Interview with Dwight Turner

Ben Scanlan talks to Dwight Turner about privilege, otherness and intersectionality.

Their wide-ranging conversation centers around Dwight's new book, and includes the challenges of facing up to privilege and racism, as well as the role therapists can play in examining their own internalised prejudices.

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Ben: So what’s your story Dwight, how did you end up being an author and a doctor?

Dwight: How did I end up here? Well the long version is I left school at 16, went to college, messed around for two years there, then actually joined the Royal Air Force (RAF). So, my route didn't take in university or anything like that. When I left school studying became something that I did after the RAF. Then after that, I worked for government for a couple of years. Then, when I was about 29 years of age I had a bout of therapy, where I was really just looking to understand myself, I just wanted to know a bit more about who I was, so I did some more therapy and ended up doing a [therapy] foundation course in London, which was really just about exploring myself.

That then became a chance for me to go back into the academic world in a way and, on the back of that, over four years part-time I did my post-grad diploma course and a Masters for a couple of years, then supervision training. I then trained to do my doctorate between 2012 and 2017 at the University of Northampton. So it's been a long old journey. It's not been a direct journey, so to speak, as I've had to come back into the whole world of academia and gather all sorts of skills along the way to actually make it work. So it's not been easy, but I wouldn't change it for the world. It's been a good, good journey.

Ben: Do you see a link between your academic work and your practice as a psychotherapist? How do you see those two interacting?

Dwight: Oh, I think they're very much intertwined. I'm quite lucky right now because I get to teach psychotherapists at the University of Brighton. So I get to do a lot of work, bringing through the next generations of psychotherapists and it's great from that angle. The reason I took on that academic role as well as taking clients is because it helped to balance out the clinical work I was doing then. Clinical work, by its very nature, is difficult. It's a lot to hold on to at times. And one of the things I wanted to do was have a family and to balance out the clinical side with less nine to five work, but more sort of steady academic work, writing papers, and whatever else.

And the other side of that was I love writing anyway. So as much as I liked doing the clinical side of work, and I loved to read about psychotherapy, I just wanted to be able to write a bit more about what I was discovering about myself, through the work and through my clients. This also includes my past material, my research and a combination of the two.

Ben: How does researching about Privilege and Otherness, for both your doctorate and then - I say then, but to adapt into - your book, then filter into the work of being a psychotherapist? Where does that actually sit?

Dwight: I'm finding it actually sits very well within, say, training organisations who are trying to understand diversity on a deeper level. I get plenty of clients who talk about their experience of being an Other or being Outside-of-Privilege. That comes into to the work a lot. They're not just buzzwords.

Ben: It's a broad question, but why does Privilege and Otherness appeal to you?

Dwight: It appeals to me because I'm the son of an immigrant who, over a period of time, worked his way up to a position of privilege as an academic. Along the way though, there were issues of being an outsider, of being marginalised because of my culture, my race, being a black man, and whatever else. This has come up on a regular basis. It’s that that I started from. I wanted to understand what it was like, on a deeper level, to actually be an outsider. And that's why I took on the research in 2012. I took it on from just one angle initially. I thought, okay, that's what I have to explore. And how is that a root to actually understanding psychological wholeness? Are there ways of actually using this material to help people develop? But what I also realised along the way was if I explore through a more intersectional lens, whereby I hold multiple identities, then some of those are going to hold Privilege, as well as Otherness. We're wrapped up in a conglomerate. A conglomerate of different aspects of identity, always interacting. So even though I'm sitting here as a black man, I'm also an academic, which, in itself, is quite privileged. I don’t feel I'm more one than another. I think what we're taught to do in this culture is to divide ourselves up accordingly - to be either of privilege or of the Other - to be marginalised in some way, but not both.

Ben: I'm White, middle-class, male, heterosexual and able-bodied, so, in some ways, I always find it difficult talking about the lack of privilege that I have, and I do have some. I wonder, also, if I am letting myself off the hook for how I relate to my privilege? Because I think there's a danger. In your 'Afterword' you report that some people say that therapists should be apolitical or sit outside of this… as if we're not involved in society. I think that can be defensive. When I was training, the organisation that trained me were changing the course and asked the students for feedback. We were taught about a big swathe of academic material about black existentialism, but had no black existentialist role models to highlight the learning. A couple of us raised this point. The staff appeared to be ignoring the fact that it was a white institution. Instead, they responded that we did not understand, that it’s all about diversity, which is included in everything. What do you think?

