‘We have that history to face in our own household’

07 October 2021

Divine Charura is Professor of Counselling Psychology at York St John University in York, and a member of the British Psychological Society. Colin Lago is an independent counsellor/psychotherapist/consultant and a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. Their co-edited book, Black Identities + White Therapies: Race, respect + diversity, is published by PCCS Books.

What was the main impetus for you to put this book together now? 


There were three main reasons for me. The first is very personal: having the lived experience as a member of British society and as a citizen of the world, around race discrimination and racism. The second is having been a trainee many years ago, to now facilitating psychology training. Feedback from students – particularly from minority groups – has voiced the lack of inclusion of other theoretical perspectives that they can relate to, as our teaching curriculum is mainly a Eurocentric one. Yet in practice, when they go out in the world, they have to face a diverse society. My lived experiences as a student were the same: of having a ‘diversity weekend’ rather than that being threaded right through.

The final thing is just my real interest in diversity and equality, in different epistemologies and how they sit alongside each other. Witnessing the turmoil in the world… I remember being a young boy, my parents taking me to South Africa during the time of apartheid. And over the years the many things that have happened: Nelson Mandela coming out of prison; the many genocides we've had globally; and more recently, the murder of Mr George Floyd and what it sparked in the world.


I've been terribly concerned about these issues for a very long time. From being a child, I've always been concerned about social justice and inclusion. And I think, to some extent, that reflects a kind of biography where I’ve often felt excluded. And so I became very passionate about how people become included in a socially just way.

This particular book came out of conversations where we were concerned to produce a critical text in the sense that the majority of the authors are from different minority heritages. We invited them to reflect on their experiences as counsellors, therapists and trainers and so on. Of course it's come at a time of a more recent explosion of interest, compassion, that seems to have been worldwide. And that's been accompanied by an explosion of literature – novels and biographical experiences. In the last two decades, the nature of identity in society has come much more to the fore… and that's really sharpened the complexity inherent in the societal, and more specifically, therapeutic dialogue. The issues are both timely and timeless. There's something about society that we hope is more open to the contemplation of these issues now.

What kind of books have raised the dialogues around identity?

There’s Reni Eddo Lodge’s Why I’ve stopped talking to white people about race. There was a memoir, A search for belonging, by Michael Fuller, a very senior police officer, who is Afro-Caribbean. There’s It’s not about the burqa by Mariam Khan and Overcoming everyday racism by Susan Cousins.

In your preface you wrote ‘This book really does set out to decolonise the profession from its roots and origins’ – what does this mean?


I think that this idea of decolonising the profession is often misinterpreted. In chapter 17, we write about when we’ve spoken to colleagues who say ‘Oh, we've included a few black authors or authors from different epistemologies who have minority heritage’ who in fact will be from the global majority, as it were. And in the history of psychology there has been lots of research that does not put at heart the reality of diversity. In decolonising the curriculum, Professor Frank Keating at Royal Holloway argues that this can be done by analysing how oppression and power are used to exploit, or oppress, or discriminate against racialised groups. And the importance of examining and critically examining the beliefs that we hold in psychology, about other groups and the process of othering. 

One of the things that we talk about is around decolonising research and practice, which essentially is about us challenging Eurocentric ideas, how we use Eurocentric-based psychology, psychotherapy-counselling ideas, to inform what we do in practice. It's also about challenging the pre-eminence that we give to Western models in viewing mental health, mental ill health, well-being, psychological dis-ease. Even when these things don't apply to other groups, we tend to still look down a Western perspective. And it's important, I think, for us to see other epistemologies, other cultures, other psychologies as equal knowledge-generating partners, and as worthy of critiquing Eurocentric psychology. 

I train counselling psychologists, and I think it would be wrong for us to say, ‘right, we'll teach you a purely based Eurocentric system that has psychometric tests that are biased towards racialised groups that do not include how others might see psychological distress in the formulation’. And then at the end, we say, right, you're graduated, now you're going to work in a diverse Britain… It doesn't work.


It's both theoretical and it's about the complexity of practice… trying to mine the assumptions in contemporary theory and practice. These are assumptions about the other – whoever the other is, right? It's trying to be absolutely sensitive, in terms of the quality of practice to each client that comes to consult us. It's about a questioning of profound assumptions originating often through training that that this is what we learn – so this is therefore what we do. At its ultimate, I would love this book to be informing the quality of sensitivity of practice. So that relationship formation with clients is at the core. Moments of discrimination, or racism or oppression, are well recorded within the profession. It's not something that happens only on the streets or in organisational structures… there is something about going to the heart of what it is we do as therapists, psychologists, and how we can best do it. The world can come into our room. It’s a striving for an efficacious, effective, socially-just way of being with another.


