The dangerous usefulness of theorising about race and racism in psychotherapy

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of Western Ontario]On: 16 October 2014, At: 13:40Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH,UK

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    The dangerous usefulness oftheorising about race and racismin psychotherapyOnel Brooks aa The Research Centre for Therapeutic Education,Psychology Department, Whitelands College ,Roehampton University , Holybourne Avenue, London ,SW15 4JD , UKPublished online: 19 Mar 2012.

    To cite this article: Onel Brooks (2012) The dangerous usefulness of theorising aboutrace and racism in psychotherapy, Psychodynamic Practice: Individuals, Groups andOrganisations, 18:2, 181-194, DOI: 10.1080/14753634.2012.664872

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14753634.2012.664872

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  • The dangerous usefulness of theorising about raceand racism in psychotherapy

    Onel Brooks*

    The Research Centre for Therapeutic Education, Psychology Department, WhitelandsCollege, Roehampton University, Holybourne Avenue, London, SW15 4JD, UK

    (Received 25 January 2011; final version received 3 January 2012)

    This article consists of a general and a specific argument. The generalargument is that theorising can be both useful and dangerous, and thatour perceived advantages or successes are sometimes effective enemies ofour ability to think about what we are doing and have done. The morespecific argument, which is the main concern of this article, is thattheorising about race and racism can be useful in psychotherapy, butthat this is a dangerous usefulness that may at times be a repetition orre-enactment of racism. The author draws on examples from theliterature to illustrate his argument, as well as on his own client work. Asthe oxymoronic or paradoxical phrase dangerous usefulness indicates,this article does not argue that one school of or approach topsychotherapy is superior to all others because of beliefs held ortheoretical resources possessed. The article does not claim that we can benaive and complacent about any psychotherapeutic notion or theory, orthat, on the other hand, we may naively and complacently believe thatwe might simply claim to be able to do without theories, assumptionsand beliefs of any kind. Dangerous usefulness implies due caution,tensions, vigilance and paradox. This article suggests that we may haveto live warily with the paradox or tension here, rather than resolve ordissipate it.

    Keywords: theory and psychotherapy; race; repetition; colonisation

    Introduction

    This article begins by arguing that unwarranted assumptions and inferencesmay help to get us what we want, but that we cannot take success asconferring legitimacy on the theories, assumptions and inferences we havemade use of. From this general argument about theorising, it moves toconsider theorising about race and racism in psychotherapy, and does thisby considering some examples of work with clients that illustrate the

    *Email: o.brooks@roehampton.ac.uk

    Psychodynamic PracticeVol. 18, No. 2, May 2012, 181194

    ISSN 1475-3634 print/ISSN 1475-3626 online

    2012 Taylor & Francishttp://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14753634.2012.664872

    http://www.tandfonline.com

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  • temptations and limitations of reaching for theories when race and racismare concerned.

    The seduction of success

    Some years ago, a friend who was on his way back to Scotland, found himselfstranded in London for the night. He finds the big city frightening and had nodesire to spend any time in it, but now having no choice, he resolves to lookme up and stay at my place for the night, rather than try to find an expensiveLondon hotel. However, he discovers that he has left my address and phonenumber at home and that there is no one home to read them to him. Being anintelligent, resourceful man, who is optimistic about the power of theintellect, he decided that he will find me: he will work it out. Looking at thetube map he sees Tottenham Court Road and thinks he remembers that I livein Tottenham. This makes him think that it is going to be easy: he will go toTottenham Court Road, finds someone who knows me, and get directions towhere I live or happen to be. On exiting the underground at TottenhamCourt Road, however, he is perplexed to find that it is hardly like a littlevillage or small town where there is a good chance of a passer-by, on myname being mentioned, saying Oh yes, I know the family well!. Undeterredby this discovery and thinking he is in the right area, he modifies his plan, inthe light of what he knows about me. As he thinks that I spend much of mytime in libraries and bookshops, he asks a passerby whether there is a goodlibrary or bookshop close by. The person observes that he is near the BritishLibrary but then tells him that what was then Dillons University Bookshopis just around the corner. My friend thinks that the bookshop must be mylocal bookshop and is a better bet than the library, so he makes his way there.Once in the bookshop he sees that there is a psychology section and that theystock psychotherapy and social work books, but he decides that I am mostlikely to be in the philosophy section. He mounts the stairs leading to thephilosophy section and finds me standing just inside that area. He tells mecoolly he knew that I would be there.

