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“The moment you realise you never fitted in”….Belonging as a music therapist

By Davina Vencatasamy

Key words:          Racism, belonging, needs, diversity, representation

In the light of the current discourse around diversity and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, it has become essential to our profession to speak out more openly about how we address issues of race and belonging.  We all need to belong in order to feel accepted, to thrive and grow.  As a person of colour, I am going to suggest that we, as a profession, have not engendered an environment of belonging.  Our recent diversity report supports this argument given that almost 90% of us are white[1][2]. I am going to explore further how this sense of ‘not belonging’ can have an impact on us as therapists belonging to the profession but also for our clients.  The impact is far reaching and profound and if I must use my experiences in order to highlight why things need to change, then so be it.  My focus on this article is to bring a critical race lens to idea of belonging.  Not only will this allow us to see more clearly how race can impact on every aspect of a person’s experience of the world, but also how neglecting to look at the client or ourselves through this lens could mean we are complicit in oppressive practices.

When thinking about our client’s needs, we cross paths with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  It is a model that we have come across either in training or through practice.  I initially came across it in training and thought about it more deeply when encountering clients whose reasons for referral were based in unmet needs.  These cases were particularly focussed on those referred with social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs in mainstream, SEMH specific schools or pupil referral units (PRUs).  It was a good way at gaining an insight as to where a client may be placed in the goal for self-actualisation or at least, how easily they were able to access an emotional space for them to safely express themselves.  The approach we take in therapy however, may not actually help an individual reach that potential in such a way that is conducive to their lived experience.  Amy Stoddart Ajayi leads training sessions highlighting mental health practice and meeting the client of colour in the therapy space.  She explores the ideas that having a therapy space constructed around colonial, westernised ‘ideals’, requiring the client to do so much of the work to access services perhaps exemplifies the concept of us ascribing need as opposed to meeting our client where they are.  Those boundaries we place our theoretical knowledge on have all been based on an imperial hierarchical model where the power dynamics have placed the therapist in the space of being the expert and the client, the non-expert…of their own experience!  Of course we try to acknowledge this in the therapeutic setting however, that dynamic is there and is a hurdle to overcome from the outset.  In cultures where verbalising openly about deeply personal and painful experiences is not the norm, placing a client of colour in a space where they are required to in order to access the services simply does not hold the client at the centre of the work.  The consequences present in a multitude of ways; not attending sessions, shutting down of communication or more harmful ways such as acting out or simply complicity in the process which pushes down the trauma further.  Depending on how hegemonised the client of colour is will determine the success of the work but without at least looking at these issues of belonging and acknowledging their existence, we push away perhaps key elements of the work.  I would also posit that in the main, therapists tend to find a comfortable method of working and apply that model across all their clients on the understanding that ‘it works’ regardless of the clients cultural background.

As music therapists we have an advantage over verbal therapies, but I will speculate that the models we adopt for therapeutic work are ones that have been handed down from a western perspective with little in the way of challenge.  Carolyn Kenny once stated controversially that “a theory is a defence mechanism for the therapist” when thinking about working with clients of colour[3].  It certainly can be used as an armour to defend against doing anything differently and pushing away challenge.  Having the ability to use music, movement and a non-verbal medium alongside the understanding we get from a more psychodynamic approach can equip us to really look at this type of work in a dynamic way.  However, I would be keen to get a picture of how many of us, when working with a client of colour, take the time and effort to understand the musical language within the cultural context.  Or how many of us consider what our own colour means to the client.  A white therapist approaching a client of colour holds within it an unspoken dialogue and power dynamic as opposed to a therapist of colour doing the same thing.

Critical race theory is a multifaceted approach to looking at how systems and the constructs within which we operate are racist.  It is a widely used method to start to think about decolonising our educational systems and stems from addressing the issue of how educational constructs have been written and developed with a westernised lens, disregarding any other voice.  It is clear to see how this can be applied to music therapy training given there is no diversity in theoretical texts used on courses (this may have changed in past 12 months due to an increase of awareness but the point stands for those of us already qualified). Having had no diversity of thought to the building blocks of therapeutic constructs has simply meant that a very narrow lens has been used to encompass a multicultural and increasingly global society.  Our access to cultural learning is limited to listening to “world music” (which in itself assumes that western music is “music” and the rest of the world is ‘othered’ in its own category) and maybe playing ‘African instruments’.  All of the access we have to other cultural music ideologies are presented from a western perspective giving little in the way of true multiculturism.

