Intersections of Privilege and Otherness in Counselling and Psychotherapy: Mockingbird by Dwight Turner (2021)
A review by Colin Feltham
Where to begin a review of a book of this kind? Since the author declares himself at the outset a black, heterosexual, able-bodied man, perhaps I should declare myself a white, heterosexual, able-bodied man. Turner and I both have academic and psychotherapeutic identities. I am old, however, which might be read as stereotypically out of touch, irrelevant, wise or privileged. I have working-class origins, which can be read ‘intersectionally’ to increase my brownie points (a cheap shot, I know), or ranked alongside the insult ‘all lives matter’. Turner of course holds most of the trump cards in this fashionable diatribe, however. He describes himself as Afro-Caribbean and born in the UK, presents many examples of his ‘lived experience’ of everyday racism, claiming to be frequently ignored, slighted and ‘othered’ for racial reasons. We are both British and there are some limits to the significance of this book and my review for readers elsewhere.
From the beginning, the book is unfortunately but not surprisingly larded with wokespeak, the jargon of social justice: otherness, microaggressions, microinequities, privilege, post-coloniality, whiteness, demarginalization, the inner other, etc. Turner also has his own neologism of ‘toxic blasculinity’. The term ‘mockingbird’ is awkwardly tacked on to the title to remind us of Harper Lee’s bestselling 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which dramatized racial injustice, a near-lynching, the killing of Tom Robinson, Southern bigotry in the 1930s, and the white saviour figure of lawyer Atticus Finch. Turner’s is by no means a collection of original or profound observations. It is, however, confirmation that the therapy field is further buying into critical race theory – and its cognate grievance theories – wholly uncritically.
Turner has tried to blend critical race theory terminology with aspects of psychoanalytic theory such as projective identification, leading to a text that is in places barely comprehensible and filled with what some call ‘theorhhea’. He fails, I think, to show convincingly why white oppressors are enmeshed in unconscious projective mechanisms while black victims are supposedly not so enmeshed. Given its prominence in the title, Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality is not well-defined here. His discussion of privilege is confusing and not well illustrated. The otherness of which he speaks is ill-defined but weighted towards the malignant. Each of us is the other unless occasionally transcended in one form of communion or another. Nuances of otherness are well addressed in Gestalt therapy, as are authenticity and spontaneity, precious human qualities and experiences that CRT apparently seeks to quash in whites.
Take two small problematic examples in bis text. He argues that when Enoch Powell referred to black migrants in the UK in 1968, he was incorrect because these people were British subjects by virtue of the 1948 British Nationality Act. Technically, they were British subjects moving from one part of the Empire to another, yet a journey of almost 4,700 miles across an ocean can fairly be called a migration and most indigenous Brits did not readily regard black Caribbean people as fellow British subjects in 1968. (In fact, Turner also uses the term ‘migrant’ of his father and himself on page 46.) Turner claims that Freud (who was of course white) was ‘othered’ as a Jew by the white British establishment during the Second World War, yet Freud had moved to London only in June 1938 and died the same month as the outbreak of the war in September 1939. These are pedantic points but suggest that Turner has little interest in such nuances of accuracy, being more invested in a broad affect heuristic: his feelings don’t care too much about inconvenient facts.
Intersectionality embraces race*, gender, sexuality, disability and other markers of disadvantaged identity, and Turner refers to some examples of black feminism and LGBT causes but race is by far his main anchor. He refers to Brexit in caricature terms as largely an anti-immigration matter, with no awareness of its nuances. ‘White privilege and patriarchy’ constitute an ‘unconscious system’, we are told. In passing, Turner notes with dismay that many non-whites and women voted for Trump and Brexit, demonstrating that the influence of unconscious whiteness gets everywhere. He also admits some of his own privileges but stops short of providing a hierarchical diagram of oppressive privileges that would allow us all to see where we sit.
