Raza Griffiths reflects on racism in mental health services.
Recently I decided to quit my therapeutic community. It was the Black Lives Matter protests which jolted me into realizing that I’d had enough of the racism.
It was a heart-wrenching decision to leave a level of support that, post-austerity, is incredibly rare to find on the NHS. Given that many people in a state of mental health crisis have no support whatsoever, I had considered myself one of the lucky ones.
In the community, I had shared the most intimate parts of my trauma and felt a sense of kinship with the service users and therapists. I had also formed friendships that continued outside the community, and led to frequent visits to cafes, meals in cosy pubs, gym sessions which motivated me to get fit, and some lovely cycle rides and walks.
As a gay man, highlighting my very real experiences of homophobia within Muslim communities, in therapy, had been relatively easy, probably because it fitted neatly into mainstream narratives about Muslims as intolerant and backward (though the full nuances of my experiences were not so easy to pigeonhole). But, mentioning the racism within mainstream white communities that community members came from, proved a bridge too far.
A chance incident in which someone denied that racism existed within the community, opened the floodgates, and drove me to catalogue all the racism and more subtle othering I had experienced since joining.
One service user had declared to me that he was a racist with a smile. Where did his sense of entitlement to say this to my face in front of everyone come from? Some were genuinely shocked, but no-one had said anything. I did feel emboldened to challenge him and felt a renewed sense of membership of the community when he left.
But most of the racism wasn’t so obvious. One thing that was fairly constant though, was the casual referencing of the black skin tone of bad drivers as we drove to the therapy venue, and the referencing of black and brown skin tones when referring to people who had abused community members. For some reason, whiteness was never referenced in this way. Why?
There was also the fast talker and Trump fan who believed that traitorous white liberals (or ‘libtards’ as he called them) were paving the way for ‘white genocide’ and the eventual ascendancy of black and brown people. But where did I, as a brown person, fit into his world view? Although he had seemed quite friendly up to a point and we even went partying together.
Coming to the present, there were those who had voiced the view, when discussing the Black Lives Matter protests, that too much was being made of George Floyd’s virtual lynching, and that Floyd was, after all, a criminal. And didn’t black people kill each other in droves and why didn’t ‘they’ protest about that? All Lives Matter! White Lives Matter! The statues of White Lives matter! – even the marble and alabaster effigies of those who had kidnapped, branded, and worked living black people to death. And why was I as a brown person, concerned about black lives anyway?
This final throwaway remark drew a complex emotional response from me, not least because of my awareness of anti-Black racism within South Asian communities. But there is also a long and proud tradition I and many black and brown activists identify with, of working together to challenge our common enemy of racism.
Another friend, who had spent his undergraduate years as a minority white person in a UK university with an overwhelmingly South Asian student population, said he understood the power dynamics involved in being a minority. But he insisted that we only talk about this outside the therapeutic community, so the others didn’t feel guilt tripped. This further heightened my sense that talking about race was uniquely beyond the pale.
And, most hurtfully of all, two former friends of mine, at the end of a lovely long cycle ride, which ended with a vista of the sun’s rays momentarily illuminating an undulating landscape of clouded hills, talked about how this precious inheritance had to be guarded by banning all future immigration.
Only one service user community member actively defended me in the face of racism and homophobia, and to that person I am extremely grateful for her courage and wisdom. Maybe, some of these people did not consciously think of me as Other.
Maybe our long acquaintance over several years of intense listening to and identifying with each other’s traumas had made them think it was ok to say these things to me. Maybe I had become whitewashed into becoming one of ‘us’? This is the kind of acculturation for the sake of acceptance that many people from racialized groups conspire with daily, to make life safe for ourselves in White environments. But then, when I named the R word, the sense of connection and identification I had built up, broke down. I was faced with disbelief, denial, defensiveness, boredom, and anger. I was even accused of reverse racism against white people. There is a well-known quote from the Reni Eddo-Lodge book, “Why I don’t talk to White People about Race” which perfectly mirrors the reactions I got from the all-White community:
“I’m no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race. Not all white people, just the vast majority who refuse to accept the existence of structural racism and its symptoms. I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates their experience. You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals. It’s like they can no longer hear us.”
I felt like a stranger who had finally smelt the coffee.
