Only a few months prior to this experience I heard myself respond to a comment from an organizer about how to attract more of ‘us’ to these conferences, where I had been in a minority of one, “Put us at the front where we can be visible”, I replied. Who told me to open my big mouth? I had already presented at two conferences early this year, a workshop on that very day and this time around I had been earmarked as one of the main presenters. The conference theme was ‘Intergenerational
I began by sharing something about my background as a black mixed heritage African Caribbean and Jewish woman. I explained that my father had written a letter referring to his own and my mother’s immigrant statuses, identifying themselves with the two most hated races in the Western world. Somehow they had found solace in each other without the use of any psychotherapeutic interventions. This prelude to my talk on 'Healing Ancestral Baggage’ was a way of calming my nerves and making a connection to the listeners? I began by introducing my own intergenerational trauma and placing myself as a model at the centre of my work, so that others could experience me as the vulnerable human being that I am. This also helped to support the split between my relationship with the theme while presenting it and the challenge to make sense to people who respond to the theme of racism as though they are up in their heads. Hence I made it clear that my own past and present traumas might impact on the way I present.
I felt it was necessary to ask the question of whose trauma are we referring to when racism occurs? I presented an image from one of Britain’s leading newspapers that had been circulated on the Internet by friends. The image of British National Party supporters cajoling a 12 year old girl dangling a gollywog over a bonfire, prescribing the burning as a punishment for being black. Surely this white child was displaying signs of inheriting trauma. I have no doubt that intergenerational traumas experienced by both victims and perpetrators of racism have silenced intrapsychic and intercultural relationships in families and also education, the mental health system and the training of therapists. Hence I refer to a chapter on ‘Healing Ancestral Baggage’, based on a doctoral study with trainee counselors, in my book ‘Black Issues in The Therapeutic Process’ (Mckenzie-Mavinga, 2009). I emphasized to delegates the importance of becoming ungagged and finding a voice on these concerns.
Who does the term ‘Black’ refer to?
The first challenge that reflected the nature of this question was raised in the demand to define the term black. The term ‘black’ is a political and sociological term, identifying a group that has been most vulnerable to the oppression of white racism. As the most visible minority, this group has been least represented in the field of psychotherapy and counselling. Whilst we cannot assume that all individuals from African and Asian backgrounds who have experienced racism identify with the term’ black’, it is important to consider the over representation of Black and Minority Ethnic Groups within inpatient services in the UK. The NHS Information Centre 2009 data showed that 53.8% of the “Black” and “Black British” group who were inpatients, spent some time detained compulsorily in comparison to 31.8% overall. Ethnicity and Use of the Mental Health act. 24th May 2010 / London
What are black issues?
The term 'issues' in this context therefore refers to any concern, problem, dynamic, feeling or experience raised by or about black people, by themselves or by white people. Whilst this may appear to be a broad definition, it allows for the relationships, personal development and theoretical context of experiences to be taken into account. Conclusions drawn from my experience as a counsellor trainer suggest that unless black issues are raised in the context of racism, general experiences pertaining to culture or every day life are likely to be raised mainly by black people themselves. This may occur when training approaches do not facilitate listening skills to appropriately reflect black issues or explore the impact of racism. I see this problem as an outcome of ancestral baggage.
This quote from the work of Malidoma some` aptly describes my concept of ancestral baggage.
