From Multicultural Competence to Radical Openness: A Psychoanalytic Engagement of Otherness

Anton Hart

Anton Hart, Ph.D., FABP, training and supervising analyst of the William Alanson White Institute, associate co-producer for the film, Black Psychoanalysts Speak, presents and consults nationally and internationally on issues of diversity. He is in private practice in NYC.


Anton Hart

“Multicultural competence—I wish that term would be banished from this earth. Competence? We’re going to be competent in relating to the other?”

Of all my lines in the film, “Black Psychoanalysts Speak,” the 2014 PEP video by Basia Winograd, this is the one that has garnered the most response. It seems to have resonated with people’s misgivings about the emphasis in many approaches to multicultural “training.” I read in this resonance a dissatisfaction with the aspiration of “becoming competent” at relating to human beings who are different from oneself, with studying the other in an acquisitive, non-participatory, and, in all likelihood, objectifying manner. Later in the film, I elaborate: “I’m very critical of the multicultural competency movement because I don’t think that reaching across cultural or racial boundaries is something to become competent at. I think it’s something to become open to. There’s something about the notion of competency which still keeps people who are different from you as other, like they’re this commodity that we have to get better at dealing with.”

Multicultural competency training…promotes a defended, prepared manner of addressing differences… and is a lost opportunity for personal reflections and deeper engagement.

I am surprised when psychoanalysts and other practitioners, sometimes those who are black like me1 or with some different otherness status, seem to embrace such a competency emphasis without sufficient criticism. Multicultural competency might be well intentioned in that it is attempting to help people increase their empathic availability while decreasing tendencies to distance or callously offend. Multicultural training tries to offer a rudimentary script so that necessary conversations across the divides of difference take place rather than the participants fleeing and avoiding those conversations. But this is not going sufficiently deep. This is why many people with whom I have spoken convey they feel a sense of dread about having multicultural competency training required of them in their organization, and why many complain that the training they have received was concrete and, oftentimes, deadly boring. Such training inherently promotes a defended, prepared manner of addressing difference and otherness, with all of their attendant anxieties and defenses, and this represents a major lost opportunity for personal reflections and deeper engagement.

The heart of the matter is learning how to become increasingly undefended around matters of diversity and otherness such that you can be open: open to the other person who will be, in some significant ways, most certainly different from you. A psychoanalytic sensibility suggests to us that genuine openness can only emerge in the context of an unscripted dialogue, one that involves making contact with and participating in an exchange that will, necessarily, threaten the dialogic participants’ understandings, identities and perceptions.

Because it is a talking cure, and because it prizes the continually refined formulations and understandings of its participants (in the context of a relationship between those participants), psychoanalysis holds the potential to open up and enrich dialogue across boundaries marked by racial, ethnic and cultural difference in a way that is deeply personal. It encourages the participants to take the risk of losing understandings they have of themselves and of each other that constitute prejudices. In a sense, a new language must emerge in each dyad, one that is intended to grasp both the overlapping and the contrasting experiences of the two participants, while at the same time allowing for articulation of the emergent, combined experience of the two together. This experience will inherently challenge, threaten and revise the understandings the co-participants bring individually to the conversation owing to their histories and their unique contexts, be they cultural, racial, sexual, socioeconomic or otherwise.

Unformulated Dialogue

Cross-cultural interlocutors must grapple with new ways of communicating, not just in the sense that they are encountering an other whose background may be different and unfamiliar, but also in the sense that the deepest and richest forms of contact and conversation between people are emergent rather than fixed. In contrast, the multicultural competency approach emphasizes gaining a form of mastery or at least rudimentary ability in speaking the language of the other, on becoming aware of the other’s customs, vocabulary and syntax. A psychoanalytic sensibility holds that the participants in the analytic dialogue—analyst and analysand, supervisor and supervisee, student and teacher, colleague and colleague—attempt to lose their own senses of mastery-based relating, to relinquish the feelings of cultural knowing and competence they may have held prior to entering into each new conversation with each new other. Psychoanalytic engagement with issues of otherness involves repeatedly trying to not assume understanding and to be open to receiving understandings, insights and formulations—always temporary and limited in their scope. Such trying-not-to-assume-while-instead-trying-to-be-receptive involves the repeated, deliberate abandonment of presumptions, about both self and other while simultaneously maintaining a disposition of curiosity.

