Psychology

Trauma Informed Care & people of colour

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it”                

                                         Zora Neale Hurston

There are different kinds of wounds. Not all pain is deemed legitimate. Oppression causes trauma. Amidst the (fairly) obvious, debates around what really constitutes trauma as laid out in criterion A of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM)’s diagnosis for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); are alive and well. Criterion A now requires that an individual has been ‘confronted with: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence’ in order to qualify as having experienced trauma. In contrast with the DSM-IV and previous versions, the DSM-V notably includes sexual violence but not racial violence…troublingly evoking the fight for racial justice.

Looking back in history, (white) women’s rights have always taken precedence over the rights of people of colour. For example, in the US white women were afforded the right to vote in both state and federal elections in 1920 but, it was only in 1954 that people of Asian heritage could vote and; well into the 60s that measures specifically designed to bar African Americans from voting (e.g. voting taxes, literacy tests or intimidation) were rendered unlawful. The recognition of racial violence and injustice historically takes much longer than the recognition of sexual violence. It is important to bear that in mind. With some luck, we may get some intersectional thinking within mainstream mental health systems within 50 years.

Still…many of us continue to exist under the weight of racial (and intersectional) violence and more critically; continue to be affected by smaller, less extreme but repeated traumatic experiences. They rarely involve threat to life or to the integrity of our body but, they nonetheless create threat to livelihood, affect life course and limit life chances. They may not cause us to be confronted with overt violence, all the same, they create unsafeness and insecurity, pain and, a sense of futility and resignation or helplessness. Often too, they lead to internalised silencing or self-censorship due to repeated experiences of denial, invalidation or minimisation.

I am amongst those who believe in speaking of our pain.  As marginalised people when we are silent when violence is done to us, we offer a hiding place to perpetrators and to oppressive systems. Oppression and abuse often create a felt sense of shame. And, shame thrives in silence. This is also how oppressive systems reproduce themselves, they locate the pathology, dysfunction or anomaly within those they harm. We do the master’s work when we internalise these (projective) beliefs. Moreover, when one cannot speak of the violence they experience or have experienced, they are done violence all over again. Silence is violence. Often.

Insidious trauma

There is nothing new in considering oppression as a traumatic agent, nothing new at all. Feminist scholars have long critiqued DSM conceptualisations of trauma. Many have advocated for a theoritical expansion so as to locate the experience of trauma within socio-political contexts. The concept of insiduous trauma is born out of this scholarship. Insidious traumatisation (Root, 1992) is centred on the daily ‘subthreshold’ traumatic stressors marginalised people experience which, when taken cumulatively, amounts to trauma because they are constant reminders of one’s precariousness and unsafeness in the world. Some feminists have sought to include insidious trauma within PTSD criteria or put forward conceptualisations of oppression-related psychiatric disorders.

Understanding insidious traumatisation is vital. Nevertheless, I am not sure that some sort of pathologisation parity is required or would be helpful. Nor that pathologising responses to trauma more generally is desirable. This is not because I uphold a hierarchy of suffering or injustice or, because I think, insidious trauma necessarily produces dissimilar physical or psychological reactions to more ‘classic’ traumatic events or experiences. I am simply not convinced that the legitimisation of the psychological harm of racial violence should be via an extension of the DSM/psychiatric classification systems; systems that are based on alleged ‘deviation’ from unpacked and unproblematised norms (and let’s be real which themselves have a long history of doing violence to marginalised groups and indeed may easily be charged with actively living up to that legacy) when being deemed ‘abnormal’ and treated as such in the world is, by definition, the root cause of insidious trauma.

Trauma Informed Care?

When a traumatic event is extreme or when we are able to identify a specific event, it is easier to see and recognise the need for support and care. When the damage is done covertly or more subtly over months, years or decades or; when it is part of the fabric of society culturally or ideologically, it can be much more difficult to attend to our suffering or to legitimise the need for support; even to ourselves. Such violence becomes the norm and our responses the pathology, our inability to cope. Smaller but repeated acts of denigration, of discrimination, of othering; constant reminders of structural inequalities and injustices do culminate into significant psychological distress. The evidence is there. There is nothing abnormal or deviant in survivors. The deviance lays in the violence.

There has been a global push towards what is often referred to as Trauma Informed Care (TIC). Various definitions of Trauma Informed Approaches (TIA) exist; all have at their core, a will to configure services and/or care around the developmental impact of trauma on all level of human functioning including on the psychological, neurological and on social development. TIA, further; seeks to ensure all social systems understand the impact of trauma on families, groups, communities and other social systems. TIC may be less stigmatising and, there are many benefits to understanding how trauma can affect attachment, worldviews and more generally people’s experience of the world and thus how structures can retraumatise.

I remain cautious though, when it comes to uncritically embracing the approach. I am not sure there is a huge conceptual difference between envisaging people as traumatised rather than as ‘mentally ill’.  For starters, most proponents of the medical model would probably argue that both propositions are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, it is precisely what has been proposed of late ‘there is something wrong with you… (in your brain, your emotional responses, your personality, your perceptions, your cognitive or relational processes etc…) because of what you have been through’. Thus, saying or implying, you are damaged because of trauma is no more humanising as a narrative, to me, than saying or implying you are damaged because of faulty brain structures.

Both explanatory models locate the disturbance or pathology within the individual.  In other words, you are still saying to me that there is something wrong with me as opposed to, there is something wrong with the way that I have been treated and everything ‘right’ in the way I have responded to try to survive. Further, and more importantly, the main focus remains on ‘treatment’ rather than on prevention, at least not on holding structures of power to account.  I have seen very little of this within TIA. ‘What has happened to you’ is infinitely more compassionate than ‘what is wrong with you’ no doubt, better still is asking ‘what has happened to you’ then, turning to oppressive systems and those with more social power; to ask ‘what are you doing to stop harming people’ or ‘how are you abusing your power’. Much more difficult questions of course but, necessary ones to balance the focus here and not lay our gaze exclusively or even primarily, onto individuals who survived violence or try to survive the harm done onto them but onto those who abuse their power, individuals and systems.

Trauma Informed Care and oppression

Psychiatry and mental health systems do not own distress or trauma. Or how it is defined. Or how it is or should be experienced. Trauma is not patented by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Our experience of the world does not cease to exist simply because a group of white American men at the APA, or dominant systems more generally have decided, the daily violence we suffer is not that traumatic or worthy of a name or of a mention in their (conceptually and empirically flawed) book. Or because mental health systems, by and large, continue to struggle to make themselves relevant to so many of us.

I note that despite the recognition that racism constitutes trauma within most TIA I have come across and, the expressed link between trauma and historical and cultural contexts as one the principles of TIC,  I am still to see a single intervention within the framework specifically addressing the damage of whiteness within any mainstream mental health system in the UK. This, I find quite ironic. Racism reproduced at cultural-symbolic level is a source of trauma too. This invisibilisation or disinterest is consequently quite rich.  There is thus no evidence that TIC would be more relevant and/or more centred on people of colour’s needs or experience. Although the potential that it could is certainly there.

Although I am still ambivalent but open about TIC in relation to people of colour and their experience of oppression particularly, I do believe that we could benefit from using insidious trauma to make sense of our lived experience and to render visible and legitimate, the psychological effects of racial oppression. Although here too, the danger of individualising social trauma by narrowing analytical lenses looms very near indeed, constant efforts are required to avoid this process. Sill, by claiming the term, irrespective of dominant groups or systems’ approval, we are choosing self-definition. We are too, asserting our right and power to define reality. We are choosing to centre our experience of the world and hopefully to orientate ourselves towards self-care. And, to be clear, self-care in my book absolutely entails organising and resisting. History, teaches us that it makes little sense, to seek social approval for our struggles before taking action. Eventually, we tend to be proved right.  TIC and particularly, oppression-focused TIA may well prevent more debilitating manifestations of oppression-related or insidious trauma in people of colour, but the evidence base is simply not there and, I cannot say I have seen a rush for it.

