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

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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

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