I’ve been a member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) since 2013. By far the largest professional membership body for counsellors and psychotherapists in the UK, with over 50,000 members, the BACP has considerable influence over the provision of counselling education through accredited training programmes, and on the continued professional development of its members who adhere to its ethical framework and work towards accredited member status.
Founded in 1977 as the British Association for Counselling, it has evolved along with the profession itself, to a position of dominance within the field of counselling and psychotherapy. As such, it has links within both the third sector and the private sector, and many employers consider membership of the BACP a pre-requisite.
What follows, is an examination of the suppression of free speech drawing on my personal interaction with the BACP’s flagship magazine, Therapy Today, following a series of issues that focused on race in 2020.
It came as no surprise to me that Therapy Today chose to publish an issue entitled ‘We need to talk about Race.’ The events of the summer of 2020 need little introduction. In fact, it had already published an article with a similar title in 2018, which critiqued “the pernicious power of whiteness”. It is inevitable that issues of social justice should arise within a psychotherapy journal, however I had begun to observe the growing influence of ideas that fall under the umbrella term Critical Social Justice, a phenomenon which has emerged within the last decade from a cross pollination of areas of academia drawing upon Frankfurt School Critical theory and post-modern philosophy, manifesting in the activist scholarship of recent years. For the avoidance of doubt, when I refer to Anti-Racism in this article, I am referring to a set of beliefs arising from Critical Race Theory including the idea that racism is not simply a matter of intention, but rather it is embedded within western society and culture. It holds that any disparities in outcome between racial groups are evidence of racism. Most alarming of all, this ideology increasingly weaponises the accusation of racism against anybody questioning its dogma.
This article intends to shed some light on the ideological capture of the BACP, and how they closed ranks to extinguish heterodox thought.
The September 2020 issue of Therapy Today carried the strap line, ‘We need to talk about race.’ There were a series of articles written by counsellors and psychotherapists of colour, largely in response to the aftermath of the death of George Floyd. Many of these articles drew upon the personal experiences of the writers, referring to their experiences of exclusion, and alleged racial prejudice in the counselling and psychotherapy profession. These testimonials began with the reasonable premise that the writers wanted to discuss their experience of difference and express their frustration and dismay that their predominantly white colleagues were ignorant of the realities of being a person of colour in the UK. However, this took a more ideological turn with numerous references to white fragility, internalised racism, white power structures, privilege and even ‘brown fragility’.
The following month, Therapy Today escalated the rhetoric, with a statement from the editor that read like an Anti-Racist epiphany. She referred to her decision to “do the work,” having read Reni-Eddo Lodge’s Why I no longer talk to white people about race and Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy. She averred, “I started waking up to the naivety of my assumption that institutionalised bias has been addressed by affirmative action programmes and that racism is restricted to a small minority of society.”
There was a letter from the president of the BACP promising to deal with “structural and systemic racism” in the counselling profession. Then there was an article, ‘Listening to learn’, which implored white therapists to examine their whiteness, followed by numerous references to white fragility, white ignorance, white supremacy, unconscious bias and micro aggressions. There were no references to the ideological grounding for these ideas – Critical Race Theory and Critical Whiteness studies.
To the unfamiliar reader, the onslaught of Critical Race Theory terminology in a magazine dedicated to discussing counselling and psychotherapy, it may have seemed as though a new therapeutic modality had burst forth, and in that assumption, they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. The case has been made, here by the psychotherapist Val Thomas, that Critical Social Justice Theory is incompatible with the practice of counselling and psychotherapy as it constitutes a ‘hermeneutics of oppression’, and that one possible solution would be for it to define itself as a modality distinct from others. Instead, what appeared to be happening, was a takeover of the existing counselling and psychotherapy profession. Such a takeover of an institution is an inherent strategy of Critical Social Justice activism, and over the following months, I witnessed it play out.
Therapy Today’s letters page takes the title ‘Reactions.’ In October 2020’s Reactions, the chosen ‘letter of the month’ opened with the line, “ I have been suffering from a delusion that I was not a racist.” The writer continued, “The recent events, including the murder of George Floyd, have forced me to wake up to the racism in the UK that pervades every institution, including the counselling and psychotherapy profession.” There was no explanation of why police violence in the mid western United States should lead to such a damning and wide ranging conclusion, but the writer continued in this vein, declaring herself a racist and that her silence was “causing harm.” The letter culminated in a call for the BACP to make, “a statement of commitment to ‘anti-racist’ practice.”
