It’s A White Woman’s World – Group Whiteness in ProcessOn January 2, 2023 by sarmientoverano
Featured photo credit: Teslariu Mihai
By: Lucia Sarmiento Verano
I don’t want this text to be read as “I didn’t like group process so now I’m making a disparaging piece about it”. Rather, this is an invitation to consider the serious limitations of this practice and the festering ground for oppressive violence it provides in its current state in many therapy training institutions.
Also, these reflections not only stem from my own experience, but from what I’ve heard being discussed in the profession, both for and against the use of Group Process in training. I have also heard other’s experiences in these environments. I will not be writing about any specific examples here, not even my own, only general reflections about the dynamics that may be at play in Group Process.
I don’t believe encounter groups are a bad idea per se. It is true that they allow us to learn heaps about ourselves and others as transferencial dynamics and enactments occur in what are meant to be safe spaces. The experience of being received and held by a group without judgment is also incredibly valuable, IF one gets to experience that, which is not always the case.
Sometimes the structure and ways in which these group are run make it so it is an environment ripe for oppressive harm, of the type that remains unaddressed in our society and contributes to the trauma of marginalised people.
In this piece, which is by no means long enough to explore every aspect of what there is to say on this topic, I will focus on three main aspects:
- The whiteness of therapeutic spaces and group process
- The limiting factors in facilitation and the underlying assumptions which enable oppressive dynamics in group
- The way current learning objectives also limit how much we can address racism and oppression in these spaces
It’s A (Middle-class) White Woman’s World
It’s no secret that the counselling and psychotherapy world is middle-class female dominated. This tends to influence social norms and expectations in that environment and, in turn, the ways in which power dynamics are enacted.
During my journey into the profession, I have felt that the things that are valued and encouraged or considered good are also attitudes and characteristics traditionally attributed to femininity in Western culture: softness, empathy, listening skills, humility, nurture, care etc. Just as the ways of emotional expression considered appropriate are also bound by norms of ‘propriety’ and what is considered appropriate within that image of femininity: tears and sadness are preferred over outward displays of anger or assertiveness. This might not be said openly but much of what we see play out in therapists’ groups will confirm this tenfold.
Once that we’ve established this, let remind everyone of the concept of Coloniality of Gender (Lugones, 2088). Basically, the fact that through our racist and colonial history, the image of womanhood/femininity and its template, attributed attitudes and behaviours are based on White Women. Historically Women of Colour have been excluded from this image of the feminine, traditionally meek, sensitive and in need of care and protection. This differentiation lives in our collective and individual unconscious and will make a different in the relationship that are built in therapeutic spaces.
With these two realities in mind, it’s easy to see how they both play up in groups where a majority tend to be middle class white women. Occasionally, someone deemed ‘Other’ will be present in the group, accepted in theory, and ironically, explicitly invited to “be themselves” in the space. What they are not told, is how the rest of the group and the training institution will react when they indeed try to be themselves, and that Self does not correspond to said image of White Womanhood, which is now in great part, also the image of the Therapist.
I will only try to point out some of the dynamics that happen in group process because of the gendered white culture that underlies therapy spaces and is more often than not, unnamed and normalised. I believe this is important because the way oppressive dynamics are enacted in these spaces can be less visible precisely because of these specificities and we have to learn to read them for that they are, expressions of white supremacy and Eurocentrism.
Some of these salient white attitudes present in therapeutic spaces are encouraged in the profession and link with some of the points Jozef Konyari makes in his article about Euro-Colonial Pathology (2013).
I won’t expand on each of the following points as this would be beyond the scope of this piece. And if I am completely honest, I still have more to process emotionally before doing so.
- 1/ Ineffective and narrow modes of thinking which end up proving destructive and harmful (Konyari, 2013). More explicitly, preoccupation with intentions as opposed to impact, results or consequences of one’s self-defined good intentions, plus intolerance to challenges around these ‘good’ intentions.
- 2/ Linked to our first point: Entitlement to preservation of good & innocent self-image. Silencing and outraged reactions may be an example of defensiveness in this case: shocked “are you saying I am racist?!”
