An Interview with Sandra Walker

Justin Shubert

Justin Shubert, PsyD, PhD, is TAP Diversity editor.

Sandra Walker, M.D., is a faculty member at the Seattle Psychoanalytic Society and Institute and a courtesy clinical associate professor at the University of Washington. She is an APsaA Board member and chairs the Foundation Committee.

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Sandra Walker

Sandra Walker has worked at the intersection of race and psychoanalysis for nearly two decades, having spent much of her career seeing patients from disenfranchised groups in community mental health settings. In this interview, Walker, a member of the Seattle Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, shares her perspective on our field in terms of diversity—where we’ve been, and where we might be able to go, if we maintain pragmatism and hope. She talks honestly about a culture of elitism in psychoanalysis and offers practical suggestions to help our field become more open to members from various sociocultural backgrounds. More importantly, she speaks to the value of opening our minds and our practices to the richness that diversity can provide.

Justin Shubert: What drew you to this work?

Sandra Walker: I recognized that within the body of knowledge and the realm of the psychoanalytic perspective, there was a richness that could help me and others understand a lot of the underpinnings of racism, and a lot of the other “isms” we deal with when we’re othering. What are the psychological factors that perpetuate the system of racism that we have in place in this country and our country was founded on? I’ve come to realize that we know, but we disavow it. It’s split off, and it’s not something we focus on.

JS: When you say “we know,” what do you mean?

SW: We understand a lot about the dynamics of othering, splitting, and dissociation. All of that paranoid schizoid stuff that Klein was very good at. And the factors that lead to the development of the self. The damaging of the ego and the pernicious effects of trauma. But we don’t commonly apply this understanding to areas like race. Outside the Association, other places have gotten there a lot faster— I think [the American Psychological Association’s] Division 39, the psychologists, the social workers are ahead of us.

We understand a lot about the dynamic of othering, splitting, and dissociation… but we don’t commonly apply this understanding to areas like race. I’m sad the training has been so unwelcoming of diversity in a lot of ways.

JS: Why do you think that is?

SW: I think it has to do with the internal politics of APsaA. For many years it was very slow to emerge from being a white male organization, with not many women, a misogynistic, paternalistic view of the profession, and an idealization that borders on a kind of shocking defensiveness: the purity of the analytic identity at the expense of whatever other identity an analyst may have. That’s a kind of purity that is not rational in my opinion. And it does have a kind of elitist overtone that a lot of people who would have otherwise gone into the field were not particularly drawn to.

JS: Right, it seems there can be almost a dismissal of difference. Maybe there’s something about the elitist tone in our field that’s been inextricably linked with whiteness and class privilege and heterosexuality.

SW: Yes, for example I understand most of the members of the organization are in the Northeast, but for 100 years the winter meeting was at the Waldorf! This is an organization of elderly people, and if you look at Eriksonian stages, for example, we’re looking at people who are trying to preserve and pass on what’s been meaningful in their lives. The rest of the world changed, and we did not so much. I’m sad the training has been so unwelcoming of diversity in a lot of ways.

JS: Early in your career you wrote in “Psychoanalytic Quarterly” (2006) that psychoanalysis has often denied the effect social trauma/experience has on the individual psyche. Do you feel, in the years since then, that our field has started to pay more attention to the ways societal trauma affects individual development?

SW: I think so. There is more in the literature, there’s more opportunity, but our lack of openness has meant our field has not explored these systems that continue to tear our country apart. Although we are looking more at the impact of historical, moral, and physical trauma on people of color, we haven’t done much to look at the impact on the people who perpetrate that trauma. The aggressiveness, the need to oppress, the hunger for power, aspects of narcissism that go awry at the social level, become a social contaminant. That’s as much of a virus as Covid-19. And we need to pay attention to it. We can try to understand how people in society have such total splits in the ego, and they’re not aware how much of the social narrative of oppression they carry with them. I say “we,” because I’m guilty of it too. It’s a work in progress for everybody.

JS: How then do we help our field progress? How do we help educate more sensitive analysts and encourage established analysts to learn more about the narratives they carry with them? How do we welcome people of color, or queer people, for example, who are either turned off by psychoanalysis or don’t even know what it is?

SW: I think we’ve started to do that. The first Town Hall Zoom meeting in the spring was a big step toward acknowledgement and where we need to go. Hopefully that’s a beginning. In terms of welcoming new candidates into our institutes, trying to encourage, in ways more than just lip service— being open to hearing new perspectives from our young people.

JS: We’ve had this exciting awakening across different groups, but our nation is now faced with what to actually do about it. Do you have suggestions for practical things our institutes or APsaA can do?

SW: I think we can look at admissions, where we are getting new people in our training, and deliberately look for more diversity in our recruitment. Our institute may admit its most diverse class ever in the fall, which is due in large part to our Diversity Committee’s outreach in the community. There may be one or two other Black people in the class. To have more than one would be a first in 70 years.

I’m the only Black person who’s ever graduated from our institute. It’s on the whole a white place, although we’ve had people from a number of other countries. People are uncomfortable with “others” who they think are not like them. “Those people,” as it turns out, are a whole lot more like me than many people in our institute.

JS: There are many ways elitism, or “purity” as you called it, has been maintained by some groups in our field over others: psychiatrists over psychologists, drive theory over self psychology, cis-gender over transgender.

SW: Yes, the many ways in which psychoanalysis as a field has developed “othering” to a fine art! So how do we get past that?

JS: Right, how do we?

SW: Fostering and mentoring diverse people who are new to our field is crucial. Early in my career I was interested in writing about these challenges of identity. Initially I got a lot of encouragement, but then no help in terms of developing these ideas. So I became more involved with other organizations like APA (American Psychiatric Association) and BPA (Black Psychiatrists of America), because there were other Black psychiatrists and analysts, and I developed a network of mentors and colleagues who became important to me.

A number of challenges come together in working through diversity, so there is no formula. You have to have the will to do it. And if you have the will to do it, it’s funny how a lot of times you find the way.

JS: Perhaps you’re saying that if we’re ready to have a more diverse organization, then the ways to do it will come.

SW: Yes, we’ll find a way. I think we should pay a little more attention to the culture of psychoanalysis, historically. Psychoanalysis is a culture, and we need to understand that and reflect on that a little.

JS: How would you describe our culture?

SW: I think it’s a culture that is insular and very much focused on the individual in a kind of encapsulated way. We have a candidate here who is a Sikh, a culture rooted in other before self. Psychoanalytic culture is pretty opposite in that way. Our culture privileges hierarchy. So, trying to understand where some of that came from, to look at the history of splits and schisms within psychoanalysis— what is all of that about? Why is it that Karen Horney or Heinz Kohut were so demonized by others in the field? What is that all about?

JS: Do you have any advice for people who have just started to work on issues of diversity in psychoanalysis?

SW: To go with curiosity and humility and be prepared to be surprised in terms of what you see in strength, resilience, survival under pressure, and what you have to recognize, acknowledge, and metabolize in terms of the horrible burden of trauma that a lot of people bear out there in the world, but always with an eye toward finding the strength. Working with diverse patients has been a rich experience for me, and I’d hope other people would be more open to having that experience.

I’d like to end on a positive note. I’ve found the last few weeks and months to be personally exhausting, but I feel very hopeful the conversations that are happening now will lead to meaningful change. It’s different than it has been, there seem to be more people who are buying in to thinking about where we are, and I hope there is a will to struggle through it to some place that’s better, within our institutes, and something that will allow us to offer more to the world around us.