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International Journal of Group Psychotherapy
ISSN: 0020-7284 (Print) 1943-2836 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ujgp20
The Social Dreaming Matrix as a Container for the
Processing of Implicit Racial Bias and Collective
To cite this article: George Bermudez (2018): The Social Dreaming Matrix as a Container for the
Processing of Implicit Racial Bias and Collective Racial Trauma, International Journal of Group
Psychotherapy, DOI: 10.1080/00207284.2018.1469957
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/00207284.2018.1469957
Published online: 01 Jun 2018.
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The Social Dreaming Matrix as a
Container for the Processing of Implicit
Racial Bias and Collective Racial Trauma
GEORGE BERMUDEZ, PH.D.
The central thesis of this article is that social dreaming theory and the modified
application of Gordon Lawrence’s social dreaming matrix, a group-as-a-whole method,
not only provides a window into the social unconscious, but may serve as a “con-
tainer,”in the Bionian sense, for the processing and potential healing of “racial
trauma”and “white fragility.”The article describes episodes of aversive racism and
white fragility surrounding social dreaming experiments. Finally, the article sum-
marizes some lessons learned in facilitating and managing two fundamental types of
“resistances”encountered in social dreamwork: “attacks on social linking”and
“defenses against moral witnessing.”
The work of restoring this regression in our democracy is daunting, but
we are fighting for the lost promises of liberty, justice, and the pursuit of
happiness…Hope will be found by understanding that diversity is the
essence of the American Dream and why we need each other to fulfill it.
To bridge the divide:
George Bermudez is a Core Faculty Member at Antioch University, Los Angeles, California and
Director of Child Studies.
International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, 00: 1–23, 2018
Copyright © The American Group Psychotherapy Association, Inc.
ISSN: 0020-7284 print/1943-2836 online
●We must realize that most of our differences are exaggerated nuances
fueled by uncompromising ignorance.
●We must see others’struggles as our own, and their success as our
success, so we can speak to our common humanity.
●We must build a more connected society, using our resources to uplift
one another so we collectively benefit.
This is a generational project; do not underestimate the power of
human connection. (Ilhan Omar, Minnesota State Representative [The
first Somali-American Muslim lawmaker], Time Magazine, August 28,
2017, pp. 44–45)
The emergence of a neuroscience of racism (Cunningham et al., 2004;
Gutsell & Inzlicht, 2010; Ito & Bartholow, 2009;Kubota,Banaji,&
Phelps, 2012) supports the validity of the socio-psychoanalytic concept
of a “social unconscious”(Hopper, 1996; Hopper & Weinberg, 2011,
2016,2017), subsuming a “cultural/racial unconscious”(Adams, 2002)
and an “ethnic unconscious”(Herron, 1995;Javier&Rendon,1995),
both characterized by implicit, unconscious racial and ethnic organizing
principles. The construct of a social unconscious, in turn, provides
theoretical illumination for the research findings regarding “implicit
racial bias”(Eberhardt, Goff, Purdie, & Davies, 2004; Eberhardt, 2005;
Banks, Eberhardt, & Ross, 2006;Noseketal.,2002)and“stereotype
threat”(Steele, 1998; Steele & Aronson, 1995; Stone, 2002). Gordon
Lawrence’s“social dreaming theory”and “social dreaming matrix”
(Lawrence, 2003a,2003b; Lawrence & Daniel, 1982)offerawayof
accessing the social unconscious through communal dream-sharing. I
am proposing that social dreaming theory and the modified application
of Gordon Lawrence’s social dreaming matrix, a group-as-a-whole (Bion,
1961) method, not only provides a window into the social unconscious,
but may serve as a “container,”in the Bionian sense, for the processing
and potential healing of “racial trauma”(Bermudez, 2015; Comas-Diaz,
2016)and“white fragility”(DiAngelo, 2011).
