Working with Victims of Racism

Toye, J., 1999. Working with Victims of Racism. Reformulation, ACAT News Summer, p.x.


Towards the end of her article "A White Therapist’s Tale" Carol Lomax says, "in relation to racism I am clearly not the victim, nor do I wish to enter the role of either persecutor of rescuer ... ". While interested in the article as a whole, I was especially reminded by these words of the difficulties I have experienced as a white therapist in working with a victim of racism. Whereas it is common - in terms of reciprocal roles - to have to try to avoid taking the role of persecutor or rescuer, when the nature of the abuse is racist I find it a far greater emotional effort.

If a client identifies me with their neglectful or abusing parent, and by the force of their anger temporarily leads me to feel that somehow I am letting them down, I can correct the distortion - at least in my own mind - by drawing on my knowledge of who I am and what I do in reality. Similarly if a client has suffered medical negligence, and is inclined in a medical setting to distrust me as a practitioner, I have sources of reassurance in my beliefs about myself and in external evidence. If a client from an ethnic minority complains of white racism, even if not accusing me personally, I am unavoidably guilty by association ... and to some extent almost certainly guilty in fact. Probably almost all people everywhere have negative attitudes to members of other identifiably different groups, and although I try to be conscious of such attitudes in myself and counter them, I am not free of them.

I can and do acknowledge such difficulties with clients and that is helpful in trying to build trust. But I find myself handicapped in other ways too. When the external environment is very hostile, it is always harder for a person to challenge their own TPPs or RRPs. And as part of that process a perennial difficulty for clients and therapist is to distinguish between real, elicited and imagined threats. I find these problems more acute in the context of racism. It is not just that I might be a persecutor, there’s no way I would every be the victim. And it’s not just that I haven’t been - as is the case with many other types of abuse - but that I couldn’t be. This creates a credibility gap, not just in the client’s mind, but in my own when trying to help them find ways of dealing constructively with racially motivated hostility. I try not to act out of the powerlessness which I actually feel.

Have others encountered these or similar problems? How do they deal with them?

In addition to raising these issues for discussion I wish to see ACAT addressing racism and providing guidance on how wee counteract it in our practice, in recruitment and selection of trainee therapists, and in training. The subject will be on the agenda of the next ACAT Council meeting, and I will be glad to hear (c/o ACAT office or via the website) from anyone who has ideas or experience which can inform what I hope will be ongoing activity in the area.

Janet Toye

Full Reference

Toye, J., 1999. Working with Victims of Racism. Reformulation, ACAT News Summer, p.x.

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