It is rare the counselling world has a book which seems to be on everyone’s must read list, but this year one has been produced that appears in different spaces, and that is being read by people who would not normally fall under the activist tag. I myself struggle with the term activist, it seems such an othering word, or else used to dismiss someone as overly involved, or incapable of being impartial but it is shorthand for those who see the political as part of therapy. This book seems to have escaped those usual circles in the same way black lives matter as a movement seems to have moved beyond the narrow spaces talking about racism was previously confined to by white supremacy
What does it mean to be impartial as the world is burning? What does it mean to be neutral as a 19 year old footballer is abused for miskicking a ball? Or as Ginetta Sagan summed it up – silence in the face of injustice is complicity with the oppressor.
I do not know if Dr Turner would use the term activist, but, this is not a how to be an activist therapist, or how not to be racist book. It is not a tickbox guide nor is it an easy book, on any level. It is a book which moves beyond simple ideas of “them” having power and “us” being oppressed into a more complex, intersectional, exploration of power and privilege. As a white, seemingly abled, middle class, of working class origins, queer, older, northern, university educated, person it was almost with relief that I stepped into an analysis which went beyond the usual measuring scales approach. In vignettes, interviews, and deep dives into theory Turner explores how we all carry with us privileges, how others can seek to find supremacy over us, or fight against our inner supremacist. It is at times a heavily academic book, which I know will discourage some, especially with negative experiences of formal education, but, it is worth persevering, and a slow read is often the read which has the greatest impact.
Turner also discusses the impact on the self of living in a society where systemic oppression is ingrained and bolstered by the ruling elites. As I type disabled people have been told simply to withdraw from society to avoid covid, columinists tell black men what type of anti racist protest would be acceptable, queer people find their expressions of self more and more closely policed. Whilst the internal struggle matters, it reflects the external, and the battle to keep some in their place so others can have the power and supremacy they feel they need.
As a slight aside it is also one of the few books which considers why the ruling elite in the UK, and countries with simular education systems, might be so divorced from their compassionate selves. The impact of the boarding school system, over genderations, is played out daily in british policits, as Dr Turner says;
supremacy has as one of its corner stones within most Western cultures, the link between childhood experiences of abandonment and separation from the primary caregivers, an experience that led to the almost primal fight for survival within the schooling system designed to create persons who would lead
In the afterword Dr Turner says that the book is a step into understanding the “janus faced marriage between privilege and otherness” It doesn’t intend to define, or tell someone how to work in the counselling room. It feels to me that instead it is intended to ask practitioners to do the work themselves, to explore, in whatever way works for them, their own internal battles between the supremacist and the other. It is largely for this reason that, whilst it is psychodynamic in focus and materials, presenting dreams, pictures, and interpretations, this did not feel like a barrier. I recently had the experience of explaining to someone trained psychoanalytically, that no, I do not offer interpretations. However, we are all qualified to interpret for ourselves our inner landscape, metaphors, and imagery. Different paths to the same goal, where that goal is to understand the impact of structural oppression both internally and externally, and to attempt to reach that moment of synthesis, no matter what you label it.
I would recommend this book, whether you take an anti oppressive stance or not. As I have said before, the myth of the blank slate, where blank actually meant, white, cis het, abled, middle class and male, needs to be challenged. We bring our beliefs, identities, background, internalized prejudices and unconscious biases into the therapeutic relationship. We cannot do otherwise – and so often the harm of therapy comes from the therapist who tries to pretend these internal objects do not exist, like a drunk driver taking the wheel, claiming they are fit to drive. Only by doing the work, accepting blankness not only does not exist, but acknowledging it can itself be the root of harm, can we provide what our clients need, the space to fight their own demons, without ours also launching an attack.
Intersections of Privilege and Otherness can be purchased by Routledge here