Is EMDR an anti-racist therapy?
As a Black therapist, a sizeable proportion of my work is with people who have experienced racism and racial trauma. It is my opinion that anti-Black racism is perpetuated by the belief that White people are superior to Black people and that racism is systemic and is perpetrated by both individuals and institutions.
In this article I will specifically address issues of anti-Black racism, racialised trauma and treatment of racial trauma. I will share my journey from youth volunteer to Black activist and therapist. I will define what racism means and will provide examples of everyday racialised trauma. I will be asking what it means to be an anti-racist psychotherapeutic practitioner and I will make suggestions as to how we can become anti-racist.
My starting point and definition of racism is based on race theory developed in 1735 by Carl Linnaeus. This scientist created race classifications based on his ideas of racial superiority and inferiority, so called scientific racism.
The witnessing of George Floyd’s racist murder in 2020 was a reminder to Black people that our lives do not matter. As consequence of this, the Black Lives Matter movement has grown and many organisations have begun to examine their role in perpetuating racism, and other new organisations are challenging it. There is a problem in that mental health practitioners and others “do not correctly diagnose racial trauma” Villines (2020).
In 2020 Black Minds Matter UK was founded by Agnes Mwakatuma and Annie Heyes in recognition that Black individuals cannot access Black therapists for mental health and wellbeing support due to racism and racial trauma. I believe it is important to ask questions about how our therapeutic approaches and communities address racialised trauma and specifically is EMDR an anti-racist practice?
What is racial trauma?
This is a good definition.
“Racial trauma is the ongoing result of racism, racist bias, and exposure to racist abuse in the media. Racial trauma can affect many aspects of a person’s life, including their ability to have relationships, concentrate on school or work, and feel safe” (Villines, 2020).
As EMDR therapists we know that trauma affects every aspect of a person’s life and wellbeing. The dehumanising effects of discrimination and racism can lead to racial trauma, causing someone to revisit distressing events constantly in their head. If this is left untreated, it can affect one’s ability to function in life and work, and to maintain relationships with colleagues, friends and family. As Williams (2019) states
“….. assessing discriminatory distress in patients of color during a clinical encounter may be uncomfortable for therapists who have not had practice discussing racial issues. Many White people are socialized to demonstrate non-racist values by not talking about race. However, this approach leaves such clinicians ill-equipped to have conversations about race with their clients of color, and so it is even less likely they will be able to engage in productive conversations surrounding traumatic experiences of racism.”
Racial trauma as a consequence of systemic racism continues to impact the lives of Black people and our families. Any type of stress or anxiety around racial factors or treatment can trigger racial trauma (see Table 1).
|Exposure to racial or ethnic stereotypes||When academics or textbooks assert that some racial groups are better or worse at certain tasks.|
|Fears about personal safety||When a Latinx person fears the label of being an undocumented immigrant or a person of colour fears abuse by police.|
|Witnessing members of a person’s group receiving abuse||This can be in real life or via the media, such as when a Latinx person sees immigrant children in cages, or a Black person sees a video of an unarmed Black person being killed.|
|Racist abuse of loved ones||This can include attacks on partners, parents, or children.|
|Direct exposure to racist abuse or discrimination||This may be hearing racist stereotypes at work or being the recipient of a racial slur.|
|Others not taking experiences of racism seriously||This may happen when people question if someone’s experience was real.|
The murder of George Floyd created yet another opportunity for Black people to speak out about racism and be heard. However, as many Black people expected, this conversation now seems to be closing down. It appears that the public pledges and commitments that were made and were front and centre for many organisations at the height of The Black Lives Matter protests are dwindling. At the same time we see and hear more reports about systemic racism and other abuses within public services that cite racism as a factor. Here are just a handful of examples that have made the headlines recently.
- The death of Awaab Ishak: “Family say racism played a part in toddler’s death from mould in flat” (Fleary S, 2022).
- Dame Casey’s report into culture and attitudes at the Metropolitan Police: “She found officers making offensive remarks about rape and racially abusing a black colleague using the term ‘gate monkey’” (Casey Review, 2023).
- Various inquiries into maternal deaths and morbidity revealed that Black women are statistically four times more likely to die during childbirth than white women in the UK (Warander, 2023).
- Windrush scandal: hundreds with chronic and mental illness sent back to Caribbean. “Joseph arrived in the UK in 1954 and lived in Nottingham with his wife and five daughters. However, he began struggling with his mental health in the 1960s and was diagnosed with paranoid psychosis. In 1966, he was returned to St Kitts. He never saw his family again” (Johal & Hall, 2020).
- ‘Racism and the pandemic report’ explored how racism has played out during the pandemic and the impact that this has had on the lives of those working in healthcare (Ramamurthy, et al., 2022).
