Shades of Life

SHADES of Life as Systemic Practice 2/5: Colour Constellations

A series of 5 blog post written for PESI,UK a CPD and training network for counsellors, therapist and other mental health professionals.

The Black Lives Matter movement has brought to the surface many of the issues around colour, power and inequality that have been in the background in recent years. At the same time, there have been a growing number of newspaper articles and journals written on the theme of race and colour. This has brought colour and culture into mainstream conversation.

I have found in my own practice that clients of all shades want to explore colour dynamics in relationships. But there are obstacles to open conversation. It is a sensitive subject area, which requires a safe space to share generational stories and learn from others. And there is often silence within both therapy training and therapist practices about colour dynamics. One of the aims of SHADES is to create spaces for people to be supported in exploring colour dynamics and some of the issues that it raises, within our personal lives and professional practices.

Colour dynamics can be defined as the seen and hidden interplay of behaviours and body language in relationships with people across the colour continuum. There is a reluctance to address these issues in many societies, as a legacy of slavery and colonialism. Both were a driving force in creating levels of privilege related to skin colour, throughout the African and Asian diaspora. During slavery, lighter skinned children born to slave masters often ended up ‘working in the great house’ whilst the darker skinned toiled in the fields. And in some Asian cultures, lighter skin is related to caste or religious affiliations.

So, for many of the people who work with me, shades of colour within the family system is both a past and a present issue.

In a SHADES workshop or one to one session, dollies of different skin colour are chosen by the client or participant to ‘represent’ people. The dollies are positioned and looked at from different perspectives. It is this visual embodied movement that allows the exploration of relationships and can move the colour dynamics conversation to a deeper level. The relationship between the person doing a constellation and their family system can be explored, with more family members added or replaced as the process develops.

So how does this work in practice?

Suzanne came for a session wanting to explore her relationship with her youngest sister, who she was estranged from. In a family constellation, there is an order to siblings based on precedence and age. When she placed representatives for her siblings, her youngest sister was standing next to her mother, then the middle sister and lastly Suzanne on the end. As Suzanne placed the dollies, she broke down and began weeping. Shades within the family had never been discussed but it was clear to her that her younger sister was standing in her place based on her skin colour.

The initial conversation between client and therapist is an important first step in clarifying the presenting issue. In the example above, Suzanne knew that skin colour was an issue within her family system, but she had never wanted to explore why. As she continued to place dollies that represented her maternal line on her mother’s side, she started to remember family stories about a white grandfather – stories whispered but never discussed and still resonating in the current generation.

SHADES workshops are for people of all colours. Some people want to look at the issue of colourism within their family or community. Others come because they are in a relationship with someone of a different colour or want to explore issues of parenting children with different shades of colour. As we continue to break down taboos around colour conversations, the next step is to find ways to take action and make change.

In next week’s blog post, I will talk more about how we can create safe spaces for dialogue and sharing.

Sonya Welch-Moring is running a series of SHADES of Life circles, with a focus on colour dynamics in personal and professional contexts, in association with Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility, see more. Find out more and book here.  

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