In contrast to Lawrence’s open-ended and nontherapeutic approach,
I’ve facilitated social dreaming matrices with focused themes: for exam-
ple, American xenophobia; Whiteness and the American social uncon-
scious; Black reparations and the social unconscious; and the tri-faith
social unconscious: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism (Bermudez, 2015;
Silverstein, 2013). Integrating group theory with contemporary dream
theory (Bion, 1962,1992; Bromberg, 2000,2003; Erikson, 1954;
Hartmann, 1998), I am suggesting that this approach illuminates a
traumatized “racialized group self,”including the “white fragility”iden-
tified by DiAngelo (2011), and yields potential for healing collective
racial trauma. Dovido and Gaerntner (2004) have demonstrated
through their research that White Americans generally define them-
selves as racially unbiased. However, procedurally these same
Americans often display discomfort and uneasiness when in contact
with members of other racial groups, sometimes manifesting outright
traumatic reactions when issues of racial privilege, status, and power are
discussed. Dovido and Gaerntner (1998,2004)termtheunconscious
avoidance of racialized others “aversive racism,”and I suggest that
DiAngelo’s(2011) proposed “white fragility”underlies the aversive
racism. I describe episodes of aversive racism and white fragility sur-
rounding social dreaming experiments. Finally, the article provides
recommendations from lessons I learned in facilitating and managing
two fundamental types of “resistances”encountered: “attacks on social
linking”(Layton, 2006)and“defenses against moral witnessing”
THE SOCIAL UNCONSCIOUS AND UNCONSCIOUS ETHNIC AND
RACIAL ORGANIZING PRINCIPLES
First introduced and applied clinically by Erich Fromm (1956,1962)and
Karen Horney (1937), pioneering psychoanalytic cultural critics, the
concept of the social unconscious has been more contemporaneously
defined and explored by group analysts (Hopper, 1996; Hopper &
Weinberg, 2011). Hopper (1996) suggests that
The effects of social facts are more likely to be unconscious than con-
scious. The concept of the social unconscious refers to the existence and
constraints of social, cultural, and communication arrangements of
which people are unaware, in so far as these arrangements are not
perceived (not ‘known’), and if perceived, not acknowledged (‘denied’),
and if acknowledged, not taken as problematic (‘given’), and if taken as
problematic, not considered with an optimal degree of detachment and
objectivity. (p. 9)
SOCIAL DREAMING, IMPLICIT RACIAL BIAS, AND RACIAL TRAUMA 3
In addition, a number of American psychoanalysts have proposed
that the social unconscious is sub-organized into racial (Adams, 2002)
and ethnic (Herron, 1995; Javier & Rendon, 1995) realms. In an
extraordinary convergence, four research strategies have emerged in
the late 20th century and early 21st century for which the findings
confirm the existence of unconscious racial and ethnic organizing
●Neuroscience of race (Cunningham et al., 2004; Ito & Bartholow, 2009;
Kubota et al., 2012) research has converged on the discovery that there
is increased neuronal firing in the amygdala, the brain region associated
with fearful stimuli, when subjects are viewing the faces of people of color.
In addition, similar brain-focused research suggests that in-group affective
empathy is stronger than out-group empathy (Gutsell & Inzlicht, 2010;
Meyer et al., 2013; Xu, Zuo, Wang, & Han, 2009).
●Implicit racial bias as assessed by the Implicit Association Test (IAT)
(Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998) often contradicts explicitly verba-
lized attitudes. This line of research has also demonstrated that implicit
racial bias facilitates discrimination in the real world. Whites are often
given preferential treatment as compared to people of color.
●Bias in the workplace: Bertrand and Mullainathan (2004)demonstratedthat
even when companies are actively looking for qualified racial minority candi-
dates, White-sounding names generated 50% more calls for interviews than
resumes of Black-sounding names, resulting in lower skilled White applicants
receiving more interviews than higher skilled Black applicants.
●Bias in healthcare: Green et al. (2007) found in a simulation that physicians
with high levels of unconscious anti-Black bias prescribed lifesaving med-
ication less frequently to Blacks than to Whites presenting with the same
●Bias in police work: Hardin and Banaji (2012) reviewed more than two
dozen experiments on “weapons bias”and discovered that subjects with
higher levels of anti-Black bias are consistently more likely to misperceive a
wallet or a cellphone for a weapon in the hands of a Black person.
●Stereotype threat (Steele, 1998; Steele & Aronson, 1995;Stone,2002;Stone,
Lynch, Sjomeling, & Darley, 1999): Social psychology research has demon-
strated that Black students perform poorly on standardized tests when race is
perceived as a salient contextual factor. When race is not emphasized Blacks
perform as well as White students (Steele & Aronson, 1995). On the other
hand, Whites’performance on tasks linked to “natural sports ability”is
impacted negatively when they are told they are being compared to Blacks
and Latinos. Apparently, social cues suggesting that stereotypes are being
used to judge performance can trigger either a performance-impairing
“stereotype threat”or a performance-enhancing “stereotype lift,”reflecting
the culture’s unconscious ethnic/racial organizing principles.
