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Cultural awareness—color blind

Raising awareness and honoring the sociocultural transference threads throughout group therapy.

Cite this
Dehill, V. M. (2021, November 8). Cultural awareness— Color blind.

Group therapy session with people of different sociocultural backgrounds

The purpose of this article is to provide a conceptualization of specific strategies therapist can use to set a diversity conscious frame for group therapy, bring awareness to sociocultural transference within every interaction, and reflect on a specific vignette highlighting the perpetuation of racist ideology when fostering a color-blind attitude. 

The pains of talking through the oppressive systems that we navigate in our lives is less new to our existence and more finally being acknowledged for its pervasiveness. In the United States, racial consciousness has risen as a result of the murder of George Floyd and subsequent string of killings and harassment which received public attention during the Summer of 2020. The thread of white supremacy woven into the deep fabric of our nations flag is becoming clear as an inexorable part of our culture. Group therapy, like many Eurocentric constructs, is in a parallel nascent stage of development of this process. Group therapists often speak of the concept of transference as bringing expectations and perceptions out of our histories.

How is white supremacy culture tied into group theories?

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.  

Group interaction:

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. 

Addressing racial traumas in group therapy

Set the frame for sociocultural dialogues

Whether you are writing about group therapy or leading a group, one thing to acknowledge up front is to set the stage of who you are and what identities other members hold in relation to you. This allows for a nuanced and ongoing consciousness of consideration at how the sociocultural transference impacts the ever-changing dynamics within the group process. 

When discussing group therapy with clients, I make it a point to state the following before any person enters group: 

“Group theory states that this group will be a microcosm of your social world as well as the greater world within the U.S., meaning that all the ills and woes of society: racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, ablism, etc. will be present in the group as well. I do not plan to purposefully recreate these dynamics, but I might do so. Since no one escapes the internalization of these strings from our oppressive systems within society and culture. I do not want the burden to fall solely on group members with marginalized identities to name the harm. So, my plan is to name and bring attention to any specific dynamics I see may represent an influence from the systems we navigate.

If the group begins with only male-identified folx talking, I might be curious as to what is occurring among us. If we use coded language, like a Chinese woman highlighting she has problems being assertive with American woman, I will bring attention to “does American mean White to you?” If two members both become the center of attention, with one White member being seen as calmer and more intellectual and a Black member seen as more anxiety provoking and aggressive, then I will want us to be curious at how these forces continue to influence our perceptions of self, others and the world within and outside of group. This is not to shame anyone for enacting a microaggression. I have done them unintentionally and will do them again despite my efforts. More importantly, we want to honor the impact and attend to the wounds as they occur, recognizing that they speak to the pain at this moment and the suffering felt throughout a lifetime of oppression and raise consciousness on how these strings pull us away from our willingness or ability to connect with one another based on identity.”

After this I would often ask, based on the identities present in the prospective group members: 

“Recognizing my identity as a White cis-gender neurodivergent (ADHD) male, I’m curious how would it be for you as a Black woman to engage in these dialogues when they occur? How would it be for you to speak to potential racist or sexist dynamics if you saw them in me or others within the space? What would you want me to do to feel safe enough in this space?”

The benefit of creating a common word or phrase (e.g., “Ouch!”), according to Miles et al. (2021) can help mark a rupture or moment for the group that needs to be attended to within the space. 

Ideas to consider during the initial group meeting

Set a frame for group discourse much in the way we prepare our clients to speak towards unacceptable emotional states. Without proper informed consent and expectations, group members will fall into the sociocultural norms that they have navigated throughout their lives. We model and give permission for people to speak to their disowned or minimized feelings of anger and attraction to one another in the group space. Let us treat diverse identities and the sociocultural transference as another key pillar to our group contracts. 

I believe appropriate self-disclosure, acknowledging my consciousness to system dynamics. Begin with setting a norm bringing attention to the language and nonverbal behaviors of myself and others cultivates a culture of curiosity, connectivity, along with compassion rather than avoidance, shame and blame. The “garbage” moments made by microaggressions with intentionality can be transformed into fertilizer to cultivate compassion, growth and understanding. However, it is important to never be complicit in one’s responsibility to continue self-examination and refine the culture of group to have all members engage in this communal responsibility. Assist members in bearing witness to both the strings from oppressive systems which have numbed and pulled us away from one another as well as emphasize the ties that interconnect us together. 

Group therapy is a powerful tool akin to nuclear fission. If intentional and delicate, it has the power to be a restorative and liberating experience to the lives of members and provide an explosive life energy of hope, acceptance, compassion and love. If carelessly used without awareness to the sociocultural transference at hand, group therapy can be one of the most destructive forces recapitulating past trauma for client’s experiencing racism, sexism, heterosexism or other forms of social marginalization (MacNair-Semands, 2007; Woods and Ruzek, 2012). This takes effort, but it is not about “doing the work,” another phrase that plays into a capitalistic mindset and reflects emotions of shame, sadness, anger and fear are “bad.” This is about reclaiming our love and humanity pulled away by the strings of the systems we navigate. Seeing when one suffers, that a part of us suffers. This is not just a black or white problem. Whether we currently see the strings that connect us or not, we are all in this together.


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