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 and Breonna Taylor.  

This is about Stephen Lawrence.  

At this time of COVID19, when the home is not a safe place for victims of domestic abuse, for some neither are the 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.  


Because 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: a form of 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. 

I-Thou or I-It

And as for it being political, of course, there is a sociopolitical context.

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 in their humanity struggling with the human experiences of loss, grief, pain and immense hurt. 

Our skin is part of who we are in the world.  It’s part of our story.  To not see our skin is not to see part of who we are. 

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

All too often we have fallen into the trap of seeing each other as an It, rather than as a Thou as Martin Buber puts it. Sadly, the same is true of some of our relationships the ones punctuated with racism and the controlling and emotionally abusive ones.

According to Buber, our relationships are seen in one of two ways: I-Thou or I-It.  In the I-Thou relationship, you’re seen as a fellow human being, there is reciprocity, and we relate to each other seeing all that we are.

On the other hand, in the I-It relationship, only parts of you are seen and valued.  In these kinds of relationships, you can end up feeling devalued, objectified, separate and detached. The other side of this emotional neglect is trauma.

Abuse Causes Trauma

Controlling abusive relationships, whether racist or domestic, 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’.

Wounds are painful, and they hurt.

And when you experience trauma, you have the real fear that either your life or the life of someone else is in danger.

That’s anxiety making, frightening and plunges the brain into the flight, fight, freeze or fawn mode.

Whether it’s PTSD, Complex PTSD, vicarious trauma or Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome, a form of transgenerational trauma established by Dr Joy DeGruy’s trauma leaves a footprint on our lives. Because when you feel that your very survival is at stake, it impacts your mental health.

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 politely but firmly ask the dog walker to put the dog on the lead, and the next minute they’re calling the police saying they’ve been attacked.  You question yourself and ask ‘Was I being aggressive ?’   Yet again you don’t get promoted, someone else with less experienced pipped you to the post.  You ask yourself ‘Am I not working hard enough?’

Racism induces fear, erodes your sense of trust and far too often wrongdoing is denied or minimised.

And when your sense of self is eroded then in comes the shame.  And on the other side of shame is anger.

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.


Enjoyed this post? Then use the icons below to tweet it, share it on Facebook, and send it to specific friends via email.


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.