Published articles by Rebecca Mitchell on issues around sexual abuse
(Facilitating A Transcultural Group)
Published in the Association of Christian Counsellors Magazine
I wish I could claim that “Let Culture Collide with Culture” was my own assertion but I have to credit it to Trevor Phillips in his powerful article back in 1997 in
‘The Guardian’ in which he expressed a vision for a British Society where all cultures are allowed to co-exist and enrich each other together. This picture of embracing other cultures reflects for us quite accurately God’s promise that his church will be a “house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56 v 7).
Of course to some extent we all come from different cultures because our family of origin has a unique culture peculiar to itself. However, I am on a journey where I am exploring the challenges and excitement I have found from crossing international cultural barriers from my own experience as a facilitator of a women’s group for women that have experienced child sexual abuse.
I set the group up ten years ago under the umbrella of a large multi-cultural church which has 120 nations all co-existing together – the predominant culture being.
Afro-centric. This leaves me in an interesting position, I am a white person who has lived in London her whole life and rarely travelled out of it – yet through the experience of working within this multi-cultural community I have learnt so much about other cultures and faced my own culture more clearly.
The most significant issue for any person crossing cultures is of course – assumption. We assume that because it feels like this in our own culture it feels like it in every other culture. For example, adoption may be an issue in Western culture of rejection or shame and yet in African culture it may not mean someone did not want you – but that someone did!
One striking example of a real cultural crossing for me, was during one of the groups a Kenyan woman was processing some anger and talking about what she would like to happen for her to feel that there was some justice in her situation. She said the only thing that would help her was if her village took a cow and sacrificed it. I ask her what this would mean and she said that it was traditional in her village to burn an animal as a symbol of retribution. In that particular group she was, unusually, the only Africa woman, the rest of the women being West Indian or European in origin. Although there appeared to be a puzzled silence after she spoke, soon after the group began asking her about her anger and the cow and she went onto share in a deep way. I felt the group was able to support her in her feelings without totally understanding and yet accepting her.
Mind Your Language
One of the most challenging phpects of running a group where English is not the first language for some members is being able to embrace those members who do not speak English very well. Without anything else happening, the struggle to understand, immediately classes the member as an “outsider”. I have found it very difficult myself to know how to facilitate those members who are learning the language. Immediately, on the surface, it seems there is a halt to the flow of a group as a member struggles to find the words and yet this feeling of space and or anxiety can be very useful in the process of the group. Often I have witnessed a group responding with care or impatience to the person concerned. The group response to this member often indicates there the group is at – perhaps in a supportive or caring phase, or alternately with frustration – when the group is processing some of their own anger and this comes out at the person struggling with their language.
Confusion or Opportunity
There is another side to this situation as the person who is struggling with the language may not always be talking about the same topic as the rest of the group. This can at times throw the group into confusion – but on the other hand it can also enable the group to look at something from different point of view or bring an issue to the group that has not been voiced.
Counselling language is often a waste of time and even confusing and unhelpful for those who are struggling with English. “As if…” or “It’s almost as though…” or “I was wondering if..” just add to the problems of understanding so it is a challenge as a facilitator to let that go and offer interventions that are easy to understand – yet not too direct to sound harsh and judgmental.
At the start of facilitating a group from different cultures one issue you are immediately faced with is exactly that – What time do you start? The time that is specified or the time the group fully assembles? Straight away you cross cultures where time boundaries are very different. I have become used to “African Time” where the appointment is not as important as what happens along the way to the appointment – often leaving you arriving one or two hours late for any meeting. African culture however is not alone in its expandable time barriers, a Brazilian told me once “What does it mean when an African looks at his watch – nothing! Well, the Brazilian does not even wear a watch!”. Perhaps because of this communal acceptance of lateness, it is rarely challenged by group members but I personally find it very frustrating and unholding to facilitate a group which is continually being interrupted and re-starting. I also find it hard to discern whether the member may be resisting the group in emotional terms by arriving late or whether it is purely a cultural issue.
Black Client White Counsellor Can It Really Work?
Women from other nationalities have in the process of running the group over a ten year period told me that I could not give them any support as a white person from such a different cultural background, so at initial interviews for the group I ask black women who are considering the course how they feel about a white facilitator. I am open that they may not want to attend a group run by a white person. However I have found that their response is usually that they feel able to trust me because, as Christians we share the same spiritual beliefs and that is the most important priority for them. One black woman responded that she sees herself as a British Londoner and therefore from the same culture as myself and saw no problem, but another Black British woman said she felt “black would be much better” but was unable to locate a black facilitator at that time so decided to attend the group anyway. We used her transferred feelings to me during the group to explore her bigger feelings towards white people.
“The idea of intercultural therapy is making the psychotherapy healing process available to black and other ethnic minorities… its essence is in its humanity, the respect of each other in our difference, our language, history and traditions and this approach enlarges our concept of human experience and is mutually enriching”.
Aisha Dupont-Joshua in her article in 1994 sums up the ideal of running a group with members from many different nations and backgrounds. It has always been my vision to work with women from different nationalities who have experience child sexual abuse within a form of counselling that as Aisha Dupont-Joshua explains “aims to take into the account the whole being of the client – their inner life and their communal experience.” I am consistently challenged by my own inadequacies as a Facilitator, and am thankful for a very wise Supervisor who is a Black British woman to give me support and guidance. My ultimate aim is for these groups is to be one very small step towards a multi-cultural Christian therapy where difference is celebrated rather than suppressed and enjoyed rather than endured so that we can be a gathering of “all nations and tongues”. (Isaiah 66 v 18).
Inter-Cultural Therapy – Aishya Dupont-Joshua – Counselling Magazine
‘The Guardian’ 13th October 1997