Most people of African descent do not come to psychotherapists seeking help solely with emotional or psychological problems that arise when they have encountered problems with racial “oppression” . They generally come to therapy because of pain and discomfort in other areas of their lives that they are unable to heal on their own. Yet, encounters with racial oppression are embedded in their life stories, memories and everyday experiences. Therapy is not truly complete and often not as effective without also acknowledging and addressing the ways in which racial oppression has and is affecting relationships, emotional problems, addictions and other life challenges.
People who internalize racial oppression do so unconsciously. Messages, images, values and experiences arising from interaction with the dominant culture, penetrate and impact the individual’s internally held sense of self . In African-American fiction, this process has been minutely examined by authors like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison and others.
Ellison’s main character, at the end of ‘Invisible Man ‘ said:
The fact is, that you carry part of your sickness within you, at least I do as an invisible man. I carried my sickness, and thought for a long time I tried to place it in the outside world, the attempt to write it down shows me that at least half of it lay within me. It came upon me slowly, like that strange disease that affects those black men whom you see turning slowly from black to albino, their pigment disappearing as under the radiation of some cruel, invisible ray…. though implicated and partially responsible, I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility… But deep down you come to suspect that you’ve yourself to blame, and you stand naked and shivering before the millions of eyes who look through you unseeingly. That is the real soul-sickness, the spear in the side, the drag by the neck through the mob-angry town, the Grand Inquisition, the embrace of the Maiden, the rip in the belly with the guts spilling out, the trip to the chamber wit the deadly gas that ends in the oven so hygienically clean—only it’s worse because you continue stupidly to life, But live you must, and you can either make passive love to your sickness or burn it out and go on to the next conflict. Yes, but what is the next phase?.
Ellison, in this passage illustrates the dillemma of realizing that one has been wounded by externally imposed processes, and part of the ironic nature of that pain is that it is a buried, invisible wounding. Another component of that pain is that he has no idea what to do with it, certainly not how to heal it.
Racist messages, images, values and experiences may also impact the ethnic culture of the family. Racist information, acts, institutions affect and impact and are filtered by each idiosyncratic mini-culture of the family of origin in which individuals are raised. Individual family members sort, censor, deny, ignore, rage against or otherwise react to these assaults, in attempts to interpret, defend, assimilate or deflect. Young people are sometimes guided by their elders in how to handle these assaults. Sometimes they are left alone to handle these situations themselves with no guidance. .Finally, that information is filtered, analyzed and taken in to the personality and influence the character of the individual, and the choices he or she makes when encountering racism in the future. The acknowledgement of the existence of racism, or the internalization of defenses against racist oppression are not usually experienced as a handicap. It is experienced more often as normal rather than abnormal. When it is seen as normal, it causes no particular problems or discomfort, and if this world view and defenses are consistent with how an individual sees himself, the internalization is considered “ego-syntonic” or consistent with the healthy survival of self.
If an individual’s acknowledgement of racism or his learned internalization of defenses against racial oppression conflicts with self image; his relationships with loved ones; or members of his own ethnic group; the result can be problematic. These conflicts are often indicative of potential ethnic identity issues.Such ethnic identity issues can complicate relationships that are already challenging or difficult. The sense of self, (which is simply the way an individual experiences his own character or personality) may be affected in key areas:
KEY AREAS OF PSYCHOLOGICAL WOUNDING UNDER RACIAL OPPRESSION
A new Cornell study shows how and to what extent racial discrimination affects the mental health of African-Americans. There are two mechanisms that result in measurable effects on the mental health of many black people.
1) The chronic exposure to racial discrimination leads to more perceived experiences of racial discrimination
2) An accumulation of daily negative events affects daily life in all spheres including family life, friendships, financial matters and of course, health.
This combination leads to an increased risk for symptoms of depression, anxiety and “negative moods”
In my practice the key areas of psychological wounding in a person who has experienced racism seem to appear in the following areas:
• The way in which the person thinks, feels , or acts toward himself
• The way in which the person thinks, feels or acts toward people who look like him or belong to his ethnic group (internalized oppression)
• The way in which the person thinks, feels or acts about people whom he experiences as racially oppressive.
• The way in which the person thinks, feels or acts towards others who are not in his group or the group of the oppressor.
