In this episode, Developing Coach Collective co-founder Cameron Airen and I co-host an interview with “Feminist Therapy” author Dr Laura S Brown.
We discuss what feminist therapy is all about, feminist coaching, and how to apply feminist theory to any profession and our everyday life.
It’s a powerful episode with lots of food for thought!
Listen to this episode
What you will learn:
- About “Feminist Therapy” from author Dr Laura S Brown.
- What feminist therapy is about.
- How to apply feminist theory to any profession and our every day life.
Featured / Referenced:
Prefer to read? Download the full episode transcript:
Read the full episode transcript:
You are listening to the Dream For Others® podcast with Naomi Arnold, Episode 16.
Dream For Me, Dream For You, Dream For Others®. And now your host, award-winning life and business coach, Naomi Arnold…
Hi there! I am so excited about this episode.
We have a brand new interview to share with you. The interview is with Dr Laura S Brown, the author of Feminist Therapy, a book that you may have heard me share and speak a lot of in recent times on social media.
As you might know, one of my business partners, Cameron Airen and I recently launched a new feminist coach mastermind program called Developing Coach Collective. Not only will the mastermind focus on client attraction and other business activities, but it also has an optional Feminist Coach Track for those who would like to learn how to add a feminist lens and integrate a social awareness into their coaching skills and practice. You can learn more about this program at www.developingcoachcollective.com.
In planning this program, Cam and I thought Laura S Brown would be the perfect person to invite on both our podcasts to share their experience in feminist therapy and feminist theory, and any thoughts they have on how this can be applied in other contexts including coaching.
Lucky for us, Laura said yes to our invitations! So both Cam and I jumped on Skype to co-host the interview together. I hope you enjoy it!
Cameron Airen: For those that are not yet familiar with you and your work, would you mind introducing yourself and telling us a bit of more about the work that you do?
Laura Brown: So, I’m Laura Brown. I am a clinical forensic psychologist who has been practicing in Seattle, Washington for four decades. I’m also pretty central to the development of feminist therapy theory and social justice approaches to working in psychotherapy. I’ve written a lot of books, most of them for colleagues, two them for the general public. I do a lot of teaching and training all around the world. And right now I’m no longer seeing psychotherapy clients, I do consultation, supervision, and forensic. Oh yes, and an important thing, I’m a black belt in the martial art of aikido which I took up at the age of 50.
Naomi Arnold: That’s awesome. I’m glad you remembered to add that bit. We’ve been reading your book Feminist Therapy, one of the additions that you released here, and have been really interested in that since we’ve been doing a lot of work with coaches applying feminist theory to the work that we do here. So, we wondered if you could introduce us to what feminist therapy is and how it differs, I guess, to what most people or some people would think about when they think of therapy.
Laura Brown: So, feminist practice, which is a broader term that would cover therapy, supervision, coaching, kind of the whole nine yards, is a mindset with which the practitioner approaches what they’re doing, and we’re interested in several things. We’re interested first of all in power and powerlessness. In the feminist perspective, the root of all psychological distress has to do with powerlessness engendered by systemic forms of oppression and discrimination and marginalization. And so when people come to a feminist therapist with psychological distress, we look at the symptoms and we ask ourselves the question, how has this person been disempowered? And how can we utilize the therapy process so that they become more powerful, so that they reclaim the power that has been taken from them directly or indirectly by the systemic forms of oppression? Because feminist therapy began as psychotherapy with women breaking away from patriarchal models of treatment 45, almost 50 years ago, we are also particularly interested in gendered experience because everybody has a gender. Everybody has gendered experiences. And then we are also very interested in people’s intersectionalities and the ways in which gender intersects with every single other aspect of identity.
We see this as part of how we understand people’s capacities and their strengths, what we think of as their resistance strategies to being psychologically colonized, as well as the source of how they’ve been disempowered and almost hypnotized, almost put into a trance by the larger culture to believe that they are somehow less worthy or that something about them is deserving of being marginalized or pathologized. So, in feminist therapy, we try to create a relationship in which we analyze those issues of power and powerlessness, and in which the therapist models and engages in the reclaiming of power with the client. The question that we ask the people who come to us is, what’s the one small powerful thing you were able to do for yourself? And many people have no sense that they have any power. They don’t realize how powerful they have always been, how many capacities they’ve always shown simply to walk in the door of our offices alive and on their own two feet, or wheeling themselves in, that’s why they come in.