●Aversive racism is a concept first defined by Kovel (1970), who differentiated
two subtypes of racism: dominative versus aversive racism. Kovel’s framework
inspired research on aversive racism by Dovido and Gaerntner (2000,2004),
who defined it, in contrast to the “‘old-fashioned,’blatant”form of acting out
of bigoted beliefs, as
more indirect and subtle and is presumed to characterize the racial atti-
tudes of most well-educated and liberal whites in the United States. Aversive
racists …sympathize with victims of past injustice, support the principle of
racial equality, and regard themselves as nonprejudiced, but, at the same
time, possess negative feelings and beliefs about blacks, which may be
unconscious …the consequences of aversive racism (e.g., the restriction of
economic opportunity) are as significant and pernicious as those of the
traditional, overt form. (2004,p.3)
The heart of the phenomenon of aversive racism is the contradic-
tion between the conscious denial of racism and the unconscious
negative attitudes. According to the Dovido and Gaerntner (2004)
aversive racism framework, context is a crucial releaser of aversive
racism: Situations in which interracial interaction is unavoidable gen-
erate either quick disengagement by aversive racists or strict adher-
ence to “established rules and codes of behavior”to avoid the
appearance of racist attitudes. However, racism is expressed in subtler
behavior that disadvantages racial minorities.
Dr. Robin DiAngelo (2011), based on her experiences as a White
social justice educator, has developed the concept of “white fragility”
as defining the sociopsychological state of aversive racists:
White people in North America live in a social environment that protects
and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of
racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the
same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I
refer to as White Fragility. White fragility is a state in which even a
minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range
of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emo-
tions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation,
SOCIAL DREAMING, IMPLICIT RACIAL BIAS, AND RACIAL TRAUMA 5
silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in
turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium. (p. 54)
I propose “social dreaming”as a potential fifth strategy for acces-
sing unconscious ethnic/racial organizing principles.
CONTEMPORARY DREAM THEORY AND RELEVANCE FOR SOCIAL
Despite Freud’s(1900) influential perspective that dreams evince
wishful thinking drawing us away from reality, contemporary dream
theory, inaugurated by Erik Erikson’s(1954) monumental reassess-
ment of Freud’s prototypical dream analysis of the so-called specimen
dream (“The Dream of Irma’s Injection”), has moved some distance
from Freud’s initial formulation. Erikson developed a nuanced refine-
ment of the Freudian psychosexual focus, adding a psychosocial
dimension, which was “violently resisted”(p. 37) by colleagues and
patients alike. Erikson’s discovery of this broad resistance to the social
dimension foreshadows my own experience and provides more valida-
tion for the hypothesis suggested by Hopper and Weinberg (2011):
“Recognition and understanding of the social unconscious constitutes
another painful blow to our narcissistic grandiosity, omnipotence, and
Contemporary psychoanalytic dream theory has continued to
evolve, converging on the following assumptions and hypotheses:
●Dreams metaphorically express the dreamer’s emotional state (Bromberg,
2000,2003; Friedman, 2012; Hartmann, 1998; Stolorow & Atwood, 1992).
●Dreams are a form of emotional thinking and problem solving (Barrett,
2001; Bion, 1962,1992; Hartmann, 1998; Lawrence, 2003a).
●Dreams are the body-mind’s process for thinking new thoughts (Bion,
1962,1992; Blechner, 1998,2001; Lawrence, 2003b).
●Dreams are the body-mind’s process for restoring organization after stress-
ful or traumatizing experiences, which Hartmann (1998) refers to as
“calming the storm”(Bion, 1962,1992; Erikson, 1954; Fosshage, 1997).
Influenced by all the foregoing theorists and researchers, I have
evolved a view of dreams: In general, they are metaphoric attempts at
integrating, resolving, and rehearsing solutions to events (stressful or
traumatizing or disorganizing) that have yet to be fully experienced,
represented, and witnessed by the dreamer’s own mind or another
mind. Traumatizing and disorganizing experiences need another
mind to aid in metabolizing, creating meaning, and restoring psycholo-
gical coherence, continuity, and self-esteem (Bromberg, 2000,2003;
Fosshage, 1997). Adding the influence of Erikson and Lawrence, I
contend that the “social dreaming matrix”(SDM) provides a container
for achieving reflective capacity for unformulated and nonsymbolized
collective experience for groups. The SDM is a pathway for healing
collective trauma, if the SDM generates the requisite communal recog-
nition and witnessing of the dissociated, linguistically unsymbolized
A Brief History and Description of Social Dreaming
Lawrence (1982,1998,2003b), the architect of the “social dreaming
matrix”(SDM), profoundly influenced by Charlotte Beradt’s(1968)
Third Reich of Dreams (a book reporting the dreams of ordinary
German citizens during the period of 1933–1939—dreams reflecting
their intuitive but unconscious foreknowledge of the Nazi regime’s
intentions) (Manley, 2014), organized a process involving a group of
participants who share dreams and associations to those dreams. The
working hypothesis was that the dreams shared reflect a collective
cultural product, a social unconscious comprised of dissociated and
disavowed social, political, and cultural experience. The basic task is
to “discover the social meaning of available dreams in the matrix”
(Lawrence, 1998, p. 30).
