It’s October, some four months after George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police on 25 May sparked worldwide angry protests and expressions of hurt and shame. Here in the UK, has anything changed?

Yes, there are a few empty pedestals where once statues stood celebrating the public beneficence of some scion of the slave trade. The launch of a government inquiry into ‘race and ethnic disparities’. A report from Public Health England on the ‘disparities’ in the impact of COVID-19 on BAME people. Symbolic gestures and yet more reports and inquiries, but are these making any real difference to black people’s lives?

What has happened to all that anger, pain and shame? Where is it being channelled? Do black lives still matter?

In the weeks following George Floyd’s murder and the moving response emailed to all members from BACP Chair Natalie Bailey, a number of white counsellors wrote to Therapy Today, expressing that pain and shame and looking both to their own selves and to the profession to do more to address their inherent racism. What can white counsellors do? What can its white-dominated institutions do, they asked?

This article attempts to encapsulate some answers from some practitioners, trainers and educators, white, black and brown.

Start with ourselves

Again and again, black people are saying that white people need to start by addressing their own whiteness and the fact that whiteness is a ‘thing’, not the air we all breathe and the water we all swim in. This is what writer and activist Layla Saad was seeking to tap into when she launched her Instagram ‘challenge’ and resulting workbook, Me and White Supremacy,1 setting out a 28-day programme of tasks for white people to work through in order ‘to explore and unpack their relationship with white supremacy’. It is, Saad says, deliberately a workbook for those who are ‘ready to do the work, people who want to create change in the world by activating change within themselves first’.2 And more than 100,000 people stepped up to the plate and downloaded the original free digital workbook that preceded the book.

This readiness to take that responsibility for starting with yourself is key to tackling implicit racism, says behavioural scientist Dr Pragya Agarwal, whose book, Sway: unravelling unconscious bias,3 was published in April this year. The book unpacks the ways ‘implicit knowledge’ (as unconscious bias is also known) influences us in all aspects of our lives, including our attitudes to black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people. ‘We need to look at who is carrying the burden of tackling discrimination and unfairness in our organisations, who is carrying the burden of educating others,’ Agarwal says. ‘It can be exhausting and it is often the people who are themselves the subject of the discrimination, people of colour. That is about privilege too. People who don’t experience these biases are the ones who don’t feel a need to talk about it or do something about it.’4

Ruth Smith, a former counsellor and BACP member who is now engaged in a PhD in social justice, uses the term ‘white ignorance’ to describe this. ‘It’s when white people wilfully not-know in order not to have to relinquish their privilege and power,’ she says. It belongs with white fragility and other tactics used by white people to avoid facing up to the actuality of white privilege, supremacy and power. Instead of doing their own work, white people plead ignorance and expect people of colour to explain what they are doing wrong and need to do differently. She quotes US black activist, writer and poet Audre Lorde’s observation that, when people of colour ‘are expected to educate white people as to our humanity... [the] oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions’.

Dr Delroy Hall acknowledges the enormity of the challenge for white colleagues. A senior counsellor and wellbeing advisor at Sheffield Hallam University and chaplain to Sheffield United Football Club, he calls the work ‘inner excavation’ – an exacting task equivalent to that of an archaeologist extracting some delicate, precious item from beneath centuries of detritus. For him, a key missing element is often empathy. ‘Listen,’ he says, ‘but listen to learn, not to interpret or pathologise or to tell us to get over it; not to patronise, theorise or intellectualise. Listen to empathise. You can have all the procedures and policies in place, but if there’s no empathy, people can be suffering right under your nose and you won’t regard it as anything. Be open to hear the pain, anger and frustration of people who have had a life of living in an environment that you take for granted and they can’t.’

He suggests using the Johari window as a tool for reflection. ‘The bit that is really relevant is the hidden stuff that you can see but nobody else does. Behind closed doors, when you are not with your friends and family, what do you really feel about the “other”?’ he asks. ‘Be brutally honest where there are no ears listening and no one is judging or passing comment. Make a list. Then look at where these feelings have come from, who said them. Are they true? It’s a paper exercise that is ongoing and if you engage with it well you begin to see – and for me, it’s a Christian interpretation – that we are all made in the image of God. You may not initially come out looking or feeling good, but if you are able to stay with it and deal with it, you will get to the place where there is growth, and it’s transformational.’

Acknowledge responsibility

Unconscious (or implicit) bias is the current go-to response in organisations to address race discrimination. It is rooted in the implicit association test (IAT) – a simple questionnaire that asks people what evaluations (good/bad) and stereotypes they associate with specific concepts (such as black people, men, women etc). The aim is to identify if the person automatically and unthinkingly associates more negative than positive associations with black people (or women, gays, older people, disabled people etc). But it is controversial. Critics say it individualises the issue of discrimination and ignores the structural disadvantages BAME people face, thus letting the organisation (and governments) off the hook in changing policies and laws.