As always, the assumption throughout this book is that inequality is axiomatically wrong and must be dismantled: the view that life is and always will be unfair, that some individuals or societies are better than others, never arises. Rigorous explication of equality and inequality is entirely lacking in these debates. Turner scoffs at the American dream, seemingly oblivious to the confluence of Martin Luther King Jnr’s dream and that of black conservatives today who sincerely celebrate the American dream (Woodson, 2021). He tells us that he did not become an academic until he was 47, as if racism held him back. Yet I myself didn’t become an academic until I was 45, held back, I can claim, by class and personality factors like lack of confidence, lack of role models, and shyness. Wokeness altogether ignores such individual factors in its tally of oppression scores.
Chapter 3 on ‘hatred, shame and the unconscious other’ summarises some well-known instances of hate crimes in Britain that cannot be dismissed but this material and its analysis has been well covered elsewhere. Chapter 4 looks at ‘death of the other’ but is a muddled discussion of ageing and ageism, the death instinct and metaphorical deaths including ’the death of our potential’ and those ‘deaths’ perpetrated by perceived microaggressions. He opens with the Holocaust, which remains the most emotive example of mass killing, but wanders off into rather abstruse psychoanalytic ideas about death as if to make a bid for scholarly seriousness. Turner might have benefited from Craib’s (1994) linking of psychoanalysis with the inevitability of death and of individual and social disappointment, which shifts expectations from fantasy and idealism to sober realism. Chapter 5 on ‘individuation, privilege and otherness’ contains several autobiographical pieces which may be the most interesting in the book for Jungian-inspired insights into psychotherapy.
Turner has spoken elsewhere of the ‘chains of white therapy’ (Jackson, 2021), a slavery-associated metaphor. He has also written time after time about whiteness as a problem. (White) therapists have ‘a sheer depth of hatred of the other’ and must face ‘the need to consciously decolonise psychotherapy in order to make it more amenable to the other’ (Turner, 2018). Emotive language of this kind is hardly in the best interests of the therapy field. Turner and other non-white citizens of Western countries are entitled to offer ethnically-informed critiques and we should expect such increasing assertiveness as nation-wide demographic profiles change. It is logical in critical race theory terms that calls are made to decolonise the curriculum, to adapt entry criteria to accommodate ‘non-traditional’ students, to fill quotas and promote ethnic minorities into senior positions, and to punish those who resist these changes. But critique must be well-informed and balanced if it is to avoid charges of one-dimensional revolutionary bullying. It is perfectly possible, and I think necessary, to critique psychotherapy from many angles (Feltham, 2010) but a ‘down with white therapy’ critique is immature and unhelpful. Far worse, in some areas antiracist therapy is being mandated for white teachers who are said to be responsible for ‘spirit murder’ of black students (Rufo, 2021a).
Like most similar books constructed around complaints of racism, this one makes no attempt at all to show awareness of the ‘other side’ of the story. In today’s cacophony of minority voices, diversity and inclusivity never include viewpoint diversity. There is no attempt to dig down historically and culturally into the complex roots of today’s painful mass-migratory scenario and its ongoing tensions. Take only one contemporary publication by African-American conservatives whose focus is on critiquing the 1619 Project (Woodson, 2021). This book fully acknowledges the slavery era but challenges the dogma of inevitable black victimhood and systemic racism, yet such stands are ignored or savaged by most purveyors of critical race theory, who often turn on their ethnic fellows by calling them coconuts, Oreos, ‘not really black’ and the like, for refusing to support the narrative of oppression (Lindsay, 2020). Turner himself is dismissive of such conservative viewpoints.
Lest we had not noticed, a persistent strain of ‘it’s never enough’ is evident here. So-called multicultural counselling has existed in the US since the 1950s and intensified in the 1960s. Multicultural counselling competencies were gradually devised. Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn (2001) describes the ‘ritual of racial reprimand’ and ‘harangue-flagellation ritual’ that emerged in the 1970s as the black power narrative came to overshadow civil rights successes, and ‘honky baiting’ came into being. She describes the rise of the therapeutic, which included many radical, anti-authoritarian humanistic movements like co-counselling. (Turner has almost nothing to say about humanistic therapies or CBT.) In the 1970s we uncritically accepted the feminist message that the personal is political. We were then urged to respect and somehow incorporate non-Western therapeutic ideas and techniques into practice (e.g. Moodley & West, 2005). We were further urged to examine our whiteness as part of ‘politicising the person-centred approach’ (Lago & Haugh, 2006). But in the same way that 1960 civil rights legislation in the US was not enough, then merit and equal opportunities were not enough, ‘racial equity’ is not happening fast enough, and it is not enough to be non-racist, one must be actively anti-racist. Books of this kind read like déjà vu (or déjà lu) and it may be because there remains little more to say that is meaningful or credible.
