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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‘I want to be White’: Fostering self-love amongst children of African Descent.

Writing about the psychological needs and/or experience of people of colour always carries with it the danger of stereotyping and pathologising them further. I am very mindful of the need to resist such processes and often struggle with my own ambivalence when I reflect on my writing. To that end, it may be helpful to establish that I do not believe that Black people and indeed Black children as groups have lower levels of self-esteem and self-love than any other ethnic group.  Like most psychological variables and attributes, when it comes to self-esteem and self-love; within group differences tend to be much more significant than between group differences. Further comparative empirical findings on the matter are unclear and conflicting.

Having said that, I do however believe that even today, skin colour can have an influence on Black people’s sense of self. Colorism and racism are alive and well. As a result, there are many children within African and African Caribbean communities; and many others; who will develop difficulties with their skin colour and for a proportion of these; self-loathing will become an issue which may be harboured till adulthood if left unaddressed. Thankfully, it is not necessary to be an expert on internalised oppression/racism, social constructionism or even on racial identity development to be able to support these children (although some basic knowledge on the above will be of help-please do some research). Pragmatically, a good starting point may be to remember this: like most adults, children like to think of themselves as good, beautiful, kind and worthy of love.

A child who comes to associate any attribute they possess to qualities that contradict any of the above will start to relate to the attribute in question with some degree of comptempt and hostility and/or try to dissociate from it. The same can be said for skin colour. I do not believe there is anything pathological here. A child that voices a desire to be a different skin colour or to belong to a different racial/ethnic group than the one they belong to, demonstrates that they are starting to develop a racial/ethnic identity, that they are sensitive to the dynamics, images and/or language they have been exposed to and most importantly, that they have developed sufficient trust in the parent/care giver (or whoever this wish was expressed to) to be open about their feelings. So how might we start to address these experiences and help the child relate more positively to his race/ethnicity and/or skin colour? Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Keep your emotions in check

This may be both the simplest and the most difficult thing to do. Hearing ‘I hate being Black’, or words to that effect, can be tough for anyone especially for a Black parent.  It may take parents back to their own experience of racism and oppression. It may make some feel that they have somehow failed to instill pride and self-esteem in their offspring. Feelings of helplessness, powerlessness and/or guilt about not having been able to shelter the child from the reality of oppression may arise. Some parents may even feel betrayed.

A range of feelings and emotions may be evoked which will be picked up by the child. Many may be tempted to brush the child’s experience and words off or to ignore the child. For many, the temptation to stop the conversation, distract, change subject or laugh things off will be great. Please resist. Silencing the child may assign shame to their experience and/or teach them that the subject is taboo or, will cause offense, embarrassment or hurt to you. Consequently, the child may not bring the subject up again; learn to keep this potentially troubling experience to themselves. Silencing the child might even reinforce any potential association between themselves, Blackness and being ‘bad’.

  1. Engage the child

It may be helpful to try and remain curious and open. For every child that wishes they were White, positive qualities and/or experiences, that in all probability, the child may think they lack (or may actually lack), would have been associated with Whiteness. Do not assume associations that the child has not made e.g. you may think that the child says they want to be White because they think White people are more beautiful when in fact the child might think ‘I want to be White because White people live in big houses’. Ask questions such as: How different do you think your life would be if you were white/not Black? What do you think White people have that Black people don’t? Probe the child with open and neutral questions so that you can start to build a picture of their belief system and of the qualities that have been attributed to Blackness and Whiteness. This will make it easier to challenge such beliefs in due course and to provide counter narratives.

  1. Expose the child to appropriate Role Models

It is crucially important that all children have access to positive role models that they can identify with. Unfortunately, children are not immune to the effects of negative messages associated with Blackness and the positive images associated with Whiteness whether at home, in school or through the media. Mundane and apparently trivial things may erode a child‘s self-esteem. Are there only blond haired blue eyed dolls at home/school? Are the heroes in all the stories they hear White? A colleague of mine, who used to reside on a council estate in a predominantly deprived (and Black) area of London, once told me that he was constantly stared at by Black boys and on occasions asked whether he was a Bailiff Officer. Black men going to work and wearing suits were such a rarity on the estate. The only people who wore suits and came round the estate were debt collectors (he was a director).