Dwight: No, it's a good point.

Ben: From what you say, I think the danger is if, by examining their sense of privilege, people are let off the hook - because it allows us to consider our own points of underprivilege. I could almost imagine myself saying that I can relate to what your experience is of being a black man through my own lack of privilege because I'm epileptic...

Dwight: Yeah, because there's a huge difference. We try to make privilege and otherness binary. But what we often struggle to do is to hold that tension of the opposite, which is what I wrote about in Chapter Five. There’s the idea that, although they're two sides of the same coin, they're not the same. They're not conjoined in some way, but there’s a tension from which things can arise. So maybe, I don't know, but if you, as a white man, were on a course as a psychotherapist, you’re a minority straight away because the majority is female. So, therefore, your experience of being an Other and perhaps not having the same voice may well come up. But then how does one hold minority alongside, or in relation to, one's own sense of privilege, because that will be your reality? You’ve got all this privilege. It will always be there. So that’s a fair point to make.

Ben: The lack of privilege - does that let people off the hook?

Dwight: I'd say it's a possibility, but probably not. I think it’s better to be able to hold that tension of the two, of privilege and Otherness, even though we're taught that the privilege culture is a bad thing, that it’s unfair to have privilege. What I'm trying to say in the book is that you can't get rid of it. It's just a part of who you are. But it depends on how that privilege is used - is it useful or oppressive to somebody else who is a minority? So if you're talking about the teaching staff who are not acknowledging black existentialists, that's using your own voice to speak up and to tell them about their omission. It's the use of that privilege to raise this issue and that makes it OK.

With my priviIege I get to teach. For example, I get to use my voice and my vulnerabilities to bring other people into the conversation around what it is to be a black male, black academic, black psychotherapist, all those sorts of things. I see it as a gift, but it's also actually quite painful to do this on a regular basis. It's not always a pleasant experience. Another thing I want to add is that often institutions are caught in the trap of the nine protected characteristics of the Equalities Act. So as long as they address those, then nothing really gets exposed. Then they've stuck to the law and done their bit.

Coming back to your earlier question, part of the reason for the work as well is that it’s not enough. There are differences around us all the time. That is what your question intimates. So therefore, how are we as therapists going to be using our skills to add to the discussion and the debates around all this work? We can't just skate over the surface with this. There's nothing about the unconscious nature of being with someone who's LGBTQ+. You can’t just look at that through a sensible lens.

Another way of looking at this, is through the eyes of children. There are often drives to include diversity and help them to understand it from an early age. There's nothing wrong with that. But yet what often gets missed is how children form groups and decide what's in and what's out. This is very different to how we as adults understand this. With children, it could be because somebody is too short, too tall, too skinny… Their hair is too red, too whatever it is. But those aren't protected characteristics as per the Equalities Act. Those are about children trying to work out who they are and who they are not. So how do we work with that? What I'm trying to highlight is how training has a gap in the literature around diversity. This is my sort of work, and others as well, before we can actually start plugging it.

Ben: How do you see the process of plugging it going from here?

Dwight: Well, I think in some way we can be like psychotherapy. We can go all the way back to Jean Piaget and some of his writings around prejudice. This is material which seems to have got lost somewhere along the past one hundred years. There's another one by Francis Abbo who wrote a book in 1988, I think it was called Children and Prejudice, but it doesn't really get picked up enough on training courses. It looks at how children form prejudices quite early on in life, but also it helps us to recognise shame and guilt, and where they move to, from a more egocentric perspective to a more sociocentric one, and how parents can play a role in that. What I'd also like to see is the recognition that these experiences then become internalised within us. Like anything else that we do. We often talk about the internalised parents. As we grow up with new experiences, whether it is how to ride a bike, or swim, or whatever. That experience becomes internalised, even the negative experiences. For example, the person who abused us… that becomes internalised. How can we work with these aspects on a deeper level, on a bodily level, or on a more unconscious, shadow level?

Ben: I want to ask about dreams. I was struck by what you wrote because I've not done much work around dreams. I was struck by your honesty and openness in describing your dreams. I think, to my mind, it sounds like one thing to put it in a PhD thesis, which some academics will read, and another to publish your dreams through a well-known publisher that may well become widely read in the psychotherapy profession. What is it like for you to write about your dreams in your thesis and then go and get it published?