    I have an uncanny confused feeling, as I have not seen him for ages, andhave not seen him in this setting, I thought he was on holiday abroad, and Iknow that he hates and fears London, so I cannot work out why he is in abookshop in London and does not seem at all surprised to see me. I cannotquite take it in that he is there because he is looking for me and worked outthat I would be there. I try to explain many things to him, such as the factthat I do not live anywhere near the bookshop or Tottenham Court Road,that I nip in to the bookshop about once every three months, and although Ido read a lot, it is not always philosophy and I spend my time doing manyother things apart from reading. None of this had any effect on my friend,who continued to talk to me and think of himself as having worked outwhere I would be, as having made good use of his ability to reason. It is only

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  • when we are on the underground travelling back to the station closest to myhome, when he begins to understand that some of the assumptions andinferences he made were quite wrong and quite amusing, that for example, ifyou want to go to Tottenham, going to Tottenham Court Road is not thebest thing to do.

    Although my friend made false assumptions and unwarranted infer-ences, he succeeded in finding me in a city of seven million people, and hadhe been more accurate in his assumptions and reasoning, he would mostprobably not have found me. This story is being used to illustrate that weshould be wary of arguing from success to the truth or validity of ourassumptions, theories and inferences, and to pose the question of whetherwe psychotherapists may make inferences and assumptions that are hardlywarranted or sustainable and yet do something useful. The author of thisarticle contends that we psychotherapists often behave like my friend in thiscase, and pointing out our errors of reasoning, unwarranted assumptionsand inferences and our luck, tends to be ignored, because we know that weare right.

    Success is not evidence

    The army officer who is convinced that his side is morally superior to theenemy, and is supported by God, may win a surprising victory against themore numerous and better armed enemy, but this does not prove his moralsuperiority nor that God is on his side. Believing that he is a god may haveplayed an important role in the victories of Alexander the Great, but wewould not infer from this that he really was a god. Montaigne says Yes.But he brought the matter to a successful conclusion That meanssomething, but not enough; for we rightly accept the maxim which says thatplans must not be judged by results. A little later on the same page, hewrites The outcome often lends authority to the most inept leadership(Montaigne, 1991, p. 1057). Having plans, assumptions, theories, convic-tions and treatment goals a sense that we really know where we are goingand what we are doing often helps psychotherapists with what makes themanxious, but perhaps what we regard as our successes are the greatestenemies of our capacity to think, not know and to wait for whatever mightemerge in our relationships with people.

    This is an argument for being sceptical or wary about theory andtheorising in psychotherapy. This article however is concerned specificallywith theorising about race and racism in psychotherapy. It raises thesuspicion that by resorting to psychotherapeutic theories about race we maybe evading race and culture but being faithful to our theories. It suggeststhat resorting to theories may be a way of saving ourselves the trouble ofhaving to think about race and racism and the relationship between us andour clients.

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  • There are many complex issues involved here that cannot be adequatelyaddressed in this overly ambitious article, but a few of them will be touchedon in passing. An obvious point to make is that the sorts of arguments givenin this article do not sit well with notions of evidence based practice inpsychotherapy. For arguments and illustrations such as the ones offered inthis article consistently question the induction from supposed success tosupposed validity. They quibble and undermine confidence about success,claiming that these sorts of terms lead us into a consideration of ethics andthe notion of a good life for a human being. They also claim, followingMontaigne, that brilliant, sophisticated ideas and plans may get us nowhere,yet armed with even the most stupid and heinous views we might get whatwe want, or at least what we think that we want. This article, therefore, doesnot set out to try to give an account of how we know what we know. It is aarticle that claims that one of the most important problems in psychother-apy is our knowingness, our thinking that we know and that our so calledsuccesses must be taken as evidence that we really do know.

