In Focus
Nov 30, 2023

Institutional Racism in Colleges and Student Counselling Services

Alex Payne analyses the historic and institutional aspects of racism and their effect on counselling services in conversation with the founder of Black Therapists Ireland, Ejiro Ogbevoen, and Assistant Professor of Psychotherapy at DCU, Dr Ray O’Neill

Alex PayneAssistant Editor

Institutional racism is a topic that comes up again and again in historically and predominantly white countries. Its effects are felt in the discrimination experienced by persons of colour in these countries, and so these persons of colour are often led to seek mental health support. Trinity’s counselling service defends its training and abilities in supporting persons of colour and combating incidents of racism, but what can it do better? In conversation with Ejiro Ogbevoen, Dr Ray O’Neill and Jimena Alvarez, The University Times tries to elucidate the nuances of Trinity’s particular place within institutional racism as well as the therapeutic environment it offers to students in need.

The Irish Network Against Racism (INAR) defines institutional racism as “forms of racism expressed in the practice of social and political institutions”. It further explains that it manifests in the way “institutions discriminate against certain groups, whether intentionally or not, and [to] their failure to have in place policies that prevent discrimination or discriminatory behaviour”. The primary methods of discrimination that result are “unintentional prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, unconscious bias and racist stereotyping”. The combination of structural racism, which the INAR defines as “the fact that society is structured in a way that excludes substantial numbers of people from ethnic minority backgrounds from taking part equally in social institutions”, and institutional racism creates “the conditions that make forms of individual racism seem normal and acceptable, making discrimination more likely”.

On March 20th 2023, following a National Race Equality Survey of all Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and a series of stakeholder consultations, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) of Ireland launched its Anti-Racism Principles for Irish Higher Education Institutions. This publication includes a lot of definitions of terminology, understandings and acknowledgements of the structural and institutional manifestations of racism in HEIs which is an important step in reducing discrimination and may give HEIs the impression that they are doing ‘enough’. But, according to Dr Ray O’Neill, Assistant Professor in Psychotherapy in the School of Nursing, Psychotherapy and Community Health at Dublin City University (DCU), asking if enough is being done is not the relevant question. The relevant question is: “What can we be doing more, what can we be doing better?”


O’Neills interest in advocating for better representation and awareness of minorities in psychotherapy training comes from his own experience as a gay man trying to reach out to mental health support in late 80s and early 90s Ireland. “I’ve always had a sensitivity to how people from various backgrounds can experience mental health services. I have brought my sensitivities to other minoritised experiences.”

In reference to Ireland, O’Neill highlights how the country’s unique recent history contributes to incidents of racism. “The Ireland I grew up in is an Ireland in which everyone left. There was no racial diversity.” He also described how Ireland has been “outwardly horrific” in terms of racism in the past but has now turned to a tolerant phase and is working towards the idea of “genuine inclusivity”. However, given the recent racially aggravated riots across Dublin and rising incident rates of racism according to the INAR’s reporting system, it is clear to see how long periods of outward racism and emigration coupled with the rapid turn to immigration and growth over the last 25-30 years have left Ireland in a unique position of trying to accommodate persons of colour and reckon with its past at the same speed and effectiveness of predominantly white countries which have had more sustained periods of non-white immigration and integration.

The INAR also references historical racism as an important contributing factor to an individual country’s incidents of racism. It defines this type of racism as “to do with the specific histories of domination and subordination of groups (racialisation) in any given society”. Ireland is somewhat unique in that it has suffered racialisation itself at the hands of the British Empire but has also racialised Travellers and Roma communities. These views are thought to “still bear the hallmarks of ancient anti-Irish racism” exacted by the British but also form part of any racist’s attitude when it comes to the “dehumanisation of all minorities”. Minorities are discriminated against due to historical racism as the histories “continue to be reflected in the structures and institutions of those societies, in their laws and legacies, and in the language and cultural attitudes which persist”.

Trinity College Dublin is not only a persistent physical remnant of empire and colonialism and as a western university perpetuates mostly western ways of thinking and learning, but also exists as a demographically unique society within wider Irish society. This represents a unique challenge for those that have grown up in this country, or other countries that are affected by institutional and structural racism, and find themselves in positions of power within this university to equip themselves to deal with a substantially different population to that which they have been surrounded by their entire life. O’Neill questioned: “How do you counterbalance decades, if not centuries, of imbalance?”

The latest figures show just less than 5% of Ireland’s population to be non-white whereas, according to Trinity’s most recently available Annual Equality Monitoring Report, that of the academic year 2019/20, White Irish represented 46% of successful applicants and other White applicants represent 9%, suggesting that 45% of the student body at Trinity are non-White. It said that “no reliable data” on staff ethnicity was available but suggested that 10% of staff are non-White. No other specifics were given on any other ethnicities, just White and non-White. These numbers have contributed to Trinity being named the 16th Most International University by the Times Higher Education rankings 2023, down from 12th in 2022. Being the 16th most international university is something the Provost, Linda Doyle, celebrated as “one of our greatest strengths”, referencing the benefits of “international collaboration and dialogue”.

Speaking to The University Times, Jimena Alvarez, a third year Political Science and Economics student born and raised in Peru, expressed her concerns about how the international community is catered for at Trinity. She praised her general experience, but highlighted key areas in which she believes International students are being neglected.  

