When we talk about race in the counselling room, we often reduce complex interactions to simplified categories of black and white. Using my own lived experience of being a mixed-race woman and the history and politics of racism, I want to show how, in reality, there is a whole world that lies between black and white – a world where identities and interactions between and within racial groups are more nuanced.
I was born in 1962 to a white mother of English/Irish heritage and a Jamaican father. They were not married. Benson examines the racial climate of that period.1 Miscegenation (reproduction between the races) was a social taboo – felt to be such a threat that it was discussed in parliament. Racists warned it could undermine British culture; liberals regarded it as the key to racial harmony. Both the black and white communities in Britain were culturally hostile to interracial marriage.
Having a child outside marriage was also taboo. The options for unmarried mothers were limited.2 There was abortion, which was dangerous and illegal. Another option, for some, was to have the child and hide it within your extended family by pretending a sibling or its grandmother was the mother. This was not an option for the mother of a mixed-race child, of course. There was private fostering, which was expensive, or you could put the child into care. My parent’s relationship did not survive, and I was one of those children who ended up in the care system.3
I encountered many incidents of racism from white people when I was growing up. There were also many acts of kindness and acceptance. The white foster parents I lived with for 13 years saved me from an early childhood in institutions. But they also thought they were doing the right thing by ignoring my Caribbean heritage. Ince found that, when mixed-race and black children grow up in the predominantly white care system, they go through a process which she defines as ‘identity stripping’:4 they suffer from racial and cultural isolation and are unable to learn the skills to survive in a racist society.
At age 17, I attended a college where everyone was black except for me, three other mixed-race and two white girls. It became a mission for my new friends to teach me about Caribbean culture – the food, the hair, the music, everything, and I loved it. They also taught me about shadism (also known as tonism or colourism). I discovered that some black people didn’t like me because I was light skinned. I was often called coconut (brown on the outside, white inside). I also found out that some black people didn’t like other black people because they were too dark skinned. I had no idea where such prejudices came from and, for me, they were just as painful as prejudice from white people.
Making sense of it all
When I came across the work of Franz Fanon in the late 1980s, I began to understand white racism. Fanon5 was the first person to explore the psychology of colonialism and how black people’s minds became colonised by white people. He argued that, in the context of the existing prejudice that all things black were negative and harmful, the white coloniser could project onto black people all that was considered immoral or shameful. This was then internalised by black people, and thus the black, colonised mind came to accept that all that is white is good, and all that is black is bad.
The discrimination between black people on the basis of the shade of their skin colour is a legacy of colonisation and the transatlantic slave trade. When Europeans enslaved Africans and transported them to the Caribbean, white male plantation owners used female slaves for sex. A classification was established according to the shade of a slave’s skin – a kind of caste system in which lighter-skinned slaves were given preferential status. They got the household duties, while those with darker skin toiled in the hot sun in the fields. This system persisted in the Caribbean post-slavery.6
Shadism was transported to the UK from the Caribbean and persists here to this day. Shadism is also a global issue, as the perception of white beauty as the norm has been perpetuated by the US film industry, TV companies and social media. In 2018, Peace Anyiam-Osigwe, an African woman living in the UK, directed the film No Shade, which describes the impact of shadism on her and her friends as they grew up and how it manifests in some black women resorting to skin bleaching in a desperate attempt to achieve a lighter skin.
I am now in my mid 50s and still working on my mixed-race identity. When I was a child, the white people around me wanted me to embrace my white side and reject my black. When I came into contact with black people, they wanted me to embrace my black side and reject the white. There has been an intense tug of war going on in my psyche for most of my life. I was stuck in a binary world created by other people and expected to take sides. It has taken me a long time to embrace what I really am, which is both white and black: I am mixed race.
In the counselling room
I now work as a counsellor in private practice. As I am in private practice, my clients are largely self-referring. Most are female and define themselves as black, mixed race or black and minority ethnic (BME). They come from all corners of the globe, but the majority have grown up here in the UK. I have noticed that I see a lot of women who are very isolated from their black communities, because they have either been brought up separately by their parents or have ended up in a very white world through education, social mobility or career. They are often lonely and vulnerable and are having a really difficult time bridging the gap between their two communities.