We all try to reach the level of self-actualisation through our own journeys in life and therapy is part of that process.  Although Maslow himself stated that it was not necessary to achieve each level in completion in order to move to the next stage, we can see how non completion of each stage may impact our ability to reach the ultimate goal of self-actualisation.  We can also see how we are able to fluctuate between different stages and, for example, perhaps feel loved and secure in friendships, but not have our needs met in employment.  Changes in this met need exampled in the recent pandemic has meant that many music therapists’ ability to make a living has been compromised for instance.  However, in the centre of this hierarchy of need is the word belonging.  Our need to belong is necessary for us to reach our fullest potential.

This article wanted to take on the concept of belonging and what it means to belong.  Although this can be in a personal context in terms of family, we need to feel like we belong in all aspects of our lives to reach a place where we feel we are able to realise our goals.  Since the Brexit result landed, I have felt as though I have not belonged.  This has then run through the systems I have incorporated within my life and permeated into all the other facets of my existence.  In music therapy, I no longer feel as though I belong; at least not all aspects of me.  When I encounter a situation I suspect is connected to race, I currently have nowhere to take this as in order to discuss this effectively, I have to find seek out someone who truly understands about the impact racism can have.  I can hear your thoughts about how supervision can hold this and depending on the supervisor, this may be true.  However, I continually have to take on the role of the educator in order to get my white counterpart to understand my perspective as every situation that brings up race is pushed away.  It truly is the most difficult concept for white people to understand or accept.  I presume the difficulty lies in never encountering negative associations simply based on the colour of their skin.  So the responsibility now falls on me, as the victim, to initially educate my supervisor on the existence of race but to also deal with the impact the racial incident has had.  Often these incidents are also so subservient that even picking out racial elements to it can be difficult, particularly coming from a place of victimhood that the need for someone else to stand back and see all elements of the case is necessary.  Modern day racism can take place in the realms of outright hate speech which gets dealt with very quickly and has the support of the law.  However, the commonest method of racism comes out in microaggressions or micro-incivilities covered in the best intentions, concerns and perhaps with all wrapped in a cloud of unintentionality.  It has been expressed to me in words such as “I don’t understand the language you use” or “we were after a different ‘fit’”.  For me, racist experiences have always been an experience of suspicion or something akin to a transference / countertransference experience that occurs after the fact.

Ultimately it placed the onus on me to justify my own experience, rather than have it received and fed back in a more manageable form.  It requires me, as the recipient of therapy or supervision to educate the person of my experience.  I have to deal with their incredulity, their use of theoretical knowledge to push it away, their resistance to look at something so painful and abhorrent that I am exhausted before I have even started to process my own experience.  It exhausts me to simply think of the amount of work needed to be met in this.  And here I describe my own experience; a fairly eloquent, albeit hegemonised qualified music therapist who is willing and able to put in the work and thought into the process.  What of our client? How much work are we asking them to do in order for them to speak our language?  Why are we not doing this backbreaking work for them?

I thought I belonged.  I am the definition of hegemony.  It is a recent word I have learnt on this journey of incorporating critical race theory into my thinking.  It describes someone who has been so indoctrinated into a system that they believe in, support and perpetrate the very thinking and actions that ensures their place in society remains in a status quo.  It is how colonialism presents itself in the 21st century.  It is why Priti Patel and Rishi Sunak exist; not in an individualistic sense, but as a product of their environments.  Their colour have been used as weapon to push away the idea that racism exists at all.  “The Conservative party can’t possibly be racist, they have brown people!” comes the cry.  All the while pushing down degrading policies and cutting off essential support to ensure those that need the most help are bearing the brunt of capitalist ideologies.  This is a party that has weaponised race; using people of colour front and centre to push forward an agenda which ensures disaffected groups remains under control and the power status quo is maintained.  But I digress.  My hegemony has never been that right wing to align with the Conservatives, but I have seen it effect people of colour that I know.

