The personal and social impact of racism in therapeutic practice is not always given the attention it deserves. This phenomenon is often experienced as unbearable, causing denial, silence and rage for clients and therapists, and in supervision.
To resolve and address this dilemma and prevent shutting down, a thoughtful process of anti-oppressive practice and actively working with the oppression of racism in training, practice and clinical supervision is needed.
So, what does it take to face the challenge of addressing and processing the personal and social impact of racism? How do therapists address the unbearable without further oppressing clients? It is one thing to be aware, acknowledge and discuss racism in training and clinical supervision, but what happens when we are working with the impact of racism on a client’s experience and life history? Do therapists really acknowledge the trauma of racism?
Some believe that, if the client does not mention racism explicitly, they should not address it. Sometimes training can suggest that it is not the therapist’s role to educate the client. But what is therapy if it is not an educative, empowering element of personal development? I believe that if racism is apparent but not attended to, it is colluded with. The question then arises as to whether therapy is concerned with social justice and whether it has a role in supporting clients through the impact of racism and relevant intersectional oppressions. Institutional avoidance of addressing racism can perpetuate institutional racism. Therefore, supporting therapists to work with racism is imperative.
Petra, a black therapist, was supervising a white supervisee who had little contact with black people. Petra felt that the supervisee’s attitude towards a black client was coming across as unusually negative. She took the issue to her supervision group, as she felt that her own feelings and fears about racism were holding her back from addressing it with her supervisee. She described an incident in which the client recalled being reprimanded by a teacher and was told ‘You are not in Jamaica now’. Petra felt her supervisee’s response had not adequately acknowledged the humiliation and hurt of racism; that her attitude was dismissive rather than empathic, as though the client deserved the teacher’s comments, which had homogenised all black people as Jamaican and bad. The supervision group encouraged Petra to explore her fears, as a black woman, of challenging a white supervisee. Petra decided an educational approach would best help the supervisee realise her own naivety. She supported the supervisee to consider her own lack of experience and knowledge about racism and discussed the impact of racist stereotypes with her, which helped the supervisee recognise her own naivety and become more empathic towards her black client.
Some therapists work through their own experiences of racism, giving them greater confidence to support clients in this area. Others fear the consequences of being with clients in their process and emergence from the impact of racism. Some fear the client’s rage about the injustice of racism. Some therapists and supervisors bury their heads in the sand and remain silent and inactive, leaving the practitioner feeling confused and hopeless about being supported to work with clients impacted by racism. This inactive approach may perpetuate racism and could therefore be viewed as unethical.
A framework for addressing racism
In my book The Challenge of Racism in Therapeutic Practice,1 I encourage the use of concepts to address and normalise discussions about working therapeutically with racism.
The first of these concepts is known as ‘the black Western archetype’. Black Western archetypes are essentially unconscious, Eurocentric, psychological processes portrayed in the relational process. For example, emanating from slavery, the Aunt Jemima archetype presents black women as matriarchs overburdened with caring for others, to the detriment of their health and emotional wellbeing. Aunt Jemima is made responsible for everyone’s pain and her own pain is rarely attended to. These archetypes seep into the black collective unconscious. As Frantz Fanon said: ‘As blacks partake of the same collective unconscious as the European… the black has taken over all the archetypes belonging to the European.’2
When these archetypes are made apparent by mirroring, they reflect how racism permeates the collective unconscious and the individual psychology of black and Asian people. In a collective sense, they manifest in elements of racism and internalised racism, displayed in behaviours and attitudes of both survivors and perpetrators of racism.
When this process remains outside of individual awareness, it can become a restrictive normality, reinforced by white privilege and ignorance of black people’s ‘cognitive dissonance’.3
One of my clients, Carlana, suffered from ‘workplace oppression’.4 She told me: ‘I was trying my hardest not to identify the situation as being racist. I think it’s fear that black people are always labelling an issue as racist.’ Clearly, she had internalised the pain of racism and the archetype of the strong black woman and this had stifled her voice and pushed her into denial.
Jung’s theory of archetypes5 as symbolic representations of the human psyche is significantly located in the concept of black Western archetypes and the influence of culture and racism on the unconscious.