There are several other fundamental assumptions: The dreams gen-
erated in the SDM are the shared property of the dreaming community;
focus must be on the dream, not the dreamer, which facilitates develop-
ment of a safe “mental space”; and ascertaining dream meaning should
be approached with the attitude of a working hypothesis. In developing
the radical psychosocial paradigm of the “social dreaming matrix”
(SDM), Gordon Lawrence (2003a,2003b; Lawrence & Daniel, 1982)
experimented with a three-pronged process at social dreaming work-
shops, conferences, and organizational interventions:
SOCIAL DREAMING, IMPLICIT RACIAL BIAS, AND RACIAL TRAUMA 7
1. The “social dreaming matrix”(SDM) in which dreams and free associa-
tion and Jungian “amplification”are encouraged. The participants are
instructed to share dreams and assume that each dream is “our collective
dream”and treat the group associations likewise. A state of reverie is
encouraged in this phase. They are also asked to attend to emergent
patterns across the dreams shared, especially references to systems, orga-
nizations, groups, and so on. Part of his underlying theory was that
individuals’dreams were emergent new thoughts trying to find conscious
formulation (Lawrence, 2003b).
2. The second activity (role application/synthesis) during a 3-day confer-
ence was to break the whole group into smaller groups (typically, four or
five participants), with an experienced SDM leader. The task here is to
focus on the individual dreamer (who could bring in a new dream or work
with a dream shared in the SDM), with the goal being to help the
individual dreamer apply the learning from the dream to a “social role”
he or she is grappling with (workplace, school, community, etc.). The
“role”concept is a systems concept that captures the integration of “self”
with a “system,”or the ecological niche of the self. There were perhaps
two or three of these role applications held in a 3-day conference.
3. The third activity was typically called the “reflection dialogue.”Perhaps
two of these were facilitated during a 3-day conference. The idea here was
to provide an opportunity for conscious reflection and formulation of the
emergent ideas, concerns, feelings, and so on during a social dreaming
conference (Baglioni & Fubini, 2013).
The Special Place of Social Dreaming as a “Container”for the Racial/Ethnic
Gordon Lawrence’s discovery of social dreaming is a revolutionary
twist on and integration of two already revolutionary ideas proposed
by Wilfred Bion (1961,1962,1992): a field theory of group dynamics
and dreamwork as mentalization of unresolved and undigested emo-
tional experience. Bion proposed that the dreaming process was the
human psyche’s modus operandi (“alpha function”) for transforming
raw, problematic emotional experience into elements for thinking the
unique iconic system, pictures and film-like imagery, employed in
dream narrative. Along lines similar to Bion (1962,1992), Blechner
(1998,2001) avers that dreamwork or the dreaming process facilitates
access to unmentalized experience, that is, experience beyond words,
unformulated in narrative language. He points out that free associa-
tion, because of its reliance on language, does not provide the singu-
lar access that dreams do to unformulated, unsymbolized, therefore
unconscious, experience. Blechner’s ideas seem to describe a process
very similar to Bion’s dreamwork which occurs both in sleep and
wakefulness: Dreaming is a process that “transforms”raw emotional
experience into a psychological organization (“alpha elements”), so it
can be meaningfully thought with.
I am suggesting that “social dreaming”is a type of group-level “alpha
dreamwork”(Schneider, 2010) which attempts to transform proble-
matic, unresolved experience in larger systems (organizational, commu-
nity, society, etc.) into meaningful emotional coherence. Friedman
(2012) proposes a similar group-level process, distinguishing “dreaming”
experience (serving intrapersonal emotional regulation) from “dream-
telling”(serving, in his view, two relational/intersubjective functions: an
implicit request for “containment”and an intention to influence the
group). However, although Friedman notes that the dreamer may be
dreaming for the whole group and expressing group-level anxieties and
problems, he seems to prioritize the individual and the interpersonal,
not the strictly group-level focus that Lawrence’s“social dreaming”
paradigm maintains. Support for the society-level hypothesis is available
from social anthropology: Mageo (2013) appears to have discovered that
problematic cultural scripts are reworked, transformed nightly by mem-
bers of a culture. Borrowing from Hopper and Weinberg (2011), who
propose that the social dreaming matrix is a “royal road”to the social
unconscious, I am suggesting that “social dreaming”may also serve as a
“royal road”for accessing our society’s unconscious legacies and strug-
gles with racialization and race dynamics.
