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Behavioral Health Brief: Strategies to Facilitate Conversations About Race in Group Therapy
By Neijma Celestine-Donnor, MSW, and Joan Pittman, PhD, MSW, LCSW-C
Social Work Today
Vol. 22 No. 3 P. 26

Both experienced and novice group facilitators are sometimes challenged in creating an inclusive and supportive group work environment where members can discuss racial identities and racial dynamics. Groups often become a microcosm of the dynamics in our society, where relational patterns can get re-created and racial tensions and microaggressions can occur.1

As conversations about race have become more divisive and emotional, group workers may feel even more uncertain about how to manage such exchanges. Nevertheless, having these conversations is often critical to members feeling included and overall group success. If the group leader is skilled in facilitating positive group dynamics and meaningful conversations about race, the group can become a place where members with different racial identities feel included, heard, and respected.

This article outlines several tips that can help group facilitators feel better prepared to bring race into the conversation and be equipped to address microaggressions when they occur.

Understand Your Racial and Cultural Identity
Before leading groups, group facilitators first must understand themselves as racial/cultural beings. This includes being aware of their values, biases, prejudices, and how their identities impact their work. While some may assume the first step in facilitating meaningful conversations about race in group therapy is to better understand group participants, the first step is actually for facilitators to understand themselves. To gain greater awareness of how a facilitator’s identities impact group facilitation, group leaders must spend time understanding the parts of themselves that experience oppression and the parts of self that benefit from the oppression of others.

Understanding the complexities of our racial and cultural identities allows group facilitators to openly acknowledge their own biases to themselves and others. Some questions that group facilitators can reflect on include: “Do I have more identities related to privilege or oppression?” and “Which parts of my identity are having the most impact on interactions with group participants?”

Don’t Rely on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) to Educate the Group
Asking members to share how they identify racially and what social identities are important to them is important for several reasons. First, it allows members to share important parts of who they are and lays a foundation for discussion about race throughout the group. In the first couple of group sessions, it’s recommended that group leaders facilitate a discussion or activity that allows members to share what identities are important to them and how they identify racially. If this isn’t brought up by the leader early in the process, members may feel that race is a taboo topic.

There are many group activities that have been developed to facilitate discussions and reflections on race and social identities. For example, the Social Identity Wheel, developed by the Inclusive Teaching Center at University of Michigan, can facilitate discussions on group member identities and how these identities impact social interactions.2 Circles of My Multicultural Self is a similar worksheet/activity that can be used to explore identities.3

Of course, group leaders could also facilitate a discussion by sharing their own racial identities and asking members to share how they identify both racially and culturally.

While facilitating meaningful conversations about race in group therapy can be complex, group facilitators, particularly those who are white, must be careful not to rely on participants of color to educate the group about race and racism. Even though some facilitators may feel uncomfortable, they must keep in mind that it is not the responsibility of the BIPOC group members to educate the group, particularly when many are dealing with their own racial trauma and healing.

Facilitators sometimes rely on BIPOC participants for fear of making a mistake or saying the wrong thing. Instead, facilitators must accept that they may mess up and that such mistakes are part of building skills in facilitating crossracial dialogues.

Get Comfortable With Discomfort
Group leaders need to be prepared for the fact that having meaningful conversations about race and racial dynamics in the group often leads to discomfort. Leaning into and normalizing discomfort is critical to producing deeper relationships in the group.

Of course, most people want to avoid feeling uncomfortable, so they might consciously or unconsciously ignore subtle cues that race is playing a role in group dynamics. The first step is to acknowledge that it’s OK to feel uncomfortable and that discussions about race may be uncomfortable. Group leaders can educate the group on why these discussions are important. For example, they can create greater connection and understanding, and a more respectful and inclusive group.

Acknowledging that these conversations can be uncomfortable and that mistakes are likely, it’s important to practice having such discussions with trusted colleagues and to develop a support network and/or self-care strategies.

Antioppressive Mutual Aid
Mutual aid, defined as facilitating members helping one another and empowering members to “own” the group, is the central model of group work in the social work profession.4 Antioppressive mutual aid focuses on the empowerment of all group members and being tuned in to the impact of race on the dynamics of mutual aid.

One of the most powerful parts of mutual aid can be universality, ie, the comfort and connection that comes from being in a group with other people that are experiencing similar feelings and challenges. If race is part of the group conversation and there are members with similar racial experiences, universality can be a powerful connector. If members have different racial experiences, it is important to explore how their experiences may be similar and different. For example, in a support group for women who have experienced intimate partner violence, their shared experiences and knowledge can be very healing.

Another layer is that members with different racial identities could have different stressors and strengths. In this instance, if race doesn’t get discussed, some members may feel alienated.

Typically, leaders who do not identify as people of color minimize the impact that race has in the group. As a result, they may not address the topic unless others do. Relational patterns from society often are re-created in the group, so it’s important for the leader to tune in to the impact that race may have on mutual aid. Who is giving and receiving support? Who is taking on leadership? How might race or other identities be impacting these dynamics?

By discussing race and other identities soon after the group’s formation, it lays the foundation for future conversations about how race may be impacting dynamics.

Check in With Yourself and Develop Support
Checking in with yourself means making sure you are in the right space to engage. If the facilitator is upset, tired, and overwhelmed, it will impact their ability to be empathetic with group members and engage in meaningful conversation about race.

Examining the impact of race can be emotionally taxing, so it’s important for facilitators to assess their capacities and seek support when needed. If discussing the influence of race is new, it can be particularly stressful and challenging. For BIPOC facilitators, some of these conversations can be draining or retraumatizing.

Examples of “checking in” questions include the following: How am I feeling in this moment? What are my needs? What is the group’s core need? What story or stories am I telling myself about what is happening? What supports do I need? Do I have any fear about this dialogue, and what would I need to confront that fear?

Practicing these strategies in group supervision or team meetings is a great way for group leaders to increase their skills and build a support network. Practice starting a team meeting or group supervision with a discussion or activity about racial identities. Or discuss how race may be affecting communication patterns and leadership. Discuss feelings and thoughts that come up when exploring race and identities in these professional groups.

Establishing a network to brainstorm about the impact of race will lead to more connections and greater group work skills.

— Neijma Celestine-Donnor, MSW, is assistant dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion at the University of Maryland School of Social Work in Baltimore.

— Joan Pittman, PhD, MSW, LCSW-C, is a clinical associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

Celestine-Donnor and Pittman are experienced clinicians and educators working to improve social work practice by focusing on the importance of social identities through an antioppressive lens.


1. Yalom ID, Leszcz M. Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy. 5th ed. New York, NY: Basic Books; 2005.

2. Social Identity Wheel. University of Michigan website. https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/inclusive-teaching/social-identity-wheel/

3. Circles of my multicultural self. Edchange website. http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/activities/circlesofself.html

4. Shulman L. The Skills of Helping Individuals, Families, Groups, and Communities. 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole; 2012.