Race, Colour and the Processes of Racialization: New Perspectives from Group Analysis, Psychoanalysis and Sociology (Book Review)

Author:  Dalal, Farhad
Publisher: Brunner-Routledge
Reviewed By: Geneva Reynaga-Abiko, Winter 2006, pp. 46-48

“Race” is one of the most commonly used words in modern parlance yet, by far, the most misunderstood. In fact, “race” as a biological construct does not even exist, though its sociopolitical salience cannot be denied. “Race” is commonly based on one’s skin color, though this definition all too easily disintegrates under close inspection. The sociopolitical definition of “race” is that one’s skin color defines their reality and the way they are treated by society. It is this definition that becomes increasingly relevant in the global, multicultural way of life in which we all participate. It is this facet of daily life that is the focus of Dalal’s work.

Dalal discusses a topic that is typically ignored in psychoanalysis. This can be understood as an effect of the focus of psychoanalysis on the individual, as opposed to group phenomena, although the effects of racism on the individual have been ignored in psychoanalysis as well. The only exception to this is racism as related to the Holocaust and Jewish victims, which is amply discussed in both theory and practice. Dalal chooses as his focus British culture, but the examples and effects he describes are relevant across human society. He fills a gaping hole in psychoanalysis for those clinicians hoping to work within a socio-culturally relevant framework. With the aid of this work, analysts may understand racism psychoanalytically, allowing them to incorporate this understanding when working with all patients. This is an imperative task for clinicians around the world, as immigration and globalization continually force cultural groups to interact in ways they never had to before. Dalal’s work convincingly and eloquently makes the case that “race” should be central to our understanding of psychic functioning.

Dalal begins with an introduction that provides the conclusions of the entire book. Specifically, he states:

The conclusions of the book may be summarized as follows: difference is not the cause of hatred, rather, particular differences are called forth by the vicissitudes of power relations in order to organize hatreds (and other emotions) in order to achieve particular ends. These mechanisms work by lending the differences and the required hatreds an air of naturalness and so legitimates them. One such difference is that of race, which because of its fragility relies on the notion of colour. And finally, it is shown that the structures of society are reflected in the structures of the psyche, and if the first of these is colour coded, then so will be the second. (p. 7)

What seems like a relatively simple set of ideas is demonstrated by the chapters that follow to be incredibly complex and seemingly impenetrable beliefs of society.

The idea that “race” means nothing outside of “racism” becomes the focus of Chapter One, in which Dalal discusses the commonly espoused definitions of “race.” This includes the ideas of difference among human beings, ideas of “pure” and “mixed” race(s), and the scientific history of “race” as a construct. He discounts each of these definitions in turn, eventually allowing the reader to understand his first basic premise: “race” divides humankind so as to maintain hierarchical power relations. This is a strong statement, especially in psychoanalysis, given that it has been labeled a treatment of the elite in many regions. It is also a statement that forces us, as psychologists and psychoanalysts, to consider sociopolitical reality in addition to psychic reality. Dalal argues that the two cannot be separated:

The findings of psychologists concern the mechanism of cognition, and so in a sense where the discontinuities are made are logically arbitrary. But what the socio-political perspective adds is the idea that the place where these ruptures are inserted are not at all arbitrary but socio-politically meaningful. After all, it cannot be coincidental that the colour lines drawn to name the races matched so exactly the power relations during the epoch of colonialism. The most impressive of these being the great divide between the colonizer and the colonized, which fell neatly onto those designated as white and the rest, i.e., the coloured, the black. (p. 12)

He ends the chapter with the idea that race is an incredibly evasive construct to study, since it simultaneously disintegrates as a scientific construct under scrutiny while remaining an incredibly powerful socio-political construct.

