white denial can be thought of as depriving people of colour of the opportunity to know themselves and to integrate all aspects of their self as we are socialised into cutting ourselves off from our phenomenological reality.

Like the child who is not seen as a person of its own and, whose existence is strategically moulded to fit the caregiver’s needs and prerogatives, when racism is denied, people of colour are not recognised as autonomous, thinking and feelings beings. The lack of reciprocity central to ontological insecurity is also mirrored here as there can never be reciprocity in objectification, racial or otherwise. In objectification, the other is fixed, either in the gaze of an invalidating caregiver or in the White gaze. In either case, the world may come to be experienced as chaotic as personal meaning cannot be ascribed to events and experiences. The frameworks imposed clash with one’s lived reality. The foundation of ontological insecurity, according to Laing.

The present is an attempt to offer an interpretation of the excessive rates of ‘psychosis’ diagnoses which have been consistently found in the UK and in the US within the most marginalised populations of colour. No explanatory claim is made, clearly the situation is extremely complex. Nonetheless, currently little attention has been paid to the psychological impact of white denial, this needs to be remedied and, various potential clinical and therapeutic implications could derive from linking ontological insecurity to racism and its denial. Both in terms of supporting people of colour who might have experienced psychological distress and/or come to lose touch with reality, and also in terms of promoting better psychological health in that group (perhaps this will be the focus of a different article). It remains, that if ‘psychosis’ is conceptualised as a desperate attempt to live ‘an authentic life’ by fundamentally disconnecting from others, and from one’s own body when our sense of self and our reality is under systematic threat, if we are serious about healing such experiences within Black groups and, communities of colour more generally then, racism and white denial may need addressing as a matter of urgency.

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 its writers. 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.

Eros and Thanatos: A Freudian take on activism 


A few months ago, Sam Asumudu (Editor in Chief and Founder of Media Diversified) and I felt compelled to launch a campaign to hold UN soldiers; whose abuses have been documented in nearly every country where they have been stationed; to account. The campaign #predatorypeacekeepers which started on twitter came about shortly after a Canadian AIDS charity published a report accusing UN and French troops in the Central African Republic (CAR) of sexually abusing at least 98 girls. Harrowing details of the report include Black (African) girls being tied up and raped by multiple soldiers and, the death of one of the victims. The campaign has been one of the most difficult actions I have been involved in, laying bare intersecting issues of racism, sexism, colonialism and geo-political violence, amongst many others.

I am no stranger to experiencing despair and hopelessness and, in all honesty there have been times during this campaign when escaping the call of the darkness within has felt virtually impossible. Times when both my body and mind were so consumed by the suffering of the children in CAR, that it felt as though my energy and passion were being sucked out of me. During these times every silence around the campaign felt like an assault and; the apathy which continues to plague the campaign; became torturous. I am passionate about what I do. I care a lot.

‘Activist burnout’? 

Caring that much about stuff can make it difficult to disconnect and to disengage from the pain and hurt injustice creates and this in turn, makes it incredibly easy to become drained of life. The psychological demands of activism have been widely noted. For people of colour though, fighting for racial justice is naturally, particularly psychologically trying. It is trying because as we campaign for racial justice, we continue to suffer attacks caused by anti-Blackness or racism and, there are few places, where the injuries these attacks cause are taken seriously. It is trying because repeatedly proclaiming our humanity, means necessarily facing the fact that one is still not fully human, in the eyes of many.

‘Activist burnout’ is now a well known phenomenon. It is believed to occur when political or social activists feel overwhelmed, frustrated, hopeless, or depressed, usually after extensive periods of activism. The above definition whilst helpful as a starting point is quite limited in that it does not specify the mechanisms which may bring about ‘burnout’, nor does it seem to quite explain the more serious and intense impact of activism. Organising and campaigning can be effective ways of processing the trauma of living in an unjust world. There is definitely a feeling of liberation that comes with working towards dismantling structures that have done injuries to the self. Activism can allow us to escape white supremacist patriarchal capitalist society and to transcend the pain of the inevitability of being structurally located within it. Perhaps though, sometimes the pain cannot be transcended.