References

American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.)

Root M. P. (1992). Reconstructing the impact of trauma on personality. In Brown L. S., Ballou M. (Eds.), Personality and psychopathology: Feminist reappraisals (pp. 229-265). New York: Guilford.

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.

 

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By challenging racism: could we actually be perpetuating it?

The Function of racism

‘The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.’ Toni Morrison

There seems to be two different kinds of people when it comes to dealing with experiences of racism or at least two main types of response.  On the one hand, we may react; indeed we may make it a point to react. People who react tend to be those who argue, who wish to demonstrate the folly of racial prejudice to those who utter offending comments. These may be principled people, conscious people, and/or rational or reasonable people.  People who may feel that they have an ethical or liberatory obligation to respond, to correct, to evidence or to have their voice and experience heard.

On the other hand, there are those who seemingly chose not to engage, those who ignore the offensive or bigoted comments or theories or who seem to turn a blind eye to them. They either appear to take no notice or seem not to care.  Naturally, most of us oscillate between these two poles and may spend much time somewhere in the middle.  Many believe that speaking out is an intrinsic part of the liberatory process.  That it is absolutely necessary and indeed that being silent amounts to complicity, to letting people off the hook and in doing so, to contributing to the perpetuation of oppression.  Not everyone however, is aware of the emotional demands of both challenging and being silent.

Reinforcing racism

Though mindful of the courage both positions require and of the potential material risks and perils associated with challenging racism, it has always felt as though there were higher psychological costs to being silent.  I had too been certain that in the longer term, gains in terms of equality and dignity could only be achieved if we spoke individually and collectively. Thus, for long, speaking out seemed a pre-condition to tackling racism. Tony Morrison’s quote somewhat challenges this position.  It proposes that such actions serve the function of racism.  Whilst she posits that distraction is the core function of racism and we may or may not agree, one issue I will reflect upon here is whether responding intellectually or emotionally to racism may be in the interest of those directly impacted upon by racism.

So, what if actually, some or all of our actions to combat racism actually perpetuated it, inadvertently?  I am aware that this is often a defensive premise which may be advanced by those with social power who are unwilling to contemplate the thorniness of the subject matter or to sit with their own racism or privilege. But do bear with me… As is plain to see from the above quote, Toni Morrison does not believe that expanding energy rationally disproving racist claims is necessary. Doing so according to her is futile because there will always be one more claim to disprove. I believe doing so is also a lost cause because racism does not belong to the realm of the rational. Critically, challenging racism may also be unhelpful if not harmful…Firstly, from a behaviourist perspective, every human behaviour serves a function.  Behaviours can naturally have multiple functions, some (or all) of which may well be obscure.

The core issue here is that when the function of a particular behaviour is served, then that behaviour will likely remain.  It would have been reinforced thus, maintained.  This is a fundamental behaviourist principle. This simple tenet may have significant implications for how we tackle racism. For example, if the function (or one of the functions) of racist ideologies is to inferiorize people of colour and, people of colour as a result of such ideologies internalise this inferiority, this function would have been fulfilled and racist ‘ideologizing’ reinforced thus likely to be perpetuated. Or, if a function of racist language is to offend or to hurt and, such language does get to us, then behaviourists would argue, the likelihood or such language being used again would have been increased.

Self-care and boundaries 

I am aware the above propositions have the potential of being seen as victim blaming. This is far from my intention. The responsibility for racist and discriminatory acts, in my book, remains firmly in the hands of perpetrator(s). However, if it is or can be within our control to reduce the occurrence or the impact of racism on us, then, we may start to reclaim some of the power oppression robs us of. It is clear to me that the impact (or consequences) of racism feeds into its existence, it is what gives it its potency.  Though I realise this may betray the dim view I have on humanity, my sense is, in a nutshell, that as long as racism works or hurts, it will invariably continue to exist.

This may help explain why in spite of major gains made in terms of race equality, it is quite evident that processes of othering and marginalisation remain and seem the most difficult to address.  Perhaps this is because the hostility, contempt and fear we have for the Other now manifest in more subtle and covert ways. So, if much racial bias and prejudice find their refuge in our unconscious and, become externalised without our awareness, could it be hypothesised some equally unhelpful processes may become triggered outside our awareness, as racial minorities, when we respond, argue, defend, and evidence our humanity, again and again?

Could it not be hypothesised that arguing our way out of racist encounters and discourses may actually also allow something in? And that perhaps, our psychic integrity or boundaries may somehow become compromised?  To challenge a proposition entails a degree of internalisation since we need to hold it in mind to consider it.  When such propositions are hate based and carry with them projections, trauma and violence one may be rightly concerned about potential impact of such repeated internalisation (in addition of course to the more observable psychological and health consequences).  Even though this internalisation may only be momentary, perhaps its potential impact on our psyche, on the struggle for liberation and also on the possible unconscious needs or processes which may get fed ( in those who other us) may need more attention.

Thank you for reading.

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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 impact of difference PART 2: The silent influence of Cultural Capital.

A renewed momentum?

I have made no secret of the fact that clinical psychology training has been fraught with challenges, many unexpected and most related to difference. The Division of Clinical Psychology is currently drafting its first ever Equality & Diversity strategy which emphasises the necessity to increase cultural competence within clinical psychology. It seems quite topical then to further the reflections first laid out (here) within the first part of this article and to start to explore some potential mechanisms which may bear an influence on professional processes. In the next few posts of this series, I will ask the reader to consider more implicit or tacit variables and their potential impact in terms of difference. I start here with cultural capital.

The influence of prior experience

Having 6-12 month relevant experience prior to applying for training is an essential criterion for all clinical psychology courses. In reality however, due to the competitive nature of the recruitment process and for most, the resulting need to apply more than once before obtaining a training place, most successful applicants would have worked a number of years prior to being accepted onto the doctoral course. Forming realistic views of the demands of clinical psychology training and of clinical psychology as a career prior to embarking onto its demanding (and costly) studies is naturally of crucial importance to applicants, recruiters and funders alike.

Nonetheless, some inequalities have been noted in the acquisition of relevant experience. In comparison to their White counterparts for example, BME applicants appear less likely to meet the ‘relevant experience’ requirement. Some evidence also suggests that applicants belonging to minority groups may face some additional difficulties securing assistant psychologists (AP) and research assistant (RA) posts, a key barrier, it seems, in terms of training accessibility for such groups. It still appears that those who have followed more traditional routes in terms of ‘relevant experience’ remain more likely to be accepted onto training.

Although there could be various mediating variables involved (including differences related to reference, degree classification, supervision, previous experience of psychologically informed clinical work etc.), there seems to have been no systematic study scrutinising the impact of past professional experience. I have therefore been curious about the potential influence of less visible, softer but possibly more insidious factors related to the above and, been wondering about the possible impact applicants and trainees ‘prior professional experience may bear upon their professional socialisation and in term of recruitment and assessment outcomes.

Professional socialisation and cultural expectations

Becoming a clinical psychologist necessarily entails the assimilation of in-group worldviews and the adoption of certain ways of thinking, speaking and ultimately being. For applicants and trainees who have held traditional roles, this professional socialisation would have been initiated well before their application for training. On the other hand, those who may have acquired their ‘relevant experience’ outside clinical psychology teams may not have or not have to the same degree, been socialised into presenting, communicating and indeed thinking the way clinical psychologists do (or at the very least as they are expected to).

