There is a lot of discussion in the media about race at the moment. With recent racial unrest in America and worldwide protests to protect black lives, it’s left many of us feeling anxious, and confused about what’s going on in the world. Here at Kooth, we think it’s important to keep the conversation going about race, and while we really hear it’s sometimes a sensitive subject for some, we also feel it’s an important one to keep on having.
We’d like to introduce you to Aisha (A) – a black, British counsellor of Caribbean and South American Heritage, and Gemma (G) – a white, British counsellor. They both work with people in a variety of settings. Here’s their honest conversation about race in the therapy room…
### What’s it like when working with the same race/culture?
A – I believe that issues of race and culture are important to discuss and explore in the therapy room as they will intricately influence my client’s healing process and the journey in which I am able to facilitate for my clients. By not acknowledging race you are leaving a large part of the client and yourself outside the room. A part that will be experienced either way by both parties as it is something that cannot be hidden. So why ignore it?
When I work with clients, no matter what the race, I consider the impact of their race and mine on both the therapeutic process and their experiences and thoughts. I do this by asking myself various questions. For example, as a black counsellor, am I correctly understanding the cultural intricacies of my white clients experience. This allows me to be aware throughout the process of my own biases, and possible triggers; and explore this dynamic both in clinical supervision and with my clients (where appropriate).
G – I agree. It’s important to acknowledge the full experience of our clients and I wonder whether sometimes not acknowledging issues of race or other potentially triggering or sensitive subjects is about feeling out of our comfort zone? There’s a huge responsibility not to shy away from things that make us uncomfortable or that feel sensitive and if race is one of those subjects, we (as counsellors of any race or culture actually) need to address that. For me, it’s absolutely my responsibility to check in with my own thoughts and feelings as well as my clients in order to acknowledge what is in the therapy room whether that’s virtually or face to face. For example, are there assumptions being made if we are both the same race, a sameness perhaps or shared experience? Or similarly, what is it like for a non-white young person to have a white therapist? Do I represent something significant as a white counsellor for my client? If there are issues around race that need to be explored for that person, we should definitely go there if it feels significant. For me, by avoiding things that feel uncomfortable, there’s a real cost and the person that pays that price is always the client. Leaving matters of race out, if it feels important, is a bit like short changing our clients.
### What’s it like when working with the same race/culture?
A – I have noticed that there is an interesting dynamic that often happens when I work with black clients from African and Caribbean backgrounds in particular. And that is one of an assumed shared understanding of experience. Now, whilst I often do have an understanding of the experiences shared from these clients both personally and professionally (I was raised with the understanding that I am African by descent, despite having Caribbean and South American parents) I find the assumptions my clients make of my level of understanding to be a key message in the therapeutic process.
G – I appreciate that when it comes to matters of race, culture, religion, gender, sexuality and other potentially sensitive areas, some people seeking counselling have a preference of who they would like to see. Perhaps somebody with a shared experience or identity, with the assumption that their therapist will ‘get it’ and ‘get them’ perhaps? I can really respect that and understand why and I imagine there’s great depth to be reached from working with someone who may understand a little about your background. But I would actually encourage anyone seeking therapy to also consider other therapists that don’t share so many surface similarities for a different experience. For me, counselling is less about identifying with a person’s experience and more about a human connection.
### Do people make assumptions about you in any way due to your race?
A – I personally have had Black people request to have me specifically as their therapist and explain it is because I am black myself. And I feel their assumptions about my understanding speaks to a benefit they feel is gained from having a therapist that is the same race as them. I have also had Asian clients both in person and online request to talk to me specifically. Online, they have assumed I am also Asian (by my name) and in person, they have assumed a level of understanding and or identified my race as something that makes them feel more comfortable.
On the other hand, I have come across Black and Asian people looking to access therapy who have specifically requested to have a counsellor from a different race to their own (including a counsellor that is black). This suggests that sometimes race can act as a barrier. This is because there often is the fear of being judged or the client feels triggers of shame around cultural practises that may or may not be being adhered to.
G – I guess having a typically British name might give away my background and I remember I had a young person online actually who asked for a Muslim counsellor to discuss things around culture and religion. And while at the time, I think I respected this as their right to ask for what they wanted, actually I wish I would have explored a little further. Why did this feel important to them? What was their experience? I don’t know, because I didn’t ask. At the time, I thought they were really honest and so simply respected their request but actually perhaps I short changed them by not exploring it a bit further. Maybe they did get exactly what they needed and wanted, but maybe they also missed out on a different experience? It always pays to be curious.
In my face to face work, I worked with a teenager who had a lot of traumatic experiences with white people. It was hard for him to have a white female counsellor and he assumed he wouldn’t like me or like working with me. And so for him, race was a huge barrier at first and I didn’t blame him. The work was hard and really painful (for us both at times) But in time, we were able to explore his trauma gently and honestly. Our differences were part of the therapeutic journey and while it didn’t change what had happened in his past, it did give him a different experience that he was able to take with him too.
### Do you think we have a responsibility as counsellors when it comes to matters of race and culture?
A – For me, I believe it is important for therapists to be aware of their blind spots in cultural awareness, when working with clients from different backgrounds. Otherwise we run the risk of washing over our clients experiences with our viewpoints and what is acceptable and or not in our culture. This invalidates our clients feelings and experiences. In addition to this, I think it is important to be aware of the potentially beautiful process that can happen when clients and therapists of differing races (particularly races who have a very painful past together) can come together in a space of curiosity, understanding, acceptance, honesty and unconditional positive regard. This can have a positive impact for generations to come.
I feel all therapists should consider:
- Their own race and culture and the positive and negative consequences of that in life.
- The race of their client and the positives and negatives consequences of that in their clients life.
- Bringing difference into the therapy room.
- Their duty to not assume “sameness” (resulting in a lack of exploration) even if the client is the same race.
- Exploring their own biases and prejudices in personal therapy and supervision.
- Getting comfortable talking about their race and the race of others.
G – I agree. As professionals, we are taught to be aware of the things that make us uncomfortable and it is our responsibility to always work with those issues with our eyes wide open. It is ok to feel uncomfortable, it’s not ok to stay within our comfort zone and avoid subjects that trigger this feeling. We are in the business of curiosity and that doesn’t just stop with our clients – we need to be curious about our own ‘stuff’ as well as our clients.
For me, it is the responsibility of the counsellor to do exactly what we encourage of our clients – to go to places that feel uncomfortable, to be curious, and to come face to face with the things we might be avoiding consciously or otherwise.
Checking in with ourselves and checking things out with clients authentically and respectfully, is what being a counsellor is all about and something we should be doing whatever our race, religion, culture or social background.
### *Written by Aisha and Gemma