Weighing up the Pros and Cons of Attending White-dominated Conferences as a Black Therapist

by Dr Shahieda Jansen

These are my reflections on some of my experiences at the conference hosted by the South African Psychoanalytic Confederation during October 2016.

I should begin by stating that I was really excited about attending the conference as I was looking forward to being immersed in psychoanalytic theory and language. That is exactly what happened. My psychoanalytic orientation was affirmed with the concepts and jargon that I was exposed to at the conference.

However, I soon came to feel that this affirmation came at a cost. The exact cost becomes clear when I reference the psychoanalytic presentation on maids and madams that was presented by Professor Cora Smith – about which I will say something in a short while.

As I said to a fellow black therapist, I struggled to be present at the conference. Contrary to my usual conference behaviour, I was several hours late and left several hours before the end of the conference on both days.Manganyi_BeingBlack_SproCas

During the conference I once again felt like a black spectacle. Since I had taken professional flight from the Cape Town southern suburbs years ago, I had forgotten what it feels like to be hyper-visible and invisible, all at the same time. Invisibility and hyper-visibility are, paradoxically, two sides of the same coin: when people see you only as “the black” who stands in for “all the blacks”, they fail to see you as a full person with both bad and good qualities. It is this paradox of hyper-visibility and invisibility that is at the core of being a black spectacle in some predominantly white contexts. The negative feelings related to this “spectacularly invisible” blackness run deep.

I have been facilitating exclusively male psychotherapy groups for years, and this is the topic I presented on. The psychoanalytic fraternity is small and overwhelmingly white and it was no surprise that a small group of mostly white female psychoanalytic therapists attended my talk. There were some baffling responses from a member of the audience to my presentation. However, one standout response was being called a “victim” of the men’s groups that I facilitate.

It was only in the days after the presentation that I became angry at being captured as a victim in a men’s group. It seems that my audience struggled to imagine how I centralise the cultural discourses of the men’s group participants. And yet the white therapist seemed convinced that black men can only relate to a black woman as a victim.

The presentation that best articulated my ambivalent, uncomfortable, paradoxical and unsettled feelings was that by Smith referred to above. It was on maids and madams. In brief, the presentation analysed how the white madam colonizes the maternal function of the maid. She, the madam pays for the private school education of the maid’s son, Karabo. Karabo renames himself Brian and prefers to have white friends. So the white madam subjugates the culture and almost the entire life of the black maid.

In addition to the psychoanalytic analysis as it carefully zoomed in on the childhood and personal dynamics of the maid and the madam, I thought to myself that the maid’s experience embodies some of what I felt as a member of the psychoanalytic fraternity.

The tendency to take over other people’s way of life, to dictate the terms of the encounter, is widespread. It can be found and experienced in many former model C and private schools, in white-dominated business, in historically white universities, in circles that privilege whiteness, and not only in largely white psychoanalytic circles. There can be no accommodation of me as a black person and who I am. The culture of constipated politeness is all devouring.

At some point during my membership of the psychoanalytic organisation I realised that I had lost my voice and creativity. I only regained my inspiration when I was professionally surrounded by those who could reflect who I am. This does not mean those who merely agree with my views, but, most importantly, those who recognise my full being as a person. It means that I don’t have to prove that I am human – not a stand-in for a race that is considered not quite intelligent simply because it is not pale – every time I open my mouth.

I want to take responsibility for my reactions. Partly my reactions are subjective, they reflect my personal history. Narcissistic injuries can leave one hypersensitive to obsessively egocentric performances. I know not everyone has such a strong reaction to this devo6uring culture.

But everything in me starts to toyi toyi when I become aware of that not so subtle callous disregard for the other. That inability to just relate to the other. To authentically honour and ‘see’ the other. Relating to others is often instrumental, about being on top or about using the other for your own purposes.

Some of the few black people at the conference didn’t help much either, perhaps may even have worsened my experience. There was, in my view, one presentation that reminded me of the “tea girl syndrome”. One of the presenters spoke about “human others” as she self-identified as Coloured in a public space. I want to contend that Coloured is a ‘lesser than human’ category created by apartheid law for the purposes of divide and rule. I’m not promoting a denialism of the realities of shades of black experiences. I retain strong attachments to aspects that have defined me as Coloured. Afrikaans is my mother tongue. However, being Coloured was a not-quite-white created as a buffer between the black category and the white one. Perhaps I have to keep thinking about the benefits of Colouredness.  I may even be suffering from a “blacker than thou” complex.

I will have to weigh up the pros and cons of attending such conferences in future. I may have to start by calculating what are the supposed gains and losses when one makes a decision of locating oneself in predominantly black rather than white academic and clinical spaces, where white and black do not refer so much to how people look, but how people treat each other. The difficulty is that many white professionals in South Africa, even though trained to “cure” others, have inauthentic relationships with black people, including black professionals. They have yet to learn to authentically honour and regard those who are not white as equals.

In considering the potential gains and losses of attending such conferences in future, the example of John Bowlby and his brand of psychoanalysis comes to mind. Bowlby broke with Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud and his own analyst Melanie Klein because he associated attachment with agency. He foregrounded the dynamism of the baby rather than emphasising its fragility as per traditional psychoanalysis.

I believe the work I do with men is important and makes a difference in their lives. It is also meaningful to me. I am aware that getting close to others should bring one closer to one’s own authentic and culturally-rooted creativity. When attachment to others creates fruitless tensions and self-disconnect, it is perhaps time to move on and find spaces that is friendlier to one’s psyche. The greatest cost of sticking around is betraying what is meaningful to one’s life and ultimately the loss of the true self. Sometimes in order to redeem oneself, one has to achieve disentanglement, a creative separation and individuation from the devouring other. It’s never easy, but that’s what appears necessary at this time.

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