Last month, George Floyd was killed by police on the street in Minneapolis; almost immediately, the video of his death circulated on the internet. As much as we wanted to look away, we could not. The image of Floyd’s final minutes reignited centuries of collective grief and trauma. The officer’s knee on Floyd’s neck represents the struggle many of us have felt for years, as we’ve suffered and struggled to manage and navigate the waters of systemic racism. His cries for help, his wanting to be seen and heard, are the cries of all of us who work hard to acquire just a small slice of the American Dream. America is hurting, and Black Americans are hemorrhaging with pain.
We founded the Facebook group Clinicians of Color, LLC, (COC) in 2016. Currently, it has over 12,000 members. Its purpose is to help therapists of color start or grow a private practice, but we also provide clinical training to help members develop skills, acquire knowledge, and become successful in business. The group has become a source of tremendous support and a safe place to process life’s challenges.
We’ve spent the last few days processing our feelings, with emotions ranging from profound sadness to intense rage. Many of us are experiencing difficulty sleeping and trouble concentrating. We feel alienated and angry. One theme that comes up often in our group is the sense that white therapists struggle to understand and truly empathize with race-based trauma.
Race-based trauma is a theory developed by Robert T. Carter, showing how after experiencing acts of racism, people of color exhibit symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress. This applies to the difficulties experienced by Black and brown therapists.
To amplify the voices of our colleagues and clients of color, we decided to ask COC members to share their experiences of race-based trauma and offer guidance on how our white counterparts can better support us, as well as their own clients of color. Here are just a few of their responses—a small testament to how much we have to say. If you have Black colleagues or clients, we think you’ll find this feedback insightful, and we hope you’ll use it to become better informed about what people of color experience and need during this difficult time.
– Lisa Savage, LCSW, and Kim Knight, LPC
“I think it’s important that all clinicians today understand the nuances of historical and intergenerational trauma. That entails understanding the history of race and discrimination in this country as well as how that history has played out in our professions, and continues to be perpetrated in the work we do. Our work requires more than just kindness; we must think critically about what we’ve been taught and understand how what happens at the macro levels of our society impacts the client directly in front of us.”
Kimberly Grocher, LCSW, CPC, RYT
New York, NY
“As a Black clinician, I recently spent a moment with a client, sharing her emotions about the reoccurring events faced by our community. There needs to be a requirement that clinicians engage in training on racism in the Black community before they can get their license renewed. This training should be presented by someone in the Black community.”
Tunisia Buise, LCSW-C
“Stop asking the Black community to help you with your guilt and pain when our community is suffering. We’re trying to hold our community together with the last strength we have in our bodies. Our collective mental health is fragile, rooted in our DNA. Understand that.”
Tiffany C. Brown, PsyD
“I know many people love to throw around the words ally and cultural competence. But I hope they can understand that trust in a therapist isn’t granted because that therapist attended a three-hour workshop on cultural competence, led by someone who isn’t a person of color. That doesn’t make them an ally. We need therapists who are willing to do deep anti-racism work, who present with cultural humility. This way, we can choose our allies. Allies isn’t’ self-appointed. They’re chosen.”
Shamyra Howard-Blackburn, LCSW
Baton Rouge, LA
“Our mandate as therapists is to work within the scope of our practice. We understand if we were seeing a client with chronic pain, OCD, or PTSD, that we’d need to pursue training or supervision in that area before continuing our work. Otherwise, we’d run the risk of exacerbating their issue, even though we might think we’re being helpful. The same is true when we’re working with clients of color, many of whom are experiencing the effects of racial trauma. Therapists who continue working with these populations without any lived experience, training, or supervision often end up retraumatizing their clients in their attempts to be helpful.”
Jocelyn St. Cyr, LICSW
“I’ve begun telling students and beginning counselors to ‘lean in and look within’ at their own biases. Acknowledging personal biases and educating oneself about culture and ethnicities different from your own are ways to shift your thinking and become more open to differences. This can challenge and foster change.”
Shaketa Bruce, MS, LPC, NCC, CCH
“We cannot accept people saying, ‘Get over it, it already happened, move on.’ I think this is a major problem—the lack of acknowledgment that we as a race have experienced trauma. We have to say it out loud, acknowledge it, and understand how this crime against humanity manifests. Only then can we truly address it, see it for what it is.”
Zamantha Gobourne, LICSW
“I think recognizing that clients of color may never feel completely regulated is important. It’s important to honor that there’s always a sense of hyperarousal due to systemic and institutionalized racism. Helping clients acknowledge and manage this is important to decreasing chronic stress, the physical and mental damage it can cause.”