Jenny Bourne, deputy editor of the journal Race & Class, writes in a powerful critique that this shift in focus away from institutional racism is ‘the child of neoliberalism’.5 The words we use matter, she says: ‘The word shifts blame, the word redefines, the word predicates the fight... And where does the emphasis on “bias” take the struggle against racism? Do “white” attitudes and biases create the discrimination that blights the lives of BAME people? Or are those biases being inculcated and constantly being redefined by the political culture around us, itself being reproduced by the laws of the land, the steers from the media, and in fact the larger processes of globalisation and its flipside, austerity – which provide the wrapper for class and power relations?’

Delroy Hall is no fan of unconscious bias training either. ‘I’m not sure the concept of unconscious bias helps people to make that shift through growth to transformation,’ he says. ‘I was doing some training with NHS staff recently, and I asked them to write down in just 10 minutes what it is like to be white (or if black, if they were BAME). One white participant told me she had done two unconscious bias courses and had never been asked that question. And she just couldn’t answer it. I do believe in the unconscious but there’s a bit of me that says, “C’mon, you know you are not treating that person right. So what is it that stops you empathising with that person or taking their experience of suffering as genuine and not dismissing it?”’

For Pragya Agarwal, it is important to acknowledge and understand biases in human thinking and how they influence us, through understanding the science behind it. ‘By reflecting more on our own biases, we can take individual and collective responsibility for the biases that exist in society, but any sort of training will not cure us of our negative biases and prejudices until we work on them consistently,’ she says. She challenges another criticism – that it encourages biological determinism and fatalism. ‘Yes, some biases are rooted in the evolutionary past,’ she says. ‘We were designed to be cautious about threat and fear and that is where many of our biases emerge – the in-group and out-group mentality. Our amygdala reacts to threat and fear and has to do it really quickly because there is so much information coming in and we can’t process it all on a rational level. But we are not in that situation now; we have more time to understand these reactions. We learn our biases through our upbringing and the messages we get from society and media. So we can also unlearn them. I believe we all have the capacity to step back and make rational choices and decisions and change these templates.’4

Dr Fenia Christodoulidi, senior lecturer in counselling and psychotherapy at the University of East London (UEL), says a major reason why people don’t go on this voyage of personal self-exploration is fear of responsibility. ‘It’s fear of not knowing or not being good enough or being blamed or scapegoated. But it’s also a fear of taking responsibility. Because once you know, you have to take responsibility. If you know and don’t take responsibility, then you are an accomplice. You need to take action; otherwise you just collude with the silence. We have to start with ourselves – where did I come from, what messages did I get, how am I with a client who is racially different from me, how do I communicate with them, what biases, what prejudices do I have, how do I relate to them? It has to start from us at an individual level, and then become more collective.’

BACP member Rose Grundy, a therapeutic counsellor specialising in compassion-focused therapy and a mindfulness teacher, agrees. ‘I see a link here with shadow work – those parts of ourselves that we put away because they are too shameful and scary to look at. If I am going to really do the work, really take responsibility in my own life, I need to start looking at these things and stop being afraid,’ she says.

Compassion is key to this work, she believes. ‘It allows me to widen the context of my unconscious biases to include biological and cultural factors – if I simply blame myself as an individual, I sink into shame, and that’s a block to addressing what I need to. By saying there is racism in me, I am not saying I am a terrible person. I am saying I am a human being and this is in me both because I am hardwired that way and also because I have been conditioned to have these feelings and reactions.’

She quotes US teacher Jane Elliott, who devised the ‘blue eyes-brown eyes’ test with primary school children. ‘What we call education is actually indoctrination,’ Elliott has said; ‘It takes us from the ages of five to 18 to educate people on the myth of white superiority, particularly white male superiority. If we had true education instead of indoctrination... we wouldn’t have racism.’6

Psychotherapist, supervisor and educator Robert Downes leads workshops on white fragility in psychotherapy. ‘It starts with the inadequacy of our education system,’ he agrees. ‘Most of us come to therapy training not even grounded in a basic understanding of race, whiteness and anti-blackness. Our ideas about race and whiteness are often those that are implicit in whiteness’s refusal of the realities of racism – a racial arrogance that feels qualified to decide whether something is racist or not. We come riddled with opinions rather than informed by study.’

Do the study

‘Until we do rigorous study that informs anti-racist practice and living, we will keep repeating the problem,’ says Downes. ‘White people aren’t really qualified to begin the dialogue because that study has not taken place. And the study of that which resists the study of whiteness in particular does not take place, because “diversity” has been a much safer option. We change the optics but not the structures and the population of the organisations that do the coding of the teaching,’ he argues.

We should approach race awareness in the same way that we approach any professional skill and knowledge base, Downes believes. ‘If you want to be an engineer you have to study engineering. If you want to be an anti-racist practitioner, to be a practitioner informed by a clinical understanding of embodied racialised trauma as well as embodied white supremacy, you need to have studied it in great detail, just as we do with psychodynamic theory and practice. I think a rigorous learning about those arenas is what has been primarily missing from the curriculum. We can’t think about them, talk about them or deconstruct them. Yet we make do with tokenistic modules, rather than making it the bedrock of the work. Indeed, if you start with training in embodied racialised trauma, you pretty much learn most of what you need to learn as a therapist,’ he believes.