There are many more stories of racism and racial trauma that do not make the headlines. Some are brought into the therapeutic space, however when I asked about racial trauma processing on a recent EMDR Association UK forum, the response was “you process it like any other trauma.” This felt like an ill-considered White ‘push back’ response and was not the anti-racist response I would have wished for. Being anti-racist involves making a commitment to dismantling racism; as Kendi (2019) states: “The opposite of racist is not ’not racist’, it’s anti-racist.”
My journey from youth volunteer to Black activist and therapist
As a Black EMDR therapist, art psychotherapist, campaigner and community activist I have campaigned for systemic change in addressing racism in services and implementing anti-racist practice. These issues are central for me because my lived experiences inform my perspective.
Beginnings of activism
I grew up in the UK in a small town in Greater Manchester and as a child and adult I experienced racism in many forms. I learned from an early age that it is okay to fight back when being called racist names. I learned about resistance from my Dad who experienced racism when he arrived in the UK in 1955 from Jamaica, he was from the Windrush generation. Resistance to racist oppression is in our DNA. As descendants of enslaved peoples from West Africa, we are born of people who rose up against slavery in the Caribbean. In Brown’s Tacky’s Revolt (2020) he traces the roots of a widespread slave rebellion in the British colony of Jamaica in the 1760s.
I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors and I was willing and able to take on the fight against injustice from a young age. My earliest memory was of organising a sit-in on the school field at seven years of age in protest at not being allowed to play football with the boys.
At age 16 I left school with no clue about what I wanted to do but I was clear that I did not want to work in factories. I had seen my Mum work in factories doing what I saw as monotonous, unfulfilling work. Our family home in Stockport was surrounded by factories. Needham’s Iron Foundry, where my Dad had worked, was just at the end of our road and behind our house from the bedroom windows we could see what had been the giant Courtauld’s cotton mill. I grew up in the heartlands of the industrial revolution with both my parents working in industries financed by the slave trade.
In 1844 Engels described Stockport “There is Stockport too . . . [which] is renowned throughout the entire district as one of the duskiest, smokiest holes, and looks, indeed, especially when viewed from the viaduct, excessively repellent.”
I had no idea what other jobs existed outside of my family’s experience of manual work in factories. I knew more than anything else I would not be following in the footsteps of my parents and siblings. I left school at the height of mass unemployment under the Thatcher government. New opportunities for young unemployed people were created through the Youth Opportunities Programme (YOP). I joined the YOP which included a placement at a college one day a week. I learned office skills and life skills here. This was my first introduction to a world of work that did not involve hard monotonous physically demanding work in dusty, drafty buildings. I had only one experience of working in a factory which was for me, soul destroying. After working in an office there was no chance of me ever looking for work in a factory. At the end of my YOP placement I applied for a volunteer play-worker role at the local Council for Voluntary Services (CVS). Volunteering in the public sector led to work roles that suited me and enabled me to escape the kind of work that I was not cut out for.
An early challenge to systemic racism
In 1983 at the age of 18 I was involved in a youth project which led to me becoming a member of Stockport Council for Voluntary Services Executive Committee. In the 1980s, following the inner-city riots across the country, public bodies began to acknowledge the existence of racism and the disadvantages that Black communities faced. Equal opportunities policies were being implemented and discussions about anti-racist practice were beginning within public services.
Voluntary and charitable organisations like the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) implemented a policy to challenge racism within its national and local policies. The new policy framework to be delivered nationally, required local CVSs to include a statement of intent to address all forms of racism within their organisations. As part of the work to understand how this statement of intent was to be implemented, I was invited to join an anti-racist working party at the local CVS.
Unfortunately, the chair of the local CVS could not agree to my participation. At our next working party meeting I did wonder how this person could continue in their role given these objections and asked if it was something we could act on by asking for his resignation. Being new to this work, I did not understand the politics of such a consideration. At the following annual general meeting, the Chair of Stockport CVS resigned. Result! However, following his resignation he reported to the local newspaper that he had effectively been asked to stand on the local band stand with his hand on his heart and declare himself to be non-racist which he was not prepared to do. This was the start of my journey of standing up for what I believed in and speaking truth to power.
In 1996, I joined Stockport Council as a community development worker. This was three years after the murder of Stephen Lawrence. The outrage of this racially motivated murder and the relentless campaigning of Stephen’s parents led to ‘The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry’, led by Lord MacPherson (1999) into the flawed police investigation. In his report Lord MacPherson found the Metropolitan Police to be “institutionally racist”.
1997 was the European Year Against Racism. As a direct result of Stephen’s appalling murder, I began to work with Stockport’s Black residents to find out what their experiences of living in a predominantly White town were. There were no surprises to me having grown up in this town. Black residents were not getting equal services, support, or funding from the local authority or within the local voluntary sector.
In 2000 The Race Relations (Amendment) Act charged all local authorities with the duty to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination, promote equality of opportunity and promote good relations between people of different racial groups. I have continued to develop anti-racist practice and to speak out on these issues within my work as a community development worker, an activist and as a therapist to raise awareness of the injustices and the impact of racism on Black lives.