• Exacerbation of stress related illnesses
Persons of African descent vary in their experiences with racist oppression. These may range from non-existent to traumatic., from mere intellectual exercises, to lived experiences of torture, from privilege with little experience of oppression, to daily exposure to racism, imprisonment and terror. In the United States, it is also possible, and not unusual to find African-American individuals with all of these experiences in the same biological family.
In my practice, I have worked with individuals who have experiences that reflect the full spectrum of possible lived experiences of racist oppression. As I have noted earlier, there are hundreds of books that describe racist oppression, its extent and its pernicious, persistent reality in the lives of people of color. There are few that concentrate on the healing process. People who are recovering from oppression and internalized oppression need strategies, books , manuals, articles, techniques,that help them gain insight into their own behavior.. They need materials that describe ways to recover and live to fight another day. Whether we know it or not, we need to hear detailed stories about others who have confronted obstacles, strategized, strengthened self and learned to overcome.
It is of supreme importance that in an era of increasing political conservatism and the re-emergence of white supremacist philosophies, masked as “fear” of people of color, that we do not forget that the oppression of people of color is the primary problem, not some inherent pathology in the people of color who are oppressed. The natural reaction to oppression is resistance, defense or avoidance. That natural reaction is also not pathology, it is a symptom of health.
Indeed, in the current era, Michael Scott, in his book “Contempt and Pity” asserts that:
With vast segments of the white middle-class experiencing downward mobility, they see themselves as the true victims and reserve their pity for personal use. Joining ranks with less fortunate whites they increasingly harbor contempt for blacks. In contrast to the postwar era of abundance, the present age of scarcity has engendered a therapeutic ethos among the middle class that reflects fear and contempt rather than sympathy and pity. At present, therapeutic policies are more likely to result in racial exclusion and hygiene than in racial inclusion and amelioration
Facing attempts to exclude and ethnically cleanse African-American people can lead some African-American individuals to feelings of helplessness and powerlessness, to rage and to despair. There are some others who will choose to ignore and transcend these attempts. There are even those who will join whites who feel resentment and fear, holding themselves separate from those African-American others who bear the brunt of their contempt. There are those who are acutely conscious and actively resist. Always, there are some who are too busy surviving to pay much attention to the whole process.
The following vignettes reflect a range of experiences with racist oppression and internalized oppression. They are case composites and are examples of the way in which issues of racist oppression and cultural identity are embedded in the life narrative of the individual.
Brianna, has a medium brown complexion, is sixteen years old, and lives in a middle-class African-American family in a majority-white community. She has heard about segregation and slavery from her parents. She also heard stories about the maltreatment of African-Americans from other older adults, in school, books, or media, but has had no personal experiences of direct racism or discrimination, that she can identify. She is skeptical that racism even exists anymore. She loves to read and likes to lose herself in her books. Perhaps, she might encounter a depiction or description that seems racist, while watching an old movie, or in reading a favorite book, Right there in the middle of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and its discussion of slavery, or when a character in an Agatha Christie novel uses the word nigger casually in a description, or in Huckleberry Finn. She feels embarrassed about these sudden unwanted intrusions. She does not talk about those feelings to anyone, and prefers to ignore them. She feels lonely a lot and she is not sure why. Recently, she began to stop going to the beauty parlor and getting her hair permed. She has refused in fact, to comb it.at all. She will skip school and wait till her parents go off to work and sneak back in the house and read all day. Her parents recently found out what she was doing. Now she does not want to go to school at all. Why should she?. Her parents brought her into therapy because she was told by the school that she cannot miss anymore days without being kept behind. Brianna, does not seem worried about this during her first visit and came into therapy in a perky mood.
Quentin’s complexion is a very light brown. He is a 19 year old, with wavy black hair and green eyes. His parents are divorced and he lives with his mother and two brothers in a working class majority black neighborhood in a large Southern city. His mother is African-American and his father is from Jamaica. His favorite cousin, Joboy is now in jail. He witnessed his cousin’s harassment and beating by a white police officer; while a black police officer looked on, doing nothing to intervene. His cousin had been hanging out with friends and had committed no crime except being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong skin. Quentin is worried and sad about this and every time he sees a police car, he wants to scream. He is irritable and moody. He has started getting high, mostly marijuana. His father has found the marijuana in his drawer. They argue a lot and his mother gets shouted down when she tries to intervene. Quentin used to love to play soccer, but has been sitting on the bench recently because he got into a fight with one of his team mates. He can’t sleep well and stays up much of the night watching internet pornography. .