My hegemony has allowed me to believe I belonged, taken into a profession who resolutely refuses to look at diversity, always pushing it away as a problem “out of our control”, is “too difficult to change” or perhaps stating “it’s not our fault people of colour don’t choose to join ‘our’ profession”.  I was complicit and that is my shame but Brexit has forced me to open my eyes because it reminded me that I do not belong.

Within BAMT, we have also struggled to provide an environment which means that therapists of colour belong.  From discussions with my peers, it is not generally a position I think has been a conscious process though I have not yet done much research in this area.  It may be a product of the systems already in play; little access to musical education, little in the way of opportunities to access music making in local communities, cultural difference in prioritising music as a career etc.  However, it is no longer acceptable to simply say we have no control over this in order disengage from the conversation completely.  We can look at how we can better represent those of us who need a voice.  We need to have representation at all levels from not only people of colour, but those with visible and invisible disabilities, those of us who identify with the LGBTQ community and beyond, those of us who are marginalised in all other aspects of society too.  We are already aware, thanks to the recent BAMT diversity report, of the barriers we face in order to get this kind of representation given the current make up of therapists but we can start with those of us who want to change the discourse and give them a platform to amplify their voice so we can start.  This is 2021 and we are still talking about “starting” the conversation!  Belonging is a good place to start, not only because it is an achievable goal which can be evaluated and measured but creating it means we are thinking about meeting needs of our therapists.  Having that same conversation about our clients is complex and requires destratification, applying a critical lens to our work and reapplying theoretical approaches which centres all facets of humanism.  Belonging is a concept which those who identify as the ‘norm’ in music therapy that has not been introduced to, because they have always belonged.  For the rest of us, it continues to be a fight to be seen, to be heard and ultimately, to feel like we belong.

[1] The diversity report was not detailed enough to specify the those that identified as white British as opposed to British and was not able to give information on how participants self-identified with regards to class.

[2] BAMT Diversity Report (2020) [PDF] (Accessed at www.bamt.org/diversityreport )

[3] Hadley, S. (2013) Experiencing Race as a Music Therapist: Personal Narratives. Barcelona Publishers, Barcelona p21

 

 

 

 

“The moment you realise you have never fitted in”……jobs

by Davina Vencatasamy

 

Keywords:                            Jobs, equal opportunities, disadvantaged, systemic racism, diversity

 

I have never got a job when I have been in competition with white people.  Ever.

“What?”  I hear you say.  “That’s impossible!”.  Well, maybe I did get that job at Thorntons when I was at university and I did get that job in the classical music department at Virgin Megastore when I went to do my masters. I’m not talking about starter jobs or jobs where there is fair representation of all cultures given, the more menial the job, the more likely the diversity quota is fulfilled.   I’m talking about jobs that I really wanted; the ones that would further my career and the ones that I know I could do, but somehow I’ve never been able to express at the interview stage in the ‘right’ way to be successful.  It’s a frustrating and debilitating process which runs the risk of allowing me to self-shame, self-blame and self-debase.  Its only now that I am starting to understand how difficult it has been to see these patterns of power, the systems that keep me in check.  I did get a job as part of a recruitment drive for the civil service as one of 20 or so new recruits.  It soon became clear as to why they recruited en masse at regular intervals.  The job was tick box heavy and only suited a certain type of person; those who were able to work within a system which told you how to think and defined black and white boundaries with clear precision.  I found the whole process far too uncreative and stifling and I lasted about 9 months in that role.   I found that it drained my soul.  These are the lessons we learn in life about how we, as individuals, function and grow.  My unwillingness to conform meant that I found myself job hunting again less than a year later.  I never really looked at this system before with a racialised lens and even in retrospect, I don’t think that at entry level there was an issue.  After all, the level of representation at the lower levels of employment are more likely to be equitable and balanced.  There discrimination was that they were only looking for graduates. I was the only brown person though in my group of 20.