So, feminist therapy may look sometimes like what other therapists do, because we integrate their feminist therapy is an integrative approach to psychotherapy. So, you may see us doing EMDR, you may see us doing psychodynamic techniques, or somatic techniques, or cognitive behavioural, or mindfulness. There’s a lot of things you can do all of them with the goal of, how does this allow the person sitting across the room from us to reclaim the power to know what they know, know what they think, know what they feel, and know what they want.
Cameron Airen: That honestly sounds very similar to coaching and what we do in coaching.
Laura Brown: My guess is that the things that people bring to you are somewhat different. Probably, I mean, a lot of the people I’ve seen have been survivors of the childhoods from hell of one kind or another. And so they’re coming to see me because they think about dying every day. They do harm to themselves. They have difficulty knowing what they feel or restraining acting out on what they feel. They have compulsive behaviours that make their lives difficult for them. They have a hard time allowing people to be close.
Laura Brown: So, I think the severity of the distress that comes to a psychotherapist is probably somewhat different from the kind of coaches I know, but there’s a huge amount of overlap because we’re focusing on strength and on the reclamation of power.
Cameron Airen: Yeah, exactly. And we do focus on emotional intelligence a lot too. Really being able to feel your feelings and own your emotions as well. But we do focus a lot on mindset, and that’s what a lot of people do come to us for, they want to get the life they want, they might be dissatisfied in their life, but they do have trauma or they are dealing with some very severe experiences, but not all coaches are trained to work with that.
Laura Brown: No.
Cameron Airen: Like therapists are.
Laura Brown: I know. I have a good friend who’s the president elect of the APA and she’s an executive coach. She was trained as a counselling psychologist and so she has the skill set both to work with people in severe distress. If someone she coaches is suicidal, she knows what to do. Mostly what she does is very high level international executive coaching. And then I’ve encountered some people who call themselves coaches who in essence decided that they could just set up practice and charge money and do what they wanted. So I admire people who are committed to an ethic of how to coach well and a notion that there are values in this process. This is a sense I’ve gotten of each of you from looking at your websites.
Naomi Arnold: Yes. Good.
Cameron Airen: That makes us feel good. Well, you know, we see a big need in the coaching world for a feminist analysis. And that’s what we’re addressing for feminist lens. So, we both have studied feminist theory and we are so interested in applying that to our coaching practice and to helping other coaches apply it to their coaching practice as well. Are you able to touch on how you think feminist theory can be relevant across other professions?
Laura Brown: Absolutely, because people’s experiences have to do with the internalization of the limitations of oppression. The person who comes to you and says, “I know I have the talent to do this, and I continuously undermine myself.” If you trace that back to its beginning, somewhere you might find, ‘oh, people like you can’t do that.’ ‘Oh, people won’t like you if people like you do that.’ So, we look at the ways in which the narratives of oppression, the limiting narratives of oppression, get between people and their talents and their capacities. I think that absolutely applies to what you do in coaching.
I think the ways in which people of marginalized groups have been trained to give away our power in all kinds of interpersonal situations is something that coaches can address because you see people who say, “My life works well enough, and it could be working so much better. I have this talent, I have this skill, I have this capacity. WTF, but I’m not where some person who’s a member of all the dominant groups with a lot less skill than I have already has gotten years before me.” And this starts with women asking for less money when we start our jobs so we end up getting paid less over time. It starts with women not interrupting the men who are interrupting them in meetings. It starts with the two people of colour in the office being pitted against one another, and not being able to team and stand back and analyse and say, “Wait a minute, they only want one of us to succeed, do we really want to cooperate with that agenda?”
So, all of those I think are the kinds of things I know people bring into coaching. And so the intersectional feminist analysis of power, and identities, and the ways in which systemic hierarchies of oppression are everywhere and affect everyone cannot but help expand the analysis that you offer to the people with whom you work. And you know, a lot of people are kind of allergic to the word feminist.
