Dealing with Racial Stereotyping in a Dream Group
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
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).