Eugene Ellis: Originally, I was writing my book for my family, my people around me – for my brothers and sisters – I had them very much in mind, in the hope they could maybe get something from it. I thought, there are so many great ideas, so many useful ways of understanding and concepts in therapy and I wanted to bring them to that audience. And I was also writing it as a challenge to white people. I didn’t want to just stay on one side of the fence. Particularly, I wanted to navigate that place in between. And I was seeing lots of commonalities of trauma in whichever racial identity you come from. I wanted to reach a whole range of people, so I’m really pleased that a lot of white people are reading it, and getting a lot out of it. There’s a lot in there for them, too, not just black people and people of colour.
Guilaine Kinouani: What I wanted to do primarily was to address and to centre blackness. And that was absolutely a political decision in that there are very few books out there that focus very specifically on the challenge of surviving white supremacy from the perspective of black people. I wanted to give the black reader a sense of being centred, being seen, but also feeling understood and helped, which are experiences that we aim to provide as therapists and mental health professionals. We know from personal accounts and research evidence that people of colour, and particularly black people, who present to therapy do not have those experiences of feeling heard, helped and understood, in part because the professions still struggle to work with racism and with racial trauma, and those are topics that are not covered at depth, if at all, in our training. As I say in the book, in seven years of psychology training, I haven’t had a single lecture on racism and racial trauma. So all that I know is pretty much self-taught and self-initiated. That is a serious problem. So I wanted to say to black people, ‘Hey, I know that there are challenges, that you’re not getting the support from your therapist or from your psychologist. I know what it means to experience distress, or pain or isolation or marginalisation because of the colour of your skin. Those experiences matter. And we need to make some time not only to come together, to grieve together, but also to heal and to connect to our power.’ That was very much my aim. And from the feedback from the reviews, this is exactly what people have got from the book. People are saying, ‘I feel seen. I know it’s not only in my head, now.’
EE: Doing a lot of training and courses around trauma, it was plain to me that I and other people were traumatised. And the more I was looking at it, the more I could see a trauma-informed approach was a helpful way to engage people proactively in their psychological lives. Just the idea of trauma gives people a way in to exploring their relationship with their racial identity that felt easier and with which they could connect. So it was, in some ways, a very practical approach to getting people to engage with this material and that seemed to make sense for people. And then, if you start from the trauma, you have to know about the history of the trauma and talk about that, and then you start to uncover all of this stuff that helps to make sense of your present-day experience. So that was central. And then it gives you a framework for healing; it’s not just a construct or a chart of stages that people go through; there is actually something that people can do to help them recover. And in my book, I focus on recovering from blackness, recovering from whiteness, and seeing those two constructs as central to the experience of race.
And then, when you start talking about trauma, you start talking about what happens to the body, about the non-verbal communications that trigger you, and you then start talking about mindfulness and compassion and healing through relationship. So all of those ideas start to come out and form and my aim was to make sense of them. People have an experience but they don’t always know what‘s going on. They just have an experience that they want to move away from but that’s all they‘re aware of. And of course, if you’re a black person and you move away from it, then you’re just caught up in the race construct. If you’re a white person and you move away from it, I guess that’s the status quo. So if you are inviting people not to move away from it, then you are going to have to put some structures in place so people can manage their somatic experiences.
GK: For me, using trauma as the overarching framework just made sense when it came to understanding the impact of racism. And then, from working on my own research, I discovered the literature that exists out there – some of which has been around for 40, 50 years and somehow hasn’t made its way into mainstream psychotherapy and counselling training. That to me was really life-changing, if not life-affirming – that there were other people who were interested in what I’m interested in, conceptualising what I wanted to conceptualise, having similar experiences, but also offering hope and healing. That really emboldened me to do similar in my clinical and research work. I still think that trauma is helpful as a construct. It’s not a perfect framework for understanding the impact of white supremacy. Often when we think about trauma, particularly with the more individualistic disciplines, we forget the collective; we tend to locate the disturbance onto black people and people of colour. We are all affected by racial trauma – black people and white people. I have just chosen to focus on the healing of black people in this book.
