Race Matters in Psychoanalytic Education

Dionne R. Powell, M.D.

How American psychoanalysis needs to examine its attitudes and approach to racial trauma, discrimination and prejudice.


Racial trauma, discrimination and prejudice rely on complicity in silence. Silence by those whites who purport to be liberal supports those who maintain overt racism. It is actually mandatory for racism’s stranglehold over society. So does the dissociative minimization of racial trauma. So when it comes to psychoanalytic education, we have to continue to get into John Lewis’ ‘good trouble’ from a dynamic perspective. Thus, from the beginning of any psychotherapeutic dialogue where issues of race and racism may be featured, a primary resistance to be overcome is that of the unwillingness to speak openly about matters of prejudice, race and racism. Simply engaging in open discussion of prejudice and discrimination interferes with the ability to perpetuate racial trauma, just as talking about any form of trauma threatens to unseat the mental space that such trauma occupies.

Is psychoanalysis ‘dying of whiteness’; an aversion to embrace the rich tapestry of society that repels instead of attracts the next generation of analysts (Metzl, 2019)? Whether we consider race, religion, gender, sexualities, class, or able-ism, American psychoanalysis hasn’t lived up to its mission as being reflective of the larger society in terms of our scholarship and who we teach and train. 

Last year’s pandemics of racism and Covid-19 resulted in an explosion of demands for social justice. As black and brown people were felled in exponential numbers by an invisible virus they were also publicly shot, killed or choked/lynched with knees on necks. Brown and black people sought and continue to pursue mental health treatment in record numbers. And yet just like Covid-19, we, psychoanalysts, are unprepared, have stayed too long in our silos away from community, fearful of diversity, fearful of tackling whiteness head on (Powell, 2018) [1].

Slavery, race, and racism have made indelible marks on the American unconscious and constantly seek a narrative platform for racial hierarchy and superiority. This is no less true in the clinical psychoanalytic setting, although most often denied and minimized, regardless of the racial or cultural make up of the treatment pair. Understanding how race is shaped in the clinician’s mind is paramount to maximize one’s teaching, supervisory or clinical capabilities. Racial differences are signified in childhood, often as a traumatizing or confusing moment within development. Consider the following example given permission by a colleague to share:

In visiting her beloved grandmother in Georgia, an annual pilgrimage, my young future colleague at age 6 asked her mother why the ‘colored people were stepping off the sidewalk as they approached?’ Her mother embarrassingly silenced her and once home said in anguish: ‘it was a terrible, terrible thing called slavery.’ My future colleague, who is white, was confused and without any further explanation or discussion was left to conceptualize this frightening moment alone. Over the years, as other racial incidents became signified in silence, she concluded that ‘since white people had done this terrible thing, Black people must hate white people and therefore she must fear them, too.’ 

This is an example of how inevitable intergenerational racial and ethnic stereotyping occurs. Who we fear and why we fear are imprinted or signified through our care givers, and typically not from a negative experience with the other. It is, thus, very human to be prejudiced as a primary form of self-protection. Even if what you are protecting are ghosts and illusions. Sandler describes how the child builds an intra-psychic background of safety, based on the earliest interactions with care givers that give shape to one’s self identity, and object representations correlating with affective experiences that become defined over time (Sandler, 1960; Sandler & Rosenblatt, 1962). In America, race is shaped in mind as well. You see young children playing innocently regardless of race or religion, incrementally devolving into strangers that need to be feared and misunderstood at every interaction. A racial safety tone is thus a byproduct of growing up in a racist society. Racism and other forms of prejudice and discrimination have all the characteristics of what we refer to as mental defenses: the distortion of experience in order to protect against mental or emotional threat by bending experience to fit with that which can be tolerated. 

Another way to state the racial dilemma is offered by the poet Claudia Rankine who states: ‘Blackness in the white imagination has nothing to do with Black people’ (Kellaway, 2015). It is an intra-psychic fiction. Closing that experiential gap between what the white clinician imagines and the actual Black person seeking treatment should be the goal of all clinicians and all training centers. Thus one of the vestiges of slavery and institutional racism are the myths that Black people have too many real life issues, are not capable of doing insight oriented work, and therefore are not appropriate for dynamic treatments. 