Donald, has skin like milk chocolate and is muscular and handsome. He is 42 , and a former college athlete and current real estate broker in a Midwestern city. He feels that the persons who have mistreated him most because of the color of his skin are members of his own family. His skin is dark and his hair tightly curled, and wooly. His cousin called him names like “Black Moses” and “ “Seabiscuit”. They taunted him, and teased him. His maternal grandparents were from Louisiana. Although, he was the oldest grandson, he was the least favored by his wealthy grandparents. There was a point in junior high school that he was rejected by a group of black girls and in particular, one very pretty black girl named Desiree. Girls didn’t really start noticing him until he started working out and playing football. Then, because he was a valuable player on the team, he received a lot of attention. He began to date in high school and college, mostly Asian and Euro-American girls. He has been married twice and has three children. Both former wives were white. He rarely sees his children from those marriages. Recently, his oldest child and only son showed up at his door, wanting to live with him. The boy, Cedric, is 16 and a frequent runaway. .His son frequently lies to him but makes good grades and is good at sports like his father. He accuses his father of being a ‘sellout’ and a phony. Donald loves his son, but finds himself jealous of the way he looks. Cedric, is lighter skinned but with Donald’s muscular build. He finds himself overindulging him and wanting to be his friend instead of his father. They have been fighting recently about Cedric’s use of marijuana and his disrespectful tone of voice. They came into therapy after Cedric stayed away from his father’s house over the weekend with out telling him where he was. On the first visit, they sat in the waiting room, studiously avoiding one another.
Everything about Ladonna is round. She has a pretty round, brown face and a rosebud of a mouth. She is plump and well-endowed and likes to show her ample cleavage. She likes shoes and has nice plump feet that are always elaborately manicured. Her hair is blond and worn in a variety of creative ways. Her hair has also been red, black and brown with highlights. Ladonna likes to change her hair frequently. Ladonna has four children and has never been married. Her most recent boyfriend is married to another woman, a fact that she accepts and does not try to change. Ladonna has been employed at the same firm for the past 12 years and has for the past year had a new supervisor. This new supervisor is a black woman. At first, Ladonna was excited about having a new black supervisor, since this was the first one she had ever had. All of her former supervisors were white males. She is very good at her job and has risen to a middle-management position within the company, even though she has only an associates degree. She is very good with figures, details and organization. She is popular with her colleagues. Her new supervisor has an MBA from a very good school, and is crisp and tailored in her language, her manner and her management style. She has made it obvious that she does not approve of Ladonna. She rarely praises her, frequently criticizes her, micro-manages and makes snide remarks about her to other colleagues. She was given her first negative performance appraisal in twelve years. Colleagues who have been friendly with her are scared to be seen talking to her and it has become obvious that she has been marked for removal from her position. Ladonna is the sole support of her household. In addition, she is taking care of her mother who has cancer. She has been experiencing panic attacks, diarrhea, and a spiking high blood pressure. She ruminates about her job in almost every waking moment and finds herself hating to go to work, rather than enjoying the challenges she faces there, as she had before.
She came into therapy after being referred by her employee assistance program. She cried frequently in her first session, sobbing, at times, uncontrollably.
