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Tavistock Policy Seminar: Whiteness – A Problem for Our Times

Last night I attended a seminar ran by the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust entitled “Whiteness – A problem for our times” which aimed to “examine white privilege and white fragility from a psychoanalytic perspective”. This was led by Helen Morgan, Fellow of the British Psychotherapy Foundation, training analyst and supervisor who has a particular interest in race.

I’ll admit, I had no idea what to expect about this seminar for a variety of reasons:

  1. This was a psychoanalytic led seminar, so I wasn’t sure if I would feel out of my depth
  2. I wasn’t sure how many people would be attending (there were around 600 people signed on!)
  3. Would this be ‘white led’, ‘BAME led’ or a combination/blended seminar?
  4. I wondered if there would be defensiveness or openness from participants

The session was set for 2 hours, with a 45 minute talk from Morgan, a short 5 minute break, then space for participants to use the Chat box and to also speak out about their thoughts/reflections/questions. I cannot speak for others, but I thought I’d reflect a little about my own feelings.

You can watch the session on youtube below. It’s a shame that the chat box is not present, as I felt that the rich discussion there is missing.


Trauma Porn

I suppose I’d like to pick up on the reflection from several participants that really resonated with me – the concept of the Black experience being used as “Trauma Porn”. What is this concept? It can be described as “a fascination with the traumatic images of suffering” (Allen Meek, Trauma and Media). In examining the history of “whiteness” there was a consistent focus on the bad deeds of our white ancestors, which further describes the horrendous experiences of black people. It felt more about alleviating our “White Guilt” by showing that we’re trying to examine our “whiteness” and present ourselves as forward-thinking people by showing how white people have changed.

Whilst it’s important that we talk about the experiences of colonialism and apartheid, I’ve noticed that positive black experiences are never discussed when talking about race. It is a repeated concept of black people being victims, when in fact, many are not. What we should be learning to understand is the wide array of experiences of black communities.


White Fragility

The term ‘White Fragility” was mentioned many times by contributors, which is defined as “discomfort and defensiveness on the part of a white person when confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice.” (Oxford English Dictionary). I have long felt incredibly uncomfortable about this concept. Not because it doesn’t happen, but more because I think it encourages people to be too nice and ‘empathetic’ when talking to someone expressing “White Fragility”. For example, calling out overt & covert racism as well as microaggressions appears to frequently be met with defensiveness, leading to the challenger changing their approach and treating the individual with kid gloves.

If we are looking to grow as an individual, understanding our own privileges with being White, we need to remove our own defensiveness. Instead of being “fragile”, we should be open to the feedback and listen. Too often people knee jerk react instead of listening to the message, reflecting and responding later. As soon as we excuse people’s behaviour as “White Fragility” I feel that we are giving them a free pass.  


The role of White, Black and Brown people in this conversation

I felt a mix of thoughts and feelings in regard to this topic. First off, the session was led by an all-white panel. I felt that this heavily impacted on things in a variety of ways. I am not trying to say that white people cannot talk about race, as I feel it is important that we carry the conversation. However, there was notably a lack of Black and Brown voices in the first half of the session. I was glad to hear that this was picked up by others, with several asking Helen Morgan whether she would include Black and Brown voices in her research. I was very disappointed that she failed to address that at the end of the session. If you are talking about the collective history of a group of people, you really should include them.

There were a lot of thoughts about how to create a more diverse profession – as counselling, psychotherapy and psychology are incredibly white, middle/upper class. This is not reflective of society, and it is hard to provide culturally appropriate services to clients/patients when they are not reflected in the profession. But the comments that were made by (white) people in the chat appeared to be saying “we need to provide bursaries/scholarships” etc, instead of actually asking Black and Brown people “what do you and the community need?” There is too often a white need to be seen to be doing something, which often leads to them not actually listening to the voices that count.

Something else that was also noted during the second hour was that white voices were perceived to be fairly silent. I want to challenge this somewhat, as I could see the images of the people with the ‘raised hand’ function activated. There were many Black and Brown individuals, but there were also many White people, and only a few of them were selected to speak. This may have been an unconscious bias by the individual hosting, or it could have just been the order that the names came up. There were over 500 people there in the second hour, and lots of very important points. Furthermore there was a lot of discussion in the chat. I for one didn’t feel that my points needed to be spoken, but I engaged with many in the conversation.

Some final thoughts

I’m not sure what my suggested solutions could be on this. If we are examining “Whiteness” should this be done in a group that is all white to ensure less “white fragility” or does this create more collusion? How do we encourage white people to examine race without initially sitting in denial and defensiveness?

The profession is not reflective of the diverse society that we live in and change must happen. I’m open to suggestions of how that can happen, and what I can do as part of that movement. We all have a role in it, and I don’t feel that this seminar did enough to address things. That said, I truly valued the contributions of everyone at the seminar. The chat was busy, the spoken contributions were passionate, and it was a starting point for discussions.  

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