But nonetheless, it’s important that we don’t give people a further tool to pathologise black people and people of colour. What we are saying is that it is helpful to have a framework to recognise, to validate experiences of racism-related distress on the mind and on the body; it’s helpful to think about what we’ve learned as a group to survive; it’s helpful to think about what has been carried into the present that comes from the past, and from previous generations. But we also need to normalise our responses to racism, to say to people, ‘Hey, as human beings, we are designed to feel that we belong and to feel accepted and to feel a sense of kinship. So, if those things are disrupted, there’s going to be a cost. And that’s not because we are black or brown. It is simply because it is fundamentally an assault on our ontology and our capacity to just live in the world.’ That’s very important for people to understand – that there is nothing unique about black people being affected by racism, because otherwise we just reproduce discourses of deficiency and pathologies that are at the core of white supremacy.
EE: Yes, and I think whiteness was formed out of trauma, as well. It’s also important to bring that to the table – the delusion, the failure to see reality as a white person. Again, it’s born out of trauma; it’s born out of defence, in order not to see the hurt inflicted by racism. So, having both of those ideas in your mind is, I think, important, because there‘s a danger of pathologising each other in some ways, and this is a shared trauma.
I’m really interested to see how whiteness impacts on white people in a traumatic way. It’s not just black people who are traumatised by this; just being a witness to racism itself is enough, and that gets generationally transmitted. So there’s transgenerational material coming through black people and through white people, into the present moment. That’s fundamental for me. And then the trauma, the trauma behaviour and the trauma symptoms can be seen as symptoms, rather than endemic qualities of being white. And it allows for you to reflect and bring some compassion to yourself, because you probably give yourself a harder time than anyone else.
I think if you’re going to move people towards undoing the harm of racism, it’s important that those ideas permeate into society, at the basic level, the storytelling level, through the media, on Coronation Street, or whatever. But you’re right, trauma isn’t the whole story. There are corners of hate and violence that seemed to transcend all of that. I guess we can only do what we can do with the majority of people, who are reachable?
GK: Yes, I agree. I tend to think 70% of people are reachable one way or another. I would want to maybe balance or add a little bit of clarity by bringing in the issue of power. We are all affected by racism-related trauma, racial trauma, but we don’t all have the same opportunities or tools to harm the other. So, of course, it might well be that, by harming the other, we harm ourselves. Absolutely. But nonetheless, that initiation of hatred, of violence, and of displacing, dislodging people from their internal world, or their sense of truth, is not equally shared, and it’s also important to hold that in mind.
EE: I think race is also part of a bigger picture of harm inflicted by those in power. You can then go to how the planet is being used, resources being taken, with no thought given to the damage that’s being inflicted. There is a particular mindset, one that I’m quite curious about and interested in articulating, that brings about racism but also brings about other abuses of power. And also, this idea that some people are invincible, they’re beyond suffering, they can just buy what they want to avoid suffering. They can somehow bypass it with power. I think it’s important to open up the discussion beyond the race arena, because you can easily get lost in it. I don’t write that much about it in the book, particularly, although I do talk a lot about our economic system and the accumulation paradigm and how that creates an environment where racism can take hold. As a black man, I can’t get too powerful, I can’t accumulate too many resources because then I will be attacked in order to restore the status quo. Or if I get together with a group of people that becomes too large, again, a raid will come and just slice me down. And you see that throughout history.
GK: For me, the glue is imperial and colonial logics, which have brought very specific ways of engaging with the self – splitting from the body, for example; splitting off from the world, disconnecting from the world around us, disconnecting from pain, because we cannot be connected to pain and carry out the kind of atrocities that are required in order to accumulate resources, accumulate territories. That for me is the glue. And it’s important to remember that colonialism did not only give us whiteness and white supremacy; colonial and imperial logics also gave us the foundation of eugenics, of disability, of homophobia through the widespread legislation of Christian Puritanism. So I think all those things come together. They can’t be separated. And that is before we get on to the environment and the damage that has been caused to the planet because of greed and capitalism. So, if we are talking about race, necessarily we are also talking about gender, we are also talking about capitalism, we are also talking about ableism.
