racism

Black deference and dormant racism: the politics of knowing one’s place

‘In prisons, it is not at all uncommon to find a prisoner hanged or burned to death in his cell. No matter how suspicious the circumstances, these deaths are always ‘suicides.’ They are usually Black inmates, considered to be a ‘threat to the orderly running of the prison.’ They are usually among the most politically aware and socially conscious inmates in prison’.

Assata Shakur (1987).

It is now well accepted that the most tenacious and elusive aspects of people’s racial prejudices sit outside of their conscious awareness.  This has been unequivocally established.  Empirically. So, even though most people today would describe themselves as tolerant, reasonable and fair-minded, the reality of course is often quite different.  Racism is very difficult to escape from, even for those individuals who might take great pride in their liberalism and see themselves as anti-racist. Whether we like it or not, we live in a society with a disturbingly heavy racist legacy. A society where the degradation of people of colour continues to be perpetuated more often than not covertly, silently and quite casually. A society, with an order and hierarchy that is still rigidly stratified by race.

The ‘ally turn’ and dormant racism

This social order may be why many apparently neutral situations can quickly turn into racist encounters for people of colour and why countless rational and ‘liberal’ individuals can seemingly, at the drop of a hat, utter the most surprisingly bigoted statements. The above suggestion may be unsettling to many white people nevertheless, any sceptic may only need to initiate some conversations with friends, relatives and strangers of colour.  In all probability, many such individuals will recall some racist deeds or words by so called allies and/or from supposedly enlightened people.  I’ve called this process the ‘ally turn’.  From the ex-lover who upon being dumped suddenly develops a taste for racial slurs, to the ‘close’ white friend who almost out of the blue feels the need to discuss the superiority of white women’s looks because her friend of colour is getting more attention, to the devoted career advisors who may simply not find it in them to support the choice of talented Black students to go to ‘Oxbridge’ or to study prestigious/power enabling subjects, perhaps because of their own mediocrity.

Too many of us have had to navigate through such exchanges which may lay bare a number of patterns. For example, that some people of colour seem more likely to encounter racial hostility than others (I submit here, they are likely individuals who challenge whiteness) or that some situations and contexts appear to attract more racial contempt than others (I propose, situations seen as transgressing the racialised social order). The concept of dormant racism offers quite an interesting tool here. In biology dormancy refers to the period in which an organism’s physical activity and growth is temporarily suspended; after which, development resumes its normal course. Usually when the environment becomes more favourable. By dormancy in racism, it is simply proposed that much invisible racial prejudice lurks inactive or unknown until the conditions for its expression and externalization are met.  Challenges to normative racial expectations and disruption to the implicit social order seem to provide ideal conditions for the manifestation of dormant racial bigotry.

On Black deference

All imperialist systems have relied on the legitimization of white authority through the propagation of ideas of superiority and benevolence and correspondingly, discourses of dependency and incapability. Oppressed groups (racially or otherwise) in other words, have been expected to gratefully bow down and to defer to their masters not only because the latter knew better but also because it was considered an affront to challenge the authority of the master.  Indeed, doing so threatened the very structures of oppression. In essence, challenging the master meant refusing to stay ‘in one’s place’. Many may see such expectations as historical but, there is arguably much evidence that the expectation of Black deference lingers both at individual and structural level. The case of ‘socially conscious’ inmates as described above by Assata Shakur, may provide an illustration.

Following the Rachel Dolezal’s affair, a number of commentators have openly expressed the view that Black women should be grateful for Dolozal’s work and, in the same vein, some white feminists have taunted Black feminists for the credit they felt due for supposedly providing a platform for the birth intersectionality. The expectation that people of colour should be grateful for the presumed benevolence or attention that is afforded to them by those with race related privileges may well be a manifestation of ‘Black deference’.

And, as any questioning of the master ’s judgement and orders was deemed an act of insubordination potentially punishable by imprisonment and by death; across centuries and continents; it is striking that contemporaneously, several instances exist of Black people who have come to harm or died while or shortly after questioning illegitimate orders.  Often, white orders. Zimmerman, a mere neighbourhood watch member, demanded that Trayvon Martin recognized his (illegitimate) authority by identifying himself and his intentions. The latter did not (and indeed, did not have to).  An altercation which led to Martin’s death ensued. Similarly, the confrontation between Sandra Bland and Encinia only escalated after she objected to the state trooper ordering for no apparent cause, that she put the cigarette she was smoking (in her own car) out and, that she got out of her vehicle.  Sandra Bland resisted Encinia ‘s unwarranted demands.  She was threatened (with a tazer gun) into submission and later died in police custody in highly suspicious circumstances.