Alvarez also recently took part in two events attempting to educate counsellors about the needs of international students. At a Trinity-held event where secondary school counsellors came to talk to International students, she welcomed their interest in her experience as an international student but was not asked anything in particular about her ethnicity. She also noticed a slight recoil and awkwardness in the room when sex was mentioned, so could only imagine the response if racism was brought up.

At a panel discussion run by the Council of International Schools, held in Dublin last week, she was invited to talk about university services for International students. A key question she mentioned from the discussion was: “If you were in power, what would you do differently?” Whilst this kind dialogue is no doubt important in the evolution of the international experience in Dublin, Alvarez says she “gets tired” constantly being asked how others need to change, wondering why those in power need to keep asking this question. Across the two events she noticed a lack of discussion about “the ugly topics counsellors don’t want to talk about”, and that grouping all international topics under the umbrella term ‘diversity’ can often do more harm than good.

Diversity is also not a term that Ejiro Ogbevoen, founder of Black Therapists Ireland who also works closely with the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (IACP), agrees is the best way to tackle racism. “I stand solely behind race. Everybody brings in diversity, and guess where race goes to? The bottom, again.”

“It’s almost worse not to be seen, which is what the system is doing.” Ogbevoen mentions a panel discussion, to which she was invited, discussing Mental Health for Black and Minority Ethnic people. The panel consisted of four white people which at the last minute was changed, upon her asking why there were no persons of colour, to feature one black student. “Disrespectful” is how she describes the last minute change, questioning, “where does the power lie? The white person cannot do it for the black person. You have to put the black person there. The space needs to be occupied by a black person.”

When it comes to counselling for persons of colour, Ogbevoen states: “The most important thing that people talk about is not being able to explain yourself. When you’re in therapy you’ve come to speak to somebody who already understands the culture, the nuances of where you’re coming from…you’re not there to teach the therapist anything.” Without proper training, she says a white therapist can miss “the point of why the client is there”. And when the topic of racism comes up, “knowingly or unknowingly, the white person can become defensive, if the person is not aware of their bias”.

Even if the issue the client is bringing is not to do with racism, speaking to a therapist of colour can “take the journey through racism, through that lens for you to arrive at where you need to be, for it not to be dismissed at all”. Ogbevoen describes race as something that often “obstructs the real problem” in a therapeutic environment, “it’s never really only about race”. She continued: “A therapist needs to be aware of cultures and what certain things mean without jumping to their own conclusion of what it should be, there’s power in being white, there’s power in being a therapist, in the therapeutic space, and not being aware of that can be harmful to the client.” O’Neill suggests a potential remedy to this problem is allowing a safe space for therapists to address their own prejudices: “One of most important things is to bring the negativity into the room. Let’s not be politically correct and get nowhere. Let’s talk about our own racism and misogyny, for example.”

A feature of training within counselling services is weekend or half-day workshops, such as those run by the counselling service at Trinity. However, O’Neill explains that “a weekend workshop isn’t going to fix anything”. He cites a need to be more “invitational” to persons of colour and “to see difference, to celebrate it, to recognise it”. Using a blanket term like diversity can come from a fear of addressing one’s own racism, which O’Neill argues results in a “blindspot, as opposed to wilful neglect. It’s really important to see colour, do not remain colour blind. Positive discrimination is very impactful.”

Ogbevoen, in response to a question regarding structural and institutional racism within universities, said: “In the universities’ educational system, and the mental health space as a whole, the idea that everybody should be able to work with anybody, is present. In the minds of most white people is that ‘as long as I treat you without hostility, I am being good to you’, and many people do not understand the systemic aspects of racism.” She thinks there may be a tendency to “continue to protect what exists” within university structures and that instead those in power should be asking: “Are we willing to give what it takes for that change?” It can often take someone to “step back” and admit that what they may see as an “ideal” situation, “isn’t exactly ideal”.

As part of her work with the Diversity and Inclusion committee at the IACP, Ogbevoen describes how they are trying to “improve services as well as training to to help the training be more inclusive but also relevant to what society is at the moment”.  She describes the issue of race in particular as “a tricky one,” continuing, “if you look at all the points of discrimination, race is the only one in which the white person is not in a disadvantaged place”, because “the white person does not see themselves in a disadvantaged position. It has to be acknowledged that there’s not one paradigm when it comes to therapy. And acknowledging as a white person that there are other people in the world that do not hold your view and perception of life that goes through the white lens”.

“Once people come into contact with that structural racism, people feel threatened and upset that it exists. And so they run away from it.” White people need to be aware of “the fact is that you are white, the fact is that this system exists to support you. But you can also use being in [the system] for something good as opposed to hiding and running away.”

It is incumbent on Trinity, if they are providing a counselling service, to ensure that they are providing one that caters to its unique student population. Counselling is a hard enough job in itself and the counsellors at Trinity can count themselves as some of the most caring members of this institution but, if the issue of race is not fully acknowledged and promoted through learning and guidance led by those with lived experiences of racism, the risk of thoughtlessness and ignorance towards students and staff of colour looms heavy over the College. There is a tragic irony in Trinity’s celebration of its diversity given the alienation and discrimination felt by its Persons of Colour (POC) community. Trinity’s recent reckoning with the College’s colonial past is a step in the right direction, as is the continued and increased presence of the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion team and the recent advertisement on the Student Counselling website of Black Therapists Ireland. But, Trinity needs to keep asking itself what it can do better, what more it can do, and not rest satisfied that it is doing ‘enough’.

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