I am black, and I am afraid.
Like many of you reading this, as a black person these past few weeks have been especially painful, as I watch with ongoing rage the treatment of black people across the world. This week though there seems to have been a tipping point, and this was, for me, prompted by two major events. Firstly, earlier this week Amy Cooper was filmed calling the police on an unarmed black man who was birdwatching, telling the police that she was being threatened by an African American man, whilst he was clearly doing nothing of the sort (Walters, 2020). This type of action was nothing new for black men, who have been taught for years that to look the wrong way at white women could lead to their being anything from arrested to being lynched.
Secondly, I have watched from afar as former policeman Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd by laying him on the ground and kneeling on his neck, ignoring his pleas for his life (Various, 2020). At the time of writing, his death has led to riots across the city of the United States of America, to curfews being put in place in several cities, and to protest outside the White House.
I have no words for just how awful it has been to witness these tragedies.
Being black is to be dehumanised into what is a stereotype of blackness, where I am seen only through the eyes of media-created blackness; a threat, a rapist, a thief.
I am a black man, and I am in therapy.
It has been especially hard watching these horrors Stateside, especially as they inevitably bring up my own experiences of racism which I may have repressed some years ago. That experiences are internalised is nothing new, and this is where therapy, for myself, has been most useful of late. Much like the internalisation of homophobia, or the neurological impact of sexism and objectification, these ongoing dehumanisations into the objectified or stereotyped other leave a definite psychological mark (Fredrickson & Harrison, 2005; Sánchez & Vilain, 2012). When it comes to racism what many in psychotherapy fail to recognise is these constant engagements with racism are internalised by black people all the time. Studies have for years shown increased levels of obesity and diabetes and other illnesses endured by those who experience racism (Butler et al., 2002; Tull et al., 1999).
This week in my therapy I myself spoke about what it is like being a black man, a black British man who is often seen as a threat. Being born and raised in London my time growing up in the 1970s and 80s was often punctuated by run ins with the police. I was often stopped in the street, told by the police that they were responding to a report of black boys robbing, stealing, mugging, had my bag searched, or told to go home as I shouldn’t be outside at that time of the day. I have had women cross the road to get away from me or watched as they gripped their bags tighter to their sides as I passed too close to them seemingly. I spoke about what it has been like to see the news from both here and abroad, to watch the dehumanisation of my brothers and sisters play out like some type of racialised pornography on television yet again.
I also spoke about my dreams and how these had even been punctuated by the raising, or racing, into my consciousness of the pain, the sadness, and the anger, at witnessing and reexperiencing such horror. I say horror, as it was my own dreams which chose to remind me of just what I have had to repress in order to endure such treatment in the past; I have had to let it go, to shut up, to forget about it, messages often passed my way by allies of the perpetrators.
In her work on the racial complex, Brewster (2020) considers the unconscious dyad where race ties both black and white together, looking at this as a cycle which when made conscious could lead to greater understanding unpicking this destructive tie that binds.
Being black is to be in unconscious pain all the time.
I am a black, male, psychotherapist, yet I feel alone.
I get tired of hearing the phrase, ‘Politics should not be in Psychotherapy.’ It is a phrase that often missed simple facts about the history of our profession. Even when considering Freud (1930), for all his later adaptations into a medicalised model of psychotherapy, he also had a political mind as presented in his treatise published during the rise of Nazism in Central Europe.
The main problem with a phrase like this is that the marginalisation of the political from psychotherapy removes the identities of many of those who needs its services the most. Unlike for the majority of white men, the idea that one can even shed the political and then work towards any sense of wholeness makes a mockery of the profession we all reside within.
As previously expressed, that my blackness is seen as a threat is therefore undoubtable. Even within the realms of psychotherapy, the idea that I might be a prominent black therapist, academic, a writer or a lecturer, inevitably draws ire from colleagues. Micro aggressions, subtle put downs, snide remarks, the racist graffiti, these are all a part of my regular engagement with psychotherapy as I traverse the trail towards retirement. Adapting the work of Di Angelo (2018) my very existence outside of the stereotypical realms I have been taught to inhabit challenges the fragile egoic states of so many around me.
Much like the origins of the phrase political correctness, which was coined by feminists some years ago as a means of self-identifying, coming back into the black body, is not only an act designed to individuate from the structures one has been enforced to employ in order to survive. The act of being whole, of being oneself, therefore means an engagement with the political within oneself, which therefore has to ripple outwards into the field of the therapy, and then beyond. It is a political act as it challenges the cultural and political status quo.
Being black is to be objectified to hold the projections of the shadow, where I am everything that white culture wants to deny of itself and more.
I am a black activist, yet I see no change.
Racism is not actually a black problem, it is actually a problem of whiteness. This important distinction was raised by Dalal (2012) who saw racism as being the result of prejudice plus power, and I strongly believe he is right. In this context, power is not something that black people have, be it through privileging of whiteness over blackness, to the institutional or systemic levels of power which reinforce patriarchal or white supremacy. The idea that there is a form of reverse racism, as raised by such thinkers as Laurence Fox on Question Time, falsely posits the idea that people of colour have any power over their white counterparts (Scullard, 2020). Much like the reverse sexism argument, it is a nonsense as it denies the barely unconscious need for superiority of both men and whiteness. Yet, what the reverse racism argument also actually does is it silences the debate, and therefore prevents any change. Reverse racism therefore actually becomes a means of reinforcing racism by not only denying its existence but by taking back the position of victim, and reinforcing the narcissism of the subject over the object.