But, is such socialisation necessary for candidates to successfully complete clinical psychology training or in other words, are there essential attributes that are acquired or believed to be acquired, during this socialisation? Could it contribute to perfectly well qualified applicants being assessed as less suitable for training? Is sufficient attention presently paid to differences in presentation which may be related to past professional socialisation and which may be further complicated by candidates’ cultural and social origins? There is currently no empirical basis upon which to base firm answers to the above questions.

However, there is an extensive body of empirical evidence demonstrating that we are more likely to like, to recruit and to support people who we perceive as being ‘similar to us’. As someone from a ‘different’ cultural and social background and with a relatively unusual professional profile, I have experienced first-hand the violence of normative expectations within training. It has been incredibly difficult to draw a line between such cultural norms and the assessment of some competencies. I have secretly harboured the hope of becoming able to distinguish with certainty the essence of clinical competence from the ‘fluff’ of cultural norms and expectations although; I recurrently question the feasibility of such a task.

Cultural Capital

Bourdieu and Passeron’s concept of cultural capital may be helpful to consider the potential difficulties which may come to light in assessing those who are ‘different’. Cultural Capital refers to the collection of symbolic elements such as tastes, posture, dress sense, mannerisms, etiquette etc. that one acquires through being part of a particular social group. Sharing similar forms of cultural capital with others such as the same taste in music or the same worldview is believed to create a collective identity and a group position in relation to others. Critically, differences in cultural capital are believed to be a major source of inequality in that they can help or hinder one’s social mobility.

This is because some forms of cultural capital are valued over others and in particular the possession of the dominant culture as capital often translates into access to wealth and to structures of power. In that sense, it can be said that the more familiar one is with the dominant culture, the more cultural capital one has. The education system is posited to assume that pupils possess the same cultural capital (as those from upper and middle ‘classes’). This is one of the reasons children from lower socio-demographics backgrounds may face particular disadvantages to succeed in the education system.

The relevance of cultural capital

Bourdieu has at times been criticised for the lack of precision of some of his concepts, nonetheless, his emphasis on the non-material/economic resources possessed by socially privileged groups is noteworthy and has generated much theoretical and empirical literature within education and occupational fields. I am not aware that the framework has formed the basis of any empirical studies within professional psychology nonetheless; differences in cultural capital may be important to reflect upon in relation to current inequalities of access to the profession.

The concept invites selectors and assessors to be on the look out for ways in which dominant capital (here White and middleclass) may become normalised at systems level and therefore expected during recruitment and assessment. The framework is not only useful to consider the ways non-traditional applicants may be disadvantaged through not having acquired the expected (professional) cultural capital on their pathway to training, it also encourages us to consider the tacit knowledge which may escape those who diverge from the typical White English middle class clinical psychologist (who also tends to be female, heterosexual, and able bodied).

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.

Want to learn more?

Please see…

Bourdieu, P. & Passeron, J. C.(1990). Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. London: Sage Publications.

Division of Clinical Psychology (2014). The Alternative Handbook for Postgraduate Training Courses in Clinical Psychology: 2014 Entry. Leicester: British Psychological Society.

Hemmings, R., & Simpson, J. (2008). Investigating the predictive validity of the Lancaster DClinPsy written shortlisting test on subsequent trainee performance: Final Report to the Clearing House. Doctorate in Clinical Psychology: Lancaster University.

Phillips, A., Hatton, C., & Gray, I. (2004). Factors predicting the short-listing and selection of trainee clinical psychologists: A prospective national cohort study. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 11, 111–125.

Scior, K., Bradley, C. E., Potts, H. W. W., Woolf, K. and Williams, A. C. (2014). What predicts performance during clinical psychology training?. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 53: 194–212.

There is no racism in clinical psychology: Personal reflections from another Black trainee.

This article asks whether the majority ethnic group may have a tendency to dismiss experiences of racism. Considering my lived experience, I reflect on some processes which may become engaged when racism is evoked and propose some potential implications for clinical psychology.

Subjective realities and embodied experiences

When individuals speak about their experiences of racism, they are often challenged about their interpretations and encouraged to consider more ‘objective’ reasons which may account for the behaviours or words that caused offense or hurt. Invariably, as there are multiple ways to interpret events, particularly in the realm of human interactions, experiences of prejudice and of discrimination can easily be discounted. Such dynamics are well documented and I, like other Black and minority ethnic (BME) trainees have encountered them in Training. Navigating a racist society may equip individuals from racialized minorities with the ability to recognize subtle pre-verbal and para-verbal cues of racism.

This embodied apprehension of prejudice may be the result of inner adaptations to the external reality of racism yet, it can easily be dismissed as it may not lead us to easily verbalise our experiences. There have been repeated calls for increased cultural competence within clinical psychology but, trainees continue to be socialised into rhetorics of social and power awareness. Diversity indeed commonly features within our professional discourse. A ‘better than’ position may be adopted whereby racism and discrimination become minimised and eventually envisaged as being ‘out there’ rather than ‘in here’. Being able to remain oblivious to the experiences of those who are racially subjugated and deny responsibility for racism may be the hallmarks of White privilege.

Expectedly, following experiences of racism from a supervisor, I painfully reflected upon my experience before alleging that the supervisor was prejudiced and racially offensive. When my concerns were raised, they were instantly discounted. I was interrupted in my account then coached into considering other possible motives for the conduct. The differential treatment and offending words did not provide ‘evidence’ of discriminatory intentions. Nevertheless, when the same supervisor questioned areas of my competence and intelligence without evidence, an epistemological shift occurred so that the supervisor’s perspective and judgement alone became sufficiently evidential. Meeting a positivist threshold was no longer necessary.

Managing cognitive dissonance

It is well documented that people tend to use prior beliefs to interpret personal experiences. This is the essence of Cognitive Dissonance Theory. Festinger (1957) posited that powerful motives to maintain cognitive consistency often give rise to irrational or unhelpful behaviours and that when excessive dissonance is produced intellectual defences can be triggered. Such defences may manifest in the refusal to accept the discomforting information, or in unduly questioning its validity. Refusing to consider the possibility that racial prejudice may indeed have been involved within the supervisory relationship, may help protect the safety of existing assumptions and truths whilst unabling a reflexive consideration of privilege. More disturbing perhaps, may be the implications that the purported competence/intelligence deficiencies seem to have been accepted in the absence of supporting evidence. Cognitive Dissonance Theory would posit that prior beliefs or worldviews were therefore not disturbed in this instance.

The denial of racism

Behaviours displaying overt prejudice are now relatively rare. They have been replaced by more covert forms of racism. Such behaviours although more subtle have been posited to betray deeply rooted prejudices. When BME trainees have spoken about their experiences of training, experiences of both overt and covert racism have been documented. The latter may be met with more scepticism however, when potentially painful and/or anxiety provoking information is instantly rejected, one may suspect that some level of denial may be at play. Denying racism may indeed serve multiple functions. Institutionally, and it may help avoid liability for potentially unlawful acts. Socially, it may be part of a strategy of positive in-group presentation and demonstrate adherence to social norms and values. Moreover, such self-presentation, may also serve to defend the in-group as a whole or its dominant discourse.

Thus, the failure to fully hear, document and investigate race related concerns may be interpreted as reiteration of the professional consensus and public discourse: ‘there is no racism in clinical psychology’ or ‘we are not racists’. This social denial has been theorised to also fulfil an individual defence. ‘She is not racist’ may therefore mean ‘I am not racist’ whereby staff rather than empathising with the trainee’s distraught come to identify with the supervisor accused of racism. This interaction between the institutional, social, and individual may make accusations of racism highly discomforting. Possibly more so than the potentially discriminatory acts complained of. To discharge such discomfort; counter-accusations are usually made e.g. ‘playing the race card’, ‘having a chip on the shoulder’, ‘being paranoid’, ‘being oversensitive’ or indeed ‘jumping to conclusions’.

