Author: Lorraine Welch
An open letter to anyone whatever your background, By Lorraine Welch, Cognitive Analytic Therapist.
What happens inside of you when you examine and talk about your own stance on racism and being anti-racist? You may feel more or less comfortable and open to this due to your own intersectional experience Kimberlie Crenshaw described intersectionality as your experience of power and disadvantage in different situations, due the various visible or hidden aspects and characteristics that make up your identity. For example these could be (but are not limited to) your class, sexuality, ability, ethnicity, gender and gender identity, nationality, accent, age etc.) These all could impact on how relevant, recognisable or relatable racism feels for you personally.
It may help to start by considering your own personal experiences of making or being subject to assumptions that we may accept as universally unfair. Such as because of your age, you would not make a good boss. Or due to your working class accent you must be uneducated. We all use stereotypes to help us efficiently make sense of ourselves and others in the world. But using them carelessly can result in smaller or larger-scale harm and discrimination.
Racism in all forms is a particularly dehumanising form of discrimination, due to visibility and history factors. What I mean by this is that a darker skin colour or non-native sounding name or accent etc. tend to stand out and can’t easily be hidden. We can thank colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade for setting-up systems world-wide, which still continue to influence inequalities between people, according to these characteristics or markers.
When you happen to possess multiple parts of your identity that make you vulnerable to discrimination, being of a minority culture or ethnicity on top of this, can increase the impact of the other forms of discrimination and marginalisation you face. I wonder if due to repeated exposure, this can make it impossible to not be fearful and hyper-vigilant to enactments of racism and quick to interpret events this way? As a woman of both Black Caribbean and East Asian heritage I have often experienced this and how it feels a further divide is then made between me and others who don’t see my point of view. I have found this naturally makes it difficult to tolerate mistakes made by allies or trust in their good faith. Or I can swing between under or over-attributing racism as an explanation for some frustrating and upsetting experiences.
You may also face discrimination or disadvantage for other reasons, such as your class, age or gender identity, sexuality (amongst other things), if you don’t belong to a minority ethnic group. If you are experiencing such now, I wonder if this may make it difficult to see, acknowledge or understand the relevance of discrimination or racism for you or others? It understandably may seem incomparable to what you are going through?
Equally, you might not identify with often experiencing marginalisation, disadvantage in any form whatever your background or intersectional identity. I wonder if this makes it very difficult to appreciate and accept that many people do and that Racism in less obvious forms (such as unconscious bias and systemic racism are a reality?) Could it therefore feel difficult to empathise with people who complain about such experiences and put yourself in their shoes? If this is the case, I wonder if you may sometimes automatically misattribute your own or someone else’s felt experience of racism to other things? If this is the case, perhaps this may actually have the impact of invalidating you or them?
We are all on different journeys of accepting and understanding what acknowledging inequality and racism means for each of us. Trying to make sense of it can evoke powerful emotions and urge us to behave in different ways to cope. Judy Ryde (2010) suggests that guilt, shame, denial and blame could be amongst the range of emotions and responses encountered by people who aren’t of colour, in situations where felt racism is raised by someone experiencing it. She suggests these block facing up to, understanding and confronting the ‘done-to’s’ experience, which contributes to difficulty with having a fruitful conversation together. Conversely, I can identify with feeling similar emotions in instances where I have encountered or suspected experiencing racism or other discrimination. Or even when I have realised I have been unaware of my privilege in comparison to others in a moment where that matters. So I suspect the experience of strong, difficult emotions are mutually felt and enacted in situations where people try and meaningfully talk about racism and discrimination together, and it feels rather close to home or awkward. I wonder if this contributes to the struggle to understand each other’s perspective?
Anthony Ryle’s Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT) concept of a ‘procedural sequence’ may be helpful to map out the pattern of what may happen between people when a difficult conversation is attempted about discrimination, racism or differences. A ‘Trap is a procedure’ or way of coping with difficulties and strong emotions that is essentially a vicious cycle. However, a trap, as suggested by its very nature tends to be limiting and reinforces rather than helps these feelings. It makes explicit the interactions that perpetuate difficulties rather than helping to resolve them. By mapping-out a ‘trap’, I hope it can help us recognise and reflect on situations as they arise is our lives. I attempt to do this here below:-
So In summary and conclusion I invite us each, with whichever unique intersectional identity we possess, to reflect on whether this cycle happens for you… in your friendship groups, families or workplaces? Perhaps you can see where you or others may be positioned on this map; when you are either experiencing, witnessing, or even involved in situations that involves othering, racism or discrimination? Perhaps reflecting on this ‘trap’ may enable difficult conversations to progress and difficult feelings to be confronted by all?
Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams (1991) ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color’, Stanford Law Review, 43 (6) PP. 1241-1299.
Ryde, Judy (2009) Being White in the Helping Professions: Developing Effective Intercultural Awareness, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London.
Ryle, Anthony and Kerr, Ian B. (2002). Introducing Cognitive Analytic Therapy: Principles and Practice, Chichester, Wiley & Sons Ltd.