Inherited psychological patterns become influenced by racist images, behaviour and attitudes in the unconscious life of black people. They are recognisable in outer behaviour and attitude and are termed internalised racism. Internalised racism is a negative, usually unconscious acting out or acting towards self in ways that can be emotionally harmful and can distort identity. At its extreme, it can be seen in skin bleaching and skin scraping caused by a wish to be white. Jung’s theory proposes that, once the shadow archetype is made conscious, it can be modified, so this offers hope for the process of recovery from the impact of racism: ‘Only when all props and crutches are broken, and no cover from the rear offers even the slightest hope of security, does it become possible for us to experience an archetype that till then had lain hidden behind the meaningful nonsense played out as the anima. This is the archetype of meaning, just as the anima is the archetype of life itself.’5
The second concept, ‘Ancestral baggage’, draws attention to what gets passed on intergenerationally. Upbringing, cultural frameworks, relationships and education all influence this. It is usually an unconscious psychological process that conditions people’s individual coping skills. Shame and humiliation are features of racism and therefore features of ancestral baggage. For many black and Asian clients, unattended shame and humiliation cause racism to become normalised as an everyday experience in their lives and often to be marginalised in therapy. In addition, distresses emerging from slavery and colonialism, such as skin shadism and harsh disciplinary upbringing from parents or carers, have also become normalised and passed on intergenerationally, creating low self-esteem. Clients have often shared with me stories of being treated differently by their parents and carers due to their skin being lighter or darker than that of their siblings or peers, and have trivialised beatings and humiliation within their family.
Racism and trauma
Making conscious black Western archetypes can evoke what I have named ‘recognition trauma’. This third concept identifies the impact of black Western archetypes and the powerful emotions linked to an awareness of racism, whether as perpetrator or victim. These emotions either come to the fore as shame, guilt, fear or rage, or block feelings and expression, creating defences such as denial or dissociation. Black, African, Caribbean and Asian people often experience powerful feelings of hurt about racism and intercultural dissidence created by assimilation. I have become aware of a condition that I call ‘oppression overload’, which causes individuals to feel overwhelmed by these feelings and withdraw from social life. Recognition trauma also affects white people, manifesting in their fear of losing white privilege and in feelings of ‘white guilt’. Denial of racism or overcompensatory attitudes towards black people are two common aspects of this problem.
Once these emotions come to consciousness, they can be worked through.
Carlana was afraid of repercussions if she identified her oppression at work as racist. ‘If I had named it, I would have been bullied more,’ she told me. ‘I was the only black woman in my team and I did not feel able to express as an individual how I felt. My fear was that I would be stigmatised and bullied even more and I would be pushed out slowly.’
The fourth concept, ‘A black empathic approach’, encourages therapists to sensitively and explicitly address the cultural and racial experiences attached to the client’s emotions as they express them and as the therapist intuitively recognises them. In addition to the therapeutic skill of emotional connection, this requires an awareness of the current and historical impact of racism. These empathic responses rely on awareness of self and recognising the socio-cultural context of survival from slavery and colonialism that created rifts within families and between black, African heritage and Asian people, causing internalised racism. This approach promotes a healthy psychology that provides opportunities to explore African and Asian identities and heritage. It can counteract racism and internalised racism and the impact of Eurocentric dominance in psychological support.
To practise using these concepts, therapists need to be clear that racism impacts in three dimensions: personal, social and intergenerational. Therefore, internalised racism is always likely to be present in how the theme is approached and how clients cope with it.
Black, African, Caribbean and Asian clients are naturally influenced by intergenerational ways of coping with racism. These ways manifest in a variety of behaviours, such as pressure to be better than others in order to be accepted in society. Internalising this message can provoke symptoms of workaholism and constant striving to keep on top of self-doubt and low self-esteem. In addition to this, Black, African, Caribbean and Asian people face a variety of rejecting and marginalising experiences in the education system, the workplace,4 social situations and relationships, due to their skin tone.
Shanise came to me with concerns about how racism was affecting her career. The doubt she harboured about her potential as a professional black woman indicated internalised racism. Her practice was rooted in her spirituality as an Orisha and she feared being stereotyped and excluded in a white-dominated caring profession. She had no previous opportunity to address these concerns in her family or education. Although she challenged the Aunt Jemima archetype by choosing to work in a non-domestic profession, she had isolated herself from the black community and suffered from what I call ‘compulsive independence’ – she found it difficult to show her vulnerability and ask for help. Clearly, she was also experiencing recognition trauma – she talked about the pain of growing up in a minority and the pressure to conform to white, Eurocentric cultural paradigms: ‘I am tired of continuously having to consider how I may be seen as a black woman, because I am in the minority in my job, and I do not fully subscribe to white values,’ she told me.
Using a black empathic approach, I addressed her identity challenges as a black woman and encouraged her to love every part of herself, including her dark skin, her sexuality, her womanhood and her mind, which she feared she was losing. My aim was to help her to liberate her mind from the ancestral baggage that was prompting her to feel that she was not good enough, due to her skin colour. This meant noticing how influenced she was by the intergenerational, patriarchal, racist context of her heritage and deliberately embracing her strong coping skills and self-worth as a black woman. I would align myself with her sometimes, by saying things like, ‘We don’t have to do that any more’ – as in, we don’t have to see ourselves as second in importance to white people and put first the needs of others. This approach created a place where she felt safe to address the root causes of her sense of isolation.
