Black Identities and White Therapies: Race, Respect and Diversity. Edited by Divine Charura and Colin Lago. PCCS Books 2021

A Review

Colin Feltham

You may find this cynical but I want to begin with the assertion that we all protect and advance our own self-interest and that of our group, even when it is not obvious that we are doing so. Black assertiveness in majority white countries is an obvious example, white allyship slightly less obvious, but white counter-narratives should also be respected.

Derrick Bell, one of the founders of Critical Race Theory, said CRT ‘means telling the truth, even in the face of criticism’ (Cobb, 2021). Like Meghan Markle, Bell must have meant telling your own truth, which can be quite distinct from the truth. Today, it can be quite deadly for whites to tell their truths if they do not coincide with ‘woke orthodoxy’. 

I know Colin Lago, who is a British white man passionate about the Rogerian tradition and the non-white cause, and I know he is sincere. I know a few of the contributors or their writings. I suspect that if Carl Rogers were alive today, he might feel compelled to endorse the supremacy of black lived experience but I cannot know if this would hamper his empathy for whites who are not on correct political message.

I do not, however, believe Amanda Gorman is the great poet she is portrayed as. I do not share the hysterical outrage at the death of George Floyd in 2020, or the uncritical admiration for Black Lives Matter. I do not believe the statement in the preface: ‘this broader sociological reality of gross social injustices over centuries to peoples of minority identity’. Certainly, some minorities have suffered (as have billions of individuals with no obvious minority identity) but to frame this as social injustice is wholly inadequate. The book is, however, also concerned with training in counselling and psychotherapy and its alleged failure to prioritise diversity. It does not claim to be an objective, empirical, balanced account of the issues involved; instead, like many similar recent texts it is weighted towards lived experience, pained anecdotes, black authority and subtle mockery of whiteness. 

Many of the chapters contain anecdotes about slightly insensitive interventions on the part of white therapists, trainers and supervisors. Copious demands are made for change at institutional and individual levels but little if any quantitative evidence backs up the claims. Little or no awareness is shown that there are strong counterarguments against the grievances displayed here. One chapter title includes the question ‘Can you talk about race without going pink?’ Perhaps unintentionally, this ‘gammon slur’ suggests the omnipresence of (sinful) white fragility. The publisher’s use of the phrase ‘wake-up call’ sounds a bit too much like the Biblical ‘Repent!’ for my liking. 

One of the downsides of the recent over-focus on racial topics in mental health is a neglect of the acute and chronic suffering of individuals of all ethnicities and identities (not only black, female or LGBT). Just as the 2021 Sewell Report noted the under-achievement of white working-class boys, the finding that ethnic minorities are outliving whites in the UK contradicts the black ‘ain’t it awful’ narrative (ONS, 2021). These inconvenient facts are ignored by this kind of text. It is in the interests of the authors to portray BAME people as suffering uniquely or disproportionately. The fixed narrative of black victimhood excludes all counter-evidence. In 2016 in Dallas Tony Timpa, a white man with a mental illness, was killed by police in a manner very similar to how George Floyd died, yet the Timpa case received none of the outrageand publicity of Floyd’s case. Many instances of this kind exist, which provide balance, but writers with a dogmatic commitment to anti-whiteness altogether fail to cite them (or even, I suspect, to be aware of them). Most therapy by far is about highly personal topics and for the most part not about racism at all. Alarmingly, it looks likely that some impressionable young clients are developing obsessive scrupulosity caused by the recent push for antiracist commitments.                  

The psychotherapy field should welcome everything that might help to improve it. Changing demographics certainly has an impact on therapy and most therapists and trainers have been mindful of this for decades. What this book and its many identity politics siblings does, however, is merely add to social divisiveness and ramp up conflict. An increasing black population makes for greater assertiveness and demands for changes to suit them. More accurately, these demands come from black activists and their white allies, not from black conservatives who find themselves dismissed for daring to challenge current radical orthodoxy. Books of this kind are well intentioned and somewhat relevant but lack scholarly depth and objectivity, an assertion of mine that can be interpreted as a microaggression by anyone who wishes to do so.       

A point clearly made here is that therapy rests on a tradition of white, male, middle-class Eurocentric theory and largely female practitioners. But this is used as soft evidence of racism instead of inertia and indifference to working-class norms and needs. Understandably, therapy still has very long Western roots. Curiously, little is said here about radically shifting towards ‘epistemologies of the Global South’, including traditional, non-Western healing methods (e.g. Moodley & West, 2005). Therapy and its training could be radically altered to accommodate the kinds of demands made in this book. The signs are that the major psychotherapy and counselling bodies in the UK are indeed cravenly moving in this direction since George Floyd’s death in 2020, with strong statements of political solidarity with Black Lives Matter. But groups like Critical Therapy Antidote point out the damage this does to client and practitioner autonomy, free association and free speech. 

In my view, therapy faces far more important challenges than pandering to woke demands. One solution to the questions arising from this book would be to set up separate BAME mental health and psychotherapy organisations but such professional apartheid would surely be deeply problematic. Perhaps we should reluctantly acknowledge the multicultural fragmentation of the UK and the West (too much diversity is not, after all, strength) and realise that one model can never please everyone. There is no reason to believe that black therapists are less racist or more sensitive towards white clients, for example, than white therapists are towards black clients. In terms of due theory and training, no course or CPD programme will ever satisfy BAME demands, competing as they do with time available for other theory as well as the demands of feminists, LGBT folk, disabled and neurodivergent groups, and so on. Social justice advocates appear to be emotionally driven but quite innumerate, indifferent to the logistics of available time, costs, and demographics.

I align with Bell about telling the truth but not about CRT. I agree with Foucault about speaking truth to power but power has almost imperceptibly shifted in favour of minority activists, and their untruths must now be exposed.

At £21 for 250 pages, the book is reasonable for those already converted to the standard oppression narrative, but very short on in-depth scholarship, objectivity and viewpoint diversity. But in fairness, perhaps the editors’ remit was not to be comprehensive or objective.             

References

Cobb, J. (2021) The man behind critical race theory. The New Yorker, 13 September.

Moodley, R. & West, W. (Eds) (2005) Integrating Traditional Healing Practices into Counseling and Psychotherapy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

ONS (2021) Ethnic differences in life expectancy and mortality from selected causes in England and Wales: 2011 to 2014. Office for National Statistics. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/lifeexpectancies/articles/ethnicdifferencesinlifeexpectancyandmortalityfromselectedcausesinenglandandwales/2011to2014



Colin Feltham is Emeritus Professor of Critical Counselling Studies, Sheffield Hallam University, and a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. Among other activities, he has written or edited over 30 books, taught critical thinking, and examined over 50 doctoral theses.

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