What is taught and how one is supervised are the most pertinent aspects to the development of future psychotherapists and psychoanalysts. Our experiences with patients shape us, however the pedagogical shape of experiential learning is based on the extent of one’s biopsychosocial orientation. Nothing about the patient is therefore subject to tacit exclusion. Race and ethnicity would, therefore, be pivotal in understanding how the self is composed. My interest is in challenging hegemonic notions of ‘whiteness’ as we’re also simultaneously attempting to explicate the ‘other,’ with a goal of moving away from the unconsciously supremacist notion that there is one group, the white one, and everything else is other, and implicitly, secondary or subordinate. These subtle unconscious tendencies of whiteness as the exemplar of our working model have an untoward impact particularly, although not exclusively, for the trainee of color. Faculty, both supervisors and teachers, must familiarize themselves with their own bias towards a ‘white’ cultural monolith, educate themselves about the multi-cultural milieu that makes up modern psychotherapy practice and actively, and non-defensively, explore their racist states of mind and inner racist that impedes these efforts (Davids, 2011; Keval, 2016; DiAngelo, 2018; Blechner, 2020). 

As psychoanalysts and psychotherapists we are as interested in the cultural and ethnic milestones as part and parcel with the development of the self, and how that might simultaneously be in conflict and in conversation with what the patient is struggling with in treatment. For these reasons it is essential that faculty and supervisors bring race and ethnicity into the conversation with their trainees. Openness, including a non-defensive, respectful curiosity promotes a potentially safe-enough environment for learning [2]. Questions pertinent within an initial consultation or getting to know a potential therapy patient is to ask about their ethnicity, identifications and the community that shaped them. White, Black, Asian or LatinX should never suffice as the sole primary descriptor. 

Training centers should consider utilizing outside consultants on race and ethnicity to better prepare faculty and supervisors, along with other outside sources, workshops or ongoing peer supervision where case material centered around ethnicity and race are discussed, along with reading materials on these issues to support a multi-cultural curriculum and prepare trainees, faculty and supervisors to expand their knowledge of the importance of culture and ethnicity in the training of mental health professionals. 

It is important to re-enforce the largest obstacle for most psychoanalysts and psychotherapists attempting to work with race within the treatment setting, which is our ongoing investment in perceiving ourselves as being ‘personally good.’ We embark on becoming experts at the talking cure through our individual traumas and a desire to help. Race, racism, bias and privilege complicate this image serving as a narcissistic injury with shame and guilt for not adhering to that stated goodness. We often can detect our countertransference when we come close to a boundary of sexual or aggressive acting in with our patients, and work through its multiple sources (whether intra-psychic, a projection, etc). Race, however presents its own challenges (Powell, 2020; Shah, 2020). When it comes to acknowledging our racist states of minds we reflexively retreat. The societal and our professional silence about these issues only promote their toxicity. The events of 2020 have exposed the complicated reality of the American story in ways that cannot be ignored; although many are actively attempting to reverse this trend within some of the most ‘enlightened liberal academic institutions,’ as highlighted in Michelle Goldberg’s NY Times opinion piece of 26 February 2021 entitled: 'The campaign to cancel wokeness'. Acknowledgment of the epidemic of racism, can lead towards a path to its remediation. As clinicians when we experience ourselves being more supportive or silent about these issues we are part of the problem and not its resolution. This includes white fear of Black anger and that when this arises clinically, our reflexive turn to a more supportive stance than address what’s behind Black rage, which is the fear of further trauma to their loved ones or themselves, or the lack of acknowledgment of a shared humanity. Black people aren’t asking for special treatment, but, unflinchingly, and increasingly unapologetically demand equal justice and treatment. While neutrality is asked of our profession, our detached analysis is easier to maintain when one is not likely to be a victim of the phenomenon. As citizens of this country that we have all fought for and contribute to, aren’t we all ‘victims’ to the legacies of hate? Empathic striving to embrace, resonate with, and hold our patients experiences is the work of good enough psychotherapeutic practices.

