The Challenge of Racism in a Post Racism Society
This paper outlines the influence of a post racism discourse on the learning and provision of psychological therapies. Key points such as the role of training institutions, how defences can prevent acknowledgement of racism, how this process can transfer to the supervisory triad and ultimately work with clients will be addressed. Several contemporary concepts that can provide a useful framework for exploring and addressing these concerns will be presented.
Because racism’s cloths have changed, because it is now expressed in terms of culture rather than biology, many believe, that it is now little more than an embarrassing appendage to psychology. Howitt, D. & Owusu-Bempah, (1994, p.9)
There is a discourse about race equality that assumes that we are in a phase of post racism. A neo-colonial period of acceptance, tolerance, understanding and living in harmony with our differences. Howitt and Owusu-Bempah view this differently. The belief in this discourse serves to stagnate challenges to institutional racism and the growth of anti-oppressive practice in psychology and psychotherapy training systems and therefore relationships with clients and clinical supervision. In order to move through this perception we must dialogue about this elephant in the room. This paper considers some key areas that need to be addressed in the course of psychological provision and support.
Racism has permeated the psyche and often remains a fearful, guilt-ridden theme that may be addressed by its victims and rarely acknowledged by its perpetrators. Racism still needs to be considered in all its guises and the ways it may affect the therapeutic process, in order to preserve the integrity of therapeutic practice. Racism needs to be exposed so that denial can be worked through and the associated trauma caused by oppression acknowledged and explored more readily by therapists in their clinical practice and supervision.
Feminism, the black power movement and gay liberation helped the recognition of a need for a shift in attitudes towards the emotional well being of women and girls, black people, people of color, individuals of minority sexuality and the disabled. These discourses were based on raising individual and group consciousness about the negative emotional and social impact of patriarchy, racism, homophobia and xenophobia. Hence a greater understanding of gender, ethnicity, sexuality and disability has lead to equalities legislation and the challenge of some institutional oppressions. However these are the outward more observable signs that underpin the myth of post racism.
The unconscious and internal affects of racism and inter-racial experiences have been addressed to a lesser degree and usually within specialist agencies. Traditional theories of psychological theory and defenses often prevent a more constructive and specifically empathic approach to the impact of racism.
A particular concern is comments from some supervisees about not feeling able to take their work with black clients to their white supervisors. This shows that the impact of racism ripples through to the supervisory triad or group and thus affects the interrelationship between therapist and supervisor. So what then gets transferred to the client therapist relationship? If this process goes unchallenged, the supervisee denies them self an opportunity to work through this rupture in supervision and the client may loose out on the benefit of being fully supported through this challenge
Supervision is a critical area of the therapist’s professional and personal development, therefore this type of comment must be attended to. Whether the therapist or supervisor identifies as black, white, or a person of color, it is clear that there is a need for a less inhibited dialogue and greater communication about the impact of racism on therapeutic practice. In order to face this challenge therapists must consider several key areas. These areas will be outlined in this paper.
First the role of training institutions. Whilst some therapy organizations and training courses are designed to enhance the practice of cultural awareness and sensitivity in therapy, others lean on theories that assume cultural awareness rather than address it. Whilst a well meaning approach to anti-oppressive practice considers the impact of oppressions, an assumption of a generic hurt, as opposed to a specific hurt based on skin colour can mean a taken for granted response.
The women’s movement was accused of whitewashing women of color. Sexism and homophobia was functioning within the black power movement and racism and sexism impacted gay and lesbian communities. Multiculturalism has thus arisen out of a need to understand and eliminate oppressions within and between different ethnic and minority groups and to address individual intersecting identities.
We cannot take it for granted that a woman who experienced an intersecting oppression of sexism experiences the same hurt as a person experiencing racism. Neither can we assume that one hurt goes deeper than another, or that an individual may be equally impacted by both oppressions. Adding to this the experience of being black or Asian, we can assume she would have been impacted by racism at some stage in her life.
