Counseling and Race Relations

racismSummary and reflection on Laurie Meyers’ piece “Facing the Reality of Racism” from this past February’s edition of Counseling Today:


“In an atmosphere characterized by intolerance and strained race relations, what is a counselor’s responsibility? How can counselors help their clients and society at large cope with and fight against hatred and ignorance?” -Laurie Meyers

Laurie Meyers begins her piece with the historic, but deeply revealing election of Barack Obama, and how we all were so quick to arrive at the conclusion that we had achieved the apex of racial reconciliation, a post-racial society, the mountain top that Dr. King spoke so prolifically about in his last speech. Meyers, however, goes onto point out that Obama’s election, and the subsequent election of a clearly inept, unprepared businessman with clearly bigoted and sexist views as his successor, reveals that we have much work to do as a country before we can state that we’ve achieved such progress in regards to racial relations.

Meyers then takes us into self-exploration and introspection as counselors and mental health professionals who, despite the training we all must undergo, are still susceptible to covert forms of racism and micro-aggressions. Meyers offers a warning to us from Lance Smith, an ACA member who does research on racial bias in the field of counseling, as counselors to which we should take heed. She writes,

“To overcome internal racial bias, counselors need to understand the ‘false binary’ of racism, Smith says. ‘There’s the powerful notion in society that one is either racist– an ignorant, mean-spirited, Confederate flag-waving, card-carrying member of the KKK–or a good person. And, of course, most counselors know that they are good, moral, kind, beneficent people, so it follows that, by definition, they cannot be racist. Therefore,’ he explains, ‘not only are they likely to fail to interrogate the ways in which they more subtly harm and microagress their clients and students of color, but they are also likely to ignore, deny and therefore inadvertently support institutional forms of racism such as the school-to-prison pipeline and anti-affirmative action.'”

She continues on with instructing us to think deeply about how much we as counselors need to examine our own bias and prejudices in order to become more effective clinicians and people.

For Meyers, the bias found within the field of counseling begins in the educational component of our vocation. She talks about Cirecie West-Olatunji, President of the ACA from 2013-2014, and her experience of having young counselors-in-training and counselor educators who were people of color approach her about feeling isolated, alone, and left out due to not being able to approach their peers and educators about racially-related incidences and experiences in their day-to-day lives. She talked about the numerous ways Cirecie mentioned how these educators and students could feel excluded within the academic community from not being invited out to lunch with their peers, not being asked to participate in writing opportunities to not being assigned mentors (on a personal note I feel detached and disconnected within academia myself as a white person, so I cannot imagine how a POC in our field must feel).

Meyers then bookends her article by going back to the opening topic of the elections of Presidents Obama and Trump. She comes back to the issue of life in post-election season of 2016 with the election of Donald Trump and the many instances of minorities reporting to those in the field how they feel the progress of the last 50 years is now in very apparent danger in the current political climate. She mentions how there is a high level of anxiety increasing among minorities, which compounds with the pre-existing trauma many people of color and minorities live with already. In turn, the mixture of anxiety with existing trauma exacerbates the ongoing trauma of racial discrimination, racial hatred, immigration issues, racial profiling, hate crimes, and racial tensions in the Age of Trump.

Meyers believes that we must first and foremost, above all else, treat our clients with dignity and respect by sitting with them in their experiences during these times. We must remain introspective of our own bias, but learn to sit in the messiness and trauma of our clients who undergo racial disparities, harm, and violence in the years to come. This is her answer to how we as professional can be of help in addition to getting out into our neighborhoods and communities to speak with and listen to people who are undergoing these traumatic events.

It is this final turn in her article of becoming more communally involved and community-orientated that she finishes her exhortation to counselors and mental health professionals to get out and be involved and to speak truth to power. She admonishes to take action and to not be afraid to confront the system and its oppression and racism. She closes her wonderful, prophetic article with a quote from West-Olatunji, “Counselors need to be speaking out about truths. We need to talk a lot of things. There is an argument about whether or not counselors should be engage [in political debate]. Put that to rest. People are being harmed, and we don’t have to wait until they come into our offices [to help them].”


I categorized Meyers’ piece in the summary as being prophetic, and that is truly what I think it is. Prophetic may seem like a word that has religious connotations, and you wouldn’t be wrong to think that. Often in American religious thought and belief to be prophetic as been misunderstood to mean to predict what will happen or predict the future. In a truly biblical sense and 95% of the time in the biblical witness, the gift of being prophetic has nothing to do with predicting the future, but condemning injustices, exposing evil, advocating for the poor, defending the widow, welcoming the immigrant, and seeking to bring about restorative, not punitive, justice and peace.

My take on this article is that it’s a prophetic call to action via self-examination, introspection, humbling ourselves, listening to our brothers and sisters who aren’t white, and advocacy. I’m really passionate as a counselor-in-training to take advocacy seriously and to stand with those who are oppressed in their fight for justice, equality, and racial reconciliation. The ending of her article I believe really stuns the reader with its opposition to this notion that counselors should be apolitical or politically apathetic. If we are to take seriously our call to advocacy for our clients and the oppressed there is absolutely no remaining neutral so far as politics go. Of course, in sessions with clients, politics may need to be mentioned rather discreetly if at all, however, outside our offices we have a duty and a responsibility to take action.

This article jives very well with all I’ve said thus far in my reflection on it and my love of advocacy and social justice, which are very congruent aspects that mold very well with two of my theoretical bearings, which are Feminism and Multiculturalism. Feminism and Multiculturalism both take into account the need for proactive examination and confrontation with the systems around us and how they contribute to psychopathology.

The article and my theories related to it and inherit in it are ways in which we not only view the world as adherents, but also ways in which we view our clients. The biopsychosocial view of mental health is indeed a healthy and beneficial lens through which to view the client that is holistic and evidenced-based, however, I tend to see that the DSM5 and that lens are more geared towards biological roots and causes of psychopathology, which is fine, but we often fail to take into account the societal influences and structures wherein our clients find themselves. Feminism and Multiculturalism help me to place more of a balance on the biopsychosocial view of seeing my clients and to keep in mind that oppressive systems in our society contribute directly to our clients’ health and wellbeing.

This is best summed up by Intersectional Feminism’s holistic look at human nature and human experience, especially so far as counseling and race relations go. We have to remember when working with people of color and minorities that they are not one dimensional or just a man or just a woman. Their gender, race, ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, religion, etc. all intersect to make up who they are and not only how they are being treated, but also how they are experiencing the world around them. Are we placing ourselves within this world, via introspection and self-examination, and listening in order to help or are we just going to remain on the outside looking in while wondering why we aren’t as effective as we could be?

“It is a beautiful thing to be on fire for justice… there is no greater joy than inspiring and empowering others––especially the least of these, the precious and priceless wretched of the earth!”
 Cornel West, “Black Prophetic Fire

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