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Dealing with Racial Stereotyping in a Dream Group

Anthony Shafton

In the dream group I belong to, a woman in her late forties--call her Robin--told a dream which culminated with "a horrible sinking feeling that I missed being with John," a man she had been romantically and sexually attracted to for years but had never been involved with in that way. The dream ends: "I just have to live with this, it's my destiny with him." The feelings in the dream are of longing, frustration, resignation, despair. But the dreamer said she awoke feeling rage, rage at her destiny.

At the stage of our process when we probed for associations, Robin was asked if anything in recent days had provoked her rage. She replied by describing an incident at a movie theater. While driving there, she and her "significant other" Jason--whose neutral presence in the dream sharply contrasted with the overtly eroticized role of John--were in the midst of that sort of petty domestic argument of which none of us is proud. Robin entered the lobby while Jason parked. She had to squeeze by two women standing in the doorway, one of whom was smoking. Repelled by the smoke and already irritable, Robin exclaimed "Excuse me!" to the smoker in a judgmental tone. As she passed, the second woman, a black woman, stuck out her foot and tripped Robin, remarking ironically as Robin stumbled, "Excuse me!" Robin turned on the woman angrily and a scene ensued.

When the moment seemed right, I commented that in recent years members of the ASD have been discussing dreamwork in connection with race relations.(1) With regard to dream groups such as ours, I continued, Jane White-Lewis in particular has lamented that in white groups references to race and the implications of racial prejudice are often, in fact usually, glossed over, and that this wastes the opportunity which dreamwork provides for social healing.(2) With that in mind, I asked Robin why she had mentioned that the woman who tripped her was black.

Robin, who is a hypnotherapist, told me the next day (when I called to request permission to recount the incident) that she has had many black friends and was once engaged to a black man for a year; and that when I asked my question at the dream group, she thought, "God! Have I fallen into some racial stereotype?" Nevertheless, even with that self-consciousness and that history of interracial goodwill, Robin's explanation to the dream group of why she had mentioned that the woman who tripped her was black came straight out of the catalog of racial stereotypes. She mentioned it, she told us, because "black people have less inhibition to act out physically."

Robin, a woman whose erotic life had been governed by "inhibition," felt rage at herself and at life because she had not managed to "act out physically" in a satisfactory relationship. At the theater, she redirected that rage first at a woman who took the licence to smoke (a physical indulgence), and then at the black woman who tripped her. Anybody would be angry to be intentionally tripped, but Robin's anger was fed by resentment of people--black people--who unlike herself can "act out physically." Her identification of the woman who tripped her as black--a fact of no obvious relevance--pointed simultaneously to Robin's personality issues and her embedded stereotypes.

Robin was understandably defensive when I first mirrored back to her the venerable American stereotype of blacks as easily angered and impulse-ridden. But in the course of discussion she was reassured that the group was not condemning her; that most if not all of us in this society are tainted with racism; and that, if we don't address these things, we can't hope to promote our own racial healing.(3)

Anthony Shafton has written Dream Reader: Contemporary Approaches to the Understanding of Dreams (SUNY Press, 1995). He is at work on a book about dreams in African-American life and literature.

1. Anthony Shafton (1991), "Why So Few Blacks in the Dream Movement?" ASD Newsletter 8(4):1, 12-14. Michael Ortiz Hill (1995), "Racism and the Boundaries of our Dreams", paper presented at the 12th Conference of the ASD in NYC, June 20-24. Kelly Bulkeley, ed. (1996), Among All These Dreamers, Albany: SUNY Press. Michael Vannoy Adams (1996), The Multicultural Imagination, London: Routledge.

2. Jane White-Lewis (1996), "Dreams and Social Responsibility," in Bulkeley, op. cit.

3. "I define 'racism' to be any categorization of people on the basis of physical characteristics (such as skin color) that are indicative of putatively significant psychical differences, whether these ostensible differences are positive or negative, honorific or defamatory" (Adams, op. cit., p. 10).





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