The concept of internalized racism has thus become a feature of ongoing efforts to understand how the hurt of racism impacts on the unconscious psyche and internal process of developing personal identity. Internalized racism may influence how this particular wound intersects with other oppressions. What we do know is that racism often gets re-enacted in negative self-demeaning ways and can cause low self-concept and feelings of powerlessness. We also know that similarly to other oppressions it becomes institutionalized. And we know that racism can be covert and overt and cause physical and mental problems.
White racism stands alone in that it combines prejudice with power, privilege and assumed superiority towards people who are brown or black. The strength of this combination has perpetrated hatred and injustice for centuries and remains a feature of colonial history that often gets denied and not attended to, causing institutional burying of head in the sand and intergenerational consequences. I use the concept of ‘ancestral baggage’ Mckenzie-Mavinga (2009) to describe this cultural phenomenon that individuals and groups pass on through generations.
A colleague expressed. “My training was a kind of a self- directed training, you never new what was going on from one week to the next. There were three black students out of twelve on the course. If we had not brought those issues up as black people, they would not have come up. They came up in as much as it was relevant for us to deal with what was going on between us as students on the course, about what goes on generally on training between white people and black people. There is a lack of awareness of what was important for the black people. There was a very loose structure. I remember I had to write an essay. I was writing about issues to do with race, it was pretty raw. The external examiner was saying. “It is very subjective, but who can blame him”. I was angry because I was making a particular point about how racism affects me and he seemed to be saying that I was on a rant, but who could blame me sort of thing. I initiated time together as black students and we processed for ourselves and taught each other. Then we went back into the main body of students. There was no relevant reading material. I had already trained as a co-counsellor and that developed my understanding of racism and internalised oppression.
This kind of training experience can influence how or whether trainees feel equipped to pass on information that may support the challenges of racism in client-work and clinical supervision. Literature and dialogue about this challenge can be utilized on training courses to ensure trainees feel confident in this area. Recognition of this helps prevent a voiceless training community.
On a training course I worked on some students asked these questions:
“Why do I feel nervous when I hear the term black issues?”
“Why do I feel more comfortable as a black counsellor when presented with a black client?”
“Would I ever be seen as good enough, as a white counsellor, to deal with black issues by a black client?”
“How can I hold on to my sense of being black in a white counselling world?”
These questions have been influenced by the impact of racism on trainees’ reflective process. Therefore tutors also need to develop their ability to openly explore ways of assisting student’s personal and professional development in this area.
The second key area points to conditioning via Eurocentric theories and attitudes that perpetuate institutional racism by practice and supervision approaches. These approaches need to be examined and utilized appropriately. Fanon (1986) addressed this when he highlighted a concern about the impact of Eurocentric thinking. As blacks partake of the same collective unconscious as the European… the black has taken over all the archetypes belonging to the European. (P.163)
In order to explore this concern, I have introduced several concepts. The concept of 'black western archetypes'. Mckenzie-Mavinga (2009) is useful in understanding the unconscious and often internalised process of racist stereotypes on black people. For example the archetype of ‘step and fetch it’ that portrays an image of the black individual as subservient. This archetype has also permeated the minds of white people and continues to contribute to the perpetuation of institutional racism via Eurocentric theoretical context in therapeutic provision. In other words if black people continue to be viewed through a stereotypical lenses, their personal development is not supported and mirroring becomes thwarted.
The late Jaffar Kareem (1994) shared his experience of internalizing the western approach and attempts to resist negative archetypes during training. My own internal ego and superego had become replaced with the external institutional superegos of my training models………I constantly had to battle with myself to keep my head above water, to remind myself at every point who I was and what I was. It was a painful and difficult battle not to think what I had been told to think, not to be what I had been told to be and not to challenge what I had been told could not be challenged and at the same time not become alienated from my basic roots and my basic self. Kareem & Littlewood. (1994, p.31)
Kareem’s experience highlights the struggle of internalizing western archetypes, or the institutional superego of training models? This painful and difficult, often unprocessed battle to stay awake, present and challenge racism can push its existence into a mythology?
The role of defenses
Dalal (2002) advises that Klein’s concept of the defenses projection and splitting are useful in understanding how racism invades the psyche in this process. In Kleinian work (1946) projection is viewed as an unconscious defense of something unbearable. This concept is usually associated with the defense of splitting, where individuals transfer the bad feelings into some other place.