There are many everyday examples suggesting that Black deference continues to be expected and enacted. Many of us might have witnessed incidents involving white teens behaving in the most abusive ways physically and verbally towards the police or others in positions of authority, only to receive warnings, if even that. We have known fair well that Black teens would probably have served time for the same conduct. White teens are allowed irreverence to authority to a much larger extent, it is often deemed a sign of being free-spirited, of adolescence or of critical thinking even. In Black teens, the same behaviour can quickly be constructed as defiance or disorderlines. There is plenty of evidence documenting that Black children and teenagers receive harsher punishments than their white counterparts for similar authority related ‘infringements’ and when they come into contact with the criminal justice system.  In other words, for Black people, not knowing their place can have serious consequences. From a very young age.  

Clearly, Black women are not exempt.  Many of us have learnt that minding our demeanour may well mean the difference between making it home or ending up detained. Or worse.  We have intuitively known of dormant racism. We may not necessarily have given it that name. Our holding our head up, an act of resistance and of self-affirmation which should be celebrated, is not. It is the antithesis of deference and thus incompatible with the social order…And so, we have poor attitudes.  It is a disturbing state of affairs to have in some parts of the ‘Western’ world, lawyers advising men of colour that their number one strategy to survive police encounters should be to comply, irrespective of how unreasonable the conduct of the officer(s) may be. Questioning power and white authority regardless of their illigitimacy can get Black people killed.  And, make no mistake about this. Those whose lives are taken whilst they question the state, do not die because they threaten individuals. They die because they challenge their place in the hierarchy. Because they threaten the social order.  An order that lays invisible and silent until its existence is threatened.

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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

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.

Stigma and multiple oppression: Some implications for clinical psychology

A discomforting proposition

I attended a diversity meeting a few weeks ago and although this was not the focus; the on-going underrepresentation of Black and minority ethnic trainees (BME) within the profession was briefly touched upon. I was taken aback and quite disturbed when it was posited that the stigma around mental health issues within BME communities was the reason for the difficulties in recruiting a more representative workforce. This proposition was not elaborated upon and went unchallenged. Instead, it seemed to be taken as a given. It felt wrong. I spent much of the remainder of the meeting considering the proposition and trying to access the logical part of my brain but, such was the level of discomfort I experienced, that I was not able to return to a more rational place and put forward some arguments to challenge the proposition. I chose to remain silent. This post is essentially about articulating a reasoned response to the embodied one.

Could stigma really be a factor?

In all honesty, it was not the first time I had heard stigma put forward as a reason for the lack of diversity within clinical psychology. I have also seen colleagues suggest with much conviction that ‘cultural issues’ were responsible for the lack of Black and Brown faces within the profession. There are various reasons why such notions, which can be stigmatising themselves, may provoke the sort of anxious arousal I experienced within the strategic meeting. It seems those who have put forward the above explanations may not have considered how much of the variance it is suggested, could actually and reasonably be explained by stigma alone, bearing in mind the fact that the acceptance rates for Black and Asian groups are up to thirty times lower than that of White English applicants. Explanations that indirectly put responsibility for inequalities at the feet of disadvantaged groups may act as barriers to curiosity and to more systematic evidence generating.

We have such a wide range of sophisticated research methodologies and much research expertise at our disposal, thus, that so many of us seem quite happy to justify stark and enduring inequalities with reasons that lack precision and/or empirical basis, is in my sense both oppressive and defensive. Indeed this stops us from considering, if only hypothetically, the potential presence and influence of less palatable and more anxiety provoking dynamics such as discrimination (both direct and indirect) and bias (both conscious and unconscious). These processes have after all been widely documented within a wide range of environments and activity sectors. Critically, the above explanations further problematize disadvantaged/marginalized groups.

BME groups are overrepresented in medicine and within branches of the discipline which specialise in mental health such as psychiatric nursing and psychiatry. They also appear over-represented in mental health social work. If stigma (or ‘cultural issues’) were a key variable for such groups’ difficulties in accessing clinical psychology; contact with which is arguably a lot less stigmatising than the above, surely this would not be expected. The ‘Stigma Shout’ survey carried out by Rethink’s research department a few years ago and which is the largest ever survey of people with direct experience of mental health problems on the issue (n=4000), found no ethnic difference on service users’ reports of mental health stigma and discrimination.