We have limited control over the media. Some people may even have little control over where they live and who they live with but, we can exercise our professional and/or parental control to expose children to people who look like them and have the quality/qualities they feel they, or people who look like them, do not possess or aspire to possess. More often than not such a person can be identified within the child’s environment. If appropriate then facilitating contact should be explored. Mentoring organisations are another option. There are plenty of relevant role models within our communities. Doctors, lawyers, artists, community workers and activists, Entrepreneurs etc. Of course, our history is full of them. Identify Black people that your child can look up to in your community and teach them about ‘Black History’. You may even do relevant research together.

  1. Mind your words and actions…

Your behaviour will have much more of an impact than your words. The way you treat children will teach them about how to expect to be treated in the world. In relation to race and colour, deal with your prejudices. Everyone has some. They are capable of doing a lot less damage if you are aware of them and you keep challenging yourself. It is not unusual for Black parents* to display colorism e.g. show a preference towards lighter skin tones. Children will sense and pick on these preferences whether they are verbalised or not (more often than not they are). Do you only compliment women on their beauty when they have lighter skin tones?

Do you call straight/curly hair good hair and afro and kinky textures ‘nappy’? Do you comment on people being ‘too dark’? Refrain. If people in your environment do so, challenge them. Many people say things without realising the impact of their words or that they may play a part in systems of devaluation until the experience of others is shared. Finally, being loved, nurtured and attended to, are probably the strongest buffers against the internalisation of oppression and racism and may help the development of a more secure cultural identity and a healthy self-esteem. A ‘secure base’ help teach children that they are lovable and that they matter; arguably the most important factors in fostering self-love.

* These attitudes are not only found amongst people of African descent but have been found amongst people of South Asian, East Asian, Latin American, Middle Eastern origins and, even amongst people from some European countries-to name but a few. Further, White people (and systems) can similarly show colorism towards individuals from racialized groups. 

Please note the above are just ideas. Although they are psychologically informed, they reflect my own reflections and experience. I am really curious about the experience of others either as parent or as clinicians/therapists. If you have any other suggestion please post a comment. Similarly, if you feel any part of the post does not make sense write a comment.

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The Rocky Road to Clinical Psychology training for BME applicants: A personal Perspective.

The question I am the most often asked when I meet people considering a career in Clinical Psychology (CP) or preparing their applications for CP training courses is: how did you make it -meaning how have you managed to obtain a training place?  When the person asking the question, like me, is from a ‘Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) background’, an added sense of bewilderment can often be sensed from their gaze.  The subtext being communicated is instantly understood.  In the non-verbal communication what is left unsaid essentially reads as: ‘How did you make it as a Black person’.  Of course, many a time people have been less subtle and made explicit reference to my race/ethnicity.

The latest figures reveal that for last year’s entry only 2 % and 3% of Black and Asian applicants were respectively accepted onto CP training. It appears it may be about 10 times more difficult for Black and Asian people to get accepted onto CP than to get into medicine! I do believe that there are systemic issues which make gaining a training place more difficult for BME applicants (more on this in due course) some of these may become evident in the rest of this post.  Nevertheless, in the first instance, I simply aim to share my experience and learning in the hope that they may be of some use to someone.

So I did I ‘make it’?

I often think that I got into the field through the back door. I decided relatively late that I wanted to train in clinical psychology which meant I had to return to university to obtain the degree needed, work toward acquiring the required ‘relevant experience’ later than average and in the main via non-traditional routes.  I have never been an Assistant Psychologist (AP) or a Research Assistant (RA) as I had to focus on getting jobs which paid the bills, with children and living in London at the time, the salary of an AP or RA post was not an option for me, let alone volunteering on equivalent ‘Honorary’ posts (the overwhelming majority of applicants selected for training have held such posts).

Most of my pre-training experience was acquired working at management level in the field of community engagement.  Many recruiters may simply not have given my application a second look.  Indeed, I was told several times by, I have no doubt, well intentioned people; that I did not ‘fit the mould’. Some of those helpful individuals were University tutors.  I could understand that a more mature Black mother of a different cultural background with English as a second language may be at odd with the training mould.  However, why it seemed so important that I fitted it baffled me as did the apparent lack of reflection upon such expectations. Aware that my work experience would not tick the boxes of many courses (or at the very least not earn me sufficient points to hope to get an interview) I sought to incorporate AP and RA skills and activities within my roles.

