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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Nugent

Invitation to Brave Space

By Dr Libby Nugent, First Published Mar 18 2020 11:51AM

In these strange times, the distress around the COVID-19 pandemic is bringing into consciousness both how connected we all are and how disorientating it can feel to be away from our everyday rituals. However, amidst the want and need to keep safe, life trundles on. Is there a space or need to keep thinking during this time? Issues that may have before felt important can take on a new perspective. Is it useful to maintain our gaze on issues of power and privilege when survival is at stake? My thoughts move around with this hourly, but given the new legislation being passed, regarding increased state power for the police to arrest people and the rationing of care in the NHS, maybe it is necessary to keep thinking about who we deem as contaminant or benign? Who do we prioritise our care giving to? Who is left on the outside; who is seen as less necessary or less fragile? There’s is a poem I love that I return to repeatedly that helps me a great deal: Invitation to Brave Space By Micky ScottBey Jones Together we will create brave space Because there is no such thing as a “safe space” We exist in the real world We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds. In this space We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world, We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere, We call each other to more truth and love We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow. We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know. We will not be perfect. This space will not be perfect. It will not always be what we wish it to be But It will be our brave space together, and We will work on it side by side My experience of clinical psychologists is that, as a rule, we tend to be people motivated by the want to understand others, relieve psychological suffering and promote wellbeing. We want to create brave spaces for ourselves and others. To do this we are typically invested in the use of formulation and when psychologists make connections between human experience and academic understanding they can be very powerful. When we connect the dots we can use our positions to effect real change in the lives of many individuals, groups and communities. So with a spirit of curiosity, as opposed to blame, why is it that we seem to be stuck in patterns of white supremacy narratives? How might we turn our own gaze of enquiry on to ourselves? Last week I heard about the report of a racist hate crime that occurred at the DCP conference I attended in Solihull in January, where a conference delegate was seen defacing an academic poster with racist comments. This has led to various conversations with other white psychologists, many of whom are expressing feeling sad and confused by what, to some, appears to be a bizarre increase in isolated racist actions in our community. The conversation typically moves between wanting to hold the perpetrator to account, how someone might have behaved had they seen it and then thinking about systemic formulation and accountability taking as a group. Very rarely did the conversation move to what it might have felt like to be any of the people involved - either victim, aggressor or witness. Whilst isolated incidents must be addressed and individual accountability is necessary, I think at some point as a collective we need to own that these systemic problems of racism (and other inequalities) are alive in our community. In my opinion this requires considered and conscious effort to understand all of our contexts, particularly our socially racialized identities, and then drawing from this the full meaning of the acts and resulting felt experience of those involved. I do get the want to distance myself from these acts, particularly now, however if I just focus on the awfulness of the behaviour of an individual person I might miss the opportunity to examine myself and my culture; the only factors I have any control over influencing. So … what might drive me to do something like this, how might it feel - is it aggressive, hate filled, exciting, funny, impulsive, careful, dangerous, brazen, regretful, powerful, would I want to be seen? How might it feel to be treated in this way - alone, isolated,caught off guard, shaming, unwelcome, publically humiliated, morally superior, vulnerable, exhausting, familiar? How might it be to be the observer: shocking, angry, titillating, overwhelming, disbelieving, numbing, obligated, powerless, powerful? The more reading and understanding I have of group dynamics, power narratives and how society adapts around them then the more I see explicit racist acts like this as being like the metaphor of an opportunistic infection that can occur because there is a lowered immune system. The treatment is not just about addressing the opportunistic infection but also strengthening the immune system to prevent it from vulnerability to these kinds of threats in the first place. We have culturally inherited a lowered immune system (from colonialism/slavery) that we have to work to build back; and in doing so start actively caring for all the individuals hurt by our current culture. Prior to learning about the racist attack, I had already twice raised concerns about various other problematic occurrences regarding the event in both its planning and execution: The opening address included a white speaker, who in an attempt to address the racist acting out at the GTiCP conference in Liverpool, stood holding an anti racist book declaring they had yet to read it, but held good intentions to do so and that we all need to “crack the whip” and face this. Sadly as a white conference delegate my sympathy instantly went to the person speaking and I just wanted them to be seen for their good intentions; yet many in the room were attending with fresh hope that these dynamics were finally going to be taken up and validated; as I encouraged myself to recognise the less dominant narrative, the symbolism of a leader holding an unread anti racist book whilst making an unconscious reference to being a slave master became beyond alarming. The speaker apologised immediately, their shame was clear and I have no interest in scapegoating that person as I believe the experience, including my reaction, are a repetition of the dominant white narrative of the psychology community: Good intentions for change but a lack of ability to sit with our collective ignorance and not knowing on this subject - being too distracted by feelings of guilt and inadequacy and a want to appear competent. I know for me, this intolerance of fearing looking stupid or bad, can be so strong it’s tricky not to act out. I am used to being seen as competent, particularly in my professional role and when thinking about human rights, and so when I am not the shame leaps in and I can feel the need to avoid it as it feels so fraught with discomfort and humiliation. I feel hot, then cold, then numb and my brain quickly scrambles to find the right thing to say -so that people wont notice my awkwardness, my not knowing. By then it is normally too late. I can feel irritable and eventually just nothing as I