My Invisible friend was white
A Prejudice and Diversity Essay
By Drew Sinclair
“intelligence is intuitive you needn’t learn to love unless you’ve been taught to fear and hate”
~ Saul Williams
My invisible friend was white, what does this mean?
When I was about 6-7 years old I remember wishing with all the energy in my heart, that I was white. Suffocated by this desire I would sit in the colourful passageway of my childminders home sobbing and praying to be something other than what I was. It would slowly squeeze the air from my lungs replacing it with sadness, resentment and the experience of not feeling at home in my inner and external world.
I wanted to be calm and cool, versatile and funny like the heroes in my favourite movies comic books and cartoons. Everywhere my small eyes would look I saw successful, funny, beautiful, rich, creative, holy and pure white people. A strong-reaffirming image of self, was being created and portrayed by the newspapers, advertisements on television and by religious establishments, and then asserted again by my surrounding community. But for a person that didn’t fit that image and had very little influence at the time as to what went into the media, I was left with the question, “What am I?” I was fractured between what I wanted to be and what I felt I was. As I grew older I began to believe that I was not allowed to be apart of that successful group and the adjectives of ‘successful, funny, beautiful, rich, creative, holy and pure’ were reserved for people that did not look like me.
The musical undertow of the media was so loud it drowned the voices of my family and close community, who tried their best to install in me a positive sense of self-regard. But like giant fingers clasped around my heart, the mass media was crushing the light and hope in me and often left me squirming and struggling to figure out how to relieve this pain; how to prove what seemed like the entire world, wrong.
Words floated around me, trying their best to stick, ‘dumb, ugly, thief, bad, untrustworthy, naughty, poor, disobedient, criminal, nappy, untamed, uncivilised, slave, nigger’. These words were shared in the playground amongst children trying to find their place in the world.
I realise this sounds quite severe, but to the heart and mind of a 6-7-year-old who was building the structure of his reality, our prejudice was detrimental and a severe hindrance to my ability to believe in myself and believe in other people that looked like me. So at this very important juncture in my life, I created an invisible white representative for my feelings, my likes and dislikes, desires and beliefs. Having a white friend with me at all times was a way to be ushered into this desired world of whiteness.
How did my invisible friend help me?
I was able to use my invisible friends’ presence to help me make and justify my decisions “No! Jeffery doesn’t like eating rice and peas, he only likes white rice”. “Please mum, Jeffrey said he doesn’t want to play with Damien he only likes Robin and Olivia”. My invisible friend became my mask to protect me in a dangerous world that discriminated against me for something I had no control over; the colour of my skin.
Sadly my invisible friend could not always protect me from the negative stereotypes attached to the personality of my skin; my mask could not hide me from me. Despite feeling like Jeffery and being accustomed to the life I believed Jeffery should live, when I looked in the mirror I saw Drew. This left me traumatised, confused and without identity. I didn’t want to be black yet I definitely was not white.
Being light-skinned offered me the option of being assumed mixed-raced which I am not as both my parents are black Jamaicans, but still, this option was not acceptable as any measure of visible darkness seemed to be rejected by the white fairytale that I so wished to be apart of.
“The effect of racist trauma alters self-perception and self-esteem and disturbs the structures of safety. This can result in mistrust, contemptuousness or ambivalence towards one’s culture, ethnic identity and self. This, in turn, can result in profound alienation, loss and relational disconnection that can produce a need to defensively assert, deny or hide in one’s cultural experience.”
(Smith, B. & Largo, C. (2010) Anti-Discriminatory Practice in Counselling & Psychotherapy, Professional Skills for Counsellors)
For me this manifested as a white invisible friend.
How does race and culture play a part in how I see myself.
Frantz Fanon was a psychiatrist philosopher and radical thinker, born in the French colony of Martinique. Fanon wrote the book “Black Face, White Mask”, published in 1952. His book looked at the psychology of racism and dehumanisation in the process of colonisation. He believed that people of the African diaspora were subject to cultural assimilation. This is when a group is forced to renounce their language and culture and adopt the identity of the dominant culture. This produces a myriad of problems as when you are forced to adopt the outside culture yet are constantly reminded by an often hostile external force that your attempts to be white will never work, so you are left in a state of incongruence; distressed, without identity, alienated and sitting in a colourful passageway sobbing and praying to be something other than what you are.
