social justice

Beauty as resistance: On marginalisation, style & self-love

 

‘Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise?

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?’

Maya Angelou, Sill I rise.

 

On fashion

I have, for much of my life got attention for the way that I dress. To some degree, this continues today.  I love clothes. This is no secret. I love playing with what the different fabrics, colour and styles can do to the female body form and correspondingly to our psyche and sense of self. I have for long treasured the fantasy of designing clothes. Maybe someday… I learnt quite early and by accident, that there was much power in beauty and in elegance. My days in high school, even during teachers’ meetings were filled with conversations about the clothes I wore. On one occasion, the teachers’ feedback I received from the class representative about my academic performance was: ‘they said you think you’re on the runway’. That had been the only information provided to me about how to improve my grades on this particular term.

Even as a fourteen or fifteen year old, I knew there was something both fascinating and disturbing at play here. Something being contested. There was certainly violence and objectification in the interest so many white adults, primarily females, were paying to my body. But, I could not articulate what is was. Nothing I wore was extravagant. I have never got in trouble for wearing clothes which were deemed too ‘provocative’ or otherwise inappropriate, for example (French schools are non-uniformed generally). I think I just dressed beautifully. Even as a teenager -yes, I am going to say so myself.  And, that this went against expectations. Although I was an unremarkable student on balance, I did well in philosophy and literature and, excelled in English. But this did not capture the imagination the way the dresses I wore did.

The socio-political and historical context

It is interesting to look back at these memories through intersectional lenses and to relate them to the colonial gaze. My high school years were in the late nineties, in the banlieue of Paris. A time and place where many people felt challenged in their identity. Where new generations of French people of colour were starting to assert themselves, demanding space and visibility. This was a time when the social order was much more racialised with migrants and people of colour, by and large, confined to the poverty ridden banlieues and viewed as second class citizen, if at all citizens. And though to date, still, the notion of Black elegance/beauty continues to be controversial, it would have been much more of a challenge to social hierarchies then, particularly in a country that holds elegance and sophistication quite dear to its national national sense of self.

Colonial discourses and its associated voyeuristic fantasised representations of the Other have long promoted the consumption, devaluation and denigration of the black body. Their white supremacist and capitalist agenda spread the view that white people were superior (more intelligent, more socially adept, more civilised, & generally more sophisticated) than ‘indigenous’ populations. The promotion of white-cis-hetero-patriarchy has been central to the binary construction of femininity with, on opposite poles of the ideology, purity, grace and beauty arbitrarily accorded to white women and at the other extreme end, depravity, bestiality, androgyny fixed onto constructions of black womanhood. The ante-femininity. And, of course, conceptualisations of femininity only arose out of the need to assert (toxic) masculinity and manhood and to reinforce white men’s power.

Colonialism is directly engaged here. We are essentially talking about dynamics which occurred during the migration and settlement of populations from former French colonies and their children. The arrival of the colonial Other…Though colonial ideologies may seem absurd to most of us today, their legacy can still be felt. Constructions of beauty and femininity are intrinsically linked and, such constructions have always been central to systems of domination and marginalisation. They are strongly linked to privilege and can facilitate or deny access to structures of power. It is not coincidental that ‘low rank’ women (and people more generally) have been socially constructed as less beautiful, graceful and that correspondingly, elegance and style have for long been characteristics reserved for the more socially powerful groups.

Beauty as the ultimate resistance?

And so, the alleged lack of femininity of disabled women, Trans women, poor women, elderly women and women of colour continues to be used to dehumanise and marginalise. Watch how, for example, women with the above identities and who challenge implicit notions of ugliness eg. Beyoncé and Caitlyn Jenner, are acclaimed or over-consumed. Marginalised women reclaiming beauty may be dismissed as vain, self-centred or as manifestation of internalised oppression by those whose appearance more closely resemble Eurocentric beauty standards and who are privileged enough to see themselves represented and in mainstream media, folklore, literary, artistic manifestations and outlets. Such analyses are nevertheless reductionist. Black scholars including Maya Angelou have written about the importance of style and beauty as means of defiance and self-actualisation.

