If a group of people have power and privilege than, naturally, those groups will create systems that will perpetuate conditions to hold onto power and privilege (Elias, 1994b). Dalal (2016) discusses how groups tend to create a cohesive narrative to justify and assert their power in the world, enhancing the efficiency of communication among their group members. The English language has sufficiently communicated coded language to codify black and African Americans with negativistic labels that reinforce an undercurrent of associations with “bad,” for example, “animalistic,” “impure,” “corrupt,” or “dirty” (Menakem, 2009). Even in psychology, the cognitive distortion “Black and White thinking” reflects a Good/Bad Binary associated with racial overtones, causing it to shift to terms such as “dichotomous thinking” or “All or Nothing thinking.”
One step better than associating the label “bad” with that of a particular racial identity is to neglect the existence of one’s presence through whitewashing. These past five weeks, I have been recreating my group theory seminar previously discussed in The Group Psychologist and recognize a pervasive truth: All group theories are colorblind. If we are not even aware of people’s racial identities (or any diverse identities beyond gender), then we reinforce the narrative that race is optional, unimportant and not a variable that requires your awareness as a group leader. This absence stops the conversation before it even begins, it is impossible to be aware of the impact of the sociocultural transference that takes place in every interaction.
Group theorists appear to agree “a group” serves as a microcosm of the larger societal field (Yalom and Leszcz, 2005). The concept of isomorphy, that the greater systems culture perpetuates itself into the room, appears to be an agreed upon truth (Agazarian, 2012). Unfortunately, this acknowledgment of a known truth within our professional world does not indicate that group theorists and authors are above re-enacting the same erasure of Black racial identity in society. All seminal books and articles from the most prolific voices in the field: Modern Analytic (Ormont, 1992; Ormont and Furgeri, 2001), Group Analytic (Schlapobersky, 2016), Mentalization-based (Bateman and Fonagy, 2016), Interpersonal process (Yalom and Leszcz, 2005), psychodynamic (Rutan, Stone and Shay, 2014) and object relations (Cashdon, 1988), fall into the same enactment. They omit racial identity from the vignettes and illustrations completely.
By whitewashing racial and other marginalized identities away from the clinical context, we are raising the next generation of group therapists to set their frame as focusing on a one-size-fits all application to their theoretically based techniques.
The origins of this colorblindness may be related to the exorbitant cost associated with ongoing psychoanalytic training and treatment. A small example of how group therapy vignettes are typically framed, and brief considerations of the problems associated with this approach are given below: I am using this vignette to humbly demonstrate my own lack of consciousness or curiosity towards racial dynamics.
Dr. Personne is five sessions into leading an interpersonal process group. Although seemingly cohesive, they have started to notice a disturbing pattern. A member, Alex, in the group is the center of a series of attacks that Dr. Personne fears could lead to Alex becoming the group scapegoat. Another group member, Sam, appears to repeatedly target Alex with sharp criticisms.
Whether apologetic, assertive, or analytical, Alex continues to invite hatred towards him from Sam and at least three other group members of the ten total members.
Dr. Personne fears Alex does not possess the ego strength to handle these criticisms from the group members due to being under insulated. As such, Dr. Personne steps in to protect Alex from the ire of Sam and the other group members.
Alex: I don’t think it helps to smile when you’re feeling upset or sad about these stories you’ve shared in group.
Sam: Why does anyone have to act the way that you think is best?
Dr. Personne: Sam, I appreciate your expression, but I think you are angry at the wrong person. I have not set firm enough boundaries around what is expected within the group.
Dr. Personne: Alex, you may represent a voice or an issue that Sam and other group members are not willing to acknowledge or own within themselves.
Sam: Well…I’m sorry if I made you feel bad...I guess I’ll have to think about if that’s my stuff I’m projecting.
The group concludes for the session.
This example appears to have some beneficial learning to the nascent group leader, teaching the benefit of how to attend to scapegoat dynamics, cultivating ego strength and addressing differentiated styles of insulation among members. Now let us add some identity characteristics to see how it changes the analysis to the vignette:
Dr. Personne is a 60-year-old white cis-gender female. Alex is a 30-year-old white cis-gender male new to group, and Sam is a 20-year-old Black woman, with several other women of color in the group expressing anger at Alex for microaggressions (e.g., “I don’t think it helps to smile when you’re feeling upset or sad about these stories you’ve shared in group.”) he has made towards them over time. Now we can reflect on how Alex’s perceived under insulation could be a representation of his white fragility, fearing the idea that others could view him as holding the label of racist and resorting to behaviors of avoidance of feelings of shame through talking over Black and other marginalized members in the group. The affect expressed by Sam and other members was not approached with any curiosity. Rather it was labeled as angry, ignoring the complexity of other feelings such as sadness, inferiority, disappointment, helplessness and despair that may coincide with the expression of anger.
The leader, as a White woman, asserts her power in denying that Sam should feel frustration towards Alex. This appears to magnify the idea of naming or challenging oppression or white supremacy culture is misplaced aggression. We have flipped the role of the scapegoat on the Black woman in this example. The sociocultural narrative of avoiding open discussions on race within group discourse is accentuated by the inference that Sam and other women of color’s anger towards Alex is not honored for their true felt experience, rather it is dismissed as an internal intrapsychic resistance by women of color.
This example is personal to me, as I was Alex three years ago at a two-day institute at a professional conference, and only years later did I become aware of the enactment and recapitulation of these various racial traumas. My hope in highlighting this example is that any paper written or reviewed by any professional body has an ethical imperative to include multiple identity characteristics within the vignettes to increase the discourse of professionals, students and current group leaders to have continued consciousness on how sociocultural transference is always at play. This “garbage” moment in the vignette above fertilized the ground in me to push me to create a method to acknowledge identities in group therapy moving forward.