What did I do?

I gathered the courage to knock on the door of people I did not know; told them about me and my work and sought support and opportunities.  Most people* were beyond supportive, heard me, suggested some strategies and strongly encouraged me to apply and to persevere. They helped me own and appreciate the skills and experiences I had acquired professionally outside psychology and to realize how valuable they could be to clinical psychology practice. Eventually, I managed to get some research supervision by a clinical forensic psychologist on a couple of community research projects I was leading on within my main Job. Subsequently, and through my newly established network, I obtained an additional paid part time post (as a Carers ‘s Group Facilitator) under the supervision of another CP within an Early Intervention in Psychosis service.  It was tough going. I had two jobs, one full time and one part time; both demanding.  I was also doing my MSc full time and running a home with two kids well under 10 at the time.  After completing my Masters, I decided to enrol on a counselling psychology course as a possible alternative career plan. I was able to do this because I had managed to secure a revenue stream doing some consultancy and management work. Counselling psychology allowed me to get further supervision from yet another CP within a Medium Secure Unit where I completed a yearlong placement (I also simultaneously completed a shorter placement with a bereavement service).

So, what have I learnt that could be passed on to aspiring clinical psychologists who may not fit the mould?

Relationships, professional connections and being kind go a long way.  Being friendly may be the easiest to manage but relationships and connections can be built even if you start from not knowing anyone in the field. Brush on your networking skills. An easier place to start for those expecting a First Class Degree may be to ask their research project‘s supervisor(s) at University for any volunteering opportunities and/or for ways to continue with some aspect(s) of their research thesis under his/her supervision or that of a colleague, even if only for a few hours. Aim to get to know everyone within the teaching team.  There is no doubt about your academic skills if you’ve achieved a First Class degree (yes, I do believe anyone serious about CP should aim for a First Class degree especially those who belong to groups whose academic abilities have traditionally been questionned). It is a lot less competitive to get research experience in this fashion. For those who wonder, I did not get a First (I ended up with a mid 2.1).

Clinically, if you cannot get an AP post, do not be disheartened aim instead to work toward gaining clinical and/or research supervision by clinical psychologists. Try and prioritise posts that will give you direct contact with service users ideally; within the NHS. It is easier to have or establish some contact with clinical psychologists if you’re in the NHS. However, it is possible to work outside mental health services or within the voluntary sector and to forge links with (and even obtain supervision by) local NHS clinical psychologists but, you may have to be more pro-active and/or creative. Make yourself known. Gather staff’s research interests, develop proposals in these areas and ask them for some input/supervision.  Any fear of rejection definitely needs to be under control. If you come across as prepared ‘professional’, confident and clear in terms of the level of input you require, I believe most people will try and help.

The most valuable lesson I have learnt is to strategize.  The odds are largely against you. Thus, having a clear strategy will help you identify ways to increase the odds in your favour.  I suggest taking a project management approach and working toward a plan.  You may also find that having clear objectives and targets support you when you feel like you are not getting anywhere. This will help you keep the small victories in mind. Do not sell yourself short however, remember every job opens the door to the next one and provides learning opportunities.  It is incredibly important that the profession becomes more representative of the population it serves.  Your skills, experience and knowledge are extremely valuable.

Having an alternative career plan does not make you any less committed or suitable for training.  If you’re developing one, consider sister disciplines.  Many professional psychology and psychotherapy courses offer Practitioner Doctorates that have various exit points and are modular or flexible.  Such disciplines would also offer the possibility of acquiring relevant experience and may therefore strengthen any potential CP application.  Naturally and best of all, you could then work toward a plan B simultaneously.  If successful in your application to CP training, you can always exit plan B and possibly even obtain dual qualifications ( if you’re willing to continue with plan B where you left off when you qualify as a CP, assuming you’re not sick of books by then).  There are of course cost implications and I realize I was quite fortunate to be able to put some money towards further studies. However, studying part-time may make the payment of fees more manageable. Further, the impact of working in low paid jobs potentially for years in the hope of getting onto CP training also has financial consequences namely, on earning potential, especially if you eventually do not acquire a professional qualification.