When people die, nature is the only hospitable place where their spirits can dwell. Their spirits, living in the other world, remember clearly the experience of walking on the earth. They remember the moments when they contributed to greater good and helped to make the world better. But they also remember with great remorse the failed adventures and the gestures that harmed others and made the world a less dignifying place. The more they see the more they ache, and the more eager they are to turn their attention to helping those still in this world, however, spirits need to enlist our co-operation and help. Some`, M. (1999, p.54)
Some` uses African spirituality to understand how the unrequited human spirit may link to the psyche of the living, in a way that suggests how we inherit a sort of cultural lag. I must emphasize that not all black people or therapists may subscribe to this concept, but I find it helps to contextualize some of the concerns presented by trainee counsellors and colleagues in their attempts to understand black issues. I have created the concept of ancestral baggage in an attempt to enlist the co-operation that Some` mentions and extend the structural framework of therapeutic approaches that support the process of grieving, saying good-bye and letting go of the past. Most therapeutic approaches encourage exploration of memories and fantasies, which link relationships to those who have gone before. The concept of ‘ancestral baggage’ is used in a transpersonal way to help identify how the lives of predecessors influenced by colonialism and racism may impact on current generations and the collective psyche in the present. Richards affirms the use of transpersonal healing capacities in this approach.
We transformed suffering into an opportunity to express spirit. And through its expression its existence was reaffirmed. Richards, D. (1992, p25)
The concept of ‘ancestral baggage’ can be applied contextually to the emotional and spiritual process of both therapists and clients. However, respect for individual belief systems is important and therefore this concept should not be introduced into therapy without informing the client of its relevance.
The concept of ancestral baggage can be seen as a way of understanding how the dynamics of relationships from former generations get passed on and impact on the present, suggesting that an individual’s emotional disposition may be affected by their ancestor’s modes of response to oppression and negative experiences. A psychodynamic therapist might view this as an aspect of transference and a challenge to reflect on the historical context of the client’s process. Each individual inhabits their own personal ancestral baggage that may contribute to their responses to everyday oppressions, and provide opportunities to re-write the negative aspects of these scripts on their lives. A student proposes a question about past influences during counsellor training.
Why don’t we leave the past alone if it appears to be irrelevant to the present?
Transculturalists challenge therapists who respond to cultural questions as though they were being given an additional problem. If this question were turned on its head we might consider why we don’t leave the present alone if it appears to be relevant to the past? Fear and denial are emotions often associated with the challenge of facing the impact of racism. The don’t go there signal was named in the conference as ‘a conspiracy of silence’. I named it as gagging, because the silence appears to be specifically related to permission to explore the impact of racism. Just like the 12 year old dangling the golly black clients may be silenced if consideration is not given to this aspect of intergenerational trauma. This response is ever present in therapeutic relationships and may be linked to past experiences of oppression that render individuals speechless when processing oppressed minority issues. I have noticed that individuals invited to explore the silence usually share an experience of direct hurt or witnessing someone else being hurt by racism. It is important therefore to be aware of how the counsellor’s own denial in the present time may prevent them from acknowledging the historical and cultural context of oppression and denial. Therefore the past will only be irrelevant if we refuse to contextualize the present. The following question attaches something negative to exploring this aspect of intergenerational trauma.
Isn’t it negative to focus on the hurt of colonialism and racism?
It may be negative but necessary and the therapist’s role is to support clients through negative phases. Therapists and clients may choose to ‘leave the past alone’ if they believe it is irrelevant to the present. This state of leaving alone can be explored in a self-reflective way using a variety of questions. Am I in denial? Is the client in denial? Am I willing to go there with the client if they lead me there? Am I willing to address the past if the client makes reference to it or if I sense there may be links? Am I aware, informed enough or confident enough to discuss the cultural and historical context of ignoring the past? Am I attaching my own negativity onto the client’s experience? Do I feel confident about either considering the impact of racism on the client or exploring the hurt of racism? Therapists need to be ready to explore the impact of racism on themselves and their clients. The therapist’s denial may keep both counsellor and client in an oppressive state of ignorance and powerlessness.
Mckenzie-Mavinga (2005) Doctoral Thesis. A Study of black Issues in Counsellor Training. London Metanoia Institute, British Library.
Mckenzie-Mavinga, I.Black Issues in the Therapeutic Process. (2009) Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Richards, D. (1992) Let the Circle be Unbroken. New Jersey: Dead Sea Press
Some`, M. (1999)The healing Wisdom of Africa. New York: Tarcher Putnam.