It was vital that I let Shanise lead the therapy and create a form of dialogue that hovered between a reflective process and her need to draw on my wisdom and experience as a black woman. I introduced terms such as ‘internalised racism’, which gave her some clarity about her inner turmoil. After an initial resistance to the terminology, she figured out that her irritation was really about not wanting to be labelled in the way she had been throughout her life. As we progressed she felt more able to trust me with her vulnerability and tender feelings.
Denial and silence
I would argue that no other area of oppression has attracted the fear, denial and silence that racism engenders. Denial due to shame and fear of humiliation inhibits working with the impact of racism; if we fail to challenge or we facilitate silence about racism, this can reinforce racism.
When black people express rage about racism, I call this ‘black rage’. Their pain is rarely acknowledged, they often get shut down and they risk being plastered with black Western archetypes such as ‘aggressive’ and ‘dangerous’. Thus, they get labelled and have a greater chance of ending up in the mental health system.
The solution for therapists is to take individual and institutional action to voice fears and concerns about addressing racism. We, as a profession and individually, need to acknowledge naivety and challenge denial, process rage and provide support to maintain openness about the impact of racism on history and heritage, institutional racism and personal experience.
Training and supervision
For the therapist, naivety or denial can cause difficulty in empathising with the impact of racism. If therapists feel enraged about racism or pulled to rescue the client, this too can cause loss of empathy, resulting in disconnection and silencing and so perpetuating racism and denial.
I regularly run transcultural workshops in therapy courses, where students often express concerns about addressing the impact of racism and not feeling confident about working therapeutically with cultural diversity, similarities and black issues. The term ‘recognition trauma’ evolved from this experience. They asked questions like: ‘How can I raise issues of race and culture and difference with a client who doesn’t raise it, but I feel it is an issue?’ ‘How can I empathise when I don’t know what it is like to be black?’ ‘Why do I feel more comfortable as a black counsellor when presented with a black client?’
White students spoke of guilt and fear of being called ‘racist’ and black students feared upsetting the white students by telling their experiences of racism. This shared dilemma created a situation where black students became the experts and caretakers of the white students, but then they realised their own training needs had become marginalised. Inevitably, this then raised questions about how concerns about racism are addressed with clients.
The quality of empathy needs to be examined and trauma related to the experience of racism needs to be processed. These elements of response are important for the safety and wellbeing of clients. Whether fully aware or not, black, African, Caribbean and Asian people have in common the distresses caused by living in a society that perpetrates racism. It is therefore important to consider how racism functions in the fabric of our institutions, mirroring these issues, and whether therapists have enough support to respond in anti-oppressive ways. So, the therapist’s own personal development and hidden powerful emotions about racism may need to be considered.
Jacinta, a client of Jamaican heritage, had experienced denial of her birth father and rejection by her stepfather in childhood, and was frequently beaten (intergenerational oppression and ancestral baggage). In adulthood, she felt ignored by her family and carried a burden of shame and embarrassment. She experienced racism in her workplace (institutional racism), which caused her to believe that she ‘had no right to be here’ (internalised racism).
Jacinta told me she felt relieved when her previous, white counsellor pointed out the racism in her workplace, which she was finding difficult to name in her sessions. Once she felt able to name it, she felt empowered to challenge this racism herself. This is a black empathic approach; it is not the same as offering a general empathic approach. It requires the therapist, whatever their cultural background, to reflect and name the dynamic of racism and cultural experiences that may enter the therapeutic space.
Understanding the impact of ancestral baggage, black Western archetypes and recognition trauma can help mitigate the intergenerational influences of racism on the psyche. Distresses caused by recognition trauma need to be understood and worked through, to avoid reinforcing internalised oppression. When traumatic experiences occur in response to racism and prejudice, it is important to remember that both oppressor and victim have been hurt. In counselling, this awareness may support both therapist and client. Therapists can play a key role in promoting a healthy psychology that values African and Asian identities and challenges racism and internalised racism.
Dr Isha McKenzie-Mavinga is a published writer/poet and integrative transcultural psychotherapist, lecturer, trainer and supervisor. Now semi-retired, she facilitates online transcultural supervision and therapeutic support. She has published in several anthologies and authored two books: Black Issues in the Therapeutic Process (2009) and The Challenge of Racism in Therapeutic Practice (2016), both published by Palgrave. www.ishamckenziemavinga.com
1. McKenzie-Mavinga I. The challenge of racism in therapeutic practice (2nd ed). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan; 2016.
2. Cited in Adams MV. The multi-cultural imagination: race, color, and the unconscious. London: Routledge; 1996.
3. Degruy Leary J. Post traumatic slave syndrome: America’s legacy of enduring injury and healing. Milwaukee, OR: Uptone Press; 2005.
4. Alleyne A. Invisible injuries and silent witness: the shadow of racial oppression in workplace contexts. Psychodynamic Practice 2005; 11(3): 283–299.
5. Jung C. The archetypes and the collective unconscious (2nd ed). London: Routledge; 1991.