Whilst transference may be a temporary fix for the impact of racism therapists and supervisor’s must be willing to engage with the painful fallout of this oppression. Settling for solely observing this defense would be unethical and unsupportive of the therapist and client’s dilemma.
The concept of ‘recognition trauma’ Mckenzie-Mavinga (2009) to assist consideration of splitting as a defense against racism and the ways that it can silence individuals and institutions and prevent exploration of the impact of racism may be a useful framework for contemplating a dialogue about this defense in supervision. Recognition trauma is the term I have given to personal responses to the acknowledgement of racism. The term recognition trauma portrays the experience of powerful feelings that occur when an individual becomes aware that they have been a victim of racism or that they are a member of the perpetrator group. These feelings can block the individual from self-expression. Denial, silence or rage, are behaviors that can be associated with this concept.
Althea a thirty year old female of mixed Nigerian and Caribbean descent, brought to my attention a situation of racism in the work place She was the only black staff member in a long established team of residential workers. Her boss was accusing her of incompetence after several complaints that she had been verbally abusive to the staff and residents. She was reprimanded for not fulfilling her job description properly. They were trying to get her to do tasks that she was not yet trained for and that if not carried out properly would create danger to the residents. She refused to comply and became subject to silences and bullying from other members of the team.
She had been engaged as a trainee residential worker under section eleven of the employment laws in the UK, which sanctioned the recruitment of a black staff members to fulfill the gap in staff from ethnic minorities. After her probation period was over she started to go off sick every time she experienced conflict with her colleagues. Each time she returned from sick leave her colleagues acted in a hostile way that she challenged as racism. Althea protested at the hostility of the other staff members and was accused of being racist herself. Clearly the manager and other staff members had very little awareness of the dynamics of racism. Althea said that there was one member of staff who agreed with her that he thought she was the victim of racism from her colleagues. Her manager let the cycle of abuse go on far too long before he admitted that he did not know how to handle the situation. It became clear that he had colluded with his white colleagues and had been afraid to challenge their racism. When Althea’s manager attempted to discuss the situation with her she would clam up because she felt that she could no longer trust him. By the time head office were called in to investigate Althea’s situation, she had ‘burn out’ and was absent on long term sick leave.
Fletchman Smith (1999) advocates that you can think psychodynamically about the impact of racism on the psyche. She states: I begin from the position that slavery was damaging for everyone concerned with it. As in all situations in which there are perpetuators and victims, it is what the victims do in their own minds with the horrors they experience that-to a large extent-determines the future state of mind of that individual. This explains why some people have not only survived, but have thrived in spite of the experience of slavery. Others have not been so fortunate. (P.7)
Tuckwell (2002) adds her thoughts on the silence, which occurs when the theme of racism is being discussed.
There is a silence generally within our profession concerning racism, but I believe also that a silence can too easily develop in the consulting room. It is a dangerous silence for the therapy because it contains too much background noise for it not to infect all other work we try to do. A frequent response by the black patient is to stop and leave therapy, often silently. Another response is not to enter in the first place, which is the loudest silence of all. (P.138) White therapists need to get in touch with their deep-seated racist impulses. If we are to overcome the internal racist within us, and find release from the guilt, fear and shame that bind us, we need to meet the ‘shadow’ side of our psyche and begin to integrate the acceptable parts of ourselves. (P.209)
A psychological gagging occurs when silence as a defense is present. It is not enough to create a curriculum that has no way of evidencing students learning about multiculturalism and the challenge of racism in their practice. Opportunities to dialogue about racism are paramount. Students who are not confident in a transcultural dialogue may bypass a cultural issues criterion in their assignments.
Attitudes to learning about multicultural therapy need to be re-valuated. If lecturers and students are not expected to learn about multiculturalism in therapy, both client and therapist can deny the cultural elements of the client’s experience. This means that students may not recognize the significance of racism on their black and Asian clients. They may not accept or understand that the challenge of racism is important to explore for the benefit of all clients. They may not expect to engage with concerns about this challenge in their clinical supervision.