In Still I rise, she powerfully articulates her capacity to connect with her beauty and her eroticism. Qualities which despite violent erasure attempts, remain.  Maya Angelou evokes the misogyny and racism, contemporarily and historically, that she and generations of Black women before her, have endured. Yet her poem is one of triumph: they have survived. Indeed, not only have we survived, we are thriving and gaining strength, beauty and power not despite but because of racial adversity. Though this may challenge common wisdom around the hierachisation and posited pyramids of human needs, there is a long history of marginalised people seeking affirmation through beauty. Black artists and others, for example have used fashion and style as means to resist oppression, for centuries. From the slaves who took particular pride in their appearance and beauty by dressing in their Sunday best, to the dandies of the Harlem Renaissance and the Sapeurs, of central Africa during and after colonisation.

These efforts were never simply about vanity, narcissism or emulating the master. They have always been about politics, about challenging colonial narratives about self-affirmation and self-definition. I have recently heard about the work of a human right activist who described how Muslim women in war torn Bosnia used beauty to resist war.  Wearing lipstick during the conflict had become a way for them to assert their humanity. This activist recounted the story of such a woman who had spoken about how important it was for her to die beautiful and that if she was to be killed by a sniper, she wanted her killer to know that he was putting to death a beautiful woman. Few domains exist where marginalised women can feel valued and take control of how they are represented. The subornation of our needs is socially expected and as part of that, self-negation and self-hatred are viewed as standard.

Marginalised women are bombarded with messages that explicitly or implicitly state that they have little to no value and that they are worthless.  This breeds feelings of helplessness and resignation in the face of injustice and, thus serves the status-quo.  To love oneself as a Black woman is ‘to love blackness’. This, according many theorists including bell hooks, is dangerous and threatening in a white supremacist culture.  bell hooks refers to self-love for Black women as a ‘serious breach in the fabric of the social order’. The ultimate power for any marginalised woman and indeed any woman of colour may accordingly be to reclaim beauty. Doing so has always been central to liberation praxes. It buffers the impact of racial injustices and of marginalisation. At its most fundamental, caring about the way we look, is caring about our body and by extension, our life. It is rejecting notions of inferiority and inadequacy. It is proclaiming I believe I am entitled to love and thus, to justice and equality. It is quietly saying I am a human being. Like you.  Perhaps, this is what so many, have a hard time accepting.

 

Maya Angelou

 

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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.

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The cycle of oppression: A psycho-socio-cultural formulation (DRAFT 1).

Bringing the social and psychological together

A common critique of mainstream psychotherapy models is that they take little account of social and cultural forces and of their effect upon psychological structures and relational processes. This is a significant limitation in terms of culture competence. Many minority and marginalised groups continue to see mainstream therapy and mental health services as irrelevant.  More concerning is that some may come to experience the therapeutic process as one which exposes and weakens them into powerlessness and; which renders invisible the power of the social context and its related wounds and traumas. It is not unusual for therapists and other helping professionals to feel overwhelmed and helpless in relation to the idea of actively working with social and cultural forces within the therapeutic encounter.

However, any genuinely emancipatory and culturally competent approach to therapy must strive to make visible the impact of oppression and help support service users’ efforts to free themselves from its destructive power relations. Relations that exist structurally, socially and psychologically for people who continue to be othered, marginalised and oppressed.  More culturally and socially informed formulations may therefore offer tools to validate marginalised groups’ experience of the world and thus contribute to change.  Although extremely useful, I have personally been frustrated by purely social formulations which have not commonly highlighted deriving psychological correlates and thus have located themselves within a level of analysis and intervention which may arguably be outside the remit of mainstream psychotherapeutic practice. This post is an attempt at bridging the gap. It provides an introduction to a preliminary psycho-socio-cultural formulation framework (figure A), its rationale and some possible questions to aid reflection.

Figure A:  Draft diagrammatical formulation of the cycle of oppression.

photo (1)

Description of the formulation framework: The cycle of oppression.