The jobs that I have wanted, the ones that would further my chosen career or give me opportunities to work within a team, learn and gain knowledge in an environment with likeminded people, those jobs have been out of reach.  In every single position I have been successful in getting through the interview process, there were no other candidates at time of application.  I must have subconsciously connected the dots without actually naming it though as in order to avoid the inevitable disappointment of going for interviews and being unsuccessful, I took my career into my own hands by being self-employed from an early stage in my career.  Perhaps I unconsciously understood that in order to make headway, I would need to create my own work, my own career path.  Being self-employed however has its drawbacks.  Discounting my time as a student on placement, I have never been able to feed off the richness of working within a team of peers and other professionals.  I have always been the lone voice, advocating for my client and fighting against the broken social systems in place.  It has taken its toll and I’m getting close to burnout.  Not only that, it deskills me for when I scrape up the confidence to apply for a role within a team again as perhaps they feel I do not have enough ‘relevant experience’.  It’s a problem that usually occurs when as a teenager, you look for your first employment and that conundrum of not getting the job because you don’t have enough experience and requires someone to take a chance on you.  Its fine when you are 16, not so fine when you are 15 years into your chosen professional career.

My most recent knockback has left me frustrated and saddened.  Not merely because I have once again, been passed over, disallowing me to prove how much my experience and passion for being a therapist can add to a team, but this time, I went in with eyes wide open, thinking that others shared my view that things need to change and the issues of diversity needed to be addressed.  I belong to a profession whose recent Diversity report stated that we are almost 90% white, middle class.

I went in thinking that my colour, for once, could hold me in good stead in this changing dialogue around equality and enable me to make changes in a position of power.  I was hoping to make a contribution, in whichever small way, to change the way our profession views people of colour and its diversity story.  I went in thinking that I didn’t have to work twice, maybe three times as hard as my counterparts to get that job.  I went in wanting to use the small aspect of power that this position would have given me to effect change.  I went in thinking I was equal and came away, once again, disappointed.  But this time, my defences were down and I have not only felt the rejection as a professional going for a role but as a person of colour, unable to make the systemic changes that need to happen to ensure that there is representation at higher echelons of the education system so this doesn’t happen to others.

I understand that I will find out in due course what I did wrong but I’m keen this time to let them know what they did wrong too.  Maybe without that conversation, there can be no understanding of the difficulties we face in getting to positions of power and how far an individual has to go or how hard they have to work in order to get there.  At the interview I was read out an equality and diversity statement.  This was clearly a requirement and had no actual meaning or feeling to it.  It just stated how the institution were aware of, and had, equality, diversity and inclusion policies blah blah blah.  What they didn’t then do, was ask me or acknowledge whether I was comfortable being interviewed by 3 white women from the same background.  They had asked before interview stage whether I had any additional needs with regards to disability, but I’m not disabled, I’m brown.  My needs are different to my white counterparts and I know this.  I need to be able to engage in a conversation to show my best light.  When I went into the interview, I was struck by how rigid the questions and style of questioning was.  I understood that this was in order to appear equitable but it doesn’t take into account that as a person of colour, my experiences and journey which led me here hasn’t been the same.  I haven’t been offered the same opportunities or the same support to further my career as my white counterparts.  The systems which keep people of colour down are the same which are beneficial to white people so why would there be a reason to change?  Rigid box systems are well and good to assess individuals if everyone enters the arena with the same level of privilege.  That is not the case when I’m the only person of colour in the entire department.  I don’t feel the same, I am not the same.

I understand that upon reading this, the comment may be that it would be unfair for white people to be disadvantaged just because they are white (I’d say the same thing about me being brown by the way).  Until there is fair representation of our diverse population and people of colour have a seat at the table, I’d say that a meritocracy system is a false truth and does not exist.  Take a look around you and see who’s at the top.  Is it really true that the best people are all (predominantly) white?  Or is there another truth, one that is too difficult to face?  I may have scored the same or close to my competition in this interview but no account as to the richness that my ethnicity could bring to the institution was added into the mix, for the fear of being ‘discriminatory’.  The fact that my experiences as a person of colour could ensure that the clients accessing the service may have more of a representation or a voice in a white dominated culture added nothing to the decision making.

There was no (and never has been a) tick box for me.

