Transforming the Wounds of Racism: An Autoethnographic Exploration and Implications for Psychotherapy

Transforming the Wounds of Racism: An Autoethnographic Exploration and Implications for Psychotherapy

by Saira Bains
A therapist explores her experiences of racism by investigating her family's history of racist trauma.


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A young boy splatters my painstakingly finished painting, taunting me to go back to where I had come from. I accuse his ancestors of plundering my nation: "Look what your people have done to my people." (Saira, eight years old)

The stories of colonialism that my father had told me suddenly came to life and I felt bold and proud as I looked to my teacher for further confirmation. She remained silent as the other children laughed at me. I found myself shrinking away in that moment of humiliation. I think about that experience quite often and I imagine what might have happened if my teacher had affirmed my words. Especially, now that the cultural landscape has changed and I see white women with henna tattoos, and Indian fashions, designs and music everywhere I look. It is curious that what was once denigrated is now accepted and desired. This is both inexplicable and inspiring to me.

My brother and I are in the garden gathering brittle autumn leaves for the fire, savouring the sweet evening air in our lungs. Two white teenage boys peer over our back fence and throw stones and litter at us alongside racist jibes. I feel they are treating us like animals in a zoo; I feel fear rise in my belly but feel compelled not to show it. My father appears and gently asks them if they would like to join us. I feel bewildered and betrayed by his reaction. The boys sit beside us and floating embers settle in our hair as we eat baked potatoes plucked from the fire. We make reluctant and inquisitive eye contact with one another and as the fear dissipates, I can see they want to be a part of this simple activity of togetherness. (Saira, ten years old)

Racism was a part of the backdrop of our lives. It was not discussed and I was given no guidance on how to make sense of it. It is only now, many years later, that I recognise the gift my father gave me that night: he showed me that I could acknowledge and stay with the disquiet and dread of racism and that I could find ways other than fear and dread to be with it. During my dissertation research on this topic, I held onto these memories like a talisman.

Authoenthnography as a way to understand racism and trauma

In this article, I focus on research I have undertaken using the authenticity of voice and insider status, that of myself and my family. I used the method of authoethnograpy to explore the trauma of racism and its impact on the self and relationships. I hoped to create a bridge between my experience and those of my family. I wanted to understand: What is the essence of racist trauma and how does it impinge upon the relational and intersubjective experience of living? How does one negotiate and process this hatred, denigration and the power of such oppressions?

I wanted to become a therapist who was not bound up in the rigidity of her boundaries, so that I could begin to stretch and push the boundaries of otherness and sameness. As a psychotherapist, I wondered how racism is explored or avoided in psychotherapeutic work. I saw that racism can often enter psychotherapy in a disguised form as it is difficult to express due to the fearful and defended nature of racism. This results in racist trauma being overlooked and minimised, which can be oppressive and silencing in itself. In this work, I have tried to illustrate how stories were told and understood in order to facilitate empathy with groups that are sometimes neglected and marginalized.

Autoethnography¹ has developed from ethnography, anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies and serves to challenge traditional historical relations of power. Autoethnography is different from autobiography in that it describes the conflict of culture and identifies how one becomes othered within a cultural and social context. This method of research allows us to remake and understand subjective experience from creative and analytic first-person accounts of people's lives. It makes use of interviews, dialogues, self-conscious writing, and other creative forms to facilitate an expanded awareness for the author and audience. Autoethnography is the study of the awareness of the self (auto) within culture (ethnic); it is a way to connect the personal with the cultural.

I have tried to create a more heartfelt space where wounds can be subjectively named and understood. I wished to engage in new ways of thinking about how therapists' life events can change practice and awareness for themselves and the field. The illuminated relationship between the researcher and the researched is made transparent in this work as it took me to places, internally and geographically, that I had never been...

This is not just a story about racist trauma—it is a story about longing, loss, and discovery. It weaves back and forth in time, and as a result, it is written in both the present and past tense.

Straddling two worlds

My story interweaves a larger family narrative, which has been kept alive and vibrant over many years, as I come from a family of storytellers. I was born to Asian parents who immigrated to England in the 1950s from Pakistan and India. My mother's ten sisters and brothers accompanied her on this brave exodus to a new continent and culture.