But I think that there is sometimes this misconception that all things are intersectional, and that needs to be corrected. In relation to myself as a black woman, working class and a migrant, I could pretty much tell you which axis of oppression or identity has been more meaningful in my operating in this world. Sometimes it’s been a combination of two or three or all of them; sometimes, there has been just the one. And I can tell you fundamentally that being black has influenced everything in my life and my life experience in a way that I can’t necessarily say about being working class, for example. Sometimes it’s been being black and working class but often it’s just being black. If I don’t open my mouth, you don’t know where I’m from, but obviously there’s something about visible difference that shapes how you are viewed and treated in the world very differently from other axes of oppression, I think.
Mind and body
EE: Yes, being black is where I see my oppression the most, and where there’s the greatest amount of healing that I could do. Definitely. I‘ve meditated for a long time, and that has been very important to me as a way to stay connected to my experience. My tendency is to dissociate from my experience, to float off somewhere else. Mindfulness has allowed me to stay connected. Of course, if I‘m going to stay connected to myself, it‘s going to mean that I’m going to feel anger, rage; I‘m going to feel distress; I‘m going to give myself a hard time for not doing what I should be doing. The internalised racism will come up, and the internalised oppressor, which is slightly different from internalised racism, where I am giving myself a hard time.
There is also this idea of ‘bodyfulness’, the idea of actually listening to the body, listening in the body, body listening and body talking, allowing the body to tell its own story – knowing that racism can force us to abandon our body‘s wisdom in favour of objectifying ourselves, seeing particular parts of our body as the problem – our hair or eyes or nose or something.
Practically, it could be doing things like yoga, or it could be dancing, exploring in relationship through dance. And your body just feels uncomfortable in certain spaces, just holding itself up properly, supporting itself; it takes a while for your body to get used to being different, not being deferential, or whatever it is that your race needs you to be. I have spent a bit of time rehearsing how my body moves through white spaces, rehearsing how I walk, my posture, my gestures, my gaze, and I have noticed I find it uncomfortable just to assume a different body posture, even when I’m just practising. Why is that so uncomfortable? Exploring that bodyful approach is so interesting. I think the body holds a big, big story. If it‘s just all in the mind, then you‘re missing out on this rich resource.
GK: For me, healing in a context of chronic discrimination and marginalisation must be lifelong. Unless the context we inhabit fundamentally changes, we are always going to have to do some self-care. There’s no other way. It’s not a piece of work that we can just say, ‘OK, I’ve got it, I’ve done it. That’s it, I can now move on.’ Sometimes people come to therapy expecting that we’ll fix them and that they can just go on and live their life unaffected by what has happened and the world that we live in. So I think it’s very important and that takes us to one fundamental characteristic of racism – it is chronic trauma, even when those experiences are micro and cumulative, they’re hardly things that we can escape from.
Of course, the amount of social support we have and our frame of mind at the time might mean that we can cope, we are OK, we are unaffected. But over the lifetime, it’s very unlikely that anyone would be unaffected by racism. It’s just not realistic. So, with that in mind, I conceptualise healing as lifelong but also as a form of resistance. And so I take inspiration from black feminism, and in particular Audre Lorde, and the concept that looking after oneself is an act of defiance, an act of subversion when one occupies space in society where your safety, and sometimes your health and life, are constantly under assault, if not compromised. So a good 30% to 40% of my book is focused on the body, and that’s because, as you say, Eugene, racism really disconnects us from the body, not only through the colonial notion of the split between mind and body but also because of construction of the body being out of control, distrustful, and all this kind of stuff that has led to us being suspicious of it.
So what I try to do as part of supporting people’s healing journeys is to change their relationship with their body, so that they can understand that the body is, number one, their primary tool of healing and resistance, but also that primarily it exists to keep us safe. The body connects to what is happening, the body has its own sense of truth, which sometimes, if not all the time, we are socialised to discount. And I think our connecting to our body and the truth that the body holds are fundamental to disrupting the harm of racial trauma. Because racial trauma is mediated through the body. The harm that racism does to health is mediated through the body. So it’s very important that we learn to be kind to ourselves, and that we understand how we frame everything that we’ve learned about our own body and what we might dislike about a body, which is often linked to Eurocentricity and Eurocentric beauty ideals, or whatever ideal construction of what it means to be a human body.