On February 8th 2016, Marshawn McCarran a young Black Lives Matter activist took his own life. He was only 23. The reasons behind his suicide remain unclear. But we do know that Marshawn was at the forefront of racial justice campaigns, that he helped organise protests in Ohio following the death of Michael Brown in 2014 and, that he was instrumental in organising around the Black Lives Matter movement. Karyn Washington is another Black campaigner who took her life. About two years ago. Karyn was the founder of the website For Brown Girls, and instrumental to the project of #DarkSkinRedLip project. She had dedicated her life to celebrating the beauty of darker skinned black women and to their empowerment. More than that, Karyn encouraged black women of all shades to love themselves. But on April 8th, 2014 she took an overdose. She was only 22.

Trauma and activism

There has been increased interest in examining the wounding effects of trauma on those who support people who have experienced trauma or who are exposed to trauma stories. These studies have however, in the main, focused on the impact on those in clinical roles such as doctors or therapists. Various formulations have been put forward to make sense of this vicarious traumatisation including: secondary stress, emotional contagion and, compassion fatigue. 

Secondary traumatic stress or secondary trauma refers to the severe emotional distress believed to occur when an individual hears about the first hand trauma experiences of another. Emotional contagion on the other hand, describes the phenomenon by which one person’s emotions, feelings and behaviours are triggered in other people and finally,  ‘Compassion Fatigue’ has been described as ‘a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper’.

Those theories though slightly different in focus, are centred on the role of empathy as the primary mechanism by which trauma may be communicated and become harmful to people in supportive roles.  These formulations, tell us little nevertheless, in terms of why some people may be more likely to feel the urge to expose themselves to trauma and thus its risks and, which particular individuals, if any, may be at an increased risk of vicarious (re)traumatisation. Given the potentially high psychological and health costs of getting involved with trauma, the existence of similarly powerful motive to indeed get involved seems presumable.

Eros and Thanatos

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) Freud described the concept of the death instinct, in the book he proposed that ‘the goal of all life is death’. Of particular interest here, is that Freud noted that people who experience a traumatic event often feel compelled to reenact the experience. This led him to posit that human beings hold an unconscious desire to die: our death instinct (Thanatos) but that the life instinct (Eros) largely keeps this wish in check.

Thanatos conflicts with Eros, our natural tendency toward what is life-producing such as survival, sex, and creative productions and, one could argue organising or campaigning. From this Freudian perspective, activism may, for many, be seen firstly as a way to reenact our traumas and secondly, as a strategy to transform our pain and our death urges into something more socially acceptable perhaps through sublimation. Sublimation is a defence mechanism by which unwanted impulses are transformed into something less harmful or ego-threatening. Sublimation is said to channel the energy created by the tension between Eros and Thanatos into life-producing activities.

This energy thus takes us away from destructive impulses and into something that may be more socially acceptable and/or creative. It follows that the energy and passion we have as activists may stem from that very tension and thus may well mask a real vulnerability. Perhaps it is that vulnerability that attracts some of us to activism in the first place. Perhaps too, it may be helpful to think of activists as wounded healers. In that vein, one may easily formulate how a less effective sublimation defence, perhaps because of fatigue, would make activists quite vulnerable to succumbing to the death drive particularly, if sublimination has been the main defence which may have been used to manage the tension between life and death.

All this analytical talk may seem quite removed from where some readers may be located or from their experiences but, they resonate with me, immensely. Though my activism has definitely made me more acutely aware of my wounds and forced me, on so may levels to consider death, it has also allowed me to take a more participative and active role in how the reality that continues to shape them is created. Through activism we may attempt to repeatedly heal and help ourselves, by acting on our social contexts, whilst seemingly helping others. This may be particularly true for those whose fields of action engage the very social conditions which gave rise to their trauma or wounds and for many, the urge to become activists in the first place. Consequently, understanding the balance between healing and hurting ourselves or Thanatos or Eros may well be central to activists practising self-care and self-preservation.

For those interested…

So what of #predatorypeacekeepers? The campaign (petition) has reached over 10 000 signatures, thanks to it, media pieces on the issues have burgeoned and we have written a couple. High profile celebrities spoke out, the UN has engaged with us and, critically adopted resolution 2072 (2016) – a resolution concerning the repatriation of troops when evidence emerges which suggests systemic sexual abuse. As a result, France withdrew their troops from CAR.  A major achievement for the campaign and one of our core demands.  We are continuing our action to ensure the needs of the victims get more visibility.  But at present, we are determined to taking a self-care break, hopefully that will help ensure we can continue on to amplify the voices of the victims and survivors in CAR whilst looking after ourselves.

