In July 2001, Therapy Today’s predecessor, Counselling and Psychotherapy Journal,1 published an article by Foluke Taylor about her experience of training as a counsellor. After three years of constant battle to ‘locate myself as a black woman, in a predominantly white group, with white tutors, referring to theoretical texts written by other white people’, she emerged with a recommendation from her third-year tutor that she was ‘probably the student who has made the most progress within the group’.

How had this progress been achieved? She had, she says, on the advice of her black therapist, decided to ‘play the game within the rules’. Her completion of the course, far from being a success, to her ‘looked like fraud, deception and defeat’. The experience left her with the question: ‘How congruent can black counsellors be and still make it through the training?’

Today, 17 years later, counsellors and psychotherapists of colour are still asking the same questions of their training and of their profession. In training institutions, they are still the ones forced constantly to ‘rock the otherwise untroubled boat’, to borrow Foluke’s phrase; at conferences and in professional forums, they are still too often the lone black face and the only voice to raise the ‘race question’. They are, they say, still failing to ‘receive any actual nourishment from their training experience’ (Foluke’s words again) because, although their name may be on the register, their presence, their difference, is acknowledged in no other meaningful way.

Isha Mavinga-McKenzie, psychotherapist, trainer and writer, describes her own experience of training:2 ‘The most liberating thing for me was coming out of my training and deciding that I was going to make these theories my own.’ She went on to establish her own post-qualification training courses to ‘nourish’ black therapists, as did Foluke.

But, there remains the failure in our training institutions to adequately prepare white trainee therapists to work in today’s multicultural world. Counselling tutor Pam Peart delivers level 2 and 3 counselling skills training in a college and independently in the north west of England. A trainer for 40 years, she says that all that time she feels she has been engaged in a constant battle to get her white, middle-class colleagues to see how their courses and their teaching ‘skirt around’ the issues of race, prejudice and bias. ‘I am getting quite angry and resentful about the ease with which white tutors avoid taking their students to places of discomfort because they themselves are discomforted. I see this a lot in my development work with tutors, particularly when they work in all-white teaching settings, with all-white student groups,’ she says.

If counselling students are not being challenged to leave their comfort zone, how will they be able to work with discomfort when they are qualified, she asks. ‘If the people who are in charge of developing the next generation of counsellors can’t bear that discomfort, then their trainees will be the same. If you don’t see anyone other than white people, you aren’t called upon to really extend and be challenged. But that doesn’t give you the licence not to know. Being nice is not enough.’

In her role as supervisor to students in their final year of training, she all too frequently witnesses the implications of this failure: situations where her white supervisee has clearly failed to enter their black client’s frame of reference and is working from their own cultural assumptions. ‘Trainees say to me, “I don’t treat people differently; everybody is the same under their skin”’. I tell them this is “protection of the complexion”: if you live in a white skin you have a protective element that is denied to most people of colour.’

The bodies responsible for training course accreditation ensure diversity is on the curriculum, but it’s up to tutors to decide how they are going to teach it in class, says Pam. ‘What I try to do is to get students to think about what it’s like to be in a black skin or to wear a veil and be the subject of casual racism when you walk from A to B every day of your life. I get them to look at their attitudes and the normalisation of the casual assaults people of colour receive every day. It’s that fact that we can’t just “pass” that I want them to think about. I am saying, “Do you realise you have the choice to ignore or not bring it into your knowing, and black people can’t? We would love not to have it in our knowing. You have that sometimes enviable choice”.’

But her interaction with her peers is a constantly bruising experience: ‘I see collusion and fear. When I raise these issues with peers, they are very unhappy; they say I am attacking them. I say, “If I keep my mouth shut, I am colluding. I am not sitting here and listening to you, because I have been listening to this for 40 years and it doesn’t change.” I choose to talk about it at every opportunity I get. What about age, disability, gender, they ask. I say, “People of colour share all these social disadvantages. The one thing we are not is white. You need to be able to stay in painful places to learn and not skip about.” Empathy seems to stop when defensiveness takes over.’

