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  • Writer's pictureZena Nicholas

How my white therapist addressed race in the room…

Updated: Aug 2, 2023

I think it was in the second session that my therapist addressed race in the room. I was a little caught off guard. It had never happened to me before and I found myself thinking - ‘wow they did it’, ‘they brought race into the room!’ I was intrigued and maybe even a little excited, partly from a place of professional curiosity but it wasn’t just that.

It wasn’t what I expected to be, it wasn’t the direct kind of comment we may have experienced during basic training, the ‘I’m white you’re not how do you feel about it’ sort of comment. It came up when I spoke of my experience in school. I don’t remember the words used but they were essentially asking me to consider if my negative experience at school was because of racism. I didn’t know! How could I know? I mean the teachers didn’t believe in me, but I was inconsistent, I was uninterested and did the bare minimum until the exams.

The therapist gently pushed me to question this, was I just all of this? And if so, why? By the end of the session my brain was spinning. “They think I’m some sort of genius and my teachers and the whole educational system was racist” I thought to myself.

Now I am by no means naive to institutional racism. But we are talking about me here, I think on this occasion it wasn’t racism, or institutional racism, it was me, I was a difficult student. And then my heart dropped at this thought, I knew what this thought could mean, I will come back to this at the end of the blog.

After a few sessions, I was almost willing to consider if I could be some sort of genius, she has made a good argument for this - what I do well is so effortless for me I don’t value it. My success was met with what felt like anger at school - I felt that I embarrassed the teachers. When my father went to see the headteacher to say he wanted me to do the higher paper in maths, they pushed back saying I wouldn’t get a B in that paper. However if I did the lower paper, I may have chance of getting a B (but not an A, that’s not possible in the lower paper).

So when I did the higher papers and got an A, I felt bad. Don’t get me wrong I was over the moon, but what else did this success mean? I was unsettled by it. When it was suggested I would achieve a D in one of my A-levels, we had to again fight as I wouldn’t have got a look in on the degree I wanted to do. I again felt a little bad getting my A in the final exam. I kept showing up these teachers that stuck their necks out to say I couldn’t achieve this. My white teachers.

Would a teacher of colour have done the same or would they have been able to see me as someone capable of top grades? Could it be that simple? Or was it more than this - was I not powerful enough, were my parents not powerful enough, for the school to believe it would be a tragedy if this student didn’t have all the options available to her that these grades would bring. I think it is relevant to add I was at a private school, my parents paid for this education.

I don’t know the answers and I turn my thoughts instead to my son. The school hasn't called me back about my complaint - teachers keep telling my son to shut up. I had been very polite when I spoke to them, I didn’t want to make them feel bad, I didn’t want to put any more pressure on them during this difficult time. They are not just telling my son to shut up, they are saying it to all the kids. But I am angry now, I raised my son to not tell people to shut up and now his teachers are telling him to shut up, his white teachers.

I don’t like this. I don’t care they are saying it to all the kids, my son isn’t all the kids, he is a mixed heritage child being assessed for ADHD. I can’t have this, the implications of what he could internalise as a result of this are not the same as the other kids, he is different. When I eventually get to speak to the school again, I make my feelings clear - if I hear that my son is being told to shut up again, it will be me that won’t shut up I will call again and I will keep calling, we will not accept it.

My twelve-year-old boy used the word ‘unprofessional’, when the school talked to him about it, I feel they are annoyed at us - for me teaching my son he deserves respect. ‘Asian boys are the worst, they are all arrogant’, I heard a teacher say this once many years ago, it was in a pub, a friend of a friend. What do they see when they see my son? - he isn’t an arrogant Asian boy, he isn’t even Asian, can they tell the difference? He is a beautiful intelligent boy, who knows better than his teachers on this occasion, it is not professional for teachers to tell students to shut up.

Later in therapy we speak of my childhood, no surprises here I was thinking - I often speak of the challenges of being the child of an immigrant family. Our parents are navigating so much, new language, new culture, new political systems, new educational systems, new everything - and all in a hostile environment.

My father was a doctor, we were here because the UK needed doctors - I knew this and yet I saw him being shouted at, ridiculed, intimidated. Although intimidation is not the same concept when you have just left Saddam Hussein’s Iraq - my father was the doctor that stood up to army officials that tried to tell him what to write on an autopsy report, an attitude that could have led to his ‘disappearance’.

I know the trauma this would have caused, the sense that your caregivers don’t understand the systems around you, are not in a position of power, can’t protect you, are so grateful to live in a ‘safer’ country... that they are not angry, they don’t fight back, they just take it, keep their heads down, try to blend in.

And we talked about how this has impacted me... I don’t question those around me, I question how I am ‘wrong’. And when I do question, I question those people that see my potential, that promote me, that tell me I have something special - what are they seeing?

I tentatively take positions in which I have some influence, being a parent, being a manager, I was at one point told in an organisation that they wanted to succession plan me into the CEO role - which I dared to believe before the relationship with my bosses broke down and I was made redundant, offered only a position where I was sure to understand my place was not in management. And I am left thinking, if you don’t see the whole picture of my experience, how can you support me so I can achieve my potential in this world - even if you really want me to.

We don’t stop here, we talk more ...about my marriage to a 6’3 white American man with blue eyes. And this is not to question my marriage but to increase my awareness of how feeling unsafe in the world influences my choices - because awareness itself is power.

We talk about my fear of standing out, being seen, being wrong, being bad, being successful - and the complexity of all of this, being an Arab woman with ADHD. Racism, institutional racism, internalised racism, generational trauma, intersectionality - these are not just words on white paper, they have colour, they are not just academic they are my experience.

And I come to the dilemmas we face as therapists, is it essential to bring race into the room? Or should we only do this if the client brings it up? So I guess what I am trying to show here is it can never not be in the room, it is in our experience past, present and future. So the question is how do we address it? And what happens if we do not address it?

And to those who may fear this, there is something we can do, we can learn, we can make becoming aware of diversity, and culturally integrated therapy a core aspect of our continued learning. Because sadly institutions are racist, and our training is heartbreakingly lacking in this area.

Finally, I come back to the moment my heart dropped, when I thought the blame lay only within me, not my teachers, not the institutions - this is the hardest bit for me, ‘what have I internalised?’, and the realisation of how it was affecting my parenting. Now I think of generational trauma, and as a mother this hurts more than I can explain in words - what am I passing on to my children? What did my parent’s pass on to me? When my heart races at the sight of a police car, that automatic reaction is not mine, that comes from parents who were raised in Iraq, that’s their terror, felt in my body. What else is my body holding?

So I will keep talking about race in the therapy room, because really I was always talking about it, in my insecurities, my inability to succeed at work, my parenting struggles, my grief - but this was the first time a therapist called it out, said the words, and now we attend to untangling it all.

Below is the first thing I ever wrote at age 11 when I started senior school, with teachers comments.

I just want to add following many comments about the writing below, I hadn’t planned on sharing the piece from school, it was only when I was considering an image to use for this blog that I decided to share this. It isn’t actually an experience of mine. It was a creative piece. I was two years old when my family came to the UK. I hesitated in writing this comment because it almost feels like I am defending the teacher. Maybe in away I am, because it’s so much bigger than this one teacher.

As therapists, the fact that this is creative piece would not necessary be a significant piece of information. We explore so much content and depth with our clients creatively. For a teacher in 1989? I don’t know. Personally, I can’t see how this piece of writing from an Iraqi girl did not lead to some conversation. But sadly not. I think this does highlight the significance of cultural awareness however 🙏

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