Black Woman Holding Cardboard Banner With World Peace Written On It Surrounded By White Policemen- Why Racism Is Like Being In An Abusive Relationship - Sandra Harewood Counselling

Why Racism Is Like Being In An Abusive Relationship

All our silences in the face of racist assault are acts of complicity.   Bell Hooks

I am sure that you like me have been impacted, in one way or another, by events in the world right now.   For sure, George Floyd’s death has undoubtedly engaged the collective consciousness into action on racism.  

But sadly it’s not just about Geroge Floyd. It’s about  Armaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and the entitlement Amy Cooper, a white woman who called the police telling them an African American man had threatened her life in Central Park.  What he did was ask her to put her dog on a lead. 

This is about Stephen Lawrence.  

At this time of COVID19, when the home is not a safe place for victims of abuse, for some neither are our open spaces in which they seek refuge.  

So should I, as a therapist, be commenting on these political issues?  

The answer for me is yes, absolutely I should.  


I write about dysfunctional relationships, coercive-control and emotional abuse mainly as they relate to women in intimate partner relationships.   

And that’s what racism is: abuse, control and a dysfunctional relationship between black people and people of colour with society. 

Racism is a mental health issue that impacts us all. 

Racism, Politics and Therapy

And as for it being political, of course, there is a sociopolitical context, that’s part of what keeps racism going.

Judith Herman MD author of Trauma and Recovery says:

To hold traumatic reality in consciousness requires a social context that affirms and protects the victim and that joins the victim and witness in a common alliance.

But when I sit with and listen to my clients, I see them first as human beings sitting with the struggle of being human of experiencing loss, grief, pain and immense hurt. 

That’s not to say that I’m being colourblind.  Our humanity is enveloped in our skin.  Our skin is part of our story.  It is part of the individual and collective experience of what it means to be human, of what it means for us to show up in the world and to connect and interact with another human.   To not see the skin is not to see part of who we are. 

The problem is perhaps is when that’s all we see.  

Politics, economics, public bodies, and some of our relationships particularly emotionally abusive ones, are sadly grounded in the fact that we view every other being as an It, rather than as a You or Thou as Martin Buber puts it.

I-Thou or I-It

According to Buber, human beings adopt two attitudes toward the world: I-Thou or I-It.

I-Thou is a relationship between person-to-person.  On the other hand, I-It is a relationship between person-to-object.

In the I-Thou relationship, human beings are aware of each other as having a unity of being.  In the I-Thou relationship, human beings engage in a dialogue involving all of who they are.  On the other hand, in the I-It relationship, human beings perceive each other as consisting of specific, isolated qualities, and view themselves as part of a world which includes things.

I-Thou is a relationship of mutuality and reciprocity, while I-It is a relationship of separateness and detachment.  In a controlling and abusive relationship, you are objectified.

Firman and Gila refer to the primal wound:

This primal wound is the result of a violation we all suffer in various ways.  In this violation we are not treated as individual, unique human beings but as objects.

If we reduce the issue of race as a purely political one when having conversations with friends, family or colleagues or indeed your therapist, we miss the opportunity to see the human story and the trauma which is caused by racism. 

Racism Causes Trauma

Controlling abusive relationships are traumatic.

Trauma: Noun

A deeply distressing or disturbing experience.  Oxford English Dictionary.

The origin of the word trauma goes back to the late 17th century Greek, meaning ‘wound’.

During the wounding or trauma, you think that your life or the life of others involved is in danger or threatened.

There are different types of trauma, including PTSD, which can occur after you’ve experienced any kind of trauma, Complex PTSD, vicarious trauma and Dr Joy DeGruy’s work on Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome a form of transgenerational trauma. 

Because when you feel your very survival is at stake, it impacts not only your physical but mental health.

This is the experience of black men and women around the world.

Racism Is Like Being In An Abusive Relationship You Can’t Leave.

Racism covers all areas we would recognise in domestic abuse: financial, sexual, physical, emotional and spiritual.

Sometimes abusive relationships are physical, and so can racist attacks.

But sometimes racism is like coercive control.  It is more subtle.

Racism is that toxic relationship punctuated with gaslighting.

You ask the dog walker to put the dog on the lead and the next minute when they’re crying down the phone to the police saying they’ve been attacked you question yourself and ask ‘Was I being aggressive ?’ Yet again you don’t win the talent competition because you’re told you don’t have the flare of the winner, even though their performance was full of mistakes.  You ask yourself ‘Am I not working hard enough?’

Racism induces fear and erodes your sense of trust.  And characteristic of any controlling relationships is denial.  In this case, we don’t teach black history in our schools.

And when your sense of self is eroded then in comes the shame.

So if this is a dysfunctional relationship between black people and people of colour with society what next?

A Common Alliance

Maybe at this time as Judith Herman says there is an opportunity for the victim and witness to come together in a joint alliance.

That seems to be what is happening around the world with Black Lives Matters.  There appears to be an opportunity for healing, listening, speaking, compassion, honesty, curiosity and expressing anger and hurt.

It’s also a time of leaning into the collective and individual Shadow, the parts of ourselves cloaked in shame that we deny.  And that takes courage.

Perhaps this will be the relationship where with intension, reflection and commitment there can be change.

Over To You

What do you feel like talking about race?  If you want a safe space to discuss and explore the hidden trauma of racism, get in touch, and book your first counselling appointment.  I offer video sessions online via a secure platform.  Coronavirus (COVID-19) doesn’t need to put your therapy sessions on pause.  

Or call me today on 07535 864836.

Leave a comment below; I’d love to hear from you.


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Buber, M, 2008,  I and Thou, Simon & Schuster; 1st Touchstone Ed edition

Firman J, Gila, A, 1997, The Primal Wound, State University of New York Press

Herman, J, 2015,  Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence-From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, Basic Book

© Sandra Harewood 2020

About Sandra

Soul Centred couples counsellor Sandra Harewood specialises in working with couples and women with childhood wounding that impacts their adult relationships. Sandra provides a soulful space for her clients to explore and discover creative solutions to their difficulties and create a great relationship.