Another letter appeared in Reactions that month that presented a different view. The writer whom I shall refer to as Writer A, challenged the previous month’s cover line ‘We need to talk about race’ asking –why? She suggested that amplifying differences was likely to increase them. She made a plea to focus on what we all have in common, referring to the one factor that unites people who are seeking therapy- that they are “troubled.” She continued with a personal testimony about the many years she spent working in one of the most ethnically diverse areas of London, whilst fully acknowledging her own identity as a “white middle class woman.” Writer A made the case for the widely established principle in counselling and psychotherapy that we should meet our clients as individuals. She concluded with a rejection of calls to talk about race, particularly with “the freneticism that is currently fashionable.”
A dispassionate reader would likely detect hyperbole in both letters; yet, it is only the latter, which made any attempt to ground its assertions with reference to therapeutic practice and experience.
The majority of the other letters published in Reactions that month praised Therapy Today’s “bravery” in tackling racism and called for more of the same. I was left with the distinct impression that Therapy Today was more interested in promoting political activism than discussing the relevance of such activism to counselling and psychotherapy.
Following this, I felt moved to write my own letter to Reactions, in which I made a measured case for acknowledging that terms such as white fragility and whiteness originated in politicised areas of academia such as Critical Race Theory, and cautioning against conflating these ideas with ethics and morality. I also made a similar plea as Writer A did, to meet the client as an individual, rather than with preconceived notions about their position in relation to structural oppression.
The editor of Therapy Today emailed me promptly to acknowledge she had received my letter, saying, “I assume you are happy for us to publish this?”
In hindsight, the tentativeness in her question foretold much of what was to later unfold, but I was just happy that my views were going to be published.
I didn’t receive any direct responses to my letter in Therapy Today, but Writer A did. She was advised to “consider the impact her whiteness may have on others,” and castigated for making “no apology for being white,” by one writer. A month later a member wrote in to express their, “psychological and emotional distress a letter from your October issue has had on me,” saying that “my lived experience of prejudice and racism is not up for debate.” The Reactions page had become an increasingly polarised battleground in which any views that dared to veer from the orthodoxy of Critical Social Justice were met with accusations of harm, bigotry or ignorance.
In December of 2020, the BACP held their AGM online, due to the national lockdown. A few months prior, I had read the proposals submitted by members for consideration at the AGM, and had voted accordingly. I was not surprised to see one motion calling for a strong Anti-Racist commitment from the BACP with regards to future ethical frameworks and educational standards. The proposed motions required the support of 5% of the membership in order to be considered at the AGM. Unable to attend the AGM in real-time, I watched the recording shortly afterwards. The proposed Anti-racist motion had not received the required 5% support to be considered at the AGM, but during a Q&A session, the proposers complained that “there should not be a need for this resolution” since the BACP should be “Anti-Racist” and “anti-oppressive.” They sought reassurance that the BACP would commit to implementing their resolution despite it not being voted for by the membership! The response from the BACP was to capitulate to their demands, assuring them amongst other things that “BACP remains absolutely committed to challenging institutional racism in the profession” and a commitment to “transform the training core curricula to integrate awareness of white fragility, privilege, unconscious bias and racism.”
Alarming as this was, I was not prepared for the spectacle that followed. A question was read out, chastising the BACP for having published “a racist letter” and demanded they apologise. A senior manager apologised for “any hurt caused” and stated that, “it should not have happened.” Another senior executive stated they acknowledged that the BACP “had a long way to go” and that it was important to “challenge and change views.” The senior leadership of the BACP had effectively admitted they had allowed Therapy Today to platform racist views, the better to shame those expressing them.
I began to research online and it quickly became clear that there had been concerted efforts by some BACP members, to put pressure on the editor of Therapy Today via its official Twitter feed to apologise for publishing what they claimed were racist views. To my astonishment, I discovered that the activist therapists on Twitter were incensed that the publication had allowed any views that diverged from Anti-Racist orthodoxy to be given a platform.