I was just teaching feminist trauma therapy in Prague, and most people came expecting, I don’t know what they were expecting, but they weren’t expecting what they heard because certainly in the former East block, feminism has a bad name because it was imposed from the top down by communism. In the United States, feminism has been given a bad name by people who would like it to fail. Who made it sound like it’s some organized form of insane hating of everyone born with a Y chromosome. Instead of ‘feminism is for everybody.’ It’s about a patriarchal system, not about people who apparently benefit from it for a little part of their lives.
So, some of what you have to do is psycho educate people. Allow them to realize that they have been as duped into believing that liberatory models are their problem as anything else. The only people who benefit from believing that liberatory models are a problem are people who are at the top of the hierarchies of power and dominance.
Cameron Airen: Yeah, so true. I was going to ask you whether you do have to educate some of your clients on systemic oppression? We’re not educated on how patriarchy affects our lives, we’re not educated on white supremacy or capitalism, right? So you have to do a fair bit of educating. And do you do that with your clients or do you find that clients kind of already have an analysis of feminism when they come into the therapy session?
Laura Brown: I would say it’s been about half and half over my career. And with the people who come in and they read my consent form, they say, “What is this feminist therapy thing?” And I do my elevator speech? And they say, “Do you think it will be helpful for X?” And I say, “If I didn’t think it would be helpful I would send you away because I won’t take your money and your time if I don’t believe I can help you.” And then as we go along, I’m able to say, “Have you noticed that this is a narrative about the group you’re a part of, about Bajorans.” Bajorans are a Star Trek ethnic group, I use them a lot as an example. “Have you noticed that this is a narrative about Bajorans like yourself? About how you’re supposed to be that you inhaled without even knowing it?” And that leads us to begin to talk about broader systems and to look at how broader systems affect people inter generationally, how they affect people who appear to be at the top of the dominance hierarchy, so eventually with most people, we get around to it somewhere.
Some people come in the door already fired up and very political. Most people come in the door in my office thinking they wanted to die. So first, we had to look at why they thought their death would benefit anyone.
Naomi Arnold: And do you feel that it can be potentially harmful or not useful to clients or patients if therapists or helping professions don’t have some level of feminist or social awareness in the sessions?
Laura Brown: I think that to ignore that larger systems affect people’s lives and well being is to neglect a really important piece of the picture. Because someone comes in and they’re depressed because they got laid off their job after 25 years of faithful service because the company got bought up by a hedge fund. Yes, you want to help them deal with feeling depressed and feeling suicidal, and then you want to invite them to look at the bigger picture because if you don’t look at the bigger picture, then the amount of self blame and shame that this person carries is going to be harder to address. When we can say the problem is not in you and the problem was you believed what you got fed that good and faithful service will protect you. The problem is that we live in what’s now a rogue capitalist society where a very tiny number of people make a great deal of money to spend on things they never need, and they do so by exploiting folks like the rest of us.
Cameron Airen: Okay. So, I think many people will be wondering, we live in these systems, and you say we’re powerful, but like how, what is our power?
Laura Brown: So, I have developed what I think of as my four dimensional vision of power. Power in relationship to your body, in relationship to yourself, in relationship to people and in relationship to your meaning making process. Those things if evoked, can get people to move out of their place of helplessness and hopelessness, and it’s not as if someone comes to a feminist practitioner they’re going to go out and make a revolution, but they may become part of one. They may decide, okay, this time I am going to vote. They may decide, I will show up at this town meeting. They may decide, I will protest this landfill being put in yet another community of colour. They may notice that there are small things they can do when done in the company of others can have an enormous effect. I think one of the lies of the systems of oppression with which we all live, is that nothing we do matters. And when you’ve been traumatized a lot, you really do feel like nothing you do matters. One of the important messages of feminism social justice practice is that everything that each of us does matters, and that if many of us together do many small things, it becomes a very large thing indeed.
Cameron Airen: Yes. I really believe in those small acts every day in our language and our beliefs in what we embody. Right?
Laura Brown: Right. And how do I talk about myself, about the world, about the people in the world? Things that seem silly like, where do I buy my clothing and how do they treat the people who work there? This is going to sound odd, but part of why I continue to go to Starbucks is that Starbucks covers full health insurance for its part-time employees. I have a regular barista at the Starbucks I go to, he’s a musician, and he has a wife who has mental illness, really severe mental illness. Starbucks health insurance, which he has because of that job has made sure that his wife has gotten the care she needed and he could also continue to be a musician rather than have to give it up. He works part-time at Starbucks, he has full time health insurance.
