sociology

When the oppressed turn into oppressors: Parenting & internalised racism

The privilege of being lighter skinned

I am a lighter skinned Black woman. I am light enough to benefit from shadism but dark enough to still be accepted as Black. A uniquely privileged position. Throughout my upbringing I have received messages in my environment that this made me more desirable, more worthy, and/or more significant than my darker skinned counterparts. These messages were both covert and overt and articulated in the home and outside the home, at school, in the media etc… Pretty much everywhere.  There is no doubt that I was, at times, spoken to in kinder voices or treated with more patience than my darker skinned peers or sisters by both people of colour and by White people, all things being equal.  In time, I have learnt that my femininity and womanhood would be more easily accepted.

That my humanity would be slightly less frequently questioned.  Giving birth to a darker skinned girl forced me to revisit some of these unearned privileges. It brought home to me that because I was and would be treated with more consideration; my daughter would invariably be treated in more problematic ways, more often.  I had to grieve over the fact that whatever little respite and refuge my lighter skin had afforded me, it would not be enjoyed by her, that I had not transmitted these privileges to her. This was painful. It was scary too. The thought of her going through even more hardship because of the darker shade of her skin was difficult to come to terms with.   It led me to wonder about the role of parents in the process of internalisation of racism.  It also made me confront my own internalised racism.

Parenting and internalised racism

Some see internalised racism as one of the most common yet least studied feature of racism.  The subject is fraught with taboo, shame and avoidance leading to many misconceptions and unmet psychological needs. Most people of colour would have grown up in houses within which the narratives of ‘working harder’, ‘being smarter’, were repeatedly enacted. ‘You have to be twice as good as your White equivalent to simply be deemed good enough to stand underneath him/her’ or words to that effect will likely resonate with many non-Whites.   Similarly, it is not unusual for Black parents to mirror (consciously or otherwise) the harsh treatment society befalls onto Blacks males. To respond with punishing harshness to any lapse in conduct or behaviour, particularly those associated with racial prejudices. Out of fear that negative societal expectations and the dreaded stereotypes may materialise.

I have on occasions caught myself looking at my sons’ behaviour through the contemptuous gaze of society.  Perhaps too I have in these moments responded more harshly than necessary in an effort to help ensure my boys would not fall victim of others’ prejudices. I have seen young children whose skin had been lightened. In some families, children may be socialised to avoid partnering with darker skinned individuals or taught to distance themselves from their minoritised or cultural identities or to put the needs and experiences of White people above their own.  Though in good faith, the violence contained within such parenting practices is worth reflecting upon. In essence in our efforts to compensate for racism, we socialise children into injustice, compliance and complicity and instil a sense of inferiority in them. In doing so we may limit children’s scope to be themselves. We may reduce our capacity to respond to them with compassion and kindness. We may attend to stereotypes of what our children could be or could be seen as, rather than attending to them as unique beings. In a nutshell, we may contribute to racism’s self-fulfilling prophecies, perpetuate racial inequalities and more worryingly, may increase their risk of psychological  distress.

The perpetuation of oppression is everyone’s business

Nevertheless, it would be ridiculous to blame or demonise parents for their wanting to increase the survival chances, privileges and life opportunities of their children or to prepare them for the racism they will encounter so as to minimise its effects. Internalising racism is adaptive.  It is no pathology.  It is no personality, genetic or biological flaw. Nor is it the consequence or evidence of inferiority in the oppressed.  So where does it originate from and what function might it serve?  Foucault proposed that the construction of reality through the production of ideologies or knowledge is controlled by the dominant group and circulated throughout society. This construction is posited to inform social norms, common sense and all aspects of organisational and structural life.

The fundamental consequence of such knowledge transmission is that the interests of the oppressors are presented as actually reflecting everyone’s best interests so that those who are oppressed come to internalise the dominant group’s interests as their own.  The ‘double bind’ experience has been used to make sense of internalised racism. It refers to the illusionary and implicit promise by the dominant group that oppressed groups can escape the consequences of their otherness by disowning their ‘difference’.  It lures racial minorities into agreeing to the very rules which Other them. In essence, the double bind exclaim: ‘become more like us and you too will have access to structures of power, you will become one of us’.  A tempting proposition for anyone, particularly for racialised parents eager to shelter children from the impact of racism.  The trouble however is, that achieving the promise of the double bind is impossible. This is because the construction of a superior class is dependent upon the existence of an inferior one.

Making internalised racism and its manifestations the problem of racialised groups is a further act of violence. This  equates not only to victim-blaming but also to erasing the very fact that the dominant group remains both the primary beneficiary and source of such internalisation. It is akin to saying ‘you need to be like us to be human or not to be Other’ whilst similarly positing ‘trying to be like us is evidence that you are not human or that you are Other’.  A ‘lose lose’ tautologically absurd proposition.  Being a parent is the toughest job on the planet.  Parenting in the mist of oppression and marginalisation is even harder.  Perhaps it is time that we collectively stopped shying away from internalised racism and gave it the clinical and empirical attention it deserves.  For mental health professionals this would naturally entail sharing a little bit of power and giving away some privileges. The privileges of not knowing, of not understanding or perhaps of not wanting to understand.

Thank you for reading.

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

A renewed momentum?

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

The influence of prior experience

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

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

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

Professional socialisation and cultural expectations

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

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

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

Cultural Capital

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

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

The relevance of cultural capital

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

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

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

All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections.  If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.

Want to learn more?

Please see…

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

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

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

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

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

The Angry Black Woman: Covert Abuse, Overt Anger?

A Big Black woman on the train…

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

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

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

Intersectionality

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

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

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

On Invisibility

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

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

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

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

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

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Don’t be scared, it’s only race!

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

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

Race, ethnicity…does it matter?

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

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

Facing up to race and its dynamics

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

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.