Sometimes cultural components are approached as though they are just an add-on to serve the training course equality objectives, rather than being an essential component of the client’s experience. Students are often tentative with the cultural aspects of dialogue because they may not be rehearsed in addressing them. Dialogue about racial context raises vulnerabilities and fears among student groups. Due to these fears some students do not disclose cultural and racial information about their client’s background unless prompted. Often rigid belief systems prevent students from empathizing with clients due to fear of offending. Students are often quick to abandon clients whose cultural diversity they are unfamiliar with rather than face their prejudices and mistakes and walk with the client.
Appropriate use of Transcultural literature to support these concerns is important for the multicultural curriculum. It is not enough to add references and expect students to convert text into practice. Transcultural concepts tend to remain theoretical mysteries. They need discussion, elucidation and ways of integrating them into practice. Multicultural literature does not always give suggestions about working with attitudes to racism. Students claim that they want models of applying transcultural and anti-oppressive therapy and this needs to happen. A willingness to hold the therapeutic space whether students are aware, or in spite of not knowing, is important.
A black empathic approach
Training therapists to explicitly address the cultural experiences attached to the client’s emotions can achieve cultural empathy, but this is not enough. Students must be encouraged to maintain openness to addressing cultural issues and the impact of racism and exploring the challenges they face during this process.
Transcultural work needs to be at the centre of therapy training as though it were a core component like empathy. For the purpose of working with the challenge of racism I suggest a ‘black empathic approach’. Mckenzie-Mavinga, (2009, P58). This means offering responses that specifically and sensitively relate to a client’s racial and cultural experiences as they express them and as the therapist intuitively recognizes them as an element of identity and personal psychology.
This means listening specifically to the challenge of racism in the therapeutic triad, client, therapist and supervision, and finding appropriate ways to supportively work through this process and be actively working with these challenges in the therapeutic process.
Beryl, a counselor of Jamaican heritage finds that her black therapy training enabled her to remember her roots and usefully work with the shared experience of racism. She unfolds the nature of a black empathic approach and describes how a greater understanding of her own personal issues contributed to her understanding of the families she was working with. Beryl questions her experience of Eurocentric training and the therapist’s capacity to listen to cultural messages. In her approach she delivers insights using intuition and spiritual guidance that have arisen from her self-development process. Having recognized the cultural and spiritual changes that needed to happen, she soars above her psychological chains and discovers tools within this experience to assist others. The stigma of childhood beatings is uncovered and placed within its historical context. Beryl advocates that we listen to cultural messages and demonstrate a black empathic approach, decidedly paying attention to the whole experience and interrupting internalized negative messages.
Beryl had worked with an elderly woman who had been physically violent to a young girl from Jamaica that she had adopted. She was beating her with a cable. As a result of this the girl kept running away and the mother had called the police, not realizing that it would lead to a police record. She couldn't understand. She couldn't believe that these ‘two licks’ could make the child so angry with her. She was saying that she herself endured far more than this as a child and she genuinely could not believe she had committed a crime. Beryl’s views are similar to many African’s in the diaspora. She advocates that this approach to beating children goes back to slavery times. She says, “It's a question of looking at why people used to beat their children, the way that they beat them. And I know there is a big debate on how we use the word beating. Lots of people say, well we say beat, but it's not like stubbing cigarettes out or stuff like that, but it is still the same. For me it's more important to look at where it comes from and what we are going to do about it. Going back to that case, it's about how the system has got her a criminal record the situation was perpetuated by the woman’s shame. She could not let her other children know she had a criminal record because they would have been very angry with the girl”.
Beryl asked the woman whether she got beaten as a child and the woman’s facial expression changed. She said to her “by your facial expression, I can tell that the beating you received was so bad that you can't even talk about it”. And she replied, “yes”. So as far as she was concerned, the beating she was giving the little girl was nothing compared to what she had suffered herself. In addition to supporting the woman Beryl had to convince her boss who was white that the client wasn’t just a wicked woman who beat a child. The situation had to be viewed in the context of her history.