Dwight: You're quite right. There's the issue of 'well, who reads your PhD thesis?’ Okay, a couple of examiners and maybe your mother, if you're lucky. It's one of those things about writing a book that's now out in the public domain and doing relatively well. Yes, it changes my role: I'm no longer the blank screen, I've revealed a lot of myself on those pages, in those chapters, especially around the dream work. But I hope for a couple of things through my own dream work and the internalised intersections of oppression that are there. There are things about supremacists that I've internalised, for example, and I come back to my more suitable, unadapted sense of self. And I'm hoping that the readers of those chapters will actually start to explore their own dreamscape. You know, how women internalise patriarchy; how our working-class people internalise something from the class system. These things will come up and sit within us to some degree. Such as, one of the dreams with a colonial aspect is being worked through; it doesn't always go away forever. And there's still that more homophobic element, which comes in a later dream, which then needs to be challenged and worked through as well. So that process never ends. It's an ongoing complex ultimately. That’s one part of it that I hope people will start to explore through the honesty of my process in the dreams.

The other part of it is a strange one. I have a duty to the community, to my communities, to be a role model, as a black therapist and because there are so few black therapists out there, black male therapists, you get quite shy about saying stuff like that, but when I sit at the front and centre and say, 'Okay, this is how it could be. This is how therapy is’, I'm finding that the more I'm able to be honest about my experiences, the deeper the response I get from within that community.

Ben: Do you think people like me as examples of white male therapists need to do more? I ask because of a recent book by Emma Dabiri, who wrote that it should be incumbent on white people to do the work, to be front and centre and say that this is the problem, rather than you having to be front and centre for your community - that marginalises you even more. And this is something that we've talked about because our editorial board are all white, middle-class etc. And we're not sure how to address that. Or even if we can address it. And I know it's difficult, but I mean, I have quite strong views on this. I think, I wonder if people like me should be doing more to be front and centre and at the same time not to diminish your work.

Dwight: I think it goes back to something that I talked about in the book, about how I mentioned Simone de Beauvoir’s work around gender and her recognition that that actually gender is a co-created construct. It's not men who define women: that's a cultural definition that has come from the patriarchal narrative if you like. So besides the size of the biological differences, men have decided who women are. And the ideas of whiteness and, therefore, race, were not based on what we decided we are, as a race. It was about power. They had the weapons, and it's always been how white people are as a culture, as a race if you like, and they decided how it is to be black. So they're co-created spaces.

To answer your question I think there is work that white people can actually do around this. The book White Fragility talks about this from a sociological level. The author has recognised that when we talk about race on this side of the divide, it triggers something within some white people on the other side of the divide. Part of what I’m arguing in the book is that it’s an unconscious defense against the change in one's identity and one's egoic sense of self. So, the one way of approaching that is to look at one's own internalised attitudes towards a racialised Other, for example.

You mentioned fetishisation which sits within the culture. With the latest costume drama on TV [Bridgerton] there is a tokenistic element to it, which, is, therefore, sexualised and exoticised, and many aspects of it interfere with what a human being is, irrespective of who they are. But probably one of the best examples of that interference is where a person of colour plays a role. There’s a binary feature. They're not seen as just being black; they're also seen as being a character. It's like Luther, he's just a man, a very flawed man, and a man who's got a job to do. His race or culture is irrelevant, and that makes him more accessible to everybody. So the work I think for white people is to build an alliance, but alliances without the inner work become tokenistic. And as we're therapists, we should be able to do that sort of inner work alongside forming allliances and other issues. For example, where's my homophobia? Where's my sexism? How can I sit with those aspects of myself and then be an ally for women or the LGBTQ+ community?

Ben: Yeah. I feel quite blown away by quite a lot of what you've just said there. I think touching on alliances, some of the literature is the same thing, that it really does lend itself to tokenistic actions, like putting the black square on Instagram. You buy the book, so it's on your bookshelf, and that's it. You think that you’ve done the work and there's not really the ongoing conversation. I remember once a client said: ‘Well, I've done everything that I think I'm supposed to do. So surely I'm not racist?’ - as if reading two books and saying you've got black friends makes you anti-racist. I think that was quite difficult to accept because part of me was thinking, 'yeah, you probably are not' - there's no criticism in that thought.

Dwight: It's recognising that it's there.

Ben: It's really difficult to admit to my own racism and, if I did, I’d want to backtrack immediately. Have you had any negative reactions to the book?