    Many of us who are deeply influenced by psychoanalysis will find it easyto say of CBT or solution focused practitioners, for example, that of coursemany important things go on between client and practitioner, and suchpractitioners are often wrong about what is responsible for any benefits tothe client. These practitioners, the argument goes, often infer from what theytake to be successes or benefits to the claim that their views or ideas are validor true because these views and ideas brought about the success. Those of uswho think of ourselves as psychoanalytic practitioners, however, mightclaim that much might be said about transference, the relationship betweenclient and practitioner, suggestion and the compliance of the client, beforewe make the inference from the supposed success of therapeutic encounterto the truth of the notions and beliefs held by the practitioner.

    Freud, for example, seems to sanction this sort of inference when hewrites:

    A gain in meaning is a perfectly justifiable ground for going beyond the limitsof direct experience. When, in addition, it turns out that the assumption ofthere being an unconscious enables us to construct a successful procedure bywhich we can exert an affective influence upon the course of the consciousprocesses, this success will have given us an incontrovertible proof of theexistence of what we have assumed (Freud, 1915, p. 168).

    It is important to pause to consider the apparently unquestionedassumption of its being necessary and crucial to go beyond the limits ofdirect experience, the seduction of our feeling that we are in possession ofsuccessful procedures in psychotherapy, and of our coming to feel that wehave incontrovertible proof of our theoretical notions. If we assume theexistence of something called by us the unconscious and this, according tous, proves to be helpful, can we then claim that this proves what we have

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  • assumed? These assumptions and inferences are not only questioned byexistential and phenomenological writers: they are questioned from withinpsychoanalysis.

    Khan in his preface to Hidden Selves suggests that our metapsycholo-gical vocabulary can be a hindrance (1983) and in Khan (1989) he writes:

    I believe that, today once again, we have to start, as Freud did in 1895, bygiving a true phenomenological account of our clinical encounter with ourpatients, without paralysing the ambiguities of the therapeutic exchange bycoercing them into the strait-jacket of our metapsychological preconceptions.

    Cohn (2002, pp. 7374) quotes Freud as saying We seek not merely todescribe and to classify phenomena, but to understand them as signs of aninterplay of forces in the mind, as a manifestation of purposeful intentionsworking concurrently or in mutual opposition. Freud is concerned with adynamic view of mental phenomena. For him, the phenomena that areperceived must yield in importance to trends which are only, as Freud says,hypothetical.

    Much hinges on whether we are wary of how our theoretical terms mayparalyse and restrict us, or whether, like Freud the theorist, we want totranslate our experience and what our clients say into a language ofhypothetical trends or forces. The question is whether we think that, whenthinking and speaking about our clients, we need to try to stay withdescribing what happened and what we thought and felt, and whether, onthe other hand, we think that we are thinking about race (or anything elsefor that matter) when we have translated what the client is saying into ourvocabulary of hypothetical forces and complexes. To follow the latter courseis to claim to be able to explain talk about race and racism in terms ofsomething more fundamental, but it may be a way of refusing to think andspeak about such matters, but to continue a conversation about thesesupposedly underlying forces.

    Masters and servants

    John Steiner ends his 1996 paper with the statement that a good theory is afine servant but a poor master (1996, p. 1082). However, it seems as if thereare problems with completing a paper that is so singularly Kleinian withsuch a statement. Steiner (1996) argues that the classical psychoanalytictheory of mental conflict has been deepened by other theories, especially theKleinian theory of projective identification, and so the aim of psycho-analysis is to help the client to reacquire or take back the unwanted andtherefore projected parts of himself. When Steiner (1996, pp. 10791081)gives us an account of his clinical work, his thinking and interpreting isclearly steeped in this Kleinian way of thinking, so what are we to make ofhis final statement that implies that he thinks he is the master and the theory

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  • is the servant? Might we not wonder, without needing to refer to Hegel,Marx, Nietzsche, Lacan and the master slave dialectic (Sarup, 1998, p. 18)that when it comes to theories and practitioners, it is not easy to see who ismaster and who servant, and that someone may think of himself as being themaster without being able to see how he is mastered?