Want to help, click here.

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 its writers. 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.

FREE Self-Care Workshops for Women of Colour

Blackness Centred Self-care Workshops for Women of Colour

Following the success of Race reflections’ first ever community workshops,  organised in partnership with the Women’s Campaign Office of the National Union of Students (NUS), we are pleased to be able to bring to you a new set of dates!

The next workshops** are being offered as follow:

On Friday January 27th 2017 at Tindelmanor London.


Much in the current socio-economic climate requires constant digestion and processing. From the spike in hate crimes following ‘Brexit’, to the images of distressed or dead Black and Brown bodies recurrently displayed on our social media pages or ‘timelines’.

This, in addition to having to navigate everyday instances of injustice, micro-aggressions and/or structural violence can have a deep impact on our wellbeing and our sense of safety.  The self-care workshops have been designed to promote safeness, connectedness and grounding in the context of our lived experiences as marginalised women.

These workshops will offer an opportunity to examine our condition, social realities and histories and their impact on our experience of the world, in order to better understand the importance of self-compassion as a way to practice self-care.

The aims of the workshops include:

* Sharing information on self-compassion and on Blackness Centred Self-Compassion

* Providing a space to reflect on our wellbeing in the context of our historical & social realities

* Exchanging practical suggestions to practice self-care and self-compassion

*Creating opportunities to network with and to both support and gain support from other women of colour attendees

Details of the workshops to be held on Friday January 27th 2017

Two workshops have been scheduled to last 2 and a half hours.

A morning workshop

From 10h30 to 13h00


An afternoon workshop*

From 14h00 to 16h30

*The afternoon workshop is for women who identify as Black only.

Who is the event for?

We are inviting women of colour that is, women from Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds who feel they could benefit from the workshops.

Booking a place

To reserve a place, please email: with your full name, indicating clearly your preferred workshop* (see above).

We will send you an email to confirm your place has been booked within 48 hours.  

Please note, places are strictly limited and will be allocated on a first come first served basis. If you are unable to attend after booking a place, please let us know as soon as possible so that your place may be given to someone else.


These workshops will be facilitated by Guilaine Kinouani

Additional information

Travel contributions                                                                                                                                                                                                    Currently, we are not able to fund or contribute towards attendees’ travel costs.

Light snacks will be provided however, if you require a full lunch please make your own arrangements.

Accessibility                                                                                                                                                                                                                 The venue is accessible for wheelchair users. Please contact us for additional information about access.

** The present workshops are offered to women who did not attend the initial round of workshops. Follow up workshops for initial attendees are in planning and will be offered to those concerned directly. For details of dates of workshops in Manchester, please get in touch.

 Getting there:

We look forward to meeting you! Please do not hesitate to contact us in case of query:

The ‘Burkini’, The Colonial Gaze and The body.

A few days ago armed policemen ordered a French Muslim woman who was lying and peacefully relaxing on the beach in Nice to partly undress. They then proceeded to fine her. All that under the watchful gaze of hundreds of silent beach goers. The incident quickly gained global attention and put the spotlight onto the so-called ‘burkini ban’ in France (which has now been suspended) although, the woman was not actually wearing a ‘burkini’ at all but, what appears to be a light blue tunic and a headscarf. These details became lost. The photographs of the incident went viral and appeared on my twitter timeline on Tuesday evening.

It is quite difficult to describe the wave of emotions which went through me as I saw them. Or how my body witnessed and experienced the pictures of the interaction. I watched with watering eyes. Shocked. Anger came later. The series of photographs documented the public dehumanisation of a fellow French woman. A fellow woman of colour who through her ordeal has become the focus of an international sadistic appetite for all things Muslim, her humiliation globally available. A woman whose body has been turned into an ideological spectacle. Because she happened to be on the beach, while Muslim. In France, specifically in Nice.

The power dynamics are naturally worthy of attention here. As are the symbolic and social functions of the fine given, in terms of its reproduction of certain discursive notions. The notion that Islam and Frenchness are mutually exclusive and, the corresponding and powerfully enforced, hemogeny in relation to France’s misconceived and selectively enforced secularism. Subtly evoked too is the notion that people of colour and immigrants are a burden to France.  And, equally worthy of note, is the act of undressing itself, publically, which cannot but evoke colonialism and specifically, France’s relationship with the colonial subject both historically and analytically.