As a child, I was a keen observer, soaking up the living memories of my parents' homeland, of dance, song, and food that produced solidarity and unity. As a group, they felt alienated and displaced from all that was familiar. My aunts told and retold stories; this helped them maintain their cultural voices, and this collectively made them a powerful force in my life. The men were on the edges of these stories and were largely uninvited to storytelling as it was felt they were both "too important" to be burdened with the tales and too "weak" to bear the sorrow associated with them.

I straddled both the ancestral and modern worlds, and I was given the gift of being able to find myself within these stories. Despite the fact that these mementoes of my heritage were somewhat fragmentary, I was still left fascinated by them. My aunts came from a culture that emphasised togetherness and unity. In their dependent and highly emotional world, they sought kinship and solace with each other. This was in part because they became increasingly ambivalent about their splintered place and identity in the world due to the forces of migration.

As I grew older, I started to embody a western culture, and it became apparent that cultural differences were intolerable to my family, as any individuation was an annihilation of the collective. I felt increasingly like an outsider, both inside and outside the home. I was inexplicable and perplexing to them, particularly when at 13, I dyed my hair pink and daubed hand-painted feminist slogans over my clothes. My family clucked with pride when I responded to their coaxing by wearing a sari for a family event. I felt such sensual pleasure in the swaths of beautiful pea-green silk that I did not want to lose its "magical qualities." In turn, [I refused to take the sari off, ruining their hopes by experimentally skateboarding in it.] I was continually challenging their ideas of what a traditional Asian woman should represent and grappling with the contradictions and paradoxes inherent in this process.

Myself as witness

Though I have experienced racism, the primary scars I bear from racism are as a witness. I feel terrible guilt seeing those closest to me wounded more directly by something I escaped. It was as if the men in my family had gone out into the world at war and returned home as ghosts and shadows, dismembered and absent.

How do I trace the roots of my estrangement and disconnection from these men who were central to my life, to my heart? I have waited for a long time for them to come home—psychically, physically, and emotionally. I have always wished that they would be returned to me, like at the end of fairy tales. Through my research process, I felt like I was making the decision that I could not passively wait for their return any longer. Whilst being immersed in this research, I felt a strong need to reclaim my deeply yearned for yet seemingly irrecoverable lost connections.

I did not know for certain when I started this research that my father, uncle, and brother were lost to me by racism and its effects. These experiences were unheard and unspoken in my rambling and rather tribal family. I believe the speaking of racism evoked fear and shame that might further tear at the fraying fabric of my family. Racism, for me, was bound in the wrappings of humiliation and silence. It was so tightly swathed, I only heard it as a fearful whisper. I have subsequently discovered these traumatic racist experiences ranged from vague, insidious and intangible experiences to shattering, violent acts.

As I felt the oscillations of these unspoken narratives inside myself, it led me to create musings, fantasies and assumptions about the subject matter. I sat at my desk, feeling bewildered and paralyzed at the horror and pain of the family narratives, and despair at their disconnection from me, wondering how it was possible to get closer to the subjectivity of such experience. This possibility felt charged, potent and unfathomable. I deliberated and wondered repeatedly if I should speak with my family about the research—would it harm them further? What are the ethics of taking this into the public world? What would the research do to our relationship? Issues around confidentiality buzzed around my head and my colleagues and I talked about them incessantly.

I questioned the possibility further: What will my peers make of me? Would I be derided and discounted by the "therapeutic community" for revealing not just myself, but also my family? Would I be able to produce something evocative, powerful, and representative of our experiences? Is this the story of significant men in my family or my story of loss? Can I find the words for trauma that sits beyond language to describe what cannot be spoken? The question remained with no easy answers.

My father's scars

I am left feeling hollow when I think about these lost relationships with important men in my life. Perhaps I will begin with my father, before telling of my journey to Canada to meet with my uncle. My father is dead. I feel real sadness that I cannot hear his story in his own voice and sadder still that even if he was alive it may have remained a muted silence between us.

