Interview with Our Fall Conference Presenter,
Aziza Belcher Platt, PhD
with Lisa Haileab Daniels, PhD
I was excited for the opportunity to interview Aziza Belcher Platt, PhD, in preparation for our online Fall Conference. Here is a preview of our upcoming weekend. I hope you’ll consider joining us.
Lisa: MAGPS members anticipate you leading our fall conference. How did you become interested in this topic?
Aziza: I think as a Black woman, I have always been aware of and interested in race. In this world, and in our country, it is hard to be a person of color and not be acutely aware of race. My racial-cultural identity and my community have always been a source of pride and strength and I desire the same to be true for others. Even as a child, I recall believing that as a society, we needed to talk about race more than we do, in a more meaningful way than we do, but have noticed that so many people don’t, wont, or can’t. Fast forward to graduate school at Fordham University and one of my first courses was group counseling with Eric C. Chen, PhD whom I credit for my love of group counseling. I learned how to be a group therapist before I took my first individual therapy class. From the beginning I was enthralled, and it was clear that group was such a powerful tool. As I progressed, it seemed natural to combine a powerful tool with a topic that feels so overpowering to so many, to empower all of us.
Lisa: Which therapeutic factors did you have to reexamine when navigating race and why?
Aziza: I think all of the therapeutic factors play such an important role in this work, but I’d like to highlight two, altruism and corrective reexperiencing. Altruism is a call to our highest selves in the care and service of others. In that space, I believe so much is possible in understanding the oppression of our fellow group members and citizens and wanting to act to remove that suffering. It is state wherein our humanity catapults us past our ego, guilt, shame, and other barriers to anti-racism efforts. In terms of the corrective reexperiencing, many of us can recall awkward, difficult, and/or painful experiences related to an interaction around our race or culture. How often do we play that back in our minds consciously or subconsciously have it impact our subsequent intercultural interactions? A corrective reexperience, related to race and culture, can help heal past harm, repair present rifts, and possibility mitigate future affronts. As such, it is transformative of the there-and-then, the here-and-now, and the by-and by.
Lisa: As the country debates the injustices experienced by persons of color and the membership of therapy groups often parallel larger society, how do you view safety in groups?
Aziza: Safety is paramount, especially in groups where we are so vulnerable with not just the therapist but with all the other souls who are with us in this experience. I believe one key component is commitment to each other that we will work through the ugliness and ickiness together. The willingness to speak the hard truths and hear the hard truths is easier to do when we know we’ve agreed to see it all the way through. Speaking of hard truths, safety absolutely requires truth. We must be honest about the horrors of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Jim Crow, and anti-Black systemic racism. Similarly, we must be honest about other systems of oppression. We have to be able to hold the truth of those, the impact on those oppressed, and the ways in which oppression has robbed and continues to rob us all of the individual well-being and societal well-being. We also have to be truthful and accountable about our and others’ behavior. We are human, and though we should strive not to, we will hurt each other at times. When we do, a transformative justice approach, wherein we are accountable and the target, perpetrator, and community are all involved in accountability and repair, fosters a deep and abiding sense of safety.
Lisa: What can members look forward to learning about in this experience?
Aziza: As I shared with conference organizers, Karen and Chris, many of us help people process trauma of all forms, financial crises and ruin, serious psychotic symptoms, birth, heartbreak, divorce, death and grief, and all manner of tragedy. Yet, we struggle when it comes to racial-cultural issues in groups (and perhaps in life). As group therapists, we have the unique dynamics inherent to groups and as Liam Neeson’s character says in the movie Taken, a “very particular set of skills.” I hope group therapists will learn to put all of what we already do so well together with racial-cultural learnings so that during racial-cultural events we steady ourselves and our members and stay the course. Hopefully, attendees leave with the confidence to do with racial-cultural events, what we so well with other issues.
Lisa: How has your dissertation research on racial-cultural events, microaggressions and group counseling members of color informed the ways you lead and participate in group?
Aziza: My dissertation research was more eye-opening for me than I expected. I had led groups where racial-cultural events occurred but had not considered the occurrence of microaggressions in groups. So, it has made me more mindful to watch for those instances knowing especially how cumulatively harmful they are given the frequency with which people of color experience them in their daily lives. I’m sure your readers have seen this video (https://youtu.be/hDd3bzA7450) which I think perfectly captures the day in, day out of microaggressions. Imagine that at the end of a day such as that, a member of color comes to group only to experience more of the same? Additionally, I was surprised by how many group members of color were so satisfied and safe in so many ways in their groups except for issues of race and culture. At the start of our interviews, I asked my participants to tell me about their racial-cultural identity (i.e., “How do you describe yourself in terms of race & culture?”). Many proudly described their identity and its significance in their lives. Shortly thereafter, the questions transitioned to “What racial-cultural factors were you aware of in your fellow group members and leaders?” and “Please identify an incident or interaction that occurred in your group that was related to racial-cultural differences.” Participants pride turned to sheepishness as they identified themselves as the only person of color in their group and disclosed their concern that they might not be helpful for my study because race and culture rarely, if ever, came up in their groups. Despite their worry, that answer told me much more than they realized. I felt so disheartened that people had such rich racial-cultural experiences outside of group and had such therapeutic experiences inside of group could not have the two experiences together. So, I am constantly working to broaden the space in groups for racial-cultural exploration that parallels the depth of members others experiences in group and sharing to help other group therapists do the same.