Decolonising Therapy: Introducing 3 Black Therapists and their impact on Psychotherapy
We may often feel that there are stark differences between the different types of psychotherapy we practice depending on whether it is behavioural, humanistic or psychodynamic.
However, during our training, there are some names that cross over the difference and will come up again and again: Rogers, Yalom, Jung and Freud. Their theories on mental ‘illness’, human behaviour and causes of suffering have far reaching influence and may shape our practice every day. The homogeneity of these pioneers is obvious, they existed in a world that was predominantly White, male, heterosexual, cisgender, western/Eurocentric; and hence, colonial.
Much is made of these pioneering theories, but what of the pioneers who didn’t experience life through this lens This article will explore the work of three prominent Black therapists and their contribution to the field of Psychotherapy: Frantz Fanon, Joseph L White and Maime Phillips Clark.
In order to understand the importance of centring Black theorists, a good place to start is by looking at the idea of “decolonising” our practice and why it is needed when working with race based trauma.
The act of decolonising is one which is picking up much traction at the moment and is part of a wider move towards understanding (and then dismantling) some on the oppressive systems we have operated under.
Firstly, it is helpful to recognise that decolonising our therapy practice might be a challenge when we have been trained (especially in existentialism and philosophical sectors) to focus our attention on the White male western writings of Nietzche, Freud and Heidegger et al. It is clear from many training courses that there is a huge gap in who is seen as part of the core curriculum; but purists of psychology believed that clients should be treated in a ‘race blind- gender blind-difference blind’ way.
However, if cultural difference is not reflected in the core learnings and theories on the majority of trainings, then cultural ‘unawareness’ will inevitably trickle down into the therapeutic relationship. This can have a negative effect on our work, as therapists are in positions of power that can mimic oppressive power structures for those with cultural difference. This can look like making assumptions, unconscious bias or focusing too much on individual choice or behaviour, when the clients issue stems from chronic stress of living in poverty, for example.
Navareaz wrote about this in Colonial Psychology: The Psychology We All Recognize, where she describes the key constructs of colonial practice as follows:
“in the colonial worldview, every individual is a discrete entity with distinct boundaries (unlike the Indigenous worldview which considers everything to be connected and interdependent). Only discrete entities with defined boundaries can be isolated and examined in a vacuum, apart from context and relationships.. Colonial psychology emphasizes individualism and exalts the self over community.”
Navareaz also notes the issue with hierarchical elements of colonial worldviews, stating that the:
“Ranking of Creation’s entities put White Male Europeans at the top, with everything else in the world beneath them. This sense of entitlement is evident in the psychology of White privilege and White fragility (Diangelo, 2018). The sense of entitlement led to the triumphalism of conquest and colonization, the belief in “manifest destiny” (Europeans taking over what became the USA) and the justification of inequality, dehumanization, racism and extermination (e.g., of Indigenous cultures). The European worldview of their superiority made them intolerant of alternative views”.
In order to ensure we are more than just ‘tolerant’ of alternative worldviews, it may be important to examine what we have internalised about what (and who) therapy is for.
Dr Jennifer Mullan is known for her work around decolonising therapy and in a recent interview (Dr. Jennifer Mullan: decolonizing therapy, April 16 2020) summarised that:
“to decolonize therapy is to reconnect to the humanization of therapy, to reclaim therapy, to include systems and oppression into our therapy practices and analysis, and to re-humanize therapists (bring them down from some pedestals)”.
Dr Mullan goes on to describe this beautifully as:
“a practice. It is not a theory. It is both remembering and transforming. It is both healing and dismantling. It is creation and shadow walking. It is politicizing and beingness”.
To humanize therapy is to include all sectors of society and ways of being into our knowledge base, and so we will look at some of the Black therapists who had huge influence in the field of psychotherapy.
Frantz Fanon (1925-1961)
Ibrahim Frantz Fanon was a French West Indian psychiatrist, born on the French colonial ruled island of Martinique. His work was influenced by art, politics and philosophy, and he published two key works in his lifetime: Black Skin White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of The Earth (1961).