My father was disillusioned and troubled when he fled to England to practice law in the 1940s. His best friend and neighbour during the partition in India stabbed him. He only mentioned the scar on his stomach in passing when I pressed him to let me into his interior world. He believed Britishness embodied fairness and justice as he had been successfully inculcated into the colonial belief that he and his kind were inferior. He beamed with pride at redefining himself as a "brown English man" and negated his "primitive and corrupt" cultural origins with vitriol, never wishing to return.

In remaking his identity, he resolutely refused to believe that his struggle to secure a job as a barrister was due even in part to his colour. He was a dishwasher, a porter, and a lift attendant—all the while, trying to maintain his respectability and pride. He would arrive to work with his bowler hat and impeccable pinstriped suit each day. then change into his overalls to start his shift. He was inaccessible to us as he strove to carve out a place in the world, and his identity was embedded in his need to work hard and achieve. His failure critically punctured his self-esteem.

The eventual disaffection and disillusionment with his idealization of Britishness seemed inevitable. However, its impact was made worse because he was unable to digest the racism he endured. He saw the hostile, racist persecutory world making him feel small and powerless. He seemed to see racism and oppression everywhere. These crises led him to alcoholism and admission to a psychiatric hospital for depression.  
He sat on his prayer mat and cried like a child as he spoke of England like a lover that had abandoned and disappointed him.
He sat on his prayer mat and cried like a child as he spoke of England like a lover that had abandoned and disappointed him. He turned away from it as he had his homeland.

In turning away from Britishness and all it represented, my father turned further away from me. Had I come to embody what he could not bear? I could not find any comfort in taking my distress to him and he could not bear the weight of his child's woundedness. The effects of his trauma marked our family, and although we did not live through his trauma, we did live within its confines.

It is frustrating to feel the familiar inaccessibility in his death as I did in his life. What would he have discounted or embraced in these descriptions? My father was a harsh man who shielded himself from the world and eventually lived a hermit-like existence, but he gave me the best of his capacity to love. All I can name is what I know: that every day I spent with him he was unpredictable and closed off, living in a desolate land. I could not find him anywhere. And now I cannot quite find him in the untranslatability of these narrative descriptions.

While my own father was busily being a perfectionistic workaholic, my mother was whimsical, dreamy, furiously caught up in her culture and clan. My uncle represented a world of calm and safety. How do I adequately describe how much I loved my uncle? I have always found great comfort in looking at his face, the familiarity I felt in watching him smoking his cigarettes—his recognizable outline meant that my life slotted into place.

My uncle leaves... the unanswered questions

In his still, deliberate and unhurried way, he watched over my brother and me. Even as I write these words about my uncle, he evokes an almost reflexive soothing response; my body becomes languid and time slows down. (Saira on her uncle)

I now realize he was a mere young man at the time, but seemed then to offer a very different quality of attachment. I remember him driving a maroon Mini with a squeaky leather interior that I would slide around on. He would sit with me on the stairs when I had undigested bad dreams about cowboys and Native American Indians and would speak softly of worlds full of magic and kindness until I felt safe enough to fall asleep again. He taught me to gently put the needle on the record and wait breathlessly until the song would start in the smoky recesses of his room. He would capture my crinkle-nosed smile in his photographs and I felt rewarded with his attention and gaze.

His leaving to emigrate to Canada when I was six felt like an unanswered question and for a long time I wondered why he left, and yearned for him to come back. His absence was profoundly painful to me as a child. I wondered if my mother had sent him away or if his new wife asked him to leave. As I grew up, a part of me imagined it was due to racism. Not that I knew much of his experiences with racism, but I overheard fragments of conversations of how he "hated England," and that "terrible things happened to him." It led me to conclude that racism was the only conceivable reason he left. Why did I assume it was racism? Had I made something up? Perhaps it helped me believe as a young child that something terrible took him away rather than facing the fact that he had chosen to leave me.

