‘We need to support our diverse population’

Susan Cousins works in equality, diversity and inclusion at Cardiff University, and is the author of Overcoming Everyday Racism: Building Resilience and Wellbeing in the Face of Discrimination and Microaggressions (Jessica Kingsley Publishers). Annie Brookman-Byrne asked Susan about her book.

Can you start by saying a little about your background and why you decided to write this book?
I was born on the other side of the world. I was abandoned by my parents and left on a pavement in the slums of Mumbai and later rescued by the police and taken to an orphanage where I spent the first year of my life. Since then my life has taken many a dramatic turn but eventually, I found a career in counselling both in the NHS and in Higher Education. Another twist in the tale has led me to take up a role at Cardiff University working in race-equality. The decision to write this book came about through the realisation that over the past 20 years there was nothing I could give to my black and minority ethnic (BAME) clients; there were few if any BAME self-help booksor narratives that addressed our wellbeing and the impact of racism on psychological distress.

Where are the books that help us to live well enough, feel good enough, and function well enough? I wanted to write a wellbeing book that addresses this gap. I wanted to support BAME people who experience exclusion and face barriers when accessing support services that are sometimes capable of questioning and denying a BAME person’s reality and lived experience. So, for people who work in the caring professions, the NHS, Student Support Services or counselling and wellbeing services this book is a self-help resource. It allows BAME people to connect with the wellbeing agenda. A book is something tangible and solid, something you can slip into your back pocket, download, or carry in your handbag when you need support.

It may seem strange but by far the most important influence on my life has been my adoption into a multi-racial family of seven brothers and sisters all of whom are adopted and from different racial backgrounds. Watching my family struggle through life gave me a wider view of the world – a broader sense of what is out there beyond my front door. This led to curiosity about where BAME people can go for encouragement and support when managing everyday encounters with racism. We need to support our diverse population and extend the wellbeing and counselling narratives.

The book is based around six key factors: self-acceptance and identity, environmental mastery, positive relations with others, autonomy, personal growth, and purpose in life. Do you consider these equally important for building resilience and wellbeing?
Firstly, I need to be clear that ‘being resilient’ is not an antidote to racism, we should not need to be resilient towards something so unhealthy and damaging. Finding ways to heal, reflect and explore your experience of racism is important. I chose Carol Rhyff’s six factor model of psychological wellbeing because it offered a broad framework through which to approach the subject from multiple angles. It takes into account the varying experiences of BAME people and the different approaches required due to the experiences of everyday racism that I witnessed in my clients. People who have read this book have told me that they find comfort and solace within its pages and that is something I’m proud of. I don’t think any of the six key factors hold more importance than the others. Maybe at one stage in life identity might be something you want to explore, and at another time you might wish to explore how race impacts on your work environment and relationships. And as with all books, when we go through the process of reading, we take ownership of the parts of the book that hold personal meaning and importance for us.

What message would you like white readers to take from your book?
I don’t understand what it is like to be white and I don’t think that white people understand what it’s like to be BAME. I think this book helps white people to gain a nuanced understanding of the complex issues that BAME people face in a majority white culture. White readers have told me they find the book offers new perspectives, increases their knowledge and understanding of the BAME lived experience and the impact of racism on psychological distress. They have told me that the book aids an understanding of the BAME experience, taking the reader on an emotional journey that enlightens and educates. Other people have told me that it helps bring their unconscious bias into the light and is challenging and yet encouraging. I want practitioners in all the caring professions to be able to offer a self-help resource to their BAME clients and to explore the book in order to understand a diverse experience.

BAME people have told me that the book has articulated subtleties they knew existed but hadn’t put into words. The book provides a place to deal privately with racism. It encourages personal agency, providing useful tools and coping mechanisms. It provides a call to realise one’s potential above the classificatory system of race.

In the book you talk about some clearly very painful personal experiences of racism. Were these difficult to put on paper? Was there anything therapeutic in getting it all out?
I feel the most powerful experiences in my life have been lived out within my family, friends and through the process of adoption. Growing up in my family remains far more of a painful experience than my experiences of racism. I am in some senses immune to what happens to me in public because racial abuse has been something that has lived with me since the first day of school, and still does. It feels familiar to me and I’ve learned to recover from it many times. I think my world view is very different from most because of my adoption. I have few and low expectations of life being safe in a public sense. So writing about these experiences was not painful, I don’t think I have gained anything therapeutic from the process other than reading the works of other BAME writers. I feel a huge sense of healing and of pride when people talk to me about how the book has helped them and supported them, because some of what I have been through has made some sense and holds some meaning – so that is where the therapy and healing is happening.

What next for you?
That’s a very interesting question. I feel the book is taking me in all sorts of directions that I couldn’t have imagined. For example, I have been asked to talk about my favourite book, Beloved, by Toni Morrison and its links to my writing – I find it astonishing to be asked to engage in something so thought provoking and creative and I feel humbled and excited to do so. I would like to return to Mumbai and visit the orphanage where I stayed, which is now a school. That is fundamental to me.

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