Frantz Fanon (Image from Wikipedia)
Fanon trained in Lyon, France and was taught by renowned Catalan psychiatrist, Francoise Tosquelles. Tosquelles believed “occupation” could be both a lived reality and a psyche structure; and this would have influenced Fanon’s interest in examining the social root of mental distress. Fanon’s doctoral dissertation (that later became Black Skin White Masks) was influenced by the racism he experienced, in particular while studying in Lyon. It was only in post-war France that Fanon saw how White Europeans saw him; with fear, with ignorance, and through a white supremacist lens. He wrote that:
“I quite simply wanted to be a man among men”,
but that the white gaze had forced him to be shameful of what his race represented to them.
Fanon was appointed head of psychiatry at Bilda-Joinville Hospital in Algeria in 1953; where his work focused on the cultural background of his patients, who were both the Algerian victims of torture and the French colonial perpetrators of this violence. Fanon’s theories around race, othering and colonialism were incredibly important at the time. He believed violence should be met with violence, and that colonialism was an absolute evil that prevented psychiatry from working.
One of Fanon’s most important theories is collective catharsis, the societal release after a shared traumatic experience. Fanon writes in Black Skin White Masks that:
“[i]n every society, in every collectivity, exists – must exist – a channel, an outlet through which the forces accumulated in the forms of aggression can be released”.
While Fanon was referring to violence against colonial powers explicitly, it may be useful to imagine how a ‘collective catharsis’ can occur in the therapeutic relationship. This can be interpreted as a ‘handing back’ of anger towards dominant racist power structures. This, if done correctly, could be a powerful response to the dehumanisation of the colonial subject (individual) by the coloniser (system of power).
Joseph L White (1932- 2017)
Another psychologist of note whose work rejected the concept that colonised ways of being are the ‘norm’ was Jospeh L White. White, often known as the “grandfather of Black Psychology”, studied psychology at Michigan State University.
White’s early work was influenced by Pavlov, and he was the first African American to receive a PhD in Psychology from Michigan State and was the only person of colour on his graduate programme, where he graduated top of his class.
White founded the Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi) in 1968, which still runs as an autonomous organisation with 1400 members. The ABPsi was first introduced in reaction to how the American Psychological world approached treating people of colour. During an interview in 2012, White detailed his foundational observation that:
“Psychology is part of America, Black people are invisible in America, [and so] they’re invisible in psychology.”
White’s article ‘Towards a Black Psychology” published in 1970, argued that White Psychology could never meet the needs of the Black clients, as it was focused on deficit and individualistic behaviour rather than examining systemic oppression. The constant centring of White experience is one of the many reasons why a Black Psychology continues to need to exist. Cokley in Why Black Psychology Matters describes how:
“Black psychology was born from the struggle of Black psychologists who were constantly exposed to messages of Black deficiency, pathology, and inferiority”.
White was the first Psychologist to advocate for a non-deficit approach to treating people of colour. Cokley claims that the establishment of a Black Psychology has lasting effects:
“In many ways, Black psychology should be viewed as a precursor to positive psychology and multicultural psychology. Black psychologists have had an unwavering belief in the humanity and potentiality of Black people, especially in their ability to transcend and not be defined by racial oppression. In fact, Black psychologists such as Joseph White articulated the principles of a positive and strengths-based psychology prior to the formation of positive psychology.”
Maime Philips Clark (1917-1983)
Maime Philips Clark’s work set a lot of foundations for the formation of Black Psychology. Born in Arkansas, USA to a well off and supporting family, she grew up during the height of the segregation era. She was passionate about working with and helping children, and so she studied and excelled in areas like maths and physics where she was breaking ground for Black students in a non-inclusive and racially segregated environment.
Maime Philips Clark (Image from Wikipedia)
Philips Clark, alongside her husband Kenneth Clark, were the first Black psychologists to obtain doctoral degrees in psychology from Colombia University. Her most important work focused on the negative psychological effects of segregation on school children. Philips Clark (alongside her husband) conducted the famous doll experiment, which exposed the lasting effects of racism and internalised racism on young Black and white children.
In their Doll experiments, they used two dolls identical in all ways except colour. Children aged 3–7, where asked questions to identify racial perception and preference. The following questions were asked:
“Show me the doll that you like the best or that you’d like to play with.” “Show me the doll that is the ‘nice’ doll.” “Show me the doll that looks ‘bad.'” “Give me the doll that looks like a white child.” “Give me the doll that looks like a coloured child.” “Give me the doll that looks like a Negro child.” “Give me the doll that looks like you.”