Turner and his fellow discontents have only so many choices facing them. One is to continue the struggle, the long, embittered and strategic march against the alleged oppressor, hoping that their anti-white propaganda will wear the evil white supremacists down. Second is to search for a more congenial, less racist society in which to live, say in the Caribbean or Africa, and to help lift it up. Third is to scale the ramparts of the West, dismantle the master’s house and rebuild in a preferred, Marxist style. Curiously, Turner doesn’t mention it, but Grier and Cobbs’ (1968) influential American text Black Rage boiled over with anti-white venom and this collective anger has never gone away. Fourth is to abandon the resentment-fuelled culture war, assimilate, forgive, and enjoy the fruits of one of the most advanced and accommodating civilisations that ever existed. Perhaps a fifth, especially apt for therapists, is to put aside one’s own resentful preoccupations so as to empathise with a (for now) white host majority who are tired of such hostile racial rhetoric and its increasing divisiveness.
It may be churlish of me to point out that there are many grammatical and punctuation errors in the book, many incomplete sentences, and inadequately constructed arguments, but copy-editing was sorely needed. When I say ‘churlish’, I am aware that I may be accused of racism simply for drawing attention to how embarrassingly bad the writing often is. I am doubtful about it passing the standard editorial threshold of acceptability. As a doctoral thesis, it would require major revisions. I do not want to say this but someone has to say it. At least the book is mercifully short at 140 pages but ridiculously expensive at £29.99. Covering very similar content but exceeding it in quantity, balance and rigour, Robinson-Wood (2016)’s US text is much better value.
We know that blackness is ascendant (and I mean African-origin blackness rather than wider BAME-ness or POC-ness) and that George Floyd’s death in 2020 galvanised the international BLM-Marxist push to overthrow Western capitalism. Let us be under no illusion that black anti-capitalist academics from Cedric Robinson in the US to Kehinde Andrews in the UK are ultimately dedicated to dismantling all our traditional institutions. Concepts like critical race theory and intersectionality are all variants of Marxism, indeed original critical theory was an attempted amalgam of Marxism and Freudianism. The danger of CRT as akin to aspects of Maoist tyranny has also been noted (Collins, 2021). It’s clear that many black commentators are sincere but less clear that their knowledge base is very thin and their intellectual honesty limited. So far this has not dented the commitment of the media, academia, publishing industry and booksellers in promoting all critical social justice theories and censoring counterarguments. Turner cannot be blamed for his own, thin and unoriginal contribution to the debate because he is merely a minor player in the culture wars, as are most of us.
What we need at this time are major scholars ready and able to plumb the real depth and complexity of migration and multiculturalism, the dynamics and problems, giving due weight to all perspectives. Unfortunately, we have instead a dearth of serious, objective scholarship and a glut of grievance-fuelled and Marxist-inspired gobbledegook (Scruton, 2015). Beetham (2019), for example, has argued for intersectionality and social justice to be made central to counselling and psychotherapy, but she also writes over-confidently about the nature of the self, a concept that rigorous philosophers have grappled with inconclusively for centuries. I suspect that the vast majority of us in the therapy world – like leftist Hollywood actors and professional sports stars – are not qualified to pronounce on philosophical niceties or detailed political and religious matters, and certainly not entitled to push for major social and legal changes in training on the basis of thin knowledge and strong feelings.
We should not underestimate the difficulty involved in fighting to defend standards in our field, however. The long neo-Marxist march through the institutions that was proposed as early as the 1920s has now reached well inside these. Psychotherapists must speak up or forfeit their territory to the advance of CRT warriors like Turner. But currently we stand to be ignored, shamed or cancelled. Even more chillingly, we have often been silenced in advance, by craven publishers who uncritically promote titles like this one and suppress meaningful challenges, by educational establishments that have surrendered their critical faculties, and by media and government agency leaders that are often unintelligent and cowardly. Psychotherapy, a rare bastion of individual free thought and speech and honest dialogue, is now in the ironic position that German psychoanalysis was in the 1930s when its personnel either had to let it be distorted beyond recognition in order to appease the Nazis, or flee to the UK and USA. In which direction should counselling and psychotherapy move now?