There is a trickster shadow that emanates from recognition trauma and promotes silence about diversity and the impact of racism. This can dull cultural empathy and the learning process, thus marginalizing the cultural components of personal development and the therapeutic process. When this happens therapists may question their worthiness mirroring the consequences of oppression. Students need to be encouraged to believe that they have good minds and can achieve transcultural competency in their training and clinical work.
Black students playing down their experiences create a silence, a muting of their identities that could be considered a cultural discourse impacting on learning and practice. The Warner Weil Study (1989) suggests that the black students experienced a great deal of disjunction on their course. Warner Weil uses the term disjunction to relate to a sense of fragmentation involving both ‘personal and social identity’, influenced by past and present situations.
The students managed their disjunction by engaging with significant peers both on the course and outside of the course. Their determination to complete the course and the subsequent engagement with tutors created a constructive process that enhanced their education. The researcher acknowledges these student’s engagement as needing ‘a stable psychology’ in order to derive maximum benefit from a learning situation. P.124 She suggests that tutors who value the need for students to reflect on their learning with other black people was important to the curriculum and enhancement of their education. The involvement of lecturers in the learning derived from disjunction so that students are not left to resolve these silences is key to curriculum for training in multicultural therapy. Lack of this type of lecturer involvement can create a risk of creating further disjunction between students and tutors. Fulton(1989, P.112) However much lecturers provide opportunities for students to share, it does not necessarily follow that openness to different ways of being gives learners the confidence to address cultural issues and concerns about racism in their practice. Students need to be given opportunities to unlearn the silences as Warner Weil. (in Fulton1989) suggests. ‘In these accounts, from those who, not just in terms of age, but also in terms of gender, class and race, have traditionally been underrepresented in higher and continuing education, the complexities and struggles in ‘unlearning to not speak’ P.125 become manifest. The possibilities for experiences of disjunction, rather than integration, for miseducation, not education, become clearer’.
Strategies for group work in the training group can be applied to alleviate disjunction and address diversity issues that may cause silence or misinterpretation in the learning group. These strategies can present personal development challenges from both students and lecturers. A common response to strategies for opening a dialogue on race relations is assuming that intercultural exercises are only about black people. This response that I call the hierarchy of oppressions is important, because an evaluation of other minority group experiences can create a greater understanding of the impact of racism on both the oppressor and victim. The emotional content attached to facilitation of racial issues needs to be acknowledged and supported, allowing students an opportunity to experience the process of working through their recognition trauma, their personal development and their understanding about this matter.
Designing specific tasks to facilitate this process is important. This can open up dialogue on stereotypes that individuals harbor about others and promote greater understanding about diversity.
The training environment and core curriculum needs to be a place where trainees can try out transcultural relationships, make mistakes and reflect on and develop their learning process. To avoid a one size fits all or colour blind approach the transfer of cultural elements between training and practice need to be explored. This requires lecturers and professionals involved in therapy training to reflect on their own learning processes, research and CPD. It is possible to conduct training with style and integrity that reflects diversity and intra-cultural relationships. Reflection on intra-cultural relationships as for example between black groups and between white groups is essential to the flow and development of ant-oppressive practice.
Power dynamics that do not support this process need to be challenged on all institutional levels, so that teaching staff are given clear messages about the expectation of implementing a multi-cultural anti-oppressive curriculum. Particular attention should be given to minority group learning experiences.
This helps students to feel valued and build confidence; otherwise they may feel a loss of identity and the epistemological force of institutional oppression.
1. It is important to communicate information in a way that imparts a shared experience as well as an understanding of the experience. This does not mean involuntary disclosure. For black therapists this may take the form of empathic responses based on their experience of being a British citizen or knowledge of their ancestral homeland. White therapists may need to have previously processed the impact of their heritage and ancestry as members of the oppressor group. Literature, music, artefacts and images can be used to connect to experiences of diversity and convey knowledge of a shared history.
2. Get involved with the client’s cultural history rather than just taking information about history. It is a shared history, which connects the therapist to the client. Involvement can create a foundation for the therapeutic process. Address the client’s history in the context of their personal journey to modern British society and its effects on their heritage.
