Towards healing – creating space for uncomfortable conversations: An interview about race between Ellen Yun and Janet Penny

Author: Ellen Yun and Janet Penny

Publish date: November 23, 2023
Reading Time: 29 minutes


The following transcript is an edit of a dialogue[1] about race that took place between Ellen Yun (EY), a Chinese British psychotherapist, and Janet Penny (JP), a White[2] British counselling psychologist. It grew out of their conversations about race over a period of more than three years, particularly in the context of Christian counselling. It represents a snapshot of their current reflections on the past and aspirations for the future concerning race. Undoubtedly, the conversation will continue to develop.


EY: How do you feel about making some space to talk about race? What do you notice about yourself?

JP: There’s a curiosity for learning something about myself, about race and expanding awareness. Because we know each other, it feels like a safe space to gently explore the issue of race and have quite an open conversation. What about you?

EY: Over time, I’ve had other conversations around this. There’s been a shift in me because historically I haven’t had safe spaces to just be myself. I’m increasingly recognising it wasn’t always safe to be me in very typically British evangelical White spaces. I hid anything that would make me stand out, but that was equally so within Chinese spaces, because the two cultures can appear to be similar, but for very different reasons; both have ‘stiff upper lip’, ‘hide yourself’, ‘hide any kind of vulnerability’ within their cultures.

I’ve been on an ongoing healing journey from the various traumas I’ve experienced and safety within relationships is one of the areas I have explored as part of that. This conversation with you feels safe enough for me because we have spent enough time together over the years. I feel safe enough to go towards the conversation, knowing that you won’t minimise or gaslight my experience. It is really important that you’re willing to stay with any discomfort, and stay with humility. There’s never been the general space to broach this topic in my academic career, so it’s meant that I’ve never really been able to name the oppression that I’ve felt, let alone articulate it. But today I’m excited. I feel like there’s a shift because you’re willing to engage and make space for this dialogue.

JP: That feels encouraging. I wonder too if it’s no accident that at the start of a conversation on race, the word ‘safety’ feels important. And hearing what you’ve said about difficult experiences and those experiences of oppression, to start having conversations like this feels like quite a big risk.

EY: It is. Safety is very different for the both of us, and I know that the risks for me speaking out means potential ostracism and being cut off in terms of opportunities in White British spaces. But also, as a Chinese person, if I speak out, it could mean ostracism from my culture as well. The two cultures, British and Chinese, are very similar in terms of emotion suppression and I’ve witnessed this in some pockets of the UK’s responses to uncomfortable topics. It feels like it’s part of the identity of British values and society to not talk about things so they will ‘go away’, which has been very similar for me within my lived experience of Chinese culture. For me it’s like a double dose of silencing because I’m really aware I have a Chinese identity and a British identity, but both of them include high levels of emotional suppression and censorship. And both are rooted in trauma for very different reasons.

For example, British culture has a lot of colonial baggage, and the reverberating damage this has caused. I can imagine the stiff upper lip being one response to that: ‘We’ve got to keep calm and carry on because if we face what we’ve done to the world; it would be awful.’

For the Chinese, we’ve had the history of opulence, survival and of land being colonised. There’s been domination of different lands, and all the different wars between lands. But also, Chinese people have often had to flee for refuge, and it’s still happening – some Hong Kongers are fleeing for survival. It might not be perceived that way, but I’m offering an intergenerational lens of how my people have a history of needing to flee and of displacement. In survival you can’t feel because if you feel you’ll die.

JP: There’s some resonance there between the two cultures, but behind each are very different stories. And I think you’re quite right that as we’re talking about race, we’re sometimes talking about trauma. Your phrase really hit me, ‘if I feel I die’, and I think, for you, that’s been much more experiential.

EY: In the last few years I’ve had the opportunity to remove myself from the predominantly White and predominantly Chinese spaces that I was involved in. I’ve had the time and space to process some of the various traumas I’ve experienced in both spaces and have increased space to breathe and feel. It’s been a whole season of deconstruction and reconstruction of who I am.

I remember talking to you after I’d left a predominantly Chinese diaspora church, and you commented that that I’m going to be in a liminal space. That stayed with me because just to have someone name it was really important.

Deconstruction has been deeply excruciating at times, and yet, it’s been the most life-changing, transformational process. I’ve needed this process of deconstruction because I’ve been suffocated by people and systems. It has been so unconsciously oppressive that I did not have the space to question, ‘What do I believe?’

Stepping away from a predominantly Chinese church and also from my teaching role at Waverley gave me breathing space to consider, ‘Who am I? What is “this” that I have been involved with? Who am I without both areas in my life? What am I doing? Had I unconsciously been living out a part of me that had internalised racism and also perpetuated the cycle of tokenism? What dynamics had been occurring unconsciously within and between both systems and communities that I had been a part of so long?’ It’s been a deep questioning of my whole identity and it’s been a change to now be naming things. There has been a cost to ‘deconstructing’, but the liberation and continued healing has been life changing. The fact that I’m able to have this conversation with you is testament to that – I definitely wouldn’t have done it five years ago, or even a year ago.