As a French woman of colour who’s made England her home, I am regularly questioned on my experience of racism. I am asked to make comparisons between racism in England and racism in France. Usually, such requests are initiated by British people who for various reasons have convinced themselves that they are more tolerant than their French counterparts and actually want me to confirm the same. They essentially expect me to give their ego a tender caress. I usually refrain, smile and try not to engage in such conversations. Either because I do not want to bruise egos, disappoint or, do not have the energy to get into the depths necessary to meaningfully make my point.

I am not a Muslim woman. Yet, those pictures did something to me. They awoke something in my body before my brain could process the human right violation captured on camera. Before I could assess how significant this moment was for women’s rights.  Even before I could utter or think the word discrimination, or the word racism, or sexism, or islamophobia.  My body got there first. Perhaps, it remembered the kind of racism I have experienced in France. I do believe that when one’s body is repeatedly placed in the position of the Other through a particular and highly sexualized gaze, that this trauma may well become marked in its physiology.

The truth is, I do not believe that French people are more racist than the English but I do believe the racism I have experienced in France is of a different breed. Not only because it is often more overt and unapologetically so, but also because it has always felt more sexual. Undoubtedly so.  There is a long and complex history of sexualised imperialism that France has engaged in. From the unveiling of North African women which was common practice within North African colonies as, was/is the feshitisation of the Black female – or more generally indigenous – body. To the naked exhibition of colonial subjects, notably that of Saartjie Baartman.

France’s obsession with assimilating the colonial subject has also manifested in high rates of mixed relationships (and thus, of slave rapes) within its empire. It has given birth to the continuing exotisation of women of colour and the idealisation of ‘métisses‘ (mixed race people). As Fanon and others have articulated, assimilating is ultimately possessing thus annihilating the Other. It is denying its independence as an object. It is blurring physical and psychological/psychic boundaries. This blurring of boundaries, that yearning for possession of the object of both contempt/fear and desire, is experienced through the body. This may explain the embodied response described above and perhaps also, why France’s racism has always made me more conscious of my body.

Sex is the ultimate of act assimilation. It is therefore not coincidental that, to France, it appears, more acceptable forms of relationship with the Other must involve sexual availability, if not consumption. Consequently, the undressing of a Muslim woman, is not only a political act. It is also a colonial act which betrays a particular psychological relationship with difference. In that sense, it is completely unsurprising that Muslim women’s bodies would be the focus of discussions on Islam in France. That they would become an object of patriarchal obsession and bear the brunt of islamophobia. Muslim women who wear the Hijab, burka or ‘burkini’ pause a psychic threat to those whose only mode of relating to the Other is to consume it, often through its gaze.

‘Covering up’ may essentially represent a refusal to be consumed by France’s (neo) colonial patriarchy. If only symbolically. Anyone who believes the act of wearing a hijab or Burka or Burkini for most Muslim women constitutes an act of submission, should really reflect on  their assumptions. I would argue quite the opposite. Contrary to what the mainstream narrative may be or what white feminists may choose to posit. Psychically, one may argue that French Muslim women are in fact fiercely resisting and holding onto their independence in a country with very, very dodgy boundaries indeed. France needs to develop resources to be able to exist independently from the colonial subject. Currently, it cannot do so. Neither psychologically nor economically. It is France who fears independence and liberation, it is not French Muslim women.

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 its writers. 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.

Why I no longer argue about racism

These days I rarely challenge white people who dispute matters related to white privilege, oppression or racism. I simply let them be. Often, this means letting them feel intellectually superior and comfortable in their uncritical notions of objectivity. It is not because I could not debunk their naive rationalism and sometimes plainly illogical arguments. But…the emotional labour is really not worth it. And, there are simply too many more important things I must do with my time and energy. Life is short. I do not intend on wasting another single moment of it entertaining bigotry dressed as reason. 