Okay, that’s a choice that the company didn’t have to make, because most companies don’t make that choice. So, despite the fact that they seem to have taken over the world like McDonald’s, they have done some really important socially just things. And I get to see the individual experiences of that every day in my conversations with the people who work there.
Cameron Airen: That’s interesting. Because I think some people would say that supporting a local coffee shop would be more just, if you will.
Laura Brown: They were my local coffee shop 40 years ago!
Cameron Airen: True. Because you’re in Seattle!
Laura Brown: And it doesn’t mean that I don’t also go to other places.
Cameron Airen: You’re raising a point that it’s like, it’s complex.
Laura Brown: Exactly. Exactly. It’s complex. So I’m going to buy a cupcake, I’m going to buy it from the cupcake firm here in town that also pays its employees a living wage and was behind the give everybody paid family medical leave in Washington State. I don’t know if they have better cupcakes, but they have better politics, and I support them with my money so, I’ll support businesses. That’s the kind of thing. It’s like, what kind of ethical choices do we make? What kind of political choices do we make? Knowing that we will never be pure and that the people who are in elective office will definitely never be pure because the people who are the purest can’t get elected, but who will do most good and least harm. And that’s one of the ways I work with people is, how do we learn to assess situations rather than simply accept or reject them out of hand? Part of what I think that the larger systems of oppression do is they confuse us about how to assess who and what to trust, and how to do those assessments.
Naomi Arnold: In order to do this work well with your clients or patients that you need to unravel or unpack some of these things within yourself as a therapist.
Laura Brown: Continuously. Continuously. Every single moment and now that I’m not doing psychotherapy anymore, now that I’m doing consultation and supervision, it hasn’t stopped.
Naomi Arnold: What kind of questions do you ask yourself? If you don’t mind sharing.
Laura Brown: I ask myself, what are my choices here? What’s leading me to make this choice? I ask myself, am I reenacting an old pattern? Am I embodying an oppressive narrative? I ask myself, am I being as kind and respectful to everyone doing every possible job as I possibly can be rather than buying into classes stereotypes? I ask myself, am I making what I do accessible to as many people as possible, even if that means stretching a little further than is comfortable for me? I ask myself about my white privilege. I ask myself about my social class privilege. I ask myself about my femme privilege. As a lesbian who presents as stereotypically feminine. One of my ethical responsibilities in life is to never allow someone to assume I’m heterosexual just because I could pass.
So, yeah. So, I ask myself about those things all the time. And sometimes I make myself uncomfortable and sometimes I’m an utter and total failure. Sometimes I have ruptures to repair. To get to social justice, we have to do a lot of rupture repair, we have to practice a lot of humility.
Cameron Airen: Yes. I think, in the coaching world, there is a lot of concern of getting it wrong, making a mistake, and so people don’t even try at all because they’re scared of saying the wrong thing and making a mistake.
Laura Brown: Well I’ll give you the metaphor I use when I’m teaching people cultural competence in therapy. So, in aikido in my martial art, the martial art of peace, we train in our bare feet. It’s a very intimate martial art. We get extremely close to one another. One move has the other person’s head on your shoulder as you help them fall on the ground. Another move you hug them around the waist and twirl them around to help the fall on the ground. We are up against each other continuously.
So, we step on each other’s toes. We elbow each other in the ribs. We do things that we don’t intend to do because we’re close enough to train. If we’re going to get close enough to really engage with someone, we’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to step on toes, our toes are going to get stepped on. If we don’t accept that full on open hearted engagement, means you get close enough to bump into somebody, then get out of the humans business. You know, I’ve made errors, and I’ve repaired a lot of ruptures in my time. And I will continue to make errors and repair ruptures.
Cameron Airen: Right. Exactly. That’s the thing. Part of the process.
Laura Brown: Exactly.
Naomi Arnold: Do you find that you have a process for repairing those ruptures?
