Black History Month is here and, once again, I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important celebration of black achievement. I see it as essential that we celebrate Black History Month – and I’m one of millions of people who will set aside special time to mark the occasion.

I know there are some who argue that a month is not enough and that we should be paying homage to our history every day of the year, and I agree! However, there is something powerful about millions of black people giving purposeful time to honour and remember our struggles, our beautiful history and the powerful contributions we have made to humanity. It is also an opportunity for us to reflect and determine what we need to do to ensure that future generations will look at history and proclaim, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr, ‘Free at last, thank God almighty – we’re free at last.’

I make no apology for using the term ‘free’. The fact is that black people across the globe and certainly in this country are not yet free. Racism is a fact. Inequalities and discrimination based on skin colour still exist and continue to tarnish the life chances of millions of our people. Indeed, my reality, and that of black, Asian and minority ethnic people, is one of living with racism. It is on the streets, manifesting as hate crime, stop-and-search and knife crime. Racism pervades our schools, showing up in high levels of exclusions, poor attainment rates and even interfering with our children’s choices of hairstyles. It’s in the NHS and our hospitals, with black women four times more likely to die during childbirth. It’s in our workplaces, blocking pathways to career progression. And you know what? It’s in the mental health system, where black men and women are more likely to be restrained or detained than their white counterparts when they come into contact with mental health establishments. And, I dare to say it again, racism is embedded in the counselling professions too.

I’m going to say something – and I kid you not, it’s true. A few moments ago, my son walked by and had a look at some of my prep notes for this article. With a weary look on his face, he said, ‘Dad, aren’t you tired of saying the same things about the profession year after year? Does the profession really want to change? Is it going to happen any time soon? Maybe it’s time to let them be!’

My response felt a little weak. I said, with a little less bass in my voice than usual and with a scrapey throat, that ‘change will come and that now is the right time’. However, you and I know that change will not happen by osmosis. Leadership is required, and it is needed urgently. Indeed, the psychological and racialised trauma that followed the murder of George Floyd and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on black communities are already evident. And we know that this will worsen. Any examination of the issue of race in this country at this time is inadequate if it does not recognise and factor in culturally appropriate interventions to address the increasing and intergenerational trauma being experienced by black people and their communities. And that is why I applaud Helen George, a member of the panel who helped shape this issue of Therapy Today, for convening a conference taking place this month that will discuss the issue of racialised trauma, underscored by a call for practitioners to address the need for new theoretical frameworks.

I am pleased that BACP is giving focused attention to the issue of equality, diversity and inclusion with the new EDI Task and Finish Group, with race as a specific feature. Most encouraging is that finance and resources are being set aside to enable meaningful engagement on these issues, founded on the principle of engaging with black practitioners and colleagues in the mental health field – collaborations of this kind are critically important. But more, much more, needs to be done. And that is why, in the final year of my presidency, I am continuing to make the issue of race a touchstone priority. It just cannot be right that there remain barriers to entry into the counselling profession for potential black therapists. And it is also unacceptable, especially at a time like this, that black and marginalised communities’ mental health is overlooked when they require support like no other time before in our lifetimes. These are some of the issues that will form part of a solutions-focused conversation at the President’s Event I’ll be convening this month to bring together key stakeholders within the mental health profession, including black and Asian practitioners, community organisations and white allies.

We need always to pay close attention to what is happening outside our own ecosystem. It was only a few months ago that the Government published its Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report.1 The commission concluded that institutional racism did not exist and that ‘the UK was an exemplar of a post-racial society’. This was roundly condemned and the report discredited by an overwhelming number of organisations, including BACP. It was perverse that, at the very moment that George Floyd’s trial was revealing the inhumanity meted out to black people in America, this influential commission was discovering ‘no evidence of actual institutional racism’ in the UK. Just in case I wasn’t heard at the time, racism of both the overt and institutional varieties are a consistent feature of being black in Britain.

My answer to my son’s question was, ‘No, it’s not the time to give up on the profession but I understand where you’re coming from.’ It falls to our generation to work hard to bequeath to future generations a counselling profession that is truly anti-racist. In the meantime, in the words of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, ‘Let’s keep hope alive.’