Considering the impact of multiple oppression

Of course that is not to say that there is no mental health stigma and discrimination within BME groups, there clearly is. There is mental health stigma within every ethnic group. Thus, like many others, many individuals from BME communities will sadly have negative feelings about mental health services and in addition may show low levels of service awareness. Many will have limited understanding of the signs and manifestations of mental health distress or see psychological difficulties as character flaws. Some would have been influenced by sensationalistic media portrayal of mental health problems and as a result come to believe fallacious associations between mental health problems and dangerosity. It is also true that wihin some sub-sections magico-spiritual explanatory models will be found.

Nonetheless, assuming that stigma may well be a significant factor recruitment wise, it may perhaps be helpful to take our intellectual and reflection efforts further and start being more questioning in this regard, for example, by asking what could we learn from the social context which could be useful in addressing the said inequalities? What practices, at systemic and individual level could perpetuate those inequalities within the profession? How do race, class, and possibly gender oppression (and sexual orientation or trans oppression for some) and the negative stereotypes associated with each subjugated identity, potentially combine and collude with the stigma associated with mental health problems and/or disability?

Maintaining relevance

The above are complex questions but questions we may need to grapple with as trainees/clinical psychologists if we are going to effect and sustain any form of genuine change in relation to access to our profession at both training and service level. Psychology and mental health services have for too long been charged with failing to maintain a sense of relevance to marginalised groups’ lived experiences and worldviews, arguably fuelling suspicion, distrust and anger; leading to both poor uptake and disengagement. Not only does this disengagement may increase the likelihood of more adverse and coercive pathways into mental health services and thus further negative experiences by some marginalised groups, they may perpetuate the stigma and fear that surround mental health problems and services.

Stigma is two-directional. It must be recognised that mental health professionals are not immune to the internalisation of stigma and of other oppressive beliefs. Many people with mental health problems report experiencing stigma and discrimination within health and mental health services, so much so, that the largest anti-stigma campain dedicated part of its activities to tackling such stigma (please see ‘Education not discrimination’ of the ‘Time to Change’ campaign). I was involved in some of these projects as a consultant a few years ago and as part of this, facilitated a range of discussions and training. The latter brought home to me that many myths are still going strong within the mental health sector.

Dealing wih on-going myths

For example, the posited submissiveness of South Asian women and their alleged oppression in their homes or the ‘resistance’ of Black men to experiencing depression and their presumed violence/aggressivity have been repeatedly raised as reasons for race inequalities within the mental health system and difficulties in engaging these groups. Those stigmatising beliefs together with the common denial and/or dismissal of experiences of racism (and the limited cultural competence of services) would naturally deter some BME groups from seeking help from us and from engaging with services; particularly when such contact may be frown upon within one’s environment or community, arguably for good reasons.

Of course too, such dicoursive notions may become internalised and present either social and/or ego threats so that people may understandably consciously reason : ‘I am already facing so much discrimination as a minority in the world, I cannot afford to expose myself to mental health discrimination and stigma’ or ‘I will not give the dominant group the chance to subjugate me some more’. More unconsciously perhaps, some may come to feel : ‘I am inferior/worthless and do not want to evidence or to expose this’. It may be useful to consider potential social and intra-psychic dynamics when discussions around mental health stigma in ethnic minorities are had. Stigma is relational and functional too. At a very basic level, for people to experience or internalize stigma, there needs to be, at least to some degree, others who stigmatize and project. Taking collective responsibility for the on-going stigma and discrimination many face both personally and professionally may help ensure more attention is dedicated to reducing the devastating impact of mental health stigma and discrimination in the lives of people who are often already vulnerable, socially isolated and disempowered. And, that we do not perpetuate stigmatising or othering discourses unintentionally.

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

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…

Brindle, D. (2013, April 30). Mental health anti-stigma campaign fails to shift health professionals’ attitudes. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/healthcare-network/2013/apr/03/mental-health-anti-stigma-campaign.

Clearing House for Postgraduate Courses in Clinical Psychology http://www.leeds.ac.uk/chpccp. (2013). Equal Opportunities Numbers.

Department of Health (2005). Delivering Race Equality in Mental Health Care. Retrieved on 06/11/2014 from: http://www.dh.gov.uk/en/Publicationsandstatistics/Publications/PublicationsPolicyAndGuidance/DH_4100773

Keynejad, R., (2008). Barriers to seeking help: What stops ethnic minority groups in Redbridge accessing mental health services? London: North East London NHS Foundation Trust.