Laura Brown: Well, it starts by my saying, “I think what I just said and or did really was not okay.” So I take responsibility for it. And when the person says, “Oh, no, no”, actually I know that what I said or did was not okay. So, how can we talk about what the obstacles are to you letting in my acknowledging that what I said or did was not okay?
Sometimes the other person says, “I was waiting for you to say that, you’re right. That was really not okay.” And I say, “Good.” I’ve been sometimes with people I’ve worked with a long time, they come in and say, “at that last session, Laura, you said, blah, blah, blah, and I am furious at you.” And I say, “Oh, yeah, I’m so glad you’re furious with me.”
Naomi Arnold: How do they react to that?
Laura Brown: Well, at the beginning, they’re like, “Seriously?” I say, “Yes. Because now I know that you believe that I will stick with you no matter what. That I could screw up and admit it and you could be furious at me and we have a relationship and it’s stronger for that.” And then, by about the tenth time, they’re not wondering anymore. They’re like, “I am really mad about that thing you said.” I’m like, “Yes. Thank you so much, I’m so proud of you.” I think the therapy doesn’t start until our clients can get angry with us. And then it doesn’t continue if we can’t do the rupture repair.
Cameron Airen: Yeah, and making space for that, right? Like making room for that, then saying it’s okay. Well, and also not taking it on.
Laura Brown: Not shaming ourselves. So, saying, “You’re right, that was not okay.” Or, “You’re right. I could have said that differently.” Not defending ourselves. Not saying, “Well, what is it about you that makes it feel like blah, blah, blah.” You know, that might be the case. That’s not how you do a rupture repair. Later on, when you say, “I notice we’ve had this thing come up several times and I notice it comes up with a lot of other people. So, can we look at your piece?” After they can trust that you will look at yours. You model, looking at yours. Because liberating ourselves from narratives of perfectionism which are part of the lives of marginalized people, is that we don’t have the right to exist unless we’re perfect. By demonstrating liberating ourselves from those narratives of perfectionism, we are demonstrating a liberatory methodology to the people with whom we work.
Naomi Arnold: Yeah, and a true collaboration, not a, “I am the expert and you’re here to get insight from me.”
Laura Brown: Correct.
Cameron Airen: Yeah. And this sort of horizontal power, not this vertical power.
Laura Brown: Well, I think of it as spiral power. That it goes back and forth and back and forth and back and forth energetically between us.
Naomi Arnold: I like that. So what would you think are some of the core strengths or characteristics of a feminist therapist or someone applying feminist theory to their work?
Laura Brown: Well, certainly a deep knowledge of the variety of feminist theories, a deep knowledge of the interaction between feminist and other critical and liberatory models. The willingness to be curious and humble. The willingness to follow the lead of our clients, rather than assume that we know where they need to go. And when they don’t know where they need to go, to still not assume that we know where they need to go, but to see the first step as helping them reclaim the power to know where they need to go. The willingness to examine our own inner sexual identities and how they affect who we are. Clear and flexible boundaries. So, like, you don’t have sex with your clients ever on this planet, on another planet in this or any other lifetime. You might go to their art opening, because that’s a combination of a piece of work they did in therapy. You might go to court and sit and listen while they have to testify their sexual harassment case. You might do therapy walking along the water because they can’t tolerate being inside the four walls of an office. You might sit with them entirely in silence for the entire session, because that’s what they need. And your discomfort with their silence is less important than you holding the space for that silence. And of course, I mean, any good feminist practitioner, any good practitioner period, needs to embrace the ambiguity and the unknown of everything that we do.
Cameron Airen: Maybe we can go touch on that a bit, but why don’t you go back to the first thing you said about having knowledge of the various feminist theories out there, which is not common knowledge. And it’s not like feminist theory was a mandatory class that everyone had to take.
Laura Brown: When I was in school, it didn’t exist as a class. We had consciousness raising groups because it was the early ’70s and we educated one another. I think that there’s a marvellous library of feminist thoughts in the English language, and some other languages too, but the English language is rich in a multiplicity of feminist theories, social constructivist theories, radical feminism, lesbian feminism, the centralist feminism, Latina feminism. I’m sure in Australia, indigenous feminism, all of this has been written about. My library, if I turn around right now, and I look at the four bookshelves of my library that go back to 1970, starting with Sisterhood is Powerful, and moving forward from there, it’s not hard to find good writing on feminist theory.
