Us Versus It: Racism, Family Treatment, and Eco-Systemic Considerations

Us Versus It: Racism, Family Treatment, and Eco-Systemic Considerations

by Paula Bamgbose-Martins
Clinician Paula Bamgbose-Martins shares important insights gained in her work with African American children and their families.


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As an Eco-Systemic Structural Family Therapist (ESFT), I help families establish and learn new patterns of interactions both within and outside of their homes by creating a contextual frame in the form of “Us versus It.” Using this frame, which refers to the family (Us) versus the impacts of racism (It), I attempt to help each member of the family to view their problems and possible solutions in the context of broader issues related to race and racism. Hence, here I will reflect on my work in the therapy room from the perspective of my child client, their caregivers, the therapists, and the ESFT model.

The Child

“It should not be like this; it should not be like, this Miss Paula.” I sat quietly as I listened to my 14-year-old Hispanic client Valentina express her agony over the recent killing of George Floyd, the racially charged incidents surrounding police brutality, and the global protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. As I sat quietly, listening to Valentina's innocence being diminished at this sensitive stage of development where her sense of self, identity, and beliefs about herself and the world are being shaped by the horrific reality of what she described as “not normal,” I began reflecting on my role as a therapist of color. Identifying the truth of Valentina’s distress did not bring me comfort as I realized uncomfortable conversations about race and racism needed to be had.

It should not be like this; it should not be like, this Miss Paula.
Not knowing what response I was expecting from this 8th grader who wants to live in a world where she does not have to be “the adult” in her father's household and where her mother does not have to devote all her time to working multiple jobs in order to take care of her and her younger brother, I asked Valentina, “What do you understand about what is going on in the world today?”

As we discussed the differential treatment of people of color, Valentina began to identify that she herself belongs to a marginalized group. Drawn to tears, I felt empathetic as I heard Valentina describe her hurt over possibly being racially profiled or being told to “go back to her country” because she speaks fluent Spanish. With the decades of individual and systemic racial injustice and inequality that people of color, specifically black people, have experienced in the United States, a significant negative impact on the mental health and wellbeing of the members of this racial outgroup has occurred as well.

From differences in socioeconomic status, to impoverished conditions of living, to discrimination within organizations where there are limited opportunities and resources for African Americans to grow professionally, racism is very much still prevalent today, as affected families are still disproportionately disadvantaged in their access to opportunities for wealth, education, employment, and housing.

I have acknowledged the “hard truths” that my African American family clients bring into the therapy room every week
As a black female myself, as I reflected on this not-so-surprising inequality and injustice black people are subjected to, I thought about the families who come each week to my therapy office looking to change systems and patterns within their family and establish better attachments with their children. A significant portion of these families are African American, and in one form or another are a representation of the experience of all black people in America. Early in his life, my 10-year-old African American male client learned social cues signaling to him that he was different from his classmates from other racial groups simply because he looked different from them. My 6-year-old female client refers to her mixed-raced skin color as “ugly” and her white mother’s skin and hair as “pretty.”

The Caregiver

The more I have felt challenged to create the space to conceptualize my clients from a broader sociocultural perspective, the more I have acknowledged the “hard truths” that my African American family clients bring into the therapy room every week. Some of these hard truths include my 12-year-old African American male client Andre’s grandmother/legal guardian, who has been raising him since he was a toddler, sharing her fears about raising two African American men from different decades. She experienced the same fears for Andre’s father when she was raising him that she now experiences while raising Andre.

I recall feeling cold as I listened to Andre’s grandmother narrate her feelings as she recalled watching and re-watching the video recording of the killing of George Floyd. I personally could not bring myself to watch the complete video, as I was overwhelmed with sadness and hurt from the injustice and perpetration of violence against black people—especially black men—by the police and criminal justice system. However, I sat in the session hearing my client as she narrated the events that occurred in this video as if it were Andre’s father or Andre. As I heard her, I saw her “hard truth” that she saw Andre's father and Andre in George Floyd.

Discussing her feelings about raising a young African American male in a world where racism is not only prevalent but inescapable because it is being recorded, she expressed how much effort she has put into raising a “kind, caring, intelligent” young black boy, but also how that is not enough to guarantee his safety or access to the best opportunities. It appears that Andre’s grandmother may have some regret around how she raised Andre’s father, as she recalled “sheltering” him out of fear, which contributed to his not being responsible or self-sufficient.

To understand why Andre’s grandmother felt that it was safer to “shelter” his father when raising him helped me to better understand the connection between impoverishment and segregation, and the high levels of crime, substance abuse, mental illness, and violence that she had attempted to protect Andre’s father from and was now trying so desperately to protect Andre from.

When I think about impoverished neighborhoods, I also think about my 13-year-old African American female client Tracy’s biological mother, who lost her son in a “suspicious” car accident a few years back about which my client reports, “There is more to the story we will never know.” Tracy’s mother, who since losing her son became very active in seeking justice for him and other young black males like him, has also acknowledged that her son often got into trouble and that their “unsafe” neighborhood had a significant impact on how he lived his life.

Although well aware of the effect one's environment and upbringing can have on them, I still found it difficult hearing Tracy’s mother express the disadvantaged conditions of living she and her family have experienced, and how they cost her the life of her son. Tracy’s mother’s grief sits with her every day, as this was not only her child, but a child whose life she continues to prove to anyone who will listen…mattered!

The Therapist

As the recent racially charged incidents in the country made me reflect, perhaps anew, on what role I am currently playing as a therapist of color in and outside of the therapy room, I went back to the ACA Ethics Code, which says, “The primary responsibility of counselors is to respect the dignity and promote the welfare of clients.” It also directs counselors to actively understand the diverse cultural backgrounds of the clients they serve, and to explore their own cultural identities and how these affect their values and beliefs about the counseling process. These words are the core of competent and compassionate multicultural practice.