Be the change

Change in the profession requires all counsellors and psychotherapists to be unambiguous in their stand against racism and discrimination in all its forms. Black practitioners have a unique role to play in leading the change and stepping up to fill the gaps where we are under-represented. But change also demands that white counsellors and psychotherapists find the courage to take an unequivocal stand against discrimination and use their ‘relative privileged position’ to ring in the changes needed at institutional levels. This is just one reason why I believe it is important that Therapy Today continues to publish this special black-focused issue every year.

I would like to thank all those who have helped to make it happen, including the panel of practitioners who have given their time to meet with me and Therapy Today’s editor Sally Brown to help shape this issue: Anthea Benjamin, Eugene Ellis, Dwight Turner, Christa Welsh, Helen George and Sekinat Adima. I would also like to thank the many BACP practitioners who have contributed their insights and experiences throughout this issue.

The team felt it was important to focus on black excellence in this issue and, in particular, spotlight those black psychotherapy pioneers who shaped our profession significantly. One of the pioneers we celebrate is Marie Battle Singer who has been called Britain’s first black psychoanalyst. Despite her significant achievements in the field of child psychotherapy, working alongside Anna Freud, Singer has been largely forgotten since her death in 1985. It’s only recently, thanks to the efforts of her niece and biographer, Professor Jane Rhodes, that her story has come to light.

Anthea Benjamin was inspired by Singer’s life story to reflect on the other black pioneers in our profession who have not been celebrated and we have dedicated the cover of this issue to shining a light on a few key figures: Lennox Thomas, Barbara Fletchman Smith, Marie Battle Singer, Elaine Arnold, Aileen Alleyne and Isha Mckenzie-Mavinga. You can read about their contributions to the therapy profession in Anthea’s article, ‘On the shoulders of giants’. 

Sharing experiences

Also in this issue, we dedicate the ‘Big issue’ feature to taking an in-depth look into how counselling training can better equip practitioners to work in our multicultural society. Catherine Jackson interviews academics and practitioners on two important questions – why is it that white trainee counsellors are still completing their training without having adequately addressed race and their own unconscious bias? And why are black trainees still feeling that the curriculum and the teaching exclude and problematise them? One of the interviewees, Val Watson, psychotherapist and herself a former director of counselling studies, undertook research into racism in counselling training back in 2004. She believes that nothing has significantly changed since then and rightly points out that ‘the more serious impact of this lack of attention to issues of “race” and culture is the impact on the black client’. The article, Putting race on the training agenda’, also offers hope, by highlighting where change is happening – however slowly – and the role that BACP’s Professional Standards team, which accredits training courses, is actively playing in this. 

I would also like to thank the many contributors who have shared their personal and professional experiences in this issue, including the contributors to the ‘Dilemmas’ section – ‘Client autonomy versus therapist discrimination’ – which addresses whether it is OK to allow a client seeking therapy from an agency to turn down a counsellor on the basis of their African-sounding name. Billie-Claire Wright generously recounts her own experience of coming up against discrimination from a client when working with an agency, and how her courage in speaking out led to an invaluable opportunity to address racial difference within the organisation. I commend her courage in speaking out – as she says, if we don’t, we risk becoming ‘desensitised to these experiences and they begin to inform our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves’. I would also like to thank Nicholas Rennie and Kemi Omijeh for contributing to this article. 

I was inspired by our ‘Talking point’ feature in this issue, ‘Appearance matters: how do you navigate the politics of black personal image?’, with its stories of how members have grown in personal and professional confidence, allowing them to show up as they are, in a way that truly reflects their personality and cultural identity. And I would like to thank Eugene Ellis and Guilaine Kinouani for sharing their honest and in-depth discussion of the impact of racial trauma and what we need in order to heal from it, in our ‘Big conversation’ article. My thanks too to Dwight Turner for his hard-hitting and revealing opinion piece, ‘Why we still need Black History Month’, and Carmen Joanne Ablack for her insights into how supervision can help raise awareness of power and privilege when white therapists are working with black clients (‘Radical transformations’).

This issue spotlights just a small section of the dynamic black therapeutic community and we are delighted to have the opportunity to showcase their passion, professionalism and commitment, which is influencing and shaping our profession for the benefit of all clients and practitioners – whatever their race or culture. I hope you find this issue of Therapy Today as inspiring and relevant to your practice as I do.

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