Doing the work on racism

Please head to the bottom of this document if you’re here for a resources list curated from the recommendations of many counsellors online

In the lead up to horrifying recent events in the US, I’d been tangled up in an issue of anti-black racism closer to home. My governing body, BACP, had removed a post on their Facebook group from a black woman about police brutality after complaints from white counsellors that it “wasn’t relevant”. Over the next few days, the group were rightly schooled as to why it absolutely was relevant, and BACP issued a (weak) apology.

All of the issues facing black people we’re seeing in the US are true for the UK too – systemic state, police and cultural racism on a scale that, when you really look at it, is horrifying. And it takes so much work to get ourselves to a place, as white people, where we allow ourselves to see this.

We as white people are taught sophisticated ways of avoiding doing the work on racism. There are complex reasons why we do this. For myself, the hardest thing has been recognising that even if I work hard my whole life to unlearn the racist ideas I was raised with, I will probably never do a perfect job of being anti-racist. The comfort of my starting point – “my parents are racist because they openly say negative things about black people; I am not racist because I’m not like my parents” was alluring. I remember that mortifying moment when I realised that not as racist as my parents was way too low a bar, and that I absolutely was racist too, much as I did not want to think of myself that way.

There is a never ending web of racist indoctrination I was raised with that I have to fight myself free of. I am still learning humility – recognising I have a lot to learn, that like many people I am at my most confident when I am missing a lot of the picture, that I’m at my most racist when something is out of my awareness. The first step on this road for me was learning not to say “I’m not racist” and learning to say “I know I am racist and I’m working on doing better”.

Getting past our defences

Three common defences that maintain abusive or oppressive systems are denying, minimising and blaming; it didn’t happen, if it did it wasn’t that bad and if it was that bad it was the individual/marginalised group’s fault. These three tactics can be spotted in a lot of the discourse – “you’re not helping your cause” being I think the most common victim-blaming tactic that crops up in counsellor circles, along with the minimising tactic of tone policing, which relies on the myth that black people are disproportionately angry.

Counsellors have their own set of tools for avoidance of this work, which often amount to avoidance of empathy for the marginalised person. Re-centring of white feelings makes it so that the real injustice is that a white person has been “accused”, not that a black person has been oppressed. This is also seen in the “all lives matter” response, where a white person carefully moves the conversation away from thinking about what black people specifically are experiencing. As one Tweeter pointed out, this is like running into a stranger’s funeral and shouting “I too have experienced loss!”

I’ve seen “All Lives Matter” and its variations shouted over black people so many times this past 2 weeks I keep a little file of the best responses to the phrase. Find some examples here, here and here.

Why is it so hard, though, for white counsellors to stay with and show true empathy for the pain that black people specifically are experiencing? It’s possible that the enormity of racism is so great that we dissociate from it. The cruelty of this is, when white people dissociate from thinking about racism, we lose sufficient awareness to avoid perpetuating it.

Learning to stay with the story

Developing robustness around this topic takes work. We don’t have to suddenly become anti-racist warriors overnight. We may do more good by adding a “Black Lives Matter” banner to our profile picture, switching up the media we consume to help raise our consciousness, and donating a sizeable chunk of money to the people who are expert at this work than wading into the fray without the appropriate training.

There comes a moment when the extent of racism seeps into our awareness and becomes quickly overwhelming. We hopefully realise black people never get a break from racism, and it can make us realise how vital it is for us not to turn away. That doesn’t mean, though, we have to throw ourselves relentlessly into a fight we are ill-equipped for out of sheer guilt.

Black people know what they are doing in this terrain and we need to step back, watch, listen and learn. Always follow their lead. I don’t mean leave all the labour to them – I do mean not charge in like a white saviour.

Being open to be challenged as much as we are willing to challenge others. Yes, it’s important to call out racism, but actually, modelling good grace and reflective practice when we’re called out is even more powerful. Being called racist is not a terrible thing, and it certainly isn’t as terrible as experiencing racism. Accepting I am likely to be racist without meaning to sometimes and that black people have a right to be angry about racism is important.

If we hurt someone accidentally, they’re still hurt – centring how we feel about having hurt them is inappropriate. We can choose to move from “I didn’t mean it, so why are you so angry?” to “what can I do now to help alleviate the hurt?”

Not taking up space with our feelings. My feelings about the horror of anti-black racism, and the shame and guilt I feel for my part in perpetuating it are for me to take away and reflect on in counselling or supervision. It’s not for black people to educate me, nor do I need them to hear about the pain I feel as I struggle to get to grips with this issue.

It’s okay to feel overwhelmed and devastated as this seeps into our awareness in a new way. But our tears, guilt and shame are not for black people to have to deal with – we need to work through them on our own time.

We need to be in this for the long haul. This needs not to be one of the moments when everyone cares for a week and then turns away. Undoing hundreds of years of violence and injustice will take the rest of our lives, but it can be done if we all stick with it. To be trustworthy, I have to learn to resist the urge to see black anger as an overreaction or exaggeration. Once I learned what things were really like for black people in the UK, I began to see that on the contrary, black people have been schooled into suppressing so much of their justifiable anger, and I wanted to hold space for them to let that healing anger surface.

Language has power. How we tell a story influences perception. So, tuning into the way people seeking racial justice use words and tell their story is important, as is reflecting that language back without undermining it, critiquing it or altering it. These are not our stories to control. Our job is to lift up black voices and listen to them.

Some resources to get started

Eye-opening history

Britain’s Loan to Pay Off Slave Owners Not Repaid Until 2015

Dr Joy Deguy on Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. Criticism of her work here . (Watch her speak here)

CPD Course: Post-Slavery Syndrome: Exploring The Clinical Impact Of The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Witnessing the Wound – BAATN Conference 2018 – a phenomenal history of the legacy of slavery across the globe

The anti-blackness of Gandhi – excerpt from an interview with Arundhati Roy

MLK’s letter from a Birmingham Jail

Articles and videos

Microaggressions are not a ‘harmless’ form of racism – they have a huge impact

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race

BACP – why we need to talk about race

Psychology Today – Accepting difficult emotions surrounding race

The damaging psychological impact of constantly having to explain racism

Psychology Today – What Well-Intentioned White People Can Do About Racism

For our white friends desiring to be allies

This blog from a UK black therapist is excellent

CPD sites/resources

Free racialized trauma course

Dulwich Centre – an invitation to practitioners to address privilege and dominance – great resources site

Anti-Racist Resource Guide – a comprehensive list of US-focused resources, including actions we can take

A running list of anti-racism resources – another up-to-date resource list from the US

Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility – often have exploring whiteness workshops

Let’s get uncomfortable – embedding explorations of race, ethnicity, culture and power in counselling and psychotherapy trainings

The Black, African, and Asian Therapy Network – Library of resources

Take the Harvard Implicit Bias Test here

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack – Peggy McIntosh


An amazing book list here

UK Book list here

White Fragility – Robin DiAngelo (great article about this here)

Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race – Reni Eddo-Lodge

Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor – Layla F Saad

Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire – Akala (See Akala speak here)