"It felt embarrassing to talk about the humiliating aspect of it, your sense of masculinity is wounded and injured, you feel that you should have taken a stand but you did not feel able to as a man." (Saira's uncle)

Early on, I asked my uncle what he thought about my research—was it meaningful to him? He said he had many stories of racism and its associated trauma that he had not spoken of, yet they were still alive inside of him. I instantly felt relieved that these experiences were real and not entirely the result of my imagination, although I feared I would not be able to hear and bear these stories. How might the telling of these narratives benefit him? At this stage, I felt lost in the littering of these broken attachments and in a turbulent state of anxiety and confusion, although later I recognised that this was a place of important struggle and sorrow.

Unwelcome in the new world

"I needed support, moral guidance. Someone I could trust, pour my heart out to. It was painful and there was no outlet. I was just suffering from one event to the next. It is a vicious circle. I think I expected this (racism) to happen wherever I went. I stopped questioning it." (Saira's uncle)

My uncle arrived in England from Pakistan in the 1950s at 10 years of age accompanied by a throng of older and younger sisters with kilos of sweating Indian sweets wrapped painstakingly in silver foil. However, the family was ill-prepared for the cold as they arrived in the dead of winter in only their thin cotton shirts. All 10 children started their life in Britain in an asbestos-ridden caravan, confused and unsettled after coming from a place of wealth and comfort. Later, the family moved into one room with little space, and their material conditions worsened. They lacked any comprehension of the new culture or landscape they faced. This migratory journey remained an untold story because it evoked shame of their struggle to find a place of belonging and the emotional and literal poverty of their experience. The exodus was supposed to be rich with offers of new possibilities, the enticement laced with the promise that they would be rewarded if they worked hard and managed to forget the familiar sun, and the textures and colours of home.

My uncle was pleased to find that people were initially curious about him, his history, and difference. Later, this changed and it seems humiliation and shame coloured much of his experience as a young man. He remembers standing at a bus stop racially abused whilst those in the polite orderly English queue silently looked on, witnessing him being scorned and disrespected for simply existing. He felt the disdain when he was spat at for embodying and personifying otherness, his palpable foreignness and physicality making him a threat to himself. The skin he represented made him exquisitely visible and invisible.

"Look what the cat's dragged in" was his greeting on the first day at his new job; he was 16. He felt cheated; where was the promise of a better life? Then he was threatened with a knife in a public bathroom where a gang of men in a savage racist attack set upon him, dousing him in their anger and fury. He felt unwelcome in the new world.

He walked around in shame and isolation, wondering how he could make a mark on the world when his voice had fallen away. Humiliation tearing at his throat, he swallowed the contempt and its effects began to house themselves inside of him.

Connection and disconnection

My uncle took my brother and me to the park with his girlfriend, the first white person I knew. She lets me play with her sheet of long golden hair and sit on her perfumed lap. I am fascinated with her long white legs. I think her white skin means that all the brown has fallen away, revealing a naked layer of skin. She appears delightfully unconcerned about this exposure. All this makes her seemed so foreign and exotic to me.

My brother on my Uncle's shoulder, me in the park... I chew on the long feathery grasses that sway in the wind, shimmer in the sunlight; I thought I was eating the sunshine. (Saira as a young child)

These are the happiest times I can remember. I felt connected to the world and myself when I was with my uncle. My adoring view of him was in part due to the way he invited us into other worlds of music, song, and nature. I was full in the stillness.

He and the white English woman that he loved and hoped to marry sat together in the ordinary familiarity of the train carriage. He loved train journeys, watching familiar landmarks appearing and disappearing from view as the train juddered out of the station. This defining journey turned bad for him as a heavily built white man sitting across from him began to mumble and then roar at how "his kind" had defiled his partner's virginity, taking something from him—from all white men.
The pain of past racist violent blows he had experienced did not compare in their intensity to this expression of violent hate that was coming at him now.
The pain of past racist violent blows he had experienced did not compare in their intensity to this expression of violent hate that was coming at him now. The torrid racist expletives bounced around the walls of the carriage, exposing and belittling him.

The emotional impact was initially shock; he described feeling a numbing paralysis in his body. As they decided to escape and disembark at the next station, he wondered how his body would support him, when it felt so insubstantial. Time slowed to a stop as he felt the flush of disgrace and helplessness overcome him. The other travellers in the carriage looked on, some with interest, others with avoidance; did they find themselves agreeing with this man's hate? Is that why they did not protest? Or was it fear that this contempt would be directed towards them?

