Siobhan Lynam reports on behalf of the Roundtable for Race Equity in Coaching. This introductory briefing article has been released in advance of a Roundtable Webinar/Dialogue hosted by Coaching at Work with representatives from leading professional coaching and coaching supervision bodies on 6 February 2024, coinciding with Race Equality Week in the UK (6-12 February). The event will trail and shape the Roundtable’s series on How can we shift Race Equity in Coaching from the Margins to the Mainstream, launching in the spring.
The first step to overcoming racism and exclusion in coaching is to talk about race. Silence maintains the status quo and prevents the creation of an antiracist coaching community.
However, we cannot talk about race without knowledge of its origin and without a suitable language to discuss it. This short article aims to provide a brief discussion on why we struggle to discuss race, a brief overview on the origins of race as a social construct and some discussion on common terms that help provide us with the language to discuss race and racism within and outside of the coaching context.
Why is it so hard to take about race?
An important barrier to discussions on race and ethnicity is the associated feelings of discomfort. For the coach or coachee of colour there may be an element of self-protection based on direct or indirect experiences of racial trauma, previous difficult or futile conversations on race and the weariness associated with discussing race with white individuals. White individuals’ avoidance is based on a complicated mix of defensiveness and guilt. Avoidance of these discussions circumvents both. As coaches we need an awareness of these complex feelings within ourselves, our coachees and other coaches. A failure to acknowledge and reflect on them can be a significant barrier to constructive discussions on race and its consequent oppression of people of colour  (POC). Therefore, discussions on race take courage and need to be approached sensitively and require a basic knowledge of the origins of race.
History of the concept of race
Race and ethnicity are used interchangeable as a way of categorising groups of people. They are both social constructs with no biological basis (Royal & Dunston, 2004). The concept was born from the desire of aristocratic white Northern Europeans to dominate and control the workforce. The taxonomy of race resulted in the false belief in the hierarchy of race that positioned white Northern Europeans and their descendants at the top of the hierarchy and the ‘othering’ of all other ethnic groups.
In 1735 Carl Linnaeus produced the first classification and ranking of humans based on skin colour and geographical location (Scott, 2019). For a long time, this was mistakenly believed to have scientific validity. Thanks to the Human Genome Project we now have categorical evidence that there is no biological basis for race (Royal & Dunston, 2004). It is purely a manmade concept, and the division and categorisation of the race has fluctuated over the years according to the needs and whims of powerful leaders. For example, 18th century American industrialist leaders manipulated racial classification for their own benefit. To stem industrial unrest Italian and Irish workers, who had been excluded from the white racial classification, were informed of their reclassification as ‘white’. Thus, creating a racial divide amongst the working class who had previously been united and on the verge of revolt. The legacy of these social manipulations continue to reverberate and were used to justified centuries of slavery and the rise of 20th century fascism. It is important to recognise the ongoing oppression that is the historical legacy of racial categorisation. The observations of racial differences across the human experience including health and education are the consequence of the arbitrary classification of individuals according to race and the consequent differing treatment they continue to receive.
Language to discuss race and racism
To move discussions on race and racism forward in the coaching space we need to improve our understanding of the language of this discourse. Below is a short discussion of a few relevant terms beginning with colour-blindness.
- Colour-blindness is defined as the belief ethnic differences should not affect decisions, impression formation and behaviours (Apfelbaum et al., 2012).
Put simply it is a claim of not see ethnic difference. Colour-blindness is a strategy used by white people to avoid being seen as racist or biased by avoiding discussions on race. However, it renders POC invisible and invalidates their experiences with racism. So, whilst race is a social construction, a colour-blind strategy cannot be advocated and prevents discussions on race, racism and discrimination within the coaching space. One example I have come across in higher education is the use of colour-blindness to justify a pushback against support groups and schemes to encourage the career progression of Black academics. This stance illustrates a lack of insight into the discrimination facing Black academics in higher education. In coaching the failure of coach training providers to offer cross-cultural sensitivity and cross-ethnicity training also reflects a failure to see race. Any strategy that makes a group of individuals feel invisible is also a form of microaggression.
- Microaggressions are defined as commonplace communication of denigrating messages to POC often dismissed as inoffensive by the aggressor (Sue, 2015)
While overt racism still occurs, most coaches find it unacceptable. However, more subtle versions of racism can leak into the coaching space and the coaching discourse in the form of microaggressions. On an individual level an example might be a white coach making assumptions about term/s used to depict someone’s ethnic identity without asking how an individual would like their ethnicity described. For generations white people have constructed derogatory terms to describe other ethnic groups to subjugate and control them. Therefore, it is not a white coach’s place to determine what are acceptable terms to describe an individual’s ethnicity. In addition, not listening to or invalidating a coachee’s experience of oppression is a microaggression. White coaches lack experience with racism and consequently are less attuned to picking up on subtle or even overt examples of racist experiences. Equally, a white coach who claims to ‘fully understand’ what racism feels like is committing a microaggression by invalidating the experience of racism.
