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25 January 2023

The narcissism of anti-racist therapy

Race experts are pushing flimsy solutions to real problems.

By Tomiwa Owolade

The psychoanalyst Helen Morgan embodies a growing nexus between two powerful cultural forces. She is the point at which therapy-speak and anti-racism meet. If you want to know where the kind of substance-free bromides against racism, recently popularised by Prince Harry, come from, then you ought to pay close attention to Morgan. 

She is a fellow of the British Psychotherapy Foundation, chair of the British Association of Psychotherapists between 2004 and 2008, and chair of the British Psychoanalytic Council between 2015 and 2018. Now she specialises in racism. At first, she was interested in blackness: how black and ethnic minority people have been stigmatised by white supremacy. But she has changed track in recent years. She is interested in whiteness, as illustrated by her recent book, which is imaginatively titled The Work of Whiteness (2021). Morgan is a white woman. 

Morgan’s work is inspired by “white fragility”, a concept developed by the American academic Robin DiAngelo. According to both women, white people are uncomfortable talking about racism. This is an issue because ending racism is not the responsibility of the victims of white supremacy; it is the responsibility of white people. Real progress depends on them overcoming their fragile egos. As Morgan once said in an interview with the National Elf Service podcast last year: “We’ve [white people] got to explore ourselves.”

Both Morgan and DiAngelo are part of a trend the social scientist Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn examined in her 2001 book Race Experts. According to Lasch-Quinn, “The race experts moved in to fill a void created by the collapse of the civil rights coalition” in America. The civil rights movement was characterised by a commitment to a universal standard of moral conduct: “It rested on historical truths about America’s pluralism and its racial crimes. It rested on moral truths about harmony and justice.”

The “therapeutic notion of identity”, meanwhile, is concerned with “unlimited self-expression as a goal”, Lasch-Quinn writes. It is not about what collective society can do. It is about what white people can do. It is not organised around a politics of solidarity. It calls for “differential, racialised codes of behaviour”. It is inward-looking rather than directed at materially transforming society.

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Morgan thinks that no one can be free from racism. It is the organising principle of Western society. It harms the lives of black and ethnic minority people, and advances the lives of white people.

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[See also: The limits of black and white thinking]

What distinguishes her from DiAngelo is how she animates her race therapy-talk with the language of psychoanalysis. But not traditional psychoanalysis – old-fashioned psychoanalysis, too, has a whiteness problem. “Psychoanalytic understanding of how racism operates,” Morgan declares in one of her online seminars, “tend to reinforce the individualism that liberal white people prefer.”

We need to be focused instead on social structures, she writes in a 2021 paper: “I suggest that the tendency for psychoanalytic thinking to isolate the individual from social and political forces leaves us ill-equipped to work with racism as it arises in the consulting room, and a more connected view of the human psyche as situated from the start within a political, economic and social setting is required.”

Nevertheless, introspection is integral to her conception of whiteness. “A vertical split,” she argues, “is created in the psyche. This split is reflected in and reinforced by the wider social system, allowing both the reality of white privilege and its disavowal.” White, liberal people are too anxious to disavow their inherent privileges. They claim to hate racism but never acknowledge their complicity in it. A racial reckoning at an individual level is absolutely crucial. Despite claiming to abjure solipsism, it is essential to Morgan’s anti-racist vision.  

“I think we’ve got to do much more examination of ourselves as white people,” Morgan argues. Saying “I am not a racist is meaningless in such a system”. But she offers no substance to her anti-racism. She is guilty of the very thing she is criticising other people for. Her outlook consists only of gestures. There is little else.

“It’s a lot of work,” she says in an interview, and “although it’s right for black representation to be there. Unless white people do the work it will make no difference at all. Unless we examine what our privilege is, where it is, how it operates, we will just find ways of making sure that nothing happens.” 

What does that work look like? When Morgan was asked on the podcast if she could give examples of people letting go of their power to help dismantle racism, her response was limp. She mentioned the fact that black women are more likely to die from childbirth, but offered no solution to this. She cited the number of black people who reach top management jobs: “If we’re going to seriously take on the task… of seeing how we can systemically change that structure… it will mean less white people having management jobs.” I am all for talented black people reaching the top, but how is that going to improve the lives of black people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder?

Therapy-talk offers a weak gloss of wisdom to banal anti-racist statements. When Prince Harry was drawing a distinction between racism and unconscious bias in his ITV interview with Tom Bradby, it simultaneously drew upon an aura of expertise and his own subjective self. Harry used the familiar language of anti-racism (“unconscious bias”) and the language of therapy (“learn and grow”). But the main word Harry used, his crutch, was “my”. The problem with the race experts, even self-appointed ones like Harry, is narcissism; when they look at the social world, all they see is themselves. Harry presents his personal journey as a statement of profound universal wisdom.

Morgan first came to public attention in November 2020 when she gave an online policy seminar called “Whiteness – problem for our time”, organised by the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust. But why is a psychotherapist from Bristol giving a talk on racism, and publishing flimsy books about whiteness for reputable publishing companies like Routledge?

The year 2020 was when discussion around race in the US and its imperial offshoots (such as Britain) assumed a greater intensity. After George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, one question dominated the media landscape above all else: how can we (white people) be anti-racist? Into this debate came the race experts. Ibram Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy, and DiAngelo’s White Fragility were shared countless times in lists of books white people needed to read to understand and fight racism. 

All of these authors cultivated guru personas. Saad, in her book, encourages the reader to keep a journal as they go through her text in order to track the progress they are making; as though anti-racism was a New Year’s resolution to be followed and assiduously tracked by an individual, rather than a political and moral stance that involves every member of society. This was anti-racism as therapeutic self-help.

This commodification of a political and ethical stance, turning it into a life-hack, and something that can be refined with the aid of gurus and analysts, reflects another essential part of contemporary anti-racism: how American it is. The New Yorker writer Louis Menand has written about the American nature of this: “Since the United States was founded on the principle of ‘no aristocracy of birth’, which was supposed to distinguish the New World from the Old,” Menand writes, “it makes sense that how-to and self-help should be central to American life – and that a book about those books should be called ‘Americanon’.”

Morgan, in her embrace of DiAngelo, is part of this tradition. Prince Harry is, too, in his use of garbled therapy-talk and jargony race language. The nexus that Morgan embodies, unlike psychoanalysis, was not made in fin de siècle Europe or early 20th-century Switzerland. It was cultivated in the United States of America. Morgan’s influence in Britain is a proxy for America’s wider influence on the way Britain talks and thinks about race.

[See also: Will we be able to trust Boris Johnson’s memoir?]