He felt his girlfriend was defiled in her association with him; it was as if she was contaminated by the colour of his skin into something more sexualised and objectifiable. They never spoke of this incident, but it was the beginning of the end of their relationship, because in that long moment, amongst all of the shame and emasculation, was her witness of his diminishment.

When he moved to Canada, he left me too, but more poignantly he left himself.
When he moved to Canada, he left me too, but more poignantly he left himself. The racism that had infused his world disconnected him from himself and those around him, such an unspoken cruelty when contact and connection was the gift he gave me.

"Racism was not the main reason I left"

"Once on Northcote Road, there was a laundry mat. Inside, there was this little black girl, being abused by this white woman. I could hear her hateful words and this stands out in my mind. When I think about these things, it feels very hurtful, more hurtful than you could imagine, because I felt hated too." (Saira's uncle)

I journeyed to Canada to meet my uncle, 30 years after he left England. To engage in a dialogue about something so personal and painful leaves me anxious and curious. I am researcher/niece/ psychologist/ therapist/child all at the same time. These multiple selves offer a dynamic shifting of one into the other, each adding a new voice. He is a stranger to me now, but there is a strong memory of childhood intimacy that attracts me to him. Yet I feel shy. I want to hide away in my researcher/therapist self to anchor me, but this dialogue requires courage to be intimate and honest. I wonder if I am capable.

We sit in his basement with a scratchy blanket on our knees, as I anxiously wonder if my new tape recorder will work. At the same time I wonder how my husband is, as I left him making polite conversation with my uncle's wife upstairs. Are they wondering what we are discussing downstairs?

He says slowly, "No, racism was not the main reason I left." My long-held assumption momentarily floats away. What does this mean now? He tells me he came to Canada to begin again: a new life, a new job. He does not want to be perceived as someone who cowardly ran away. Did my questions about his leaving further diminish him? It seems to me that he needs me to clearly understand his reasons for leaving. I feel a need to honour this, while still I wrestle with what this means for me and for him. Self-doubts creep in... Were my assumptions off base? Was I too committed to these assumptions before hearing his version of events?

Acts of reinvention

"I felt ashamed of my own country because these people made you feel less than. When I look back, I feel little sorry for myself. I did not ask for any of that and it was uncalled for. I had to face it, get through it, I did and here I am." (Saira's uncle)

It is as if racism had blighted his life for many years; the hurt and the vividness of the memories live on and become ignited as he speaks of it after 40 years. He says he felt like a victim, which left him terribly alone and split him apart. He says, "I don't know if white people could relate, or appreciate the racist experience. You have to be on the receiving end of it. Only our people could understand this shared experience, to know what it is like to be spat at, to be hated. I do not know if they would be able to really make a connection. You have to live through something like that."

He became vigilant and wary of whiteness. It has been 30 years since he experienced such overt racism, yet he still sees all white people as outsiders. I can psychologically understand this but emotionally it does not fit for me. I cannot feel this way because our narrative experiences are different.

His own racism remains unacknowledged. He does not see it as racism, but rather as a wish to preserve the integrity of his culture, with the lines drawn in a colour-coded way. Whiteness must be kept out or at best treated with a large dose of scepticism. I try to wonder with him whether his racism precedes or emerges from his own racist trauma. How does whiteness threaten his cultural and religious beliefs? I try to get into a dialogue about this, but he is rigid and fixed in his ideas just like those who hated him for what his skin represented.

It seems these feelings became more pronounced when he began to reinvent himself. This reinvention of himself, he believes, was born from the isolation and emasculation of the racism that penetrated him. He needed to recreate and recapture a self by finding value in his culture after coming from such a place of shame. He found a resilience and strength that came from his community and culture, mainly from his spiritual connection to music. He made these connections to preserve a self that had been discounted.
He felt embraced and accepted in this place... a place to stand with his hurts.
He felt embraced and accepted in this place... a place to stand with his hurts.

