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This paper outlines the history of workforce strategies for providing mental health care to “black and ethnic minorities” in England. Universal mental health policies failed to deliver equity in care, and thus specific policies were launched to address ethnic inequalities in care experiences and outcomes. The emphasis on race equality rather than cultural complexity led to widespread acceptance of the need for change. The policy implementation was delivered in accord with multiple regional and national narratives of how to reduce inequalities. As changes in clinical practice and services were encouraged, resistance emerged in various forms from clinicians and policy leaders. In the absence of commitment and then dispute about forms of evidence, divergent policy and clinical narratives fuelled a shift of attention away from services to silence issues of race equality. The process itself represents a defence against the pain of acknowledging systemic inequities whilst rebutting perceived criticism. We draw on historical, psychoanalytic, and learning theory in order to understand these processes and the multiple narratives that compete for dominance. The place of race, ethnicity, and culture in history and their representation in unconscious and conscious thought are investigated to reveal why cultural competence training is not simply an educational intervention. Tackling inequities requires personal development and the emergence and containment of primitive anxieties, hostilities, and fears. In this paper we describe the experience in England of moving from narratives of cultural sensitivity and cultural competence, to race equality and cultural capability, and ultimately to cultural consultation as a process. Given the need to apprehend narratives in care practice, especially at times of disputed evidence, cultural consultation processes may be an appropriate paradigm to address intersectional inequalities. © 2012, SAGE Publications. All rights reserved.

Original publication




Journal article


Transcultural Psychiatry

Publication Date





185 - 205