The experiment revealed a preference for the white doll for all of the questions and attributed positive attributes to the white dolls, with the conclusion that “prejudice, discrimination and segregation” caused black children to develop a sense of inferiority and self-hatred.
The dolls used in Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s studies at their Northside Center for Child Development, founded in 1946. (Credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Kate Clark Harris in memory of her parents Kenneth and Mamie Clark, in cooperation with the Northside Center for Child Development)
McNeil describes in her 2017 article: How a Psychologist’s Work on Race Identity Helped Overturn School Segregation in 1950s America, how:
“The conclusion of the study showed a distinct racial awareness of self in boys aged three to four years. The results were, in Kenneth’s words, “disturbing” …[Philip Clark’s] later work was to demonstrate that awareness of racial difference negatively affected development in black children and that, subsequently, black people were not limited by innate biological difference but by social and economic barriers to success.”
Philips Clark’s approach meant she was acknowledging the systems and environments in which her research participants existed in, rather than just individual beliefs. Psychology was just coming out of the era in the 1930’s when ‘science’ was actively used to support the idea of white superiority.
Philips Clark and her expertise and testimony were hugely impactful in the Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954. Historically she was not afraid to challenge racism head on, as during her time at Colombia University she actively chose to study under Professor Henry Garrett, an eugenicist and scientific racist. Philips Clark’s courage was important in changing the course of history. When testifying against segregation, she came up against Garrett again, the same racist professor who had (unsuccessfully) discouraged her to pursue psychology.
This time, Philips Clark was successful in her testimony that Black and White children were not innately different.
The court ruled in her favour, and Philips Clark’s doll experiment was the first-time social science was ever used in the Supreme Court of the United States and they noted in their ruling that:
“To separate [African-American children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
Several studies have recreated or adapted the original study, including Toni Sturdivant’s study in 2021: What I learned when I recreated the famous ‘doll test’ that looked at how Black kids see race, which showed that there is still considerable work to be done. In her study she concludes:
[I]n my own doll test study, more than half a century later in an integrated setting, I found the same anti-Black bias was still there.
De-colonial and anti-oppressive practices were at the core of Fanon, White and Philips Clark’s powerful work. However, it may feel overwhelming to know how to practically implement these ways of being into our day-to-day life and work.
Decolonising our practice essentially means integrating experiences and perspectives outside of the ‘dominant’ culture of western White Britishness.
Ji-Youn Kim (she/they), a justice orientated political therapist, describes some ways that we she tries to decolonise her practice:
Acknowledge power dynamics and asking for informed consent around topics covered
Transparency around our own intersecting identities and what they may represent to the client (e.g. our race, social status, gender, ability, sexuality, age etc)
Acknowledge individual choice as well as systemic limitations (i.e that all things are connected, clients do not exist in a vacuum)
Recognise that Western psychology has its limitations, in that it priorities the individual over the collective.
Kim recommends that we:
“Go bigger to recognize cultural, societal, and ancestral influences, including oppressive systems.”
Making space for our own feelings around this is important, and if we stay connected to who we are, then change does not need to be difficult. Colonial ways of being inflict power through violence, and that relational wound is felt through generations.
Redesigning our therapeutic role as one not based on power, but as non-hierarchical, can have profound benefits for future generations. Fanon’s collective catharsis can perhaps be now understood as a collective awakening and liberation towards a new way of being within the field of counselling and psychotherapy.
How a Psychologist’s Work on Race Identity Helped Overturn School Segregation in 1950s America. (Article) Leila McNeill, Smithsonian Magazine. 26th October, 2017.
Why Black Psychology Matters. (Article) Kevin Cokley Ph.D, Psychology Today. 20th July, 2020,
Colonial Psychology: The Psychology We All Recognize. (Article) Darcia F. Narvaez Ph.D, Psychology Today. 5th July, 2021.
Dr. Jennifer Mullan: decolonizing therapy. (Article) Published on thecnnekt.com. 16th April 2020.
What I learned when I recreated the famous ‘doll test’ that looked at how Black kids see race. (Article) Toni Sturdivant, The Conversation. 22nd February 2021.