Individual and/or institutional racism?

In the mist of scepticism and cognitive ‘reframing’ attempts, my distress became invisible. I was left with little support. Engaging with the pain might have shifted ‘the gaze’. Perhaps I was being punished unconsciously. Trainees, who challenge racism may be at risk of being ostracised, dismissed or penalised. The McPherson enquiry uncovered institutional racism within the police force which it defined as:

‘The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping’. (McPherson, 1999, 6.34)

Although this definition is not without problems, it does offer a framework to reflect on how systemic and unintentional discrimination may become manifest within institutions. The independent enquiry into the death of David Bennett found institutional racism within the psychiatric system, including persisting race inequalities, the widespread use of stereotypes and of particular relevance here, failures to take allegations of racism seriously. Its recommendations led to the ‘Delivering Race Equality in Mental Health’ programme. The action plan came to an end in 2010 thus; race inequalities may have fallen down the political agenda. However, they remain. In this context of suffering and alienation, BME service users’ experiences of racism continue to receive little empirical and clinical attention. Perhaps parallels may be drawn.

Final Reflections

Although multiple versions of events and reality can and do co-exist, the most privileged amongst us may have vested interests in maintaining oppressive biases which locate truth where power is and assure that only those with power can define reality. The inter-connection between agency and systemic structures may mean trainees from racialized minorities are at risk of being silenced and dismissed in their experiences. It was to help ensure that they have a voice that I created ‘The Minorities in clinical psychology Training Group’. Indeed, in the context of continuing challenges in recruiting a more representative workforce and enduring difficulties in adequately serving BME communities; a failure to pay close attention to such voices may not only deprive the profession of opportunities to better understand and meet the needs of service users from traditionally marginalised groups, it may leave clinical psychology vulnerable to accusations of institutional racism.

Thank you for reading. If you have found this article helpful or interesting, please share it with others.

Want to learn more?

Please see…

Adetimole, F., Afuape, T., & Vara, V. (2005). The impact of racism on the experience of training on a clinical psychology course: Reflections from three Black trainees. Clinical Psychology Forum, 48, 11-15. 6.

Care Quality Commission and National Mental Health Development Unit (2010). ‘Count Me In 2009 – Results of the 2009 national census of inpatients and patients on supervised community treatment in mental health and learning disability services in England and Wales’. Care Quality Commission: London.

Constantine, M. G., & Sue, D. W. (2007). Perceptions of Racial Micro aggressions among Black Supervisees in Cross-Racial Dyads. Journal of Counselling Psychology, 54(2), 142-153.

Department of Health (2005). Delivering Race Equality in Mental Health Care, Department of Health: London.

Fanon, F. (1967). Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto Press.

Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Hardy, K, V. (2001). Family therapy: Exploring the fields past, present and possible futures. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publication.

Hook, D. (2006). ‘Pre-discursive’ racism. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology. 16, 207-232.

Patel, N., Bennett, E., Dennis, M., Dosanjh, N., Mahtani, A., Miller, A., et al. (2000). Clinical Psychology, Race and Culture: A Resource Pack for Trainers. Leicester: BPS Books.

Patel, N. (2004). Difference and Power in Supervision: The case of culture and racism. In Fleming, I. & Steen, L. (Eds.), Supervision and Clinical Psychology: Theory, Practice and Perspectives. Hove: Brunner-Routledge.

Macpherson, W. (1999). The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: report of an inquiry by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny. London. Home Office Cm 4262-I.

NSCSHA (2003). Independent Inquiry into the death of David Bennett. An Independent Inquiry set up under HSG (94)27. Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire Strategic Health Authority: Cambridge.

Tan, R., & Campion, G. (2007). Losing yourself in the moment: The socialisation process of clinical psychology training. Clinical Psychology Forum (180), 13-16.

Van Dijk, T. A. (1992). Elite Discourse and Racism. Discourse and Society 3(1): 87-118.

Unspoken challenges of clinical psychology training? A view from inside. PART 1

Becoming a clinical psychologist has been likened to a process by which a new identity is incorporated into an existing sense of self whereby unique physical and mental experience, attributes, and a position within social roles, relationships and discourses is transformed. This process, although rewarding in the main, is not experienced without challenges and pain. What one might struggle with on the professional pathway is to some degree personal and idiosyncratic nevertheless, some processes may become engaged and/or significant for many. Further, often it is the things we do not expect to find difficult that come and pose the most challenges. This post aims to present some of the processes and dynamics which can become challenging for trainees within the professional socialization process. Those who are aspiring clinical psychologists or new trainees may find reflecting on some of the issues it highlights helpful. Hopefully too, it will be of some use to those with supervision responsibilities.

Feeling deskilled

Feeling deskilled at the start of training or learning journeys is a common experience. However, in the context of clinical psychology training such feelings may well become amplified. The demand for clinical psychology training places has always outstripped the supply. The possible difficulties trainees may have faced to gain places due to the inherently competitive nature of the recruitment process may bear an influence on the professional socialisation process. Trainees may feel pressured to ‘prove’ that they are deserving of a training place or that they are good enough. Unsurprisingly, many will come to experience self-doubt, some loss of confidence and even ‘impostor syndrome’ during the training journey.

The Conscious Competence Ladder model (Burch, 1972) may provide a helpful framework to better understand and reflect on how trainees may respond to learning processes and activities. This model essentially posits that two factors: consciousness and competence, affect our thinking and emotions as we acquire a new skill. According to the model, we move through four different levels or phases as we build competence. The initial level: ‘unconsciously unskilled’, occurs when we do not know that we are not competent. We then move onto the ‘consciously unskilled’ phase as we realise the limitation of our competence.

Thirdly, it is posited that we become ‘consciously skilled’ when we are aware that we have acquired the skills/ competence required (though conscious effort is still required). Finally, the ‘unconsciously skilled’ level is reached when the said skills and competence have become so assimilated that they demand little or no conscious awareness to be practiced. This model is not linear and we may for instance after having become unconsciously skilled, revert to feeling consciously unskilled for instance because we fail an assignment. Of particular relevance, training wise, may be the fact that trainees are required to complete placements in different specialized areas and thus may recurrently find themselves in the consciously unskilled phase, the most emotionally demanding position; as they develop their competencies.

Managing power imbalances

We all have peculiar relationships with power and authority based on various factors including: our personal history, our cultural and social backgrounds and to some degree our social positioning. In addition, how we may deal with potential feelings of disempowerement and powerlessness can also be related to professional experiences and in particular, the level of past autonomy, responsibilities and/or organisational cultures accustomed to prior to starting training. Whilst for most ‘traditional’ applicants gaining a training place will entail an increase in status and with it an improvement in terms of employment and work conditions, for those who held relatively senior posts and worked autonomously before starting training, the training environment and trainee role may take some adjusting to and indeed involve a decrease in status and in autonomy.

Trainees can often (though mostly tacitly) be positioned as naïve, dependent and/or passive. Such implicit infantilisation can occasionally become explicit. On one occasion, for example, the positive feedback from a placement review I received included ‘doing as I am told’. Clearly, the supervisory relationship is not an equal one as clinical supervisors hold evaluation and marking responsibilities and thus have actual power (to pass or to fail) over the trainee. An unusual dynamic may be created when trainees because of their past experiences/responsibilities, qualifications and/or behaviours may not meet some supervisors’ potential expectations of dependency. Whilst actual power may not be disrupted, for some, perceived power may well be.