    This is an article about how we are mastered and seduced by our theoriesand assumptions, and therefore risk losing touch with the living breathingperson in front of us, and the possibilities open to us. However, at this pointthe readers theoretical leanings and group loyalties may prompt her toclaim that criticisms of Freud are Freud bashing and criticisms of Steineramount to Klein bashing. However, one comment about one Kleiniantheorist at one time should not be taken as a comment about all and onlyKleinian practitioners at all times. There are interesting thoughtful writingsfrom practitioners who have been influenced by Klein and the Kleininansub-tradition, such as Anna Dartingtons (1995) paper. Such works do not,as I am arguing Steiners paper does, get themselves in a position where theyexplicitly make claims about being the master of theories, but what theyshow leaves them open to the criticism that theory is the master. Similarly,the reader assumes too much, goes too fast, and may be too caught up in herown loyalties if she takes it that critical comments about Freud mean that allof Freuds work is being dismissed.

    It is possible to claim that, in spite of what has been said in theparagraph above, there is still a bias in this article against psychoanalysisand in favour of existential and phenomenological approaches topsychotherapy, for this article has not yet acknowledged that existentialand phenomenological practitioners can also fall into the trap of being tooconcerned with their own theoretical notions. But of course they can! Thedangerous usefulness of our theoretical notions is not only a matter forpsychoanalytic or psychodynamic practitioners. It is important to point outhere, however, that phenomenology, whilst certainly not free of theoreticalterms, was conceived in wariness of the way that we impose our theories onto our experiences. It is a way of doing philosophy, a way of approachingour experiences conscientiously and trying to stay with the phenomenonitself. It is a way of trying to avoid all misconstructions and impositionsplaced on experience in advance (Moran, 2000, p. 4). In this way, it is to becontrasted with Freud the theorist who wants to reduce what he experiencesto the interplay of invisible and unconscious forces. Many comments mightbe made at this point about the possibility, desirability and limitations of apsychotherapeutic approach that tries to take phenomenology seriously,discussions that we cannot get into here. This article tries to take up a placein the common ground between psychoanalysis and phenomenology. For ifthis article is written against Freud the theorist, it is written in appreciationof and following Freud the practitioner who advises those who wish topractice psychoanalysis to keep our attention freely hovering, and warns us

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  • that if we follow our expectations, we will find what we already know, and ifwe follow our inclination, we will falsify what we perceive (Freud, 1912,p. 324). This concern with giving our attention, how we give our attention,and not being carried off by our expectations, inclinations and what we takeourselves as knowing, is central to this article on the dangerous usefulness ofour notions. The notion of acting out by repeating in actions rather thanspeaking and thinking is also attributed to Freud within psychoanalysis(Freud, 1914). This is also a notion that I make use of below.

    By questioning our desire to have psychotherapeutic theories about race,this article is certainly not arguing that psychotherapists should not try tounderstand slavery and its legacy, the holocaust, anti-Semitism and theirlegacies, anxieties about and aggression towards Islam, the plight of refugeesand the issues involved in intercultural therapy. This article is questioningwhether this understanding needs to be in the form of psychotherapeutictheory, and arguing that the pursuit of understanding in terms ofpsychotherapeutic theories may be a way of looking away from what weneed to pay attention to, a way of continuing with business as usual withoutallowing the experiences of others to disturb us. It may be a way of repeatingthe history of race and racism rather than an attempt to begin rememberingand thinking about this history.

    Some examples from the literature

    Jafar Kareem, one of the founders of Nafsiyat Intercultural Therapy Centre,writes of a young black woman he calls Victoria, who after receiving anexpensive private education in Britain, became increasingly occupied withher blackness. Her quest to find out who she is and where she has come fromtakes her around the world and enables her to trace her fathers line of thefamily back to a young African woman, sold as a slave, forced to havechildren by many white men. This seemed to precipitate her becomingdepressed and fearing that she was going mad. Victoria consulted a whitewoman therapist but felt that the therapist seemed to be clear that issuesthat Victoria presented as issues to do with race were Victorias problem anda projection of her inner world on the outside world. Kareem writes, Theproblem with the first therapist was not that she was white, but that she wasunable to look at the interrelated themes of race and powerlessness asproblems of reality (Kareem, 2000, p. 18).

