Discussions about race and racism can be uncomfortable, but open dialogue is crucial for change. UKCP psychotherapist Mamood Ahmad shares prompts for self-reflection and advice for therapists on respectfully participating in conversations about race and racism, staying with discomfort, and working with ruptures.
Silence is powerful. It can mean many things – empathy and understanding, lack of care, veto, fear of getting things wrong, protest, or a way of retaining a position of power. When it comes to racism, being silent can block self-development, harm clients, and retain in-situ systemic racism. Silence and passivity from those in positions of power towards Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people is of course central to the issues of institutional racism and thus injustice. We need to learn not to be silent.
The idea for this article was triggered from two concerns; first, fatigue from explaining racism, and second, to address white people’s concerns that their perspectives on race are not being heard or that the current climate means they cannot openly discuss or debate race matters in fear of being called out as being a ‘racist’.
I want to acknowledge that therapists may hold contrary views about race. For example, many want to debate the extent and evidence of racism, or critique popular formulations of racism, or question the relevance of race to counselling and psychotherapy.
I want to help therapists regardless of opinion to stop being silent about race, in the hope for further healing, and ultimately to end discrimination both in and out of the therapy room. Understanding how race dialogue goes wrong can help you navigate it. Armed with this information you can open up and continue in your own self-development rather than stay silent.
Principles and basic assumptions
Ethics evolve. In our own profession many discourses and activities which were once widely accepted are now considered unethical. For example, beliefs that it is okay to have intimate relationships with clients, or that LGBTQ people can or should be ‘converted’. Even though freedom of speech allows these practices to be debated, we have in the psychotherapeutic and counselling profession collectively come to understand that these beliefs cause harm and will not be tolerated. This is the same for opinions about race.
Racism is about harm to the minority based primarily on their racial identity. You should see the word ‘racist’ as being about what is considered harmful to the ‘Other’ based on power differentials and systems currently in place that reinforce racial injustice. Racism has existed from the inception of American-Eurocentric history and it evolves into the present. Racism is not about political correctness. It’s about what harms BAME people, both systemically and/or individually at the micro/macro and systemic levels.
Intent vs Outcome. A defence of racism is often based on intent, ‘I didn’t mean it’. However, good intentions do not make something ok, non-racist or anti-racist. If you were looking at a CV and you unintentionally, or even unconsciously, gave preference to a candidate because he was white, the outcome is still racist. It does not matter about good intentions, or if you felt hurt for being called out. Rather than solely focusing on your good intentions or effort try to ask about whether the action is harmful and learn from it.
The burden on BAME people. BAME people are continually being challenged about their feelings, stories, or beliefs about racism, and that’s in addition to everyday racism they experience. Race matters can be mentally taxing to BAME people (for many like rubbing salt into a wound). Therefore, be mindful of the damage these conversations can do to BAME wellbeing and focus on developing empathy for those experiences regardless of your contrary beliefs. Again, racism isn’t about offence and political correctness, it’s about harm.
Where does engagement go wrong?
Dialogue around race does not always take place in a controlled setting, such as a therapy training. If you are attuned you will notice that these dialogues are happening everywhere and often unnoticed; stereotypes, ‘is it really racist or is it x’, micro and macroaggressions, the ‘race card’, ‘everything is PC these days’, joking about ‘but I’ve done my diversity training’. But it’s also in the dialogue of silence where white people block BAME people, and leaders shut down when challenged about race rather than engage in dialogue.
Apart from obvious racial slurs, I believe the list, while not exhaustive, covers most if not all cases where ruptures can occur either internally or externally. It is during these ruptures that the potential to be called out as making ‘racist’ statements can occur. But it is also an opportunity for repair and healing.
Race/racism doesn’t exist. The non-existence of racism is rarely stated directly, but may come out in other language, including ‘the more we talk about it, the greater the divide’, ‘I don’t see colour’, ‘not everything is about race’, ‘I’m more than a label’, ‘racism is just a handful of people’, ‘what are they moaning about’ are a few ways of denying, minimising or invalidating that systemic racism exists. Further, decentring or sidestepping the discussion on to other issues is another way of invalidating racism e.g. ‘there is plenty of good that white people do’, ‘it’s better here than [other] country’, or ‘working class people have it worse’.
We are past that point now of denying systemic oppression and the conditioning process that produces racism.
Self-development task: Catch your feelings of wanting to sidestep the conversation. Consciously try not to deny, invalidate, or minimise racism and its power to discriminate within systems.
Recommendation: Don’t decentre or deny dialogues about systemic racism and if there is a link state what it is and show you understand the differences.
What about me? I didn’t have it good. Remember discussions about racism are about racism not about other types of injustices, such as socio-economic injustice. If you don’t feel heard, then maybe you need to find your own social justice cause. Examples of decentring race include: ‘I think the poorest in society would say they have it worse’, ‘AllLivesMatter’ or ‘I was called a racial slur for my white skin’.