Konyari speaks of “self-preservation pertaining to a personal sense of ‘goodness’, innocence and apparent responsibility (derived from attention to intentions rather than a real marker of responsibility: consequences)” (2013). This may elicit powerful defensive reactions as it is rooter in fear of being found bad or ‘not good’.
- 3/ An encouragement to performativity of: ‘good intentions’, empathy and self-reflection (Konyari, 2013). The skill (performativity) is learnt in training which allows for avoidance of being truly challenged around issues of power and privilege by performing empathetic stances and self-reflection.
- 4/ Entitlement to the space. Unrestricted usage of time in group for personal relief/benefit to the detriment of other members. Derailing and interrupting to self-centre, even and especially when what was being expressed was not about them.
- 5/ Vulnerability as power/dominance (in accordance to gendered colonial practices: white women allowed to display power through powerlessness performances). Upholding of white women power position by expression of their distress. This links to the previous point as self-centring plus displays of vulnerability will be used to shut down other’s contributions that cause them to feel uncomfortable. They are completely free to do as they please as challenges to this are frowned upon.
Vulnerability is often encouraged and lauded as desirable in group process and in the profession. This is not always a bad thing obviously, but it is done without regard for when the display of distress is serving an oppressive silencing dynamic especially when a marginalised member of the group is targeted.
- 6/ This leads us to Tone Policing and Topic Policing: “A movement towards proficient, advanced and ‘civilized’ ways of being in regard to correctness, manners, and emotional expression.” (Konyari, 2013)
There’s a purposeful misunderstanding of ‘Othered’ people’s needs to express anger or to withdraw. This is often seen from pathologizing perspectives. Usage of direct, assertive language is not encouraged and may result in the reactions described in point 5, just as bringing up topics of injustice and oppression or expressing non-conforming thoughts/opinions.
Alternatively, the “safe space” and “free speech” discourse might be used to justify open expression of oppressive thoughts and feelings without self-reflection.
- 7/ Entitlement of the privileged to other’s wisdom, vulnerability, participation, and pain (I would link this to colonial entitlement and extractivism. Perhaps also voyeurism or sadism at times, if we are exploring colonial dynamics).
All of these underlying ways of functioning that are taught and encouraged in therapy training, enabling and allowing all the dynamics described above to happen repeatedly without challenge.
Let’s now turn to the elements that make these dynamics possible in group, repeatedly and without challenge of any kind.
Current limitations in facilitation
I’d like to say this as clearly as possible: the limitation of facilitation styles as we tend to see them today in therapy training has serious consequences in how excluding these training programs feel (and ARE) for members of marginalised communities.
Exclusion from the profession lies in several aspects of how our training system is set up: usually high fees paid for privately, with little to no financial support available, in addition to the prevalence of unpaid work & placements meaning that students pay for transportation, supervision, personal therapy and the lost working opportunities out of pocket… these are the material constraints which make training inaccessible.
But there’s more: the harmful and exclusionary dynamics that occur within training, during lectures, group process or peer groups and in relationship with peers, trainers and institution’s staff. Members of marginalised communities are not made to feel welcome or feel like they belong in these spaces, and this happens through several group and exclusionary dynamics. Again, describing these dynamics in details is out of the scope of this piece. Many people generously share their experiences in social media and through their work so I encourage everyone to seek out and learn from these experiences. Listen attentively to what they have to say.
Now that this has been said, onto facilitation of group processes. The limitations in facilitation I am talking about here are the ones that allow these oppressive and exclusionary power dynamics to happen repeatedly in these spaces. Through silence, inaction OR at times, action, facilitators become enablers of racist, ableist or otherwise oppressive harm, if not direct actors themselves.
I believe this is due to the following factors: lack of knowledge & skills, and lack of emotional courage and robustness.
- 1/ Facilitators lack knowledge in the reality of racism, whiteness, colonialism, oppression. What I’m talking about here is the different elements of these structural hierarchies that play up in a person’s emotional and interpersonal process. So, people’s processes, IN CONTEXT, linked to social and historical realities. Thinking about the way historical power dynamics and violence still play up and get enacted today between people and groups, for this there needs to be knowledge of history and sociology. No need to deep dive, there are good resources out there that spell this out for you and they’re really not that hard to find if you are committed to doing your research (if this feels like I’m calling you out, then perhaps it is because that’s what I’m doing).