Christina is petite and is neatly and meticulously dressed. Never is there a hair out of place, a fashion mis-step, a spot on her clothing. Her caramel brown complexion is clear, and enhanced with subtle, tasteful makeup. She is a lawyer at a large firm and has a beautiful condominium which she purchased on her own and is now decorating. Christina has been in therapy for about three months. She is just revealing that she is a survivor of sexual abuse, at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend from the time she was six until the age of thirteen. Recently, her boss, a white man named Charles and a senior associate in her law firm has been approaching her for sex. They have encounters on the elevators, in his office, in her office and in his car. Part of their sex-play is the racial aspect of their relationship. He calls her “black bitch” and other demeaning names. She calls him boss, and sir. He sees her as “hot” and loves to be seen with her in bars, clubs, concerts, etc., places where his legal colleagues do not see them. She likes his money, and when asked how she feels about him, she replies. “He’s allright….but I’m not in love or anything.”, She knows that Charles gets insanely jealous even though he does not publicly acknowledge their relationship at work. She does not want him to do so, b ecause it would spoil her chances for advancement. Lately, she has been dating a prominent black lawyer, Roy, from another firm and brought him to the office Christmas party. She ignored Charles and laughed when he left the party early, red faced and claiming an illness. Later, when she was in bed with Roy, she happened to glance out of her window and saw Charles in a car across the street, staring up at her apartment. She laughed until she cried as she told this story. Then she stopped, wiping tears and said, “Who does he think he is? He doesn’t own me!”.
Those of you who are therapists may be intrigued by these vignettes and may wish to use them as examples for discussion or self-exploration. How would you handle these issues if they were brought to you as a therapist? How would you describe the racial dynamics of these situations? How is each individual coping with these dynamics? How conscious are they of the impact of race in their life? Is their level of consciousness a problem for them? For others? How do they seem wounded by racism? How resilient are they? Why? What emotions are triggered in you by these stories? Do they remind you of anything from your own life? How would you intervene?
I have enjoyed my discussions with colleagues about these vignettes, colleagues of all ethnicities. They are challenging, multi-layered and filled with therapeutic pitfalls. In other words, a lot like our everyday practice.
Each of these individuals identifies as African-American or Black American. Each has their own valid set of experiences, levels of understanding and perspectives about racial oppression. Most would not highlight the impact their race has had on these experiences or how they understand the impact that their race and nationality have had on the experiences of their lives. Even when asked direct questions, some might find it difficult to articulate some of their racially tinged experiences. Some may find it difficult to trace their experience to racial policies, practices and actions that happened before they were born. Some don’t want to think about it, others think it is irrelevant. They simply do not feel they have the right language or have ever had the right audience to attempt communication about these feelings. Still others, are very conscious of the racial politics in their lives and are hungry for a safe place to talk about them. Once they have begun, however, it is hard to stop them. They pour their hearts out, they bare their souls, they tell me things they would not tell another soul. I have In my own practice, over thirty years, had the privilege of working with hundreds, and maybe thousands of African-American people. I know however, that I have not even begun to plumb the depths of therapy stories like these.
Multiply these people by millions, each with their own subtle or gross variations of age, class, skin color, cultural variations, regions, etc. and one begins to grasp the complexity of identity formation in “black” people.
How does a human being begin to grasp the reality that despite the strengths and vulnerabilities of his character, he may be hated, disliked and treated with disdain by a powerful other or group of powerful others, simply because of the color of his skin? How does a human being begin to grasp the reality that she may be hated, disliked and mistreated by her own people, simply because of the color of her skin? How does a human being maintain their emotional health while being treated this way by “white” people? What if this treatment is experienced at the hands of members of one’s own family? For each person of African descent, identified as “black” in this society, awareness or denial of these and other quandaries comes in myriad ways.
When people live in societies with a colonial history and/or history of enslavement and a multi-cultural population, inexact and historically incorrect ideas of self and one’s people will form. The legacies and complexities of multi- generational oppression and racism are not issues that people particularly want to unravel, but find that they must to make sense of the world in which they live.
Early in my career, in attempts to raise awareness between professional colleagues about cultural issues in therapy, I used to get frustrated over the apathy and avoidance I would sometimes encounter. A psychiatrist friend of mine, Dr. Rajasekaran, told me, “Really, Vanessa. No one wants to look at or talk about these things. They are too painful.”
I agree with him. Many people have experienced pain and discomfort while reading history, literature, attending workshops and seminars on cultural effectiveness and anti-racism. Even while watching television, enjoying a movie, reading a book, one can encounter this pain and discomfort. It coexists with the lived experience of increased cross-cultural contacts, conflicts and understanding, and alongside of the growth of cultural pride and skills building. More people are becoming cross- culturally literate and increasingly culturally effective in various settings. As the virtual world shrinks, increased cultural understanding is vital to our survival as a nation.