“The white coloniser and the black colonised exist within the grip of a massive psychoexistential complex” (1986, 12). Fanon suggests that this has multiple detrimental psychological effects. Such effects are realised not only in the dreams of the colonised but also in the psychic life of the colonised, who, in many ways, thinks of himself (or herself) as white.
In accordance with psychoanalytic theory, Fanon looks to the underlying desire motivating the dreams, the actions and the personality of the colonised, and claims to find there is a simple wish. “What does the black man want?” he asks, mimicking Freud’s famous “What does a woman want?”. He answers that, “The black man wants to be white”.
(Critical psychology By Nhlanhla Mkhize, Peace Kiguwa UTC press 2004).
In Fanon’s book, “Black Face White Mask”, he follows the implications of wanting to be white across language, sexuality, dreams and behaviour. He found in each of these areas the desire to be white. The taking in of the language and culture, the deep craving for a white sexual partner, skin whitening, hair-straightening, extensions and weave all show the basic wish and its affects. Fanon points out that, “these unconscious processes are ultimately derived from inequalities present in wider social structures and cannot as such be reduced to the internal psychical workings of individual subjects”.
This goes with the belief that white people, in relative terms, have everything and the black people have nothing. So the desire to be white is not historical or universal, it is a result of power, of material, economic, cultural and political conditions that celebrate and empower white people and continually discriminate against black people.
Brown vs the state
In the 1940s, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark designed and conducted a series of experiments called “the doll tests” to study the psychological effects of segregation on African-American children.
Four identical dolls were used in the experiments; the only difference was the colour of their skin. Children between the ages of three to seven were asked to identify the race of the dolls and which doll they preferred. The majority of the children preferred the white doll assigning positive qualities to it and disliked the black doll assigning negative qualities to it. The Clarks concluded that “prejudice, discrimination, and segregation” created a feeling of inferiority among African-American children and damaged their self-esteem.
In an interview on the award-winning PBS documentary of the Civil Rights movement, “Eyes on the Prize,” Dr Kenneth Clark said: “The Dolls Test was an attempt on the part of my wife and me to study the development of the sense of self-esteem in children. We worked with Negro children—I’ll call black children—to see the extent to which their colour, their sense of their own race and status, influenced their judgment about themselves. We did it to communicate to our colleagues in Psychology the influence of race, colour and status on the self-esteem of children.”
While watching the Doll test video (please see link in the Bibliography), I felt my heart stop when the black children were asked which doll was most like them. This was towards the end of the experiment after the children had assigned many negative qualities to the black
doll. The child pauses before pointing to it, and I could feel and physically see their dilemma, as the unconscious collided with their conscious. I imagined their inner dialogue to be something along the lines of, “I feel that I am all the good things like the white doll, but how can I be if I am black.”
The term ”Neurosis” describes an emotional disorder, manifest at the level of personality, which stems from the conflict between a fundamental (often instinctual) impulse or wish and the need to repress this instinct. Neuroses can lead to a whole series of irrational behaviours and hindering beliefs that come from a conflict between the powerful unconscious urges and the social/cultural need to keep these urges outside of the conscious mind.
“The neurosis of ‘blackness’ coined by Fanon, is the dream of turning white (that is, the wish to attain the level of humanity accorded to whites in a racist/colonial contexts). The neurosis comes into conflict with one’s being in a black body, and within a racist society, which makes this wish impossible.”
(Critical psychology By Nhlanhla Mkhize, Peace Kiguwa UTC press 2004)
Freud marked three elements within the mind, the id, the ego, and the super-ego.
- The id is where the instinctual sexual drives live and wish to always be fulfilled.
- The super-ego contains the “conscience,” internal socially-acquired control mechanisms.
- The ego is the conscious self, created by interactions between the id and the super-ego. It has the challenging job of bringing harmony to these elements so we can operate healthily in our reality.
If we are looking for the cause of neurotic disturbances, and hopefully, a means to cure them, we must always look to the childhood history of the individual, says Freud. Delving into their unconscious mind brings the repressions into the conscious mind and allows the ego to confront the disturbances directly to release them.
Freud followed Plato in his account of the nature of mental health or psychological wellbeing.
“This was the establishment of a harmonious relationship between the three elements which constitute the mind. If the external world offers no scope for the satisfaction of the id’s pleasure drives, or more commonly, if the satisfaction of some or all of these drives would indeed transgress the moral sanctions laid down by the super-ego, then an inner conflict occurs in the mind between its constituent parts or elements. Failure to resolve this can lead to later neurosis.”
