Racism is hard to talk about. Although perhaps not always. In my early twenties, the ‘N’ word was shouted at me in the street. That was easily identifiable racism. But racism can also be institutional, systemic and evidenced by micro-aggressions. In a psychotherapy supervision group, I attempted to explain a situation where I’d been positioned into the ‘angry black woman’ trope. Unfortunately this wasn’t understood and painfully it was re-enacted ‘but you are angry, you are black, and you are a woman…’. My explanation fell on deaf ears, I was made into the problem, and I didn’t feel safe to raise the topic of race again.
"People of colour aren’t always comfortable discussing the impact of race, sometimes preferring to focus on other socio-political identities. However, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bring it into the room. To be able to reflect on our identities, even in a clumsy way, gives people the choice to speak about racism, or to return to it at a later date."
Dr Isha Mckenzie-Mavinga states the impact of racism isn’t adequately taught on Psychotherapy trainings, and my own training confirms this. Mental health training is generally Eurocentric, with no opportunity to learn about other approaches that might be useful when working with people of colour. A practical psychotherapy text attending to racial context is Resmaa Menakem's ‘My Grandmother's Hands’. He explores the impact of racism on black, white and police bodies, accepting all hold a form of racial trauma. The book guides readers through polyvagal body-centred exercises to process racial trauma whilst emphasising it is not racialised people’s responsibility, white people have to learn to engage with race.
Whiteness equals neutral, it equals normality. I’ve only witnessed whiteness understood if positioned next to an ‘other’, for example next to an Irish or Jewish identity. Whilst highlighting the historical context of whiteness, perhaps it indicates discomfort around owning what, in some circumstances, is constructed as ‘white’. When leading Hearing Voices facilitation training white people have told me ‘but I just don’t see race, we’re all the same’; ‘but I have mixed-race family, I’m not racist’ ‘but if we talk about race with the members I’ll have people queuing at my door putting complaints in’; ‘yes but what about class?’; ‘racism is more of a US problem’; ‘I’m fed up of talking about race, what about disability’. The list of ways to avoid talking about whiteness is lengthy.
- See also: 'As a black therapist, I want to see action come out of mental health awareness discussions'
- See also: We can discuss mental health care responses, but leave my personality out of it
The word ‘racist’ is used as a slur. In talking with some white liberal friends about an incident, one of them said ‘but you can’t think she’s actually a racist?’. Yes I did, but I use ‘racist’ as a descriptive word, not meaning someone is an inherently horrible person. Racism concerns systemic power, we still live in a world impacted by colonialism. It was only 2015 when British tax payers stopped paying tax to recompense slave owners. Without a historical context, racism is individualised, creating guilt, defence and a lack of taking responsibility for change. Although white people should step-back, listen and learn when people of colour are telling their lived experience, we are all impacted by racial politics and this is the place to begin if we want to have an honest dialogue.
Those working in mental health care need to unpack their biases and accept that we will hold stereotypes, only when we identify biases can we actively work against them. Furthermore, those who support racialized people need to develop a way of talking about race in a way that models these difficult conversations. I identify as a mixed-race, light-skinned black woman. Bringing race into the room in therapeutic settings is not comfortable, it involves taking risks. In a Hearing Voices group when talking about race, I’ve been told ‘I wasn’t black’ therefore I didn’t know what I was talking about. Whilst that wasn’t the easiest for me to hear, it shows deep complexity when it comes to race and a real need to hear and receive people’s responses.
Whatever our background we have different experiences; colourism is another of these intricacies. People of colour aren’t always comfortable discussing the impact of race, sometimes preferring to focus on other socio-political identities. However, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bring it into the room. To be able to reflect on our identities, even in a clumsy way, gives people the choice to speak about racism, or to return to it at a later date.
There isn’t a perfect language to talk about race but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. If we can’t talk about it, and reflect on our own racial position, why do we expect racialized people to open up about their racial trauma? Those identifiably from the global majority population will have experienced racism. That’s a fact, ignoring or denying it doesn’t make it go away, and avoidance is not a long-term coping technique for fragility. As Audre Lorde commented ‘it is not difference that paralyses us, but silence’. With racist incidents on the rise, it’s time for us to lean into our discomfort and be courageous.
Jessica Pons runs Hearing Voices peer support groups and networks in prisons, forensic units and Immigration Removal Centres. She is currently training as a psychotherapist and delivers training on opening up conversations about race.