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Confronting Racism


June 3, 2020 - A message from co-presidents Teresa Méndez and Daniel Buccino.

To our AAPCSW members,

We prepared a column for the upcoming issue of our newsletter, but wanted to say something to you all sooner – and feel we’ve waited too long already to mark the gravity of this moment.

Over the past 10 weeks, we were catapulted 20 years into the future of telehealth. And everything changed. The world had largely shut down. Many of us were frozen. Frozen at home. Frozen in front of our screens. Frozen in little Zoom windows. Frozen in the face of the horror of this pandemic, a disaster of uncertainty, with its waves of infection, medical and psychiatric casualties, economic carnage, and the social unrest and protest that we imagined might unfold over the months and years ahead.

Last week George Perry Floyd was killed, calling out to his mother, pinned beneath the knee of a police officer. And we were reminded that nothing has changed. Now we are all confronted with sickness on top of sickness. Both the virus that has us frozen in our homes and the virus of racism that has us frozen in time are insidious and virulent. But one has been attacking the bodies of black and brown people for centuries while only the coronavirus is novel.

COVID-19 is new, but racism and white supremacy are the fundament upon which this country was built. This latter infection has been easier for many to shelter from, relegated to the unconscious, a disavowed or dissociated “not me” experience. And for many of us in AAPCSW, it has been possible to stay home and feel some assurance that we will be shielded from the coronavirus as well.

What, then, is the role of clinical social work, psychoanalysis, and AAPCSW in a time like this?

The anthropologist Ruth Behar once described a photojournalist who was documenting a mudslide. He stood helplessly by, taking pictures as a young woman drowned in mud, until he could take it no more and he suddenly reached out to her. Behar identified this moment of tension – between observing and intervening, containing and enacting – as “the central dilemma of all efforts at Witnessing.” In essence, what Behar identified is the same tension that those of us professional witnesses who are therapists routinely encounter with our patients. And it is a tension we must all confront now, as clinical social workers, psychoanalysts, and as an organization committed to social justice.

Jacques Lacan talked of the analyst holding his place in horror. Living and working amid a medical pandemic calls for this. Our work is, and always has been, to face, hear, witness, and bear horrible things. But like Behar, Lacan also distinguished between observing and acting. He taught that the Desire of the analyst creates the Demand for analysis, that our Act in becoming analysts can catalyze the analytic Act for our patients in the transference. Our desire and our willingness to do the work of therapy creates the patient. We must extend our Desire to do the work of anti-racism as well – in our offices, in our profession, in our communities, and, perhaps most importantly, in ourselves.

It goes without saying that following the murder of George Floyd, just one of so many, and the patriotic efforts of those who are honoring his life and marking his gruesome death by facing a pandemic in streets across the country, we must all shift course once again. A conversation has already begun on our listserv, and in the coming weeks and months we will amplify this conversation through another virtual series on the pandemic of racism that continues to infect our country – a horror we are long overdue in confronting.

We hope you all are safe, well, strong, and able to hold your places.

What a time to be alive.

In grim solidarity,
Teresa and Dan