(The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) (ISSN 2161-0002) was founded in 1995)
I must state that like a pendulum that swings from one side to the other, I found myself desperately searching for positive images of black people. While in my late teens, I submerged myself in a Black Power movement called the “Nation of Nuwabians”. This collective installed in me a tremendous amount of self-pride and love. Knowledge of many ancient African cultures like the Egyptian, Dogon and Benin was shared and also current achievements made across the globe by people of colour; achievements that didn’t seem to make their way into the mainstream news. Although this was very empowering it taught me to turn my fear and anger outwards and place it squarely on the shoulders of white society.
My pendulum had swung completely to the other side.
Fortunately, I experienced an abundance of Unconditional positive regard from my family as a child and young man, and was free to try things out and make mistakes, allowing my pendulum to swing freely.
Carl Rogers (1959) believed that humans have one basic motive, and that is to self-actualize i.e to achieve the highest level of self that we can. He thought that like a flower, humans will grow to their full potential if the environment and conditions are good enough. Rogers felt that people are inherently good but can become destructive when a poor concept of self or external barriers get in the way of their valuing process. Rogers thought that for a person to achieve self-actualization they must be in a state of Congruence. This is when ‘who I would like to be, is in balance with my actual behaviour’. My pendulum swings back and forth and at this stage in my life, it is beginning to come closer to a balanced middle ground. I can feel congruence, as I get closer to the person who I would like to be – my ideal self.
As a training counsellor, I try my best to own my experiences and prejudices without falling into self-blame, apathy or victimhood.
I have mourned and grieved for what has been lost whilst feeling a burning need to explore what has also been gained.
I want to follow my deep desire to respect and appreciate otherness. Seeing friends, family, strangers and future clients as various combinations of identities, and differences is helpingme to develop a practice that is inclusive of all.
I will learn by sharing my experiences of discrimination with my classmates. Telling my personal stories of feeling oppressed and misunderstood, I believe this will help me learn from my peers through their feedback, regardless of race, age, religion, gender or sexual preference, which will add to my feelings of positive self-regard.
How might diversity and prejudice impact on the therapeutic relationship?
I imagine that transference or countertransference based on our racial identities and social experiences could occur if I had a white therapist or white client. I understand this is natural, I am a human being with feelings and emotions but I also realise that it’s something I must be fully aware of if I want to maintain clear boundaries and not cause harm to a client.
Seeing a white therapist could be difficult especially a white male. I am aware that I would feel far more comfortable with a white female. The personality of my skin has become a constant consideration for me, I often catch myself observing myself through the eyes of what I imagine to be a white man, and the thoughts are seldom kind. I do believe an open trusting relationship could be formed within a short time but sharing the deeper areas of my experiences around racism could prove to be a true challenge in overcoming the barriers of understanding.
It has become clear that this is the true work and it does excite me to take on this challenge. To open honest and clear dialogue within me about these stereotypes that I carry. To help ensure that I am a professional counsellor I would take my feelings to my therapist and my journal.
In summary, I believe that the exploration of therapy through Art and storytelling could help me better understand this traumatic experience I had of myself. Painting and writing could be an inquiry and testimony through which I can view this racist trauma. This could sidestep subjective prejudice by connecting my art and stories to the universality of experience. This embodiment can become a source of awareness and wisdom that attempts to validate and humanize trauma experiences.
“We cannot continually barricade, ourselves under some falsified idea of race, because our idea of blackness and race is simply reactionary. Africans didn’t walk around Africa being black and proud, they walked around being proud.”
Fanon.F 2005. Black Skin, White Mask, Manchester University Press
Mkhiz. N & Kiguwa .P. 2004 Critical psychology, UTC press
Smith, B. & Largo, C. (2010) Anti-Discriminatory Practice in Counselling & Psychotherapy, Professional Skills for Counsellors
Eyes On The Prize.2016, Awakenings 1954-1956 Americas Civil Rights Movement.
Blondin. S. 2015 Live awake – Learning to surrender. Youtube.com
Edwards. N 2018 Darkness . Reaktion Book UK
Doll Test, 2012 Youtube.com
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, founded in 1995
McLeod. S 2007, Carl Rogers, Class hand out.
Williams. S 2015, Usa, Gallery Books.