EE: Yeah, self-compassion is a soothing balm, and it is really, really needed. I thought it was important to say what compassion was and to separate it from empathy, and to communicate the notion of compassion as something that you can cultivate; it’s yours, your body can do it, it’s a case of removing the obstacles and finding a way to reach it. And, again, it’s a practice – over time you’re going to have to keep on practising it in terms of self-care. And functionally, it creates conditions whereby you‘re not trying to solve a problem or work things through. I think one of the challenges for me has been not to bring my mind to the situation and ask, ‘What does this mean? What can I do to solve this problem? It’s right in front of me, and I need to solve it, and I can’t, it’s not working, and maybe it’s something to do with me, maybe it‘s something to do with the world…’ You just go on and on, and in that process nothing happens, apart from you just getting more and more distressed. This moves you away from that into a different mindset, which you can cultivate, which gets rid of that and just allows your body to make the decision, if that‘s the right word, and quieten the voices within. And you need compassion for that, which is a form of well-wishing really, isn’t it, for yourself: wishing yourself happiness, freedom from suffering, those kinds of things, can just relieve the tension of your own mind and bring you into closer contact with your body.
That is why I suggest developing a self-compassionate practice. It doesn’t necessarily have to be very formal. It could be doing something quite physical – helping others out in some way; looking after yourself; doing a diary of how you’re going to be treating your body in the next couple of weeks. Those kinds of things can create an environment where you reduce your own suffering. And there might be some room for meeting someone else’s suffering, although often you have enough to do doing it for yourself. And people do connect with that.
GK: I would agree but would just add a political dimension to self-compassion. There are reasons why, generally, all marginalised and traumatised groups find it hard to be kind to themselves. Essentially, we internalise the way that we have been treated. And so part of the discourse is to say to people, ‘Listen, we need to stop doing the master’s work, right?’ We need to really show ourselves kindness and love because, fundamentally, we cannot be saying ‘Black lives matter’ and exclude ourselves from our cycle of compassion. It doesn’t make sense, right? If we truly believe that we matter, that our mental health matters, we need to treat ourselves with kindness, and we need to treat others the same way. But for a lot of us, myself included, those are things that we need to learn, or relearn to give ourselves – to nurture ourselves, to soothe ourselves, which are all skills that people who have experience of trauma often have not learned or have forgotten. So if you struggle with self-compassion, I would say that it’s probably for a good reason. But I would also say that we can all do a little bit every day to reconnect us to kindness and that it is also fundamental not only to looking after ourself generally in the world but to buffering the impact of racism as well.
EE: Yes, I think there is a journey to make, because kindness often gets coupled with violence or some kind of attack, and that’s how it can be for white people as well if they empathise with a black person; they will get attacked. So compassion and attack get put together in one little package; showing kindness to one another can be seen as a weakness, and as something to be attacked and got rid of. So there are lots of racial dynamics in just the act of kindness and compassion. In a way, it doesn’t foster survival. In our minds, we need to be tough, we need to be hard, we need to be pushing ourselves, so there is also that narrative to counteract.
And something that I also do is say, ‘Well, OK, I can just leave that. I don‘t need to do that, you know, I‘m all right.’ I don’t know what’s going on in my mind, but I leave it behind and over time I begin to really start to feel I’m struggling and really start to feel the stress. And then I go back to it. But I think there is a journey there. And I think there’s something there about me not valuing that particular mindset very much. And it’s a body thing; I have to get really bad before I’m triggered into looking after myself. It‘s getting easier over time; I can feel the connection is being made slightly easier, so I‘ll come back to compassion much more quickly than I used to. But yeah, that sort of compassion and kindness and brutality coming in to slice it open is also a narrative of racism that, again, we need to undo, and find a way around.
GK: Yeah, I hear that. I think to do that is fundamentally back to function. What social function does it serve for us to be harsh, and to be self-critical? Of course, it serves the dominant discourses, and that’s why many of us struggle. And just a little bit on the point that you’ve made around white people and kindness being equated in their mind with risk and with threats. If they show kindness and they show compassion towards black or brown people who are suffering, there can be structural retaliation – that’s true. But one thing that I would say is that the violence doesn’t disappear simply because it is external; there’s also the self holding the self to account. And so there are issues to do with moral injury and shame that come into motion when, essentially, white people, bystanders generally, do not take action that they feel is the right action to take at the time. So there’s no easy way out and the suffering is not going anywhere, whichever way we go. Compassion is absolutely revolutionary for all of us – for people of colour but also for white people to truly connect to suffering and to seek to alleviate that suffering the best way we can.
