What would be your reaction if someone you knew and respected called you a racist? Would you be gobsmacked? Bewildered as to what you could have said or done that made you seem racist? Or perhaps infuriated that someone could think that you, in all probability a staunch promoter of social justice ideals, could actually demean a human being in a racist way? All of these, along with a robust dose of denial, are likely to have been part of your response. And in terms of the overt, in-your-face action that we most readily associate with racism, you are likely correct; you are probably not a racist.

What current global events are telling us, though, is that we may need to re-think how we identify and define “racism”. The Black Lives Matter protests have shone a light on several forms of racism that exist: certainly, but not only in the United States. Add to that the insidious effects on mental and physical health of the disproportionate COVID-19 death rates between various races or ethnicities (APM Research Lab, 2020) – at least in the United States, where such data has been documented – we begin to see that racism may not necessarily appear as a white person hauling epithets at a person of colour. But rather, racism is perpetuated in far more subtle ways. This article and its companion comprise a two-part series looking at counselling and racism. Today we attempt to raise our collective bar in terms of awareness.

Racism in your rooms: Let us count the ways

Direct: Client as victim

To get a handle on the slippery concept that is racism, let us review some of the ways it may find you in your counselling rooms. The most obvious is that you might work with a client who has been on the receiving end of racial slurs, and is distressed and wondering what to do about it. This is a direct, overt type of racism: one which – we hope – our societies have been steadily moving away from. Nevertheless, recent U.S.-based research found that about 71% of the counsellor-respondents to a survey reported that they had worked with clients who reported experiences with race-based trauma (Hemmings & Evans, 2018). In Australia, a survey found that 42% of respondents reported experiencing racism, while 51% of Aboriginal people surveyed stated that Australia is a racist country and 86% of respondents agreed that something should be done to fight racism in Australia (Korff, 2020). So perhaps, even in this measure of relatively direct, overt racism, we have a ways to go to eliminate it.

Client as perpetrator: Spotting casual racism

Disclosure: you are not likely to receive a client who bursts in and moans, “Oh, I just HATE (fill in the blank with the chosen minority group)”. Racism, however, can be just under the surface in people who:

  • Make or laugh at racist jokes
  • Believe that certain racial or ethnic minority groups have been given unfair advantages by the government (e.g., that Aboriginal peoples in Australia, according to nearly 50% of white respondents to a survey: Korff, 2020) have been granted “unfair advantages” of home loans not available to white, mainstream residents)
  • Note that a particular racial or ethnic group “can sometimes be a bit (fill in the blank with your choice of negative quality: e.g., “lazy”, “slovenly”, “light-fingered”).

An informal survey in the Sydney Morning Herald received almost 12,000 votes. It asked, in part, whether the respondent thought he or she might be a “casual racist”: that is, someone who is sometimes involved in “everyday racism”, in ways subtle and often not identified as racist, such as the 41% of respondents in a survey who agreed that “Australia is weakened by people of different ethnic origins sticking to their old ways” (Korff, 2020), or the 25% of white students at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, who agreed that “A lot of minorities are too sensitive” (Williams, 2017). In this survey, 64% agreed that, yes, they were a “casual racist”. Of these, two thirds (i.e., 44% of all the respondents) also stated that they were not going to change (Korff, 2020). As we will see in a moment, the casual racist slights suck up as much as, if not more than, the energy required to fight overt racism. There is another potent source of racism as well.

Client as part of systemic or institutional racism

Even if your client – and you, too – wish to be part of the solution redressing racism rather than part of the problem, you both (all of us) confront the problem that racism is alive and well in the institutions, even in our liberal, democratic societies. The Black Lives Matter protests did not originate with the death of unarmed black man, George Floyd, in the custody of white police, but they were given massive impetus in the exploding awareness that the institutions of justice in the United States had failed, yet again, a minority-culture person whom they were sworn to protect. Similarly in Australia, protests have served to highlight the deaths of aboriginal people in custody, where, for example, the proportion of those requiring medical care but not receiving it increased in the 12 months to August 2019 from 35.4% to 38.6%. The proportion of Indigenous deaths where not all procedures were followed in the events leading up to the death increased from 38.8% in the same time period to 41.2% (Allam, Wahlquist, & Evershed, 2019).

The health system, too, has a case to answer. In a three-year study of the Flinders University’s Southgate Institute (South Australia), 93% of the participants experienced racism, particularly within the justice and education systems, which – if people experienced it regularly, said the study – leads to poor health. Particularly, “It causes stress and negative emotional/cognitive reactions which have negative impacts on mental health as well as affecting the immune, endocrine, cardiovascular, and other physiological systems”. Moreover, dealing with the stress from racist encounters leads to unhealthy activities, such as eating poor-quality foods, ingesting toxic or addictive substances, or failing to take the positive actions that uphold health, such as sleep, exercise, and medication compliance (Korff, 2020).

