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“The baby who is born pink learns to become white”

Helen Morgan provided a psychoanalytic framework to understand racism in our online seminar Tavistock Policy Seminar: Whiteness – A problem for our time last week. To a national and international audience of over 700 people, the Jungian analyst synthesised her upcoming book The work of whiteness: A Psychoanalytic perspective due to be published in 2021. The talk was chaired by Andrew Cooper and Helen Shaw.

Whiteness is a political and psychological construct that has its roots in slavery, explained Helen. This construct has shaped the collective white psyche – a psyche which both recognises and disavows the reality of white privilege. Despite our individual stories, we need to recognise we are part of a white collective with a shared ideology which affords us privilege. White ignorance is the way we close our eyes to this inherited white privilege. 

Psychoanalytic concepts like projection and splitting focus on individual behaviour and not on the collective. But we need to face whiteness at both an individual and collective level. Acknowledging racism should not solely be about reprimanding individual acts of prejudice, but about recognising an identity which informs a collective consciousness. By naming whiteness as a collective identity that affords privilege, Helen shifted our focus away from individual acts committed by perpetrators. 

History explains what has shaped a psychic split. ‘Whiteness’ as a term was coined in 17th century Virginia, America as a way of controlling the enslaved and creating political and economic advantage. We need to address our past as white people, Helen urged. “As white people, we need to mourn,” she said. By facing our past through education as both adults and young people we can undergo a process of healing, both as perpetrators and victims. The reality of slavery and how white people profited from it and continue to profit from it should be central to our curricula. 

“The baby who is born pink, learns to become white” Helen observed. White children are socialised into whiteness. Disavowal develops in childhood when children are taught to shut down their concern for social fairness. Helen touched upon research which suggested that racial hierarchies are imprinted in early childhood, including research from Margaret Beal Spencer (2010), Troyna and Hatcher (1991) and Phyllis Katz’s (2003). A participant in the chat expressed she “was very shocked by the research about parents talking to children about race and how few white parents do this.” Another also expressed “shock” to hear that three and four year olds have already internalised white privilege.

Helen articulated the difficulty in bringing these ideas to consciousness. The intellectual and emotional work it requires is the “work of whiteness”. She described a paper she had delivered to a group of white psychotherapists about racism who had skirted around the issues of race in the discussion. It was only when a psychotherapist divulged a racist thought that the group consciousness started to unravel and people had the courage to express their own prejudices. Later in the Tavistock policy seminar, an observation from a psychotherapist suggested that some white psychotherapists are not yet equipped to respond to racism in the therapy room. She spoke of a ‘blankness’ she felt when patients spoke to her about racism. 

Multiple layers of experience were weaved into the format of the event, to allow for “thinking, feeling and imagination”. The Jungian analyst juxtaposed paintings and contemporary images alongside her words. These created moments of realisation. An opening image strewn with different faces of brown, pink and olive, dismantled the idea of the physical existence of white skin. Whiteness is a construct that has no biological basis and has divided humanity, she explained. A participant later describes the images as helping to create a ‘silent work’ in the background.

A mother, teacher, Catholic priest and psychotherapist all respectively shared experiences and their moments of realisation: A mother of a mixed race child tearfully spoke of how she had wished she’d understood these concepts before. Black Lives Matter had allowed her to see her own colour-blindness. A young teacher spoke of his observation of the term ‘white British’ on the school register and no corresponding ‘black British’. A Catholic priest shared how the presentation had helped him to understand whiteness in the Church. Another participant spoke of how the image of Patrick Hutchinson bringing a far right protestor to safety during a Black Lives Matter demonstration should have been the other way round. It had ‘shocked’ her about the assumptions she was making.

Showing the complexity of race relations, a rich discussion on how the “work of whiteness” is done meaningfully ensued. “I am a bit concerned about white people having silos and having to do their white work on their own and black people being in groups talking about their struggles,” remarked a South African woman. Her ideas sparked several responses. A participant agreed but said dialogue needed to be on an equitable basis, while a psychotherapist acknowledged the limitations of silos but also felt there could be harm perpetuated if these conversations were done “clumsily”. A participant in the chat expressed: “Harm also results from conversations together. This is another form of colour blindness – this need for ‘unity’. The work required from each group is different.”

One strand of discussion was based on whether white solidary is genuine. “I’d like to think more about the white saviour complex vs. genuine/ authentic allyship,” shared one participant in the chat. One black man spoke of the “performative nature of white outrage” which had a particular resonance with the participants in the group chat. 

There is also a complexity when it comes to voice in race relations. A young black student explained that she thought she wouldn’t come but was glad that she had. She had appreciated the intersectional nature of the presentation which was rooted in histories. Other participants agreed they had been reluctant to join. The reluctance from others stemmed from not wanting people to ‘whitesplain’ and speak on behalf of black voices. All this suggests there is more work to be done to deepen the dialogue between white people and people of colour as part of movements for racial justice. 

What next for white allyship?

Andrew Cooper, Professor of Social Work, and convenor of the talk had set out to convene an all-white leadership group for the seminar. He had recognised that it is mostly people of colour who are shouldering the movements for racial equality. The talk helped to open up a dialogue and highlighted one way we need to talk about racism, namely through a strong white allyship. The talk by a white psychotherapist itself was a powerful representation of the sharing of the burden. A recurring theme in the chat was that it is not the responsibility of black people to teach white people about race. As one participant said: “People of colour being asked to revisit their trauma in order to aid others in undoing their own shame is a bit off to me. Ultimately we as individuals have a duty to actively unlearn our own prejudices.” Another described people of colour teaching white people about racism as ‘trauma porn’. 

As we galvanise movements for racial justice, Helen’s talk has given a name to something which was invisible. Prior to Black Lives Matter, ‘race’ had arguably been rendered invisible or nullified as a concept when amalgamated as a term under ‘diversity’. Now, race has become more common in every day vernacular. Whiteness too was here given a name and along with a number of terms like ‘white solipsism’, ‘white fragility’, and ‘white privilege’. These are an invaluable set of terms which will provide a toolkit for white allyship and for institutions to arm themselves with as they navigate achieving racial equality. By naming these concepts, Helen created a sense of the collective nature of racial prejudice and deepened our knowledge of our inner landscapes. 

By giving a name to whiteness as a construct, we are able to understand and discern societal phenomenon beyond the indiscriminate killing of George Floyd. In 2019, Channel 4 journalist Jon Snow made a comment he had “never seen so many white people” campaigning in Westminster at a pro-Brexit rally on the day Britain was due to leave the EU. His astute observation was to receive more than 2,000 complaints to Ofcom. This seemingly innocuous statement and its backlash indicates a disavowal of whiteness as an identity. 

The seminar indicated the huge appetite for talking about race relations from all sectors of society. People want to engage, understand and heal. As one of the Tavistock’s most popular events, the seminar sold out quickly. As for the Tavistock and Portman itself, one participant observed that this conversation “was opening up for the first time.” This is hopefully the start of a continued dialogue at the Tavistock and Portman that will name whiteness as a concept and engage in critical race theory. With terms like ‘primitive’, the very beginnings of psychoanalysis were premised on racist tropes, as Helen pointed out.