What you discover is that feminists don’t agree with one another. Wonderful, wonderful, we are not a monolithic mindset. There are huge variations among feminist theorists and feminist thinkers. Because we are continuing to decolonize ourselves from the systems of misogyny and white supremacy in which we were all raised. And so, you will find big differences. And our job as feminists is to have minds of our own, think critically, figure out, which of these models makes the most sense to us. Or how we integrate models so that they make sense to us.
But I think starting with reading, because there’s so much excellent to read, and particularly, today all you have to do is go online and you will find things. And international Global Women’s feminisms, the feminism of the global south, which is beginning to emerge and have a louder and louder voice in her discourses, is bringing a whole new exciting viewpoint to the feminism of cisgender Euro background women that I came into in the late 1960s. I mean, feminism has grown and expanded so much in the time since I began to call myself a feminist.
Cameron Airen: Yes, me too. Me too.
Naomi Arnold: And I keep thinking I just want to come raid your bookshelf!
Cameron Airen: Yeah. Me too. That’s a really good point. One of the things that I try to tell my audience is that, there are feminisms plural, right?
Laura Brown: Right.
Cameron Airen: And yeah, we’re not a monolith, we are going to disagree, we’re going to agree, and I do actually encourage my podcast listeners to disagree with me. That it’s okay that they don’t agree. I mean, I would call myself like a queer post modern feminist. That’s sort of the theory that I’ve come from, but I know that that’s very challenging for a lot of people or some people will disagree with it, or whatever. And that’s okay. I think that’s why you were saying in the book, feminist therapy doesn’t have one practice, one technique or one way of doing things.
Laura Brown: Right. We have an epistemology, we have a mindset, we have a series of questions we ask. And you know, I am 66 years old. And so the feminist I am reflects my age cohort, reflects my being a lesbian, reflects my Jewish social justice roots. It’s a very particular blend of a lot of things that also reflects the fact that until I was sort of hit over the head with feminism in 1970, I didn’t realise ways in which I was being treated differently for being female because I came from a family of powerful women, and no one ever said girls can do that. Except at my synagogue, which put a big dent in my interest in practicing formal Judaism.
Laura Brown: But generally, I had people around me who said you can do that. And so I did whatever that was. Then I began to encounter women who’ve been told girls can’t do that. And I’d say, “Oh, seriously. Really? Wow.”
Cameron Airen: Yeah, I mean, that reminds me of one of my favourite athletes who is just super fucking strong and just a killer athlete, and she never got the message that girls weren’t as strong as boys, for example. She never got that message. Based on her upbringing and she was mostly raised by her mom, and she just never got that message. And so people have been asking her this question, “How have you dealt with this message?” And she’s like, “I just never got that message. I’ve just always thought that I could do anything athletically, and it didn’t matter.”
Naomi Arnold: I’m sure she recognises that it’s not always like that.
Cameron Airen: Yes, she does. But it just goes to show how important these messages, the messages that we give our children, our families, in our communities, how important that is.
Laura Brown: Yeah, and it’s funny because my paternal grandmother was a brilliant woman who had the misfortune to be born in the early 20th century. A Jewish woman in what’s now Poland than Russia, smarter than anyone around her, and she was persecuted for that like nobody’s business. So, she was trying to protect me when she told me, “Laura, you’re too smart for a girl.” And my mother stepped in and said, “Do not ever say that to her. There is no such thing as too smart for a girl.” Because she was raised by someone who raised two daughters to know that there was no such thing as too smart for a girl.
Naomi Arnold: Did we circle back to the ambiguity piece? Because I think I feel like a lot of coaches that I work with, I have trained struggle with that. So, I’d love to hear a bit more about that, Laura, if possible. What would you say to those who struggle to sit with that ambiguity?
Laura Brown: So, one of the things that I was taught by a Vietnam veteran nurse with whom I worked in the 1980s was the notion of premature temporary closure. She was a nurse who worked with marines who were being dropped off by the medevac helicopters, bleeding and burned. She learned that if you closed the wound too soon, you would kill them. Because infection would grow underneath the wound. That was what was called premature temporary closure. And she applied that metaphor to her own trauma recovery practice. She wrote a poem about it. She said, wounds heal from the bottom up and the inside out. They must be kept inspected, made known, in order to heal.
