Black Lives Matter
Why Should We Be Talking About Race?
Rukhsana Hemani, Clinical Services Manager and Supervisor
I remember when, early on in my work, my young Sikh client commented on my skin colour being paler than hers. I contacted my supervisor to explore what had been said in the session. I was shocked by it. I thought we were similar, as we were both from south Asian backgrounds with brown skin. Yes, there was a difference: I was a Muslim woman with different life experiences to her, for example, I was married with children while she was not, and she was also a lot younger than me. While I noticed all of these things, what I didn’t consciously comprehend was that my client’s skin colour was a couple of shades darker than mine. Of course, there was an issue here for my client, and I needed to explore that. That experience was never forgotten. In our work, what comes up in the counselling room needs attention, whether that is visible, verbal or non-verbal, however uncomfortable that is.
This summer I was reminded of that experience when paying attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. There have since been many conversations about race, racism, culture, what it means to be Black or White or a person of colour, and how to be open to these discussions. In September, my monthly edition of the BACP’s Therapy Today magazine for counsellors landed through the letterbox. The cover says: WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT RACE - But what is stopping us? Yes, what is stopping us? It is a profound question and cannot be answered lightly or easily because this requires some discomfort and soul searching for us all. Quite fundamentally, this question means that we have to examine ourselves and our part in a system that is larger than any single one of us. It also means that we then have to look at the reality of how our identities shape the way that we live and are treated. That means recognising that I am a South Asian, Muslim, Brown, woman, and that my position in society is often different to that of others around me. This position would change if my race, or other aspects of my identity changed. I see myself privileged for many reasons, although I understand there is a hierarchy that we are all subjected to.
Having been thinking about this a lot, and compelled by learning about the Black Lives Matter Movement, I opened this Therapy Today with great anticipation. In counselling, race and culture is not something that we do not dwell upon or wonder about. It is a part of our bread and butter. I have about a dozen books on the subject which I have collected over two decades. We often look at ourselves through client work, check where we are with our blind spots and hidden prejudices. However, how often do we overlook or turn a blind eye when it comes to a Black client’s need of someone to understand what being Black means? In the article, “Black Matters” which features interviews with many Black counsellors and counsellors of colour by Catherine Jackson, Deborah Clarke, a Black child psychotherapist, talks about her experiences, and highlights the problem of there being a lack of Black perspectives even in counselling training. “By not discussing it, it’s denying a part of my identity,” she says, and I agree, there wasn’t much when I was training - and there still isn’t. In the article, several other Black and Asian counsellors and psychotherapists also talk about their feelings and experiences of racism in the counselling profession.
In my position as a supervisor, occasionally, through my own curiosity, I get to know that the client that a counsellor has been discussing with me for the last twenty minutes, is a Black African or Caribbean client. It’s not on my white supervisee’s radar that her client is very different to her, and it makes me wonder what that means in relational and wider context.
It is noted in the article, that following George Floyd’s death in the USA during the Covid pandemic, and the ensuing global Black Lives Matter protests, surely, our counselling profession cannot be untouched. Natalie Bailey, the Chair of BACP, urges counsellors “to sit with the discomfort, shock, bewilderment, or shame". It is true that counselling has not tackled the racism within the profession in training courses or in the wider profession. Black and Asian practitioners spoke of discontent, feelings of isolation, of not being heard, feelings of being invisible, feelings of being desperate and constantly feeling the need to fit in whilst training and working.
I have also been reading books around race and culture to learn more. Having gained a lot from reading these books personally and professionally, I would encourage everyone to do their own reading - perhaps starting with what I mention below.
I was deeply saddened whilst reading African American feminist and writer Ijeoma Oluo’s book So you want to talk about race. She talks about her experiences of growing up in the USA and the racism that shaped her and her outlook. She looks at the wider context of societal norms and disparities. She touches on all aspects of daily lives, the patterns of events that disproportionately or differently affect people of colour. For example, in schools where Black and Latino children are excluded more often than their white counterparts, there are disparities in their academic attainment and achievements. Most of the teachers are White and had no awareness or training around children coming to schools with massive socio-economic issues and disadvantages due to the poverty and discrimination that their families face. She talks about the presumption and racial biases that people of colour contend with when they socialise with white friends and colleagues.
My drive to learn more has been heightened since learning about the Black Lives Matter movement, so I have been soul searching and mindful of the ignorance and prejudices I might have around Black issues and Black people. And I have been working to understand what it is like to live in this hierarchical society, where race, status, religion, and culture all play a big role in keeping people in their place.
To help with this, I have been reading another book called Me and White Supremacy by Layla F Saad. She identifies herself as intersectional, East African, Middle eastern, Muslim woman and a British citizen. She calls this book a road map, a workbook, an extraordinary new resource for white people, and those who do not face anti-Black racism, who are willing to align what they profess to value (racial equality) with their actual practice (antiracist action).
In first part of this book, she explains what white supremacy is, and then she has divided it into seven topics in which she covers issues such as white privilege, tone policing, white silence, and white exceptionalism. Each section is backed by other writers’ work and experiences, and is followed by a box in which to write reflections.
She explains that “white supremacy is a racist ideology that is based upon the belief that white people are superior in many ways to people of other races, and that therefore, white people should be dominant over other races. White supremacy is not just an attitude or a way of thinking. It also extends to how systems and institutions are structured to uphold this white dominance.”
She talks about white privilege as a legislative, systemic, and cultural norm that has existed for a long time. She mentions women’s studies scholar, Peggy McIntosh, who first coined the term “White privilege” in her 1988 paper, “White Privilege and Male Privilege”, which defines it as “an invisible package of unearned assets.”
This book is a month-long workbook. It covers and deals with multidimensional contexts and offers ways forward and helpful prompts to think through and deal with the realisations that happen when engaging with this anti-racist work. She also offers guidance on continuing the work after the month is over.
This is primarily a book to do the work to become an anti-racist individual. It prompts us to think carefully about how our thoughts and actions can, or may have in the past, been prejudiced or racist. It is important for all of us to acknowledge these moments in our lives because it will help us to not repeat the same mistakes.
If we look at this particularly with the counselling service in mind, it becomes obvious just how needed this change of mindset and understanding is. By being too uncomfortable to discuss race, and by pretending to have some sort of innocent colour-blindness, we are really letting people down and contributing to the hurt. If we don’t acknowledge our Black clients’ race because of our own discomfort, then we are denying or hiding what they have experienced in their lives, and we are obstructing the chance to see what our open relationships could bring to the session and the profession. If we are lacking in our own knowledge of the effects of racism and our own unwilling participation in it, then we can sit and listen, and we can do the work to learn, and play our part in ending this cycle.