Sometimes, the pain of encounters with oppression is minimal and the damage inflicted is slight. There are black people who never encounter overt discrimination. There are others who are victims of racial abuse. There are those whose primary wounds come at the hands of their own people who have internalized oppression and self-hatred.
In my practice, over the past 25 years, I have encountered many people who during the course of their therapy seek to increase their personal understanding and healing for distress inflicted upon them by racism or by internalized oppression. It has been my observation that the need for work in this area far outpaces the capacity and supply of skilled therapists and community workers with experience in these areas. We live in a multicultural, multiracial society that has uneven pockets of people with healthy ethnic identities and with toxic ethnic identities. How do we speed the healing?
If a healer seeks to cure someone of an illness, it is important to know what caused that illness. In treatment, one must consider the cause. However, finding a cure calls for a degree of creativity, innovation, efficiency and effectiveness on the part of the healer. The person who engages in healing self or others must have a certain set of skills. I have identified some of these skills:
THE HEALER’S SKILL SET
a) The ability to recognize cultural issues and the pain arising from contextual, historic oppression as it presents in the healers own life story, and in the life story of the person they are helping
b) The ability to innovate, to know and use culturally appropriate interventions, exercises, and homework assignments that facilitate greater insight and healing.
c) The ability to encourage and build upon the strengths of the client to heal internalized oppression
d) The ability to encourage and enhance the strengths of clients to resist overt and covert oppression
In this book we will use stories that illustrate the process of individuals engaged in building these skills. These stories are taken from historical, fictional, and case history examples. All case history examples will be composite case histories, altered to protect the identity of people involved and combined with details from other cases, in order to illustrate particular points.
As we discuss the vignettes or small stories in the lives of people throughout this book, we will return to the development of these key abilities.
Part of healing internalized oppression is taking a positive and affirmative position for liberation from oppression. Ignacio Martin-Baro, the courageous Jesuit priest and psychologist/scholar, who loved and lived among the Salvadoran people before his assassination in 1984, formulated the beginnings of a liberation psychology. The concept of a liberation psychology was heavily influenced by the work of his fellow Jesuits, who were practicing and experimenting with a liberation theology.
KEY CONCEPTS OF LIBERATION PSYCHOLOGY
1. The recovery of historical memory
2. Identifying and Challenging Ideology in Everyday Experience
3. Utilizing the people’s virtues
What do these look like in practice?
Recovering historical memory is something I assess and begin to encourage early in therapy, by assisting people to put their memories and what they know about their family members in historical context. People who are not therapists may have had to learn more about diversity issues in school or in the workplace, but have not made the study of race and oppression central to their everyday lives. For people of African descent, understanding the phenomenon of racism and discrimination in their lives can be central to mental health and survival. Reading the histories of enslavement and colonialism stirs feelings of horror, shame, humiliation, anger, and sadness. No one seeks to experience these emotions willingly, unless by doing so they begin to understand themselves better and deepen their perceptions about their own functioning and the cultures in which they exist.
People who have a history of oppression often have to struggle to meet every day needs. This creates a tendency to stay focused on the psychological present the “here and now” vs. the past or the future. In order to strengthen identity, it is important that the individual be able to place self in historical context with a degree of accuracy. There is so much that is in the history of a people, especially in the history of a people who have borne severe oppression that is painful, and much that is not particularly important to the task of healing. So, what information is important, and which information is not? Baro quotes Fals Borda (1988)
‘To discover selectively through collective memory, those elements of the past which have proved useful in the defense of the interests of exploited classes and which may be applied to the present struggles to increase concientizacion ( heighten conscious awareness)
It is important to gather sources of collective memory ( in this book, stories, song, literature, case histories) of the elements in the past that have proved useful in the defense of the interest of the exploited. The usefulness of stories of past heroes and heroines, the songs that inspired and encouraged that still applies to modern struggles is immeasurable. Identifying, supporting and furthering those elements in the culture that are sources of pride and positive identity as part of a tradition and a culture are part of healing. It is the process of visiting history in such a way that it is not simply a source of memories of oppression, one sad story after the next. Rather, it is visiting history so that it opens up the way for people to envision liberation and fulfillment.