Understanding and addressing the impact of systemic racism on mental health: Black Lives Matter and Black Minds Matter
In May 2020, just weeks before the murder of George Floyd, I shared some footage of a brutal attack, in Manchester, by the police on a father in front of his child (Howarth, 2020). I shared this story within a professional Facebook group for psychotherapeutic practitioners, as I wanted to think about and discuss the impact of this experience with colleagues. Some of their responses to the post and the footage were appalling and racist. The defensiveness of some contributors and the racist commentaries made by White therapists, led to months of discussions between people who had been impacted by this experience. There was a lot of hurt felt and people began to share their own experiences of racial trauma. Many people contacted me privately to offer support and to share their own experiences of racism, both as clients of psychotherapy and counselling as well as trainees on counselling and psychotherapy courses. Their stories were shocking but not surprising. People who shared their stories with me wanted to be heard.
In June 2021 I approached Zak Garner-Purkis, a journalist from ‘My London’, an online newspaper, to see if he would be interested in drawing attention to these issues. Their stories and my experience were published in a news article (Garner-Purkis, 2021). This was in stark contrast to The Sewell Report (March 2021) commissioned by the government into racial and ethnic disparities in the UK which stated “Put simply we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities. The impediments and disparities do exist, they are varied, and ironically very few of them are directly to do with racism.”
However, this view was again contradicted in 2023, following numerous reports about misogyny, homophobia and racism in the Metropolitan Police. Baroness Casey reported her findings and concluded “I make a finding of institutional racism, sexism and homophobia in the Met. Sir William Macpherson made the first of those findings in his inquiry into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence as long ago as 1999. Many people have been raising grave concerns.”
There is not a day that passes without some reference to systemic racism within the institutions of the UK. For example, The Royal Family alongside other wealthy families have links to slavery and there are many UK institutions that made their wealth from the enslavement of Africans re-igniting the reparation debate. At the heart of these reports and statistics is the stark fact that Black lives in the UK have been damaged and continue to be damaged by historic human rights abuses and institutional racism.
How can EMDR practitioners respond to racial trauma?
Anti-racist psychotherapy is grounded in the belief that racism and discrimination are not just individual issues, but also social and political issues that require systemic change. This applies to treating the psychological trauma that Black people experience.
However, whilst posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) racial trauma is not. For a more in-depth discussion about the historical contexts of racial trauma, Dr Joy DeGruy Leary discusses post traumatic slave syndrome in her book (DeGruy Leary, 2005) and in a presentation to NHS workers (DeGruy Leary, 2008). DeGruy Leary’s work discusses the impact of chattel slavery and how the trauma continues to affect the lives of people who are descendants of enslaved people both in the USA and UK. She highlights the impact of racialised trauma, ongoing generational trauma, resilience and resistance and explores defensive responses of White people’s ‘push back’ and the lack of acknowledgment within the mental health services to understand and appropriately support people who have experienced racialised trauma.
This is one of the reasons why institutional racism, that we are all exposed to, seeps inside us as practitioners. So, given these systemic challenges how do we as EMDR therapists put advocacy into action?
As a lifelong campaigner and anti-oppressive practitioner, I am constantly examining my work to ensure that anti-racist practice is at the core of what I do and is explicit.
Throughout my EMDR training I have been concerned about the impact of racism and racialised trauma. I have asked many questions about anti-racist practice and EMDR from the beginning. These questions are not reflected in the research community. The EMDR publications database has zero results when the search terms ‘racism and EMDR’ are used. Given this lack of research on the issue of racialised trauma and EMDR where do we start?
Becoming an anti-racist practitioner and organisation
Anti-racist psychotherapy is a continual process that requires ongoing education, self-reflection, and action. Therapists who practice anti-racist psychotherapy need to commit to learning and growth and should be actively engaged in anti-racist work in their personal and professional lives. This may involve advocating for policy change, engaging in activism, or making changes in personal relationships or behaviours. I wonder if this is something that EMDR UK is willing and committed to do, in order to make it an anti-racist organisation?
I want EMDR UK to be able to say “Yes we are an actively anti-racist organisation.” It is evident that there is much work to do. In the words of John Amaechi (2020) a psychologist and former NBA basketball player
This infographic on becoming anti-racist is a valuable tool to locate yourself and your practice. My challenge to you is, where are you and where is EMDR Association UK on becoming an anti-racist practitioner? What would be helpful and what kind of training or support would you want going forward?
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Brooks-Ucheaga, M. (2023). A qualitative exploration of black psychotherapists’ personal experience of racism and the challenges that exist for black therapists who work with clients in therapy who have also experienced racism: A pilot study using interpretive phenomenological analysis. The Cognitive Behaviour Therapist, 16, E14. Doi:10.1017/S1754470X23000065
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Garner-Purkis Z, (2021). ‘I had PTSD from racism at work – therapists told me I was just paranoid’ My London News [Online news article]. Retrieved fromhttps://www.mylondon.news/news/health/i-depressed-ptsd-racism-work-22211607
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