"Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced"
"The world becomes alive only to the person who herself awakens to it"
As I’m writing, I’m wondering if you, the reader, will stay with me, stay with my experience, and my pain. I’m hoping you will bear with the discomfort – a manageable discomfort – in the spirit in which it is intended: an invitation to engage with me, reassess, rethink and reimagine. I have no desire to retrigger old wounds, but I’m all too painfully mindful of how discussing skin colour, identity and self-worth is a superhighway to the deepest, most vulnerable parts of ourselves. Rankine uses this metaphor in her podcast, ‘How can I say this so we can stay in this car together?’3 I’m asking the same question: will you bear witness to my story? I hope you will.
I froze when I first heard about the modern-day lynching of the African American George Floyd. I didn’t know what to do. Should I watch the footage or not? I have seen too many violent images over the years of other black men, women and children killed and violated because of the colour of their skin – my skin. Their experiences, often dismissed with little or no justice, have become commonplace now; the backdrop of modern-day living as a black person. There was a quick response across the world in the form of protests, outpourings and the positive affirmation, Black Lives Matter. But, in truth, l felt completely disconnected from this message.
The opposite was clearly a fact, in my experience. I fell into a deep depression, a kind of paralysis, more aligned with the truth that Black Lives Really Do Not Matter. I could not speak for many days as the deep pain, despair and hurt moved through my mind, heart and soul. It was so profound that all I could muster were tears for the pain of the existence of black people across the world. I sat together with my own experiences of racialised trauma throughout my life, from little black girl to now.
As I watched black people in the media come forward from many professions, talking about their experiences of racialised abuse and discrimination, I recognised a simple truth. Even now, in 2020, the BAME community, people identifying, or identified as, black, Asian or general other minority ethnic, are still stuck in the same marginalised and discriminated against position. I myself, an educated and professional black woman, if in trouble, would have to second guess whether I would call the police or not. This is due to many experiences of calling the police for help and being treated like a criminal, left feeling unsafe and violated. This should not be happening to anyone in need of help in modern-day Britain, or indeed anywhere in the world.
Historically, there has been a decentring of the black experience, and now we are all being challenged to engage more fully than we have as a collective. The extent of the challenge could be seen in the pushback of the retaliatory slogan, All Lives Matter. I found this confusing and frustrating, as the original statement was as much a plea as an assertion for black lives to be valued as much as our white counterparts. Black Lives Matter Too somehow became heard as Only Black Lives Matter or Black Lives Matter More. This heartfelt communication becoming lost in translation illustrated a resistance to, and a defence against, hearing the reality of the BAME community’s experiences and their expressions of deep hurt. It could be described as a re-entrenchment of the status quo, a resistance to staying awake and alive to the truth of systemic inequality. It felt insane to me that a phrase almost politely protesting that being treated so unequally that it could cost us our lives, could possibly be interpreted as crowing. I am helped to understand these dynamics by reading ideas describing the white ‘psychosis’4 and the concept of ‘white fragility’;5 defence mechanisms that come into play when addressing issues of race, power and privilege.
From the midst of this inner turmoil, I was able to find a part of me who needed to act. It was clear to me that inaction was no longer an option. I consider myself a private person, as well as a private therapist, who does her best in her local corner. But this was bigger than me, bigger than all of us. I felt compelled to risk engaging others in what I had tended to view as personal. I wrote an open letter to the therapy community asking members to stand with me to create change.6
Next in this issue
My motivation was to think with other practitioners about how we can create sustainable change within the therapy world to better support members of the BAME community, whether as colleagues, supervisees, managers or clients. For me, this means challenging our membership bodies and training institutions to ensure they are improving current ways of integrating anti-racist practice. But what does this mean for you in your work? What are the steps that we could take?
Since George Floyd’s murder, I have become preoccupied with the fairy tale, ‘Sleeping Beauty’.2 As a collective, it’s as though we have been awoken from a long and cocooning sleep. The BAME community, on the other hand, has been awake to this double nightmare of the continuous trauma of living a racialised experience that renders us invisible, and when we do speak, of our words being denied and reframed. The positioning of racism as being a thing of the past, has enabled society to turn a blind eye to the suffering of BAME people, a ‘delusional’4 state from which the world has started to awaken. My connection to this fairy tale is my scepticism about whether the world is ready to stay awake to the actual experiences of black and brown people, whether we can be pricked with a coming-of-age consciousness that can bear reality. This demands of us all to do painful work.