I no longer challenge white people who dispute white privilege because I really don’t feel the need. I don’t feel I need to convince them when it comes to matters of my subjugation or make a case that their privilege is my oppression. I do not seek to change people’s mind. Some have a hard time understanding this… arguing would be making my existence and my lived reality subject to agreement, disagreement or approval from those whose very existence and sense of self, is still rooted in the erasure of the violence they inflict upon me. I do not need for people to agree that it hurts to know that it hurts. It is enough that I feel that it does. Life is short. I have no intention of denying my wounds to protect or lick someone else’s. I’ve chosen to centre my pain and that of other marginalised bodies. Have no doubt that this is a political act.

I have stopped challenging people who deny oppression because inter-rater reliability is really not necessary for me to accept the validity of my lived experience. I trust it. And, I will speak it. I’ve learnt that doing so is central to my liberation and perhaps that of others too. That it is central to carving out spaces where I can simply exist for me and not for others. Contrary to what society seeks to enforce onto me and onto those whose bodies were meant to make space for others. But life is short. And I want some space. We need to breathe too. There’s enough room for us all.

If I was to seek to evidence that my lived experience is legitimate, I would simply find myself constantly dragged into a battle of will and of power. I would sink into a world of violent denial or hostility where the only possible way out would be accepting that those who have no notion of what it is to live in a racialised & gendered body, have equal, if not better apprehension, of reality. Since there is only one reality, theirs. I would need to accept being schooled on the inaccuracy of my ‘perceptions’ so that the latter can be realigned more closely with a reality that is not mine, as though reality was independent of the person who experience it. And in truth, I have no time for that. I have no interest in being a perpetual child.

I no longer challenge people on racism because I know my experience will indeed eventually be framed as ‘perceptions’. And that to frame lived experience as perception is not a neutral act. It is one of the most common way marginalised and/or painful experiences are invalidated or trivialised because they are inconvenient. It is a speech act. It is a silencing act. If you doubt that, simply pay attention to whose experience is usually defined as ‘perception’ and whose become naturalised, objectivised and legitimised. In other words, what challenges the interests of dominant groups is always a matter of perception. Always.

These are the games power plays. But life is too short for silly games. And, I will not hand over the power I have to define the world and to use whatever language I see fit. I no longer argue with white people who deny racism because in a world that seeks to erase you and your experience choosing to self-define and to name your reality is imposing your existence.

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 its writers. 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.

Blackness Centred Compassion Therapy DRAFT 1

Compassion and self-compassion

Compassion literally means to co-suffer, or to ‘suffer with’. It has been defined as the feelings that arise in us when we are confronted with the suffering of others and, which trigger an urge or motivation to alleviate that suffering. Self-Compassion thus, can be taken to mean extending compassion to ourselves when we experience suffering, pain or when we feel inadequate and taking actions to relieve our suffering. Kristin Neff who based her formulation of self-compassion on Buddhist teachings proposes that self-compassion is composed of three main components, namely: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

She defines self-kindness as being warm towards ourselves when faced with pain and shortcomings rather than ignoring our feelings or resorting to harsh self-criticism. Common humanity, she proposes involves recognizing that suffering and feelings of personal failure are part of what makes us human. They are part of a shared human experience. Finally, Neff conceptualises mindfulness as the act of being balanced towards our emotions and feelings by neither suppressing nor exaggerating them. To Neff, this is about observing with openness and non-judgementally  ‘negative’ or difficult feelings.

Compassion focussed therapy

Compassion Focussed Therapy (Gilbert, 2005) is an evidence based framework centred on self-compassion. It is currently the main model which has operationalised the use of self-compassion for clinical/therapeutic purposes with impressive results for various manifestations of psychological distress. CFT was designed to work with individuals who experience high levels of shame and self-criticalness. It may be described as an integrative framework in that it integrates ‘techniques’ and thoughts from various psychological models including cognitive behavioural therapy, relational approaches, Buddhist psychology, and neuroscience. The central therapeutic technique of CFT is ‘compassionate mind training’, which teaches the skills and attributes of self-compassion.

In summary, CFT proposes that human beings have inherited an emotional regulation system made of three main components: a ‘threat system’ focussed on dangers, a ‘drive system’ which motivates us to achieve or compete, and a ‘soothing system’ which promotes safeness and connectedness. Each system is posited to be associated with specific ‘feeling-states’, motivations, purposes, and corresponding neuro-chemical phenomena. The balanced use of all three of those systems is believed to be required for optimal psychological functioning. In individuals with high levels of shame, self-criticalness or who tend to be hostile towards themselves however, the ‘soothing system’ is not easily accessible or is under-developed.