Where were the therapists in all this? Admittedly, not all of these comments had happened during the therapy itself, so they were not necessarily aware of everything that had been said. I had respected these people. Some of them had been brilliantly insightful in helping me connect with myself. But the basic idea of the therapy seemed to be that our lives had become dysfunctional, due to an original trauma which resulted in us being easily triggered when reminded of it by current events. The problem that needed sorting lay with our exaggerated and inappropriate emotional reactions to external events.
But, if someone had been sexually abused, would it have been right to continually expose them to rape jokes to help them to ‘deal’ with being triggered better? And if I had been a woman, would it have been right to place me within an all-male group? In the highly unlikely event that this had been done, wouldn’t I have been justified in expecting therapists to be proactive in ensuring that I was not victimized or subjected to male chauvinistic attitudes? The buck stopped with the therapists not the other service users, who clearly, had their own traumas which they understandably wanted to push to the fore rather than racism.
The therapists’ neo liberal approach, shorn of political, economic and social context, could also very easily lead to victim blaming in its narrow focus on individual pathology and detachment from the wider determinants of mental wellbeing. This narrowness was also revealed in the lack of understanding shown to people facing a struggle for survival due to the benefits system and gruelling PIP assessments. Because we all faced benefits challenges, we were able to find common cause and give each other encouragement over the heads of the therapists. But, the inadequacy of the psychological therapy model became apparent to me by its inability to engage with racism. Reluctantly, I realised I had used a service that was institutionally racist.
I also realised I had conspired in this by my silence, and reproached myself for this.
It wasn’t the therapy that enabled me to finally find my voice to challenge racism. It was the sight of George Floyd being choked to death by the knee of an indifferent police officer as others watched on. Somehow that event evoked the whole history of the last decade, the lurch to the right and the rising respectability of racism. In 2010, when Nick Griffin, the then BNP leader appeared on Question Time, all the other panelists condemned him for his disgusting views. But now, many politicians and much of the media try to placate the racists. In this environment I found it hard to breathe.
The rot went all the way to the top. ‘Our’ Prime Minister caricatured black people as “picaninnies with watermelon smiles”; Muslim women wearing the veil as walking “letterboxes”; and – just to touch all bases – gay men as “tank-topped bum boys”. He declined every opportunity to apologise.
This followed on from Theresa May hiring vans urging illegal migrants to leave the country, and David Cameron who, in the fallout from the terrorist attacks, basically tore up the idea of multiculturalism, which for all its imperfections, was a key part of Britishness that held a space for the possibility of hybrid identities. This was a sea change to the social contract. Then, the increasingly hawkish policies of Prevent resulted in the co-Chair of the Tory party, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi – certainly no social liberal – resigning due to Tory Islamophobia.
David Cameron’s tearing up of multiculturalism made it personal. It felt like an implied criticism of me as a person. And this was to say nothing of the Tories’ divisive austerity policies over the last decade, which had widened socio-economic inequalities and impacted racialised communities particularly hard.
This swing to the right and to nativist national populism was reflected in the rising popularity and outspokenness of figures like the historian and social commentator, David Starkey. His spin on the reasons for the violent inner-city riots in 2011, had been that “the whites have become Black” (BBC2, Newsnight, Friday, 12 August 2011) – as if there were something inherently violent, nihilistic and riot prone about Black cultures. Starkey also went on to demonise Muslim cultures by saying that the Rochdale child exploitation ring which groomed white girls for sex had values that were “entrenched in the foothills of the Punjab,” He did not demonise the far more numerous white paedophiles as reflecting the values of the Thames estuary or the morals of the Pennines. The defence that selectively blaming ‘culture’ in this way (rather than biology) is not racist, must be constantly exposed.
I was pleased when Starkey lost many of his university honours and positions over his comment that the Mid Atlantic slave trade was not genocide because “so many damn Blacks” [sic] survived.
The protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s lynching, gave me hope. I couldn’t just stand by and do nothing. My decision to leave the therapeutic community comes at a cost which I should not have to bear (I now have no mental health support). But I intend to take this matter up with my local Healthwatch and with commissioners.
Raza Griffiths has used various mental health services over many years, most recently, an NHS therapeutic community for people with a diagnosis of personality disorder. He is also a mental health activist whose most recent work is “A Call for Social Justice” (NSUN, 2018) – a manifesto highlighting policy and practice changes to improve the mental wellbeing of mental health service users from racialized communities. See here