At the centre of the draft formulation is a cycle of oppression.  This cycle is made of four interrelated components varying in proximity to the present or to the ‘here and now’.  Those components are: discrimination and oppression, inequality/access to material resources, proximal images/discourses and, distal and intergenerational narratives and events. The oppression cycle is posited to impact on both worldviews and on psychological functioning so that another cycle of psychological correlates is located outside it. The proposed deriving psychological processes are status anxiety and evaluative stress, the internalisation and replication of oppression, the (cognitive) salience of historical traumatic narratives/events and finally the sense of cultural mistrust or paranoia and (affective) distance to the dominant culture. The formulation thus firmly puts the influences of the social and cultural at the centre of psychological functioning.

Discrimination, oppression and cultural mistrust

Perception and experiences of oppression such as discrimination and harassment in the workplace (or in other life domains) are commonly reported amongst all members of minority groups. The link between such experiences and chronic stress, poor psychological wellbeing and ill physical health are well established. Perceived and actual discrimination can elicit what has been termed cultural paranoia, a healthy and adaptive response to experiences of oppression. Nonetheless, cultural paranoia can give rise to feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and bias against members of the dominant groups. It can also produce hyper-vigilance and fear.

It is thus likely that those who are experiencing it to a high level, will be in some form of distress. From the therapeutic perspective it may be helpful to consider how cultural paranoia may impact on trust and on the working alliance. Mental health services are a microcosm that, it can be argued, represents the social world. A service user who expects that he/she will be discriminated against within services or by therapists and/or that his/her account of such experiences will be dismissed, silenced or pathologized will understandably be guarded and reluctant to disclose relevant difficulties. A degree of hostility may become apparent if the therapist is seen as a representative of the dominant culture, the state and/or authority.

How does the Service User (S.U). locate himself/herself, his/her immediate family and distant family culturally and historically?

How does the S. U. define oppression and discrimination?

To what extent has the S.U. experienced oppression and discrimination?

How is sense made of the above?

What part do such experiences play/played in current/past psychological distress?

What has the S.U. found useful in managing such experiences?

What is the S.U. experience of power and powerlessness?

Social/material inequality, status anxiety and evaluative stress

Social inequalities have a significant impact on our psychological wellbeing. On a basic level they perpetuate the uneven distribution of protective factors and of stressful life events. Evidence suggests that more unequal societies tend to suffer from poorer mental health. England is one of the most unequal countries in the world. As consumerism is reaching new heights, the gap between the rich and poor is increasing. The relationship between mental health distress and social inequalities is bi-directional so that each has the potential to exacerbate the other. Additionally, although causality and directionality is not always clear, most marginalized groups tend to be socio-economically disadvantaged.

The psychological consequences of inequalities are central to the psychological functioning of those who are economically and materially disadvantaged. Wilkinson and Pickett (2009) argue that the impact of income inequality is psychologically mediated by ‘status anxiety’ in that inequality creates social hierarchies which increase status competition, stress and thus poor psychological health. Yet, another psychological mechanism that seems relevant is social-evaluative threat (SET). SET is believed to occur when a central component of our identity is, or could be, negatively evaluated so that we fear rejection. Within such potentially rejecting situations our fundamental need for social acceptance is threatened and a discrepancy between our actual and our ideal self is created giving rise to feelings of worthlessness, reduced relational value and/or shame.

How is respect and disrespect framed and conceptualized?

Are there significant debts?

To what extent does the S. U. feel pressure to conform to consumerism?

Is there a discrepancy between the actual economic situation and the idealized one?

Is there access to well established friendships and social support networks?

Is there shame and stigma associated with the socio-economic situation?

Images, discourses and the internalisation/replication of oppression

Unsurprisingly a proportion of minoritized individuals will internalize oppression. Internalized oppression can affect relationships within and between minority groups and between minority group members and those who are from the dominant group. This internalisation may manifest in mistrust toward the in-group, idealisation of the dominant culture, distancing from minoritized identities or the holding of stereotypical views about members of the in-group. Further, internalised oppression can, In extreme cases, lead to low self-esteem, self-hatred and even violence towards members of the in-group.