Power dynamics are of course further complicated when trainees belong to minority and/or marginalised groups. Their presence in the training arena alone can challenge or evoke social/personal expectations and stereotyped notions. Self-fulfilling hyper-vigilance may thus become an issue for such trainees who may become anxious about the (real) possibility of being discriminated against or of facing prejudicial attitudes. On the other hand, difference may also impact on some supervisors who may not have prior experience of working with ‘non-traditional’ trainees and who may be unsure about how and whether or not to raise issues of difference within the supervisory relationship and/or be unduly preoccupied with the (also real) eventuality of being perceived or experienced as prejudiced.

The challenge of adopting a questioning attitude

Clinical psychology trainees hold dual statuses as trainees thus, employees of specific NHS trusts which usually provide an employment contract, associated terms and conditions and the placements within which practical skills are developed and; as students within universities which host the courses, deliver the academic components of the training programme and thus the student identity. With the professionalization of the discipline, the adoption of the trainee role over that of the student one seems to have been preferred. Such preference would appear to give higher status to the trainee role.

However, the exclusion or reduction of the student identity may set particular dynamics and impact on how trainees see themselves, their learning and how they are perceived. Whilst students may be actively encouraged to be questioning and irreverent toward prior practices, theories and of taken for granted wisdom, such a stance may not be specifically sought after or strongly emphasized within the trainee role, arguably necessarily so. Indeed training is, by definition, centred on applying and demonstrating practical competence often by copying or mirroring others.

Given the unbalanced power distribution and the potential high risks of getting into conflict with those who hold a responsibility for assessing you, it is perhaps unsurprising that trainees often simply decide to ‘go along’ with theories and models of working that are experienced as oppressive, are incongruent/incompatible with their worldviews or appear to lack empirical support. Additionally, people in cohesive groups typically experience greater pressure to conform than those in non-cohesive groups. Consequently, homogeneity and conformity may not only present challenges for trainees, they may problematize innovation and creativity within the profession (more on that in due course).

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 intergenerational trauma of the oppressor: A few thoughts

 

A few months ago, I met with a very good friend of mine: a community activist, race equality campaigner and artist. She and I go some way back. Our passion for equality and community work together with our shared experience of immigration (she’s white and of Latin American origins) meant we have built a strong bond over the years. I was invited to her art studio where I met a friend of hers for the first time, a white English man of a certain age who despite his humble social origins, had successfully established his own business. I felt his warmth and openness and, he and I clicked instantly. We quickly bantered and took turn critiquing the artwork on display by proposing outrageously random interpretations. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. The three of us eventually settled at a table for a glass of wine. I cannot remember what brought the subject on but the conversation turned to immigration.

Resisting disconnection

Before I knew it, I was listening to some of the most disturbing views I had seen expressed openly in a long while. The gentleman started by recounting an event at work within his previous role as bank manager when he had been accused of racism by an Asian client for whom he had declined a mortgage. He became somewhat agitated as he described what he thought was an attempt by the client at using the ‘race card’. He put to me that people of colour tended to use the race card when things did not go ‘their way’ and subsequently spoke about an incident during which he had got into a dispute with a Jewish man who he said had taken offense at the Christmas decorations inside the bank. Ironically, he lamented what he felt was intolerance on the part of the Jewish man particularly as he, an English man in his ‘own’ country, had to tolerate Jewish decorations on the streets of London.

The talk ended with him discussing the threat of a foreign invasion through immigration, England’s unrecognizable face and the fight the country was required to lead in order to preserve its culture and identity. I was so troubled by this plainly prejudiced tabloid-like rant; which emerged with no prior warning; that my heart started to palpitate. Nevertheless, I felt the strong impulse to stop the conversation had to be resisted.  As he went on (and on); I painfully managed to stay with the anxiety and outrage the tirade had triggered in me. I shifted my focus outward by attending to the emotions and feelings he was displaying which to some degree paralleled what I was experiencing. This slowed my heartbeat down. Helplessness and anger became apparent, but in the main, it was fear and anxiety which dominated. These feelings were palpable and appeared authentic to me. It struck me that it seemed they had been bottled up for some time and; for whatever reason; our very brief relationship had provided an outlet for them.

Empathy and compassion

Why he had felt the need for this cathartic release still evades me. One thing is for sure though, he was addressing me rather than my friend and I almost intuitively refrained from intervening, elucidating and/or challenging him. By not doing so, I bore witness to an experience that is often dismissed. When I shared with him some of my experiences of our conversation, he appeared genuinely taken aback. I noted glimpses of shame as he withdrew into a more socially acceptable and politically correct stance. He apologized profusely and more importantly, became reflective rather than defensive. He said he had not wanted to cause any offense to me; which incidentally I believed; and that he had felt it was ‘okay’ to discuss these things with me. I was surprised by the relatively high level of empathy and compassion I was able feel toward this man.

Although I despised his attitude toward foreigners and immigration and could hardly tolerate his apparent bigotry physically or psychologically, I could not but be touched by his display of emotions regardless of how misguided and irrational he came across. This interaction provided me with an invaluable learning opportunity which I would probably have missed had I taken the moral or intellectual high ground. I have (typically) dissected this exchange in my head and theorized over it hundreds of times using different frames of reference. My aim here is not to offer a commentary on his overflowing raw (male and white) privilege, to condemn his views or to expose the fallacy of his points but rather to try and propose a theoretical interpretation.

Neuroticism and paranoia?

Many may see neuroticism and paranoia in the seemingly disproportionate concerns over identity/cultural losses and the reported fear of being overpowered by some alien enemy. Rationally of course such fears cannot be sustained. Some may argue that the media coverage and political attention immigration receives, would invariably create such unfounded anxieties. It would in my opinion, be difficult to generate such anxieties if something of a nucleus of a pre-existing fear was inexistent. There needs to be something to be tapped into, something onto which political and media agendas and rethoric may be hooked onto.

Fears of invasion precede the invention of the mass media and have been widely documented across centuries and ‘western’ cultures. Undeniably then, such fears have existed for some time independently of media and political influences. Several theories may be advanced to frame such anxieties which may have multiple origins. Here, they will be considered in relation to our imperialist past. Indeed, when one considers processes of imperialism such as colonisation and slavery, fears related to loss of identity, invasion, and imposed enculturation lose their neurotic/paranoid aspects and instead seem to acquire a ‘déjà vu’ quality. Intergenerational trauma may thus offer an interesting framework to consider this resonance.

The Intergenerational Trauma of the oppressor

Intergenerational trauma may be defined as the cumulative and collective transmission of historical oppression and of its negative consequences across generations. It is believed to manifest itself emotionally and psychologically in members of different cultural groups who have not directly been exposed to the traumatic stressor in question. Most of the studies on the phenomenon have concentrated on the offspring of survivors of the Holocaust. Nevertheless, the concept has been used to illuminate the experiences of various racialized and indigenous groups. Here naturally, I am not concerned with the intergenerational trauma of the oppressed but with that of the oppressor.

The trauma the latter suffered as a result of active and passive participation in oppression is less documented and less theorized upon, all the same, there is evidence that terror existed on both sides of the power divide. In view of the abuse oppressed groups endured, rebellion and the possibility of “payback” are bound to have instilled great fears. Many oppressors were indeed hunted by the belief that they would suffer the very fate they had imposed upon oppressed groups, if overthrown. This belief terrorized the hearts of generations and of course led to unspeakably brutal repressions throughout history. As an example, when the collapse of the apartheid system became imminent, many Whites in South Africa violently fought for its maintenance fearing its end would lead to retaliatory genocide by Black South Africans on White populations.

