Recovering Race

by Susan Adelman, Ph.D.

“I could have told you that,” said the student I’ll call “Jamila.”

In our course, “Introduction to Psychoanalysis: History, Theory, Practice” (the informal “core” course for the undergraduate minor in Psychoanalytic Studies at Penn), we were discussing the final pages of Avgi Saketopoulou’s wonderful essay, “Minding the Gap” (2011), about her rageful, wonderful, and gender-variant preadolescent African American patient, DeShawn—a child struggling mightily with her and even more profoundly with his own gender and racial identities. From DeShawn, Avgi comes to learn that “for black boys racial identification trumps gender anytime” (202). It was then that Jamila, one of our African American students, spoke up.

Jamila was polite and level in her intonation. But, underneath, I heard a piercing “Duh!” What was already obvious to her was not already obvious to me—and had not been even to Saketopoulou.

I’ve made many attempts to learn more about the realities of African American experience—to educate myself by reading books and watching films, by attending lectures, and by participating for several years in a multiracial analytic discussion group. Yet I clearly remained insufficiently sensitive and informed. Whereas Avgi’s words had struck me like a revelation, they had struck Jamila as a mere restatement of the obvious.

Class discussion continued, and questions came up as to whether or not there was some sort of racial exploitation going on between the Greek Cypriot psychotherapist and her African American patient. I became defensive. Avgi, I insisted, had been brave and committed in her work with DeShawn, who, at their initial meeting, had pulled out two handfuls of her hair and continued to act out, often in violent ways. Despite this unpromising beginning, I pointed out, Avgi  persevered and was ultimately able to work well with DeShawn—something I wasn’t at all sure I could have done under similar circumstances. After class, however, I realized I had perhaps shut down an important line of discussion regarding racial privilege. I felt awful, wrote to my co-teacher, Max Cavitch, and lost a night’s sleep.

What happened next helps demonstrate the value of team-teaching such a course. Max supported my inclination to send our students an email about my regret and self-reflection. I wrote to them about my belated recognition that I had been over-identifying with Avgi and that, as DeShawn says to Avgi at one point, I should have “shut up” and listened to what was being said by others in the class. In addition, Max contacted Avgi directly and got from her some follow-up information about DeShawn that we were permitted to share with our students. The next class meeting was extremely animated and engaged, with a great deal of participation (which, in our large class, with stadium seating, was unexpected and wonderful). Everyone was relieved to hear, via Saketopoulou, that DeShawn—now in late adolescence—was doing relatively well.

Still unhappily aware of my ignorance, I nevertheless wanted to share with our students my sense of how my own slip and recovery pertained to what we were teaching them about psychoanalysis as well as to its contemporary practice. If such a central component of identity as gender is, in some circumstances, less overdetermined than race, then how might we—as analysts as well as teachers—pay more adequate attention to race as well as to gender? Too many clinicians, alas, still indulge themselves in thinking that “social” factors are relatively superficial to their more traditional understanding of deep, unconscious dynamics. We wanted our students to understand that the “social,” including race and many other dimensions of identity as well, is a profound part of everyone’s conscious and unconscious functioning. But just how well did we ourselves really understand that?

Max and I discussed this question at length. In our first incarnation of the course—the one so brilliantly captured in Max’s first blog-post—we had deliberately included cross-cultural perspectives on psychoanalysis. The students watched Basia Winograd’s 2016 film, Psychoanalysis in El Barrio, and viewed clips from her 2014 film, Black Psychoanalysts Speak. We told them about how psychoanalysis was being brought to China by American analysts who treat, teach, and supervise via the video-conferencing software, Zoom. (One group that supports this work is the China American Psychoanalytic Alliance. I myself have participated in this work as an Institute teacher, with half of my analytic students in the room and the other half on-screen, beamed in from the other side of the globe.) We had been mindful of cultural and racial difference in designing our syllabus. But we had, inevitably, brought our own blind spots to the course as well.

The similarly eclectic mix of this year’s class gives us a fresh chance to continue working these questions. We have over 40 students, ranging from first-year undergraduates to seniors, with concentrations including Cognitive Science, Biological Basis of Behavior, English, Business, Engineering, Music, and lots of as-yet-undecideds. The group’s demographics are similarly diverse.

How best to take advantage of this great variety of students to promote psychoanalytic learning? For one thing, we made room for a separate class that paired Winnicott’s 1949 article, “Hate in the Counter-Transference”, with Kathleen Pogue White’s searing 2002 essay, “Surviving Hating and Being Hated: Some Personal Thoughts About Racism from a Psychoanalytic Perspective”. Winnicott talks powerfully about how every baby needs to be able, sometimes, to hate their mother (or maternal figure) without causing the mother to withdraw or retaliate. This ability, he argues, helps a baby to move into a real relationship with a real, rather than an imagined, (m)other. White, in turn, writes powerfully about the hideous, racist voices that filled her own ears from an early age and how, ultimately, her analyst helped her tolerate and modify the crippling feelings they evoked. Ultimately, love—including transferential love—helped her conquer the voices of hatred. We hoped, by pairing these essays, to deepen everyone’s psychoanalytic understanding of the inter- as well as intra-subjective consequences of societal racism.

This helped us to revisit to Jamila’s implicit challenge. We need to teach our students, but we also need to learn from them—to learn together, and to be humble about all that we don’t know or fully appreciate about others’ lives. Jamila had reminded us that any relevant psychoanalytic teaching (or treatment) requires a willingness 1) to learn from students (and patients), who always have forms of knowledge and experience that differ—sometimes radically—from our own and 2) to participate with them in a basic truth of psychoanalytic engagement: that what psychoanalysts and teachers don’t know may create opportunities (if we can muster the honesty and courage to pursue them) for mutual teaching and learning—and that the candor of mutual engagement, with all its many forms of discomfort and awkwardness, is the best route intimacy and understanding, in both the classroom and the consulting room.