- 2/ Facilitators sorely lack knowledge in group dynamics, the deeply held aspects of the unconscious they manifest and how.
In the same vein, there also seems to be a lack in training about power, and an eye for spotting power dynamics in all their harmful potential. Power expressed in the ways described above and in this context is seldom examined in training anyway (See previous pieces ‘Dialogue is not enough’ – part 1 & part 2). This factor paired up with the lack of knowledge in group dynamics just mentioned, is what prevents facilitators from spotting sometimes subtle dynamics like scapegoating, silencing or shutting down, power through performance of powerlessness/vulnerability etc, and having an eye out for people at risk of exclusion.
- 3/ In addition, and to the detriment of marginalised group members, facilitators are not prepared to consider what dynamics and/or enactments happen in the group IN LIGHT of social, structural and historical processes, nor they are willing to openly consider the social position (and thus relative power) of every participant in those dynamics to help the group understand what is really going on and who is really at risk of being shut down, silenced or harmed. Perhaps this it considered too risky? A prickly analysis to undertake? Avoidance of discomfort or confrontation? Or simply ignorance, laziness or complacency? The answer might be different in every individual case.
The reasons behind this chronic inadequacy is not what matters here. What does matter is that these factors and the way group processes are usually run leave marginalized group members at the mercy of whiteness and oppression at the core of their training, in places that are said to be safe to challenge ourselves to learn and grow.
Current limiting underlying assumptions…
One of the main assumptions for the setup of these groups is that in order to learn, the group must remain challenging. This does not mean the environment is actually emotionally unsafe although many will experience it that way. We’ve all had our fair share of projections, transferential material and conflict expressed in group process.
And whereas there IS actually confusion between emotional discomfort and emotional unsafety, this is especially true for privileged trainees who cannot bear to be challenged on certain topics. We must be aware of who is actually expected to bear with the discomfort, and if, in certain cases, because of realities of power and oppression, the environment that seems only uncomfortable to some, becomes truly unsafe for ‘Others’.
The fact that this distinction is not made or explored in depth is problematic because it means that each individual present in the group is thought to be equal. Meaning, in the eyes of many group members and facilitators, everyone in group is equally safe emotionally, equally welcome and has the same opportunities to speak, being heard, and develop a sense of belonging. However, group environments are only a microcosm of broader society and the same dynamics tend to play up. And we know for a fact that in society, equality does not exist. Why do therapists and trainees then, believe their groups to be an exception to this?
Exceptionalism in the therapy profession is nothing new. Sadly, I do not have the space to expand on this topic here. Let’s just say that when a sense of exceptionalism about our spaces as inherently good, open, empathetic and inclusive is established, then it becomes exceedingly easy to deny or minimise harm done in the same spaces. How can anyone feel excluded if our sole purpose here is to provide a safe space for everyone/if we are all so sensitive and empathetic [insert any other excuse here]?
I am convinced that most of the facilitators and group members, being white and privileged in other ways too, are unable to recognize this possibility for harm and also dismiss, minimise, individualise or derail when it is brought to their attention. Thus, the trauma of oppression is relived within a therapeutic training group.
I am trying to explain this as simply as possible, but please be aware it remains a complex issue and in no way reducible to a binary reality of absolute difference between privileged vs marginalised peoples. Many marginalised people will also reproduce harmful dynamics like so. I’m not trying to invite anyone to see these as situations as presenting clear answers.
When trying to understand relational power dynamics, there is more than one level of experience to consider in every case: historical, social, institutional, personal (including personal trauma history); as well as different levels of communication at the same time: explicit and unconscious (including social and collective unconscious processes, not just individual). There are usually no easy and quick answers when trying to unpick any particular situation.
On this note, let’s talk individualism.
… and learning objectives
Current learning objectives of process groups are not always clearly disclosed or explained to trainees. From my and others’ experience, they seem to be about self-knowledge, self-development and developing trust and relational skills throughout training.