The question about staying awake relates also to my own struggle to be in touch with hope for change and the fear that this will be a ‘false double consciousness’7 and a false hope, that nothing lasting will come from this important moment. Hope can be a dangerous thing; it allows us to drop our guard and to believe that something better is possible. But when hope is disappointed, which it has been many times before, each time is more painful than the last. It somehow feels easier to expect failure than to stay with the possibility of change that is in the air at the moment. This has gone on for so long that the historical context of the dehumanisation of black and brown bodies, rooted in colonialism, has become a normal experience for us all. We are all compliant with, or complicit in, the underlying concepts structuring our society to a greater or lesser extent. Changing this feels like an impossible feat. Despite this, many of us are trying yet again to create change.
Unlike Sleeping Beauty, we have not been woken with a sweet kiss, but with a violent slap, revealing a reality that is deeply, shockingly, guilt- and shame arousing. The temptation to go back to sleep is very appealing. I was in a meeting the other day, in a therapy context, where an invitation to consider the Black Lives Matter movement and to reflect on its impact on the BAME community, aroused such anxiety that there was an apparent consensus to ‘steer away from politics’. I was irritated and raised the question, ‘How can we separate the personal from the political’? as if there is any separation in reality? Many of us in the therapy world see our role as engaging people to make sense of their intra-psychic experiences. But we need to consider how, in privileging the private, intrapsychic experience, over the more public sociopolitical experience, we are neglecting to address the very real and crippling experience of racialised trauma.
Issues of power and race in training
As a student, I have often struggled with trainings offering an add-on, one- or two-day education on diversity, which just screams the truth about marginalisation, power dynamics and structural racism. I have also delivered training myself, and done my best to get students thinking. But if this is not fully integrated into trainings, then people feel ill equipped to address these issues. I have talked with many therapists who say their training has not equipped them to deal with issues of power and race. This, of course, affects how these issues are taken up within the self-reflective practice spaces, which in most cases are run by well-meaning white facilitators who have not had the experience and may not have done the in-depth work themselves that would help them.
In many cases, black members in these group settings never really raise the issue of race and privilege, as it is often dismissed or personalised as their problem rather than taken up as a group issue. This throws up all kinds of concerns for the welfare of students from the BAME community, who often feel marginalised and unsafe as these issues are rarely understood or addressed appropriately. One of the reasons I went on to train as a group analyst was because I wanted to work in more depth with the personal dynamics alongside the sociopolitical dimensions of inclusion/exclusion that inevitably emerge in group settings. My hope was to thereby engage less in harmful habits of self-andother isolation and blaming or ignoring.
I have been sitting with the question, why, now: after all the unheeded screams of pain from the BAME community, is there suddenly a new impetus for change? I have wondered about the timing of it amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought the world to a standstill and plunged all of us into a shared experience of powerlessness and vulnerability – ‘as if’ we were all in it together, although, of course, we now know that BAME people have paid a much higher price.
I wonder if this illusory shared experience of an outside threat, a virus ‘other’, lowered the defences between our differences and heightened the stakes. Whatever the process, it seems that the painful experience of being black in a racialised world could be taken in, could penetrate and be met with compassion and rage about the repetitive, unjust horror experienced by black people.
The impetus for change is calling to white members of the community to educate themselves and proactively understand and address their white privilege. For a long time, this term has been perceived as an attack on whiteness, rather than an enquiry into how the privilege of having white skin affords white people more benefits. I think that there is an assumption that the term white privilege is saying that all white people are living similarly privileged lives, which is clearly untrue. The term is pointing to the reality that even if a white person is not living a privileged experience, they will still be benefitting from the mere fact that they have white skin. This is often hard to see and to accept, especially when we personalise/individualise our difficulties. This levels out everyone as suffering something and maintains the power structures in society that enable the truth of BAME people’s experiences to continue unseen and unchallenged.