The black consciousness movements of the 1960’s, the Negritude movement in the 1950’s, were movements that sought to illuminate the true history of black people in the United States, in Europe and Africa, and to challenge the narrative of white supremacy. A healthy industrial revolution resulted in an industrial working class in the mid west of the country. The work songs and blues of one generation, evolved into the soul and gospel of another, and the hip-hop fusion of their children. Cultural nationalism, the black arts movement, civil rights and opportunities for higher education helped to create a newer, larger, professional class of African-Americans.
These movements inspired young black professionals and students of all disciplines, including the disciplines of psychiatry, psychology and social work. Scholars began to write and to practice in new ways, rooted in the culture of their people. I have included in this book a bibliography that reflects some of that growth and the rich burgeoning of intellectual musings and creative writings. Many of these works helped black professionals and other African-Americans begin to recover and improve their historical memory. (See appendix) We have yet to develop ways in which we can systematically measure the effects of rising levels of black consciousness and increased knowledge of black history on communities of African descent. While there are many African-Americans who have made use of this knowledge, others failed to benefit as much as they could from these works. The way that many of these books were written and disseminated kept them in the province of academics and college educated populations. Some lingering questions that face social activists and practitioners are: What effect has the lack of accurate historical information about their people had on people of African descent without access to that information? Is there a way to close the knowledge gap?
De-ideologizing everyday experience means to retrieve the original experience of groups and persons and return it to them as objective data, Martin-Baro suggests. In countries where there is an oppressive regime, often a prevailing discourse or dominant story belies and suppresses the experience of the oppressed. The cultural stranglehold is imposed daily, in radio, television and print media, that reflects very little of the everyday life of regular people, no less poor and marginalized people. That prevailing discourse goes on distorting reality and nurturing the structures of exploitation and conformist, groupthink attitudes.
In recent years, the rise of an independent, African-American alternative print and electronic media has helped to strengthen the internal discourse within the community. In addition, the growth of an internet linked, blogging community has begun to widespread communication within group that has never been possible until the first part of this new century. As this phenomenon grows, there will be more viable ways to affirm the experience of the oppressed and to challenge the dominant discourse. The ability to contrast objective information generated by an alternative media that controls its own messages with one’s personal lived experience is crucial. A sense of identity develops from key familial relationships and is tested by the information one is able to glean about one self and one’s community in school, in religious institutions and in the media. Most adults will go through phases of differentiation from their nuclear family. We seek to get affirmation in the world at large for the self we are developing. If we are able to affirm and articulate our identity with more positive information than negative, that information serves as a way to solidify our sense of self. If the information from the outside community undermines, challenges, and questions that sense of self we acquired from our family, our sense of self is more prone to doubt and lack of self confidence.
Utilizing the people’s virtues involves emphasizing and facilitating the positives of a people who have suffered oppression and poverty. They have heard enough of their alleged negative attributes and stereotypes. Anyone engaged in the assistance of a liberation struggle must see clearly the virtues of the people they serve. Some of the key virtues of African-American people are summarized in the seven principles or Nguzo Saba, celebrated during the African-American holiday of Kwanzaa.
THE THERAPEUTIC USE OF THE NGUZO SABA
Faith: Faith in oneself, one’s people (and in a Higher Power),
(Therapeutic questions: Does this person have faith in self? In a Higher Power? Why? Why not? What has damaged that faith? What has strengthened it? Where did they learn to have faith? Where did they learn to distrust? How were these beliefs reinforced? Is their belief impeding their progress toward the goals they set for themselves?)
Unity (Does the person positively identify with his people, his family, his subculture? Why not? Does the individual engage in constructive engagement with these groups? Why not? Is the person capable of teaching or imparting reasons for positive identification to their children or to younger people? Why not?
Self-determination (Does the individual seek to be in charge of his/her life or avoid that responsibility? Why? Is the person able to distinguish behaviors, practices, etc. within their own life that are self-determining? Why not?)
Collective work and responsibility (How well is the individual able to engage in collective efforts with others of their own group? How well is the individual able to engage in collective efforts with others outside of their group for the benefit of their group? Why? Alternatively, why not?)
Cooperative economics (What is the level of financial literacy? How well does the individual understand the microeconomics of their family, their primary support group, and/or the larger cultural group? Why or why not?)