The more toxic effects of the shame and indignity went away, yet he remains mistrustful of anyone who tries to get too close. This mistrust includes me and I realise there is an awkwardness that sits between my uncle and me that does not go away.

I felt deeply hurt and angry by the racism he described, but more so that he had nowhere to take his woundedness. I begin to wonder if I in some way represented the England he had to leave behind. How do I speak of my anger at being left and feeling forgotten? I try to talk about this but the words do not come out right and they stick in my throat.

He reads the narrative that I have taken from him and insists he has nothing to add or
change. "It's an accurate description and it's interesting to know of you through doing this," he says. He sees my expression of sadness at his leaving England as his failure; I cannot quite find the words to explain how much he meant to me that made his leaving so agonizing for me. Is it too late? It is as if he has already turned away. His world seems to exist of outsiders and insiders. I think I begin to exist somewhere in between for him, as the residual effects of this trauma mean that he remains far away.

As we are preparing to leave, he shows me photographs he took of me as a child from an album as closed as his past. He tells me that his happiest memory of those times was the crinkly smile that I saved for him as a child. Despite this, I feel heartbroken all over again.

Healing some wounds

This autoethnography is not just autobiographical in its focus. I have tried to create some coherence in this narrative of trauma, while revealing its fragmentary nature. My work obviously cannot erase the trauma and its traces, yet I sought to make sense of the narratives in a meaningful way. I wanted to do this research in collaborative partnerships, as alone it would have been meaningless. I did not want to produce a theorising, abstract clinical text. I also struggled with my entitlement claims to narrate these stories having not endured racist trauma as directly as my uncle did. However, I recognise it was also my story and I was a constitution of my uncle's life—his trauma has also been my unnamed trauma that leaked into the fabric of our relationship and left an indelible mark.

As I listened to and then transcribed my uncle's story, he maintained power over his words as he revised and amended his descriptions. I wrote the narrative piece that he had editorial control over. He was able to acknowledge his loss of self due to racist trauma, but the recognition of his resilience and his sense of agency was made real by the act of linking events to his act of self-expression. I noted that his resilience was activated to survive adversity. He expressed this resilience in the form of forgiveness: "I have survived so much and learned that forgiving others (racists) has helped me have another chance at life."

I grappled with the need to see my uncle as a survivor and hero, and preserve my continued idealisation of him. I can see how he continues to bear terrible scars that I naively believed could be bridged by this research. Yet, what was healing was making sense of these previously unspoken trauma experiences that we were no longer compelled to exclude, a behaviour that was normalised within the family. These narratives brought validation and the possibility of new attachments. However, this narrative was not entirely healing with orderly resolutions.²

My uncle's residence abroad meant the dialogue we were able to share in person was concentrated over a week and followed up by telephone and email contact. I felt disappointed that I did not have more time with my uncle in the research, but is this not how I began, lamenting the loss of my time with him? He seemed unengaged after a time and denied wishing to change the material in the text after the first few revisions. He said there were no negative effects of the research on him, but I wondered if he felt discomfort at our increased contact. I have now not heard from him for a number of months and suspect he wishes to re-establish some distance and renewed separateness. I have honoured this for now and so I continue to feel his absence every day.

In writing about racism and trauma, I am writing about my life, family, and community, which is quite charged. I have become careful not to contribute to the splitting in the world of racism, or in believing that the racist monster prevails and that those of colour are helpless and victimised. I have found that by opening up categories and sitting in between these splits and divides that I can see the situation more clearly.
I cannot simply hate the racist, because I have loved those who have voiced racisms of their own, like my father and my uncle.
I cannot simply hate the racist, because I have loved those who have voiced racisms of their own, like my father and my uncle. Similarly, I have been touched by this work, wrestled with forgiveness and humanness, and appreciated that the resulting embodied awareness may go a long way in creating connections across divisions.

Coming home again

I think one of my most palpable feelings has been wrestling with terrible feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability. I felt both shamed at being part of a family that was subject to racist trauma as well as shamed that I had escaped it. This vicarious trauma was a terrible silencing bind that continues to be bitter and jagged. Thus, I began writing about racism and trauma, as Foucault says, to free one's self. Racism was and is all around me and continues to arrive in crashing waves of unpredictability.

