GW Hosts Lecture on Importance of Antiracism in Counseling Services

The 2023 MLK Jr. Lecture at GSEHD focused on moving toward antiracism and preparing future mental health professionals to utilize antiracist practices in their work.

January 22, 2023

Trustees Gate

After protests advocating for racial equality erupted across the United States in summer 2020, the topic of antiracism gained more prominence—with it becoming the subject of many discussions on social media, in workplaces and among friends.

But what exactly does antiracism mean? How can we identify racism and actively oppose it? That was the topic of the third annual Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture sponsored by the Graduate School of Education and Human Development (GSEHD) at George Washington University.

The discussion, "Moving Towards Antiracism: A Group Process," was delivered virtually by Charmaine Conner, a licensed professional counselor and national certified counselor with experience providing mental health services to children, adolescents and adults.

“Because of those protests, I heard a lot of conversations happening from my students, in my personal life with friends, with family members about, well, what does it mean to be antiracist and people not knowing what it means,” Conner said.

The event was introduced by assistant professor Dwayne Kwaysee Wright, director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiatives at GSEHD. He said when there are moments of intense racial reckoning, such as the Black Lives Matter protests, there is usually backlash.

“What the faculty at GSEHD said is we needed to try and ignite a movement, and the lecturer today is a part of that movement,” Wright said. “We need a movement, not a moment. And movements are not passive.”

He explained that especially around Martin Luther King Jr. Day, many statements encouraging a passive response to racism are thrown around.

“Racism repackaged and reformed as concepts that we have determined, and evidence shows are both intellectually and theoretically bankrupt such as colorblindness, will not drive out racism,” Wright said. “We need something, if I dare say, rather affirmative. We need something that is rather active. We need something that bends the arc of the moral universe toward justice. We need something like antiracism.”

Conner agreed with Wright’s assertion that there has been push-back around the term antiracism since 2020. She believes it is important to have clarity on the meaning of antiracism and how to engage in antiracism practices.

Conner developed a research study to help counselor education students increase their knowledge regarding antiracism counseling practices and identify biases and areas of growth related to racism.

In the study, participants were asked questions relating to their ability to define antiracism and address racism in their personal and professional lives. Then for 10 weeks, all of the study participants were involved in a one-hour group therapy session where they learned a similar curriculum on race. In the end, the participants were asked similar questions to the pre-interview to evaluate how their understanding of antiracism practices changed.

She believes in the power of group therapy and decided it could be an avenue that helps people get to the core of any biases, prejudices or discriminatory practices they uphold as they navigate their personal and professional lives. 

Conner said one of the preliminary findings from the study is group therapy focused on addressing racism may be beneficial. Some study participants have shared they feel better equipped to discuss race and address racism after the group practice, Conner said.

She explained the fear some people have around the term antiracism is caused by a fear of losing certain powers and privileges associated with treating people equitably.

“But what I have learned from what we have experienced related to this data, these group participants, these students, is that they want to know. They want to know how to engage in antiracist practices. They want to know how to not be harmful, and it is important they can have a space to address these concerns,” Conner said.

Another preliminary finding from the study, Conner said, is that people want tangible ways to address racist encounters.

“I do believe that it is going to be our responsibility as educators, trainers, supervisors to ensure that they get some tangible ways to do that,” she said.

A response to Conner’s talk was given by Delishia Pittman, an assistant professor of counseling in GSEHD and a board-certified counseling psychologist.

Pittman discussed research that shows the dangers to patients when encountering professionals that hold discriminatory and racist attitudes.

“As academics and counselor educators, we operate in systems that notably perpetuate systemic racism,” Pittman said. “Consequently, as counselor educators, we more than likely train counselors who might work, live and play in similarly oppressive systems. Thereby, we have a responsibility to the profession and to the public to prepare future counselors to serve as disruptors and agitators.”