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  • Writer's pictureFenella Trevillion

Tackling Systemic Racism in Coaching

Us white coaches and supervisors must start now…with ourselves.

This post is based on my article ‘Take a Look in The Mirror’ in Coaching at Work March/April Vol. 6 Issue 2, 2021 .

Join Liz Hall and I at 17.30 UK Time on 13th April to discuss: ‘White Privilege and Fragile..’

Contact me for the Zoom link.

George Floyd’s murder last year was a seminal event for millions of us. The TV footage of Black Lives Matter (BLM) shouted out to us all. Where is coaching in this? How can we respond? My inclination was to connect with Black and Asian (brown) coaches and ask them; over time I realised that the starting point had to be with me and my own racism and connect with white coaches and supervisors over it. I reflected on my own journey. My visceral response was not to let this event pass; this time I had to act. I looked back at my history, attempting to understand its significance for me.

So, when did I notice the colour of my skin? I grew up in white apartheid South Africa. One day, aged 6, I unknowingly, made a racist comment to a black person on my grandmother’s farm, I regarded it as funny, although she was visibly and furiously upset. I was sent to my room and, eventually my grandmother came in and told me never ever to say that to anyone again and particularly not to a black person. This event made me aware of the difference in skin colour and I realised I had seriously done wrong. After some time, I accepted my innate racism and whilst I never forgot it, I left the incident behind.

Spending my childhood in a privileged liberal South African environment meant living with a perpetual sense of discomfort and, at times, fear, I was always on my guard. An opportunity arose for me to move to the UK, and so, with a deep sense of guilt, shame, and abandonment, I left.

Arriving in the UK gave me a sense of relief and day to day activities felt more relaxed; when I saw the possibility of a question arising about South Africa and an assumption being made about my racism, I immediately ‘othered’ white South Africans and made it clear that I was anti-apartheid.

Some ten years later one of my social work training placements was in a residential care home for young black male adolescents. It was in Lewisham, London, six months after the New Cross Fire when 13 young black people died in a racist attack. Relationships with the police were very poor, and the sense of injustice stark. Despite this event the black people I worked with were very welcoming, open, and keen to support and educate me and my fellow white student. We lacked emotional intelligence and relied on our black colleagues to navigate us through it. I certainly learned a lot through them and avid reading on the topic helped.

Over the next few years, I occupied a number of leadership positions in Mental Health services. I raised the issue of racism - often not taken particularly seriously by other white colleagues - and felt an implied message that because I was a white South African, I had my own problem with it. I came across some who took it seriously, some who avoided a conversation about it, and others who were colour blind. Even though I called it out where possible, it was often met with a sense of awkwardness by black people who ‘did not want any trouble’.

Later when doing the MSc in Coaching and Behavioural Change, I reflected on my strong political lens - what was it about? On the course, racism was never mentioned and curiously nor was the issue of bias. Nevertheless, self-refection and exploration abounded, and my internal understanding increased exponentially.

When George Floyd was killed and thousands of black and brown people were dying of Covid-19 I did get involved and with others in a national organisation where I volunteered, we organised a Zoom discussion with a panel of black experts on ‘Racism, Inequality and Bereavement’. When asked ‘how do we become a more diverse organisation?’ one panel member gently pointed out that to do that, the white people in the organisation (the vast majority of staff and volunteers) needed to start with reflecting on their own white privilege and would have to commit to a journey of change.

I explored more. Robin DiAngelo’s ‘White Fragility: why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism’ became a key text. I started to notice the information all around me on the experiences black people have in grappling with racism and how they have been saying the same things for years without white people listening, I finally understood why Eddo-Lodge had written the book ‘Why I no Longer talk to White People about Race’. I realised that white people need to listen and do our own research about our part in the many hundreds of years of institutional racism. Whilst I realised, I had begun the journey, my behaviour of avoidance allowed me to stay at the cognitive level of reading, seeing, and listening, thus avoiding the emotional shift needed.

I continued to look around and investigate; my gaze was on the coaching organisations’ responses to this momentous issue. Many NHS organisations had a statement or information about racism and anti-racist practice on their websites; the British Psychological Society had started a conversation and a group discussing it and BLM. Of the coaching organisations, none mentioned racism or anti-racism. With regard to presence of black and brown people on their websites, they all had a ‘white’ feel to them.

I connected with a white thought leader in coaching; we had a congruence of view and she suggested I contact a number of people with whom we could consider starting a conversation, we hoped would lead to greater actions. Enthusiastically, I linked with people who had worked in and written about the area and then noticed I had done it again, all of them were black. Thankfully, they were very friendly and happy to talk to me about it yet, I needed to be connecting with white coaches and talk about how do we move this forward?

At the Coaching at Work 2020 Conference, I reflected on Mark McMordie’s presentation on ‘Coaching Through Covid’. He noted that it started with a group of coaches getting together and ‘holding a safe space for a compassionate enquiry using the collective intelligence in the field’; yes, I realised this gives us a way. We need to stop expecting answers from our colleagues of colour, and start a reflection ourselves as white coaches and, how our whiteness plays out in our lives and in our coaching. The right ways forward will emerge, and only then will the coaching profession become part of the solution in actively dismantling systemic racism and the pervasiveness of white privilege.


R DiAngelo White Fragility Allen Lane 2018.

R Eddo-Lodge Why I am no longer talking to white people about race Bloomsbury 2018.

R Menakem My Grandmother’s Hands Central Recover Press 2018.

J Ryde White Privilege Unmasked – How to be part of the solution Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2019.

Fenella Trevillion. 3/3/2021

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