    The therapist seems to be too knowing and too insistent on her ownpsychotherapeutic language being spoken or otherwise dominating theencounter. The therapist appears to know that when the client speaks aboutrace, the client is projecting her inner chaos on to the outside world. It doesnot seem as if the therapist has any thoughts about how the outside worldmight give the client consistent messages about the meaning of herblackness, and how this might at least contribute to the so called inner

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  • chaos. The therapist does not seem to engage in a discussion with the clientabout what the client is saying, and wait to see if it does begin to seem to theclient that some of her perceptions sometimes may have much to do withhow she thinks and feels, and that race may not be the only important issue.

    Kareem goes on to write about an anxious young black man, who,searching for his bus pass one cold winter morning as he is on his way totherapy, is jumped on and searched by two policemen who think he is actingsuspiciously. He is frightened and angry and experiences the policemen aslaughing at him and threatening to arrest him. He tells them that he has adoctors appointment and shows them his student card, and they continuedto laugh at him. They go with him to where he says that he has thisappointment. He is by now covered with his own sweat and leaves thelaughing policemen to see his therapist. Although he is in quite a state, histherapist does not say anything. The client eventually angrily declares thatthe therapist does not understand and he begins to cry. His therapist still hasnothing to say; the young man tells him what happened to him on his way totherapy. After an almost unbearable silence, the therapist tells him that he isexpressing his anger because he, the therapist, is white. The young man saysto Kareem I was stunned because until that moment it had not mattered tome that the therapist was white. And then my therapist added I neverthought you were black, I just took you to be another human being, I couldbear it no longer and I left my session (Kareem, 2000, p. 28).

    Kareem tells us that after this, according to this young man, he lost hisfaith that he was a human being and became frightened to go out. We mightnote the apparent opposition in the therapists speech between being blackand being another human being and wonder if this is part of the problem,and that, from what the therapist actually says, he seems to hold that one iseither one or the other, rather than that it is possible to be both. We mightbe quick to speculate about whether there is something paranoid about thisyoung man; but to say this and to not see how his therapists response can beseen as paranoid is part of the problem.

    It could have been the case that Victorias inner chaos was somethingthat was not as intimately and exclusively connected as Victoria would liketo think to her being black in a society that is white and represents beingblack in the way that it does. However, it is possible for a therapist to try toremain open and alive to this possibility without dismissing and interpretingrace away. It is possible to think about this vignette as an illustration of atherapist who is so mastered by her theories that she cannot listen to theclient, respond to and think with her.

    With the second client, John, it is also possible to think of his therapist asbeing mastered by a model of what one ought to do when with a client, andor what one ought to do when a client begins to speak about race: apsychoanalytically trained therapist may feel that he is being a goodtherapist when he takes things up in the transference (when arguably, what

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  • is often needed but not often encouraged is for the practitioner to thinkmore clearly about his own relationship to psychoanalysis, his transferenceto a tradition and to other psychoanalysts, his identifications and his criticalpsychoanalytic superego, how much he is mastered by it). But to bringhimself into the conversation, to start talking about what the clients wordshas to do with him, may be as it seems to be in this case to miss the point,and to erect theory between himself and his client. What would have beenwrong with Johns therapist saying to him as he sat there crying and notspeaking Has something happened? or I wonder why you are so upset orYou seem to be very distressed but you dont seem to be able to speak?

    Both John and Victorias therapists seem to restate what they have beentaught, what they believe and perhaps for both of them, to believe that theirclient cannot mean what he or she says, is a way of evading thinking andtalking about racism. It seems as if neither of these two therapists wereinterested in what their client had to say about race, and that neither seemed toreact in a human way to the distressed human being in front of them. Indeed,in reaching for theory at these moments, both these therapists perhaps showthat they have a fetish, that they know beforehand what they want and whatshould happen, that they recoil from and protect themselves againstengagement and intercourse with another human being by their need for themagical object to be given pride of place. And that fetish seems to be theory.Phillips (1993, pp. 6465) writes about the analysts perverse solution intaking up a knowing position and therefore denying that there is anything newto encounter, denying that he cannot know beforehand and needs to allowhimself to fall into imaginative exploration with another living human being.