Littlewood, R., Lipsedge, M. (1982). Aliens & alienists: Ethnic minorities and psychiatry. Routledge London.

SCM (2002) Breaking the circles of fear: A review of the relationship between mental health services and African and Caribbean communities. London: The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health.

TTC(2008) Stigma Shout: Service user and carer experiences of stigma and discrimination. London: Time to Change.

Race and sexual competition: Some initial thoughts.

Please don’t read this as a rant!

I really don’t want this article to sound like I am ranting but I have a feeling some may well read it as such. If this is a rant, I will try to make it as psychologically and socially informed as I can… I feel the need from the get go to make a couple of disclaimers: one, I have nothing against interracial relationships. Two, I do not harbour any particular resentment against White women or any other group of human beings for that matter. There is absolutely no but on the way to qualify these statements. The felt need for such disclaimers may become clearer within the rest of the article. As one may be able to gather from this short introduction, interracial relationships will be touched upon in this article, particularly the Black man-White woman dyad. Nonetheless, beyond these, I hope to ponder upon wider potential relational issues between White women and Black women. Essentially, the question I wish to reflect upon is this; do we carry some unspoken ‘baggage’?

The source of my inspiration…

Grazia published an article on racism a few weeks ago. Racism through the eyes of a White woman who was in essence describing how being in a relationship with a Black man had awakened her to the reality of racism. In her own words ‘Racism didn’t happen in my world until I fell in love with Raymond’ (some people at this stage might feel the urge to reach for a bucket; it was hard for me to continue reading her article after this point too). To give the author some credit and the benefit of the doubt, she was tackling a sensitive subject and was speaking candidly from her perspective and experience, let us assume and; in all probability her article would have been subject to much editorial control. All the same, I am always pleased when discussions about racism take place.

To see an attempt at broaching the subject seriously within the pages of a mainstream glossy magazine was quite satisfying, initially. Sadly though, the article went on to trivialise a number of important issues, some may argue; in the interest of increasing access to the debate, necessarily so. However, the use of stereotypes and clichés may be more difficult to defend. Let’s start with the illustrative picture; which itself was intuitively discomforting. It made me stop, look closely and unpick what it is I was having a hard time dealing with as it was not instantly intelligible to me. Upon paying closer attention, I started to get a sense of what I was reacting to. Here is what appears on the photograph (the actual photograph of the couple).

The illustrative photograph

The photograph is quite powerful and rich in symbolism. There is a Black man who is dark-skinned and looks quite ‘buff and rough’: he’s got a shaved head, he’s obviously muscly and well-built and got tattoos on display. He is looking directly at a White woman, I would argue covetly. His love interest is a much smaller (appearing about three time smaller actually on the picture) White woman who has been physically positioned at a much lower angle than him evoking sexual submission (again, I would argue). The symbolic domination of the Black man is reinforced by him appearing to have a grip on her arm evoking control or force. The White woman stares directly into the camera lenses rather than at her love interest. There appears to be a slight squint in her eyes and her lips seem firmly and unnaturally close.

There is no obvious display of affection, tenderness or sexual interest in her body language or within her gaze. The Black man makes no eye contact with the camera (he is staring at her) and therefore his gaze escapes the viewer’s scrutiny. Arguably, this creates a sense of mystery. That his eyes are firmly fixed on her, positions the woman on the picture as the coveted object, the lust object. One of the messages being communicated indirectly here is: the Black man wants the White woman. The parties’ sexual interests are not portrayed as reciprocal or of similar intensity yet, in terms of attractiveness, the man and woman are on a par. The image consequently stereotypically strips the White woman of her agency and thus reinforce both the discursive notion that Black men are after White women and to some degree, the expectation of sexual passivity and submission in women.

Defiance or scorn?

I can also perceive a degree of defiance and/or something of an air of arrogance in her facial expression. Of course the possibility that I might well be projecting into her and potentially imposing an unwarranted interpretation because of my own prejudices must be considered. I am open to this eventuality. Nonetheless, the themes within the following passages from her article seem to illustrate exactly what I picked up from the picture.