 

 

 

 

‘The moment you realise you never fitted in’….Incivilities

by Davina Vencatasamy

Keywords:           microaggressions, micro-incivilities, belonging

I went on a walk with my 9-year-old daughter the other day.  We had walked from Leicester City Centre (where we live) to Bradgate Park.  In lockdown, it has been particularly difficult to get out and go on longer walks, especially in lockdown 3.0 which seems much stricter and motivation is low.  A nice long walk seemed as if it would be just the tonic from the stresses of home schooling, online meetings, working from home, and dealing with 3 kids getting cabin fever.  My daughter has been on long walks with me before and is a bit of a champion when it comes to stamina but on this occasion, she had clearly found the whole event a bit too much given she had not done that amount of physical activity for a while.  We’d managed to get all the way to Bradgate Park and walked around a bit to get to the Old John landmark and we were on our way back.  She was slowing down and needed more breaks and as everyone was walking in a socially distanced way, we stepped aside to let others pass.

A fit, elderly couple who were clearly used to walking their route marched past us and said “thanks” and then the gentleman said a word I didn’t understand.  It sounded like “shukriya”.  There was a time where I would have simply thought I had misheard and ignored the incident, taking the blame for any misunderstanding.  But this time I had a sinking feeling that he had said something in a different language that I didn’t understand because he made an assumption of my background due to my skin colour.  I didn’t for a moment think he was being rude; in fact I was sure it was the opposite.  I thought he may have said ‘hello’, ‘good afternoon’ or ‘thanks’ but in a foreign language.  Although this may seem like a civility as opposed to an incivility, it immediately put me in a place of defensiveness.  I was once again, given a culture.  I was handed a label  and placed in a place of being ‘different’ or ‘the other’ with no provocation or reason.  I had not been speaking a different language to my child and I was not wearing anything that may indicate I was from a different country.  In fact, I was kitted out for a walk in the snowy weather; waterproofs, walking boots and rucksack; more white middle class attire you could not find anywhere!.  He’d made an assumption I spoke a different language from the colour of my skin.  He’d assumed that from the hundreds of languages that brown people spoke around the world,  he’d got the one I would know.   He didn’t wait for a response and he and his walking partner marched on at an admirable pace.  But he left me thinking about how I am perceived.  This is the ‘civil’ version of micro-incivilities.  Assumptions made about me and my background by a mere word.  Putting me in my place.  Obviously from his perspective, he was being inclusive, showing he could relate to a different culture and all that malarky.  Perhaps I should have responded to him in my ‘homeland’ language and told him to “leave it out!” (dropping my t’s in the West London posse stylee).  I was not given an opportunity to pull him up on this and I understand that he was trying to show his acceptance of a different culture or show inclusivity.   There was and is simply nothing I can do.  If I had my wits about me and was able to pull him up on his indiscretion in the moment, maybe I would come across as the rude, angry Asian person who called him a racist.  So I am left with the paper cut of a microaggression; a micro-incivility that I place on top of the last one from yesterday and the other one from a few days ago and the other one from last week.  I am sure that this gentleman would recoil at the pain his word bestowed and the fact that it happened in front of my daughter.  I now must educate her in the ways she is going to have to face the world as it is clear she will not escape from these assumptions being made about her too; it simply causes my heart to break the more I think on it.    I researched the word when I got home and found out that it meant ‘thanks’ in Urdu.  No one in my family going back generations has ever spoken Urdu (just saying).

A little advice if you are reading this story and perhaps can see my viewpoint but are thinking that you may have done the same thing in his shoes; don’t assume.  Even if he was that astute in differentiating my browness  to be able to identify my ancestry, connected it to the right country and was able to speak my mother’s mother tongue fluently… don’t.  Not only is your action making the assumption that I am a foreigner in your country, but that I have a healthy connection to my past.  That may not be the case.  Perhaps strike up a conversation first and share how you came to know a different language.  If you don’t have time for that conversation, then simply say ‘thanks’ and walk on by.  I only have so much capacity to be ‘othered’ and smile through it and that may be the same for other people of colour too; I don’t know, I can’t speak for them.  All I know is, a little throwaway word uttered in a moment of passing, was taken, received and processed as a way of cementing my difference when all I want to feel, is like I belong.