    It certainly seems as if race can be difficult to talk about inpsychotherapy, and that some of the attempts to talk about and thinkabout race in psychotherapy, subtly and not so subtly, become re-enactments of the sort of interactions that have been and still are centralto racism. The two examples above illustrate that when a client tries to speakabout race he or she may find that the practitioner colonises the therapeuticspace, so it is no longer a place for the client to express him or herself, but aspace that is taken over by the beliefs and allegiances of the therapist. Likethe coloniser, the therapist might determine the official language of theplace, and insist that the only civilised or proper language to speak is thelanguage that he is most familiar with. Furthermore, the therapist may treatthe client as an object to be broken down into little pieces, in order tounderstand his or her components, as something with an underlyingmechanism that must be repaired, as a thing rather than like a person withtheir own thoughts, feelings and points of view, and (unlike a thing)something to whom words matter. If a part of what people often mean whenthey say that they are having to cope with something called racism is thatthey feel that because of their being identified as being a member of a race orethnic group, they are treated as if they are not a person, then it is difficult

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  • not to see that a therapist may easily approach therapy with a black personin a way that repeats colonisation, domination and the objectification of theperson, a way that re-enacts in the consulting room what the client might sayis the very issue that he has come for help with.

    An example from the authors practice

    A black woman saw a colleague of mine for a consultation and wassurprised and stirred up on finding herself talking to a black man. She crieda lot and spoke about the black men in her life who had hurt her and let herdown, especially the father of her children, who had never lived with her andwho was married to someone else. She spoke about being particularlyconcerned about her son who had a breakdown recently. She thought hemight agree to see a black male psychotherapist; my colleague suggested hecontacted me.

    When he arrived, this young black man told me immediately that hethought it was stupid to see a therapist, but as his mother had pleaded withhim and promised him that he would see a black man, he decided to try it forone session. He told me that he had never lived with his father, nor had heever had a relationship with him, and that he was still taking the anti-psychotic medication given to him after his breakdown six weeks ago.

    I imagine that his quietness, his reluctance to see a therapist, his fathersabsence, his indicating that we might only have one session and the fact thatwe could only see each other three or four times before he had to return touniversity, were the reasons why I felt myself metaphorically rolling up mysleeves to begin this engagement with him. Another thought is that I waspreparing myself for a struggle with someone who did not really want to seea therapist, but this is to say something slightly different. For even if I hadthought that I would have years to work with him, my being silent at thebeginning might not have been helpful for him, and would have risked thesessions degenerating into a war of attrition by means of silence. This mighthave been an effective way of not helping him to take the opportunity ofengaging with me, and I would not have to think too hard to produce someaccount of his being too resistant, defended or hostile to make use ofpsychotherapy. I could have also told some story about how his hostility tohis father was probably transferred on to me, and how he needed toabandon me aggressively, as he felt abandoned by his father. In my case, atthis time, this would have been a series of excuses that fail to acknowledgethat the consulting room provided us with an opportunity for relating thatcan be grasped or fumbled by the therapist as well as by the client.

    Of course, in the moment, it is often not clear where or what theopportunities are or when they are being grasped rather than fumbled. Hedid not like my comment to him that it might be important that he hadgrown up in a house without a brother or a father, and had not had a

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  • relationship with his father. He quickly and dismissively said that this wasquite common. And of course he is right: many black children, and not onlyblack children, grow up without a father. I responded by saying that if mostpeople had a broken leg, it would be common to have a broken leg, but itwould hardly be a good thing and it would still hurt. His gesture seemed toconcede that I had a point, but as he clearly did not like my comment nordid he want to continue talking about it, I waited to hear what he might say,if I shut up and stopped leading him.

    He started to tell me about his breakdown, rather than the father andbrother theme I had offered him. It came, he said, after he had become moreself absorbed and had been smoking more marijuana than usual. He had, hesaid, been mixing with the wrong sort of people: people who smoke toomuch marijuana and got into fights. I felt that he had suddenly given memore than I could absorb, that it was now going too quickly for me, so Istopped him and expressed my puzzlement. What does breakdown mean?The wrong set of people? What does he mean self absorbed?

    He told me about his breakdown. He was playing his music loud in hisroom at university, someone called the police and they took him to thepsychiatric unit.