It’s what Renni Edo-Lodge calls ‘denials, awkward cartwheels and mental acrobatics’, in her blog (and book of the same title) Why I am no longer talking to white people about race.3 Says Pam: ‘What I am asking is no more than we ask of our clients.’

Race avoidant

Colin Lago has written and published extensively on race, culture and person-centred counselling. Still working as a counsellor, he retired in 2003 from his role as director of Sheffield University’s student counselling service. He points to the research evidencing that, when white therapists are working with black clients, they become uncomfortable when issues connected with race or racism come up.4 Even Carl Rogers was visibly ‘race avoidant’ in his two famous taped sessions with a black client5 – although, Colin argues, he performed somewhat better some years later in another public demonstration.

‘Too many counsellors still think that if they can provide the core conditions in their work with people of colour, then they’ll get a good result. However good their intention, this position doesn’t acknowledge the everyday realities of life in the UK today,’ he says. ‘It implies the therapist is just a mirror, with no attitudes, stereotypes, assumptions and prejudices of their own. Without this awareness in their work, they risk merely repeating and reinforcing the introjected negative stereotypes and attitudes that people of colour pick up from the society in which they live.’

Lennox Thomas is one of our foremost black psychoanalytic psychotherapists. He worked for many years at the multicultural psychotherapy centre, Nafsiyat, in London. Here, therapists and clients of every cultural background worked together. He regards this as the ideal model: ‘We were extremely aware of cultural difference and very sensitive to issues of race, gender and power. We had a great deal of scrutiny of how we worked, through peer supervision. We used the basic Freudian theories but we incorporated ideas from black therapists like Andrew Curry, who developed the concept of pretransference.’6 Pretransference describes the ideas, fantasies and values ascribed by the black client to their white therapist or the white client to their black therapist, long before they first meet in the consulting room. ‘You have to get through pretransference first, before you can really start the work,’ Thomas argues; the therapist, too, must first attend to their own racism, prejudices and projections: ‘It’s up to the therapist to know what is going on here, to work through it with their supervisor. That applies just as much to me with my clients, whether they are white, black, Arab, Scots, whatever. I have my own storehouse of prejudice and misinformation.’

Colin Lago looks to the identity development models devised in the US that map how people in minority groups arrive at a place of comfort with who they are in themselves and in relation to others around them.7 US counselling psychologist Joseph Ponterotto has developed an equivalent model for therapists in relation to race awareness.8 This starts at a place of ignorance, and progresses, via exposure, to cultural difference and realisation of the limitations of their training, to zealotry or defensiveness, where they are either fired up to take up the campaign or angrily reject criticism of white Westernised culture and retreat to their comfort zone in the white status quo. The final stage is one of integration, ‘multicultural maturity’, where they acquire respect for and an awareness of cultural differences and how their personal, family and cultural history might impact on their work.

As Colin points out, it is now well evidenced that it isn’t the model of therapy that determines the outcome; it’s the quality of the relationship between therapist and client. Robert Carter’s research, back in 1995, showed that transcultural therapy is more successful where the white therapist is comfortable with difference and their capacity to deal with the negative projections that the client might project onto them.9 ‘Trainers themselves need to become competent to manage the dynamics in the training group. They need to be able to sustain the capacity to dare to look at things that cause great anxiety in white trainees and major distress and even rage in black trainees,’ Colin says. ‘We need to develop ways to work with the training group so that we can all look at these very uncomfortable things without getting hung up, anxious and defensive. That is work still to be done.’

Race in the counselling room

Isha Mavinga-McKenzie talks in her trainings2 about why white therapists ‘swerve’ when their clients bring up their experiences of racism and oppression. It is, she says, a toxic mix of shame and fear: shame about their complicity in the enslavement and oppression of black people; fear of ‘getting it wrong’ and of tapping into their client’s potential rage if they do broach the topic – what one of her clients called ‘my 300 years of rage’. Both client and therapist may experience ‘a kind of psychological gagging, rooted in the history of racism and colonisation’, she says, ‘where the words are there but we can’t let them out.’ But, if the therapist stays silent, they are colluding with the racism, she says. Therapists shouldn’t wait for their clients to bring up the subject – clients may feel unsafe to do so, may feel uninvited or that they need permission from their therapist in their position as the expert with authority.

