Let's Get Uncomfortable - My Reflections
Shortly after the celebrations of completing my counselling diploma I found myself in a vacuum, one in which I needed to find some form of connection. This initially came in a form of a meet up group for black and Asian counselling students. During this meet up the anger in the room encased the neglect people felt from educational institutions and other peers. I found a form of belonging within that group but also left with sadness. I wondered why a group for black and Asian students has been set up, did that mean that any concerns of these students were falling on deaf ears in the outside world of therapy or not even voiced at all? By creating an "us", we created a "them" and how would anyone grow if "them" never knew the concerns of "us" and visa versa. In my experience of life so far most divisions create a land of misunderstandings.
My search for a place of comfort continued and I stumbled upon Aashna, which ironically held a series of encounters called "let's get uncomfortable". The ethos of this space resonated and invited me into the sanctuary that it became immediately. I watched others trickle in and the voice under my 'networking' smile said "this is an opportunity for black and Asian therapists to get together and have a moan, so what are all these white people doing here?" I then hoovered up the Indian snacks to distract my confusion. Removing our shoes and sitting on the floor reminded me of going to religious functions in a temple, the rare occasion when hierarchy and status seemed to lose its structure. The evening's encounter had begun by inviting therapists of colour to speak of their experiences in training. At this stage I was still gripping onto my cushion in confusion. The first person spoke and I was most taken by their courage and openness. However what touched me further was the response of the others. The respect and acceptance was demonstrated in their ability to listen without any form of evident defensiveness. I had mastered the art of avoiding public speaking throughout my life due to feelings of inadequacy and fearing judgement, but that evening my inner child was stretching his hand in the air to be seen instead of hiding, he felt safe.
My experiences of counselling training
Arriving at the first day of counselling training wasn't a case of skipping in inspired by the new horizon in front of me. I creped in with the shame, anger and a distinct lack of confidence. Why all these difficult emotions? In the equality and diversity part of the application form I ticked the 'British Indian' box. This little box had a lot to answer for, certainly this tribe that I belonged to were successful on many fronts, though this meant having to follow a rigid and unforgiving structure. Those few who had the courage not to comply but to search for themselves were more likely to be preyed on than praised. In times of uncertainty animals tend to huddle up and move in close formation with those they identify with for safety, they live in fear and distrust of others, strikingly similar to the world I lived. Echo's of statements like "know your place son" and "we can't be like them" had been past down from generation to generation until they had found a home within me that I still struggle to evict. When my father and other elders used the term "them", they meant the white folk, and with this baggage weighing down on me I entered the class to see a horseshoe of seats filled with "them". I was a surprised that the racial diversity of London was not represented in the training room.
As time went by and I settled into the course, I started to see that the definition of "them" was fraying. There were many shades of white, just as there were of anything else. I experienced the diversity of whiteness, how class played a big part, nationality and religion. Those who I thought were oceans apart turned out to be in the same boat as me, but this realisation took work and challenge, but I am all the more richer for it.
There was a group that captivated my interest in particular, that of the white middle class female, interestingly they were in a minority amongst other females, yet the power appeared to be in their hands. Despite their individual vulnerabilities in life there was still an air of confidence and entitlement. They held the attitude of "I can", a contrast to my permission seeking approach of "can I?" These influential few set the benchmark on what was acceptable in the group, though I suspect they didn't even know themselves that they were doing it. Any discussion topic that had a whiff of ethnicity, the eyes rolled in my direction. That was my cue. At times I saw this as a privilege to share my pearls of wisdom, but then at other times I seethed in the pressure of being boxed in. The distant memories of being on a dance floor came back to me, when the one Indian track that happen to cross over into the mainstream charts would come on, again the attention would be on me to perform, after all, the track was Indian and I was Indian, so surely I should know it and like it right? On the rare occasion when the suppressed anger of the powerless brown guy came out, I could feel some of those otherwise vocal and influential classmates sink into their seats, the point at which I switched into rescue mode, a reminder of the boundaries.
We spent a part of the course focusing on diversity issues, on the whole people were open and engaging, and then the talk on race came up and suddenly the majority of the class were struck with emotional constipation. A few categories of people emerged from this, firstly the "I'm not racist" crew that found it most uncomfortable to discuss race, be that due to guilt or exposing unconscious prejudices. Then there was the odd one who voiced "oh no not this race thing again" who felt that the race issue was overhyped. What worried me was who else harboured the same view but didn't voice it. Lastly there was the sprinkling of non white faces who shared glimpses with each other "are we going to open our mouths or not?", I mean to unpack generations of oppression that had been mangled into our identity, into a few hours of diversity training was a little difficult to say the least.
Towards the end of the course people considered their future pathways. I got the impression that the white middle class females would seek out clients like themselves because they didn't want to repeat the experience of shrivelling into their seats at the mention of race, especially in front of a client. As for the rest of us in that group, I have a whim that we may grow through more diverse experiences of clients because we didn't have a privilege that we feared to lose. Then again I felt that I was pointing fingers at this white group punishing them for their privileges and being envious at the same time. I had to stop in my tracks and look at my own privileges growing up in an Indian household where I would get a freshly cooked meal from my mum everyday without having to do any of the cleaning, washing etc. Right there was my privilege that I wouldn't be comfortable giving up despite knowing that it was unfair. Maybe I should not see it as a loss but an opportunity to gain a broader perspective.
A potential pathway to something better?
This doesn't come in the form of a magic pill but if I could put it into one word, it would be, talk. People often talk with ignorance or hide with ignorance. Political correctness may be aimed to prevent offense but isn't avoidance just another offense? That fear of making mistakes is perhaps the greatest one of them all, so what I say is be brave to make mistakes. Like in the therapy room we will always make some mistake/misinterpretation or other, but if our client knows we are coming from a place of love and care then they are more likely to hold our mistakes in the arms of forgiveness. We then have the opportunity to refine our understanding and grow within ourselves and in the therapeutic relationship.
Over time training organisations can introduce non western philosophies of therapy to both compliment and contradict what is already taught, deepening the therapist's tool kit and providing an alternative lens to embrace the greater diversity of clients.
Attending the encounters at Aashna has reconfirmed my belief in the power of storytelling. Using one other as our textbooks evokes a sense of immediacy, the emotions behind the words and the multitude of facial expressions can all be mirrors, if we dare to look.