    I did not feel any less puzzled. How does playing your music loudsuddenly become a medical problem? I asked why things seemed to move sofast. Why didnt the police or one of the people he was bothering ask him toturn his music down? How did this happen without any sort of conversationwith him?My client said that he did not really know. The police did not reallyspeak to him, and he did not feel as if he should have just been taken to apsychiatric unit. Whilst he was at the unit, he added, no one asked him howhe was feeling; they just gave him drugs. He said that he too thought thingshad moved too fast, and that no real attempts had been made to talk to himabout what was happening. He seemed to me to be telling me somethingabout not being engaged with as a person but having things done to him. I satand thought about what he said to me, without adding much to my previousexpressions of puzzlement about the volume of words he had given me andthe rapid pace of his being in his bedroom then suddenly in a psychiatric unit.I mumbled something about not really understanding this yet.

    He seemed to relax a little with me after this and to speak more freely.Then looking at me carefully, he began haltingly to tell me what he wasthinking about during the time when he was playing his music loud. He wasthinking about how all the people higher up in society tended to be white,how there were two white princes, and how he found himself drawn toRastafari because here there were black princes from a line that went backmuch further than the British monarchy. He said that his playing his musicloud was a rebellion.

    He then said with some hesitation and uncertainty that he had beenthinking a lot about Darwinism. In the pause, I asked the obvious

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  • question: What about Darwinism? He spoke about how black people,especially young black men, are often portrayed as if they are the lowest ofthe low, the least evolved, like Neanderthals. This seemed to be said orimplied frequently. He spoke at length about how the people he hangsaround with are not interested in such things in talking about such things only in drugs and girls. This group consisted of both black and white youngmen. The group, he remarked, treats him with respect. In contrast to this, hespoke about having had numerous encounters with young white men whowere condescending about and dismissive of young black men, oftenexplicitly portraying them as mindless MTV watching layabouts, whilstyoung white men were portrayed as Question Time watchers. He spokeabout how much he hated being spoken down to like this, and how much itupset him that young black men in particular were portrayed in this way.

    It emerged that he looks after the group of young men he spoke abouthanging around with, made sure they ate, calmed them down, reduced theirbrawling, and helped to stop them from doing anything too dangerous. As itseemed to me that the notion of descent and belonging to a family wasimportant to him, I said in response to this that it sounded as if he was like afather to them. He said immediately that he was more like a brother, an olderbrother, although he was not older than all of them. We spoke about thisgroup and I wondered aloud to him somewhere during this exchange whetherloyalty to this family made it difficult for him to do something different fromwhat they do, whether there was something about loyalty that held him back.This seemed to mean something to him. He thought for a while about thisand then said that he thought he messed things up when they were going well,so it is as if he cannot allow them to go well. Here, he told me that he had hadtwo previous breakdowns and that they tended to happen when things weregoing very well at university. I remarked that they all seemed to follow somesort of success; he confirmed this and became very interested in what thismight mean, and whether loyalty to something or a group or an image ofhimself, led to his punishing himself or something like this, when his life wasgoing well. I was very interested in this idea too, and showed it.

    At the end of the session he was clear that he wanted to meet with meagain.

    I saw this young man three times out of the possible four. At the end ofthe third session he repeated that it was highly likely that he would return touniversity before our session the following week, and he phoned to confirmthis a few days before his appointment. It is difficult to speak the language ofthings being resolved, proved or success here, or to infer that my workwith him confers legitimacy on any theoretical views that I might hold; buthe said, that he found the sessions useful, that they made him think, and thathe discussed some things with me that he had not discussed with anyoneelse. Three themes received much attention from us: his relationship withand feelings about his father, his relationship with this group of young men

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  • to whom he suggested that he played the role of a brother, and that ofracism how constant and ubiquitous it was and how clearly he felt that hewas being told that he is of no value.

    I suggested to him that this sense of worthlessness may be related to hisexperience with his father: the message he seemed to be getting from hisfather about where he, the client, came in his fathers regard. We spokeabout this as a connection between the three issues (father, his relationshipswith other males and race), and how his breakdowns seem to havesomething to do with feeling that he is of no value, despite his apparentsuccess. I did not suggest that the real issue was his relationship with hisfather and that what he had to say about race could be reduced to this. Itseemed important to stay with what he was saying about race, discuss it withhim and not talk it away, and to be able to think with him about the otherthings he had to say, and how these are related. It seemed to be importantneither to dismiss race, nor to become only able to see and think about race;other things were also important and needed space in our discussion. Itseemed important not be become preoccupied with theory or what previousexperience suggested to me, and to allow this, rather than our conversation,to lead us.