move myself away to let someone else, or maybe just no one, deal with it. "THE CURIOUS PARADOX IS THAT WHEN I ACCEPT MYSELF JUST AS I AM, THEN I CHANGE." ~~CARL ROGERS I believe each person is accountable to themselves and I think the ‘work’ to be done requires me to develop the emotional maturity necessary for sitting with conflict and pain, so I can stay with these present day conversations about systemic racism in my community. I need to actually connect and accept the feelings of distress before I try and tidy them away by using theories and clever thoughts to protect myself without ever getting close to my own or others feelings. Trying to truly connect with all the parts involved. I think maybe I might be like most other psychologists working hard to be kind and thoughtful yet stuck with these difficult and abusive historical discourses. With life as we know it so under threat, now more than ever we need to be understanding each other as equal and connected. We are all each other’s context. Indeed the opening address did set the tone of the event: This address ran over by 10- 15 minutes which meant the morning sessions (nearly all of which were on addressing diversity, power and privilege/ anti racism themes) were cut short resulting in them stopping and starting at different times leaving the program schedule in chaos and group facilitators wrong footed by timings. There then seemed to be an open door policy, with significant numbers of people coming and going randomly to the sessions which made it feel unsafe to speak my mind. Later a key speaker advised the audience to hold our breath during the difficult bits of their talk that were addressing the evidence of structural racism in our community and instructing us when we could breathe out again. No one person is to blame. Good intentions and good work were present everywhere just being simultaneously undermined by the cultural script of prioritising the taking care of white people in the room and attending to their discomfort not leaving much space for the upset and distress of everyone else. Some of these things are more innocuous than others, but it felt like the metaphor of a constant slicing of a salami, where there was a persistent action to diminish bit by bit the efforts to tackle the subject and making for a highly unsettling and upsetting morning. The communication of ‘we don’t know how to do this’ felt very clear. A common exchange I have had in discussing these events resonated with me considerably as I think it speaks with honesty and clarity about the feeling and perspective of many in our community. I thought I would share a mock Q and A here giving the response I wish I had given ... Question: I struggle with this idea about racism in psychology and I'm noticing this a lot at the moment because things seem to keep happening. I feel awful about these events but I can’t make sense of them as it is not what I recognise in my daily interactions in our profession. I feel nervous to voice my puzzlement because I fear I'll be attacked! I can see how upset people are about these terrible incidents, and I don’t want to say anything to invalidate their experience, but at the same time I really believe that most psychologists are not racist and do attend to the subtleties of power, culture, discrimination....I certainly do. I might be white and middle class, but I have faced my own discrimination and life experiences and I spend a lot of time reflecting. And yet, I read a lot that suggests that many think our profession is racist. Help!” My Response: I think what I’ve noticed on my exploration into this area is that I have huge amounts of gaps in my knowledge base that I just didn’t know were missing. So I would regularly feel confused by accusations or experiences that felt incongruous with my identity. It’s that feeling that led me to start enquiring more. Have you had any opportunity to read books like ‘The good immigrant’ edited by Nikesh Shukla or ‘It’s not about the Burqa?’ edited by Mariam Khan. They are really interesting and helpful. Akala’s book Natives is also an excellent place to begin. Sometimes I just have to admit that I can’t know what I don’t know. Then pay attention to who does have knowledge and experience in this area and pay attention to what they are saying. Given racism is such a painful area, it draws out high levels of emotion for all. Projections are flying around everywhere in these narratives and often as a white woman I don’t realise how much I am projecting on to other people - I have discovered as I learn more I hear and see these exchanges very differently - in that the attack I may have perceived happening or feared might, I can now see as distress and hurt from the other person and also the contribution of my fear, my reaction to my feeling shame as triggering my fight or flight or in short my own aggression; However when I cannot see that this is occurring it can be hard to trust anyone who is telling me that it is - it feels so far away from my self image. My blindness can be such that it can feel like I am being willfully misunderstood and as such it is impossible for me to know who to trust. I can only invite others to start to read and talk more about our white history of slavery and colonialism and use our understanding of the human experience to help join the dots - when I do my victim fantasy can withdraw pretty quickly and I am able to contain my feelings and not act out. I often like to reflect on yoga as a metaphor for my personal development; Bringing these narratives that feel so hidden to me into consciousness is a bit like using with my left hand for a pose when I am strongly right handed; I find this process clumsy, painful and slow. It requires persistence; however in using it I bring myself more into physical alignment: there is more balance in my posture, I become more flexible and I am stronger for it. The Yogi BKS Iyengar said “We often fool ourselves that we are concentrating because we fix our attention on wavering objects.” We need to stop being distracted by the wavering objects of individual acts of racism, and personal morals of right and wrong and concentrate on the felt experience of ourselves and others and how they sit in the context of our collective narratives. The only way to gain understanding is to focus on the fixed object - the system/ our community and its historical context with resulting present day narratives. This is how we move towards emotional and social alignment. To do this we need to commit to practicing staying with the less conscious narratives, the difficult conversations and not avoid or deny. Or finally to repeat what Micky ScottBey Jones writes: We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow. We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know. We will not be perfect. This space will not be perfect. It will not always be what we wish it to be But It will be our brave space together, and We will work on it side by side The anti racist book club for psychologists is a book club and reflective practice space for psychologist for the purpose of developing understanding and awareness of the issues raised in this piece. You can find out more on the Facebook group or at my website

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