In the context of these ethics,
it is even more important for me to see my clients not how I want to see them, but rather how they want to be seen
it is even more important for me to see my clients not how I want to see them, but rather how they want to be seen. If I have a African American single mother of two who is managing two jobs and unable to remember session times, my first conceptualization of that client should not be of her as “lazy” or “forgetful,” because it may just be she is a mother trying to provide for her family and may need a little extra support from me, such as a twice-weekly rather than weekly session reminder.

Former NFL player, motivational speaker, and pastor Miles McPherson believes that every consultation should be a race consultation. The problem comes when you have assumptions based on a social narrative stemming from your own beliefs and upbringing. Putting them aside and having a race consultation allows us to let our clients tell us who they are. I view McPherson's ideology as a positive and useful one in that it allows me to enter the therapy room viewing it as a “race consultation” with the goal of setting aside my preconceived race-related notions about my clients. This orientation also frees me of the fear of acknowledging my “blind spots” because it gives me room to learn as well as see where I may be falling short. Not acknowledging the racial elephant in the room is like being comfortable doing the wrong thing.

I have come to realize the importance for therapists who belong to non-black racial groups, specifically white racial groups, to be more knowledgeable around the historic and systemic disadvantage African Americans have experienced for decades and how that plays a role on their mental and physical health. Culturally competent therapists who are knowledgeable around the impact of systemic and intergenerational racism may be in a better position to “buy-in” with their clients, that is, to recognize their own privilege and take the extra step, like making an extra phone call to a client when needed, advocating for a client who needs extra resources from the community, or exploring their own cultural identities beliefs as they help their client identify their own.

The Model

The Eco-Systemic Structural Family Therapy (ESFT) framework identifies certain overlapping and interacting individual, systemic, and societal patterns that contribute to the interactions, hardships, and coping strategies of the African American families with whom I frequently work. This framework posits that the symptomatic child is reflective of the breakdown of family life as an adaptive response to hardship. Using this collaborative, strength-based, and trauma-informed model, my work with families applies the four pillars of ESFT—attachment, co-caregiver alliance, executive functioning, and self -regulation—to help develop caregiver-to-child attachment, strengthen the level of functioning and skills caregivers have in order to perform day-to-day tasks for managing their lives and the lives of their child, identify social support systems that help the family build caring and stable environments, and observe how the family makes meaning of and copes with emotional and affective experiences.

Take, for example, my 9-year-old African American male client Tyree, whose “Core Negative Interactional Pattern” (CNIP) includes Tyree’s getting “easily frustrated” and instigating fights with his sister, which leads to Mom yelling, Tyree being punished, and then Tyree’s “shutting down” or engaging in emotional outbursts such as yelling, crying, or screaming.

When I think about what hardship, tragedy, and trauma that may contribute to these presenting problems Tyree exhibits, I think about his witnessing domestic violence between his father and mother on several occasions. Additionally, his father is currently incarcerated, and his mother now occupies the single-parent role and is busy ensuring that she is able to financially provide for Tyree and his siblings. Given these changes in Tyree’s family system, it is useful for me to recognize his interactional pattern within the family as a reaction to the loss of having his father in the home and the burdens on the entire family unit against the racial/cultural backdrop of their lives.

In such cases where caregivers may suddenly take up the role of single parent or have been upholding the role for a very long time, ESFT promotes executive functioning and caregiver-to-child attachment with concepts like “Ennoblement,” where caregivers are able to view themselves as competent, caring, and able to keep their child safe. For instance, my work with my 11-year-old African American male client George’s mother included a consistent level of “Ennoblement,” as she needed a reminder and affirmation that she was competent, caring and able to keep George safe even though she did not currently have the support from his father. Because of the hardships experienced by George and his mother, many sessions with this family included George's mother expressing the difficulties of being a single mother and lacking a support system.

I have learned that it is essential for African American mothers and their families in particular to be empowered, as research indicates that most African American homes are female-headed homes helmed by mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. According to the United States Census Bureau, the percentage of White children under 18 who live with both parents almost doubles that of Black children. This data is very reflective in my therapy room, as a large proportion of the African American families I see are single-parent families which are female-headed.


In thinking about the various children and family members with whom I have and will work and reflecting on my role as a therapist of color using the ESFT model, I aspire to bring deeper and more meaningful racially-informed conversations into the therapy room. I hope to do so by creating a safe space for more racially-sensitive and race-oriented conversations between caregivers and their children. In doing so, I also hope to join more authentically and empathetically with African American families while together we construct more adaptive narratives. 

© 2020 LLC
Paula Bamgbose-Martins Paula Bamgbose-Martins, LPC, M.Phil.Ed, M.S. Ed, is a licensed professional counselor who specializes in couples, family, and trauma therapy. She is a graduate of a BSc in Psychology from the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom, and holds a master's in counseling and Mental Health Services and Professional Counseling from the University of Pennsylvania. Her passion and expertise in the field of mental health and counseling have continuously served as a driving force in providing services to clients with intersectional identities. She is the co-founder of a mental health initiative “Been, Aware & Going Through it (BAGit)” which is dedicated to creating awareness about mental health issues in emerging Nigerian adult populations by reducing cultural barriers and creating open mediums for sharing personal struggles with mental health. Paula uses evidence-based and culturally responsive approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), and eco-systemic structural family therapy (ESFT), to help clients achieve their goals to improve well-being. She enjoys singing, traveling, and sports. She is currently living and working in Philadelphia.