The extreme defensiveness and hostility many feel towards foreigners have been postulated to be manifestations of the guilt evoked by the crimes committed against indigenous and racialized groups. If intergenerational trauma as a conceptual tool can be useful to cast light upon the experiences of those who have historically been at the receiving end of oppression, may it also help make sense of the apparent paranoia and neuroticism evoked by immigration in those who have tended to fulfil the oppressor role? I am not aware that the concept has previously been considered for this purpose. Nonetheless, the hypothesized residual trauma could help account for the appeal of political parties which play on such angst.

On Nigel Farage…

There is really nothing new about the rise in popularity of Nigel Farage. There have been plenty of Farages throughout history particularly during times of economic crises.  The knee jerk muting of the experiences of those we have come to characterize as bigots, with the whip of political correctness, seems unprecedented. However well intentioned, such silencing may lead to feelings of victimisation and alienation and thus result in the entrenchment of prejudice in addition to distracting from more silent forms of racism. If we can truly engage with all experiences then perhaps meaningful dialogues on race, racism and immigration can start to take place both politically and therapeutically (I have previously written on some of the difficulties of creating such exchanges, here). Learning to attend to the suffering of the ‘oppressor’ may consequently provide tools to combat bigotry and prejudice.

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.

Want to learn more?

Please see…

Connolly, A. (2011). Healing the wounds of our fathers: intergenerational trauma, memory, symbolization and narrative. The Society of Analytical Psychology, 56, 607-226.

Portney, C. (2003). Intergenerational trauma for the clinician. Retrieved from http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/articles/intergenerational-transmission-trauma-introduction-clinician.

To speak or not to speak: Can Children From Racialized Groups be Prepared for Racism?

I have wanted to write about this delicate (even by my standards) topic for some time and been doing a bit of digging on the topic but have not identified any evidence based professional guidelines that touched upon how best to prepare children from racialized groups for racist experiences.  This has been a question I have pondered upon for years because of my personal experience.  Being exposed to racism is no unusual experience for those within whom ethnic/racial difference is located. As young children many will learn about people being hostile to them because of their skin colour and/or culture.  Facing incidents of inferiorization, pathologization and/or problematization either directly or indirectly by witnessing racist and discriminatory acts experienced by parents, siblings, friends and/or other members of their communities or; enduring them personally; can have long lasting consequences. In this post, I will present my introduction to racism as I raise a few questions.  This is a topic I am quite tentative about for reasons which may become clear in the article.

Discovering racism…in France

My discovery of racism was quite a brutal one.  I was perhaps 4 or 5 and had been playing with my sister and some of the neighbourhood kids in front of our Parisian cité block as was customary during school holidays or week-ends. There was quite a few of us; 15 perhaps even more.  Children of all backgrounds and creeds.  We were skipping, running around and laughing the summer afternoon away.  A (White) man erupted from a ground floor flat in the tower. After complaining about the noise, he ran directly toward my elder sister and pushed her from behind.  He pushed her so violently that she fell forward and scraped the floor for a few meters. Once immobile, much of the skin at the back of her arms had gone.  A bunch of children quickly ran to our second floor flat to alert my parents.  A few seconds later my mother appeared downstairs to find my sister, me and a few other children in tears and my sister covered in blood.  Within moments she was at the assailant‘s door furious and demanding an explanation.

She was greeted by a barrage of vile racist insults including the N word (of course), followed by ‘go back to your country’ and ‘you lot only ‘lay’ children (sorry, this is a literal translation from the French expression to lay eggs used to refer to women who have many children) for child benefits. Once his monologue over, the man proceeded to punch her on the head with such force that her skin turned blue-black, one of her eye became red with blood and half her face swelled up almost instantly.  Expectedly, all children by this point were crying hysterically; probably with terror.  I am not sure whether it was the sight of my mother‘s grotesque looking face or the hatred in the man’s eyes which caused us the most turmoil.  Things after the punch have blurred in my memory but I can still see my mother standing still after the punch.  Standing tall, defiant and in dignified silence.  Although I do not remember this; perhaps unsurprisingly; I am told the man was apprehended by the police minutes later as he was brandishing a knife threatening to kill her.

My sister’s injuries were in the end only superficial but it took several months for the swelling and hematomas to disappear from my mother’s face and she suffered recurrent headaches for years.  The psychological scars for all those who witnessed the incident, most of us children under 10, probably remained for longer.  I was not spoken to about racism before the assault; or just after, for that matter. In fact the incident was rarely discussed either at home, at school or even amongst people on the block.  No one it seemed could put words to what had happened even as the trial went on (the perpetrator was eventually jailed for ‘racially aggravated’ assault, I believe). Yet, like my mother’s beautiful face (she was a stunning woman) which had been deformed by her injuries, the world had suddenly turned ugly and scary because we were Black.  This was France, inner city Paris to be precise; in the mid/late eighties. It could easily have been anywhere in the ‘western’ world.  It was only several years after this incident that my mother broached of subject of racism. By then I had recurrently experienced it first hand and witnessed its various manifestations.

The impact of the ‘new’ racism

Naturally, racist incidents of that nature are admittedly rarer today. Hence, I thought I had no reason to speak to my son about racism when he was just five,  until he came home from school in tears because he was being called monkey, ‘darkie’ and mocked because he looked ‘too’ African. This was only a few years ago in London.  As he wept in my arms, decades after I had myself sobbed because of racism (and in a different country), I wondered whether I had failed him by not preparing him for the reality of racism and prejudice.  I thought that perhaps, he or I would have been hurt a lot less when first exposed to racism; if we had somehow been prepared or been told of its existence.  The honest answer is I don’t really know if it would have made any difference.  It seems the opinions of those around me are divided.  Although I tend to; almost instinctively; air on the side of talking to the child-and we do discuss racism at home now- I am also mindful of the huge potential to increase a child’s anxiety, unhealthy paranoia and of creating self-fulfilling prophecies.

It is evidently desirable for children to form their own worldviews and experience the world without being unduly influenced by parental expectations and fears.  Nevertheless, there is also ,of course, the real danger of a child becoming seriously disillusioned, for expectations of fairness to be shattered and indeed for deeper psychological wounds to be experienced if the subject is not addressed and experiences of racism ensue, particularly if they occur frequently (I have previously written about young Black men’s experience of the police in a previous post here which may add some insight to the current article).   I realise that the form of racism my son suffered may seem less traumatic. Indeed for most children of colour today when they face racism, there will be no threat to life. There will be no physical injury. It is unlikely the police will be involved.  Still, there will likely be inferiorisation. There may be alienation.  There will most probably be suffering.  As first generations of migrants, my parents’ expectations of justice and equality in their host country were probably low.  Certainly lower than mine and those of my children.  Perhaps this supported my mother’s psychological resilience after the attack.

Thus, I wonder whether racial slights which might have been experienced as minor infringements by first generations may in later generations, become more psychologically damaging because of potential feelings of entitlement to fair treatment, justice and equality. Indeed although racism may have changed its face so that, in the main, more covert and institutional forms of prejudice have replaced behaviours displaying overt prejudice and open racial hostility, some evidence suggests that those exposed to racism‘s ‘new’ manifestations may indeed pay a higher psychological cost.  The children of migrants are much more likely to suffer psychological distress than their parents.  Of course there are various factors that may be at play.  Nevertheless, some have argued that the increase in the incidence of psychological and psychiatric distress in second and possibly third generations of migrants may be in part attributable to the fact that younger generation’s expectations often do not match their reality…

So what to do?

Do we instill lower expectations when it comes to fairness and justice or; do we continue to project an aspirational version of a world? How many may come to painfully experience such a version as a sham, what might the psychological impact be for those who are disillusioned be and, what type of support might be appropriate? Sadly, yet again, such questions have not received much empirical attention and very few Psychotherapists and Clinical Psychologists specialise in this area. As a result, as a parent and as a professional I feel it is difficult to give evidence based guidance. I would be extremely grateful for people to share their views or refer me to relevant guides, articles on the issues.