JP: I think I’m really struck by the risk that this is for you, and that it is a different kind of risk for me.

EY: And that’s really important to name.

Equity is one of my core values because I have not experienced much equity in my life. For example, for someone like yourself with your intersectional identities, you have the privilege to pick and choose whether you engage with issues around race. I don’t have the same privilege with the marginalised identities I have. These issues of injustice, inequity and oppression are what I have to contend with daily. I’m using a lot of my energy just to survive in the inequitable and unjust systems that we live in.

JP: I’m aware that other people’s lives can be so saturated with experiences of racism –big and small – that I have not had to face. There’s a level of emotional, physical and spiritual labour that I just don’t have to do. It’s important to articulate that we’re starting the conversation from different places.

EY: Understanding intersectionality has been transformational. I have a lot more marginalised identities than you have, so, from the start, I face more oppression than you and exert labour in ways you don’t have to.

In the UK we have a class system, and it’s important to name that. We can hold privilege with class, status, wealth, education, gender, etc, but if people don’t see where they hold privilege compared to others, and if you’ve never experienced being marginalised, you won’t know what that experience is like.

I know the personal cost of what it is to speak out against oppressive systems. In my experience with the marginalised identities I hold, the Christian counselling world has been oppressive with its Eurocentric focus, as has the White British evangelical world in this country. If I speak out, at best I would be ignored and invalidated, or, at worst, I would lose opportunities, be shunned or exiled for having the audacity to speak up about the oppression I’ve experienced in these spaces. We have to look at history to see how and where this oppression has occurred and how it still continues to impact our marginalised communities today. The fact is, Jesus was not White. But how many of us in this country are consciously aware that Jesus was not White?

JP: Yes.

EY: Some of my formation as a Christian has been through the lens of individualistic Christianity, through books and resources that have been available, which for me have mainly been White and Western-centric. But the Bible includes a collectivist culture; we see this through how they were living, through their actions. If you really loved your neighbours as yourself, what does it mean to love and look after others in community?

The collectivism that I have experienced through my Chinese heritage gives me a glimpse of the beauty of what loving our neighbour could be like in community, but my personal experience has also shown me how, for example, nefarious nepotism can operate when communities have experienced collective trauma that remains burdened and unhealed. Both individualism and collectivism that have been impacted by trauma can have challenges. But when healed from the impact of trauma we can welcome our individual identities; we can be ourselves and we can also love the collective as ourselves. But that seems to be lost in the polarity of choosing one emphasis of culture over the other.

JP: Yes, we do inescapably perceive faith, Scripture and theology through the lens of our own embeddedness within a particular culture and point in history. For me, on the one hand, I want to say that there is an inevitability to that; we are creaturely, we ‘come in skin’; we dwell in one time and space. But on the other hand, I can be committed to reflecting on how that embeddedness is shaping my experience and my faith; how I relate to other people and how I relate to people that come from different contexts.

We hold the Christian theological idea of what ‘one in Christ’ is, that is, ‘neither Jew nor Gentile… nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28: NIVUK), while recognising there are social realities. The apostle Paul talked about the social realities of being a husband, a wife, a slave, a master, a child, a parent. Those social realities were not ignored and there were relational ethics that addressed those.

EY: That’s true. I wonder how much of the deeper internal exploratory work have we done as Christians or as therapists? What does it really mean to see you as ‘one in Christ’, and where are the areas where I don’t treat you as one in Christ?

If you’ve never shared ongoing relational space with a Muslim person for example, how would you know how you would interact with them or love them? You never get a chance to be challenged on how you are in relation to someone else.

One of the narratives I’ve experienced in British culture has been, ‘We don’t talk about race or racism because it would make everyone feel uncomfortable; it’s not “nice.”’

JP: Yes, it can become avoidance. I think one of your questions [in preparation for the interview] was about the discomfort or otherwise of talking about race, and I think avoidance keeps the comfort levels manageable. But the massive cost is that one doesn’t actually explore the issues nor do the work of asking: ‘What does it mean to me to be White?’, for example.

From a Christian perspective, how am I really valuing another person as an equal in Christ? Have I ever reflected on my own racial identity so that I can feel a degree of security that allows me to then be open to other people? Or that enables me to have basic empathy and curiosity about somebody else’s experience?

EY: Yes! That’s why it’s important to have this conversation, especially as professional counsellors because we’re working with so many different people – and not just about race, but any other identity that is different to ours.