Dwight: The amusing ones are online, in the reviews it has been really positive, but you always going to get one or two one-star reviews here and there, with no comments on them. I would prefer it if there were comments otherwise it just feels a bit like there's a one-star review which means very little. But I have to say those are in the minority. Most people have been very positive about the book with one or two little critiques here and there, which is fine, nothing wrong with that because it's not a perfect book. Why would it be? It's the first of its field. I don't feel like it's been done before. If I'm wrong, then please somebody tell me. Then I remind myself of the fact that even great authors wrote one or two books before they hit the ground running.

Ben: You're setting the bar high for yourself.

Dwight: There'll be more books, like a band bringing out a second album. But yeah, I'm very proud of what I've written. And hopefully people will critique it too. I was talking to somebody on a course who said they had obtained the license to actually print out one of the chapters and use it for their teaching. 'Blimey', I thought, 'that was very quick off the mark', but I'm glad and happy for students to tear it apart, critique it until the cows come home because then you're critically thinking about how this relates to you. What's going on in the work? And what would they do differently? And then that will create the next way of thinking.

Ben: I have not come across anything close to what you write in your book, although I have to say that I'm not that widely read. So, maybe I’m missing something.

Dwight: I keep thinking the same thing and I've written the damn book.

Ben: That can't be it surely. We can't be like that in 2021. I mean, psychotherapy is not a new profession. It's been here for a while now. There are lots of organisations making a lot of money from researching and training people, and yet nothing has come out about this topic. Where do you see your work going?

Dwight: You've made some interesting points there. It is strange to think that we're in 2021 and this is the first book of its kind. I think it's part of the problem. You think, that can't be right. There's something about institutions in my view. When institutions form there's very little room to grow or to change and incorporate new ideas. I think in the early days of psychotherapy, there have been different spurts along the way, different theorists have come and gone, like Freud, or Jung, or Rogers… and they blazed paths of their own. And people read the messages and formed sects, as if they were waiting for new leaders.

Those authors are few and far between sadly. I'm coming from the outside and I have a voice and a reason. I had something I wanted to say that seems to resonate. But I'm not perfect and without prejudices. I'm still going to be subject to some levels of racism or sexism, just like anybody else. People will say you're a young black man writing about this; it should be written by an upper-class white man in his sixties who's had a full career. This is the stereotype in our culture. Even my parents, who were immigrants to this country, believed that you should look up to your priest, your doctor, your policemen, whoever. The people who are in authority who would normally be older white men bought into the whole patriarchal narrative and class narrative of the time. In my view, these sorts of things silence minority voices.

So we're in an age now where as these authors start to speak up, there’s going to be a reaction against them, a backlash. Some people just won’t see it. We're all wading through this. One of the things that got picked up in my seminar was the fact that in my first draft I'd quoted what I thought the majority of white men were saying. That’s me stereotyping. And that's what people do about decolonizing. It's the internalised aspect of that which needs to be moved as well, and challenged.

Ben: How did you feel when that was pointed out to you?

Dwight: It was a bit of a shock, but it was also like a bell had been rung. It's one of those sorts of Gestalt moments where it's like, 'Oh, hang on. Why have I not seen that?' It was a learning for me. I went away and I thought, 'that's not happening again'. So how can I then bring in different perspectives and voices? And what does it actually mean? You know, this is the whole idea about the majority of academics being white and male. And that's who we quote. So I'll mention this in a second book, but often I'll bring in black role models - authors or artists or musicians.

I remember doing my Master’s degree about music, and using one's life-process. I quoted from Daniel Barenboim, Eminem, Dr. Dre, and other people who've written about the artwork that they reside with and what it means for them. Bob Marley, for example. How these people have a real resonance with their communities. It may not be seen as academic as such, but it still has a deeper meaning.

I heard a strange story the other day. I was at a book launch a couple of weeks ago and I was being asked about 'cancel culture'. I replied on where I stood on it. My view is that freedom of speech is actually a bit of a privilege. However, it's not actually there for everybody. Women and ethnic minorities have been silenced over the years. The quote I used was from those who feel that they've been cancelled and what that is like for them. My quote was actually from Diehard (the film): ‘Welcome to the party pal. We've all existed without it. You aren’t the only ones who have.’

Ben: By cancel culture, let me just check what you mean, because I think it's one of those terms that's become quite popular without necessarily having a particular definition. Is it of people in the public eye who feel like they've been cancelled for expressing views that aren't generally considered woke enough? Like as if we make it a kind of a polarity. Is that what you mean?

