Management & Leadership

Psychology Festival of Learning: The psychology of race

Aug 31, 2015
The psychology of race

Inspired by the idea of bringing together professionals, students and the broader community in an environment to explore the many facets of psychology, counselling and coaching, SACAP’s fourth Psychology Festival of Learning takes place from 8 to 12 September at both the college’s Cape Town and Johannesburg campuses.

Among the diverse range of speakers and facilitators who have been carefully selected to present at the Festival is counsellor Alexa Russell-Matthews, a SACAP educator and private practitioner with a special interest in working with children in children’s homes as well as in seeing families thrive.

We chatted to Alexa about what to expect from her workshop, which is evocatively entitled ‘The Colour Elephant in the Room’ and will address the concept of race as a social construct, exploring the skills needed to understand and hear a story that may be different to our own.

Q: From where does your interest in the subject of racial perception stem?

I have lived and worked cross-culturally for over 20 years and my resources include friends and peers who have just returned from The Justice Conference in the USA, as well as professionals who are engaged in facilitating these discussions on an ongoing basis. In my personal life, I am about to become a trans-racial adoptive parent and I also have a friendship circle that is diverse in terms of race, culture and nationality. Hearing the stories of close friends growing up in displaced families, or whose parents attempted to develop strategies to avoid exposing their children to formalised racism, have also contributed to my desire to assist people to understand each other’s stories in order to engage with the change needed to help our communities ‘see’ each other more fully.

Q: You refer to race as a ‘social construct’ and you talk about the development of ‘racial self-esteem’. What do you mean by these terms?

A: Race isn’t something that just happens; it is something that has been created within a social context to define political and power structures. And racial self-esteem refers to the way in which I understand and perceive who I am within the racial group that I fall into – this could be positive or negative and, again, isn’t developed in isolation.

Q: We promote a racism-free society, yet we seldom facilitate or offer opportunities that are safe and structured for people to explore and challenge themselves on what is perceived as racism. Can you give us an idea of the kind of environment or the skills that are necessary to allow us to do just this?

A: The ideal environment would be one in which those who are used to being heard are, instead, able to listen without minimising or disregarding someone else’s experience. Crucial, then, are listening skills – to hear both the personal as well as the broader narrative being presented by the person telling the story.

Q: Why is it important to acknowledge ‘perceptual understanding’ when it comes to the so-called ‘other’?

A: We are all the ‘other’ to someone – if we don’t acknowledge this we risk filtering our understanding of things through our own perceptions, as well as being, ourselves, filtered through the perceptions of others. This jeopardises our ability to communicate meaningfully and find a mutual narrative. If, just because we haven’t experienced it ourselves, we aren’t able to acknowledge the story of another person as being valid, we not only end up disregarding that person but also suggest that our own stories become the benchmark of what matters and what doesn’t.

Q: What, then, can those attending your presentation at the Psychology Festival of Learning expect from it?

A: It will not be a political discussion. Instead, it will be about seeking skills in order to hear and understand a different story. We need to explore the reality that we all have different positions within social contexts – whether from race, class, gender, religion or ethnicity. Part of what we will be doing will be looking at how these impact our perceptions as well as acknowledging that prejudice can be subtle and therefore harder to manage than the obvious extreme manifestations of racism. I will refer to the Contact Hypothesis, which investigates the way we experience the ‘other’– does it reinforce our stereotypes, challenge them or make us think that this person is the exception?

SACAP’s Psychology Festival of Learning aims to enable every participant to take one step further in their journey of understanding the nature and practice of psychology, counselling and coaching at an individual and community level. The festival is open to everyone, including non-SACAP students. Find out more about the programme of events or book your place.

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