Author: Abi Canepa-Anson
The current race protests in the UK, are a display of anger, frustration on the part of black people in their country that has for so long marginalised them. It felt good to see some white folks join forces with them in expressing that the inequalities and marginalisation of BAME people is unacceptable and things need to change. This is a push for freedom, except these protestors, are not free. A painful reminder in British history is the statues of slave owners, Robert Milligan, in London, and slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, among others. The pulling down of these statutes doesn’t heal the wound of the oppression of slavery as a symbolic representation it feels of a painful reminder of the legacy which remains, heroically portraying the perpetrators.
There is a wish for the government or someone high up to make reparation. To apologise for the countless lives that were lost on those slave ships transporting African enslaved across the Atlantic Ocean. Throwing those who were weak overboard. Taking the enslaved to plantations in America and the Caribbean. The enslaved people didn’t have any rights and were treated inhumanly. Furthermore, they were the properties of their white masters, who did as they wished. This went on for over 400 years, 1441-1870; W.E. Du Bois referred to the period as ‘The Rape of Africa’. For black people, the trauma cannot be forgotten and continuously filters through the generations. It is in the black person’s DNA and gets transmitted through behaviour and language. It is often that black people do not have the luxury of examining their emotions because they are engaged with survival, surviving the stress of the day-to-day impact of racism and the intergenerational trauma.
What racism does in all its form is that it doesn’t allow the black Other an entity or identity. It is so endemic and insidious. In its mildest form, it is in things like macroaggression, aimed at controlling space and movement. At its most horrendous, it is in early mortality: the killing of George Floyd. What makes this event so terrible is that the white police officer didn’t seem to flinch or feel empathy at taking a person’s life. This didn’t just happen in America, it is something that strongly impacted black people all over. It is reinforcing the attitude that black lives are dispensable. A hard thought to swallow. Thus black people unite in solidarity. This has ignited anger among the community of people of colour as well as unease.
In the UK, the protests are to raise awareness, to bring about change but also a cry and call for rectification. Rectification would go some way towards acknowledging a wrong. It, however, does not heal the wound, which was the worst history that I can think of in humanity, and Britain was one of the main players of slavery and colonisation. From the white Other, there is a loud silence. It is only when someone of colour appears that white people think of race. This is following years of indoctrination that there is nothing to think about. White is the superior race and the majority, black an inferior race. A white person can go through life without being affected by racism and as a result, can avoid it altogether.
In my experience of living in the UK, and training, as well as in my professional life I have experienced racism in many forms and I have made it my job to train myself on this issue and its manifestation. As a black psychotherapist, I feel my training failed to address the thinking around black identity and provide me with skills for addressing white racism in the consulting room. The power dynamics between black and white. My white peers and colleagues also missed out in thinking about how their unchallenged internalised racism would impact black people.
It wasn’t until after my training that I began to research and understand my black identity and so-called ‘black issues’. 8 years later, I now understand what it means to be responsible for my own freedom. Not to belittle institutional racism and its effects, the journey is an ongoing one. For as long as I can remember and like most black people I have had to attend to the task of survival. Survival in a white world that frowns on difference, that inadvertently doesn’t allow you to be yourself but only what is acceptable to the Other. This projected feeling of being devalued I had to master and I, therefore, became an ‘expert’ on my own identity.
Psychoanalytic theory helped me reclaim a thinking space within and therapy saved me and helped me find myself, but then I had to be in therapy with someone who was able to go the journey with me. What ignited all of this search was the painful death of a brother. Understanding how the impact of racism affected his life and ultimately contributed to his death has confirmed to me that clinicians need to learn how severe the impact of racism is. For our work as psychotherapists, racism is something that permeates our training. The issues are often ignored because the training is Eurocentric and the therapist and training staff are often white and middle class. There is both an unconscious incompetence and conscious incompetence. What is of significance is the need to hold on to the status quo. For the BAME that attend therapy, there needs to be an understanding for white therapists as to how best to support their black client’s. Most white therapists are not aware of black people’s struggles nor are they versed in holding such conversations. Often black people wouldn’t go to therapy because they don’t feel they can be helped. Those that embark on counselling training are let down on such courses, which don’t cater to an ethnically and culturally diverse population. This exclusion needs attention.
Despite COVID-19, black people are putting their lives at risk to make a point, to raise awareness. These are actions of desperate people; we need to be careful not to pathologise the grieving, and find supportive space to openly address these issues, which should concern us all. James Baldwin, explains that ‘freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be’. I was inspired by this quote. Within our profession, our work is helping others find that freedom, the freedom to attain a better sense of self. How a white therapist helps a black patient involves considering the impact that white as a majority race, has to play in that. This means having an understanding that whiteness is multidimensional and attending to the oppressive side of whiteness. It is important that we don’t shut down the thinking.
Baldwin (1991)Nobody knows my name: More notes of a native son. Penguin Books
Du Bois (2007) The World and Africa, Oxford University Press.
Abi Canepa-Anson, PgDip, MSc Psychotherapist & Trainer – June 2020