I have given much thought to how my mixed-race identity and internal racism may impact in my practice. According to Hook and colleagues, all practitioners, regardless of their racial origin, commit racist microaggressions against BME clients.7 Microaggressions are conscious and unconscious, direct and indirect insults, slights and discriminatory messages that, accumulated over time, can result in trauma.8 An example would be if a counsellor tells a client they ‘don’t look black’, or says they will never be able to pronounce their ‘funny’ name. Microaggressions from BME practitioners may be more impactful than if they come from a white practitioner because they are perceived as a greater betrayal: the black client isn’t expecting it from a BME practitioner.7,9
It is often assumed that BME practitioners have an innate understanding of racism. Such assumptions might be a form of stereotyping in itself.10 As I explained earlier, I had no understanding of shadism, which is a form of internalised racism, until I was 17 and began to spend time with Caribbean people. Another finding from research is that some BME practitioners may be in denial about racism.11 An example of this might be a counsellor who has survived by not confronting racism in his or her personal and professional life, and so may not be able to work effectively with a client who wishes to explore issues around racism.
Any practitioner, regardless of their racial origin, first has to recognise their own internal racism. Owen and colleagues hold that people who see themselves as politically liberal are the most likely to hold biased views or use microaggressions to rationalise their beliefs. The antidote is a lifelong attention to examining our own biases, attitudes and beliefs.9 One way, which should start right from the beginning of training, is reflexivity or ‘self-awareness with agency within that self-awareness’.12 Hook and colleagues found that therapists with a multicultural orientation commit fewer microaggressions and, if they do commit microaggressions, it has a less harmful impact on the therapeutic alliance.7 Cultural humility is also important. This is the ‘ability to maintain an interpersonal stance that is other-oriented (or open to the other) in relation to aspects of cultural identity that are most important to the client’.7
So, how do I manage my internal racism in the counselling room? I use peer supervision: I belong to a group of BME practitioners that provides a space for us to reflect together on issues around race and racism. I also talk to white colleagues to get their thoughts on these issues. In the counselling room, I adopt a culturally humble approach. I can’t assume I know the ethnicity or cultural experience of the individual in front of me, even if they look and sound like me. If they present with internal racism, I explore it sensitively, seeking to shed light on the issue rather than cast shame. My intention is to provide the space for the client to take me with them on a journey into their world. This doesn’t mean I always get it right. I once asked a client if they thought they would benefit from spending time with people of the same faith. Some weeks later, the client said that people from their minority group were persecuted in this country by others of the same faith. My lack of understanding had not disrupted the therapeutic alliance; that client is still with me. But it taught me that I can’t know everything.
Internal racism is present in all practitioners, regardless of their racial origin. Robust reflection and cultural humility are vital resources for recognising and working with racism. The lived experience of racism and shadism is the legacy of colonialism and internal racism from the past – a legacy that affects relationships between and within racial groups. As the fictionalised vignettes (below) illustrate, forming a racial identity can be a challenging and confusing process for those caught in the middle of a binary world.
Yvon Guest is a psychodynamic counsellor in Bristol. She works in private practice with couples and individuals, with a focus on trauma and resilience. She gained her PhD exploring resilience and the lifelong impact of being in care as a child. She is also a group facilitator and delivers workshops on resilience and race.
1. Benson S. Ambiguous ethnicity: interracial families in London. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1981.
2. Thane P. Unmarried motherhood in twentieth-century England. Women’s History Review 2011; 20(1): 11–29.
3. Guest Y. A psycho-social exploration of the lifelong impact of being in care as a child and resilience over a life span. PhD thesis. Bristol: University of the West of England; 2015. http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/24515
4. Ince L. Making it alone: a study of the care experiences of young black people. London: BAAF; 1998.
5. Fanon F. Black skin, white masks. New York, NY: Grove Press; 1967.
6. Williams J. Michael X: a life in black and white. London: Century; 2008.
7. Hook J, Farrell J, Davis D et al. Cultural humility and racial microaggressions in counseling. Journal of Counseling Psychology 2016; 63: 269–277.
8. Pierce C, Carew J, Pierce-Gonzalez D. An experiment in racism: TV commercials. Education and Urban Society 1978; 10(1): 61–87.
9. Owen J, Tao K, Imel Z et al. Addressing racial and ethnic microaggressions in therapy. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 2014; 45(4): 283–290.
10. Sanchez-Hucles J, Jones N. Breaking the silence around race in training, practice and research. The Counseling Psychologist 2005; 33(4): 547–558.
11. Bryant-Davis T, Ocampo C. Racist incident-based trauma. The Counseling Psychologist 2005; 33(4): 479–500.
12. Rennie D. Reflexivity and person-centered counseling. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 1992; 44: 182–203.