Whoever comes in [the counselling room], even a Christian, you can’t assume that you’ve got a similar experience. But in looking at yourself in relation to that person and knowing what your story and identities are, you can acknowledge and name those within the therapeutic relationship. Being aware that someone who is Black, or a person of colour, will experience racism, means it can be acknowledged that it is a specific oppression that not everyone has experienced, rather than gaslight or minimise that person’s experience. And it can be helpful to know that you as a White person also represent something for them.

But if the counsellor hasn’t done their own internal work of reflecting on what their identities and privilege are, then they might perpetuate something oppressive. They might be tempted to simply reframe the client’s experience as something else, e.g., as intra-psychic, but those experiences of racism cannot be reframed, and harm could be done again by trying to reframe racial experiences.

JP: Yes, and there is the potential for re-enactment of trauma. I think trauma is the right word here. The minimising of racial trauma or reframing it as something else perpetuates a cycle of trauma.

Going back to what you said about counselling being oppressive, I am aware that I am struggling to say counselling is racist.

EY: What comes up for you?

JP: I think I’m reluctant to make those kinds of blanket statements because there is nuance. However, there is definitely something built into the history of counselling that is biased. It is quite Eurocentric, and, historically, it has been developed from a Western, White, male perspective. One of the sticking points that has really challenged me is the intrapsychic focus in counselling and how that relates to issue of race. For example, it’s not ethical to label experiences of racism as a purely intrapsychic issue in need of reframing, or concerned with their inner defences. There are social realities, and it can be hard to grasp that if you have not experienced racism yourself.

To respond to a client who has experienced racism by saying they need to think more positively feels – I want to say – abusive, actually. It is racism in itself and racism is abuse.

EY: Take time to sit with that, ‘racism is abuse’.

JP: Yes absolutely.

EY: It is abusive. Slavery was highly abusive; people were stripped of their names, their identities, their families. They took on their slave masters’ names. This racism still exists now, and people are still being abused now. In the last week or so a Black school girl was being physically beaten. White people stood back. How can we not say this is abusive? What does that actually say? Black lives don’t matter? If you think about it, it’s like saying White people are more important.

Let’s switch it the other way and say one White person with a gang of Black people –- well, not gang… even my language there… I’ve just caught myself with my language of – ‘a gang of Black people’. That’s how I’ve been subconsciously conditioned about Black people by the media and other anti-Black narratives. So, I’ve got to own that. But imagine it was a group of people of colour doing that to a White child. Can you imagine? It wouldn’t be dealt with in the same way; it would be demonised.

JP: it is abusive, and issues of power are involved.

EY: I understand that there’s nuance in saying that counselling is racist and you don’t want a blanket statement. Parts of me feel reluctant to say that too, but then other parts are also saying, actually, it is institutionally racist because of the material that has historically been taught. What has been taught is very Eurocentric. The counselling literature we’re reading is all mainly by White males. How many resources do we cite by people of colour?

This impacts students from other cultures. Does the literature really resonate with them or not? Do they see themselves in the literature or not? We’re presenting a very Westernised family dynamic that doesn’t represent how their culture is and it doesn’t honour a different perspective. There’s no humility towards another culture.

As a Chinese person, from a collectivist culture, the focus is more about other people with an intrinsic hierarchical structure within relationships, with implicit expectations about social norms about how one sees themselves and how one sees oneself in relation to others. The collective is often always elevated above the needs of the individual. That will always enter into the counselling room but it is not seen or acknowledged within the Eurocentric framework of counselling. With collectivist cultures the focus is definitely more on other people so more time may be needed to help the person separate which are their thoughts and which are the thoughts of others within their community.

JP: Yes. And you made the point about naming it for yourself, doing that internal work – that feels important.

EY: Yes, I think so.

In the last few years, I have intentionally trained in the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model of therapy (e.g., Schwartz & Sweezy, 2019) as it is the approach that has most resonated with me. It is a model that has reconciled all these different parts of me; my Chinese, British and Christian identity, and everything in between. I think that model in itself helps us to welcome all parts of ourselves, even the ones that we want to exile off – including the uncomfortable ones.

Perhaps some of those parts have been affected by trauma, or we could say sin. Those parts have good intentions, but they’ve been burdened with a role of carrying trauma that doesn’t belong to them. Once they’re unburdened, they can fully flourish in what God has always had for them once they’ve been redeemed and restored.

What if the internal part that adopts stoicism and having a ‘stiff upper lip’ is in fact a trauma response and what if it could be redeemed and transformed? What would it want to do instead with all that energy it uses to keep such a stiff upper lip? It really depends on the own individual person’s personality, but if collective stoicism could be redeemed, what would It look like? Maybe it would release compassion, feeling for oneself and for others.

However, until we really do that deeper work, sitting with that discomfort, we won’t get to know our parts and offer them transformation.