‘I’ve also experienced reverse racism when I was recently out with a friend of a friend, who is black. At first she was really friendly, but when Raymond arrived, she became cold and withdrawn…

‘Yet I’ve got a message for all the haters… you’re not winning. Far from having a negative effect on our relationship, experiencing racism as a couple has only made us closer’

‘They acted as if I was doing something rebellious by going out with a black guy’

There is much that is problematic in the above statements, from the misconceived and trivialized conceptualisation of racism to, in my view, the distasteful appropriation of Black slang terms in the context of the article. But what I will focus on here is the loaded portrayal of Black women as ‘haters’, envious of White woman’s supposed ‘grip’ on Black men (allegedly though here implicitly, due to Black women being White women’s subordinates in terms of beauty and femininity). Anyone with an IQ above 50 would probably know that Black men, men or just people in fact, are not objects/property which can be stolen or guarded and that of course, for the overwhelming majority of happy couples today both parties are willing and consenting participants. Human beings have feelings and free will, well at least to some degree.

Femininity, masculinity and sexual competition.

A lot of people spend a lot of time trying to empirically establish Black women as less than. Is it any wonder that in a world still dominated by eurocentric beauty standards, that portrays White women as the epitome of beauty and femininity and on the other hand Black men as hyper-masculine and as the most virile beings on earth, that both groups would naturally be attracted to one another? Of course that is not to say that other factors bear no influence, we are complex creatures… Nevertheless, from a societal perspective their mutual attraction makes perfect sense and indeed, Black men-White women couples seem; of all possible gender and ethnicity combinations, the most frequent interracial pairing. There is something that seems quite symptomatic and revealing in the social construction of Black women as envious and bitter.

Something that is often difficult to put a finger on or to name. Something which possibly gets played out when some White women who despite (or perhaps due to) being in relationships with Black men, treat Black women with contempt. The same something I suspect that made a fellow White student (with a passion for Black men) only feel the need to describe the most graphic details of her sexual encounters whenever I was around (we were not friends and hardly spoke, if at all, outside of these x rated group conversations). Perhaps also the same something which made my attractive (and educated) sister; and a number of Black women; wonder if they should commit to dressing more modestly than their co-workers and be unnaturally unassuming at work lest they triggered negative responses by behaving in the exact same way as White women and/or, by not conforming to tacit expectations of inferiority and, as a result threaten the implicit (and internalised) social order.

The baggage of the past

In therapy, I have repeatedly been asked, what it is like to be an attractive Black woman and I have consistently avoided considering the question. It has for long felt too awkward to discuss. It seems I have learnt that physicality is one of the unspoken dynamics not to be unpicked but which influences both racial and gender relating and thus most aspects of the social and psychological. The behaviours of the White women described above are not consistent with behaviours that someone assured of one’s superiority, attractiveness or relationship would display. Quite the opposite. They may actually reveal that Black women are believed to hold more power than is usually conceded. Although, various interpretations could be proposed and indeed the potential sexual competitiveness of women may offer an explanatory framework (women have after all been socialised to view each other as competitors for ‘the scarce male’) in the constructed social hierarchy, a woman who is Black, attractive, confident (and educated) may create discomfort, for some, simply because she disrupts expected power dynamics. She’s moved from her (hierarchical) ‘place’.

It is well accepted that on-going constructions of Black men have historical (and imperialist) origins. Thus, it is interesting to note that from a historical perspective, Black women have often been positioned as the sexual rivals of White women as White slavers and colonizers have commonly kept Black women as concubines, mistresses and/or sexual servants throughout history and across continents. The patriarchal and oppressive context of such relationships is naturally of central importance (as of course, rape and sexual exploitation was in fact what was taking place here). Still, one may wonder about the (unconscious?) lingering of such historical baggage which may be reinforced by the on-going over-sexualisation and devaluation of Black women; in terms of White Woman- Black woman relating. Such dimensions may add further complications to the dynamics and the way we see each other.

Thank you for reading.

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.

From School Exclusion to Mental Health Hospitalisation: Pathways to Mental Health Care for Black Men?

Mike’s story

Mike* who had just turned 21, was a young man from Africa**. He arrived in the country aged 7 with his family to seek asylum and had lived in London ever since. Mike was expelled from school at age 14 or 15 for truanting. He was convinced the teachers recurrently picked on him because they did not like him.  The day Mike got expelled he did not go back home.  He was scared. Instead, he started staying with friends and quickly became involved in petty crimes and in smoking cannabis.

