A culture of silence and denial

Dr Kimberly Sham Ku and Dr Abdullah Mia write, with a response from British Psychological Society Chief Executive Sarb Bajwa.

Disappointment. That was the emotion when I came face-to-face with the words ‘keep BME out of services’, boldly and shamelessly graffitied on my poster. The poster considered a project to support African and Caribbean men in forensic services who are transitioning back into the community, a population often facing the double challenge of cultural stigma and a lack of community support. Hostility towards minorities in all forms, be it religious, gender and the like, is a centuries old problem that we are tackling daily. The disappointment came from the ‘who’ and the ‘where’ – these words were written by a fellow Psychologist at the British Psychological Society’s Division of Clinical Psychology (DCP) annual conference held in Solihull. This was a conference with the overarching theme of social inequality and racism.

When I joined the Society I was under the impression that I was joining an esteemed group of professionals who had a vested interest in ensuring that through the application of scholarly research and meaningful experiences, people’s mental health and psychological wellbeing were paramount. This has not been the reality. In fact, there has been a culture of silence and denial in addressing some very painful issues that minority groups have faced within the profession. As an example, the initial response by the DCP was an apology and an offer to reimburse the cost of my poster. In the grand scheme of things, poster cost was actually of negligible value in this debacle.  

While being disappointed and saddened, I’m not discouraged. I feel motivated and propelled in the direction of extending my work not only into communities but also the institutions. More importantly, what can the Society do to address some of these issues?
Judy Ryde’s ‘Being white in the helping profession’ has been an instrumental resource in shaping some of my thoughts:

  • Develop an understanding of the historical context of racism in Britain.
  • Teach white awareness as part of psychology (doctoral) training. This speaks to emotional issues and therefore cannot be limited to a purely didactic/ academic approach. Rather, teaching should cover experiential exercises, encouraging people to identify and work through their cultural blind spots and unconscious emotional processes.
  • Supervisor training should encourage supervisors to hold in mind white consciousness and power differences. Having attended BPS supervisor training that broadly speaks to issues of diversity and assumes a clumsy approach to race, the topic of whiteness in supervision was not mentioned, despite its key role in improving our reflective capacity as professionals.
  • Improve representation by addressing barriers in accessing clinical psychology training for minorities.

These aren’t novel ideas. My hope is hope that the recurring negative experiences of ethnic minorities will finally push the Society to hold up a mirror and take much-needed action.   

Dr Kimberly Sham Ku

I’ve been working within, alongside and outside the DCP regarding anti-racism for quite some time. I have followed colleagues who have led the way and continue to be an inspiration. As a supervisor to Kimberly, her experience enraged me – racism in the profession has moved from the covert, to the overt. I continue to hold hope we can change, but there is a slow erosion of this hope, leading to fantasies that the profession should be abandoned. What a painful bind this is, to feel stuck serving a profession that is racist and fails to address this, whilst balancing a desire to ensure services for ethnic minorities are at least adequate. I do not wish to engage in a sado-masochistic relationship with the profession; it’s not healthy for me, or the profession.

There are continual consultations and requests for support and guidance when racism is enacted within the profession. I’m not referring to individuals, and personalising these issues deflects from the issue of institutional racism.  I refer to the systematic way in which the profession of clinical psychology obstructs or undermines the experience of ethnic minorities, whilst purporting to be an ally. To name a few examples, the nature of the disbanding of the ‘Race’ and Culture Faculty whilst setting up the Inclusivity work, then the challenge of implementing the Inclusivity strategy, the special issue of Clinical Psychology Forum followed by the GTiCP debacle [see www.bps.org.uk/message-all-gticp-2019-conference-delegates], and vandalising of Kimberly’s work at the DCP Annual Conference.

There was no communication as to what action was being taken until it was asked. Is it too much to assume our professional body will act on our behalf to push forward an anti-racist position, without having to ask? Similarly, until an issue was raised by those affected by the GTiCP incident, there was no immediate response. The behaviour of the organisation reinforces the experience of ethnic minorities within the profession and in society. The implication being racism only matters to those being directly affected. This is not the behaviour of an ally. 

 The recommendations over time have largely remained the same, the responses have largely been the same; to reflect. If there is ‘action’, it comes in the form of further reflection. I was introduced to Paolo Friere by a colleague, friend and anti-racist ally, Angela Byrne. Friere succinctly outlines the difference between praxis (that transforms), activism and verbalism. I encourage the DCP and BPS to heed the advice of Friere.

 Action without Reflection = Activism (acting without thinking);

Reflection without Action = verbalism = ‘blah’;

Action + Reflection = word = work= praxis.

I’m tired of being both problematised and fetishised, as something rare and unique. I want the DCP to work for me as much as I’ve worked for it. I note the articles in the March issue of The Psychologist and was buoyed by what Deanne Bell had suggested. I wait to see how the profession takes this up.

Dr Abdullah Mia

Response from Sarb Bajwa, Chief Executive of the British Psychological Society: We were shocked by Dr Kimberly Sham Ku’s experience at the DCP conference in January and we agree that what happened was completely unacceptable. A conference delegate, who is not a BPS member, was witnessed defacing several posters, writing comments on a range of issues, some of which may constitute a hate crime. There is no place in the BPS, the DCP or the psychology profession for this kind of behaviour and we will not tolerate it.

We have apologised fully for Dr Sham Ku’s experience. We have also informed the delegate that they are now banned from attending any future BPS events and put in place measures to ensure that any future application for BPS membership will be refused. We have also reported the incident to police. 

We know that we still have a long way to go in being as visible and as active as possible in taking a leading role in tackling issues of racism, power and privilege in the profession, as highlighted in Dr Abdullah Mia’s letter. Supported by the longstanding work of numerous members we are committed to doing all that we can, including recently launching a Presidential Taskforce on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, chaired by Professor Binna Kandola.

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It really saddened me to read of Dr Sham Ku's experience but also is a little unsurprising. I believe there is an unacknowledged underbelly of prejudice at work in the Society. I have experienced this at meetings I attended and in casual discussion with colleagues directly affected. When the issues was raised among us for discussion, I witnessed unrest and silencing in response. Though the topic was voiced, a colleague's experience of racism was somehow derailed, subtly silenced. I found the whole experience at group level upsetting because it seemed the issue could not be openly confronted. It affected my relationship with this group longer term and I eventually withdrew. 

I felt, as a white woman, I had failed in my attempt to get racism just acknowledged and I felt powerless and ashamed after. The group response made me doubt myself and my understanding of racism and my wish for open confrontation. I am reminded of the Rochdale story of sexual exploitation of minors and the fear white professionals held about being seen as racists. For me, this fear is something we all must confront because it places us and the quality of our work in a bind. It should never be shameful to admit a struggle with this issue. It is a very complex and anxiety laden one for us all to face and tackle. 



thessue was not openly acknowledged