We named the COVID-19 pandemic as a possible contributor to health disparities between mainstream and minority groups, at least in the United States, where the racial and ethnic identities of those who die are recorded. You might ask why minority communities would be hit harder by this highly contagious virus than mainstream ones. While researchers are currently pursuing multiple avenues of enquiry (including genetic and blood-type differences: Laguipo, 2020), it is already known that those who have underlying medical conditions are more likely to die if they contract the virus. A June 24, 2020 article by APM Research Lab published the death rates of various minority communities in comparison to white Americans. They found that:

  • 1 in 1,500 Black Americans has died (or 65.8 deaths per 100,000)
  • 1 in 2,300 Indigenous Americans has died (or 43.2 deaths per 100,000)
  • 1 in 3,100 Pacific Islander Americans has died (or 32.7 deaths per 100,000)
  • 1 in 3,200 Latino Americans has died (or 31.1 deaths per 100,000)
  • 1 in 3,600 White Americans has died (or 28.5 deaths per 100,000)
  • 1 in 3,700 Asian Americans has died (or 27.7 deaths per 100,000) (APM Research Lab, 2020)

Incredibly, the death rate of black Americans from COVID-19 is more than twice (2.3 times) that of white Americans. The article ominously noted, “If they had died of COVID-19 at the same rate as White Americans, at least 15,000 Black Americans, 1,500 Latino Americans, and 250 Indigenous Americans would still be alive” (APM Research Lab, 2020).

Institutional or systemic racism can take root when there is an oppressive system in which “individuals in a dominant group use their power to restrict the subordinate groups’ access to resources, resulting in gross systematic disparities” (Carter, Lau, Johnson, & Kirkinis, 2017). This process of “dehumanisation” results in “social and physical isolation, as well as lack of access and blocked opportunities in education, employment, health, and socio-political status”. These, then result in the poor psychological and physical health outcomes among racial/ethnic minority adults that are inversely associated with exposure to racism and racial discrimination (Carter et al, 2017, pp 232-233). We can ask what the mechanisms are for the oppression and consequent restriction of resources that create poor health outcomes.

Microaggressions: Racism hiding in the small things

Insofar as mental health is concerned, some studies have noted a “treatment-seeking disparity” between “African Americans” and “Whites” (Buser, 2009), which authors say may be related to issues such as African Americans’ attitudes toward mental illness and services (e.g., a fear of mockery from peers and a social perception of weakness), cultural coping mechanisms (that is, a cultural norm of self-sufficiency and a belief in their ability to overcome stressors through personal effort), and biased practices in mental health care, including African Americans’ mistrust of the health system (Buser, 2009). The author goes on to suggest, however, that the foregoing do not account for all the differences in treatment-seeking disparity, and ultimately, health outcome. Rather, she notes, “The literature on microaggressions in mental health practice is also vital in understanding African American hesitancy to seek care for mental illness. The research on microaggressions points to subtle forms of racism that can go unnoticed and unacknowledged by counsellors” (Constantine, 2007, in Buser, 2009).

What are microaggressions, and how do they manifest?

Dr. Derald Wing Sue and his colleagues have defined (racial) microaggressions as:

“ . . . brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of colour. Perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware that they engage in such communications when they interact with racial/ethnic minorities” (Sue et al, 2007).

Dr. Sue noted that the messages can be sent verbally, such as in compliments (“You speak good English” – to someone of minority group parentage born in an English-speaking country), nonverbally (e.g., moving away from a train or bus seat when a minority-group person sits down nearby), or environmentally (e.g., using symbols such as the Confederate flag or a swastika) (Sue, 2020). Sue and colleagues’ research has turned up three categories of microaggressions:


This category includes conscious and intentional discriminatory actions, such as racial epithets, displaying white supremacist symbols (as above), or preventing one’s children from dating outside their race.


These are communications, whether verbal, non-verbal, or environmental, which subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity that demean a person’s racial heritage or identity. For example, if you as counsellor were to ask a person of colour how they got their job, the inference could be that they only got it because a quote system existed.


This category would be comprised of communications which in some way nullify or negate the thoughts, feelings, or experience of a person of colour. An example here could be asking a minority group member where they were born, thus conveying the message that they are really foreigners in their own country. Dr. Sue believes that the last two categories are potentially more harmful, because they are generally “invisible”, putting people of colour into a psychological bind. Do they bring up how insulted they feel, resulting in denials by the (unconscious) perpetrator, who may say, “Oh, you’re being too sensitive” (or even “paranoid”). Or do they remain silent, failing to confront the perpetrator, which results in the person of colour experiencing an inner turmoil which stews in their psyche (Sue, 2010). This is a great example of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t”!