All of these come from the individualistic perspective of therapeutic frameworks. These frameworks, in turn, come from a modern, white, colonial set of theories and practices. I am starting to consider the practices of group process something like “individualistic collectivities”: groups that do not work as an actual collective/community. They are supposed to work for the individual instead, but actually, do not work for ‘every’ individual in them.
By that I mean that there is apparently much of room to be seen or heard, to learn to take one’s space and build relationships. However, this is for the benefit of the individual and not of the relationships themselves, or the group.
For example, there is very little consideration for the impact on others in a way that is non-performative and carries consequences for the person. Is it well thought of, in these spaces, to declare one is aware of the impact or that one is sorry, without the need to act on it, change one’s behaviour or truly unpick the dynamics at play and the harm done. Proof of this, at least in my experience, is the constant repetition of the same harmful dynamics.
There’s no questioning of the sense of entitlement to the space and to other’s experiences or vulnerability that some people display. Such questioning or challenges are generally frowned upon and seen as attacks. In addition to this, there’s also zero examination of the social positionality of the people who tend to express this sense of entitlement.
Thirdly, no examination of the tendency to self-centre or centre certain people’s experiences more than others. This goes with the previous point on entitlement to space but also goes beyond it. Just to give a quick illustrative example, it may mean that one is not allowed to express certain feelings or thoughts, lest a white woman makes it about herself (when it was not at all) and how her feelings were injured by that. Again, the way the space it set up encourages those responses as “it’s a space for everyone to share their feelings” but does nothing to recognise and question tendencies to self-centre as well as their harmful consequences: shutting people down, derailing important conversations and position certain people’s needs above others. Often, the one’s being shut down are the ones who do not fit into the norms of the space.
Again, all of this stems from the lack of knowledge of group and power dynamics.
Just to end on this point, this lack of focus on group and relationship dynamics means the group is not seen as a collective, only as a set of individuals. Groups built upon culturally white structures like so cannot be places for equality as they are built on premises that enable hierarchies and power over others.
The contradiction here is that despite its individualism, there is also no room to opt-out these bizarre power-game playing spaces. Presence and participation are forced, called for, and there might even be punishment (either by fellow group members or the institution) for trying to opt-out.
For all the reasons cited above, group process becomes a site for the enactment and enabling of oppressive dynamics including: projections, exclusion, silencing etc.
The whiteness of its set up and functioning makes it a space ripe for oppressive harm, and the gendered dynamics that are encouraged in the profession allow for subtle ways to avoid addressing these issues by challenging group members.
This not only harms marginalised and non-conforming trainees, but also does a profound disservice to all trainees and clients as privileged students don’t go out of therapy training with the robustness nor the capacity to be called out without getting defensive.
I don’t have the answers on how to implement change specifically. However, let me finish with a list of learning objectives that could be established for the benefit of all, and of future clients:
- Awareness of difference, intention vs. impact
- (non-performative) awareness of impact with action to follow
- Awareness of performativity vs. real growth/change
- Awareness of self-centring mechanisms and sense of entitlement
- Non defensiveness in this process (I cannot stress this enough)
- Awareness of the need for a ‘good’ self-image or innocence and apparent responsibility and their influence in relationships
- A genuine questioning of cultural norms and what are considered ‘good manners’ and ‘appropriate ways of expressing’ oneself
- (Self-) management of emotional responses in front of non-normativity
- Awareness of power and oppressive dynamics in group, because they WILL show up later with clients!
- Mechanism to opt-out and considering real risk of oppressive harm to fellow trainees
And in the hope, some of these things will change with time, other support mechanisms should be put into place in training institutions. I am thinking about networking and support groups for marginalised students going through training. Spaces felt as truly safe can be a game-changer.
KONYARI, J. (2013). CHAPTER EIGHT: Understanding the Pathology and Cure for Euro-Colonial Whiteness: A Psychological, Behavioral, and Systemic Analysis. Counterpoints, 445, 121–152. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42982036
Lugones, M. (2008). The Coloniality of Gender. Worlds & Knowledges Otherwise, 2 (Spring), 1-17
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