A gang of boys corners me and threats me, but they become half-hearted and change their minds because they are unsure of where to locate my colour or ethnicity. I feel initially relieved and then angry that they do not recognise me for what I am. I try to call them back. (Saira, eight years old)

I go to Mexico, Mexicans claim me; in Italy they speak to me in Italian that I grope to understand; in Paris, the police stop me and assume I am an Arab; and in India, they do not know where I am from. A client comments to me about how much she despises Pakistanis and how relieved she is that she can speak openly of her contempt, as it becomes clear that she thinks I am from Jordan. (Saira as an adult)

My family would joke and say, "You may as well be white." This was not just a form of shadism, but to emphasize my difference from them. My skin colour is not easily identifiable, yet I am kept othered and my difference is imagined. All of this points to the idea that skin colour is unimportant in itself, but the projections, internalisations and consequences it carries do matter. We cannot ignore or minimise this impact as sometimes it becomes a matter of life and death, be it physical or psychological.

I internalized the shame of my cultural difference, and my Asianness seemed inexplicably both a bad and a good thing. I have struggled with the shame that glued my insides together and writing this has been a battle of sticking and unsticking those glued parts. This work gave shame a place to speak from. I have wrestled with finding my voice and I recognise that the humiliation and guilt at being a witness to racist trauma has been like an eighteenth-century corset encasing me and defining my shape. I have reframed this narrative as one of transgenerational and intergenerational racist trauma. I intimately feel the terrible loss and abandonment by these significant males. Now I am less bound up and defined by this trauma. I am not sure, though, where I go from here.

The effects of these traumatic absences have left emptiness in my life, and acknowledging the pain and sadness of missing these men who were once vitally present has changed something between us. I am able to love them just as they are in the hope that there will be moments when they will be returned to me, which happens every now and then with a smile a word, a gesture, or a memory.

I am changed in other ways, as well. This is best illustrated with an ordinary encounter of getting into the same taxi with four years in between.

Sometime during the beginning of my research, I slide into the taxi as I register the racist hate in the taxi driver's eyes; he glares at me. I am surprised and uncomfortable as I inhabit his confined territory, his taxi seems like a closed-off, taut world of hate and revulsion that leaves me unsettled and unsafe but reminds me that this work means I have to be able to dwell in this place. (Saira)

Four years later, my research is in the final revision process, and another taxi ride...

After spending an afternoon revising my research, I am cooking rice with my mother... the aromatic Indian herbs and spices envelop me... nice to be home again. I feel a mixture of self-consciousness and pride about my project. I get into the waiting taxi preoccupied with these very thoughts. I look up and slowly recognise it is the same taxi driver. He recoils from me, as if I am able to pollute and invade his being. I look at him steadily, filled with curiousity. Where does this contempt come from? What does it do to him? I experience what I can only describe as warmth, expansiveness and loving compassion for him. I happily beam at him because he is representative of the journey that has reshaped me. I do not experience his hate as a terrible wound. I feel no fear. I am not shamed. In that moment and for a long while afterwards, I feel completely free. (Saira)

The implications of autoethnography for psychotherapy

As I try to write about this experience, I begin to wonder: How can this discovery process enhance my capacity to be with racist trauma in my work as a psychotherapist? How can these methods and the narratives act as a vehicle of meaning for other psychotherapists? Can clinical practice and research be enhanced by deepening and amplifying silent narratives using autoethnography? Can we challenge traditional representations of the 'raced subject' and the stuckness we face in working with areas of heightened sensitivity such as racism?

I think about autoethnography interacting with psychotherapy not necessarily as an approach in itself or a distinct form of therapy, but as a set of attitudes towards self and other which can facilitate the creation of an internal bridging and connection. This means that rather than having a set of explicit tools to work with racist trauma, therapists are required to develop and seek out heightened processes of awareness and embodied ways of being. This awareness migrates into practice in a more accessible and less defensive way by helping the therapist engage in highly sensitive and profoundly painful areas of the client's story through varied subjectivities and reframing processes.