Understanding the concept of ‘whiteness’ is an important first step in being able to understand power dynamics. The investigation into this is not about blaming people but an opportunity for us all to face the reality of how society operates, ‘othering’ powerless people. If we maintain this idea that steering away from the ‘political’ in therapy is the best way to serve people suffering the effects of sociopolitical inequalities, then we risk keeping an intrinsic part of their identities outside the clinical space – literally in outer-space. To my mind, this causes deep harm by reinforcing the split operating within society. This is a significant factor for many people from BAME communities, and may well relate to the fact that they are over-represented comparatively within the mental health and criminal justice system.
I have experienced this when attempting to open up conversations in various settings about race, to explore the power dynamics that affect us all, and have felt a big push of projections back into me as the black woman, perceived as having a chip on my shoulder. Instead of opening a conversation, l have been left feeling misunderstood and wounded. This dynamic leaves members of the BAME community feeling there is no point trying to communicate their experience, and the difficulty goes underground. This needs to be addressed, as this dynamic gets re-enacted within the privatised clinical space with clients when practitioners have not been able to do the deep investigative work of addressing their own relationship with real-world privilege and power.
What do we do to stay awake?
So, what do we do to stay awake? I often talk about the ability ‘to stay with the mess’ when facilitating thinking about conversations about race. I have been heartened to see white therapists willing to step up and do the work and reflect on their own white privilege and explore what they can do to support change. The issue of race and discrimination is a disturbing one and exceedingly difficult to stay with. But, if we are committed to making change, we need to share the discomfort rather than continue the dynamic of black and brown bodies carrying all the difficulty. We need to be able to have these conversations more and welcome feedback about our cultural competency.
There is a need for ongoing investigation. This is not a one-off exploration but a constant enquiry for all of us. This starts with educating yourself, reflecting on the impact of power and privilege in all relationships. I’m pleased to hear about people joining groups working on exploring whiteness. This feels like an important development, as there is often a push to have dialogue only in groups including people of colour. I’m open to this, but many people in the BAME community are tired of not being heard for so long, and wary of being used to educate others in the concepts and facts that are necessary to any shared starting point. Then the conversation can start from a less emotionally challenging and defensive place, where we can explore these themes in more depth. These conversations require us to be resilient and humble about getting things wrong, misunderstanding each other, yet willing to try again, and again and again. Many organisations will need consultation to explore their existing cultures and how structural racism is maintained within them. This will often require external support as you cannot be a prophet in your own land when you are part of the system.
As I come to the end of my article, my question remains: have you been able to stay with me, my experience, my pain? If you have, what will you do now? The truth is, although hope feels like a dangerous thing, if any of this is to change, I need you to listen, to learn and to stay with the discomfort, and maybe in time we can meet in dialogue, discomfort and all. I will leave you with a quote from the great Audre Lorde: ‘The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break the silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.’8
1 Baldwin J. As much as one can bear. New York Times 1962; 14 January: 11.
2 Bettelheim B. The uses of enchantment: the meaning and importance of fairy tales. Baltimore, MA: Johns Hopkins University Press; 1976.
3 Rankine C. How can I say this so we can stay in this car together? [Online.] https://onbeing.org/ programs/claudia-rankine-how-can-i-say-this-so-we-can-stay-in-this-car-together-jan2019 (accessed 20 July 2020).
4 Andrews K. The psychosis of whiteness: the celluloid hallucinations of Amazing Grace and Belle. Journal of Black Studies 2016; 47(5): 435–453.
5 DiAngelo R. White fragility: why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. London: Penguin Random House; 2018.
6 Benjamin A. The therapy community must commit to anti-racist practice. [Online.] https://www. psychotherapy.org.uk/blog/the-therapy-community-must-commit-to-anti-racist-practice/ (accessed 21 July 2020).
7 Du Bois WED. The souls of black folk: essay and sketches. Chicago, AC: McClurg & Co; 1903. 8 Lorde A. The transformation of silence into language and action. [Online.] https://wgs10016. commons.gc.cuny.edu/lorde-poetry-is-not-aluxury/ (accessed 22 July 2020).