I further suggest that the unconscious (unprocessed) dynamics of
race may express themselves in at least three ways through “social
dreaming.”In descending order of the magnitude of resistance, these
●Procedurally: Whites enact their dread about thinking about racial issues
through avoidance of contexts (Dovido & Gaerntner, 2004) that may evoke
a dissociated “White fragility”(DiAngelo, 2011). For example, Whites have
avoided participating in social dreaming workshops focused on race
dynamics (Bermudez, 2015).
SOCIAL DREAMING, IMPLICIT RACIAL BIAS, AND RACIAL TRAUMA 9
●Resistance to social/moral witnessing (Gerson, 2009; Ullman, 2011) and attacks
on social linking (Layton, 2006): These forms of resistance are very common
in SDMs: Participants resist treating the dreams of other participants as
communal dreams and seem to insist on either abstract, intellectualized
interpretations or interpretations focused on individuals’dreams.
●The dreaming process itself: There seem to be two types of “interrupted
dreams”or failed dreamwork (Ogden, 2003,2004): those who cannot
remember dreams, like alexithymics, who often develop psychosomatic
symptoms; and the experiencing of nightmares, which display the failure
of “alpha function”in Bion’s dreamwork.
Schneider (2010) reminds us that Bion (1992) suggested that
dreams are composed of both alpha elements (raw experience trans-
formed into meaningful organization) and beta elements (unmetabo-
lized, unintegrated psychotic-like experience). I have found this to be
a helpful way to reflect on and facilitate an effective social dreaming
matrix: As a facilitator, I must be prepared to personally “contain”and
help the “matrix”contain/think/reflect about the often painful, unin-
tegrated psychotic-like experiences. At other times, I can remain less
active, allowing the “matrix”of participants to develop its own think-
ing with the “alpha elements”at its disposal:
●Content: anxiety dreams related to interracial contact. Anxiety dreams of
this type were quite evident in the initial dreams shared at the two social
dreaming explorations of Whiteness I facilitated (Bermudez, 2015). “Alpha
function”appeared to be working—effectively transforming difficult
group-level anxieties concerning interracial contact into “alpha elements,”
enabling emotional thinking .
Moral Witnessing and the Social Dream Matrix
I believe that social dreaming is an emancipatory practice, represent-
ing a socially engaged group approach. Its practice is a form of social
and “moral witnessing”(Boulanger, 2012; Margalit, 2002; Ullman,
2006,2011), urging all dreamers and SDM participants to provide
testimony to collectively and collusively dissociated human suffering
and inviting participants to an “active commitment to social justice
and human rights”(Boulanger, 2012). Stern (2012) has suggested
that an internal witness is necessary for the mind to distinguish
between past trauma and present reality; my view, influenced by
Bion (1961,1962), is that more than one mind is needed as witness
to process “culturally imposed trauma”(Holmes, 2016). In this
regard, Freud felt a sense of futility, perhaps despair, at his inability
to generate a therapeutically effective response to culturally imposed
trauma, which generated what he referred to as “special mental
operations”in Civilization and Its Discontents (Freud, 1930):
No matter how much we may shrink with horror from certain situations—…
of a victim of the Holy Inquisition, of a Jew awaiting a pogrom—it is never-
theless impossible for us to feel our way into such people …Moreover, in the
most extreme possibility of suffering, special mental protective devices are
brought into operation. It seems to me unprofitable to pursue this aspect of
the problem any further. (p. 89)
Undeterred by Freud’s despair, one psychoanalytic author has pro-
posed that social dreaming is potentially useful to address the over-
whelming challenges of healing extreme “traumatic historical or
social events, which includes the holocaust, but also war and natural
disaster”(Noack, 2010, p. 683). With similar conviction, Ullman
(2011) has eloquently described the psychosocial function of “social
witnessing.”I contend that the social dreaming matrix provides a
unique opportunity to view others’struggles as our own, creating a
group psychoanalytic path to an enhanced and proactive social and
moral imagination (Glover, 1999).