    Conclusion

    Theorising about race is hardly an innocent practice. It has been very usefulto racism. When a therapist produces and adheres to theories about race,she may be seen as part of the tradition of theorising about race, a traditionthat often makes use of the pose of being the objective, unwilling andunfortunate bearer of unpalatable scientific news, but obscures the fact thattheorising about race has a close connection with gain, possession and itslegitimisation. A therapist theorising about race can be seen as distancingherself from race and of keeping herself unaware of the advantages to her ofnot thinking about such issues, but instead presenting herself to herself andto others as being in possession of objective, scientific, universal andculturally neutral theories about race. A crucial part of the British Empirewas this sort of thinking about race; a therapist engaged in such thinkingcan be seen as repeating and re-enacting something that she is unable toremember or think about.

    Theorising about race may be a way of getting what we want, and, as Ihave argued above, it may get us what we want, but this does not imply thatthe theories are any more than useful. Reducing talk about racism to theterms of the theories we already hold may allow us to feel that we alreadypossesses the truth, it may allow us to feel confidence and good aboutourselves, and to feel that our thinking gains support by our being able to dothis; but what seems to be most important here are the theories and whatand where they get us, not race.

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  • This article argues that what we take to be success does not conferlegitimacy on our theories, and that we should be wary of therapeutictheories and practices that encourage the colonisation of the client and thetherapeutic space by the practitioner and his theories. In the case of race inparticular, this colonisation of the client and the therapeutic space may beseen as a re-enactment of our racial histories rather than an attempt to thinkabout these histories and where we are located in them. The conclusion ofthis article is that therapists need to be encouraged to theorise less aboutrace and racism, to listen less defensively (including less theoretically) towhat their clients are trying to say, and to be more concerned with learningfrom history, literature and philosophy how to think about these notionsand how we are all caught up in them.

    Notes on contributor

    Onel Brooks, PhD, CQSW, completed a doctorate in philosophy before training as asocial worker and a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. He is a senior lecturer inPsychotherapy, Counselling and Counselling Psychology at Roehampton University,where he contributes to the work of the Research Centre for Therapeutic Education,which is in the Psychology Department. He is a member of and teaches on thepsychotherapy training at the Philadelphia Association. He is a senior social workerand psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic, and in independent practice as apsychotherapist and supervisor. He is particularly interested in psychoanalysis,Nietzsche and Continental Philosophy and Wittgenstein.

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    Psychodynamic Counselling, 1, 253261.Freud, S. (1912). Recommendations for physicians on the psycho-analytic method of

    treatment. In E. Jones (Ed.), Collected papers Vol. 11 (pp. 323333). London:Hogarth Press.

    Freud, S. (1914). Further recommendations in the technique of psycho-analysis.Recollection, repetition and working through. In E. Jones (Ed.), Collected papersVol. 11 (pp. 342365). London: Hogarth Press.

    Freud, S. (1915). The unconscious. In J. Strachey (Ed.), The standard edition of thecomplete works of Sigmund Freud Vol. 14 (pp. 166217). London: Hogarth Press.

    Kareem, J. (2000). The Nafsiyat intercultural therapy centre: Ideas and experience inintercultural therapy. In J. Kareem & R. Littlewood (Eds.), Intercultural therapy(pp. 1435). Oxford: Blackwell Science.

    Montaigne, M. (1991). Michel De Montaigne. The complete essays. Translated byM.A. Screech. London: Penguin Books.

    Moran, D. (2000). Introduction to phenomenology. London: Routledge.Phillips, A. (1993). Returning the dream. On kissing, tickling and being bored. London:

    Faber and Faber, 6070.Sarup, M. (1998). An introductory guide to post-structuralism and post-modernism.

    (2nd ed.). Essex: Longman.Steiner, J. (1996). The aim of psychoanalysis in theory and in practice. International

    Journal of Psycho-analysis, 77, 10731083.

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