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White Noise

This blog post is written in response to the poem [ ] noise by Victoria Adukwei Bulley. You can read the poem online at bath magg.

When I first read this poem, I was on a train on the way back from work. I remember reaching the end, looking up from the page, and being suddenly so conscious of the noise around me – the train on the tracks, the hushed conversation of its passengers. Even more though, I was conscious of the noise inside me; the echoes of a busy day of listening all clamouring for attention.

As I read the poem again now, I’m propelled again through that one, long sentence, its urgent rhythm. For me, it has this incredible shapeshifting quality to it; one moment litany, the next checklist, almost business-like. At times, the discrete noises start to blur, like notes in a symphony. It takes focused attention to avoid slipping into quick-scan mode, to slow down and listen.

On one level, the poem speaks to the noisiness of life, the sheer volume (in all meanings of the word) of what we must digest. There is a sense of moving through a day, a week, a year even, and these noises – even those connected with catastrophic global events – have become routine and expected.

But for all its noise, the poem is concerned with what doesn’t enter into consciousness. Each of these notes, these elements of the system, are also little blasts of silence.

In the note to the poem at the end of the book, Bulley writes:

For its ability to cut through environmental sound, white noise is used in the sirens of police cars, ambulances and fire engines, and is also known to have been used as a tool during interrogations and torture. In its power to disrupt atmospherically or occlude in totality, white noise might perhaps be thought of as a sonic of distress, a marker of the state and its attendant emergencies. 

Bulley draws our attention to the static in the background of things, the occlusion that threatens to rupture and silence: the noise of a system steeped in white supremacy. A noise that refuses to be situated or to name itself; an insidious absence. The ending, for me, is a piercing evocation of the force-field that is racial oppression; how it infiltrates even the most private and ostensibly safe spaces.

For me, as a white person, the poem is a stark reminder of the privilege that comes with moving through a society that centres white perspectives. Part of this privilege is the freedom to step back from the race construct, to write and work and speak from a position where race is invisible and need not be the context or lens. In her essay,  “Fog Theory: lost in the white gaze”, Alycia Pirmohamed interrogates the ubiquity of the white gaze and assumed neutrality or universality of white perspectives, asking:

Who are the writers who have the luxury to pretend there is no other poem underneath their poem? 

I’ve been thinking about how this luxury plays out in the context of therapy and mental health services. Reflecting on my own training, whilst there was some consideration given to issues of racial inequality, there was little space to situate or reflect critically on a curriculum dominated largely by white voices. In the recently published book Working Within Diversity, Myira Khan highlights how, too often, diversity training programmes end up centering white/dominant perspectives, with “diversity” synonymous with minoritised, and therefore othered. Khan uses the language of “Working within Diversity” to encourage a more self-aware perspective, one which recognises and situates the dyadic relationship between therapist and client in the context of their individual and collective social histories.

Dr Sanah Ahsan’s research into structural whiteness in clinical psychology shines a light on the individual and systemic defensive processes inhibiting genuine engagement with anti-racist work. Dr Ahsan concludes:

On an individual level, psychologists must move past processes of complicity, intellectualisation, avoidance, denial or silent paralysis and centre their discomfort. A key question for psychologists is: how can discomfort (in self-confrontation) be normalised rather than avoided or enacted? (p.52)

I recognise, here, something of how bizarrely hard it can feel in some clinical learning contexts to be vulnerable. What does it mean for a clinician, a healer, to be unsettled and uncertain, and what space is there to voice this? In an arena where scientific/intellectual learning is often prized, where fears around risk and liability abound, space to sit with our own anxieties can be limited.

But there is a particularly pernicious kind of avoidance within the (white-dominated) system when it comes issues of race and racism. Too often, a silence permeates training courses, institutions – even the therapy room. In ​The Challenge of Racism in a Post Racism Society, Dr McKenzie-Mavinga writes:

Post racism is an excuse to sit in complacence and not get messy in a transcultural process that requires cultural introspection and reflexivity on the client’s behalf.

In the interests of messiness then, let me say something about my own complicity. For a long time, I thought the best thing I could do to understand racism was to listen and learn. So I sat back and listened – giving space, I told myself, to those whose voices needed to be heard. It was a training session led by Dr McKenzie-Mavinga that awakened me to the realisation that behind this reticence was a defence: an unwillingness to recognise myself as a member of the perpetrator group, to acknowledge my whiteness and its armoury of oppression. As in Sharon Olds’ poem, Ode to My Whiteness:

You were invisible to me.

You went without saying.

You were my weapon secret from myself.

In his book, The Race Conversation, Eugene Ellis unpicks the treacherous emotional landscape we navigate in moving towards the violence and trauma of racism; the physiological dialogue that goes on between bodies on the lookout for safety and threat. Years of social conditioning, institutional racism, and anxieties about confronting complicity have made it easy for white people – including white therapists – to turn away.

I write this not because I have anything new to say, but because – as Bulley’s poem so painfully reminds us – it needs saying again and again. For me, poetry is part of a process of catching and confronting avoidant impulses, a resolute leaning in. Eugene Ellis describes the work of anti-racist practice as being partly one of unlearning avoidant impulses:

The process of understanding the impact of race is more about removing the clouds to see the sky than developing new eyes. (p.6)

So when I read Bulley's poem on the train on the way home from work, I was thinking not just about what I'd heard that day but also what I hadn't. I’ve come to ask myself, when engaging with issues of race and racism: how much noise is there in my system right now, and what might it be blocking? How quiet is it here - within this setting, within this room - and can I attend, can I listen, can I respond? As Ellis and many others emphasise, this is about understanding, yes, but it is also about feeling. All too often, anxieties about "getting it right" become stifling rather than productive, generating yet more noise that gets in the way of empathy and connection. As I write this now, I recognise a noisy anxiety, a knowledge that I've much work still to do, but I come back to how I felt reading Bulley's poem: outraged, saddened, awakened to the urgency of the task. I come back to the message at the heart of Ellis' book:

When there is a witnessing and a compassionate ‘staying with’ the wounds of race, there is no need to ask what to do or say, as it will be obvious. (p.16)


Books and Articles

[ ] noise by Victoria Adukwei Bulley is published in the collection Quiet (Faber & Faber, 2022)

Working Within Diversity by Myira Khan (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2023)

The Race Conversation by Eugene Ellis (Confer Books, 2021)

Fog Theory: Lost in the White Gaze by Alycia Pirmohamed, online at Wild Court

The Challenge of Racism in a Post Racism Society by Dr Isha Mckenzie-Mavinga (online article)

Ode to My Whiteness by Sharon Olds was published in Odes (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016)

Holding up the mirror: Deconstructing whiteness in clinical psychology by Dr Sanah Ahsan. Journal of Critical Psychology, Counselling and Psychotherapy, 20(3), 45-55.


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