Thoughts On Working With Race, Power And Difference

Pocock captures my thoughts on clinical work when he said “therapists have, I believe, a primary duty of care not to be analytic or systemic or narrative but to be helpful” (Pocock, 2006, p.355). I understand both psychoanalytic and systemic ideas as both important when thinking about experiences of engaging power and difference at the heart of engaging with clients from minoritized backgrounds in the UK. This can support us to develop a fuller understanding of an interaction. To this end, working to an integrative framework, is especially helpful when it is directly supporting the therapeutic environment.

Brooks (2014), an African Caribbean psychoanalytic thinker, argues that our identifications and idealisations can hinder our ability to think on the subject of race. Brooks quotes Laplanche and Pontalis (1973) to offer a definition: “Idealization is the mental process by means of which the object’s qualities and values are elevated to the point of perfection” (Brooks, 2014, p.41). This definition is simple and helpful for setting the scene for a difficult discussion. In terms of thinking about a racialised dynamic, it connects with Fanon’s (1967) idea of an inferiority complex that is experienced for a colonised people in that it contributes to an explanation for the inferiority complex. When your sense of self has been subjugated excessively and repeatedly over time, then idealising the oppressor makes sense. The result to your own self is denigration resulting in a powerful sense of inferiority which can lead to a form of self-hate. This can show itself in the room with black clients not wanting to work with black therapist or refusing to date anyone from their race because they don’t trust their own race. This is not to say every mixed relationship is a reflection of self-hate by any means, but some are, so it is worth being curious with clients about what attracted them to their partner and previous partners. How do we help them connect with what they are seeking from their partner (couple fit) in a complete way?

The discussion offered by Brooks (2014) also made me reflect on how we can become wedded to ideas. We idealise a way of thinking and being and consequently we invest heavily in what we believe to be true as it can create some certainty. This idealised thinking feeds a certainty that supports us as we navigate the world. When we do this, we reduce the need for relationship and can lose sight of our clients in the process. This process of idealisation privileges all that is white and so places some responsibility on white workers to respond to it.

Instead of engaging in thinking about race and culture, what can occur is a self-protection which includes our theories or other subgroups that we belong to. “Thinking involves intellectual integrity, conscience and moral courage, and it often leads to difficult and uncomfortable places” (Brooks, 2014, p.39). Where there is a system of thoughts or beliefs there is also the danger that it both restricts as well as facilitates thought. Idealisation and denigration stop us from relating with others, it stops curiosity, it stops a true meeting of ‘selves’.

If we can engage our curiosity we can engage with the issues of race, power and differences in our clients from a different perspective. To engage our curiosity on this issue we need to be able to recognise human beings and face the pain that different human being face. For too many, the pain of race and power has been an unbearable pain that not many have had the courage to face. As a therapist I believe it important to journey with my clients. I privilege the idea of being that ‘stable someone’ with my clients as they create meaning and understand that this reduces the isolation that can often be experienced by those with emotional/mental distress. Peter Fonagy, in an interview with Jamie Doward and Sam Hall published in The Observer (27th April 2019), speaks of the impact of being alone and says that “adversity turns to trauma when you experience the mind as being alone. If you have good relationships they actually help you assimilate that experience”. At the heart of my work with race, power and privilege I believe that I am working with people who want to be seen as human, different but equal to others. This is my starting place.

Sex and sexuality create a complex intersection as often race is the more visible issue in the room. This does not however guarantee that it gets talked about. Black clients can face multiple oppressions from society as sometimes their own communities may reject them for stepping outside the heteronormative way of being and they don’t necessarily get welcomed with LGBT spaces. These rejections can leave black clients always living on the outside or fringe where they can experience being alone. It is essential to explore with these clients where their safe space is and who’s within their network that they can trust with their ‘whole self’, ‘sexual self’ ‘racialised self’ and other selves that may identify.

In this writing my focus was not to be comprehensive but to invite the reader into a particular dialogue where we begin to think. At this junction I would like us to think about

  • The importance the model you use for your therapeutic practice and how it allows an engagement of power differentials.
  • Idealisation and denigration, how might this affect the relationship with the therapist and how might this be playing out in the couple relationship.
  • How do we journey with fellow human beings along paths that are unfamiliar to us? Specifically, how do we let Black clients know that they are welcomed and we want to bear witness to all their pain?

Joanne Collins
Faculty LDPRT

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