My role as a psychotherapist working in Central London brings me face to face with people of many different backgrounds, ages, races, class and political and religious viewpoint. The origins of psychotherapy lie in Europe which was mostly created by middle class white men to treat mainly white women. Much has changed about the world since then and much has changed in the way we see difference and otherness in the consulting room.
At the beginning of treatment and throughout the course of therapy, both the therapist and patient can expect to be silently evaluated by each other. This process leaves us open to our vulnerabilities. Psychotherapy may activate emotional memories that relate to issues such as trust, entitlement, , authority conflicts, and the possibility of being judged. The opportunity for the person in treatment to expose her difficulties and to have these accepted and validated by the therapist, are critical components of the work. A positive therapeutic relationship is predicated on creating a safe enough space to expose our thoughts and desires and the therapist’s ability to handle these, including navigating those occasions when our differences interfere with a sense of emotional safety.
With this in mind I was struck by the relevance of the film ‘Get Out’ by Jordan Peele. The film artfully attempts to allow a white person to see the world through the eyes of a black person for an hour and half.
In the film, Missy, the therapist uses hypnosis to stir up memories of main character losing his mother and the associated pain to enter his mind. She sends him to ‘The Sunken Place’ – this is used as a metaphor for the representation of People of Colour. The “sunken place,” is where people are weighted down by lies they have internalised about their history and racial trauma. This idea refers to W.E.B Du Bois’s theory of “double consciousness” where we see ourselves through the eyes of the dominant culture. Double Consciousness is an internal struggle that affects the Black psyche. Contemplating oneself through the eyes of others, you are forced to live double lives―the life of a person of colour and as a British citizen, both of which are not liberal to you. Hence, the term ‘double consciousness’. You know what racism feels and looks like, but white people do not know what racism is. They have never experienced it after all. They have never felt what it is to be suppressed by people of their own country. They have never felt that pain or misery that many people of colour have been breathing like air since their birth.
As a psychotherapist there is much to be learnt from this experience. Our role asks us to try to understand the difficulties experienced by another human being, quite often with very different backgrounds to our own. The film ‘Get out’ uses imagery and symbolism to demonstrate both the literal meaning of the dialogue as it unfolds, but also the more subtle unconscious aspects of how we relate to each other and the world.
My experience of my difference means that on occasions I can’t quite tell if what I’m seeing has underlying bigotry, or it’s just a normal conversation and I’m being paranoid. I admit sometimes I see race and racism when its not there. That dynamic in itself is unsettling. It is this dynamic the film is able to capture. These aren’t the racists Hollywood is traditionally more comfortable calling out and posturing against. They aren’t Neo-Nazis, or White Nationalists. These are good White People, proud, well off and liberal who are very likely being completely sincere about their Obama votes and desire to connect with a multicultural society. Peele highlights a very specific subset of White racism: Liberals who are insistent of their non-racism because they admire an abstract ideal of Blackness while not actually engaging or regularly encountering any actual Black people.
Peele isn’t showing us that one race is superior to the other. He’s showing us that ideas of racial superiority are learned and passed down in families, workplaces, social groups and through the media.