This is where what I have come to call radical openness comes into play. Radical openness involves a disciplined psychoanalytic stance of attempting to notice, question, and relinquish presumptions about oneself and the other. In order to do this in analysis, the psychoanalyst must be willing to be both curious about his or her own emergent experience and that of the analysand, and also be a responsive subject in relation to the analysand’s curiosity. (And it is important to clarify here that by “responsive” I do not mean “self-disclosing.” While some instances of intentional self-disclosure may serve the cause of fostering an analytic environment of reflectiveness, curiosity and openness, some disclosures may have the opposite effect. The openness here refers to a receptivity to that which is unexpected in relation to oneself and in relation to the other.)

Radical openness involves a disciplined psychoanalytic stance of attempting to notice, question and relinquish presumptions about oneself and the other.

In talks I’ve given about diversity and otherness I have tried to acknowledge the good intentions inherent in people’s attempts to get trained in how to be with people who are different from themselves. But I’ve wanted to urge people to go deeper. Competency in relation to the other might be seen as a starting point rather than an ultimate goal, like taking a crash course in a foreign language before you go to a new country in order to have some working phrases. I would propose that even without that course, you could still find a way to connect.

If you have enough courage, your experience could be more interesting than it would have been if you used your handy book of words and phrases to get what you want more efficiently. Throwing away the book, you would need to approach foreign strangers with a kind of interest, a turning toward their faces, listening to what they say and what you say, and how you both seem to be hearing each other. And you would have to be prepared to listen for the responses, including the negative ones, and to reflect on how you seem to be taking in—or keeping out—the responses you are getting. In that case, no matter what is said, whatever awkwardness comes out of your mouth, because of your own limited frame of reference or previously acquired fluency, you are going to be able to work toward reciprocal communication.

You might wind up, along the way, saying something that’s not the “right” thing to say, something that may even offend. But if you approach the dialogue with a willingness to consider things that are out of your awareness (unconscious, unformulated), things that have not occurred to you before, then maybe the other can tell you about their problems with what you are asking and how you are asking it. But this useful information can only be conveyed to you if you convey, in your way of both speaking and listening, that you’re interested in hearing about how you misunderstood, how you got things wrong, how you failed to understand, and how you were experienced as presuming rather than listening with an open mind. In this way, you can come to participate in a cross-cultural dialogue that will be stimulating and interesting rather than non-offensively safe, mannered and probably boring (which in and of itself suggests a defensive turning away from the other).

The problem of racism and discrimination largely comes from a defensive process of disavowing one’s unwanted parts, one’s unwanted impulses and insecurities, locating them in the other person and then hating that other person in order to protect one’s self. Rather than saying, “I hate these aspects of myself, or these are really difficult, frightening aspects of my own experience,” it’s easier for many people, perhaps most people, to experience those not as aspects of oneself, but aspects of the other, and then to hate the other. Othering, in this sense, would seem to be inherent in the human condition. It describes this process where people rid themselves of the things about themselves they can’t tolerate, by projecting them onto others, or attributing them to others, and even by inducing them in others, and then hating or destroying them in those others. The psychoanalytic project aspires to help people be curious about and, perhaps, to recognize what they are doing in the process of othering, and to help them see they are using people for internal security in ways that have external, invariably destructive consequences.

When it comes to the problem of prejudice, psychoanalysis offers a more profound remedy than trying to teach people not to be prejudiced or to watch what they say. Because psychoanalysis is interested in understanding what would make one person hate another and is inherently interested in creating contained opportunities for dialogue. Psychoanalysis aspires to help people to become more aware of the ways ignorance is self-protective and that prejudice involves using people to manage dreaded internal experience.

