The Sewell Report, published spring this year, denied institutional racism as a factor in the UK. Rather, in a nod to the grievances of certain other communities, the Commission concluded that, actually, the significant determinants of quality of life in Britain are class, family influence, wealth, culture, and religion. In response, many political commentators interpreted the report's conclusions as a counter-narrative to the rhetoric on racism and social justice that emerged in the wake of the global Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, dismissing the need for further cultural, structural, and personal introspection.

However, despite the conclusions of the Sewell report, it is undoubtable that racism has a pervasive presence in British culture and is an uncomfortable reality that must be confronted both externally and internally. Because this reality is not only experienced by racialised communities in terms of overt prejudice but also has additional subtle forms that shape and affect many people’s lives and wellbeing. In plain terms, this is structural racism, which refers to the broader political and social disadvantages that come from the normalisation of historical, cultural, and institutional practices.

Structural racism not only generates material inequities but also has sociopsychological influences, which generates stereotypes, biases, and discriminatory ideas towards those considered to be the ‘Other’. Exploring those psychosocial dimensions, Dr Dwight Turner, a psychotherapist and spokesperson for UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), spoke with Mental Health Today about the production of this form of discrimination, touching on its implications for people of colour and how institutions can help alleviate its effects.

The psychosocial construction of race and racism

Dr Turner said: “People need to understand that race is a social construct and as such it is not singular in nature… Race was designed in a way to identify what it is to be white, what it is to be a majority culture and, therefore, what it is not to be that; to not be white. So, things like anger, aggression, sexuality and so on are seen as the domain of persons of colour.”

“Therefore, racism, in a way, is the means by which the majority's egoic sense of self is created, and it reinforces its identity in relation to the racialised other. It is both, therefore, conscious and unconscious. The unconscious part being that when issues of race are brought up, the pain and challenge against white identity will be internalised by those of whiteness, so there will be some sort of acting out to reinforce the structures of power accordingly… Psychological defences are therefore very common in these moments, and even institutions and whole groups will reinforce their racial identity against the other.”

Consequently, in Dr Turner evaluation, race exists in terms of an "egoic sense of self", socially and psychologically constructing a self-other category – of white identity to those considered to be outside – with psychological defences reacting and reinforcing the boundaries between. A recent example of a “psychological defence” and “acting out” would be the reaction of some football fans to the act of taking the knee. The "psychological defence", the booing, reflects a narcissistic denial of any problem and/or anger that it was being highlighted. In effect, the booing was ‘defensive’ as it was an attempt to reinforce the fan's identity and return to the silence of the status quo through stifling and intimidating any further discussion.

Another psychological defence mechanism involved in the production of race and racism, which Dr Turner touched on, is the process of projection and projective identification. The more commonly known, psychological projection, is simply where we attribute our own emotional state to another. For example, if we are depressed or angry, we might think our partner or colleague is instead, or alternatively, we may tend to blame others for our own mistakes.

While similar to projection, projective identification is more communicative, involving a psychological ‘splitting’ into good and bad, a ridding of the unwanted or unbearable bits of ourselves into another, and then forcing an expectation that the recipient is to act accordingly. For example, as Dr Turner hypothesised, aggression and sexuality are constructed as “the domain of persons of colour”, this projective identification then becomes a stereotypical expectation of “white… majority culture”. In this way, rather than treating another as a holistic whole, a group can be thought of one-dimensionally, with significant implications for how that group might be treated.

The impact of racism on mental health

Research shows that the psychological impacts of systemic racism, microaggressions, and projective racism have significant lasting effects, especially on the “egoic sense of self” of young people. This effect has been demonstrated to be gradually cumulative, with a study concluding that previous exposures, or awareness to, discrimination has a snowball effect, attacking an individual’s sense of self and potentially of personal safety, producing symptoms such as anticipatory stress and hypervigilance to a possible future racist encounter.

In Dr Turner’s words: “From the moment that a racialised other is born in a white environment, issues of race become apparent. The person is taught from a very early age how to perform, how to be, how to act so as not to appear too bolshy, too loud, too angry. We are often taught, for example, how to code-switch, whereby we present ourselves in a way which is more palatable to the majority culture so that we do not appear in any way challenging.”

“The problem with this and the longer-term impact is the level of inauthenticity that can then lead to mental health distress and, in some cases, psychosis. There have been studies out of the University of the Caribbean, for example, that have looked at the impact of racism and connected it to increased levels of obesity within persons of colour and diabetes and other physiological and physical ailments.”

What can organisations do to mitigate the emotive basis of structural racism?

Individual prejudices are enough to create an atmosphere, a feeling, that generates processes of structural exclusion within institutions, schools, and workplaces. The discrimination is not necessarily conscious but, for example, can take the form of institutional bias towards hiring or university admissions, or in school exclusions. However, if we are to address those structural problems within our systems, then arguably, the emotive mechanisms behind those discriminatory outcomes, and the impact they have on racialised communities, need to be taken into account and used to inform policy and practice.

Dr Turner suggested that tackling this complex problem involves creating systems that are aware of and then respond to any potential unconscious biases or prejudices, while also opening up spaces that allow for authenticity, expression, and conversation.

He said: “Children and young people at school who are from a different race need a space to express how difficult these environments are for them. This is no different to within psychotherapy training, whereby increasingly I am finding certain institutions are actually implementing situations whereby persons of colour have a safe space to go and talk about what it is like for them to be on a training course that is Eurocentric, white and where there is very little representation.”

“One of the things that I think is most interesting within those organisations who are willing to take this task on is their newfound ability to actually look at how racism has permeated their systems from root to branch. This involves actually looking at anything from their hiring systems, whereby they may exclude on the basis of their name, to whether they use blind interviews, to the jobs that they hire people for, to perhaps whether they want to have positive discrimination as a part of their organisational structure, to who they have represented on boards and committees.”

“The more one can look at the entire spectrum of institutional biases that create inequalities, especially around race, the more likely it is that these will be challenged over time. [And] we may find more people of colour coming forward because they feel safe actually to exist within these organisational systems.”