AVERSIVE RACISM, WHITE FRAGILITY, AND EXPERIENCES IN
A Social Dreaming Matrix: American Xenophobia
My first experiment with the SDM was a day-long workshop held at
Antioch University in July 2011, the results of which I’ve described
and summarized elsewhere (Bermudez, 2015). The focus was on
American xenophobia, with the goal of interrogating the communal
unconscious with regard to what I sensed was a resurgent xenophobia
in our current national socio-political landscape. As facilitator I had a
powerful emotional experience: both puzzled by the apparent
SOCIAL DREAMING, IMPLICIT RACIAL BIAS, AND RACIAL TRAUMA 11
resistance to follow my guidelines to view dreams as communally
owned and awed by the outpouring of dream images and associations.
I felt haunted for weeks by the emotionally evocative dream images
and the feelings aroused in me. It took several weeks before I was able
to begin to reflect and organize thematic patterns. This uncanny
experience brought home for me the meaning and usefulness of
Bion’s recommendation for an enhanced capacity for “negative cap-
ability,”the psychological ability to tolerate mystery and uncertainty
for long periods of time.
I slowly realized that the resistance represented what Gerson (2009)
has referred to as defenses against moral witnessing and Layton
(2006) defines as attacks on social linking—a refusal to connect with
the other and his or her suffering and an active defense of decontex-
tualizing (Maduro, 2012). Some participants chose to interpret dream
images as representing individual, private concerns of the dreamer;
others intellectualized by applying the jargon of academic deconstruc-
tionism, emptying images of either personal or social meaning, or
affective resonance. The most astonishing example of the defense
against moral witnessing was the following: Several dreams presented
images of people and events in a desert. One dream narrative
included the dreamer meeting President George W. Bush in the
desert; another dream offered images of “aliens from outer space”
invading the United States by landing in the desert in the American
Southwest. No one developed the obvious association to the widely
disseminated stories of undocumented immigrants who have been
referred to as “illegal aliens”crossing the border from Mexico into
the American desert.
A remarkable development occurred during the dialogue segment
of the SDM workshop: As the participants focused on reflection and
meaning creation, there was the emergence of an inchoate longing to
counter the Tea Party political movement with a progressive counter-
movement. It seems to me in retrospect that the SDM dialogue’s
inchoate longing foreshadowed in embryonic form the development
of the Occupy Wall Street Movement—which emerged two months
later. This emergent longing appears to be an example of a “social
dreaming forward edge process,”which I have proposed elsewhere
A Social Dreaming Matrix (SDM): Whiteness and the American Group Self at
an American University
In June 2013, I organized a two-day Social Dreaming event focused on
Whiteness and the American Group Self (Bermudez, 2015). I invited
members of the academic community of Antioch University, Los
Angeles (faculty, students, administrators) and members of the sur-
rounding community. The low participation of Whites at a university
with predominantly White faculty and students who pride themselves
on their commitment to social justice was both startling and comple-
tely understandable: Here was an enactment of the persecutory anxi-
ety that DiAngelo (2011) has identified as “white fragility”and Dovido
and Gaerntner (2004)as“aversive racism.”
Despite the disappointing low participation of Whites, the emer-
gent process was extraordinarily moving and healing. At some point
(second day) the realization crystallized for me that the Whiteness
SDM had created a matrix with the emergent properties of a “com-
munal home”for healing a traumatized group self—primarily a Black
American group self suffering from both intergenerationally trans-
mitted trauma with many allusions to the Jim Crow South and more
contemporary racial microaggressions and assaults directed at Black
Americans. The Black group self through its “social dreams”initially
displayed what I would call a reparative ambivalence: Dreams of nurtur-
ing, healing actions were followed by dreams images and narratives of
persecution, terror, loss, and dissociation. Here is a representative
●A Black woman dreams that she is caring for a baby (changing diapers, etc.)
who is not hers. She happily chooses to do so.
●This is followed by another Black woman sharing a dream with images of
an assaultive seven-foot-tall White women.
●Then a Black male narrates a dream in which he teaches meditation to a
White client who is dying of cancer.
●This is followed by a Black woman who later reveals that she was raised by a
mother who was very active in the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and
1970s and that she has tried all her life to put Black resentment and rage
behind her. She describes a dream in which something is hidden, there is
something she has to do …but can’t quite find the clarity.
SOCIAL DREAMING, IMPLICIT RACIAL BIAS, AND RACIAL TRAUMA 13
Social Dreaming, Whiteness, and the Psychoanalytic Institute
I facilitated a second social dreaming matrix (SDM) focused on Whiteness
at a psychoanalytic institute (April 2014): The SDM focused on eliciting
and interrogating the organizational and social unconscious relating to
Whiteness at the institute and, more broadly, psychoanalysis. The institute
had developed a “diversity task force”to address racism and homophobia;
itsexplicitmissionwastoensurethatthe institute addressed these issues in
its training curriculum and the culture of the institute. The task force
sponsored and organized the 2-day SDM, inviting all members and candi-
dates at the institute; the 2-day framework relies on the “Zeigarnik effect”
(Weisbord & Janoff, 1995;Zeigarnik,1967) to generate social/communal
dreams related to the theme of Whiteness, its invisibility for Whites, the
social unconscious, and implications for psychoanalysis.