‘So yes, read the books, but there has to be rigorous psychological work alongside the questions and challenges that the books pose, a particular kind of psychological enquiry that is often excruciating. What has been right about being white? What of the white benefits package are you resistant to giving up? How have you downloaded anti-blackness? It’s the kind of detailed examination we are used to doing in psychological and therapeutic work to explore awkward, difficult, painful and shameful corners of ourselves. But we haven’t rigorously applied those practices to deconstructing whiteness in particular. You have to sit down and explore all the ways you don’t want to hear about racism, all the ways your psyche defends against hearing about racism and why, because whiteness is lethal. This requires of us serious ongoing study and practice, not a two-day workshop.’

Act collectively

And, together with the individual work, the move from the individual to the collective is vital, says Pragya Agarwal. ‘We have to hold individual accountability, but ultimately it’s the collective responsibility that is going to make the real difference to the systemic and structural biases that are so deeply rooted in our workplaces, in our society, in our organisations and in our cultures. It’s not enough to act alone. The whole organisation has to have an ethos. Everyone has to be on the same page. Organisations need to provide a non-judgmental platform where people can face these biases and talk about things they find difficult – what stops the organisation being more inclusive and the changes that would enable them to feel they belong.’

Fenia Christodoulidi is seeking to do this by launching, with colleagues in the UEL psychology department, an initiative called the White Anti-Racist Collective (WARC). They have set up two groups – separate groups for white staff and white students, to avoid creating any ‘special’ relationships between staff and students – to discuss whiteness and white supremacy. The groups are not just talking shops, says Christodoulidi; they are intended as seedbeds for action and change. ‘In the staff group, our purpose is to change the curriculum so we don’t only include white-based content, white authors, white research, and we diversify the literature. That’s one way to make changes at a wider level. Another way of taking action is to have the courage to challenge micro-aggressions that have happened in the relational dynamics among staff or between students and staff, or bias in the “award gap” – the way tutors can mark down ethnic minority students. We need to change the way we assess students’ work and the attitudes of the academic staff and advisors.’

The plan is to inspire similar activism in every department throughout the university and embed it in UEL’s equality, diversity and inclusion policies. So far, some 10 to 15 staff members attend the group. ‘We are not accusing people of being racist,’ Christodoulidi says. ‘This is about embarking on a journey of self-exploration about what messages we have been given, depending on where we were born and how we grew up, and how this is replicated. But it’s not surprising that we haven’t had a big sign-up because it’s not a comfortable process.’

Give up the power

But, if the profession is going to become more racially and culturally diverse, white people within it need to be prepared to give up some of the power and tradition they so jealously hold to themselves, argues Mark Williams, senior lecturer in social work at Leeds Beckett University. And it should not be seen as a gift. ‘The conversations are all about white people giving up some of their power to black people and people of colour,’ he says. ‘But that misses out the whole issue of personal agency. Personal agency for me is about black people taking power or control for themselves, which is a different thing.’

Failure by counselling institutions to create environments that are genuinely diverse means black counselling students and practitioners are denied a sense of belonging, both to the profession and within its institutions, Williams says. ‘You are sitting in a classroom and you are the only black person or person of colour there. Your views often don’t fit in with orthodox counselling theory and thinking. You are seeing an issue from a different standpoint and your experience challenges the convention. But you are expected to fit in with what is, rather than carve out a place where you and people like you can belong. That is a real dichotomy – people of colour are denied that sense of belonging to a profession and being recognised for what we can contribute that is both specific to our own cultures and the advancement of people like us and more globally to the profession.’

Says Robert Downes, ‘To unravel whiteness is really to give something up, and whiteness is not about giving up anything. Whiteness wants to be seen as some benevolent being, while constructing a diminished other that you are being benevolent towards, rather than someone we have harmed and to whom we need to hand over resources and positions and authority. We need reparations, not just at a financial level but in the redistribution and the reauthorising of resources and power.’

Fenia Christodoulidi hesitates to say she feels optimistic that counselling will one day be genuinely diverse. ‘The word I’d rather use is “existential”,’ she says. ‘It could go either way. Sometimes I feel disillusioned about our profession. There is a lot of holding onto power going on. I think what is needed is a sense of humility. That’s the quality I tell students is essential to being a good counsellor, because if we are more humble, we can more readily admit to the shadow in the profession.’

Next in this issue


1. Saad L. Me and white supremacy. London: Quercus, 2020.
2. watch?v=zrkPb9wcRJs
3. Agarwal P. Sway: unravelling unconscious bias. London: Bloomsbury; 2020.
4. Interviewed at uk/event/live-stream-unravelling-unconscious-bias/
5. Bourne J. Unravelling the concept of unconscious bias. Race & Class 2020; 60(4): 70–75.