Shannique Richards & Anusha Kumar*
A deep sense of mourning
To be nourished
For we have been starved enough
This survival mode is tough
Long before, this is what my body needed
I yearned for mutuality
A sense of safety
A group where I can eat
To feed and be fed
To share laughter, joy, pain, and sorrow
To grieve about the vicissitudes of tomorrow
To share recipes
And stories of our destinies
To share identities
And workplace anomalies
To share social locations
And to embark on cultural explorations
To share experiences of racial discrimination
And moments of victimization
To decolonize the space for womxn of color
To make the space like no other
In 2020, as two Women of Color and advanced doctoral students in a psychodynamic-focused clinical psychology program, we believed that intellectualized discussions and communal processing on race decentered those that looked like us in conversations that were about us. We had a hunger for a space that directly links being full and being fulfilled; a space that parallels the ways in which our bodies have held it all.
Amidst the raging COVID-19 and racial epidemics, we started the first psychotherapy group focused on Womxn of Color (WOC) at our training clinic. We aimed to decolonize the psychodynamic space for WOC: to center our healing, our experiences, our narratives. By expanding “the frame” and working collaboratively in empowering our members, we aimed to rebuild through culture, identity, and community. We learned that we can therapeutically feed WOC struggling to survive amidst overpowering structures and institutions in their everyday lives – and above all, that we as therapists, can also be fed.
In the two narratives that follow, we centered our identities and parts of our experiences as group co-leaders and doctoral candidates:
– Co-facilitating a womxn of color group has awakened me (S.R.) to the myriad ways WOC feel unequivocally unfulfilled in many spaces. It has reminded me of an experience early in my career as a doctoral trainee. It felt like yesterday when Afro-Caribbean music enveloped the air. Flags representing different islands and countries swayed boldly, signifying pride. An atmosphere filled with laughter, chatter, dance, livelihood. I felt at home. As I began to rock my hips and tap my feet, as I would anywhere to the sound of music, it dawned on me that my role had changed. A new identity would develop. An identity that no longer felt like me but whom I would become. This sudden realization paralyzed me. Music no longer enveloped my bones in the hallways of my new home. The smile that usually radiates from a distance grew further and further away. I felt malnourished, despite the fat hanging off my bones that signify some life. The ravenous part of me felt a desire to be filled. To regain sustenance through the very identity I hoped to develop while stealing back the joy I felt deprived of.
I am awakened to the reality that my fullness belongs not in compartments but in its entirety—recognizing that my fullness is what I and other women of color deserve. It allows us to show up as our full selves in the rooms that were never designed for us, but a piece we can carve out for ourselves. After nine months of wondering when a Black woman would join the group, two finally joined, bringing variety, sensibility, wit, smarts, and a desire for community. There was and is a desire to connect on a deeper level with each of them, and them with each other. Yet, I carried a weight that I must be good enough as a Black co-therapist in this new identity I hold. I still carry this weight, but through self-compassion and reflection of my own internalized inferiority, I recognize that they too must be carrying this weight perhaps in the group and their daily lives. I’ve realized that it is time to unburden and begin to nourish ourselves.
-In the beginning stages of our group, a group member shared her experiences of having a complicated relationship with her body. She struggled to eat and often was deprived of relationships and spaces with people who shared her racial/ethnic identity. Two months after she had departed from group, my co-leader and I (A.K.) led a session in which we self-disclosed many of our social locations -more than we had done with any of our patients in the past, considering our training. We each shared and invited our group members to share a meaningful cultural item. My co-leader shared a poem from her grandmother, while I revealed a beloved book shared with my grandfather. The impact of this still moves me- the members shared with us intricate pieces of their lives, items that carried stories and were food for their souls: pop music, family photos, cooking flour. Strikingly, this opened a space to share deeper, difficult experiences with one another, as if they suddenly remembered these existed.
We couldn’t place how we were feeling when we left the session -a growing warmth in our bodies and bellies. As we processed together in the next session, the feedback that we received from the attendees was that the session was experienced as “nourishing.” I then realized that we had felt full, in a way that we had never before. The power imbalance finally felt even. The group members had stored away the memories of how deprived they felt from their early caregivers and how much they craved care. This deeper connection with us as the leaders propelled these memories into consciousness and allowed them to remember the lack of nourishment we all often felt, even in spaces that were declared “safe.”
I felt a deep longing for my former departed member, who yearned so deeply for connection, to be at that pivotal session and finally receive the food she was looking for. She embodied what a multitude of South Asians like myself and, generally, many WOC feel regularly. Us women, holding intersecting racial/cultural, and gendered identities, often re-experience scenes of deprivation and reenact the lack of nourishment symbolic of the relationship between child and caregiver, citizen and nation. These are feelings too overwhelming and too unremembered to be brought into consciousness. As it happens time and again, WOC, as I have done, may remove themselves from these spaces -a trauma response that protects and starves simultaneously. I wondered, and a part of me knows that together as two women with shared identities surrounded by other womxn of color, we could have exorcised ancestral ghosts in a space that fills and fulfills all at once.
As a South Asian and Indian-American female therapist, I began to realize how deprived of, and craving, I had been of South Asian patients in my work. I rarely found them, and when I found them in my group, I was not prepared for the sense of malnourishment both patient and therapist might feel while trying to connect deeply amid the power hierarchy -without showing them who we were and where we came from.
Because of my identity and background, I carry a complex and strong intergenerational connection between food and fulfillment, and paradoxically, an intergenerational lack of nourishment. For many of us, food is a vessel through which reenactments take place, a vessel through which ghosts traverse via our ancestry, our bodies and our everyday lives. Womxn of color carry this historical weight, and often, our relationship to food embodies this dilemma.
While some of us are fed, are any of us nourished?
* We use the term Womxn of Color as a gender-inclusive term to describe group members who identify as female, as well as those who were assigned female at birth, but may identify as gender non-conforming/gender queer/non-binary, etc. Given that this piece is written to center our identities as two cis women group co-facilitators, we used “women” in our subjective narratives and when referring to members of the group who specifically identify as women. We used “womxn” to refer to the group and community as a whole. We understand that “womxn” can also be a controversial term to some, and the term is consistently questioned and processed as our group develops.
*We would like to acknowledge and credit our collaborator in this piece and supervisor, Dr. Malena Vinocur, for her nourishment, guidance, insight, creativity, and interventions. She is foundational for the group and our own development as co-leaders.