3. Clients can be asked about their family background. Family photos or objects of cultural significance can be used to explore geographical location, occupation and lifestyle of their descendants. If using objects, get the client to tell the story of the object, its origins, journey to Britain, separation and assimilation experiences. Associate the impact of language and cultural differences. Significant points that have influenced the object’s life can be discussed. i.e. identity issues, being removed from it’s origins, transportation to an unfamiliar land, the experience of different ownership, the history of its value, its name and purpose. For African and Caribbean clients who frequently journey ‘back home’ or who struggle to financially assist family ‘back home.’ It may be useful to discuss the context of ‘back home’ and be aware of ancestral links to the era of slavery and colonization. This can support an interest in identity issues. The opportunities are endless.
4. Pay particular attention to the experiences of black men and their diversity to black women and white men and women. Develop a dialogue that assists them to share through their creative expression.
Post racism is an excuse to sit in complacence and not get messy in a transcultural process that requires cultural introspection and reflexivity on the client’s behalf. It is my hope that transcultural therapy will be a statutory requirement that bids farewell to the myth of post racism and post any other ism and hello to active dialogue and engagement with processes of diversity and intercultural dynamics.
Learning about the impact of racism and how it works does not mean therapists can assume the work is done. Knowledge and experience must be transferred into active involvement in addressing racism in training, supervision and practice; otherwise the mythology of post racism is perpetuated.
I have introduced several concepts as a framework for discussion on racism in practice. I have also outlined some essential points that need to be considered on an ongoing basis. In particular the role of defences and post racism is a defensive discourse. Several responses to the impact of racism and trauma both intergenerational and personal related to racism have been identified. It must be recognised that internalised racism and Eurocentric assimilation underpin these responses.
Training should offer mutual opportunities for learning and trainees need to have role models who demonstrate an open dialogue about cultural issues and the challenge of racism. This needs to be supported with a curriculum that reflects and supports multi-cultural themes and trainees contribution to transcultural practice.
Dalal, F (2002): Race, Colour and the process of Racialization -Brunner
Fanon, F (1986): Black Skin, White Mask- Pluto Press
Fletchman Smith, B (1999): Mental Slavery -Rebus
Fulton, O. Ed (1989) Access and institutional change. The Society for Research into Higher Education, SRHE & Open University Press Milton Keynes and PA, USA
Howitt, D. & Owusu-Bempah, J. (1994) The Racism of Psychology. Hemel Hempstead, UK: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Kareem , J. and Littlewood, R. (1992). Intercultural Therapy. London: Blackwell.
Klein, M. (1946). Envy and Gratitude and Other Works 1946–1963. London: Virago
Mckenzie-Mavinga,(2009) Black Issues in the Therapeutic Process
Tuckwell, G. (2002). Racial Identity, White Counsellors and Therapists.
Warner Weil, S.W. and Mcgill, I. (1989) Making Sense of Experiential Learning. Diversity in Theory and Practice. Milton Keynes: SRHE and Open University.
A Study of Black Issues in Counsellor Training: Published in CPR issues 62: 2016
At the beginning of the study I was concerned about how I could use my love of art and writing as a means of sharing knowledge and experience. I was also faced with the conflict of being torn between my creative writing and my academic research. So I decided to combine them. I then used poetry to express some of my process and integrated it into the write up of my research. I use my creative skills as a self-reflective process and to express the voice that others sometimes find difficult to listen to. Alongside the research process I wrote and published papers to prepare the field for a new discourse.
Interviews and collaborative involvement of students and colleagues played a significant role in confirming the need for black issues to be introduced into training and observe the process. This was carried forward into a facilitated workshop programme where students shared their concerns. So the study was based on the questions and concerns of students training to be counsellors. Being interested in listening to the concerns, opened a dialogue about a concerning element of the training and ultimately supported the developing counsellor’s approach to anti-oppressive practice. Encouraging this dialogue showed a shared commitment to the cause of change. Participants’ narratives demonstrated the usefulness of shared concerns and the process of finding a voice, confirming the emancipatory process of multicultural research. Without fully realising it, I embarked on a heuristic multicultural journey that invoked an emotional response and the development of new concepts to support understanding.