Well, if we prematurely close something over, then we leave something festering inside. And embracing ambiguity means being with the wound, whatever that might be, and being with the fact that the illusion that we know what’s going to happen is one heck of an illusion. Example from my own life. So, on January 15th, I learned that I had a melanoma. And on January 24th, I had a surgery to remove it. Really major surgery because of the part of my body it was on. And I was going to go to Israel and get on a plane that day to teach a class. And instead, I was in the hospital recovering from having a major part of me hacked off, not knowing how I was going to be. We have the illusion that we know what happens.
When we embrace the fact that we really don’t know, then when the unknown shows up, it doesn’t scare us so badly. We don’t love it. I wasn’t like, “Oh my god, I’m so happy. I’m having this experience.” I was furious. And I also knew that, “Oh yeah, Laura, you can’t know what happens next.”
Naomi Arnold: So tying that to feminisms, is there a right way?
Laura Brown: No. There are wrong things like being sexist, racist, misogynist, homophobic, heterosexist, classist, ableist, those are wrong things you can do. You can be more interested in being liked than in helping people reclaim their power. That’s a wrong thing. You can turn your flexible boundaries into taking over your clients lives and becoming way too important to them instead of supporting them and having a lot of sources of wisdom and support in their lives. That’s a wrong thing. But those are pretty obvious wrong things. Although sometimes people calling themselves feminists have done those wrong things.
Cameron Airen: Sometimes that’s sort of not being aware, but then it’s also because we’re not perfect humans.
Laura Brown: And, you know, everyone’s going to say and do crappy stuff and oppressive stuff sometimes – step on each other’s toes. It’s what do we do with that? I remember I was doing an evaluation on an individual with a Hispanic last name, and I mispronounced it twice and I stopped myself and I said, “I want to apologise. That was a micro aggression, my not pronouncing your name correctly.” He said, “Oh, people do that all the time.” I said, “I don’t care if people do that all the time, it’s my job to respect you and to pronounce your name correctly and so I apologise.”
So, it’s the little things like that, that you just sort of catch yourself. And sometimes you catch yourself in the moment, and sometimes you catch yourself three weeks later, and sometimes you catch yourself 40 years later.
Naomi Arnold: And sometimes someone calls you out.
Laura Brown: Well, and calling out, I really don’t like this notion of calling people out. I think we go to each other and we say, you are probably not aware of this and you stepped on my toe. We don’t shame people. Shaming people is not a feminist strategy. Punishing people for making errors is not a feminist strategy. Insisting that only a person who’s a Bajoran can talk about the Bajoran issues. A person who’s not a Bajoran has to have humility when they talk about Bajorans, but they’re not forbidden. Not from my perspective, that’s not the feminism I’m a part of. So, we have to be careful that we don’t engage in horizontal hostility.
Cameron Airen: Yeah. Sometimes we use oppressive techniques or models to further our feminist agenda, but we don’t see how we’re actually using oppression.
Laura Brown: Right. And to quote the late great prophet Audrey Lord, “The masters tools will never dismantle the masters house.”
Cameron Airen: That’s exactly what that means. Yeah.
Laura Brown: Yes.
Cameron Airen: I think a lot of people might be like, what do you mean you don’t shame other people? Of course, we do. But it’s like, “Well, wait, let’s examine this.” Is shame something that is part of our feminist practice or is it from oppression?
Laura Brown: And I would say, shame is a tool of oppression. And that we can respectfully disagree with one another as feminists, we can say, “I think you really did that badly.” You can say, “I disagree with your tactics and strategy. I don’t like your version of your politics.” We can say all those things and not shame someone, not humiliate someone, not do the work of the patriarchy for the patriarchy. And that is something that, as feminists we have done to one another since I got in the game. Because of that perfectionism, because of that internalized and externalized perfectionism.
Laura Brown: You know, people who are members of marginalized groups have to represent AKA be perfect. Members of the dominant group, people whose intersectional identities are mostly dominant group can be way imperfect and no one says that this represents the whole group. I mean, see under the people who are at the leadership of both of our nations at the moment.