The supposedly racist letter was never identified, so the entire membership of the BACP was left guessing in which letter these views were expressed. Was it my own letter in which I took issue with the use of controversial terms borrowed from Critical race theory? Or perhaps, it was Writer A, who had appealed to the now unfashionable principle of ‘colour blindness’ and liberal values of the civil rights movement so detested by proponents of critical race theory? Maybe it was her suggestion that that there was a “freneticism” about the discussion on race? Many would be inclined to agree with her, yet in the eyes of the BACP, such people had been identified in the AGM as needing to change their views, and at worst, racist.
As the final issue of Therapy Today in 2020 landed on my doormat, I opened it in the full knowledge that very little could shock me anymore when it came to the political bias in the BACP. It came as no surprise then, that the ‘letter of the month’ was yet another call to arms to the Anti-racist Critical Social justice cause. I include it here in full, as the letter I would send in response to it was never published:
I agree with **** ************ and ***** ****** (‘Listening to Learn’, Therapy Today, October 2020) that white practitioners often avoid the deep work of personal self-exploration because of our fear of responsibility. Once we understand how whiteness gives us unearned advantages both as individuals and collectively within our profession and our wider lives, we have to take responsibility to change this. Not to do so is an act of collusion. Downes says that white folks prefer to talk about diversity and ‘change the optics but not the structure and population of the organisations that do the coding of the teaching’ – and, I would add, the editing of the BACP’s membership publication.
I was surprised and disappointed to read the views of some members in the issue who seem to want to put the onus onto BAME members to justify why we need to talk about and act against race and racism. Describing racial discourses as divisive, ‘frenetic’ and ‘fashionable’ is not only ahistorical but diminishes the urgency of addressing profound structural, institutional, interpersonal and intrapsychic racialised trauma. By way of comparison, if the editorial team were to run with a queer theme in LGBTIQ history month (February), it would be highly irregular to include content that suggested that heterosexual and cis-gender therapists should pretend that homophobia and transphobia don’t exist.
Implicit and explicit bias exists everywhere. This reflects the colonial history and culture we are all embedded in and are socialised by. Much of mainstream therapy is based on Eurocentric theory that replicates that same colonial history. It is not inclusive of other cultures or ethnicities. Unfortunately, when other cultures are acknowledged in the literature or elsewhere in our field, they are often based on the racist stereotypes that existed in the early days of our profession at the turn of the 20th century. All theoretical models need to interrogate and investigate how this is currently present in therapeutic practices.
Therapists must of course work with the person in front of us, and we must also not dismiss the importance of intersectional identities and how being positioned as black inherently positions you bottom of the ladder because of systemic racism.
If white therapists are not sensitive to the microaggressions we enact, we will perpetuate deeply racialised trauma for those who are black or brown and other people of colour, both in and out of the therapy room. This is not only an ethical issue but also a human rights issue. Pathologising has resulted in an over-representation of black people in the mental health and criminal systems. Systemic gaslighting of members of the BAME community by white people – clinicians or otherwise – must be addressed. The tragedy is that, for some BAME clients, it becomes such an everyday experience that they numb out and it becomes normal. It’s crucial that therapists can help to point out and name the micro- or macroaggressions when working with such clients in clinical settings.
**** ********** MBACP, integrative psychotherapist and counsellor
There are many aspects of this letter that I disagree with, in particular the suggestion that therapists help clients to identify “micro aggressions”, an idea that Haidt and Lukianoff have argued is anti-therapeutic. Teaching clients to look for offence where none was intended runs counter to one of the core values of BACP’s ethical framework– increasing the client’s personal resilience. I found the tone of the letter provocative and further evidence of Therapy Today’s ideological bias. I set to work on a response, and came up with the following:
Political bias in Therapy Today
I profoundly disagree with the views expressed by **** **********, ‘Reactions, Therapy Today, December 2020,’ and the decision to highlight them as ‘letter of the month’ left me with little doubt as to the continued editorial bias in Therapy Today.
Firstly, I wish to state my implacable opposition to racism. I have always abhorred discrimination against anyone due to immutable characteristics. My concern is that there is a very strong ideological current that has become dominant recently in Therapy Today, with which I disagree. I shall endeavour to name some of my concerns with ideas that have recently filtered down from Critical Race Theory, Whiteness studies and what has now taken on the mantle of ‘Anti-Racism.’