In Chapter Two, Dalal continues his focus on racism, this time as it relates to psychoanalysis. Specifically, he discusses how theory is inevitably affected by the theorist’s worldview, a topic he returns to more generally in Chapter Four. He then discusses racism in relation to Freud, Klein, Fairbairn, and Winnicott’s theories. Because none of these thinkers discuss racism directly, Dalal considers the ways in which the theories account for hatred, aggression, envy, etc. and then extrapolates these conceptualizations to racism. Dalal’s extrapolations may be viewed as intelligent and thoughtful conjecture that, while interesting, ultimately do not provide clinicians with a clear way in which to ground clinical work dealing with racism in existing theory.

With Chapters Three and Four, Dalal continues to focus on psychoanalysis, thoroughly investigating what little work has been done on racism in the field thus far. He insists that psychoanalysis’ exclusive focus on the individual has resulted in lack of consideration of important contextual variables, such as the environment. It is through this crack that a focus on racism has fallen. The existing work on racism continues to consider it as a symptom of the individual, as opposed to a complex interplay of social forces and power dynamics, leading to incomplete, overly simplistic views of racism.

While these chapters provide useful and accurate arguments, one wonders if group phenomena should be the focus of a field that is quite specifically concerned with the individual. Must psychoanalysis concern itself with all socio-political phenomena that may affect individuals? While it is certainly the opinion of this writer that the field is sorely lacking in conceptualizations of racism, and that this likely serves to further “blame the victim” and negate their experience, one wonders to what extent psychoanalysis can ever effectively answer these questions. As Dalal shows in his later chapters, the questions are answerable, but only when one expands their viewpoint to include social phenomena. The reader is left wondering how this can ever be accomplished with psychoanalytic theories alone.

Dalal then shifts gears and focuses on the work of Franz Fanon, whose work is outlined in detail as it relates to racism and the myriad of ways it becomes internalized in the psyche of the oppressed. Dalal states that Fanon is to be credited as providing the impetus of his theorizations and, as such, is well summarized in this chapter. However, one wonders how relevant Fanon’s work is to clinical work, as he is mostly referring to colonialism and the effects thereof. Fanon’s work on the liberation from colonialism, however, are relevant to current societal behaviors, especially regarding the existential crisis placed on those who are oppressed and stripped of all history as a group.

In Chapter Six, Dalal focuses on the work of S. H. Foulkes, as he explains that psychoanalysis cannot possibly explain group phenomena because it intrinsically focuses on the individual. Foulkes explained that our fundamental need is to belong and the way we do this is through communication. Therefore, any psychological illness present is due to a breakdown in communication and does not lie within the individual. In this way, the social permeates the deepest levels of the psychic (i.e., content as well as structure). Foulkes’s work seems to offer something other theorists have not and, at the very least, gives analysts an “excuse” to consider the social when working with individuals. In other words, even a cursory reading of Foulkes begs us to reconsider the idea that all explanations for symptoms lie within the individual.

With Chapter Seven, Dalal discusses Norbert Elias, thereby moving out of psychoanalysis and into sociology. Elias argues that the psyche is interrelated with society to the degree that they both occur only as abstractions. Language is inevitably composed of evaluations unique to one’s social group, with embedded affect as well, all of which is based on power differentials existent in society. Therefore, “…the forms of society play a significant role in the moulding of the emotions” (p. 131). This is a tremendously useful, fascinating, and controversial set of statements. To claim that what we consider private, personal thought, is influenced by society flies in the face of analytic thinking and those ideas most comfortable to members of an individualistic society.

With Chapter Eight, Dalal investigates the use of “white” and “black” in the Authorised Version of the Holy Bible, published in 1611, because it was used to teach English as well as moral behavior. His investigation demonstrates that “white” is always associated with goodness while “black” is always associated with “evil” (see p. 145 for a summary of his findings). This is supported by his semantic history of “black” and “white” in the Oxford English Dictionary, the widely accepted authority on the English language. Dalal argues that these associations are not “natural” but instead develop within the context of power dynamics. These investigations are very interesting and provide a surprising, somewhat disappointing, history of the English language.