In its discussions and preparations for the event the diversity task
force expressed a great deal of anxiety. Members would repeatedly
ask: “Will anybody actually share dreams?”“Will there be enough
safety?”“We shouldn’t concern ourselves with safety!”“Should we
come prepared with dreams, if no one shares?”“Aren’t psychoanalysts
going to be concerned about other psychoanalysts interpreting their
dreams and become resistant to exposing themselves?”I constantly
reassured the members that attendees would share dreams and all
would go well. (Privately, I held the intuitive conviction that these
concerns were symptoms of organizational and institutional field
phenomena reflecting anticipated “White fragility”and aversive
racism, and I also maintained a cautiously optimistic faith that with
sensitive, respectful facilitation the social dreaming experience would
lead to more consciousness concerning White fragility and aversive
racism.) My intuition seemed confirmed both by the content and
anxious affect of the early dreams shared and by the comments
articulating initial anxiety and subsequent containment submitted by
White participants in online discussions after the social dreaming
After an initial phase of sharing of anxiety dreams (ambivalent, fearful
encounters cross-racially), on the second day there was a flurry of dreams
and associations, following an inaugural complex dream concerning a
group of men (construction contractors) trying to fit a “white sink”into a
bathroom in an upscale apartment building. The “white sink”would be a
temporary replacement, substituted for the original sink, in order to pass
the necessary inspection and comply with government building regula-
tions. This dream became a focal dream leading to multiple, complex
associations and analyses: examination and comparison of the oppression
of gays versus the oppression of Blacks; the role that capitalism and greed
play in systemic and institutional racism. This led to more transparent
associations and narratives about the anxieties and shame related to cross-
racial encounters. The final “movement”left me feeling that a “third act”
was needed: There were no associations to the obvious reference of the
“white sink”to “Whites sinking”in status, that is, “White Fragility”
(DiAngelo, 2011).Thereweretwo“forward edge”dreams (the last two
dreams shared late on the second day), which seemed to suggest solutions
and future resolutions. In the first of these two “forward edge”dreams the
board of the institute had found the “solution”to a dilemma related to two
electives in the institute’s training curriculum but the dreamer could not
remember what the “solution”was. This led to a discussion about how the
institute needs to resolve its ambivalence concerning diversity issues: the
two electives in the dream representing a double consciousness, a split; will
the group self remain in a static, repetitive, developmentally arrested state,
or choose a new developmental path? (As of this writing, the institute’s
board has approved a Diversity, Power, and Privilege course to be required
as part of the core curriculum for candidates in psychoanalytic training.)
The second “forward edge”dream, the final dream, was the follow-
ing (dreamed by a White woman): “I had to change my doctor. A new
physician was assigned to me at UCLA Medical Center. To my utter
surprise it was Josephine Baker, but she was not dressed like a doctor.
She had a fruit basket on her head, and dressed colorfully. In the
dream I was critical of myself. Why this image? She was sharing fruit,
healing me. I said to her ‘I think you’re dead but it’s amazing how you
use your sexuality. What are you doing here?’She said, ‘I’m a doctor.’
I realized she had changed careers. I also realized I was an hour late
for my appointment.”
This remarkable dream left us tantalized: We had run out of time.
However, the manifest content suggested a challenge to the cultural
script that constructed Blacks as entertainers and containers of ani-
mal-like sexuality, perhaps reflecting psychological movement in the
social unconscious, an embryonic recognition of Black competence
and goodness: Josephine Baker develops but integrates presumably
SOCIAL DREAMING, IMPLICIT RACIAL BIAS, AND RACIAL TRAUMA 15
discrepant elements—sexuality and professionalization, entertain-
ment and physicianly healing.
The Josephine Baker dream has a postscript that confirms the
extraordinary access to the social unconscious that “social dreaming”
provides. Fully two years later (October 9, 2016), on a Delta Airlines
flight, a Black female physician was denied access to a passenger in
need of emergency care because the flight attendant did not believe
she was indeed a medical doctor. According to the posting by
Dr. Tamika Cross on her Facebook page, the flight attendant said
the following: “Oh no sweetie …put ur hand down, we are looking for
actual physicians …we don’t have time to talk to you.”
