Can a white person practice/embody African psychology?

As a young white female what do you have to offer as a community based psychologist?

Now those might not have been the exact words but it is the essence of what I heard. Prior to that the question, an awareness of my race had always only been at the periphery of my consciousness. During my masters training as a community based counseling psychologist, I was forced to become increasingly aware of my whiteness, as I was introduced to concepts of white privilege and white guilt. Even though my engagement with my whiteness was then primarily done in relation to my professional practice in training to be a psychologist, and I knew that professional development does not occur without shifting one’s personal mindset and conscious awareness of the world around you, I think I initially engaged with it from a theoretical and logical level. This was until I started working in the field. My client group is predominantly black, originating from South Africa and other parts of Africa.

Thus, I started seeing and feeling my whiteness slightly more in my interactions with my clients and the broader organization that I work in. Recently it was at the forefront of my thinking and awareness as I prepared for a presentation for the first Pan-African Psychology conference.[1] The presentation was titled “The decolonization of psychotherapy: the current state of African Psychology as an exploratory reflection on current practices within the South African context as seen through the lens of CSVR practitioners”. The idea of the paper was born out of two main thoughts; my reflections on my ability to provide effective therapeutic interventions to my clients and the team’s current conversations and reflections on how we work in the room.

In relation to the first thought, I always go back to the question asked of me in my masters selection and in practice I have always tried to be authentically myself. However, the reality is that when I sit in the room with one of my clients, we do come from two different subjective realities and will have two different world views. The assumption of me may at times be that because I am white, female, young and South African that I cannot understand their experiences but also that with these things I have a certain amount of privilege and power that should be able to assist them in what they are going through. Whereby, this is often not the reality of it and becomes a difficult conversation that we engage in and in doing so there is a relationship and alliance that develops from it that becomes, in my experience, the greatest catalyst of change in the therapeutic process. Because often beyond my whiteness and their blackness, the therapeutic process gets stuck and that is what has been facilitating the discussions the team has been having on how we work in the room with our clients.

As much as we try to socialise to this “talk therapy” way of working, a Western idea of doing therapy, it still feels like there is something missing and creating certain blockages in the process of healing. In reflecting on this we have become increasingly aware that there are different cultural backgrounds of our clients and that their understanding and belief of what has happened (trauma) and should be done (healing) is different from what we assume it to potentially be, in relation to our training on mental health, and that this conventional talk way of working needs to be changed up. So with that we started trying to introduce different therapeutic tools such as the photo assessment and more activity based tools in the room that we found clients and families responded very well too. We hypothesized that this may be due to the degree of externalization that it allows individuals in trying to discuss what has happened and how they are feeling? Or is it the shift to a deeper cultural understanding of our clients where arts and storytelling is more in line with their traditional ways of expressing what is/has been happening to them? This is in line with some of the critical contributions of African Psychology which is to bring in greater cultural awareness and sensitivity but within that also understanding that the African worldview is different to that of the traditionally Eurocentric  worldview in that there is a greater influence of a communal way of being and with that a greater connectedness to people, nature and time whereby things are not always a linear process[2].

This was what had evoked a lot of thinking in me in trying to understand African psychology and what it means in practice and enmeshed within this is the concept of decolonization. A lot of questions comes to mind in thinking about this: What would it look like? What would it mean and to what extreme do we go? And naturally within these particular conversations I felt my defenses raise and then my guilt increase. But through these conversations and really hearing what other people’s perceptions and experiences in relation to colonization were I feel like I developed a slightly clearer picture of others experiences and what my whiteness represents to many. That through colonization and an ever increasing western way of living there is a certain homogeneity of culture that has been forced and is continuing to become the norm, the standard. And through this the loss of certain knowledge, language and practices has occurred.

Thus, in line with the discussions in African psychology and some about decolonization, I would agree that there is a greater need for African knowledge systems being incorporated into everyone’s thinking and the amazing work which is being done to make this achievable. Furthermore, attending the Pan African Congress also exposed me to a variety of different presentations and symposiums over the three days and each gave me a slightly different perspective and insight. To name a few they raised for me the importance of transdisciplinarity in a changing world. Understanding the different cultural understandings that people have in understanding their trauma and being creative and innovative in assisting people heal through the various forms and ways of using psychosocial rehabilitation models or the arts. The role that psychologists can have in relation to various aspects like peace building, human rights and achieving the SDG,s[3]. And lastly the need to incorporate traditional healing practices but more than that to focus on the strength that comes through African connectedness and the culture there in.

This has left me with a lot of reflections and thoughts that I am still processing. As a psychologist what is it that I can do outside of the room to assist in shifting the contextual challenges? How do I become more culturally and contextually relevant in my practicing and implementation of my work? Within this amending practical aspects and ways of working with tradition healers or the practice as per related to my client.

As a concluding thought, particularly related to the last presentation I went to, and how it evoked further a lot of what I had been feeling up to the conference. Conversations related to race and the impacts of colonization and apartheid make people uncomfortable, especially white people and so they will try to avoid them. But I feel there is an important role that decolonization of thinking and being can have on all races and cultures, that can allow a shift away from an individual, capitalist and materialistic way of being in the world to one with a focus on the communal and ability to see past the superficial aspects that divide us to one in which differences are appreciated and valued. This may sound idealistic and I don’t deny that a lot of hard work will have to go in to achieving this potentially in the future. But it is something that can only be achieved in unity.

So yes, I am a young white South African female, with privilege, working in South Africa and Africa, mindful of my impact on others, clients and my work; mindful of my clients world, cultures and way of being; and mindful that I am continuously developing and need to be open to views that may shift my own to be able to contribute to the evolving concept of an African Psychology.

by Jacqui Leigh Chowles


[1] The 1st Pan-African Psychology congress hosted by the Pan-African Psychology Union (PAPU) and the Psychological Society of South Africa (PSYSSA)

[2] Mkhize discusses these in detail in a chapter in Critical Psychology

[3] Sustainable Development Goals

Published by CSVR Trauma Clinic

This blog represents thoughts of therapist working within the CSVR Trauma Clinic. The focus is on understanding the drivers and impact of violence on individuals, families and communities to work towards violence prevention and the building of peaceful societies

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