As a result, these individuals are believed to have difficulties experiencing reassurance and safeness because the neural systems that activate such feelings are thought to have been underused often, as a result of abuse, neglect, or other chronic experiences of being at risk. Those experiences have made such individuals essentially learn to resort to using self-criticism and shame to manage psychological distress and pain. One may say, they have internalised the hostility of their environments and come to relate to themselves in the same way the world has treated them. ‘Compassionate mind training’ helps clients to counter such tendencies by developing compassion for themselves and others. It includes guided exercises to foster compassionate skills and attributes such as: ‘distress tolerance’, self-kindness, and/or self-soothing.

Self-compassion and Blackness

The belief that ‘therapy is for white people’ is a persistent one within Black communities (Black here is intended to designate communities of the African diaspora: those ethnic groups who descent from Africa, although this model may be more relevant to Black groups who live in contexts were they are minoritised). Of course, there is some truth to this notion, mainstream psychotherapy models generally take little account of race and racism and their effect upon the psychological world of people of colour. Many have asserted that white culture forms the foundation of the theory, research and practice of mainstream psychology. White culture has been taken to refer to ‘the synthesis of ideas, values, norms, beliefs, and behaviours’ centred on or created by descendants of white European ethnic groups. This criticism is of relevance to current models/use of self-compassion.

Though current models do recognise that shame based self-relating tends to develop within abusive, neglectful or threatening relational contexts, they are not exempt from this criticism. Shame even within CFT has been largely removed from broader socio-political contexts resulting in unduly individualistic formulations. However, distinctively from dominant groups, people who are racialised as Black (and other people of colour) often experience shame because of their otherness, because of their Blackness. This shame is largely the result of trying to fit into a white society which consistently tells us implicitly or explicitly that our Blackness is inferior, threatening or otherwise problematic and that we must assimilate into Eurocentric ideals to be acceptable, alienating us from parts of ourselves which many of us then come to despise.

In other words, race related shame is a by-product of power structures and of racialised social hierarchies. In that sense, we may argue that it is a powerful tool of social control which serves the interests of dominant groups. Indeed, feeling ashamed of our Blackness or of our ancestry reinforces whiteness and the subjugation of Black people and of people of colour. A Blackness Centred Compassion Therapy model would thus have at its core the socio-political and historical origin of race related feelings of shame racialised groups experience trying to survive in a white supremacist culture and their performative functions. Further, whilst there is an explicit acknowledgement of the impact of unsafeness or recurrent stressors in the creation of shame and self-criticalness as ways of self-relating within self-compassion frameworks, the centrality of axes of oppression such as racism in creating feeling of unsafeness has received little attention.

Self-compassion and humanity

Neff ‘s conceptualisation of self-compassion reminds us that ‘the very definition of being human means that one is mortal, vulnerable and imperfect’. Facing feelings of inadequacy may be particularly painful for many people of colour because of internalised racism. Admitting to them may be seen to amount to accepting racist notions of inferiority. Consequently, self-compassion may reengage us in our humanity. Treating ourselves harshly when we are experiencing pain, not attending to our suffering when we feel inadequate and silencing these experiences disconnects us further from our humanity, it isolates us. From a socio-political perspective, by harshly treating ourselves, we essentially do the ‘masters’ work: we dehumanise ourselves and reproduce societal contempt towards Black and Brown bodies.

People of colour particularly Black people have historically been expected to spend much of their existence attending to the needs of others, caring for ourselves or being kind to ourselves have been at odd with social constructions and dehumanising beliefs around inferiority or worthlessness. Further, Black people have historically, had to focus so much on surviving that we may not necessarily have created a culture of self-nurture or self-care. For these reasons, centring our needs and experiences have become radical acts defying social expectations of servitude, subservience and notions of insignificance.

Using compassion and self-compassion as a way to relate to ourselves and each other also seem consistent with more Afrocentric worldviews. Striking similarities between the Buddhist conceptualisations of self-compassion and Ubuntu philosophy can be made. Ubuntu roughly translates as ‘human kindness’ though, several definitions of the worldview exist. Ubuntu posits that society gives human beings their humanity. It proposes that a person can only be a person through other people and because of their recognition. Being is therefore envisaged as a process by which we become aware of the us in others and the others is in us. Ubuntu places emphasis on the intersubjective nature of our human experiences. Humanity is seen as quality we give to each other. ‘We are because you are’ or  ‘I am because we are’ encapsulate the spirit of Ubuntu which closely link to the notion of interbeing within compassion frameworks and more eastern-centric philosophies. Both emphasise the state of being inter-connected to others and the world moment to moment, but also to the past (e.g. our ancestors) and to a co-constructed future.