Mike then got arrested several times for theft and possession of cannabis but was not sent to prison.  Quickly after Mike started smoking cannabis; at about 16, he developed what he called an ‘episode’ (Mike was initially diagnosed with ‘Drug Induced Psychosis’ and later with ‘Paranoid Schizophrenia’).  He was eventually taken to hospital by his mother and was discharged after one month. Once discharged, he stopped taking his medication, was readmitted within days and discharged again within a month.

Mike felt it was too early for him to be out and that he was not well enough. He also felt he lacked insight into his condition (his ‘own’ words) and was suspicious about taking medication. Once home Mike filled the days with smoking cannabis and worked out complex patterns as to when and how much cannabis he could smoke without it affecting his wellbeing. A month after his second hospitalisation, he got into trouble. He claimed to have been stopped and searched by the police 3 times in the same day. He became angry and defiant with the third Officer.  He reported to have been stopped the day before and demanded an explanation from the Police Officer who he said refused to provide one.

Mike ended up in a physical conflict with the Officer and was brought to his local police station where he was eventually charged with common assault.  Once convicted, Mike fell ill in prison and ended up on a Medium Secure Unit (MDU) on a Section 37, 41 of the Mental Health Act (a previous post here considers the potential experiences of Black mental health service users on MSUs).  Mike had been in the Unit for about 3 years when I spoke to him.  When I asked him what could have made a difference in his life he said the teachers ‘they gave up on me too easily’.

Some personal experience of the Education System

I was invited to the first parent-teacher evening to meet with my son’s tutor who taught science at the school. My eldest son had started secondary school a few weeks previously.  As we waited outside her room, I watched parent-child pairs entering the classroom looking slightly anxious but leaving it with a smile. This quietly reassured me.  When our turn arrived we were invited to come in and to sit at a pupil desk where we met a young looking White female teacher.  Upon brief introductions, the teacher buried her head in some kind of record book.  She re-established eye contact with me and then looking directly at my son declared with a beaming smile: ‘based on your current level of achievement, you can expect to achieve a grade C at your GCSEs’.

This statement was not an invitation to discuss potential remedial actions or support. Indeed there was no attempt at creating a dialogue on the mediocre prediction and I did not detect any concern or any indication of disappointment.  Instead, a definite sense of congratulatory determinism.  This was one of those awkward moments when the Psychologist in me has to wrestle with my ghetto side (in my head).  I am not going to lie; a vision of me slapping some sense into her did enter my mind.  Nonetheless, I reciprocated the smile for what seemed a very long time, long enough to compose myself and say to her ‘well that would not be good enough for us, we place a lot of importance on education at home and expect a lot more from him. He’s a very bright boy’. As I kept a smile on my face, I saw the smile on hers morph into an awkward grin betraying her embarrassment.

This was the beginning of year 7.  GCSEs were a few years away. There had been limited opportunities to test children.  I felt there was very little merit in the teacher’s prediction. What caused me the most concern was not the determinism but the sense of celebration which emanated from her voice. To me the subtext of the exchange read something like: grade C is perfectly commendable for a Black boy.  The relationship between school underachievement and social deprivation is well established as is the academic achievement/attainment gap between black boys and their peers (although it is important to remember that White boys coming from similarly socially disadvantaged backgrounds now fare worse academically than Black boys).  The influence of stereotypes and expectations on current educational attainments is receiving increasing attention.  There appears to be a link between low expectations and school exclusions and, although the relationship between school performance and the risk of being diagnosed with schizophrenia has been explored, one aspect that is less scrutinized is the relationship between school disengagement/exclusion and mental health care pathways. This is why Mike‘s story came to mind.

Black Service Users’ lived experiences

One of my research projects a few years ago focused on the pathways to care of Black mental Health Service Users in South London. Mike’s story is derived from this qualitative data analysed using IPA (Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis). The results revealed that for all interviewees (n=16) remaining in education was valued and perceived as important in terms of avoiding contact with mental health services for Black men. The majority of participants cited their dropping out of school or their being expelled as the main factor leading to offending and getting into contact with mental health services.  There was a deep sense of regret and of missing out too which can be perceived in the following quotes from different interviewees:

‘Because I missed quite a bit (of school) I’m suffering the consequences now’

‘I could have done a lot more if I wasn’t truanting from school’

‘Looking back on it, if I could turn back the time I would go back to school’

Schools should not give up on kids too easily’