Catching the racist inside before it “leaks” out

Dr. Sue observed how, not only he but also other psychologists, believe that most people have unconscious racial biases that “leak” out in certain situations. Getting people to see their biases, however, is a massive task, because most people see themselves as racially tolerant, not prejudiced, and good, “moral human beings”. They find it hard to believe that they would act in a racially discriminatory way, because they are absolutely unconscious of it (Sue, 2010).

These perceptions by psychologists find some support in research conducted with counsellors. In an investigation of counsellors’ experiences with identifying and treating race-based trauma, 71% of the counsellor-participants reported that they had worked with clients who reported experiences with race-based trauma. 67% of the participants nominated eight to ten factors as contributing to the race-based trauma that their clients experienced, including hate crimes and institutional racism, covert acts of racism, microaggressions, overt acts of racism, racial profiling, and both outside-group and within-group racist comments. However, only 33% reported receiving training to identify race-based trauma, and only 19% reported that they had received training to treat race-based trauma (Hemmings & Evans, 2018).

Given the hard-to-see bias in ourselves and counsellors’ self-identified lack of training to spot and treat clients who have experienced negative impacts from racism, how can we ensure that any unconscious prejudices do not seep into our interactions with clients, causing harm that we may not even realise we have created? Our next article takes up this topic in greater detail, but here we can say that the long-term goal includes counsellor-trainers utilising race-conscious curricula; incorporating models, theories, and methodologies that assist in gaining awareness; going beyond academia for student counsellors’ training; and supporting racism-related research. Too, there will need to be additional measures developed for assessing bias, as well as modalities for treating the effects of racism, race-based stress, and race-based trauma (Hemmings & Evans, 2018).

And on a personal level? The advice is simple, but not easy: that is, to become aware of our own biases, and to consider more deeply how these can affect communications with our clients or others. We need to become aware of how language affects people, so degrading, pejorative terms are definitely dehumanising and off-limits. But, says Philip Yanos, it is “counterproductive” for the dialogue around microaggressions to be one in which people feel like they are being hounded by the word police; it’s not about making superficial adjustments to one’s language, but to genuinely understand how microinsults and microinvalidations can affect the targets (Yanos, 2018). Microaggressions, perhaps even more than overt racist acts, consume a person’s energy on all levels, but leave them without any clear and healing way forward. Beyond that, they can lead the minority group members against whom they are directed to self-blame, becoming angry at themselves, and internalising the oppression/racism that they are experiencing (David, 2015).


Racism can be overt, but is often more likely to arrive in the form of microaggressions, which assault, insult, or invalidate the target in subtle ways. Our mission as counsellors, should we choose to accept it, is to become ever more aware of the impact of unconscious bias that may inadvertently harm our clients. In our next article, we look at what counsellors can do to fight racism.


  • Allam, L., Wahlquist, C., & Evershed, N. (2019). Indigenous deaths in custody worsen in year of tracking by Deaths Inside project. The Guardian. Retrieved on 8 July, 2020, from: Website
  • APM Research Lab. (2020). The color of coronavirus: COVID-19 deaths by race and ethnicity in the U.S. APM Research Lab. Retrieved on 7 July, 2020, from: Website
  • Buser, J. (2009). Treatment-seeking disparity between African Americans and Whites: Attitudes toward treatment, coping resources, and racism. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 2009 (37), 94-104.
  • David, E.J.R. (2015). 5 questions we often ask ourselves after microaggressions. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 7 July, 2020, from: Website
  • Hemmings, C., & Evans, A.M. (2018). Identifying and treating race-based trauma in counseling. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 2018, 4620-39.
  • Korff, J 2020, Racism in Aboriginal Australia. Creative Spirits. Retrieved on 7 July, 2020, from: Website
  • Laguipo, A.B.B. (2020). Blood types and COVID-19 risk confirmed. News Medical: Life Sciences. Retrieved on 8 July, 2020, from: Website
  • Sue, D.W. (2010). Racial microaggressions in everyday life. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 7 July, 2020, from: Website
  • Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271–286. Retrieved on 8 July, 2020, from: Website
  • Williams, M.T. (2017). Racism hides behind the small things people say and do. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 6 July, 2020, from: Website
  • Yanos, P. (2018). What is a mental illness microaggression? Psychology Today. Retrieved on 7 July, 2020, from: Website