Centring Blackness

The lived reality of race remains a factor that profoundly shapes the lives of people of colour. The visibility of Blackness and its loaded history continues to have deleterious consequences on life opportunities, course and expectancy. The invisibility of the impact of racism both historically and contemporarily on the psychological functioning of people of colour contributes to the marginalisation and silencing of formative race related experiences and their trauma, directly feeding into shame and internalised racism. Further, some evidence suggests therapy which explicitly includes cultural content may lead to increased intimate disclosures, greater willingness to self-refer and seek help and greater satisfaction than those models that use so called ‘universal’ content. There is therefore a strong case for expressly integrating Blackness or race related experiences within the ‘emotional regulation systems’.

Race related life events such as witnessing or experiencing racial assaults, harassment, institutional racism, discrimination have long been linked to feeling unsafe, hypervigilant and even suspicious/culturally paranoid. Racial oppression can lead to the distrust of white people. Whilst this mistrust is adaptive and serves a protective function e.g. alerting individuals to the threat of race related discrimination or assaults, this apprehension can translate in many people of coulour experiencing the world from a young age as hostile, unsafe and/or dangerous. Such experience would presumably lead to an inflated or more reactive ‘threat system’.

Similarly, the ‘drive system’ may also be affected by race. The internalisation of racism can often mean that racial minorities are raised to prove that they are good enough, the notion that we must work twice as hard, to simply be deemed good enough by white society is still propagated and arguably grounded in reality. The belief that any ‘failure’ would confirm racial stereotypes or bring shame onto our family or the in-group, the constant striving for excellence (to defend against internalised racism or race related shame) or for socio-economic betterment in a context of structural disadvantage and racism can translate in the drive system becoming over-used in an attempt to keep at bay feelings of shame and inadequacy and their related fears, positioning many of us towards achievement or competition rather than self-soothing.

To conclude, there are strong empirical and theoretical reasons to posit that Black groups and people of colour more generally, may benefit from interventions focussed on promoting, safeness and connectedness and that basing these interventions on Blackness appears particularly important. This is what the Blackness Centred Compassion Therapy model aims to achieve.

The (draft) formulation Model

Figure 1: Blackness Centred Compassion Therapy 

The above formulation diagram (figure 1) is proposed to make sense of race based shame and its connectedness to the historical and to the personal. Personal experiences of the world as racialised beings, experiences of racism and racial identity development will be explored. Formulation here aims to understand and explain survival or coping strategies which have been adopted in the context of a racist culture and the deriving creation of race based shame. Race based shame, concerns feeling of inadequacy which are related to racial otherness, they may encapsulate insecurities about intelligence, beauty, security, opportunities or shame of expressing anger over injustice, or cultural expressions, for example. The impact of survival strategies implemented to cope with race based shame (e.g. assimilation, resistance, striving for excellence) on the emotional regulation (drive, threat and soothing systems) will be explored at various levels of human functioning from micro to macro, the psychological, the relational and the socio-political.

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 its writers. 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 strong Black Woman’: Reflections on trauma and survival

I was recently invited to sit on a panel to review and discuss a play centred on Black women entitled Still Barred. The play features four characters entangled in stories of sexual abuse, neglect, violence who are in constant dialogical exchange and disconnection with themselves and reality. A powerful mix of fantasy and reality and a compelling attempt at portraying the complexities of Black women’s psyches. 

The panel discussion like the play, focused on mental health and in particular, how Black women cope with trauma, in a context of intersectional violence and invisibility. The panel discussion was pretty much led by the audience’s questions, comments and responses to the play. The audience composed primarily of Black women and the panel was entirely female and Black.