Psychoanalytically, it is axiomatic that both ignorance and its self-perpetuating variants such as prejudice and paranoia reside in all people. When we work to analyze transferences we are working toward the dismantling of such defensively held ignorance. In this regard, transferences can be understood as prejudices acquired early in life, as ways of surviving the anxieties stemming from the problems of dependency and relatedness. Accordingly, the goal when addressing prejudice is to discover blindnesses and defensive biases, how they may have been established and perpetuate themselves, not erase them or cover them with more desirable or socially acceptable thoughts and manners of speaking.

Psychoanalysts look at otherness and how that otherness profoundly alters the interaction people have with each other. Whether conceived of in terms of identifications, introjects or multiplicities of self, contemporary psychoanalysts understand the importance of context, looking at unconscious fantasy from the inside and considering the relational and broader social context from which fantasy may arise.

…a psychoanalytic approach offers a unique tool for addressing the universal problem encountered when people try to talk to each other across the borders of …race, culture and discrimination, as they try to articulate their experience of both difference and commonality.

Critical theory, queer theory, hermeneutics, field theory—each of these has been incorporated by contemporary psychoanalytic thinkers and creates a richer and more complex analytic perspective for approaching racism, discrimination and the many forms of othering. We cannot simply assert that racial discrimination involves the projection of unwanted, unconscious aspects of self onto the other. We now propose that racism represents a failure of curiosity, an intolerance of ambiguity and complexity.

In contemporary psychoanalytic thought, in which the boundaries of self and other are understood as being constantly in flux and never fully clear or known, traditional categories of self and other are pushed to their limits. When you start considering things like the existence of more than two sexes, or multiple selves, or that the sense of continuity and cohesion each person normally possesses might be an illusion that dissociatively obscures annihilatory dread, then you open the door to dissembling the constructs of race, culture and other determinate categories and their validity. Psychoanalysts now are more likely to practice in a manner that acknowledges that what the analyst doesn’t know is as important as what the psychoanalyst does know.

In relational and social constructivist thought, there is an emphasis on not knowing, and the psychoanalyst’s capacity for, or tolerance of, not knowing. This becomes a crucial aspect of the psychoanalyst’s role, one that has direct application to breaking down the categories that serve to perpetuate the defensive, discriminatory operations of othering: the ability to not know and to hold a position of not knowing for the analytic dyad, even when the analysand inevitably seeks to flee from the anxieties associated with such not knowing. The psychoanalytic endeavor aspires to avoid jumping to conclusions, even when they seem quite compelling and even when they would seem to resolve, or at least help to avoid, anxieties in the participants.

Finally, a psychoanalytic approach offers a unique tool for addressing the universal problem encountered when people try to talk with each other across the borders of interpersonal differences and race, culture and discrimination, as they try to articulate their experience of both difference and commonality. That problem is the breakdown of speaking, of the ability and perhaps desire, to keep on working to create a sharable language for mutual recognition, understanding and transformation. The psychoanalytic process shows us it is those moments in which things break down, when speaking comes to a halt, that we experience some of the most difficult, yet most important, moments of all. As we become aware of our uneasiness, there is the opportunity to look at what goes wrong between us, how it happens, and what it tells us about our experience of difference. We look at what is going wrong when the analysand is trying to say whatever comes to mind, how it is happening, and how it could go otherwise. It is in this territory we are likely to find the most basic anxieties human beings possess along with their associated, self-destructive and other-destructive defensive “solutions.” It is also where, if we can stand to stay in the conversation (and encourage our dialogic others to do so as well), we may gradually be able to accept responsibility for the injuries we are sometimes causing and to relinquish—to lose—the self-protective blindnesses and biases we contain in favor of novel ways of seeing and being with different people.

In our attempts to encourage and to welcome people who are different from ourselves—who are other in one way or another—into our consulting rooms (and our institutes) we must, as psychoanalysts, ask more of ourselves than competence. We must mobilize the best of what psychoanalysis has to offer: a stance of openness to the unknown, the unfamiliar, even the frightening, in our patients and in ourselves.

1I am multiracial, with a black father whose ancestors were African-American, Native American and Western European, and a white, Jewish mother whose ancestors were from Russia and Poland. I consider myself to be both black and white, and, also, not simply either.