On a macro level as a coaching community, a fixation with accreditation processes and the professionalisation of coaching can result in the denigration of other non-western ways of coaching and learning. Consequently, this is a form of microaggression. Whilst it is important that coaches have adequate training, coaching experience is invaluable. The fixation with academic rigour is a historic one born from Western concepts of learning. Neglecting and devaluing the importance of experience and the significance of non-western ways of coaching and supporting adult learning reinforces the message that the ‘old white ways’ are the best and devalues century old ways of learning. An anti-racist coaching community welcomes other ways of being.
- Anti-racism is ‘the active process of identifying and eliminating racism by changing systems, organisational structures, policies and practices to end the disparities in education, employment, health, wellbeing, housing and criminal justice systems.’ (Roche & Passmore, 2022, p 4).
Therefore, if an organisation fails to measure, assess, and eliminate racially oppressive practices within its organisation it is not an anti-racist organisation. An anti-racist coaching community would have equitable opportunities for all. Every individual would have an equitable chance to experience quality coaching and to become a well-paid coach and each coachee would have the option to choose to be ethnically matched with their coach. Within an anti-racist coaching community, coaches and coachees of all ethnicities would feel a strong sense of belonging. In an inclusive coaching space, every conference and meeting would be attended by a diversity of attendees who reflect the diversity of the population at large and they would bring with them a diversity of coaching approaches.
Striving for anti-racism within the coaching community requires that all stakeholders start to talk about race and racism. However, it is not easy, but it begins with knowledge of the historic and contemporary events and systems that have shaped our understanding of race. Movement towards anti-racism in coaching also requires white individual’s self-reflection on ethnicity, privilege and power imbalance in the coaching space and an honest review of how ethnicity is discussed in our coaching work.
- ROUNDTABLE FOR RACE EQUITY IN COACHING WEBINAR & DIALOGUE series on How can we shift Race Equity in Coaching from the Margins to the Mainstream? This article has been produced in advance of the first free gathering in the series online on 6 February 2024, 10.00-11.30 UK time, hosted by Coaching at Work. This is an interactive event from the Roundtable for Race Equity in Coaching, hosted by Coaching at Work, with representatives from leading professional coaching bodies. There will be some input on key themes from research, dialogue, and a guided exercise (please bring pen and paper). Join us to explore how we can individually and collectively move race equity in coaching up the agenda, and to find out about the Roundtable for Race Equity in Coaching’s new series of webinars on Race equity in coaching: from the margins to the mainstream, launching in the spring. This event will be recorded. To register: https://www.coachingroundtable.info/events
About the author
- Siobhan Lynam is a member of the Roundtable for Race Equity in Coaching, representing the EMCC UK. She is a founding member of the Oxford Coaching Partners and the Physicians Coaches and Mentors Association, EMCC deputy director for diversity and inclusion and an honorary senior lecturer at the University of West London. Siobhan’s research interests include understanding diversity and inclusion in the coaching and higher education spaces. Siobhan’s master’s degree dissertation study was on the development of a model of rapport in cross-ethnicity coaching. Her study was published in the International Journal for Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring in 2023. Her study won the EMCC award for the dissertation with the highest potential for social benefit.
About the Roundtable for Race Equity in Coaching
The Roundtable working towards Race Equity in the Coaching Profession was launched in 2021 by Coaching at Work, gathering representatives from leading professional coaching, mentoring and coaching bodies to explore collaboration and share learning to further the race equity agenda in coaching as part of wider diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) initiatives.
The Roundtable is hosted by Coaching at Work regularly, with representatives currently from these bodies: Association for Coaching, Association of Coaching Supervisors, Association for Professional Executive Coaching and Supervision, the British Psychological Society (BPS) Division of Coaching Psychology, Coaches and Mentors of South Africa (COMENSA), European Mentoring and Coaching Council UK, UK International Coaching Federation, International Society for Coaching Psychology, and the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI) Coaching Psychology Special Interest Group.
Apfelbaum, E. P., Norton, M. I., & Sommers, S. R. (2012). Racial color blindness: emergence, practice, and implications. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(3), 205-209. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721411434980
Roche & Passmore (2022). Anti-racism in coaching: a global call to action. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice. 16(1), 115-132. https://doi.org/10.1080/17521882.2022.2098789
Royal, C., & Dunston, G. (2004). Changing the paradigm from ‘race’ to human genome variation. Nature Genetics 36 (Suppl 11), S5–S7. https://doi.org/10.1038/ng1454
Skott C. (2019). Human Taxonomies: Carl Linnaeus, Swedish Travel in Asia and the Classification of Man. Itinerario, 43(2), 218-242. https://doi.org/10.1017/S016511531900024X
Sue, D. W. (2015). Race talk and the conspiracy of silence: understanding and facilitating difficult dialogues on race. Wiley.
 I have chosen to use the term people of colour because this was the most acceptable term for my MA study participants. They felt it was important to avoid terms that suggested they ‘were less than’.