Dwight: Exactly, exactly. It's a very small minority that get to have a voice. It's the same people each individual time that get trotted out. There's not a diversity or diverse range of voices that are presented. So actually cancel culture is like the term woke. They've been stolen by a certain position on the political spectrum and then used in a criticism to say 'you're too woke, therefore go away'. Whereas actually, my view is, ‘I'm a woke therapist who has been trained and am trying to discover myself and be more true to who I am, and working through my culture. They are woke because they're waking up from an unconscious sleep. And actually, I love the LGBTQ+ community and their drive to self-identify. The same thing happened in the 80s with black people self-identifying. That, for me, is woke. There is an agenda. There's a sense that I'm not going to be identified by somebody else and left in the shadows. I'm going to define myself, stand in my own sort of authenticity and my own power.

Ben: I once wrote about wokeness and the origins of the term. I think it's from the sixties or seventies. It's just about being politically correct, or awakening, isn't it? That's the origins of it. So one can't be too awake (politically correct) by saying that one is too woke, or you've misunderstood.

Dwight: I quite agree. It's the same. These terms get kidnapped and it’s the same with political correctness. That's originally a feminist term about, again, being able to self-identify as to what it is to be a woman and be politically correct, but it's been kidnapped in a way, by an elite who then want to denigrate it. It actually forces people back into shadow. When you go back to the original understanding of these terms in their purest form, they are actually really useful. So I like what you said about where it comes from. Yeah. I have a t-shirt… it's like, 'I'm woke'.

Ben: I saw it. I saw you on social media.

Dwight: Yes, there's always something on social media.

Ben: And I enjoy your this is what a therapist looks like hashtag, because you said that you looked like a doorman.

Dwight: That's right, I was told I looked like a doorman. That story is actually really old. I wrote about that story in Therapy Today, 2009. I brought it back. The silly thing about it was I’d just bought a leather jacket for the first time in about 15 years. It reminds me of that story and that's when I put up the hashtag. The comments around that hashtag have been extraordinary. I looked like a bouncer because of how I dressed. Somebody once said to me that I needed to dress like a psychotherapist. I needed a suit and tie and I'm sitting here in a t-shirt and jeans today. That's often what I wear when I'm working with my clients. My clients don't comment on it. They're perfectly fine. There are perceptions about how we're supposed to look, which then limit us, and one thing about that hashtag is it allows people to see the diverse range of therapists out there and their personalities just in a photograph.

Ben: I'm aware that I'm sitting here in a shirt and I only ever wear shirts for weddings, court appearances and work, but that's literally it. That’s my own process especially since I've been working from home, trying to give some separation, but I remember I never wear shoes when I'm practising face to face. I just wear socks. I prefer it. I feel more grounded. And a couple of people think that’s a bit weird. Why? On my supervision training someone said what if people can read into your socks? And I was like, well, I mean, I don't generally read into people's socks. I don't go around looking at people's socks. Like I think we can, as a profession, get too wrapped up in doing the 'right thing'.

Dwight: Exactly.

Ben: But I think I wonder if this is part of the same problem that your book is starting to address. And I only say ‘starting’ because one book can't do it.

Dwight: Yeah, it can't do it all.

Ben: There are so many training institutions now that it's almost like the sausage factory of, we just want people to come out and they've done a bit of work on themselves and they dress the right way and are a nice professional, a bit like an accountant. You want push those out and you get a few kinds of outliers as therapists, who maybe wear t-shirts or talk about intersectionality.

Dwight: I trained at a Transpersonal centre. I used to walk around in dungarees and bare feet for years and have the piss ripped out of me for it. But I think you're quite right. We conform to a stereotype of what it is to be a therapist set up totally unconsciously by the wisdom of the founding fathers. It’s not as if anyone told me to be a certain way.

The more CPD we do, things will alter and shift and so on. But I think we find a safety in an identity through belonging to a certain group at a certain moment in time. There are benefits and relationships within myself with all these sides here because I practice Phenomenological Psychotherapy.

Ben: Thank you so much for a really enjoyable and enlightening hour of your time. How can people get a copy of your book?

Dwight: Obviously, the internet - you can find the link on my website: https://www.dwightturnercounselling.co.uk/library/books/

Dwight Turner is a psychotherapist, author and educator. His book, Intersections of Privilege and Otherness in Counselling and Psychotherapy: Mockingbird is available now. He works in private practice and lectures at Brighton University. 
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Ben Scanlan is an existential phenomenological psychotherapist. His Contemporary Psychotherapy profile can be found here.
Ben Scanlan

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