It was a simple question, “How are you doing?” that started us on a path of discovery. I (Lisa) wanted to check in with Michelle, my teaching assistant, after racial tensions consumed the news. George Floyd had just been killed, and the media were focused on his death, the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, and the outcry for justice for the African American community.
Michelle was initially numb, unsure of how to articulate the different thoughts and feelings the recent events had triggered for her. I could tell she needed a break from our usual academic work, so I assigned a reflective activity to give her space for introspection.
The events brought to my (Michelle’s) mind a comment that actor Will Smith had previously made on a late-night television show: “Racism is not getting worse; it’s getting filmed.”
As my ideas began to crystallize, Lisa and I began to share our perspectives on the sobering current events. The result was a rich dialogue between us — raw, authentic and refreshingly open.
What follows is an excerpt from our discussion. We hope that it will stimulate other discussions and encourage counselors to not fear engaging in dialogue about race. We believe that such open communication will help us to better understand one another and the reality of systemic issues, to identify our blind spots and areas for growth, to improve our care for clients and to move our profession forward.
Racism at first glance
Lisa: Michelle, you told me how triggering the recent acts of racism in America and subsequent protests have been for you. Could you share some of your background?
Michelle: I was born to an African American father and a Japanese mother around the civil unrest and well-publicized riots of 1968. The United States was embroiled in an unpopular war in Vietnam, and racial tensions at home were an additional black eye on our status as a world leader. It is sobering to consider that the institutionalized racism which led to the widespread violence and destruction of many cities, including Washington, Chicago and Baltimore, has not been eliminated over my lifetime.
My first understanding of racism occurred when I was in the first grade. My mother would meet me after school each day to walk the mile or so back to our house. One day, a white pickup truck pulled alongside us, and two Caucasian men started yelling racial epithets and throwing beer bottles at us. My mother grabbed me and ran into a nearby park where they could not follow in their vehicle.
My mother reported the incident to the police, but it was not investigated, and the matter was dropped. It was not until several years later that I understood what transpired that day and the reality that the very notion of my existence was abhorrent to someone simply based on how I looked.
The path to becoming a counselor
Lisa: That must have been a terrifying experience for you. What impact did your childhood have on your career path as a professional counselor?
Michelle: I became driven to prove my value and worth to society through academic and athletic achievement. When it came time to apply to college, I wanted to mark the “other” box because, back then, “multiracial” was not an option.
My mother surprisingly challenged my decision: “Michelle, whether you like it or not, the world is going to look at the color of your skin and decide that you’re African American. Why not show them you are also kind, driven, intelligent and talented? It doesn’t have to be either-or.”
My mother’s advice empowered me to look beyond my neighborhood and the typical path of my peers, which was community college or service and retail jobs. I applied to the United States Naval Academy and was accepted into the 10th class that allowed women. As a midshipman, it was not lost on me that there were few black or brown faces, and I was often reminded that there were 20 other applicants for everyone who was accepted, so I had to make my presence count.
I found my follow-on experience in the Marine Corps to be a great example of inclusion, as we all worked together toward a common mission. There were not black, white, brown or yellow Marines — we were all “green.” As an intelligence officer, I became adept at understanding the human nature of our enemies and advising appropriate responses to conflict. This intuitiveness and desire to bring healing to suffering led me straight to my next career as a professional counselor.
Experiencing racism with clients
Lisa: Have you experienced racism in your interactions with clients and, if so, how have you managed it?
Michelle: Depending on how I wear my hair, it has apparently been difficult for others to determine my race. Over my lifetime, I have been mistaken for Filipino, Puerto Rican, Thai/Burmese, South Korean and Samoan.
As a licensed professional counselor, I have had clients decline to meet with me because I was not pale enough for their liking or not dark enough “to understand their experience.” Several clients have made racially disparaging comments about African Americans or Asian groups in my presence because they were unaware of my multiracial background. One Caucasian client made the flip comment, “She [a Hispanic friend] is so stupid. What did she expect dating a Black guy? They’re all dogs and can’t keep a job!”
Those comments were spoken so casually that it is not hard to imagine that worse was being said in other settings. It is a sad reminder that racial prejudice and stereotyping are still at the forefront of some people’s minds. Sad because such views prevent the speaker from seeing the potential good aspects of another race and benefiting from their culture. Sad because such divisiveness prevents unity that could make us stronger as neighbors, co-workers or fellow journeyers on this path through life. My identity is not the “little mongrel” girl who had to hide in a park, nor are those individuals being described the sum of those demeaning or devaluing statements. We can and need to do better.
Early in my career, I had a Caucasian client tell me he hated “Black people.” I was quite surprised, and it must have shown on my face because he immediately added, “But you’re all right. You’re not like the other ones I’ve met.”
As you can imagine, I was angry at his audacity and saddened by his views, but I knew based on where he was in treatment that it was not the time to get into a heated debate about his racial beliefs. However, I realized that his sharing of those ideas with me indicated that he felt safe to do so in my presence and that I had been entrusted with a variable that I had not known about him previously. While I was offended by his remark, I remember thinking, “Stay focused on the client. This is not about me; it’s about the client.”