We can get into good trouble by being disruptors of whiteness in our policies, positions and functioning as analysts. Analysts should remain curious constantly asking themselves: what is the threat that is evoked by acknowledging our racism? My experience is that racism is intimately tied to how it was shaped, and therefore tied to our loved ones, and how race, racism, privilege and prejudice was established, explained, rationalized, disavowed or ignored by our own parents, teachers and community. For twelve generations, slavery impacted African Americans and the rest of America, as Wilkerson notes: ‘…the country cannot become whole until it confronts what was not a chapter in its history, but the basis of its economic and social order. For a quarter-millennium slavery was the country. (2020, p. 43)’ Silence about race is the unspoken secret within the white community. Therefore the ‘I’m not a racist’ stance traps us into further defensiveness, instead of its mitigation. Combine that with shame, guilt and humiliation and we find racial matters turning into growing mental abscess, bound to compromise us all as tension points boil over, or ooze into the atmosphere of an analytic institute without conscious acknowledgment and remediation. A racist orientation harms both the racist — in its sacrificing of the experience of reality perception in favor of proceeding on the basis of convenient fantasy about how things surely must be — and harms those who are the subjects of the racist’s defensive-destructive fantasy. 

For African American patients, recognizing the legacy and ongoing challenge of institutional racism, injustice and discrimination in every aspect of life are an important empathic step for the clinician to ameliorate the effects of this unique American tragedy. Thus to get into ‘good trouble’ as a therapist is to be good enough in acknowledging the potential traumas and the resiliencies of people who have been systematically abused and discriminated against as American citizens. When we think of reparation it is this recognition of the unacknowledged psychic and physical trauma inflicted on Blacks by whites, both consciously and unconsciously, that needs continuous remediation.

If we practice cultural humility in the face of discomfort at our racist ways of behaving and thinking, with openness and curiosity, we can begin to imagine and shape our institutes to reflect the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial brilliance that constitutes our democracy.

Or as James Baldwin stated in 1962: ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’ 
[1] The recent reactions to Donald Moss’ paper ‘On having whiteness’, one of several important contributions in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association (April 2021), reveals the disruptive capacity that discussions of racial hatred have on the larger society, within our professional organizations and within our psychoanalytic body. As a call for silence ensued, churned by escalating fears, I’m reminded of Timothy Snyder’s book On Tyranny, with the incendiary toxic consequences of living in fear and silence.
[2] While many psychotherapists speak of the importance of creating a ‘safe space’ in psychotherapy, I believe that any notion of psychotherapeutic safety can only, ultimately, be aspirational rather than being fully attainable. The most reliable way to increase safety during the course of a psychotherapeutic process is not by pronouncing the therapeutic space as a ‘safe’ one, but, rather, by the psychoanalysts’ willingness to attend to and explore with the patient the ways in which safety may be lacking, compromised or promoted.

Image: Courtesy Barack Obama Presidential Library. Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson.

Baldwin, J. (1962). As much truth as one can bear. The New York Times. January 4, 1962.
Blechner, M. (2020). Racism and psychoanalysis: How they effect on another. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, DOI: 10.1080/00107530.2020.1756133.
Davids, M.F. (2011). Internal Racism: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Race and Difference. London: Springer Nature Limited.
Diangelo, R. (2018). White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. Boston: Beacon Press. 
Goldberg, M. (February 26th  2021). The campaign to cancel wokeness. The New York Times.  
Kellaway, K. (2015). Interview: Claudia Rankine: Blackness in the White imagination has nothing to do with Black people. The Guardian, December 27, 2015. 
Keval, N. (2016). Racist States of Mind: Understanding the Perversion of Curiosity and Concern. London: Karnac. 
Metzl, J.M. (2019). Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Klling America’s Heartland. New York: Basic Books.
Moss, D. (2021). On Having Whiteness. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Assn. 69:2, 355-371.
Powell, D. (2020). From the sunken place to the shitty place: The film Get Out, psychic emancipation and modern race relations from a psychodynamic clinical perspective. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly. Vol 89, Issue 3.
Powell, D. (2018). Race, African Americans, and psychoanalysis: collective silence in the therapeutic situation. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 66(6):1021–1049. 
Sandler, J. and Rosenblatt, B (1962). The concept of the representational world. Psych. Study of the Child, 17: 128-145.
Sandler, J. (1960). The background of safety. IJP 41: 352-356.
Shah, D. (2020). Dangerous territory. Psychoanalytic Quarterly.
Snyder, T. (2017). On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century. New York, Tim Duggans Books.
Wilkerson, I. (2020). Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. New York: Random House.

More articles by: