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How to validate racial trauma

This may seem like a very arbitrary statement and if you find yourself wondering “why would I as a therapist need to validate someone’s race related trauma?” then this article is for you. Perhaps you are already an ally and want to know how to do so sensitively. If that is the case then you will be pleased to know that I have incorporated a tool to support you also. 

I am sure you will agree that helping someone to work through their trauma is complex. Talking about it can be very painful for the client especially, if they have not explored the experience with anyone else. As I have spoken about before, ‘race’ is a concept that has been used to oppress and exploit. This can happen between races e.g., a ‘white’ individual enslaving a ‘black’ individual  and within a racial group through colourism. A grand-parent favouring a lighter skinned grandchild will have psychological implications however when a “Black” owned Jamaican bank employs ‘high colour’ or ‘red skin’ individuals to work as clerks and ‘blackies’ or ‘dark skin’ to be cleaners- then understandably the power to limit job opportunities and income is there. 

So, what does this have to do with counselling and our clients? As practioners we must learn to become highly attuned to the way in which black and white thinking can limit the work that we are doing. In that I mean we must not  just observe racism that happens ‘out there’ in the client’s world, but also with us within our sessions. Because of the covert and subtle ways in which racism can play out, some therapists fail to attend to their clients because their training didn’t address racism in the therapeutic space.

Sometimes I get potential clients who want to explore the ongoing effects of racism. They contact me, usually saying things like:

“ I have tried to speak to my therapist but they are just not getting it, he/she is white and it’s like they don’t understand how, this is affecting me.”

or

“ They are helpful and they are supporting me, I just feel like I need someone who understands me and I am not sure how to ask”.

racism illustration
Designed by Freepik

What is heart breaking is when some of these individuals are already in therapy. So why would a person who is already receiving psychological support from a counsellor or psychotherapist need to seek another therapist (of similar ethnicity or background)? 

I have found a few things to be true in such a scenario:

This may also provide insight as to why in your own practice, you might be finding it hard to engage with or retain clients who self-identify as part of the Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC) or Black and Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) communities. It is important to note that clients who have had therapy before may be more likely to explicitly look for a therapist who looks like them, feeling confident to make their needs known. This is because they are likely to be  aware of how racial discrimination might hinder their healing journey. 

So, what can you do to validate your clients experience? Well developing a trauma informed response is crucial. According Knight (2014 p.25) it is important not to refer to the client as a ‘survivor’ but be, “ sensitive to this possibility and to the ways in which the client’s current problems can be understood in the context of past victimization.” Within the therapy room it could sound like “I wonder how your anxiety and fears for the future might be linked to the racism you experienced at school?” or “ I am curious as to how that experience might make it hard for you to trust someone who looks like me?”.

Another way to validate your clients experience is to recognise and acknowledge the way in which, you represent someone who could discriminate against them. As the therapist you hold a lot of power, you have the tools and knowledge to help your clients (or hinder their process). Because of your expertise, you often decide what is necessary or useful to focus on. To help you I have included a diagram (below) depicting the way in which a privilege and power operates. You will notice that race is broken down into citizenship and skin colour, I hope to explain further why this is necessary in another article. For now, it is necessary to recognise how racial trauma is compounded when the individual has been marginalised  and perhaps discriminated against in many different ways e.g., gender, sexual orientation and so on.  

wheel of power/privilege
Original by Sylvia Duckworth

You can choose to share your ‘privilege’  by sharing your list with your client. This could be a good way to demonstrate that you are knowledgeable yet open to understanding their experience. For some clients leading with honesty and integrity in this way can be a powerful tool in transforming their pain.

Something which is key when addressing trauma of any kind is to listen in order to understand. Most clients especially those entering therapy for the first time or immediately after going through a traumatic experience, need a safe place. How you might work with a client who is still under immediate risk e.g., in an abusive marriage, will differ to someone who is suffering from post-traumatic symptoms from being attacked by a gang of men. The former will still be at immediate risk of threat to life whilst, the other is somewhat removed from the harmful environment. Both are vulnerable to the psychological impact of the event. However, for those who are still exposed to danger their psychological and emotional pain is intensified, by the proximity and reoccurring nature of the violence. 

Because racial discrimination is currently still an issue within many establishments, organisations and even within healthcare systems your client may seem to get caught in negative thought cycles about their oppression. This is a valid response and in some ways illustrates the ‘never ending cycle’ which, they find themselves in. Dealing with this will be hard work but paying attention to whether your clients experiences are direct, indirect or a mixture of both is helpful. This is important because according to Casey and Blaire (2016) proximity to trauma increases risk when, the individual is exposed to direct trauma.

Examples of ‘direct’ experiences include:

Examples of ‘indirect’ experiences include:

Identifying this will give you the necessary cues needed to support your client. When dealing with direct trauma allowing the client to express themselves can be very useful. Be creative. Writing a song about the experience or writing a letter to the perpetrator can be just as powerful as asking “so how did that make  you feel?”. With indirect trauma sensitively helping the client to reframe the experience can often help them see a way out of their distress. Focusing on things that they can do that are within their control can be quite an empowering.

These are practical ways in which you can support BIPOC and BAME clients who have been impacted by racism. The wheel of power can also be used as a tool to clients who remain unaware of their bias too. Give it a try and feel free to let us know how it has supported you in your clinical practice.

Resources:

Casey, M.L., Blair, W. E. (2016) Defining trauma: How level of exposure and proximity affect risk for posttraumatic stress disorder. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, Vol 8(2), Mar 2016, 233-240 Last accessed 18/02/2021

Knight, K. (2014) Trauma-Informed Social Work Practice: Practice Considerations and Challenges. Clin Soc Work J (2015) 43:25–37 DOI 10.1007/s10615-014-0481-6 Last accessed 18/02/2021

Written by Sasha McBean.

Psychotherapeutic Counsellor at Healing Hands Counselling Ltd.

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