Judy Ryde, PhD is a freelance psychotherapist, supervisor and trainer of 25 years’ experience. She provides supervision training across the helping professions within the Centre for Supervision and Team Development. Judy also supervises the BCPC Asylum Project which provides counselling and psychotherapy for asylum seekers and refugees, and was a co-founder of Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility. She is author of the new book, Being White in the Helping Professions: Developing Effective Intercultural Awareness, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
I found, in the research I carried out for my book, Being White in the Helping Professions (Ryde 2009), that it is extremely difficult for us white people to understand our position in a racial context. Many people I spoke to wondered if ‘white’ meant anything at all and I started by questioning if there was anything to look at. Then gradually the meaning of whiteness in a racial context became apparent, like shapes emerging from a white page. It was both fascinating and salutary.
I came eventually to understand ‘white’ to mean the European diaspora which now dominates global culture in its economic, political, cultural and social arrangements. I also discovered that, however much we would like to deny it, we carry with us in all our interactions with those who are not white (as well as those who are) a legacy of history and this includes both slavery and colonization. In the context of our world wide domination it is only too easy to see ourselves as just ‘normal’, particularly if that normality affords us an easy, privileged position in the global society.
As white helping professionals, attitudes and assumptions which are shaped by our historical and cultural context, will necessarily affect our practice. Fundamental ways of understanding the world can seem so self-evident to us that we do not imagine that it is possible to view them differently. Many of the tensions that arise between races and cultures are found as a result of misunderstandings made in the light of our cultural differences.
Western society is steeped in dualistic, either/or notions that we cannot avoid but be part of. This has many ramifications but one of them is that ‘White’ helping professionals tend to give the flourishing of their individual client, rather than the individual in the context of their environment, as the aim of their work (Sue and Sue 1990:35), thus reinforcing a split between the individual and society. Many cultures do not make a split of this kind. Understanding the way we tend to do this can be more instructive than trying to help our clients become more individualistic.
Work in the area of ‘equal opportunities’ has tended to encourage a reliance on ‘politically correct’ notions which encourage a prescribed way of thinking and acting. These tend to generate unproductive guilty feelings and a tendency to deny racist thoughts. My encouragement is to avoid prescriptive notions which advocate ‘correct’ ways of working in a transcultural setting and definite descriptions of different cultures. Instead I encourage self reflection and an inquiring stance so that our own responses as well as our clients’ are taken into account when we work with them. If we find that we have a racist thought (which I think we all do) I have found that catching it and reflecting on its meaning is the most productive way of limiting its power. I have, through my research, come to realize that racism is held within cultural norms and needs to be tackled at that level to make a real difference.