In summary, the challenging nature of placing black issues into the training curriculum opened a can of worms. Those worms consisted of questions and concerns about racism as a feature of their lives and therefore the training of black and Asian counsellors. This assisted me in devising my research question: How do trainee counsellors in Britain, (from any background) understand their concerns about black issues raised by or about themselves during training or about clients during the therapeutic process?
Fortunately I was involved with the teaching on three training courses, so there was variety in the theoretical approaches and the student groups. I continued to work with one of the groups throughout their two-year training. What then transpired within a plethora of concerns was the need to understand black issues in the context of the students’ training relationships and their developing practice. They asked questions like, how appropriate and when is it appropriate to ask questions related to race and ethnicity? And What if a client rejects me when I am a counsellor, because of my African/Caribbean heritage?
Having decided to accommodate the need to explore these questions, certain ethical components came into focus. Being there created a mixture of safety and also raised some ethical concerns about whether knowing students’ feelings about the theme would influence the way I marked their assignments. I was challenged to find ways to engage with a process that supported emancipation through dialogue, as opposed to silence.
Students were then able to express their fears about the impingement of racism on the subject of black issues. This created a bridge from fear to transformation.
Storytelling and oral traditions lies deep within the heritage of African and Asian peoples and this proved to be a useful way of untangling the transformative process of the study. In Beloved’s story (Morrison, 1988) the community were silenced because they had found it difficult to support her mother who not only abandoned, but also attempted to destroy her children, but this community later pulled together because of their new understanding. Healing took place through a shared history of slavery, oppression, mistrust, guilt and racism. Beloved returned in her broken state and created a bridge between fear and transformation. On the one hand she resurrected memories of her traumatic beginning and the history of white patriarchal domination, and on the other hand she achieved reconciliation with her mother and the community. Beloved’s mother, in her desperation to save her children from the enslavers, was driven to insanity as she recalled the terror. I cannot begin to empathise with anyone born into slavery, but somewhere in Beloved’s story there is something with which I resonate. Having no history of my father’s side of the family who were freed slaves; I made my journey to search for his heritage. This has given me great insight into the missing bits in my education and counsellor training. In addition I have allowed myself to transgress the pain of discovering these missing bits. These elements of human nature were emerging themes in the process of the study.
On recognising the powerful feelings evoked during the transformative phase, I developed the concept of recognition trauma. A process of powerful feelings raised when the survivor or perpetrator of oppression becomes aware of their positioning in this phenomenon. This process once recognised, can be worked through and utilised for personal development. I guess this process can be likened to Jung’s transformative concept of ‘alchemy’. When old attitudes, defences and shadow archetypes become exposed and new insights gained, there is progress and a new discourse arises. To support these insights, I introduced the concept of ‘black Western archetypes’ that inhabit racist bits of the collective shadow and can be made conscious through exploring individual shadow elements of internalised racism.
The study transformed my own practice as a psychotherapist and trainer. Firstly by maintaining an inclusive approach to minority issues and gathering knowledge and theory to support this approach. Secondly, I explicitly addressed my availability to explore the deeper meaning of oppression, racism and black issues in training and the therapeutic relationship. Thirdly by using ongoing support to remain aware of my counter-transference responses and of the compassion I have developed to model the support process. Fourthly I developed less fear of starting at the beginning, learning from my mistakes and asking for and expecting relevant help.
Most importantly, through using my creativity to share my own vulnerability, I learned how to work with and overcome my own silence and use my voice. Consequently I have become more aware of the tone and context of my voice when exploring black issues. I have also become attentive to the context and hew of my emotions when discussing racism and the rough edges I encounter within myself when I am experiencing oppression.
My greatest learning has been the challenge to begin from where participants are and trust the process that evolves from that place, neither pushing nor pulling it. After all, this is the main challenge of psychotherapy and counselling, to be in the present when the past and the future may be knocking loudly on the door. There were times when I felt like quitting, because the job felt too difficult or scary. I honestly thought that developing a new discourse that challenged institutional racism would mean I would die, or that someone would kill me. It was really just a fear of unknown territory and how volatile the theme of racism appears to be.
