Preparing for Change: Making the invisible discriminations visible
This trilogy of short articles investigates the shared dynamics which operate in the background of some institutions or organisations and which enable systemic discriminations. My focus will be on antisemitism, child sexual abuse and racism, as these were recently observed in, respectively, a UK political party, a religious institution and the UK mental health system. Each section focusses on one institution. My aim is to show that by narrowing the focus of attention onto one specific individual, we tend to react to certain or the latest manifestation of discriminatory behaviour but, in this way, miss the discriminatory patterns that permeate each institutional field.
Each of these institutions and the disparate issues they are grappling with merits independent research, study and reflection. The issues they face comprise (but are not limited to) the following:
1. Antisemitism: the UK Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn.
2. Child Sexual Abuse: the Catholic Church
3. Racism: the UK Mental Health System
In this, the first, article, I will endeavour to discuss the latest issue of antisemitism in the UK Labour Party and how the lens of individual psychology targets its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. I will question the behaviour of selective targeting and will argue that we should, instead, focus on systemic discrimination in the institution which has enabled this instance of antisemitism. I will, then, conclude by offering a suggestion of how we can start to achieve this change of focus.
Before embarking on my first point, I need to openly state that I have both lived and professional experience of these issues: as a Jew, I have a lived experience of not only the visible but, crucially, also the invisible discriminations of antisemitism which are hard to pinpoint and which I have often hesitated to name. In my work with the charity Act for Change, I have witnessed first-hand the repercussions that discrimination, marginalisation, exclusion and isolation have on the mental health of young people. I have also seen how the impact of abuse in childhood can not only continue into adult life, but also be felt by whole communities. In our work with some members of a men's Benedictine monastery, we are growing a collective understanding of systemic safeguarding, distributed leadership and what it might take to change an institutional culture. Personally, as well as professionally, I endeavour to stay in touch with my feelings as a woman and Process Work psychotherapist, focusing on the structures and dynamics that are shared by institutions in the public square, be they political, religious or indeed secular.
Article 1 Labour and Antisemitism: Is it really all about Jeremy?
This article looks at the question of where we place our focus: on one man or on the enabling institutional and national culture?
Embedded within cultural factors are structural discriminations and rank dynamics which invisibly shape the terrain. Conveniently, though our community psychology and structural power dynamic merit a measure of scrutiny, this is evaded when we look at events through the lens of personal psychology. Blaming Corbyn for his denial and dismissal, the rest of us might feel Corbyn being responsible for what he did means I/we are not responsible. That would be a mistake that generates isolation and loneliness. When an individual is blamed, we both feel relief that a culprit is identified and fear that we ourselves might be next in line to be singled out and blamed for something. Perhaps this is one of the ways in which a culture of silence is instilled.
Why do we tend to ignore signals of systemic discrimination and focus instead on individual psychology?
By narrowing our focus of attention onto Corbyn, we lose sight of the wider, peripheral vision that would catch the threads or memes which permeate the field. We miss catching how these memes are circulated and instead, react to its latest manifestation. Equally, pointing the finger at named perpetrators, we lose sight of the wider picture. Racism is not only personal prejudice. Antisemitism is not only a personal problem. Child abuse is not only the personal problem of the perpetrator.
Institutional discrimination is more invisible than interpersonal discrimination. Practices embedded in organisational structures and culture are less visible than individual personalities. This gives rise to a tendency to first think of the issues simply as prejudice or a personal problem. In this way, we see the arising conflicts primarily as a matter of relationship.
Interestingly, sometimes, people may not perceive the discrimination they experience. When we are so immersed culturally in an experience, we do not always see it for what it is. As for the institution, it seems more profitable to make itself less visible to the public eye by bringing an individual to attention. As individuals, we are less aware that giving in to this power dynamic is giving away our power. It renders us akin to commoditised products, pieces on a chessboard, moved around by invisible players.
Enough of the repeated institutional and interpersonal experiences of discrimination we have experienced and/or witnessed! It is time to develop a sixth sense able to sniff out institutional discrimination: a systemic safeguarding which calls on each of us individually to pick up our individual responsibility. This sixth sense can be developed with the meta-narrative ‘You Matter’: putting yourself at the heart of the matter.
In the next article in this trilogy I will be examining who exercises power as a question of leadership and flesh out how we can use deploy this meta-narrative that ‘You Matter’ to locate power and agency.
Tom R Burns Toward a Theory of Structural Discrimination, in: Identity, Belonging and Migration: Liverpool University Press, Ed. G Delanty, Paul Jones, Ruth Wodak 2011
Process Work Seminars with Jean-Claude and Arlene Audergon