Maybe there's something else in addition to what Colin is saying about facing up to our history. We can look at statistics, the likes of Ronald Fisher, William Gossett, Karl Pearson, and the critical arguments that have been made against the problems in ethnic bias in assessments; in reduced access to psychological therapy via primary care pathways; the high prevalence of mental ill health in black and ethnic minority communities and over-representation in psychiatric systems; the lower likelihood of being referred to talking therapies and greater likelihood of being prescribed medication; the report of discriminatory and traumatic experiences of mental health services and so on. We have that history to face in our own household.


These negative experiences range from the ‘diagnostic’ level, right through to the levels of professionals’ sensitivity and openness to understanding the complexities of transgenerational trauma. Knowing that things can manifest for clients which they themselves don't understand. It can be deeply rooted – so it's an openness to that kind of phenomenon.

What are the issues that your book focuses on in terms the training of psychologists to work with clients in diverse world?


Just recently we've seen on our screens, the horrific scenes in Afghanistan – we didn’t foresee this when we conceived the book in 2019. We have a chapter on training therapists in Afghanistan written by Lucia Berdondini, Ali Ahmad Kaveh and Sandra Grieve. Then we've got Delroy Hall who wrote a chapter about whether you can speak about race without going pink, or feeling uncomfortable. That's really in tandem with other chapters, like an anti-racist counselling training model from Courtland Lee at the Chicago School Professional Psychology. Then there are colleagues who are really steeped in the psychoanalytic, psychodynamic tradition. We dedicated the book to Lennox Thomas who was reflecting about psychodynamic psychoanalytic approaches in his chapter, and another colleague, Mark Williams, is also writing from the experience of being a trainee or student. Dwight Turner explores unconscious privilege, otherness and counselling. There's a duality to the college writing, both as trainers and what's important in the curriculum, but also reflecting on biographical experiences as trainees. 


Gosh, yes. I’m thinking of the other colleague from the Chicago school, Priscilla Dass-Brailsford. She writes about the leading question: ‘Where are you from?’. No, where are you really from? [Shaoni laughs] That's obviously resonating with you!

Yeah. Familiar question.

And she really explores that, looks at racism and perceived discrimination within that kind of question. 

In your first chapter you talk about psychology professionals and society in general, being uncomfortable with talking about issues of race – how can psychology tackle this discomfort?


The first thing is for us to be open, to have discussions about our history. Psychology is not without its faults in playing a part in discrimination and oppression within its studies, in its magnificent endeavour to understand human behaviour and the mind. Alongside that is to create spaces, and opportunities for dialogue with those who have the lived experience of oppression, or discrimination. And I'm talking about shifts in the geopolitics of knowledge, in which whole modes and epistemological frameworks of knowing and understanding the world are challenged. 

I also think it is about breaking down the structures that support the status quo [power inequalities and discrimination]. An example is around training and access: who is able to access our training, and its costs? The other thing is about our capacity to do deep self-work: to look at our own biases and for us psychologists to challenge and critically examine our own beliefs that we hold about ourselves, about other groups of people, how we other, because we’re all prejudiced. And also taking a real radical shift that is more than tokenistic in decolonising the curriculum in the way we've already spoken about. 


In terms of the profession, my own sense is that it will be important to tackle these issues whenever and wherever possible. This means a greater openness about the arena within training courses, professional journals, continuing professional development courses, conferences and so on. Such initiatives will need continued support and attention from those in positions of institutional power within the profession. Support, recognition and encouragement will also need to be extended to the current ‘diversity’ interest group within BPS to expand its work. The profession could promote ‘training the trainers’ conferences to support trainers striving to include the subject more fully within their courses.

Are there specific issues that psychologists from minority ethnic, for example black or Asian, backgrounds face today? 


The first thing is the duality of having a lived experience of oppression, or being othered. I know many psychologists for whom the starting point when people see them is not to think they're psychologists. At a conference, I've been considered a security guard. Having the duality of a lived experience that is steeped in oppression, and then being part of this wonderful profession that understands the mind, can be quite frustrating and challenging.