Unsurprisingly, discussions soon enough turned to ‘the strong Black woman’ trope and the burden it places on us. One panellist spoke of her hospitalisation for severe depression.  A depression which she felt was the effect of patriarchy and anti-Blackness and, which caused her mother to become alienated from her as the latter did not know how to be with a daughter who was struggling to bear the weight of everything that society threw at her.  A daughter who did not seem ‘strong’ enough. Another panellist spoke of having been told to keep strong ‘just like other women in her family’, when she disclosed the sexual abuse she had suffered at the hands of an uncle, as a child, to her mother. 

I have never experienced myself as particularly strong but I know that story too and the impossible standards it imposes. This expectation of strength did not simply come from my family. I discovered early that there was something very peculiar about living in a world that imagines you as unbreakable when so much of your breathing time is focussed on surviving. 

I was five or perhaps six when I first experienced that double consciousness. When for the first time I realised that there was a discrepancy between how I experienced myself and how the world viewed or defined me. It was after a silly dispute between children in the neighbourhood which got out of hands. One child who was being teased fetched her father. Unfortunately for me, I was not a fast runner. So while most of the kids involved disappeared within seconds, pretty quickly an angry father caught me, grabbed me by the collar of my shirt, lifted me into the air with one arm and, threatened me with a clinched fist with the other. 

It took the screams of a Black woman, a neighbour who happened to walk past, for this enraged man to release his grip on me, free me and walk away. ‘She’s a child’, ‘she’s a child’ she repeatedly shouted at him. I don’t remember the little girl’s name or what the argument was about but I recall that days or perhaps weeks after this incident, we were friends again. Such is the absurdity of childhood drama. Yet, that father had forgotten my vulnerability when his face turned red with heat and his fist was trembling with rage. It is clear that in that moment, he did not see fragility or childhood. And, I saw what he saw me as, in his eyes.  I never forgot. Anti-blackness sometimes has a look. 

When I was hit by a motorbike a few years ago, as I regained consciousness, I recognised glimpses of this look on the face of the police officer who I saw comforting the upset driver who had hit me as I was left unattended on the road. I was then encouraged to get up and walk away from the site of the collision. This was after I had been propelled a few meters into the air, fell onto the ground and lost consciousness albeit for a minute or two. And again, as though the universe was looking after me, I remember a passer-by (a Black woman again!) who had witnessed the accident screaming at the officer ‘Don’t move her’ , ‘don’t move her’. I must have looked pretty robust (to the policeman) then too.

So here lies my conflict with the demonisation of those who have had to reenact and reproduce the strong Black woman narrative. Historically, rarely has there been spaces where Black women could attend to their trauma and suffering. In fact, it is only fairly recently that the injustice of imperialism has been conceptualised as collective trauma. And still, this is contested. 

The constructions of us as superhumans, unable to feel pain or psychological distress has a long history which is rooted in slavery and in colonialism. It formed the foundation of the commodification of our bodies and of capitalism. This history has left an enduring legacy. Today still, there are few places where our vulnerability is seen and attended to because of perceptions that we are strong or fierce or resilient or whatever term en vogue, used to imprison us and to erase our wounding socio-political contexts.
To account for this by alleging that we have some kind of ‘superwoman syndrome’ (I’ve read this a few times) which we need to be ‘cured’ of, is quite frankly insulting.  So, to those who might struggle to see the link between social constructions of Black womanhood and smothered personal stories of sexual abuse, of violence or of maternal rejection or of distress, I would kindly ask that they consider the impact of social injustice on family stress and, of chronic stress on family functioning.

Or that they explore internalised oppression and the notion that marginalised groups must not expose their ‘dirty laundry’ lest they arm the oppressor with further ammunition against them. Or that they consider the origin of our, often fragile, sense of worth and its relationship with honour and respect. I would ask them to consider that perhaps, if families or mothers had experienced warmth, care and compassion themselves when in distress or if their trauma had been seen, perhaps they might trust that the world may show their daughters the same consideration.

Of course, there is much more than that but that would be a start. The truth is, there are very few other ways Black women have been allowed to be in the world than ‘strong’ and so, the prison of that fantasised notion has had to be internalised at least to a degree. It has served the fundamental function of our survival and as such has, on balance, served us well. Yes – and, I am the first person to say so – we do need to prioritise our wellbeing. We need to redefine ‘strength’ so that it leaves room for help seeking, for vulnerability and for self-care. But what we do not need, is the same old victim blaming and erasure of our histories and socio-political realities. 

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 its writers. 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.