What do you think? Have I missed something of importance? Have people/professionals done anything to try and prepare children from racial minorities for racism and if so; what type of conversations have people had and when?

Please comment if you feel able to or get in touch to share your views/experiences.

Thank you for reading, If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word.

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‘Why does it always have to be about race’?: Blocks to meaningful dialogues on race and racism (Part 1)

Talking about race

I like to think about race. I like to write about race. I like to talk about race. I find the subject matter fascinating.  I make absolutely no apologies for this. Critically, for me, like for many others from racialized groups, thinking, writing and talking about race is making sense of the world and processing difficult experiences. I accept that there are many Black people and other individuals from the racialized minorities who may not see race and racism as salient features in their lives and that of course, Black people do have other issues, joys, concerns and fears that are unrelated to racism, I hope no one would doubt that. Nevertheless, people find intellectual and personal fulfilment in various pursuits and passions. As a Black woman with Black parents and Black children, race and racism have shaped much of my existence hence, I believe I have become quite adept at identifying racism for what it is (to me, at least) and I have lost my inhibitions about naming it a long time ago. This may not make me a very popular person is some circles.

Whilst it is not always about race and racism, I do find the range of defences the subject matter attracts even more gripping and see no shame or
pathology in my choice of subject matter and passion. I have written a bit about my position and epistemology in a previous post (to access it, click here). Thinking and writing about race/racism isn’t exactly a walk in the park for those who experience race discrimination and other forms of race related violence on a regular basis, but, by far the most challenging is to talk about racism ,or more precisely, to create a dialogue on racism.   I have spent much of my career and personal life encouraging discussions and dialogue on these subjects but continue to find that similar processes often become engaged when attempts at broaching the subjects are made.  Contrary to what many may assume, I have not found that the blocks to such conversations are dependent upon intellectual ability, levels of education or even psychological and social ‘mindedness’. In the current post I aim to identify the three most common barriers I have come across in my attempts to make space for racism in discussions.

1. Cognitive dissonance: It can’t be that bad…

Cognitive Dissonance theory propose that people tend to interpret personal experience in a way that does not disturb prior beliefs. According to the theory we hold various cognitions about the world and about ourselves; when new information clashes with the latter, a discrepancy is evoked resulting in a state of tension: cognitive dissonance. As the experience of dissonance creates discomfort, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it to achieve consonance or harmony. When excessive dissonance is produced, intellectual defences may be triggered to restore cognitive consonance. If people are socialised to believe firmly in meritocracy and in the accessibility of justice and fair treatment for all, there is little wonder accepting the prevalence of structural racism would cause much dissonance. Moreover, people, by and large, like to think of themselves as good and many aspire to be ‘colour blind’ and ‘liberal’. Indeed, individuals from dominant groups probably more often than others, are projected images of themselves as benevolent, fair and ‘reasonable’, such expectations of course clash with the possibility of being capable of committing discriminatory and racist acts.

2.  Undue focus on the individual intention: We/I don’t mean it.

Following from the above point, many have noted that when racism is evoked, those with race related privileges often focus on intentions in the belief that the absence of discriminatory or racist intent diminishes responsibility.  A cognitively focused perspective. Undue focus on intention may be one of the manifestation of race related privilege and social power. People at the receiving end of racism, unsurprisingly, often emphasize consequences- an affective standpoint. Those differing frames of reference may problematize meaningful dialogue on racism.  However, it is important to bear the law in mind.  The Equality Act (2010) defines harassment as ‘unwanted conduct’ related to a protected characteristic, that has the purpose or effect of violating other individuals’ dignity or creating an intimidating or hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.  When it comes to racial harassment, Impact is clearly embedded within the law. Further, there is no legal justification for acts of direct race discrimination.  In other words, it can still be racism even if racist intentions are absent.

3. Misplaced guilt? Or, feeling responsible for the ‘sins’ of our forefathers.

I used to find responses based on such beliefs quite perplexing until I realised how pervasive and strongly they can be held. Guilt may well be a by-product of any race/racism centred discussions for many.  Guilt can be unhelpful and disabling because it often inhibits reasoning and encourages defensiveness rather than connection and reflection particularly if it cannot be contained. There is absolutely no rational reason for anyone to feel guilty over what their ancestors, great grandparents or even parents did in relation to racism, slavery and/or colonisation years if not centuries ago (no one chooses his/her lineage). Nevertheless, it may be legitimate to experience guilt for one’s failure to challenge racism and race related privileges that result in the perpetuatation of racial oppression which of course was started by long dead and buried forefathers. Emphasizing our distance from our ancestors’ actions can serve to distract from responsibilities we might personally hold for present actions or omissions and their associated feelings and emotions. The task then appears to be, for many, to transcend feelings of guilt (and at times, shame) and accept some personal and collective responsibility for making on-going race privileges visible today.

I hope this initial list will generate some input from others who may have got stuck in race discussions.  I’d love to hear what additional barriers/blocks people have encountered as naturally there are many others, some seemingly more elaborated and complex. I will aim to focus on these in the second part of this article and then suggest a few ideas to facilitate dialogues.

What are your thoughts?

To access the Equality Act (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.

The Angry Black Woman: Covert Abuse, Overt Anger?

A Big Black woman on the train…

I had been on my train back home from University a year or so ago for about one hour when a Black woman entered the train carriage I was sitting in. She was of a fairly large built and was struggling to make her way through the carriage to get to a seat. She was casually dressed but looked somewhat umkept. As I noticed her, I started to observe the behaviours and faces on the train.  I picked up a sense of discomfort and I imagined that passengers may have been anxious about the possibility of her sitting next to them.  As she walked past, most people looked firmly down.

She took a seat within a section of the carriage which was unoccupied a few meters away from my seat and sat directly opposite me. To my left was a group of six middle aged women. They appeared to be friends or possibly work colleagues.  They were quite formally dressed. They were all White.  A few of their faint whispers attracted my attention. Upon observation, I noted smiles, sneers and ever so discreet short looks toward the other Black woman.  This went on intermittently for about 10 minutes. She and I were the only Black people in the carriage. I felt angered and disrespected. The Black woman’s face was looking increasingly aggravated as she was being denigrated-ever so subtly and politely.

Unexpectedly, the Black woman got up and walked up to the group. She asked them to stop what they were doing and said that she could see them. I could hear from the trembling in her voice that she was close to tears. The women looked surprised, denied any wrongdoing and took turn looking at each other and at other passengers feigning cluelessness. This infuriated the Black woman further who burst into screams, naturally, attracting looks of disapproval from most passengers.  She eventually walked back to her seat alone and in complete silence stared at by almost everyone as the women who were taunting her escaped scrutiny.  As the train was approaching my stop, I got up to exit and purposefully walked toward her. I said to her that I had seen what the women had been doing and put my hand on her shoulder at which point tears rolled down her face. She thank me.

Intersectionality

In popular culture and discourses, Black women are often characterized as angry, hostile, difficult and/or rude.  The stereotype of the ‘Angry Black Woman’ is a persisting one in many western countries that not only portrays Black women as one-dimensional beings but also prevent their voices and often painful experiences from being acknowledged and validated. I believe this stereotype has impacted on many of my social interactions, that of countless Black women and that of the Black woman on the train.  When she screamed, there is no doubt in my mind that she became the ‘Angry Black Woman’.  Nothing in that woman’s behaviour justified the treatment she received from the group of friends/colleagues. Nothing at all.  Except her being overweight and Black.