The interaction between autoethnography and psychotherapy is also a journey of personal discovery and self-reflective process. This work became a therapeutically available surface that I could work on inside and outside my own therapy, transforming the relationships with those in research that I love.

For myself as a therapist, this journey has enhanced my capacity to be more accessible and present in my client work. I also feel more able to generate conversations and dialogue about racist trauma and the racial experiences of my clients in the therapeutic relationship. Through disentangling racism within myself and others, I find there is an encouragement of an alternative state of awareness that is more self-reflective, and less guilt-ridden and avoidant. This process produced a deepening of understanding and processing of self-generated and self-defined identities that was empowering as it undermined racist and racial stereotypes and helped me to encourage my clients to do so. I think I am better able to seek out such disconnections and attempt to create a worked for connectivity where I can be less constrained in my language and thinking, having developed the capacity to be more available to enter into the webs of racialised discourse in my clinical work and in myself.

Autoethnography can be a profoundly useful way of accessing memories of complex racially traumatic experiences that may be implicit and built upon sediments and layers of racial slights and injuries that contribute to psychological grief and social maladjustment. Skin colour plays an important part in structuring of the world, and the colour coding of the self and psyche. As therapists, we are called to work through this for ourselves and our clients; otherwise it will reappear as the therapist's unexamined countertransference and will perplex and confound the therapy.³ The engagement with otherness takes us out of what is seemingly familiar and encourages us to travel to alternative places within ourselves. It is from this position that I wish to dissolve detachment, isolation and marginalisation to create connections and healing.

Refuse to wither and die

I will conclude with a story cited by Bronson. He describes a huge elm tree that had a bull tethered to it by an iron chain for so many years that a vast furrow formed in the bark. The tree survived the ravages of Dutch elm disease that killed all the elm trees in its path. Plant pathologists came to study this tree and were mystified by its refusal to wither and die. They eventually came to realise that the tree had absorbed so much iron from the chain that it became immunized and its scar helped it survive and thrive. This metaphor has greatly helped me reframe the idea of not being broken by woundedness and instead becoming transformed by trauma and loss. This has not taken away the ache and pain but brought about valuable awareness and new knowledge that has helped me better negotiate the absence and loss in my life. This meant a painstaking form of excavation that brought the blood and bones of the experience into a place of existence and availability.

These stories have found a home inside of me, and I realised that I have been writing this story for the whole of my life. Now that it is committed to paper, I can see how it has helped me to love.


1 Bochner & C. Ellis (Eds). Ethnographically speaking autoethnography, literature, and aesthetics (NY: Altamira, 2003).

2 Franks, A. At the Will of the Body: Reflections on Illness (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1991).

3 Dalal, F. Transcultural perspectives on psychodynamic therapy; Addressing external and internal realities in The Journal of Group Analysis, 30 (London, Sage publications 1997) p. 203.

4 Bronson, P. Why do I love these people: The families we come from and the families we form (London Harvill Secker, 2005).

For further information on authoethnography:

Ellis, C. The ethnographic 1, a methodological novel about autoethnography ( NY, Altamira, 2004).

Gottschalk, S., Banks, A. and Banks, S.T. Fiction and Social Science, By Ice or Fire, (Walnut Creek, Altamira, 1998).

Copyright © 2007 All rights reserved. Published September, 2007.
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Saira Bains Saira Bains works as a psychologist and an integrative psychotherapist as well as a Director of Psychological Services in London, England. This paper is based on her extensive research for her doctoral research project. Saira received her Masters of Social Sciences in Integrative Psychotherapy (1999) from the The Metanoia Trust where she is also finishing up her Doctorate in Professional Studies in Psychotherapy. She also earned her Masters Degree in Psychiatry, Philosophy and Society (1992) from the Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies, University of Sheffield. Saira would be keen to hear from others who may have similar experiences. Contact Saira

CE credits: 2

Learning Objectives:

  • List ways to incorporate discussions of racism into you psychotherapy work.
  • Explain how the clinician's own experience with racism enhances therapeutic practice

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here