‘White non-racist people are accused of saying the wrong thing’

The recent shock, sadness and devastation felt at the death of George Floyd brought up memories of discrimination, injustice and prejudice I have experienced in the past, from people of different cultures. I have experienced a black friend laughing at my ‘chicken skin’, being called a ‘n****r lover’ from white British people after marrying a man from a different culture, experiencing inter-ethnic stereotyping and biasing across Asian communities, and my mixed-race children being discriminated against at school.

I grew up with a racist father, something I have felt ashamed to admit, being surrounded by many friends, work colleagues and family of different cultures. Daring to raise a point or challenge my father’s beliefs was only met with conflict. I don’t know how I learnt that racism and oppression were fundamentally wrong as it didn’t come from role modelling.

Perhaps growing up in a controlling, oppressive, abusive household and never being able to anticipate how I would be greeted from one moment to the next have helped me to understand the importance of non-violent communication and made me hypervigilant to injustices. I believe the shock I felt at my father condemning others for the colour of their skin triggered something deep, provoking the activist and empath within me, leaving me feeling revolted by his inexcusable prejudices of innocent people while unconsciously planting a seed for me wanting to build many cultural friendships that have deeply enriched my life.

As a therapist, I have specialised in areas of domestic and childhood sexual abuse, addictions and complex PTSD, supporting people across all cultures and ethnicities. I can relate to and fully understand the detrimental impact that racism of any form has on a person’s mental health, and I continue to empower all to speak out against discrimination of any kind.

But so often, white non-racist people are accused of saying the wrong thing, which renders them silent and fearful of speaking up and challenging discrimination. Working as a lecturer teaching transcultural studies, I taught with diligence, being extra mindful of the sensitivities of the themes under discussion, at times being fearful of not always being able to remember the forever-changing, politically correct terminology, witnessing people being called out as racist if they said something wrong. When, in discussion with a manager, I shared my frustrations around the constant changing reference terms, I was accused in a later appraisal of racist views.

We all need to listen more attentively to the deeper meanings and messages conveyed by supporters standing together in the fight against racism, before reacting and projecting in defence without knowing the other person’s history. We all need to be more mindful and respectful of other’s perspectives and to try to see life’s injustices from all sides so we are able to help heal racial division.

For the first time, I feel I am on an equal playing field’

A recent experience of supervision showed me the importance of the contribution that white people can make in the fight against racism. I spoke of feeling more comfortable at undertaking telephone counselling during lockdown than my normal in-person practice. I explained that, when meeting a new client, I take a deep breath and say a little prayer as a way of preparing myself. What I was able to articulate to my supervisor was how unconsciously I am expecting to be judged because of the colour of my skin. As I have an English-sounding name, there is no indication that a client might be meeting a black woman.

In a counselling career spanning some 22 years, I have been fortunate to have always worked as a counsellor since qualifying. I have never been out of work, either in private practice or employed as a counselling co-ordinator and a counselling lecturer, among other roles. But I can honestly say, for the first time, I feel I am on an equal playing field. Telephone counselling has allowed me to be invisible on my terms, and my skills are the only things being judged.

My supervisor confirmed that she had never had to consider how she might be perceived by a new client. That, she said, was an example of white privilege. She acknowledged that, as a black woman, I cannot choose to dip in and out of the subject of race.

Had I somehow accepted this uncomfortableness as something I just had to get on with, like so many examples of black people just getting on with it? Would it only ever be a private struggle, an internalised norm? Why did it take my white supervisor to remind me it was not OK? Perhaps she was able to name what I was experiencing because, being white, she has a safe distance between herself and the subject matter, race?

I am reminded of the experiences that my mum, now 82, shared about arriving in England from Jamaica as a 21-year-old. ‘We’d been invited to come but were not welcomed when we arrived,’ she told me. She worked in a hospital, supporting the ill and wiping up their mess. For a long time, they would not serve her in her local butcher’s shop. But she continued to go into that shop until eventually she was served.

Recently, I dusted off the hard cover of my 2001 MA thesis, ‘Black Women in Therapy’. When I turned the pages, I was struck by how what I wrote then is even more relevant today. I realise that the woman who’d written so passionately in 2001 had spent the next 19 years just fitting in. I’d been allowed to sit at the ‘top table’, and that was enough. What I now acknowledge is that, in accepting the space that was afforded to me, I had unconsciously entered a system that was flawed and was still not actively welcoming the one aspect of me that made me uniquely me – my race.

‘We are causing harm’

I have spent most of my life as a qualified therapist and as a student talking about race. How l am socialised as a black person was largely missed by my therapy trainings, which focused the lens primarily on my family of origin, neglecting and negating the huge impact of this complex experience on my identity. However, even when raised, the issue often proves too hot to handle and gets interpreted or pushed back in terms of purely intrapsychic experience, or ignored altogether. This kind of experience leaves many trainees from BAME communities feeling harmed and many of us drop out of training.

Internalised messages from society about my worth and value as a black woman are a key process that needs ongoing understanding and working through. This legacy has led to me to do at least four different clinical trainings, just to be enough! I have consciously taken up staff roles in recognition of the importance of having a representative voice in positions of power, to mirror people from the BAME community and to give ‘permission’ to them to take their place in their turn. In most institutions I am the only senior member of staff of colour, a lonely position. I think the hardest part is the disappointment from members of the BAME community who feel I should be doing even more.

More action needs to be taken to address this throughout the wider therapeutic community. Issues of power, privilege, race and other so-called minority issues need to be addressed regularly within the core teaching of skills. All practitioners need to reflect on their position in relation to issues of power in the clinical space on an ongoing basis rather than just for a two-day workshop. If black lives really do matter, we as a profession need to be fit for purpose in addressing these issues. But we are not – we are causing harm. This is not just an ethical issue, it is a humanitarian issue for the profession as a whole.