Of course the above accounts are retrospective and subject to the usual biases. But, perhaps they give us an indication as to where we might start to explore further investigation and/or investment in preventative support? This article is not written as a rant against schools. Many a teacher do a fantastic job in immensely trying circumstances. Some have had a life changing influences on me.  However, like the rest of us, teachers have prejudices and use the same human categorizing and labeling processes. The difficulty is that by virtue of the position of power and trust they hold in relation to children, such processes may well have more potent and further reaching consequences. Incidentally, 3 months after the meeting with the science teacher, mid-year, my son had already achieved all of the year targets in science and was working at grade A level (albeit, after he changed class and science teacher). Similarly, I remember my mother leading many battles against schools where my sisters and I were repeatedly dissuaded from going to university and from studying the subjects we were interested in because we were not deemed ‘academically gifted’ enough for them.  Particularly those of a (hard) scientific nature. These would have been too ‘challenging’ for us (I am sure our gender and social origin also had an influence)…

A decade or two later and after much defiance from my mother, two of my sisters are financial analysts; one is an accountant, one a physicist (the only female in her cohort when she completed her postgraduate studies).  Not bad for a bunch expected to struggle academically. I believe most young people have the capacity to resist low and stereotypical expectations but; this may well be more difficult for those with lower levels of social support and/or with other psychological or social vulnerabilities. Some Black children may only be able to frame what they are experiencing as ‘the teacher picks on me’, ‘the teacher does not like me’. Invariably, some children will be misguided in their interpretation and for some, such views may betray unhelpful thought patterns or other relational difficulties. However, teachers ‘expectations are powerful and many children will de-select themselves from academic pursuits by truanting or otherwise disengaging purely because the message they receive and internalise is, you do not belong here or you are not smart (sorry I meant ‘academically gifted’) enough…

Chicken and egg proposition?

Having spent much time speaking to Black men within the Mental Health System, I noted that difficulties with teachers, particularly exclusions, often seemed to precede their (coercive) pathways into the mental health system and/or contact with the criminal justice system.  School exclusion is strongly correlated with offending. Black boys are at least three times more likely to be excluded than their peers (for similar infringements). The incidence of behavioural difficulties and occupational/school disruption can be associated with various psychiatric diagnoses, including schizophrenia so there may be a potential circular (chicken and egg) dilemma. In any event, if low expectations contribute to underachievement and school exclusions which in turn increase the likelihood of offending (and of being exposed to other stressors or ‘precipitating’ factors for some) and; we know that offending in Black groups is more likely to result in contact with mental health services (and subsequent diagnoses of schizophrenia), isn’t there a potential case to explore how we might better equip schools to support truanting and disengaging Black boys? Might it not also be helpful to pay closer attention and to address the factors leading to school disengagement for this group? In the absence of relevant studies scrutinising life events and adverse pathways to care and assessing the weight of relevant variables; it is difficult to establish relationships and the potential unique influence school exclusions/disengagement may carry in terms of future, and more importantly, type of Mental Health Service use for Black men.

So…What do you think, do schools give up on (some groups of) children too easily?

Have low or high expectations influenced your academic achievements or those of your children?

Do you think that providing more timely support to children who encounter difficulties at school could help reduce inequalities within the Mental Health System, particularly in relation to Black and Minority Ethnic groups?

*Mike is a pseudonym. **I have chosen not to specify the country Mike originates from to minimize risks of him being identified. As part of the research project, consent for wide dissemination and internet publication was sought.

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?

To access The Poverty Site – A UK site for statistics on poverty and social exclusion – ‘s section on school exclusions (click here)

Black Mental Health UK has compiled a range of reports on race inequalities within both criminal justice and mental health systems, to access (Click here)

‘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 Elephant in the room: Race Representation, Symbolism and Silenced Wounds.

The first time I sat foot on a psychiatric ward was just under 10 years ago.  I was engaged in doing Community Development and Community Research work within Medium Secure Units (MSU) in London.  This was my first day on a MSU and indeed my first time visiting any kind of psychiatric hospital. Following a brief introduction to the all White psychology team by the clinical lead and consultant forensic clinical psychologist (a White man); I was taken round the ward where a multi-ethnic, but still mainly Black staff base, composed the nursing team who was in turn, overseeing the care of a virtually all Black inpatient/clinical population. Upon entering the ward, I was so overwhelmed by the sea of Black faces staring at me in utter stoicism, that I had to work very hard to contain my urge to cry.

