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Cross culture dynamics in dance therapy: Acknowledging my own privilege and cultural bias

Updated: Oct 23, 2019

As a white African, I reflect on what would it mean to practice dance therapy in Mozambique, the country I was born and grew up in but left 19 years ago.

Having lived in Mozambique for 18 years and gone back regularly for holidays, I'm familiar with the country’s culture, but there would be important ethnic, socio-economical and cultural challenges to consider if I were to practice dance therapy there.

First and foremost, my skin colour can shape how far I can go in working towards a genuine therapeutic connection. Although I was born in Mozambique and have Mozambican nationality, my ethnic origin is Portuguese, and I’m part of a minority of privileged white Mozambicans. My great grandparents and grandparents migrated to Mozambique during the colonial period and most of my family members, except my parents and a few others, returned to Portugal after the country’s independence. So there are historical associations to my skin colour and assumptions that people can make about me. In psychotherapy terms, this relates to the transferential relationship, that is, when the client transfers people or events from the past to the present.

The assumptions made by people could play out in a mix of different ways. On the one hand, my skin colour depicts the legacy of colonialism and can be associated to traumatic experiences. This could mean that some people may not feel comfortable to express themselves in my presence. On the other hand, often white means rich - although not all wealthy people are white, a great majority of the country's white people are wealthier than the rest of the population - and may result in being put on a pedestal. This could mean that people might feel the need to act nice and polite to me rather than being themselves. Either way, this means I may need to invest significant time in building trusting relationships and creating a safe space for people to be and express themselves authentically.

I wonder how stereotyped these assumptions may be though, and what other complexities I may be missing here. There maybe limitations in my perceptions of race dynamics in Mozambique and plenty of room for misunderstandings on my side. I would need to be very careful not to impose my own cultural and societal understandings on the therapeutic process.

I must bear in mind that the assumptions I make about what people might think of me can be biased too and affect my efforts towards building a genuine therapeutic connection. In psychotherapy terms, this relates to the counter-transferential relationship, that is, when the therapist transfers people or events from the past to the present. For me, being a white person in a position of privilege comes with a sense of guilt and a fear of being associated to condescending, patronising, or disrespectful behaviours, which can tip me over to the other extreme of being too permissive and nonassertive.

Fine tuning the right approach relies on good understanding of the country’s cultural context. This is particularly important as most dance therapy approaches I have learned come from developed country contexts and would need to be adapted to suit the local context. Born and bred to a Portuguese family, and having lived abroad for almost 2 decades, my understanding of the Mozambican culture can only be partial. Thus I would need to invest some time to broaden my knowledge of the local culture, particularly in relation to traditional healing practices, dancing and non-verbal communication in general.

Nevertheless, I believe that becoming aware of and openly acknowledging these challenges, is the first step to overcoming them. I may also need to work within a careful balance of trial and error without disrupting trust building to a point of no return, and being frank about my process of learning. An approach could also be to work with a team of local assistants on whom I could draw to test my assumptions and perceptions, create a safe environment for clients and build trust, and assess the cultural appropriateness of the activities offered to clients and the therapeutic process.

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