Another means of preventing change is the oppression of patience. Some years ago, I wrote about this very topic in a blog post, metaphorically relating waiting to an episode of a sci-fi show where the female sidekick when abandoned by the hero then waited for his return for 46 years. On his return she was very much changed by the experience, a fighter, angry, disappointed, embittered by her own adherence and trust in the hero of the story (Hurran, 2011). In this context, the narrative that those who are oppressed just need to wait for their turn is one of the more insidious means by which racism self-perpetuates. The patience argument is actually one of the means by which integration works, where the waiting becomes forgetting, where the patience becomes an adaptation to the rules, where one sheds ones own racial identity to sit in the sunny glow of a pseudo-post-racial society. Much like the reverse racism debate, the idea that the oppressed should take their time, that change is gonna come soon, is really another means of silencing the debate, and putting on the back burner any type of alteration of the racialised status quo. Systemic change is not built on patience, it is built on urgency and demand. That at the time of writing there are riots on the streets of many American cities, and interestingly in front of the White House in Washington DC, says a lot about the pent up aggression of waiting, and the fire, nay the rage, said patience has through this own manipulations engendered in the other.
These means of preventing change though are many, and they are not always as overt as one might imagine, nor are they always led by the politics of the Right. Even on the political Left, such as the Labour Party, ideas that they should be the paragons of equality, that if one holds a form of otherness that they should side with them, has recently been thrown into disarray by the leaked publication a portion of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission report into antisemitism with the party. The report found the party guilty, yet more than this found that anti-black racism was also a factor in said party, leaving many feeling they were at the bottom of a deep pile of politicised hatred.
Yet, Stuart Hall (1994) in his text on the subject, recognised back in the 1990s that any attempt to make the political Left the paragon of equality’s virtue floundered upon the whiteness of the party, and the failure to consider their own prejudices and how the fact they have been raised within an institutionally racist country might even unconsciously reinforce these. So when I say that racism is a white problem, and that black people live every day on their behalf, whilst I am aware of white allies who have sent me messages of support and of hope, what I hope they are also willing to do is to look at how they have, be it consciously or unconsciously, reinforced the oppression of a racialised other.
Being black is to be the comparative other, that which is seen as less than, as worthless, as that which should be quiet, should sit over there and wait.
I am a 50-year-old black man, and I am tired.
I left London for the coast over three years ago because London was becoming too much for me. It was filled with chaos, there is always drama, and I thought I was tired of everything that came with the adaptation of living in a city. My tiredness with London though had nothing to do with living in some of the poorer areas of the city; I have the fondest of memories of living in Harlesden and I grew up near Shepherds Bush. My tiredness was emergent from the creep of gentrification, and the unconscious suppression of my own sense of blackness I had to undergo as a consequence.
The realisation of just how much I have had to adapt only came to me when I noticed it whilst travelling back to London every week for my client work. I noticed the not too subtle changes to my energy as I rode the train out of the South Downs, and as the metropolis drew ever nearer. Yet it was there even before then, apparent as I sat on the train watching people take up every seat in my carriage except for the one next to myself. As the train travelled north I would become increasingly aware of my racial difference. Within me, my mood changed. I would shift from a more relaxed stance, to one where I was more alert, more aware of my surroundings, where I occasionally tried not to offend, where I often deferred.
A consequence of this is the recognition that this weekly adaptation is tiring. I feel it most on my way home and the next morning, most usually after a night of broken sleep. My psyche takes time to shed that adaptation of safe-blackness for white spaces. The psychic pain of this lingers in my body like a tension which can only be released over the next couple of days. With exercise, with meditation, with some home cooked Caribbean food, I gradually find my way back towards me.
What I have realised since moving to the coast is that whilst I may stand out more, I have more space to be myself. I am stifled less by the projected expectations of gentrified whiteness, and I can run along the seafront to my heart’s content, safe in the knowledge that I won’t be shot at for being a suspected burglar.
Life though is not perfect. I see the hatred meted out against my brothers and sisters across the world. I watch the daily news of the subtle and not so subtle racism from China, the USA, Europe, India and here in the United Kingdom. I witness the reestablishment of White Supremacy as a force across the Global North and watch its smiling apathy as it causes pain towards so many in its conscious inactions.
Yet. And yet. And yet…
In the faces of those on the streets of America…
I also see the Black Steel Rising…
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Butler, C., Tull, E. S., Chambers, E. C., Taylor, J., & Ph, D. (2002). Internalised racism, body fat distribution, and abnormal fasting glucose among caribbean women in Dominica, West Indies. Journal of the National Medical Association, 94(3), 143–148.
Dalal, F. (2012). Thought Paralysis: The Virtues of Discrimination. Karnac Books Ltd.
Diangelo, R. (2018). White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Beacon Press.
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Various. (2020). George Floyd Death. BBC News. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/topics/cv7wlylxzg1t/george-floyd-death
Walters, J. (2020). Video of white woman calling police on black man in Central Park draws outrage. Guardian Online. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/may/26/central-park-new-york-white-woman-black-birdwatcher