Being both of those things meant she had ceased to be a person the moment she was spotted by the group of women.  Not being a person meant derisory behaviour toward her stopped being reprehensible and, her experience could simply be denied. Becoming angry when denigrated and disrespected seems perfectly understandable to me.  In most circumstances, no one would bat an eyelid if someone who had just been abused screamed in indignation and in pain or in an attempt to seek the support of onlookers. It seems to me that, often, Black women are not afforded such liberties.  I accept that women’s anger is disapproved of socially in part because it threatens gender norms and role expectations. Nevertheless, the privilege of getting angry without fear of being stereotyped is also race dependent. Oppression does not act independently of the various social categories and axes of identity capable of their own of contributing to injustice and inequality.

Instead, it interrelates and create systems that reflect the combination of multiple forms of discrimination each in turn amplifying the other. It is notable that I was not targeted for ridicule. Perhaps being lighter-skinned, slimmer and thus (in the eyes of many) a more ‘attractive’ Black woman, mean I am afforded more ‘privileges’, one of which may be to escape abusive treatment because of my appearance.  Hence, whilst White women’s anger may similarly be disapproved of, it is not mocked or ‘Othered’ in the same way that Black women’s anger is.  Thus, it appears the lower your ‘rank’ the less tolerable your anger is and the more problematic your resistance to subjugation will be deemed.  The reality of the interaction was defined by the group of respectable looking White women and seemed to have been tacitly accepted by the rest of the carriage. What chance did that Black woman have to get her version of reality across when she became nothing but a stereotype?

On Invisibility

As she screamed perhaps in an attempt to get some form of validation of her distress; she disturbed the peace and became the problem within the train carriage. In this moment, whilst her presence became ever so visible, her pain and experience fell into oblivion, essentially annihilated by the stereotype. Symbolically, to me, the collective silence in the face of her dehumanization and the looks of disapproval she received when she raised her voice sent a very clear message to that woman: we see you but we do NOT want to see you, stop forcing us to notice you.

Some may find reassurance in the possibility that perhaps, the passengers onboard had not noticed that she had been taunted and was distraught, sadly, this does not fill me with much comfort.  Some people’s suffering simply does not appear to get noticed. In the hours preceding David Bennett*’s death, he was distraught because he had been racially abused but nursing staff did not notice the high level of his distress or the cumulative impact of the racism he had been subjected to on the ward. When his life was slipping away as he laid on the floor, face down, thrashing about trying to break free, the nurses involved in restraining him did not notice this either. He had also become a stereotype.  That of ‘The Big Dangerous Black Man’ also known as ‘big, bad and mad’. It thus appeared perfectly befitting that he was restrained by four to five men.

The common failure to recognise  ‘depression’ amongst Black groups is a serious public health concern. Many Black people do present to primary care services but, it appears that often, their distress is not seen so that many end up not receiving the support and care they require in a timely fashion, if at all.  My sense is that Black people are simply not seen as vulnerable, are all too often left to cope alone and problematised by any manifestation of anger which can then attracts further dehumanisation. Who would dare ask someone being kicked on the floor to turn the volume down? Some forms of violence are extremely subtle and seemingly innocuous but their cumulative effects can be more toxic and equally traumatic. Next time you see a Black woman angry, please consider what you may not have noticed. This may help ensure our life’s journeys stop mirroring the train journey of that big Black Woman.

* David ‘Rocky’ Bennett was a Black mental health service user who died in 1998 at a medium secure mental health unit. An independent inquiry found that he died as a direct result of prolonged face down physical restraint and the amount of force used by members of staff during the incident. The inquiry made specific recommendations about the use of physical restraint, especially with regards to face down or prone position restraint and in relation to the need for culture competence training for Mental Health Staff. Critically, the enquiry accepted the presence of institutional racism within Mental Health services.

To access the Independent Enquiry Report into the death of David Bennett (click here).

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Don’t be scared, it’s only race!

I went to my local DVD store last week and sought to purchase more films that touched upon the issue of race. I searched this relatively large store but could not identify more than a handful of relevant movies, most of which I already owned.  I therefore approached a store person (he was the manager) and asked whether he could recommend some films with race as the subject matter or key theme.  The manager‘s instant utterance was:  ‘ouch…’quickly followed by:  ‘There is not that many… you know… it is such a sensitive subject, not many directors would go near it’.   There was so much in that minute long initial interaction both in terms of verbal and non-verbal communication that I could easily write an essay on it. Fear not! I will refrain.

I did not sense any hostility or racism in the interaction at all. I was dealt with courteously, warmly and, after the somewhat awkward start, the manager was in fact quite helpful.  Nevertheless, I thought about the ‘ouch’ much more than anything else he said.  I reflected on the beauty of its rawness and on what I thought was a genuine and uncensored expression of internal discomfort. I pondered upon what might have been revealed about that White man’s experience of me as a Black woman using the word race. This led me to the current post within which I aim to examine my use of the word race.  It seems to me that race has become a dirty word, arguably for good reasons.  It is a word that, as illustrated above, creates discomfort and controversies.  We are being told to stop using it and to replace it with ethnicity.

Race, ethnicity…does it matter?

Traditionally a distinction is made between race and ethnicity. Whilst race has for long been related to biological factors and physical features, ethnicity on the other hand, aims to highlight cultural factors such as a sense of shared ancestry, history, language, etc… Moreover, some may see race as having ascribed status as opposed to ethnicity which is usually envisaged as self-ascribed. In other words, the objectivity/subjectivity orientation appears to be one underlying but often unrecognized dimension of difference between the two terms.  In reality however, racial classification is both self-defined and externally-ascribed. The problem it seems to me, with the preferential use of the term ethnicity is that it establishes it as a somehow more valid and more significant concept.

I am no expert on social constructionism but one argument I often hear to support the use of the term ethnicity is that race is socially constructed but, isn’t ethnicity also a social construction? It seems to me that both race and ethnicity matter and that today’s insistence on the use of the term ethnicity rather than race, also needs to be socially situated and critically deconstructed. Like the “biological” theories (proved to be scientific fallacies) which were established by dominant groups as social facts to reproduce racial inequalities and perpetuate their privileges, it may be argued that insisting on the use of the term ethnicity today, may help distract from the structural inequalities and institutional oppression that derive from the social construction of race as a ‘social fact’ and thus, also serve to maintain racial hierarchy.  From that perspective it can be said that choosing the word race is also a political act on my part.  I do not believe that the continued use of the word race perpetuates racism.

Facing up to race and its dynamics

My personal view is that the denial of racism and colour blind explanations of inequalities are much more likely to perpetuate racism by leaving it unaddressed. It is because racism exists and continues to affect the lives of millions of people, that some of us prefer to use the word race as opposed to the more palatable and arguably more politically correct term, ethnicity, particularly in relation to inequalities and injustice. When we speak about ethnicity, the legacy of the constructed inferiority of certain groups can be disowned and there is usually no intended reference to continuing structures of hierarchy and power. When we speak about race however, there is- whether explicitly or implicitly. Racialization, in my view simply takes things a little further by placing the emphasis on the dynamic aspects of race and on how the process of categorizing people consciously or unconsciously only really become socially significant in the exercising of power and for creating/perpetuating disadvantage/inequalities. All terms are loaded with meanings, connotations and have inherent flaws.  My choice of term is not fixed.  It is not a ‘till death do us part’ position.  Rather,  at this point of my intellectual journey and life, I feel that the choice I have made word wise, allow me the lenses and framework to make sense of the world but also to advocate for change and equality.  Of course, I may be defined as having a chip on my shoulder and/or be problematized in other ways but, I have decided, that for now at least, this is a small price to pay in comparison to the pain I would inflict myself by remaining silent.

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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.