Nina Keeler, LMFT
West Bloomfield Township, MI
“Black pain shouldn’t need to be intellectualized to be heard.”
Phi Rochon, LMSW
“Understand that systemic racism contributes to Black people’s vulnerability to psychological, emotional, and social distress. It makes them hesitant to seek mental health services, especially from those who don’t look like them.”
Tytannie Harris, LCSW
“Black people should be provided with compassion and grace after trauma. Traumatic responses don’t always look civil and organized. Trauma is seen in many different ways by our community. Generational trauma runs deeply in the Black community. Our cries have been unheard for so long, and that erupts in various ways. Don’t be misled by what you see in the media. What appears to be violence may be pain.”
April Lamb, LCSW
“Black folk shouldn’t have to navigate the age-old narrative of ‘not all cops are bad.’ It’s dismissive and does harm. There’s a rational explanation for our traumatizing reality—it’s based in history. The narrative that not all cops are bad may feel true if you don’t have to live with the reality that a cop could take your life without accountability or consequence, simply because your skin is brown. It can happen regardless of socioeconomic status, gender, affiliation, or education. It’s a reality for people of color that police can trigger the brain to feel endangered before helped. It’s a trauma response.”
Crystal Jones, LCSW
“Why is it that black and brown people who suffer from substance use disorder are treated differently from white people who also suffer from it? In the George Floyd arrest video, around the 5:27-mark, the Asian cop mocks George by saying, ‘All I have to say is don’t use drugs.’ The autopsy report indicated that there was a toxic substance in George’s body, but nothing clearly states he was an addict. Throughout history, society has given heavier penalties to and stigmatized people of color who suffer from drug addiction, whereas with white people it’s looked at as a disease. The criminal justice system gives people of color harsher sentences and limited or no assistance to help them with their disease. When therapists work with people of color who suffer from substance use disorder, they have to understand that they’re treating more than addiction. They’re treating systemic injustice, trauma, and generational hurt.”
Katie Onitiri, EdS, LAMFT, LCADC
“I believe that historical and current systemic deficits need to be acknowledged in order to move us into a place of healing. Talking is good, but action is better.”
Erica Kelley, LPC, CRC, LBSW
“The white majority needs to understand that after being constantly referred to as angry, intimidating, and savage by others, it’s very difficult for Black people not to be cautious, mistrusting, and frustrated. We know that no matter how much we’ve contributed to making this country great, we will never get the credit or fair treatment we deserve. What we need now more than ever is true allies.”
Chantel Bratcher-Coleman, LPCMH, CAADC
“I believe it’s important for our white counterparts to know that people of color are hurting. The unfortunate and tragic death of George Floyd and countless other Black men and women at the hands of people in positions of authority brings up generational trauma for people of color. Our white colleagues need to understand this, search their hearts, and do the work necessary to be aware of their prejudices and biases to be a catalyst for change. No longer is it enough to be sensitive to our plight. Now, more than ever, it’s imperative to do something, to take political action, to end racial injustices and disparities. Then and only then can this nation work on collective healing and truly uphold its name as the United States of America.”
Diona Shelton, LCSW
“It’s essential to integrate our understanding of trauma with the growing clinical understanding of the impact of racial trauma on individuals. If we’re truly trauma-informed, there’s no way to ignore the clinical implications of racial trauma on individuals and communities of color. There is an ethical and professional obligation in working with Black people, Indigenous people, or people of color to understand how a lack of safety, systemic and historical oppression, and survival and trauma responses impact mental health, goals, and constructed core values.”
Crystal Blanton, LCSW
Pleasant Hill, CA
“Being Black in America makes us a target for hatred, bias, fear, and even death. As a wife and a mother, I’m afraid that every time my son or husband leaves the house, they might not make it home safely. I fear they’ll be judged just for their color. How can your race determine the quality of life you have in this country? It truly troubles me.”
Monica Douglass-Davis, LPC, NCC, CPCS
Lisa R. Savage, LCSW, is a social work graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, who focuses on bridging gaps in mental health services, particularly in marginalized communities. Savage founded The Center for Child Development (CCD) in April 2007, located in Newark, DE, designed to improve access to mental health services for children and families in the state. www.thecenterforchilddevelopment.com
Kim L. Knight, LPC, is an author, coach, speaker, and licensed mental health counselor with over 20 years’ experience in the wellness and helping profession. After years in the healthcare industry, she became a mental health therapist. She currently practices in Long Island, NY. www.kknightcounseling.com
For more discussion, resources, and training opportunities, please visit cliniciansofcolor.org.