EE: Yeah, because I think racism itself is a veil over the hurt of black people, like a sheet or something. So it’s not seen. And, that’s been trained over generations; you don’t have to go that far back. White people were sanctioned quite heavily, sometimes even strung up, if they broke the slave codes, and so it became embodied, and that embodiment just gets passed on through the generations, so this idea of being compassionate and being curious also comes with a jolt of something bodily, which prevents that from happening. So people need to find a way to get through that bodily experience in order to meet racism, to meet the hurt that’s there. And also the huge challenge. So they also need to develop compassion for themselves while they go through that process, before they can stay with the hurt of racism, which is just like any other hurt, basically; it‘s not like it’s a special hurt, but because it‘s bound up with all of this stuff, it becomes special. And where people might be able to respond to hurt in one particular incident, and be very effective and stay with it, when it comes to race, all of that functionality goes; it just disappears and they feel compelled to stay back, in order to disengage. It’s a body feeling more than anything. Of course, then they start to rationalise why they did that. ‘Well, I know that black people are this, this, this and the other, and this is why.’ So you start off with the body response and then some kind of narrative comes to justify the body response so that it makes sense, and here we are with the race construct. So there‘s a lot going on for both sides, and with the need for black people to stay with their own experience as well, it‘s hard work. And compassion is really needed there. But there are loads of narratives that just slay compassion. It’s a challenge and a need for practice, which, as you say, is lifelong.
GK: I would say most definitely self-compassion is an act of resistance. And by resistance, I simply mean all the processes that we engage in to disrupt structures of power. If the dominant discourse is that we are worthless, that our body doesn’t matter, it disrupts the narrative instantly if we engage in self-compassion and self-kindness. If the narrative is that the body is subservient to the mind, or the body is unreliable as a way to access reality or to access truth, for us to assert our bodily truth is an act of resistance. And so that is why, in my head, self-care, healing, self-compassion, self-kindness and solidarity are acts of resistance, because fundamentally they disrupt, defy and resist what the structures of oppression need us to internalise and perform in the world. And a last point about self-compassion, why it is so difficult, in addition to all the stuff that we’ve been talking about, and trauma and so on, is that people of colour, black people, are taught, are socialised to put the needs of other people before our own. This is how the black object is created, to be subservient to other people. It is a story that is centuries old. And so for us to be saying ‘Actually, let us pay attention to ourselves’ is quite revolutionary. It’s so basic, but it could have got my ancestors killed if they were to refuse to serve whiteness. So we carry that, too, unconsciously, and within our body.
EE: Yeah, I would agree. I think just looking after yourself, just developing your voice are healing and an act of resistance. The way I’ve conceptualised it in the book is in this idea of finding your voice, because being gagged did happen during slavery and colonialism, both as a way of physically silencing the voice, and also psychologically. So finding a way to find your voice is good for your mental health as well. And that could be by marching in a political arena. It could be doing something creative or some other way of expressing your experience, and knowing that it’s going to cause discomfort and doing it anyway. And on one level, it feels like that might be detrimental to your health, to keep on talking and keep making a noise and being disruptive. But I think the opposite is true. Obviously initially it feels big, if you haven’t done that before. And it is big. But, down the road, bodily, there’s a big difference between speaking and not speaking – the way that the energy gets organised in your body is very, very different. We’ve all had experience of releasing in some way. And yeah, I would say an essential part, along with all the other things we’ve been talking about, is to find some way to find your voice in all of this because the voice has been lost.
GK: Yes, if we feel gagged it’s because we are being gagged and sometimes the gagging is not physical; the gagging can be psychological and the gagging can be unconscious. So I’d really stress that things are intersubjective and relational; often black people have these experiences and they are left to carry them as something of their own production or imagination. It’s important for white people to take responsibility for those experiences as well.