Isha has coined the concept of the black empathic approach: ‘It’s responding specifically and sensitively to the client’s experiences as they express them. If we act as though we haven’t heard, it is not a black empathic approach. People say, “I do show empathy, it’s core to my work,” and I say, “Do you show it specifically when they talk about racism or you intuit that it’s there? Are you saying, ‘That sounds like racism to me’”?’

Deborah Holder is a counsellor working in north London, within a vibrantly multicultural community of many races and cultures. She agrees that counsellors can shy away because they are frightened about talking about race. What gives her confidence is, she says, that she has lived in the area where she works, brought up her children there and is a part of its mixed community. But, she says, we need more counsellors from all races and cultures, so there is more choice: ‘I, a white woman, shouldn’t be the only counsellor in the school where I work.’

What guides her work is curiosity: ‘I want to understand my clients’ life experiences. I want to work with their frame of reference. And intersectionality – I want to explore not just their sense of blackness but other factors in their lives – be that disability, age, gender or their spiritual and religious beliefs. You have to be aware, to address difference and certainly never try to minimise someone’s experience of difference or be influenced by your own personal fear of going there.’

Not all clients of colour will want to discuss it in counselling. ‘Some are angry; some don’t identify with it at all. You have to check out where they are,’ Deborah says. ‘Guard against making assumptions, check back with the client and don’t make interpretations based on your own frame of reference. Don’t be afraid to say, “This is something that lies outside my experience; it is interesting to hear you tell me how it is.” Always privilege the client’s experiences and interpretations. They are the experts on themselves.’

Says Michael Henry, systemic family therapist: ‘If you don’t stay curious, you are always going to be stuck in your ideas, and that is the pernicious power of whiteness. Whiteness is seen to speak for all humanity. White people are the experts. If you position yourself as expert, where is your expertise coming from? It’s not from the other person in the room. So how does that connect you with your client? Cultural competency is about keeping curiosity alive.’

Bristol-based psychodynamic individual and couples counsellor Dr Yvon Guest agrees. She too works systemically, with a focus on resilience: ‘I left counselling to work as an advocate because I felt I wasn’t able through counselling to address the inequalities and realities of people’s lives. We are where we are because of colonisation and structural oppression and you need to keep that in mind. There is no internal solution to racism. I realised that when I came back into counselling and found I was really struggling with that feeling that I could not achieve resolution.

‘Every therapist needs a very big resource box, and you need to select your tools with great care because they are not always going to be useful,’ she says. ‘Sometimes therapists are so weighed down by all their theory and training. Whenever I have had therapy, and I’ve had a lot, I always walk into the room hoping their theories and models aren’t going to get in the way of what I need to do.’

Suzanne Keys, a student counsellor at NewVic College in east London, says: ‘If the client isn’t bringing stuff up, you need to be picking it up in what is not said. You can use phases like, “I am wondering... I imagine... I notice you...” Bring images and objects from varied cultures into your counselling room. There are lots of small ways we can show we are open to that conversation. It’s so much of their everyday experience, black people don’t identify that it’s part of why they are feeling so awful in themselves. You can’t expect someone to verbalise something when they have been so silenced.’

For therapeutic counsellor Rotimi Akinsete, Director of Wellbeing at the University of Surrey, psychotherapy is unavoidably a political act: ‘Therapy is about empowering the client to become more politically conscious and to see themselves as a politically active citizen. It isn’t doing its job if it doesn’t invite and empower clients to challenge racism in their personal lives and in the wider world,’ he says. ‘If you are a member of an oppressed group, why would you not think about therapy as something that will help you to face down the racism that you encounter? Not enough people think about it in that way here in the UK; there’s a disconnect. There’s a much longer tradition of that in the US with the civil rights movement.’