‘My white clients did not stay long’

I am a young black female from a Caribbean heritage. My experiences may vary from others in the BAME communities, although there might be areas of discrimination that affect BAME practitioners in general.

During training, despite our class of mixed-cultural trainees, there was insufficient training around diversity and inclusion to prepare me to work with clients and supervisors from different ethnicities, races and religions, especially in cases where my clients and supervisors were assigned to me without my involvement in the consultation process. It was up to me to improve my knowledge through CPD.

Setting up in private practice was daunting, and I wondered whether the colour of my skin and youthful appearance might deter clients from choosing me. I recall that a couple of my white clients did not stay long in therapy compared with my BAME clients. I took this as a reflection of me doing something wrong. It affected my confidence, which I then had to explore in supervision.

Natalie Bailey being appointed chair of BACP in 2019 gave me hope that BAME practitioners like me can also be in senior roles. I have also found support from the Black, African and Asian Therapy Network (BAATN) group. But there is still much work to be done to address micro-aggressions and the institutionalised racism that exists in our profession.

‘Look beyond the surface and listen’

As I approached the final weeks of my counselling training, I felt tired. The media was full of stories about protests, riots and felling of statues. I felt weary with sadness. Like many people, I wanted to do something, but I wasn’t sure what. I was confused about what my role was as a mother, an educator, a black woman and, most importantly for me right now, as a counsellor.

During the first weeks of my training, one of the tutors encouraged the class to ‘look behind the words, to listen for what your client is saying to you without words’, because often that is where the trauma lies. As I started clinical practice, I sought to adopt that guidance by asking, ‘What’s my client really telling me, not with words but with the emotion they show?’

By the start of second year, I had completed enough assignments and client and supervision hours and had connected with enough counsellors outside my course to start to imagine my future self as a counsellor. Clinical practice, combined with my day job as a school librarian, was often overwhelming, but I persevered and counted down the time to crossing the finishing line. I didn’t bargain for the past few months and the public response to the death of George Floyd, which affected me deeply. As a black woman, I found the reality of racial injustice in our society deeply saddening and the pain was very alive in my heart. Physically, I felt even more tired.

A weekend of activities, including reflections and personal statements, marked the end of the course. We exchanged feedback, which to my already weary ears sounded hollow – too many people saying too many ‘nice’ things about one another. I had attempted, without success, to talk about race and cultural difference during my training. I thought I would dedicate my final statement to it, especially because of the ongoing discourse about racial justice. But fear of having my final day marred by the shame of vulnerability met with silence made me hold back. Although not regretful, I feel sad about this decision.

I woke up the following morning a newly qualified counsellor and, as I contemplated my future, I made a pledge. A pledge to my future clients, to the counselling profession and to myself. I made a pledge that, when that client comes into my practice room and erupts in deep emotions – maybe anger and rage, maybe tears, maybe silence – I will have the empathy to look behind the words.

I collected my certificate to a backdrop of people crying ‘Black lives matter’ and others returning ‘All lives matter’. I wonder who will be coming to see me and my peers in our counselling rooms? I wonder if I, and my fellow newly qualified counsellors, will have the courage and the compassion to look beyond the surface and really listen.

‘I have been shamed for not being black enough’

I am an avid poster on social media, but in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, I remained silent. I have seen many posts (not directed at me) verbally lynching anyone who does not speak up or does not say the ‘right thing’. My silence does not mean that in some unconscious way I support white supremacy (I have reflected on this). My silence does not mean I lack sympathy for the tragic loss George Floyd’s family is facing. My silence does not mean I don’t acknowledge racism and prejudice in our institutes and society.

My silence does not mean I am not angered by the injustice humans face in their everyday lives due to the colour of their skin, their race, their sexuality, their gender, their religion, their weight, their hair colour, their accent, their postcode, their bank balance – the list is endless. My silence does not mean I don’t acknowledge human pain.

Initially I told myself my silence simply means I am thinking. I am gathering my thoughts. As a child, I was taught to think before I speak. As a therapist, our training teaches us to reflect. I am thinking and reflecting on how I feel about all this and how we can change this. How can we change humanity for good, for generations to come? How can we do this?

There is also something else – fear. Fear of saying the wrong thing. I don’t want to be attacked because my thoughts may not conform to the current societal wave of thought. When I have timidly voiced my opinion that all lives matter, I have been shut down and told, ‘Yes, but this is the black cause right now.’ When I have used the term ‘a person of colour’, I have been told not to use this term, that it’s politically incorrect and I should use the term ‘ethnic’. I have been left feeling ashamed, as if I have done something terribly wrong.

I am a person of colour but I am brown, not black. I have been shamed into thinking I am not black enough to have a voice right now. When I say, ‘I don’t see colour. I see deeper than that. I see a person’s unique diversity,’ I am told I am in denial of my own race and colour. But I see a person for who they are on individual merit, rather than lumping millions of people into tick-box categories.

Therapy Today printed the words ‘black therapists’ on a cover last October, but the article referred to all ethnic minorities. I was incensed that all minority therapists were labelled ‘black therapists’, but I didn’t speak up. I felt shame, that I wouldn’t be listened to or understood, and that silenced me. And here, in my opinion, is the problem – fear and shame. When we feel fearful, and are shamed into silence, the unrest begins and the anger rises. When we feel not heard, the division between us and ‘the other’ deepens. We all have the potential to be prejudiced when we feel threatened. Not one of us is exempt. But it is only when we can have real, uncomfortable conversations without shame, fear, anger and hate that we can begin to make real, peaceful change.

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