Turner’s book is not completely without merit but it contributes little that is original to this debate. His brief focus on privileged education in the UK is not new but welcome (Boris Johnson became Prime Minister based on his privileged class and the Eton ethos and contacts, rather than his suitability for high political office) but as we have been reminded recently, effective education of white working-class boys is now sadly missing as girls and ethnic minorities have been prioritised in recent decades. Seeing our advantages as gifts to be shared is a good redemptive point that Turner makes. His case vignettes almost strike home but fail to be convincing. Admittedly some of this book is hard to read, partly because as a white man I am expected to feel implicated as an oppressor. I have never acted violently towards any non-white people, nor have I called any by racist names, but my whiteness and independent critical thinking make me guilty nonetheless. My dogwhistle microhesitations in enthusiastically endorsing the black victimhood narrative no doubt invite my cancellation.
Turner’s examples of racist othering become tedious in the same way that (in Transactional Analysis terms) people like to play the ‘ain’t it awful’ game, and (in Perls’s Gestalt therapy terms) reiterate their underdog position ad nauseam. Anyone entrenched in their ‘core pain’ (in cognitive-analytic therapy terms) of racism probably needs to express it as a stage towards therapeutic healing. Right now, all we have is this incoherent broken record of alleged unconscious white racism and black victimhood. ‘The use of psychotherapy and its tools to understand the psychology of supremacy is therefore an important aspect of recognising the darker, unprocessed, psychological nature of supremacy’ and ‘we split towards supremacy often’ (p. 97) Turner states. It isn’t clear if he is referring here to the use of actual therapy or psychotherapeutic theory, but one of his aims as a therapist seems to be to undermine anyone’s sense of superiority, as if therapy is a kind of Room 101 where the client will be processed, purged of any sense of supremacy, and re-made in the image of the Politically Correct and Eternally Equal Citizen. My original working-class culture long ago had warned me ‘don’t get above yourself’.
Meanwhile, ‘non-woke’ therapists must find ways of actively opposing any erosion of therapeutic norms, any intrusion of CRT into the politics-free space that must be kept safe for clients. Let’s bear in mind that all life is suffering (as the Buddha said), that this bitter earth can be cruel to any of us; that individual suffering regardless of intersectionality is often horribly acute, and that the proper forum for proposed major cultural and political changes is politics, not therapy. The vast majority of clients in therapy are not concerned with privilege and intersectionality but with highly personal, painful problems.
*The term ‘race’ appears to be in common use again after protests that no such category exists, while ‘ethnicity’ supposedly replaced it. Race relations, racism and antiracism are surely predicated on race. Politically incorrect use of hypersensitive terminology can trigger charges of microaggressions. These linguistic fashions are primarily dictated by critical social justice activists and it is a stressful feature of modern Western life that we must always tread on linguistic eggshells. The jargon of intersectionality and its like is however barely understood by the majority, I believe, although Rufo (2021b) reports that 64% of Americans are aware of critical race theory.
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Rufo, C. F. (2021b) The enablers: defending phantom freedoms, certain intellectuals usher in the concrete tyrannies of critical race theory. City Journal, 10 July.
Scruton, R. (2015) Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left. London: Bloomsbury.
Turner, D. (2021) Intersections of Privilege and Otherness in Counselling and Psychotherapy: Mockingbird. London: Routledge.
Turner, D. L. (2018) ‘You shall not replace us!’ White supremacy, psychotherapy and decolonisation. The Journal of Critical Psychology, Counselling, and Psychotherapy, 18 (1), 1 -1 2.
Woodson, R. L., Snr (Ed) (2021) Red, White and Black: Rescuing American History from Revisionists and Race Hustlers. New York: Post Hill Press.
Colin Feltham is Emeritus Professor of Critical Counselling Studies, Sheffield Hallam University, and a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. Among other activities, he has written or edited over 30 books, taught critical thinking, and examined over 50 doctoral theses.