Purpose (Does the person have a sense of personal purpose? Why or why not? How did this sense of purpose evolve or fail to form within the individual? How realistic is this sense of purpose in the life of the individual?)
Creativity. /improvisation (Does the person have a healthy sense of creativity in their life? Why or why not? How free does the person feel to use improvisation in key areas of their life? Is creativity used as escape or empowerment? Both? What are the sources of inspiration that fuels their sense of creativity?)
These questions can function as a type of cultural mental status exam that pinpoints the areas in which a person may have trouble connecting with other African-American people. A therapist or community worker who looks for these strengths, virtues and values in the people with whom they are working , encourages and emphasizes and facilitates healing. These seven principles are a good guide to looking for strengths within the person, family or community. Utilizing the people’s virtues also means perceiving, understanding and beginning to heal the wounds of internalized oppression and racism. By doing so, internal barriers toward group cohesiveness are minimized. In addition, healing the wounds caused by internalized oppression and racism helps to improve the personal effectiveness, autonomy and self-confidence of the person.
In the stories of wounding and healing to follow, we will refer to these virtues often to seek out healing themes that are consciously supported by the therapist or discussed with those who are engaged in self-healing.
NARRATIVE APPROACHES TO HEALING
When a person begins the work of healing and growing and encounters in their story themes of oppression and racist abuse or internalized oppression, named and un-named, some therapists do not know how to intervene effectively. If a person is doing their own work without a therapist, it is often difficult to know how to facilitate one’s recovery and healing alone. How do we begin to facilitate the healing journey?
Many emotional questions will arise as we begin to explore these complex subjects. The processes that produced the institution of slavery were traumatic for its victims. Michael White, a narrative therapist who has influenced this school of thought throughout the world has written on “attending to the consequences of trauma”. He talks about the tendency of theories relating to trauma to obscure the “complexities and particularities” of an individual experience and expressions of that experience.
In conversations with people who have survived trauma, one can have a conversation that contributes to the construction of a fragile or vulnerable sense of self (self as victim) and leave them with the sense that their person is always going to be trespassed upon and violated in ways they will not be able to defend against. This kind of conversation can close down options for people to take action about oppressive situations in their lives and diminish their ability to sense how to direct their lives in the future.
- Alternatively, one can have a conversation with a survivor of trauma that brings attention to the construction of a “robust” or resilient sense of self rather than a fragile, easily damaged sense of self. This kind of conversation causes people to feel their lives and experiences have been honored. They open up options for people to take action about their predicaments in life. These discussions should result in an enhanced ability to go forward in life with greater confidence.
- Assisting people to tell their stories in order to facilitate an enhanced sense of self is central to narrative practice.
- Writing, reading others’ stories, sharing one’s story with others through re-telling, constructing rituals, re-inventing the ceremonial, externalizing internalized problems, re-naming, are all examples of ways in which an individual can begin to restore and reclaim parts of one’s life that are difficult to negotiate. You will find examples of these interventions throughout the book, and in the appendix.
HEALING THE SELF: KEEPING A JOURNAL
Journal writing would be a good adjunct activity to reading this book… Responses to the questions posed in the exercises in each chapter allow the reader to express and externalize those thoughts and feelings that arise. If using this book in a study group, journal writing is a way to distinguish between one’s privately held insights and those one chooses to share with others, without increasing one’s sense of vulnerability and fragility.
The purpose of journal writing is to create a concrete testimony to the significance of how oppression, covert or overt, mild or traumatic has violated those parts of self which one holds precious. This may include people’s understandings about the effects of trauma on
- Hopes, dreams and aspirations
- Moral values and cultural worldview
- Promises, commitments, pledges and obligations
- Sense of justice, fairness
- Ideas about the nature of human beings, of good and evil
- Cultural and ethnic loyalty and trust
- Personal relationships with others
White suggests that psychological pain may be considered to be a testimony to purposes, values, beliefs and commitments and that the intensity of the pain experienced by a person could be considered to be a reflection of the degree of importance of the violation. Your journal can be a work of art, full of pictures, clippings, poems, and memories. It can be traditional in its recollections, dated and consecutive. It can be non-traditional, emotional, undated, and sporadic. Over time, it can serve as a measure of how much you have grown.