Cameron Airen: Absolutely. Do you think that for all of us there’s ways we’re oppressing, ways we’re privileged?
Laura Brown: Of course, because everybody has intersectional identity. So as a Jew, I am oppressed. I’m part of a group of people that’s been targeted for violence for the last 2000 years and still is. So, if you are identified with a Christian religion, even if you are a poor person or a person of colour, you have religious privilege in relationship to me. Because your holidays count, and your religious history is of trying to kill my people off. People also lose and gain privilege when they move social context. The Syrian physician from Damascus, who’s now sweeping the floors as a refugee in Seattle was a person of privilege in her own home town. She was a physician. She was a Muslim. She was a Syrian. She belonged and now she’s a refugee and a Muslim and a Syrian, whose English isn’t good enough yet to pass the exam to allow her to practice as a physician once again. So, we gain and lose privilege as we go. Things change.
Cameron Airen: Yes. It’s complex. I’m glad that you went into that more. I think that’s important to acknowledge.
Laura Brown: Yeah.
Naomi Arnold: And how can that privilege show up in a therapy context, between a patient therapist relationship?
Laura Brown: Oh, it shows up on both ends. Certainly, it can lead each person to make assumptions about the other person’s resources. What’s available to the other person. What the other person has or had. It can lead us to think the other person is exaggerating or misinterpreting a situation, like surely they couldn’t have meant it that way, when probably they did mean it that way. So, privilege makes the ground look even, privilege makes the world look just. And we have to be willing to admit that the ground is not even, and justice is an ideal, not a reality.
Naomi Arnold: And that’s why that self work that you were talking about and those questions that you ask yourself is so important.
Laura Brown: So absolutely essential. Because I have two big pieces of privilege. I have white skin privilege, and I have social class privilege. And then I have a couple of big pieces of oppression. I’m a Jew, and I’m a lesbian, and I’m a person with a disability. But if you don’t know the stereotype of what Jews look like, although everybody here does, it’s mostly the micro aggressions that I experience for that. As a lesbian who’s a femme, it’s mostly the micro aggressions. My disability is something other people don’t deal with very much. So, I have to look at the fact that my privilege and the power of my privilege, in most places has much more social weight than any of the ways that I’m oppressed. But everybody has bias, but bias plus privilege, equals, you can really harm people.
So, I need to I remember continuously that the privileges I carry are the kind that can really harm people here. And then every time someone murders people in the synagogue, I’m reminded that actually, I’m not safe. Yeah, it depends.
Naomi Arnold: Do you any more burning questions, Cam?
Cameron Airen: I mean, we could go on for hours as it’s so juicy.
Laura Brown: I’m glad to hear that.
Cameron Airen: Yeah, it’s always really wonderful to hear from you. But we don’t want this to be too long so that people actually listen. So, we might be close to wrapping it up. But is there anything else you would like to say?
Laura Brown: So, what would I say in parting, which is, I think it’s all of our jobs to look at the ways we’ve been colonized by oppressive mindsets and to ask ourselves, how do we free ourselves from them? And that’s a lifelong process and well worth it.
Naomi Arnold: Lots of vigorous head nodding happening that you can’t see.
Laura Brown: I’m really going to want links to your podcast please so I may put them on my own website.
Naomi Arnold: Thank you. And on that note, for those who are listening, if they want to connect with your work or follow what you’re doing now, is there anything you would like to share with them that can enable that?
Laura Brown: Well, I have a website it’s drlaurabrown.com, and on it you can find listings of all the things I’ve written. You can find links that you can go directly through to buy all of my books on a large publisher, international seller of things. I’m not going to say their names because I don’t want to advertise for them. But you can buy directly through the links on my website, you can see upcoming talks I’m going to give, you can listen to some recorded things that I’ve done for other folks. You can find out about the services I have to offer. Oh, and you can find my email there too.
Naomi Arnold: Well, thank you again so much.
Laura Brown: You’re very, very welcome, and the best of skill to each of you because as you know, success has nothing to do with luck, it has everything to do with skill. Early feminist psychology research.
Cameron Airen: Totally agree. Yes. Thank you.
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