The visit felt surreal and oppressive in an almost suffocating way and; this had nothing to do with the (respectful) way I was being treated by staff. At the time, I was not entirely sure why this sight had provoked such a strong response in me.  I had some knowledge of the extent of race inequalities within mental health services and had also been briefed on the clinical population upon my induction. Yet, something happened in my very first few moments on the ward which took me by complete surprise. Although this ‘Elephant’ remained at the back of my mind as I did further work on the Unit, I became somewhat desensitised to its presence, particularly as the subject was hardly ever discussed with colleagues.  Hence, what I set out to do in the present post is to try and make sense of my experience and to consider some potential clinical implications.

The power of symbolism and representation

As human beings we all make use of symbols to categorize, convey and extract meanings from events and social interactions. From a systems perspective, to start with, the staff composition mirrored traditional power distributions so that at the top of the hierarchy was a White man and at the very bottom of the pyramid of power, were of course the Black staff, followed by Black patients. Thus, at team level, there was a representation of social inequalities in relation to income across staff roles.  Further, the Psychologist role is one of authority that socially occupies the sphere of expertise and; in the context of MDUs; as the role encompasses the assessment of patients’ readiness for release, another layer of power is therefore inherent to the role.

The meaning attributed to the role of the patient (or more accurately patient-offender) and that of the Psychologist cannot be interpreted outside of the racial make-up of the ward.  Connotations and associations whether consciously accessible or not; firmly remain when it comes to race dynamics.  Certain images have the power to tap directly onto this rich symbolic heritage.  Indeed, looking through history, one would not have to search for very long for many constructions of Black people as dependent and as psychologically, socially and intellectually deficient to surface (debates around such constructions are to some degree continuing today). Consequently, and in the context described, the sight of a virtually all Black patient population having been assessed as needing treatment, rehabilitation and indeed control cannot but evoke the historical inferiorization and pathologization of Black people.

Projection and Identification

Returning psychoanalytically to what had happened in my ‘here and now’ experience of the ward, Projective Identification may offer an alternative and viable framework to make sense of the dynamics.  In that line of argument, it may be notable that as the detained Black men appeared to display no feeling and emotion, I experienced an overwhelming sadness and a sense of suffocation. Such feelings appear consistent with experiences which may be triggered by compulsory detention, restraint and freedom deprivation. Thus, it could be envisaged that through my experience, I was acting out the patients’ s disowned and/or unacceptable feelings and wishes which had been projected into me.

There is a long psychoanalytical tradition of viewing racism as a mechanism by which dominant groups project intolerable aspects of themselves into racial minorities.  From an internalised racism perspective, those projected qualities can be said to become accepted as one’s own. The imagery evoked by the racial representation clearly echoes the worst things Black people are all too often socialised to believe about themselves. From a psychoanatytical standpoint, the projections from dominant groups. The Ward context may thus evoke the same images that often give rise to many identity difficulties and other internal conflicts amongst some of us. Thus, whilst working toward ‘Recovery’, Black mental health service users may be exposed to the very painful dynamics that may be be part of their parcel of suffering and that may have contributed to bringing about and/or exarcebating their psychological distress.

Working with the Elephant in the room.

Taking on the role of mental health patient, in the current context, may also means psychically, taking on a role which is consistent with racial stereotypes and which may be experienced as buying into the constructed racial hierarchy which naturally part of the self may resist. From that perspective, it may follow that the role of mental health patient may be an extremely conflictual one for many Black men which may bring to the fore feelings of inferiorisation, marginalisation, exclusion, subjugation, distrust and possibly self-loathing. Although I have not come across many Black mental health patients/service users who have described their experience using symbols, systems representation and psychoanalytical concepts as frames of reference, the sense of suffocation and oppression I experienced has recurrently appeared in my sessions with Black service users as did their experience of being stereotyped on psychiatric wards.

There is ample research evidence suggesting that Black mental health service users have the most conflictual relationships with their clinicians, that they are the most dissatisfied group of all mental health service users and that they continue to report experiences of racism (including racism within services) but; despite these well-established findings; it appears that the Elephant in the room remains too overbearing to acknowledge and to work with for many of us. The dearth of discussion, clinical and empirical attention to the extent of the impact of race dynamics in relation to the psychological functioning and the service use, experiences and outcomes of racialized minorities seems to me to be of particular concern.  Not only because it may be part of the reproduction of existing hierarchical structures that perpetuate the invisibility of race and of White privilege, but also because it prevents opportunities for race related wounds and institutional suffering to be seen and addressed. I believe it may well have been these wounds and suffering I was apprehending and reacting to on my first day on the ward.

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).

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.