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The Pain of Blackness: Exploring Internalised Oppression Using Sandplay

When working with self-harm and suicide in the black community, we need to understand the impact of minority stress and the self-othering involved in adaptation to white spaces. Ahead of PESI UK’s live and online Working with Suicide, Self-Harm and Trauma summit next week, psychotherapist, author and activist Dr Dwight Turner shares how he uses sandplay to help clients explore the unconscious landscape of internalised systemic oppression.

Working With Suicide, Self-Harm & Trauma Online Summit

16-17 November 2023

Maya Angelou wrote about the adaptivity of blackness when it emerged from its home and entered white spaces. Her story of blackness putting on the cloak of whiteness spoke of the ability for the racialised other to manage and fit into spaces which were not their own.

Angelou, though, also recognised that this experience was tiring for black people, an additional stress which led to many persons of colour having to utilise difficult coping mechanisms to manage their racial adaptivity, including addictive behaviours and other forms of self-harm.    

More recently called minority stress, this psychological impact of discrimination and oppression has also been recognised in the LGBTQ+ community. These experiences are not unusual for persons of colour. They involve an ongoing heightened awareness that there will be some kind of attack upon them because of their difference – the adaptations unconsciously requested by whiteness do not protect the racialised other from hate. At the same time, the self-othering involved in trying to adapt to white, patriarchal, capitalist spaces can leave the racialised other hating themselves.   

Working with these traumas, built of the internalisation of systemic oppression, is not easy. It needs to be handled delicately. To understand these aspects of all our identities, in my own work I utilise creative techniques within talking therapy to offer a less confrontational means of exploring this unconscious landscape.

Within counselling and psychotherapy there are a number of ways this could be done, but one of the best is sandplay. A technique developed by Kalff, sandplay methods offer a movement away from the cognitive and into the symbolic for our clients. 

Clients project their unconscious relationships with self and other – or in these cases with their performative part and their true, more authentic part – onto symbols or toys placed in a tray of sand.

We can then discuss these interconnected relationships, the qualities held within the symbols in the tray, their positions, and so on. The therapist can assist the client in developing a new understanding of that which has become split off within their own psyche in order to try to fit in to the systemic environments which are causing them so much harm.

When working with internalised oppression, sandplay allows clients to see beyond their fear of this split off aspect of themselves, and hopefully to reintegrate this part so it can be utilised in their wider world. The killing off, the psychological self-harm, the self-immolation of the psyche, is mitigated and another more healthy, more relational acceptance of their own uniqueness, of their otherness, becomes possible.   

A technique like sandplay does not take away from the constant wariness that results from minority stress. What it does, in its beauty and simplicity, is to acknowledge the pain and the power of this pathway through life for so many black clients who wander through the spaces of systemic adaptation.


Dwight Turner

Dr Dwight Turner is Senior Lecturer in Psychodynamic Psychotherapy within the School of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Brighton, United Kingdom, a psychotherapist and supervisor in private practice in London, and a part-time lecturer at the Centre for Counselling and Psychotherapy Education in London. He is contactable via the University of Brighton, or his website

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