Finally, be prepared for the arduous journey ahead.  Being ‘different’ may not get easier once you get onto training …more on this in a different post.

* I feel hugely indebted to South London and the Maudsley and the Institute of Psychiatry as this is where the people who answered my knocks on their door were based. Thank you.

To download the Clearing House 2013 Equality Monitoring Data for Clinical Psychology Training Acceptance Rates (click here)
To download the British Medical Association 2009 Equality Report (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.


Unfair stop and search practices and the psychological wellbeing of Black men: Is it time we scrutinized the relationship?

Much has been written about the impact of stop and seaches and racial profiling.  That the unequal use of such powers has far reaching devastating consequences on community relations and in particular, on Black and Minority Ethnic Communities (BME) ‘s relationship with the police has become a truism. One aspect of the debate that has received little attention is the potential effects such practices could have on the psychological wellbeing and mental health of communities disproportionally affected by the practice, particularly on their most vulnerable members.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has reported that in some areas Black people are 29 times more likely to be stopped and searched with the overall figures nationally documenting that as a group, they are six times more likely to be subjected to these powers, than their white counterparts. In a recent inspection, the EHRC identified that more than a quarter of all stop and searches carried out under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act in (2013) –that is hundreds of thousands, could have been unlawful.  If these findings leave you staggered chances are you’re not a Black inner city young man having to deal with various other social injustices and social stressors (on top of the usual adolescence and young adulthood related stuff) who has been stopped and searched repeatedly for no legitimate reason. Indeed feeling staggered may be a relatively mild emotion for such a person to experience.

Over the years I have come into contact with hundreds of young Black men in community, forensic and clinical settings.  I can say with no hesitation, that young Black men’ s experience of the police has been one of the most virulent and recurrent issue I have been presented with. Expectedly, it was often accompanied by feelings of rage, despair, helplessness, distrust and alienation. Feelings strongly associated with psychological distress. The most resilient and resourceful young Black men may easily manage the slight, indignation anddehumanisation of repeated or unlawful stops and searches without being shaken to the core. However, the longer term impact of such experiences particularly if recurrent, do have to be reflected upon.  But, how about the others?  Those with little or no social support, those with no voice or with a reduced capacity to articulate their experiences?

The level of unmet psychological and mental health needs is high amongst Black men.  I once supported a Black man in his thirties within a forensic unit with a string of offences against the police. He recurrently got into conflict with police officers when he was stopped and searched.  I also remember an extremely bright nineteen year old Black man who had been convicted of assault for punching the fourth or fifth police officer who had wanted to stop and search him in the same day.  These are tragic stories for everyone involved, particularly for the Black men who, shortly after their incarceration became severely distressed and were diagnosed with psychosis.

There is no claim here that the experiences of those two men are representive of those of Black men generally or indeed of those Black men who may have mental health support needs. These stories may be purely anecdotal, nevertheless, it is a fact that Black men are the most likely group to access mental health care through coercive routes and/or through the Criminal Justice System.  It is also a fact that there is little (if, any) empirical evidence scrutinizing the impact of such policing practices on the mental health or psychological wellbeing of Black people and specifically, on that of young Black men.

As a Black woman from an inner city background and a psychologist, these issues disturb me profoundly.  I personally know many people of colour who have been subjected to unfair, discriminatory and even brutal police treatment.  I can recognize the wounds.  And worryingly, at present, I am not sure these invisible injuries can be healed within mainstream mental health services if anything, current provisions may well be exacerbating them either as a result of the traumatic pathways to ‘care’ too many black men are forced to take or, because of the types of intervention(s) they receive. It is too early to say whether Theresa May’s projected overhaul of stop and search powers will have an impact on the experience of Black men in our inner city streets or elsewhere. However,  I personally think it is an overdue step in the right direction that has the potential to foster better psychological health for this group. As for the hundreds of thousands of young Black men who have already been negatively affected by the abusive use of stop and search powers, one can only hope that services will offer these young people appropriate support and a space to process their experience.  And crucially, that the latter will still have enough trust in authority, to accept their offer. 

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 Race Reflections. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections.  If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.