Michael Henry similarly says: ‘I want black therapists to see their role as social justice warriors. Racism is one of the major things that forms our clients’ mental health. It’s their daily experience, and if you exclude or don’t have an understanding of how racism works, then you are going to miss a lot in what the client is telling you. Racism isn’t a one-off event, something that happened to this client today and next week you will work with something else.’

Going forward

Foluke Taylor believes that any meaningful discussion about black/white therapists and clients cannot take place without addressing whiteness; it is, she says, a ‘psychic, socio-political structure that is inherent in all therapeutic encounters’. She also points to the ‘burden of expectation on black people to offer “race education” before they can get onto what they really want to discuss’.

It was an acute awareness of this that prompted Bea Millar and Suzanne Keys to set up a group for counsellors who identify as white to ‘examine our own Whiteness in the context of racism’. To date, the group of 16 therapists has met three times and they hope other therapists elsewhere will follow their example.

They have encountered criticism from black and white peers that the group is just a place for white therapists to indulge in mutual reassurance; the shadow of ‘exclusion’ and ‘exclusivity’ hangs over it. ‘It was very clear to me that it was not possible to talk in depth about the impact of racism, colonialism and the trauma of slavery on me, as a white person, in a mixed group,’ says Bea, a person-centred therapist and Chair of Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility. ‘It doesn’t feel right to talk about the pain of being the oppressor with people from the oppressed group. We, as white people, need first to backtrack and deal with our own unprocessed distress and prejudices,’ she believes.

‘Mixed groups are not the place for white people to bring their despair and guilt. Black people end up taking care of white people and their emotions and that takes them away from their rage,’ says Suzanne. ‘I can go to any group and expect my experience to be empathised with – that expectation of empathy is also part of my privilege.’ She talks of ‘psychocide’ – the colonising of another’s psyche. ‘I think white therapists are at risk of colonising the psyche of black people by not processing our white assumptions of superiority, because by not doing that, we potentially do harm to people from all cultures and communities.’

They see the group as a means for them personally, and their white peers, to deal with what is blocking their ability to tolerate conversations with black people about white privilege and white oppression. ‘I think what comes up for a lot of white people is shame and a sense of helplessness – “What can I do about it?” One response is to go into denial and the other is to blame and shame the other. We white therapists have to do that inner work ourselves,’ Suzanne says.

Says Bea: ‘Black therapists have been working long and hard on this. The majority of white therapists are not doing the work and I am ashamed of that.’

The trainers’ forum set up by the Black, African and Asian Therapy Network (BAATN) is one space where white therapists and therapists of colour can meet to discuss their specific experiences of dealing with racism in their institutions and share ways to tackle problems and find solutions. ‘The forums offer a space where we can dialogue around the impact of race on identity and mental health and participants can work with the uncomfortable feelings that it evokes,’ says BAATN director Eugene Ellis, an integrative arts psychotherapist. ‘The conversations are grounded in people’s actual experience, not stuff that generally happens but what has actually happened to them or they have witnessed in their institutions. And I want it to be a feeling space, not just a thinking space, because I think there is something that happens in people’s bodies when they talk about these issues – they feel threat and fear and that confuses the brain and gets in the way of the race conversation. So I invite people to think about what is happening in their bodies, and to speak from that feeling, rather than from the purely rational in their heads.’

The process can be painful but it is also creative and restorative. Says Eugene: ‘I see this as a space where participants can step outside of the politically correct and say what’s on their mind, shake their hips a bit and let whatever energy they have in that moment come out. People come out saying they have got their voice back and that they feel they have a whole bunch of people on their shoulders when they go back into their institution. They feel more able to challenge and that they are not alone.’

Catherine Jackson is Editor of Therapy Today.


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2. Mavinga-McKenzie I. The challenge of racism in therapeutic practice. BAATN podcast. Spring seminar, 2018.
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6. Curry A. Myth, transference and the black psychotherapist. Psychoanalytic Review 1964; 51: 547–554.
7. See
8. Ponterotto JG. Racial consciousness development among white counselor trainees. Journal of Multicultural Counselling and Development 1988; 16: 145–156.
9. Carter RT. The influence of race and racial identity in psychotherapy. Chichester: John Wiley; 1995.