The other bit is what we call the gift of visibility and invisibility, which is the capacity to be able to change the profession from within. The other issue is the pain of difference. I've been at so many conferences, where the issues of race discrimination, or difference are faced with silence – because people don't know what to say, or they want to be politically correct. Or they go ‘oh, not that race thing again!’. A few of the chapters begin to speak to that. Having to deal with what is already known about what might unfold, of the silence, is a real challenge. But the other bit for some of our trainees is the frustration in not seeing their cultural experience, their worldview, represented in the research, the theory, and the practice. All the examples don't apply to them, yet they know there's millions and millions of people that look like them and they're not considered. But there's many benefits as well – fighting from within, speaking to colleagues open to it, and having the lived experience of living in both worlds – the Eurocentric and one's heritage.

How does that affect minority ethnic clients, black or Asian or others receiving psychological therapies?


If I don't know how important it is for me to hold a feminist critique in my practice, as an example: how could I ever work with clients who identify as women? If I've never been informed in my training and am working with somebody who has a faith; or I don't know that there are certain rituals that a particular person has to engage with because of their cultural experience; it's the same thing. 

John Burnham speaks about what he calls the social GGRRAAACCEEESSS. That’s social graces that speak to gender, gender identity, geography, race, religion, age, ability, appearance, and references to those. But it's so important to have that knowledge of culture, education, spirituality, sexual orientation. So in a sense, we are making reference to the idea of intersectionality that I'm not just a black person: I'm black, I'm a man, I'm of a certain social class and a certain age. And so that's important. And the last thing I'll say is that we have an idea that we call the emic [insider viewpoint] and the etic [observer viewpoint] approach. Some people will say ‘Oh Divine, I don't see your colour, I just see you as a human being’ – thank you very much, it’s important to see me as a human being. But the other side is to see my uniqueness and the importance of holding those two things – one’s diversity and equally one’s humanity, because if we don't do both, then we missed that capacity to hold them as a being of worth.

Were there any unexpected findings or surprises when you put the book together? 


I never cease to be amazed at how much our experience as human beings can resonate. Some of the authors I had never met – and when I read what they had written, or heard them speak at the book launch, I was deeply touched. In fact, I broke down in tears. But that's about our humanity, and thinking ‘Oh my God, what I thought was just my experience, is your experience too’. And what do we need to do to bring about a change in the world?

The second thing echoes a piece I wrote last year, Where is the love?, for the UK Council for Psychotherapy. It was about the things that surprise me, but also don't surprise me. I can’t actually believe that in 2021 we still need books like this to be talking about race and the pain of discrimination. As I can't believe that in 2021, we are talking about women being paid less than men in some circles. As I can't believe we are still discriminating against people who are disabled or have psychological distress.

If there’s one key message you’d like readers to take away from this book, what would it be?


I would invite readers to conduct two continuing professional development exercises for themselves. Firstly, to think and reflect more deeply upon the human experience of being oppressed/‘othered’/discriminated against… and its devastating impact upon the self-esteem, confidence, experience of (in)security/safety and consequent behaviour that such oppressive treatment evokes in the recipient. Thus to engage in an act of ‘imaginative empathy’, seeking to understand the ‘other’s’ experience, as to the likely impact of such (frequently long term/unsolicited/ aggressive) behaviour.

And secondly to monitor one’s own perceptual emotional reactions to others of difference and diversity – people in the street, on TV, in magazines, etc – and to note these attitudinal reactions and internally reflect upon questions such as ‘where did my reaction come from? How come I reacted that like? And if that person came into my interviewing room today how would I respond/how would I like to respond? How might I deal with these reactions in myself?’.


I’d like them to think about ‘how can I contribute to bring about the change that is so needed in the world?’. And in our profession – in relation to black identities and white therapies. We all have a responsibility. And as psychologists, what are we doing? Because we can’t just stand and watch.

Divine Charura is currently examining the impact of diversity, social distancing and Covid on romantic relationships in ‘Love in the time of Covid’. The link to participate is https://tinyurl.com/covidandlove

Editor's note: Originally published online 7 October 2021


Charura, D. ‘Racial injustice ... Where is the love? A response to present societal responses on the death of George Floyd and to the UKCP statement.’ UK Council for Psychotherapy.

Burnham, J. (2013). Developments in Social GGRRAAACCEEESSS: visible-invisible, voiced-unvoiced. In I. Krause (Ed.), Cultural Reflexivity. London: Karnac.

Divac, A., & Heaphy, G. (2005). Space for GRRAACCES: training for cultural competence in supervision. Journal of Family Therapy, 27: 280–284. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6427.2005.00318.x