Dr. Cross’s Facebook posting generated more than 12,000 comments
on Facebook and Twitter and a social media campaign with Black female
physicians posting their photos with the taglines #whatadoctorlookslike
Social Dreaming as a Path to an Enhanced and Proactive Social and Moral
According to Lawrence (2005), social dreaming is “the twentieth
century method of engaging with the continual human struggle
between the primordial elements of being human and the creative
imagination”(p. 3). In a similar vein, I view social dreaming as an
opportunity for the development of the “moral imagination”
(Glover, 1999)—for the evolution of a capacity for “moral witnes-
sing”(Gerson, 2009;Ullman,2006,2011), which requires optimal
individual and communal responsiveness and responsibility. By
gently challenging the “attacks on social linking”(Layton, 2006),
in whatever form they may appear, urging participants to witness
each dream as a communal dream that gives testimony and poten-
tial solutions to communal challenges, tensions, conflicts, traumas,
and so on, paraphrasing Behr (2000,p.170),Iamusingsocial
dreaming as a contrivance to nudge us out of our social isolation
and fragmentation. However, despite my intentionality I have been
unable sometimes to effectively facilitate the optimal communal
“moral witnessing”of “culturally imposed trauma”(Holmes,
2016), and defenses often continue to predominate. “Specificity
theory”(Bacal & Carlton, 2011)andBion(1961,1962,1992)
have helped me understand and bear the emergent and unique
field dynamics of each group—which collectively constrain me and
the participants. Sometimes the only optimal response, as an obser-
ving-participant facilitator embedded in the field’sdynamics
(Levenson, 2005;Sullivan,1940; Sullivan, 1949;Bion,1961), is to
observe my body-mind-self experience, share those perceptions,
and remain attentive and curious, nurturing in myself and others
the capacity for “negative capability”(Bion, 1970), relying on a
faith that meaning and coherence will eventually emerge out of
confusion and chaos.
I end this article with a description of an extraordinary dream
capturing the global scope of the need for social and moral witnes-
sing, the vicarious pain inherent in witnessing social suffering, and the
powerful resistance to consciously bearing witnessing:
This was a dream recounted at a social dreaming workshop I
organized and facilitated focused on “The Tri-Faith Unconscious:
Christianity, Islam, Judaism.”An Afghan-American Muslim participant
narrated the following astonishing dream, which begged for moral
witnessing and social linking:
The dreamer, a man, is flying a kite that has eyes painted on it but
no mouth; the dreamer is holding onto a string or rope made of
broken glass that cuts the dreamer’s hands. The kite begins a journey
that takes it from India and Pakistan to the Middle East (Palestine and
Israel), and then onward to Europe and later the United States. The
dreamer and the kite are witnesses to human destructiveness inflicted
on other humans. In India and Pakistan drones are killing people; in
the Middle East suicide bombers detonate themselves; in Europe
refugees wander from country to country, seeking shelter; and in
the United States (Chicago and Los Angeles) gangs wage war on
each other and police brutalize civilians. With the kite flying high
over Los Angeles, the dreamer finally lets go of the kite string, hands
Ironically, this was an SDM in which the group and I were unsuc-
cessful in securing a communal “moral witnessing.”Despite the
obvious manifest content of this tantalizing dream, to my dismay the
participants in the SDM withdrew from engaging emotionally with this
profoundly evocative dream imagery, clearly mirroring the tragic
violence and human suffering we are experiencing on a local and
SOCIAL DREAMING, IMPLICIT RACIAL BIAS, AND RACIAL TRAUMA 17
global scale. Several participants seemed to be shocked by the dream,
remarking in a distancing maneuver that the dream seemed “unreal,”
somehow “made up”by the dreamer. The participants would not or
could not own the dream as “our collective dream/nightmare.”
Despite my efforts at encouraging associations and emergent feelings,
the contributions were flat, unemotional, distracted. Clearly, the psy-
chic suffering symbolized by the “bleeding hands”was unbearable for
this social dreaming matrix (SDM), hence the dreamer’s letting go of
the kite over Los Angeles—the venue for this SDM.
Is Ilhan Omar’s(2017) rhetoric, summoning us to “see each others’
struggles as our own”and “speak to our common humanity,”too
idealistic? I don’t believe so. However, the SDM facilitator and
group must respond optimally to each other’s“bleeding hands”as
we collectively attempt to bear witness with silent sorrow to humanity’s
inhumanity. The preceding challenging example of collective defense
notwithstanding, the social dreaming communities I’ve been honored
to facilitate have been sources of inspiration and hope.
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George Bermudez, Ph.D.
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