I appreciate that Critical Race Theory has a long history borne out of the American civil rights movement. However, I dispute some of its more recent claims; namely that society is based on power dynamics between dominant and oppressed identity groups, and that ‘discourses’ -i.e. language, are used by dominant groups to suppress others. I remain to be convinced by assertions such as the existence of widespread ‘systemic racism’ in present day Britain. I disagree with the discussion of ‘whiteness’ as a largely pejorative term as much as I would the discussion of ‘blacknesss’ as a pejorative term. In my opinion, neither is helpful. The continued focus on the malign influence of colonialism, seventy years after the demise of the British Empire seems hyperbolic at best. I am very troubled by the attitude of some that amounts to, ‘if you are not with us, you are against us.’ **** ******** condemns those who question the need to focus on race, and in my view shamefully conflates their intentions with those who deny that ‘homophobia or transphobia’ exist. It is not insulting to disagree with somebody’s ideas, unless however, you attach political significance to one’s immutable characteristics. The onus is on those advancing theories about racial identity and the fundamental nature of our society, to employ reasoned argument and to engage in good faith debate, rather than browbeat those who disagree into submission with emotional blackmail. I could go on, but I will plainly state, I dislike identity politics regardless of where it appears on the political spectrum. I also find it inimical to the practice of counselling and psychotherapy.
Recently, prominent people of colour including Inaya Folarin Iman, Trevor Phillips and Kemi Badenoch have spoken out against these increasingly extreme racial identity politics. Kemi Badenoch in her role as minister for Equalities recently voiced her concerns about Critical Race Theory in parliament, and the government rightly in my opinion stated that contested political theories should not be taught as fact in our schools.
I am troubled that Therapy Today promotes contested political views, as if they were consensus. The BACP is failing in its role as a professional body if it is unable to represent the diversity of views of its members and the clients whom it serves.
I was told that the letter would be “considered for publication” in the first issue of Therapy Today in February 2021. When my letter wasn’t published, I emailed the editor, to enquire if my letter might be published at a later date. The editor advised me that after discussion with BACP it was decided that they wanted “to move on from the race debate.” This didn’t sit well with me, as the latest issue continued to give prominence to members discussing topics such as white fragility.
I decided to probe a little further, emailing the editor with my concerns that she was being disingenuous and that I was aware of the public apology for an alleged racist letter, and that this had potentially undermined her role as editor.
I then received an email response from BACP’s Chief of operations and membership, in which she explained that it was herself who had made the decision not to publish my letter. She was also the person who had issued the public apology at the AGM. She explained that the BACP had a duty to ensure they didn’t publish views that “cause unnecessary distress.” When I enquired which views of mine might have caused such distress, two were singled out in particular; my comment relating to the “hyperbolic” discussion of colonialism, and her erroneous reading of my comments about the existence of systemic racism, in which she suggested that I denied its existence when in fact I had questioned assumptions of it’s a priori existence without sufficient evidence.
A few months later, the UK government’s commission on Race and ethnic disparities led by Dr Tony Sewell, published its report. Many on the mainstream left and the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion lobby greeted it with howls of protest. The report contained findings that in the eyes of the BACP might “cause distress”, most controversially, that systemic racism doesn’t account for all disparities in outcomes between ethnic groups in the UK.
The authors of the Sewell report, the majority of whom were from ethnic minorities, were subject to the same accusations of racism as those expressing heterodox views in Therapy Today. Whilst it is alarming but not surprising to see a government report attacked through the lens of ‘common enemy identity’ politics, it is far more troubling that such a divisive form of politics has taken hold within Britain’s foremost counselling and psychotherapy body. My chief concern with what has taken place at the BACP is not that they have published views with which I disagree. It is that the organisation has become blatantly politicised and intolerant of viewpoint diversity. This should raise alarm bells within the profession about the likely impact on clients in therapy. I would be just as alarmed if the BACP chose to adopt and promote a particular religious faith, or for that matter one particular modality of psychotherapy. Writing in Cynical Theories, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay make a principled stance against the institutionalisation of Critical Social Justice as a belief system. Everything that I have experienced in the past year indicates that just such a scenario has come to pass at the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy. It should be of concern to anyone who cares about the future of counselling and psychotherapy in the UK.
By George Ziffo, a counsellor based in Glasgow, Scotland