I am going to be judged, fairly and unfairly, but I choose to live in a manner to be a credit to my race rather than a detractor. I also recognize that every instance of racism is a learning opportunity — for me to better understand how the other person came to their beliefs and for clients to perhaps expand their views to see past a person’s appearance to their character. We are all a product of our genetics, nurturing, environment and experience. A client’s life may have taught them to hate, but if we, as counselors, do not believe in the potential for people to change and grow, we are in the wrong profession.
Racism can come in many forms. It can be overt or covert, generational or situational, and institutional or individual. As counselors, we need to be prepared for however it manifests and to recognize that some people are not even aware of how hurtful their beliefs are until they are uttered out loud and someone checks them on it. When working with clients, I have come to recognize that racism is often based on fear, and the more information the client is willing to learn about the object of their fear, the less impact it has. Working with a client’s racist remarks takes the same unconditional positive regard that you would give any client, and it is an opportunity to model healthy self-concept and emotional regulation.
So, take the client I mentioned previously who stated that he hated Black people. For this interview, I will call him “John.” When John made that statement, I did not react to his remarks, but I was able to work with him later in therapy surrounding some of his distorted schemas when he was ready. The following are some practical suggestions for working with clients who show signs of racism:
1) It’s not about you. (Do not personalize clients’ racist remarks).
Me: “It sounds like there are anger and pain behind that statement. Tell me about the Black people you’ve previously met.”
John: “Well, they make me sick. They’re lazy. They lie around doing drugs and collecting a welfare check while I bust my butt working all the time.”
2) Gently challenge any overgeneralizations.
Me: “Who are ‘they’? Are you talking about specific people you know?”
John: “No, you know what I mean. Just Black people.”
Me: “I know some Black people, but they don’t do drugs and they have jobs.”
John: “I know they’re not all like that. Like I said, you’re all right because I know you work for a living.”
Me: “So you don’t hate all Black people, just the Black people who are uneducated or unemployed?”
John: “Yeah, I guess.”
3) Help clients clarify their feelings.
Me: “Some might take your response as jealousy rather than hatred. You work hard, but they get by without working. Would you consider jealousy to be a better word?”
John: “No! I’m not jealous of those Black people. Shoot, I’m way better than them. I’m financially secure with a good job and a house. There’s nothing to be jealous of.”
Me: “You do work hard and have a lot going for you. So, why are you comparing yourself to them?”
John: “I’m not! They’re a drain on society. They could be doing as well as I am if they would just apply themselves.”
Me: “So, help me understand. If there is no comparison in your eyes, why do you even care?”
John: “Because my taxpayer dollars are going to finance their lifestyle.”
Me: “Actually, your and my tax dollars are going to finance a lot of things, like the military, Social Security and the national debt. Do you hate them too?”
John: “No, that’s just stupid. Of course I don’t hate the military. They’re necessary for our nation’s defense. It’s just our precious resources should only be used on important things that benefit all of society.”
Me: “If hate is too strong, or not the right word, what is a better way to describe how you feel?”
John: “I guess you could say I’m frustrated.”
4) Help clients clarify their beliefs.
Me: “OK, you are frustrated with some uneducated or unemployed Black people.”
John: “Yeah, because they’re on welfare.”
Me: “I also know a lot of people on welfare — White, Black, Hispanic, etc. Are you frustrated with them as well?”
John [staring at me]: “I know what you’re doing. No, I’m not frustrated with all of them. You are just twisting things around.”
5) Follow up with psychoeducation.
Me: “I’m just trying to understand what you believe and why you believe it. Words matter, and I hope you can see there is a big difference between ‘I hate Black people’ and ‘I’m frustrated with what I believe is the misuse of taxpayer money.’
Some people are where they are due to a lack of nurturing, growing up in an unsafe environment or even traumatic experiences. But when you are hindered by those things, which are outside of your control, and the color of your skin habitually prevents others from seeing you as a person or recognizing your worth, it is hard to have hope of living any other way.
We all have biases — because of our genetics, nurturing, environment and experiences — that can incite our emotions and distort our thinking. Racism occurs when we start believing those distortions about an entire group of people without considering individual differences. It may be easy to blame an entire group of people in a situation, but it is much more helpful to honestly examine why we feel the way we do and, when in our power, to do something about it.
Having an open conversation about race with a client is possible, but counselors must consider the client’s readiness and make sure the discussion is integral to the context of the client’s presenting issue. The counseling office is not a bully pulpit, nor is it a place for counselors to get their own emotional needs met. However, when a client is ready and open to discuss the subject, counselors should be ready to “go there” while maintaining empathy and without allowing countertransference to interfere with their effectiveness.
Experiencing racism within the profession
Lisa: Thank you for sharing your experiences and such practical suggestions for working with clients. I think we are often caught off guard by comments made during sessions, and it is very helpful to think ahead of time about what to do in those situations. In addition to interactions with clients, have you experienced racism within our professional field?