Assessing internalised oppression can be difficult because it is associated with high levels of shame and stigma and may therefore not be readily disclosed nonetheless; careful questioning may elicit such processes. Thus, any recurrent negative statements made about the in-group(s) may need further probing as may any negative emotion evoked by questions about the subjugated identity.   Various standardised questionnaires exist to assess internalised oppression which may be useful when the therapeutic relationship is firmly established. Acculturation and stages of identity development may also influence the relationship with the dominant group (in addition to the one which may be formed with the therapist) and whether the therapeutic values and norms may be acceptable.

What community/group(s) does the S.U. feel most affiliated with?

Are there difficulties with fitting-in or with belonging?

What is the relationship with members of the in-group(s)/out-group(s) like?

Are there weak/strong cultural or other ties with members of other minority identities?

Is there a history of immigration or displacement?

Is there evidence of shame and stigma associated with the culture of origin?

Historical and intergenerational context and distal narratives and events

Many theorists have put forward concepts that aim to capture the psychological impact of historical trauma on oppressed groups. For example, Alleyne (2004) has proposed the concept of ‘The internal oppressor’. The internal oppressor is theorized to be a psychic part of the self which can become activated when members of oppressed groups are confronted with oppressive situations in their day to day lives so that painful and emotionally charged historical events gain salience in their awareness. Examples of such painful historical events/processes may include the Holocaust for people of Jewish origin, imperialist processes (eg. slavery, colonisation) for other members of minority ethnic groups or the pathologization of homosexuality for some sexual minorities. In essence, the ’internal oppressor’ triggers a process of interpretation of contemporary oppression in light of historical trauma and injustice. This amplifies the distress experienced.

Experiences of oppression can also be reinforced or triggered by public images and media portrayals. Marginalized groups’ representations in the media tend to be distorted. Some groups are particularly prone to misrepresentation e.g. Black males, those who claim benefits, travellers, those with mental health problems and Muslims. A number of studies have identified patterns in media representations of marginalised groups including an overall underrepresentation, an over-emphasis on negative associations (e.g. criminality, unemployment…) whilst at the same time relatively few positive associations. Consequently, public portrayal of minorities tend be one-dimensional, negatively framed or problem focussed. Biased representations leave out significant aspects of minoritized communities’ lives, contributions and experiences.

What historical and contemporary narratives has the individual been exposed to?

What impact have such narratives have/have had?

Are there alternative/competing stories?

How are negative images/discourses managed?

Has there been exposure to positive role models from the subjugated identity group?

Is there shame and stigma associated with negative images/narratives?

Conclusion

This post is a first attempt at putting together a formulation framework that is based on a social explanatory model but which also identifies possible deriving psychological processes upon which potential psychological interventions may be based. The framework is not married to any school of psychotherapy. It simply aims to offer a possible starting point to reflect and consider relevant socio-cultural forces, their possible psychological impact and potential interactions.  I do not see praxis and social change based epistemologies as incompatible with psychological interventions particularly if they are located within a social model of psychological distress. In fact I believe that both are necessary to facilitate resistance and liberatory efforts. The diagrammatic formulation is based on common themes and theories related to oppression and inequality as well as some relevant empirical findings.  Although the framework may be most useful when applied to racialized minorities, it may equally be helpful to support other marginalised groups. I welcome comments and feedback which will allow the improvement and further development of the tool.

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.

 

What to learn more? Please see…

Alleyne, A. (2004). Black identity and workplace oppression. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 4(1), 4 – 8.

Dickerson, S. S., Gruenewald, T. L., & Kemeny, M. E. (2004). When the social self is threatened: Shame, physiology, and health. Journal of Personality, 72, 1191–1216.

Hutchinson, E. O. (1996). The Assassination of the Black Male Image. New York, New York: Touchstone.

Rowlingson, K. (2011). Does income inequality cause health and social problems? York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Wilkinson, R. and Pickett, K. (2009). The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. London: Penguin.

Wilkinson, R. and Pickett, K. (2010). The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better For Everyone. London: Penguin.

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.

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. 

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