Recommendation: If you raise other causes or social issues, then be open about why they are relevant and show that you understand they are not the same as systemic racism.
Race equivalence. BAME clients may face inter-minority colourism, or a history in other countries that resembles racism in the West, but that must not be conflated as the same. Inter-minority colourism is not equivalent to or relevant to discussing systemic racism. The history of American-European slavery and colonialism, and the dominance of whiteness, is vital context. Similarly, slurs based on skin colour used by a minority group towards a dominant group isn’t the same as slurs used from a position of power, or a history of systemic exploitation. It is of course possible that you may face BAME people who want to abuse or bully you, or use racial language, but it’s very different.
Self-development task: Be honest about why you are raising these issues in the context of a race-based discussion. How is it relevant? What does it mean?
Recommendation: Interracial and minority to majority colourism and slurs and other forms of racial prejudice need to be brought up as distinct subjects NOT equivalents when discussing white/BAME race dynamics. Bringing these up at the same time can sidetrack discussions because they effectively minimize or deny racism. If you feel these issues are related, then you need to say why and show your understanding.
Rigidity about race matters. If people have contrary views (such as claiming equivalence or ‘colour blindness’, or denial) that are rigidly held and it’s clear there is an impasse, that’s when dialogue becomes difficult. It’s not going to be worthwhile having any conversation about race and most antiracists know this. When you completely block listening, empathising or trying to understand, the dialogue will shut down. BAME people have little energy for this form of engagement, so you will most likely be met with a wall. However, you can still engage in other ways if you wish, such as a white-only, antiracist group.
Self-development task: Are there any aspects you can agree on? Is it okay to be uncomfortable? Can you connect with other parts of the person? Is it okay to be open to learning and even hurt for the bigger cause?
Recommendation: Don’t stop talking and see if there are any parts you can agree on or connect with.
Silence as racism. Silence can become racist if white people ignore BAME people’s concerns, particularly about systemic racism. You may feel that that doesn’t seem fair. But if you were to see someone in front of you being discriminated against, bullied, or abused would you call it out? Silence and in particular the silence of those who hold institutional power, is perhaps the most harmful aspect of racism as it retains the status quo.
Self-development task: Do you stay silent? What are your reasons? On reflection, were there times you remember where you could have stepped in, where BAME people were being abused or discriminated against, or to call out racism? If you are a leader in the profession do you recognise the additional responsibility you have in eradicating systemic racism?
Recommendation: When you are in a room talking about race, join in. Say something, anything, even if it’s ‘I want to learn’ or ‘I don’t know if I’m saying the right thing’. Think about whether you could do something to call out racism or intervene in racist discussions. Calling out can be as simple as asking a question, it doesn’t have to be onerous or unsafe.
Working with ruptures or when harm is done
Ruptures in dialogue can occur for all the reasons above. If you are called out, what can you do to stay in the dialogue and keep growing? This is where things can go wrong quickly; either silence prevails, people lash out, and even make personal attacks. This is a real test; can you ride this out? If this happened to you, try to be open to looking beyond the ‘tone’ of the dialogue, process your feelings and remain true to the importance of your self-development and thus antiracism. As therapists we know the importance of healing ruptures, this is your time to shine.
Recommendation: Don’t dismiss feedback just because of its ‘tone’. Reflect on the feedback and if possible, talk to others to see if they can help you work out what’s going on. If after reflection you feel you have certain responsibilities then this is a great opportunity to repair and heal the relationship, even if you still hold different opinions. Importantly, you should try to recognise the higher purpose of antiracism: reducing injustice, harm, isolation, inhibition, poor mental health, and mortality.
Expressing and examining your own views
If you’re white you are likely to already have spaces where you can talk about race and express your views safely, whether with friends, family, or in white-only social settings. However, you don’t want to be in an echo chamber, where all those around you are in agreement. I recommend you create or seek out white groups or settings where you can challenge and be challenged.
Digest and read this article. What do you agree or disagree on? I hope at least something here is okay for you. Much of the frustration in debate can be about therapists relying on BAME people to learn about the fundamentals of systemic racism and why ruptures occur. There are many resources available for you to get a baseline understanding before getting into dialogue about race. I recommend demonstrating you have knowledge of these formulations, even if your opinions are different.
If you want to discuss these matters with BAME people. Some BAME people will enter dialogue with you, but many won’t wish to. If you are going to engage in counter arguments, I strongly recommend you do it only with the express permission of the BAME people you are speaking with and with an open attitude to learning.
Create white-only spaces for contrary views. The way to discuss these matters is in a group setting specifically set up to talk about race. This may be in the form of encounter groups where permission to talk freely about race is agreed upon and allowed. I recommend using white-only groups, where at least a few therapists hold differing views.
When ruptures occur in the profession, don’t stay silent, particularly if you hold a position of influence over the culture in an organisation. Silence harms and we all need to start talking. I hope that article will enable you to navigate an open dialogue and work towards a world where no one is discriminated against because of race. By doing so you will be supporting what we all want: to belong.
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