Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Black Client, White Therapist: Working with Race in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy in South Africa

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Black Client, White Therapist: Working with Race in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy in South Africa

Article excerpt

In post-apartheid South Africa we speak about race extensively. It permeates our workplace, weaves a thread through the fabric of our professional and personal lives, as well as our private conversations and public interactions with others. From within psychoanalytic theory, the thread weaves through the unknown content of our racialized unconscious. When there is a focus on race in the South African psychoanalytic context it largely takes the form of the struggle to articulate the complexities of working with difference, as Swartz notes, or the struggle to map out issues of race. Such struggles are not localized in South Africa, but strongly reflect a much broader struggle within the global psychoanalytic community, as mirrored in the expanding focus on race. Although the consulting rooms seem far removed from the ongoing political tensions that have recently emerged in South Africa, psychoanalytic psychotherapy remains a space of meaningful engagement with the other, and where the therapeutic dyad is one of racial difference it permits an encounter with our racialized unconscious. This article seeks to document the experience of my black client and my white response to her racial pain and struggle; in doing so, I describe the racial 'contact' between us and within us that triggers a racialized transference and countertransference dynamic, which contains the space for racial healing for both of us.

Keywords: race, black client, white client, psychoanalytic, psychotherapy, South Africa

I was at the 2012 International Congress for Psychology in Cape Town, South Africa, and after my presentation on race in psychoanalysis several black South Africans came up to me and said that: "So much racial healing has already happened but there is still some more work to do". One person said: "I still want to talk about stuffthat happened to me".

These are powerful 'black words' spoken to a white therapist, given the history of institutionalized racism in South Africa, and a testimony to the growth and development of interracial relations in present-day South Africa. Race talk like this is common at professional conferences and meetings. It is inevitable that South Africans would collectively be preoccupied with race, and the space of psychotherapy is no exception. In post-apartheid South Africa we speak about race extensively. It permeates our work place, weaves a thread through the fabric of our professional and personal lives, the broader social and community discourse, as well as our private conversations and public interactions with others; from within psychoanalytic theory, this thread reaches the unknown content of our racialized unconscious. South African psychoanalytic psychotherapist Sally Swartz (2007a) claims that such preoccupation with race is often fraught with anxiety, causing a debilitating paralysis in professional debates. In another paper, Swartz remarks that, when there is a focus on race in the South African psychoanalytic context, it largely takes the shape of the struggle to attempt to articulate the complexities of working with difference or the struggle to map out issues of race (Swartz, 2007b). Such struggles are clearly not localized in South Africa and its psychoanalytic community but reflect a much broader struggle within the global psychoanalytic community, as mirrored in the expanding focus on race (Altman, 2000, 2004; Bonovitz, 2009; Dalal, 2006; Harris, 2007; Straker, 2004; Suchet, 2004; White, 2007).

Race in psychoanalysis: A brief overview

Psychoanalysis emerged in a specifically Western tradition of intellectual and social values and is thus largely based on a philosophy of liberal individualism; it can therefore be argued that it is traditionally a therapeutic technique with limited applicability across classes and diverse cultural groupings (Walls, 2004). In a sense, psychoanalysis operates to adapt the individual to the main social discourse of the day, and in white-dominated Western society this means that 'others' that do not fit, conform, or adapt to the dominant ideology of the day are muted and marginalized. …

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