Self-challenge, equalities issues and the needs of both black and white students, and clients played a key role in the study. A reconciliation of social history and transferring knowledge into deliverable techniques was considered. The study played a role in creating new social forms and opening up theory. Eurocentricism has been challenged in the process and application of the method, particularly in not leaving the responsibility to black students, or expecting students to find out about black issues in counselling outside of the training. The question of how black issues are addressed has been explored through the process of understanding students’ relationship with the phenomenon. The narratives of established practitioners were also explored to affirm the research phenomenon of black issues in training. From this I gained a broader understanding of their concerns and a framework for grounding the theory and creating further data.
I have summarised emerging themes from this period of immersion, illumination and reflection on the impact of black issues in training. Responses to the phenomenon demonstrated that racism needed to be explored as part of the process of understanding black issues. The information presented above reflects the intensity of becoming engaged in the process of a study that symbolically represents ‘a can of worms’.
Examples of issues that emerged from students’ concerns are listed below:
· My tutor researcher role.
· The role of the black expert.
· Issues of fear, safety and finding a voice.
· Participants knowing and ‘not knowing’ about racism.
· Differing levels of awareness and understanding of the meaning of ‘black issues’.
There was acknowledgement that tutors felt it was difficult to do this work with students when it had not been part of their own training. My experience was no different to theirs and at times I felt unsupported. There seemed to be a lot of intellectualizing and guilt expressed. For example giving a lot of attention to reasons why they felt that they had not responded to my numerous requests for feedback, and why I was still the only one keeping it on the agenda. I reminded them that they had previously asked the question, ‘would they be able to address black issues without my presence?’ Their responses seemed to support their fears about this topic. I challenged them to explore whether they were diluting the issue of racism. I spoke of operating from their defenses and guilt about the theme. I also encouraged them by sharing that the data I had already collected showed progress. We discussed the issues of it being my project and how sometimes individuals get apathetic and disinterested in what seems to belong to an other. I reminded them that they had all said they were willing at the beginning. I felt disappointed and impatient, yet I needed to stay with the process. I felt like just leaving it and not challenging or demanding any more response from them, but that would be giving up. I became concerned about destructive responses and that my own work might get picked to pieces. I guess this was a parallel to the students concerns about my response to their work. A poem evolved.
I face the blank page/yawn, feel hysterical
Laughter and tears beneath the surface
With a prod my chest may exude this mass
Afraid, my pen will cease to flow
I stop to itch my nose/aware of stopping
Stopping may distract attention
My thinking once curbed,
Can this narrative transform knowledge?
Holding this pause/this moment in history
A space to unravel, to mind and observe
A Cathartic matrix of writhing worms
Each ventricular journey a precious growth
Illumination of new born concepts/routes
Past to future unfolding wisdom and notion
A tapestry of experiences embrace tentatively
Ignite the passion of learning new other ways
Isha Mckenzie-Mavinga 2002/5
When it came to writing up my thesis, an old pattern of not feeling good enough crept into my writing and I eliminated my poems, thinking that they would not be accepted, even though they illustrated my process. This is one of the poems that I had written.
I sit here in tears
In fear of abandonment
Tuning this scenario
For the voice that fears
To come to me
For this healing complete
That we may be free
But for this life
This world, this family,
This, the voice
I wait patiently
Isha Mckenzie-Mavinga 2002/5
My supervisor moved me to tears when she said to me, “ you are free now Isha, you can include your poems”. Being told I am free was like mirroring freedom that I was about to give up. Many individuals don’t really accept that they are free, that is why this work is necessary. We think we are living in a free country, we believe we are free, but we are not fully utilizing our freedom. This is why I introduced the concept of ‘a black empathic approach’ to encourage a shared sense of celebrating identity and connecting with the impact of racism.
Morrison, T. (1988) Beloved London: Pan books Ltd
Dr Isha Mckenzie-Mavinga 2016