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Race, ethnicity and culture

‘I understood when I listened to people’s stories’

Deanne Bell is Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at Nottingham Trent University. Deanne spoke to Deputy Editor Annie Brookman-Byrne about her desire to understand and repair the world.

03 February 2020

Deanne Bell was taking an introduction to psychologies of liberation class with Mary Watkins when she read Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, a book Deanne describes as a phenomenological text of collective trauma. ‘There’s a moment when he’s walking down the street minding his own business, and a white mother and little son are there. The son points to him and says to his mother, “Mama, look, a Negro; I’m scared!”, and he feels the scorching, the searing of his being, because of his black skin. I read that, then went into a class with Mary Watkins. For two hours it was like my mind just blew open – there were actually people who were trying to make sense of what the experience is to be made other in the world. It was the first time I read anything from a black psychiatrist and philosopher.’

That was the turning point when Deanne started to examine the psychological damage of coloniality theoretically. Prior to that experience, Deanne’s political upbringing (her father was a minister in the 1970s government in Jamaica) had encouraged her to question how society worked, or didn’t work, but she hadn’t understood how social realities and psychology were linked.

‘In 1999 in Jamaica there was a gas price increase and poor black people took to the streets. Middle-class people, of which I am one, joined them not in the streets, but together we created a group called Jamaicans for Justice. Even though I was political throughout, I never came close to understanding what it is like to be made poor and black until I started to listen to people’s stories. These were stories of violence; stories of women who had lost sons, grandmothers who had lost grandsons, aunts who had lost nephews, and sisters who had lost brothers to state crime, just because they were at a street corner. Stories of all the ways that the state can oppress people who are made other. In my gut I knew there was something damaging and psychological, but I didn’t have the psychological intelligence and the psychological vocabulary to understand it until I did my doctorate.’

Bystanding social injustice

Since around 2006, Deanne has been studying how we turn away from social suffering. ‘I looked at how we bystand social injustice, how middle-class people can do that. In other words, what privilege does to our perceptions of the other who is in need. What I found is that whilst we’re turning away we’re actually denying that we’re turning away. It’s a very bewildering way that we look out at the world. I want to capture the psychological moment when we’re experiencing indifference in a new research project called The Anatomy of Indifference and Care. Last year I got trained in an analytical interviewing technique called micro-phenomenology. It looks at experiences that are often denied or difficult to access, and I’m using this to invite people to contribute new knowledge about social suffering and how we deny knowing about this suffering.’

Deanne told me that she was interviewed herself as the first person in the project. ‘People said it was important work, but that nobody would talk to me about it because it’s too painful. So I wanted to experience what it would be like.’ Deanne has done a few interviews now, and I asked if she had any preliminary findings. ‘I do. What I’m finding is that in situations where we are aware of another person’s suffering, we actually often respond first with care, and then something moves us into indifference. It speaks to the potential of us being able to care. And that to me, is so shocking and so incredible. I want to lay bare not only indifference but how we move into caring for the other.’

Deanne has previously worked in the States as a psychotherapist and teacher, and I wondered if she had come across any differences between the States and the UK. ‘Sadly, not significant differences. I think in the period that we’re in, in the modern form of colonialism, we deny that we’re looking at others through a racist lens, a classist lens, a patriarchal lens. Most of us say we’re not racist and we’re not sexist, those things are politically incorrect. Yet the world continues to exist with realities of inequality that say otherwise. The truth is of course that this isn’t just the UK and the US, this is the world over. We live in a world that’s not equal.’

Decolonising psychology

Deanne was unequivocal when I asked if psychology is uniquely placed to understand colonialism and how to decolonise. ‘Uniquely placed. In addition to being a political, economic, and material experience, coloniality is deeply a psychological experience. I think there are four moves that we could make. I would love for us as psychologists to dialogue about these.’

‘The first one is to decolonise knowledge production. We need to do research that is participatory, as opposed to doing research where the researcher with all of that power and status goes in and extracts knowledge from people. This knowledge is oftentimes misinterpreted, because all of us have our particular lens through which we analyse the world, and particular questions that we ask. Once we disseminate that knowledge and it gets infused into culture and society, for instance through social policy, that knowledge becomes an accelerator, or a mobiliser, and helps to perpetuate coloniality. So decolonising knowledge production is absolutely crucial.’

Deanne’s second suggested move is to decolonise teaching, learning and training. ‘This is an imperative, because when we use a banking model of education, where the expert delivers a lecture and students sit silently and receive it, that again reinscribes a power differential. This model is problematic because we’re not asking students to truly critically engage with knowledge, and we’re not inviting their experience of social reality into the classroom. Critical pedagogies have already been developed as a way out of this, and we can use that here in the UK.’

‘And then we need to decolonise practice. We need to do the very profoundly radical step of inviting everyone within the NHS and charities that offer mental health and psychological services, to do participatory research in those places. We need to find out why institutional racism is such an incredibly large problem in the NHS, and we need to find out what to do about it. But the people with power aren’t going to be the ones to come up with those solutions.’

‘The fourth thing is to decolonise social policy, which means that we need to bring horizontalism to social policy. We need to invite everybody who’s part of the experience of coloniality into participating. So that of course leads us to participatory action research again. And participatory action research is not consultation. I see consultations being used in the UK every time an institution wants to appear democratic or invite voices into decision-making – that’s not participatory because it’s the ones with power who set the questions, who set the terms. Everything is established by people with power who get to take people’s responses and water them down or amplify parts they like. That’s not participatory.’

‘So there are clear ways that we can decolonise psychology in the UK and actually lead the world on this. To me, that is an incredibly exciting possibility.’

A role for the Society and for individuals

I asked Deanne if there was anything that the BPS should be doing. ‘Yes. First of all, the opening that the BPS created by thematising the conference to be about the psychological effects of inequalities is brilliant. I thanked the BPS publicly at the end of my conference talk, and I really mean it. I think it’s huge to dedicate an entire annual conference to that. And now, we need to take it forward. We need to do work that is inclusive of all the voices and all the ideas that we can harness and galvanise. We need to bring that together. If I were leading the BPS on this I would say “let’s issue an ongoing call and create spaces across the UK where psychologists get together and talk about the inequalities”.’

‘Do you know how much psychotherapists could contribute to what we don’t yet know about these effects? Just by being in practice, with people, five days a week, who are so hurt and in such pain, and have been so injured by the system. We’re misdiagnosing it when we individualise this pain and this injury. And we need to stop that misdiagnosis. There is substantial knowledge that would be remarkable to harness.’

‘I think that once we understand the suffering and we invite people to contribute to what to do with this suffering, we can start to make some incredibly transformative moves. The BPS can sponsor that; it can support groups working across the UK to do that kind of work and then we can bring it together. It needs to be a long-term project. This isn’t the usual thing of strapping something together in 90 days, which never goes deep enough.’

Finally I asked Deanne, what’s the first thing individuals should do right now? ‘The first thing that we need to do is examine our complicity with coloniality, because all of us are complicit with it. I am complicit with it as a senior lecturer at NTU. My salary is based on being part of the university, and the university, the world over in its present form, is a colonialist project. All of us have to do this work where we become aware of social inequality and social injustice. It was Erika Apfelbaum who asked us to become awake to social injustice. We have to become awake to the power that we have, the effects of our power over others, and how that continues to sustain the pain and suffering that was created over four hundred years ago. We knew it was wrong then, and we know it’s wrong now. It has a different look now, but we need to do that very hard and inward work as individuals.’

Deanne Bell is Senior Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University [email protected]

Photo: Tina Vedrine