Dalal discusses Ignacio Matte-Blanco’s rules of asymmetrical logic in Chapter Nine, showing that “…all identities are continually menaced by the presence of other hidden relationships which threaten all the while to burst out and destroy them” (p. 178). He argues that when we defend against this kind of ambivalence, the main precursor to racism is present. For this reason, splitting should not be considered primitive or pathological, as it is something that we all do everyday. The ways in which others are subjugated involves both the psychological as well as the socio-political, leading to the necessity of considering the social when working with individuals. In other words,

…the work of this chapter is putting forward an extension and a challenge to the psychoanalytic one-way street in which the vicissitudes of internal psychological worlds drive forms of social relatedness. Whilst there is a truth to this at the level of the individual, what has been argued in this chapter is that the forms, shapes and possibilities of that individual’s internal psychological world are severely constrained by the forms, shapes and preoccupations of the larger socio-historic milieu. Or more simply the vicissitudes of social relations drive what can take place in the internal world. The fact that both are true means that the relationship between them is a recursive one and so it is a two-way street. (p. 198)


The final chapter focuses on racism, now that Dalal has established that we all experience ourselves in racialized ways. This includes psychoanalysis, as it was created by individuals using the same color-coded language found in all of society! The reason that psychoanalysis only considers the individual, Dalal argues, is because it has been stripped of history, making all the causes of symptoms, internal ones. This is perpetuated by the practice of analysis in a sociopolitical vacuum. Dalal ends his work with a suggestion for another way of practicing, one that will allow the psychotherapist a means of working in a culturally relevant way:

The alternative hypothesis I am putting forward is that at times it is more useful to begin by explicitly accepting this presented experience of social reality, which then allows the patient to begin working with the internal....The model I am suggesting is one of moving from the outside in.…This suggestion flies in the face of the belief in certain schools of psychoanalysis, which is that all things have to be taken up in the transference and only the transference, and therefore all clinical events are to be understood as ultimately due to the externalization of material from the patient’s psyche. The fact that each person’s experience of the social is peculiarly subjective is utilized defensively by some schools of therapy to stay away from the social altogether. In this way of thinking, any acknowledgement of the external social by the therapist is a capitulation of some sort, a seduction by the patient, and a defeat of the therapy. (p. 220)

One may argue that this is also a recipe by which the powerful will always emerge victorious!

As a graduate student with a concentration in psychoanalytic treatment and theory, I was never exposed to conceptualizations of “race.” In fact, I was never exposed to anything other than traditionally held beliefs about individual psychic development. As a person of color who works predominantly with patients from ethnically diverse backgrounds, the lack of adequate theory to guide my work has become increasingly problematic. Dalal’s piece changed all that. Although this book does not fill the theoretical gaps in psychoanalysis around conceptualizing “race,” Dalal’s focus on both individuals and individuals within society offer fresh insights that literally served a calming function for me. I felt validated as a human being while reading this book, instead of trying (unsuccessfully) to squeeze myself into the biased, unsatisfying theories I was taught as a doctoral student.

In summary, Dalal has produced a phenomenal work in which he not only accounts for our current state of affairs in postmodern society, but also provides psychotherapists with a way of working in a more responsible, relevant fashion. He is thorough in this enterprise, reviewing all historical analytical work that is even remotely related to his topic. His writing style is clear and considerate of all groups, complete with chapter summaries that allow his readers to better understand the main ideas. He exercises good boundaries and does not use the book to further a personal agenda. Instead, Dalal writes in a way that is relevant yet not overly personal or individually situated. His text was informative not only for my work with socially disadvantaged populations, but in my understanding of my own development within a race-based society.

Reviewer Note

Geneva Reynaga-Abiko is a clinical psychologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Counseling Center. She is also the chair of Latino Student Outreach and works primarily with ethnic minority female clients. Her interests include psychodynamic psychotherapy, ethnic minority psychology, and neuropsychology.

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