Michelle: Sure. I once had a colleague tell me that she was no longer going to take Medicaid clients because they were “all Black, unemployed and unmarried with a gang of kids.” Another colleague commented that the Black clients brought their kids in for testing for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder “just so they can get a check.” These were seasoned professionals who had been seeing clients for many years.
Lisa: How disappointing to hear such comments from your peers. As a Caucasian, I have noticed that many of my White colleagues feel content in knowing that they do not personally hold prejudiced feelings against others. However, I realize that a lack of personal hate does not do enough to confront systemic racism. What can we do as a profession to make progress and move forward in this area?
Michelle: The first thing is to stop apologizing. I cannot speak for all people of color, but we are not looking for apologies. Now, let me caveat that: I always advise my clients to “own what’s yours.” If you personally contributed in any way to the oppression of a person of color, then apologize to that person. Otherwise, a blanket apology often indicates that someone does not understand the nature of institutional racism.
Secondly, ask, listen, learn and act. We will never solve the problem if we do not understand the nature of the problem. Ask people of color about their experiences. You may be surprised how many instances of racism — such as inappropriate comments or jokes in the workplace — individuals have had to push aside or ignore. Question formal processes at work that have been in place for a long time because “that’s the way we’ve always done things” attitudes can indicate tacit approval of an oppressive infrastructure (e.g., not taking Medicaid clients because it does not pay as well as commercial insurance).
Listen to the conversations being held when people of color are not in the room. They may be an indication of an undercurrent of racism (e.g., gossip or complaining regarding people of color) that needs to be exposed.
Learn by reading books, listening to podcasts or subscribing to YouTube channels by people of color.
Act by speaking up when you hear racist comments or when you see acts of discrimination. Be willing to get involved with faith organizations, social justice movements and causes of people of color (e.g., speaking at a city council meeting about trauma-informed care for African American neighborhoods or joining a peaceful march). Lastly, help affect the future of the counseling profession. Become a supervisor and share the wisdom you learn about institutional racism and the need to work with people of color to fix the system.
Thirdly, for supervisors, it is important to recognize that our supervisees are coming from different backgrounds and are at different levels of multicultural competence. I hold an initial interview with my supervisees to get a sense of their goals, strengths and weaknesses. Included in this interview is a question about their ethnicity, nurturing, environment and experience as it pertains to working with race and other marginalized groups. The answer is usually, “I had a multicultural awareness class as part of my master’s degree.” I take that to mean that they do not know what they do not know, so the onus is then on the supervisor to prepare counselors-in-training in this area of competency.
I take a developmental approach with supervision and challenge supervisees to take multicultural considerations into account as they approach each client and their diagnosis. Our discussions also include case studies tailored to increase their ability to recognize their own biases and blind spots.
These past weeks, with all of the media coverage of the racial unrest, have offered a rich environment for my supervisees to learn about institutional racism and to ask questions about social justice for their clients. It is not just a multicultural issue but also an ethical one. So, I try to ensure that my supervisees are not only comfortable working with people of diverse backgrounds but also willing to admit their own areas of cultural ignorance and work toward increasing their knowledge.
Connecting multicultural competency and trauma-informed care
Lisa: Is there any other area where we can look for change?
Michelle: All professional counseling organizations have submitted statements of support to the current nonviolent protests and offered ways to help support the victims of racial trauma. This is a great start to addressing the issue. However, if we want to make a difference, we need to reevaluate the profession’s approach to multicultural and trauma-informed education because they go hand in hand.
Most counseling programs have one mandatory multicultural class and may offer some trauma electives. However, multicultural competency should be infused throughout the program, and trauma-informed care should be a required part of every curriculum. Recognizing that the design of the master’s programs is toward clinical competency as determined by face-to-face hours, how well do practicum and internships expose and evaluate multicultural and trauma care competencies? Your new book, Preparing for Trauma Work in Clinical Mental Health, addresses concepts such as historical trauma, disenfranchised grief, advocacy and ethnic identity strength and would really fill this curriculum void.
For provisional and licensed counselors, in the same way that ethics continuing education is required every year, multicultural and trauma refresher training should be required on an annual basis to ensure that counselors are maintaining the best practices. To obtain licensure, counselors should demonstrate competency in working with diverse clients and various trauma backgrounds. In addition, all professional counselors should take an active role in advocacy work on behalf of their clients and in their communities.
Just as the color of my skin is going to be subconsciously noted by the people I meet, similar experiences are happening to our clients of color, most of whom have lived with some form of oppression during their lifetime. Counselors need to be prepared to approach multicultural considerations in trauma-informed care to understand how to appropriately establish strong therapeutic alliances with clients and enhance safety and stabilization. This is a herald’s call for counselors to change the way we approach the effects of institutionalized racism if we truly want to be agents of change.
Michelle Fielder is a licensed professional counselor and approved clinical supervisor in private practice. She is also a doctoral candidate in the counselor education and supervision program at Regent University. Contact her at email@example.com.
Lisa Compton is a certified trauma treatment specialist and full-time faculty at Regent University. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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