The more trauma you’ve had, the harder it is to feel safe. We could think of stoicism as a protective part with trauma underneath. But, in IFS terms, the more we gently move towards the stoicism and get to know it, the more it might relax and in time give space for the trauma it is protecting underneath to be heard. Ultimately it is about that redemption of the trauma, redemption of sin. But that takes a lot of time, and it takes safety, compassion and grace.

Maybe you’ve experienced this increased space and relaxing between us as we’ve been meeting?

JP: Yes, it takes time. Timing in and of itself won’t necessarily do the healing, but things like listening, empathy, being open to ourselves, being open to others does take time. I love the IFS approach because of its empathy of understanding, and the idea that most people are just trying to do their best; we can understand people’s protective impulses in that light. This kind of approach allows me to look in and to lift the lid on dark corners where my thinking can be biased, where I make assumptions or say something that could hurt another person. It allows me to sit with that and work that through.

I think for me what’s important is that commitment to staying on the reflexive journey. Some of the IFS principles allow me to mindfully and compassionately explore and understand what is going on for me as I talk about this topic of racism.

EY: Yes, IFS allows you that refreshing perspective of saying these things that you’re thinking or exploring the racism that you have experienced in different parts of self.

Also, IFS looks through the lens of intergenerational trauma and legacy, looking at how much of that belongs to you and how much of that belongs to your family system. It provides a way to say, for example, ‘Actually 50% of it belongs to the British culture that I’ve absorbed. And 50% of it belongs to my direct experience.’ Before, I would have felt very guilty about having unconscious racist beliefs. But now I can update my parts and say 50% of my racist beliefs belong to what I have absorbed externally. When that 50% has been released, through the way that IFS does by unburdening and bringing healing and redemption, then I’m left with the other 50% of things I need to work through – the way that I might still be racist in my thoughts, words or actions and bring conscious intentionality to unlearn, update, heal and transform my relationship with myself and with others. This approach offers a very different way of healing that I’ve not experienced with any other model.

JP: It is interesting to hear you talk about IFS in relation to race and cultural identity.

For me, it’s a lovely antidote to what can potentially happen as we talk about race. That is, there is the potential to get drawn into the drama triangle (Karpman, 1968), into those psychic or emotional positions of victim, rescuer and perpetrator. But even as we talk about the drama triangle, we have to make the distinction between the psychic/inner positions of victim etc. and the actual experience of being a victim because, of course, within people’s experience, they have literally been a victim.

But when talking about race, rather than getting defensively drawn into the drama triangle positions I can pause and ask: ‘What is my experience? How am I perceiving the world? How am I relating to others? What am I highlighting, augmenting and what am I silencing and not being attentive to?’ These questions help me step out of the unhelpful positions in the drama triangle; to step out of the potential of trying to rescue someone or play the victim myself as any racism in me is challenged. But also, to step out of polarisation and the potential re-enactment of abuse. I think globally we’re seeing the polarisation of views increasingly. Globally we’ve been under stress and under stress cognitive narrowing occurs, which is where you lose the nuanced viewpoints. Thinking then reduces to fight, flight or freeze, literally and metaphorically.

EY: It is polarised, and everyone is essentially trying to protect themselves because they do not want to get hurt or feel shame. Shame is such a powerful emotion – no one wants to feel shame. But when shame is felt, then protective strategies are activated.

The challenge is to step back from hurt and defensiveness to offer love and compassion. We have become so disconnected from each other; how do we start coming back together again? If people were able to really listen and create enough safe space to talk, clarity and healing could come.

JP: Shame is so potent, yes. That’s the knee-jerk response sometimes. Responding to what you’ve said, allowing myself as a White person to ask, ‘How can I be reflective about any of my own tendency towards racism?’, keeps commitment to that reflexivity. It can help to give room to that without then feeling a kind of false sense of personal shame.

But again, it brings us back to the issue of safety. Safety enables people with different experiences to say what was wrong, what is trauma and allow that to be heard. We can start by getting out of what in game theory is called a zero-sum game (e.g., Colman, 2008), that is, the idea that if I’m winning, you can’t win and if you win, I can’t win. I just don’t think God is like that. We can hear each other without feeling threatened that we will lose.

EY: What is important is being able to listen to one another and for people to be able to say, ‘This has been hard for me.’

It might activate other people’s guilt or shame, but if someone is able to make space for that shame knowing that they do not have to respond from it, while they can acknowledge the shame if it is there, it doesn’t need to overtake them.

It takes a lot of internal work first. You’ve got to welcome your own shame and guilt and then step back, really hear the story and be with that person and acknowledge what they have experienced. Reparations and restitutions will come later, but it is important to acknowledge and give space to what people have experienced, listen, have your own spaces to process what is evoked and not burden the person of colour.

JP: Yes.

Part of me is wondering if there is anything that we have not yet found the courage to say at this point in our dialogue, and wondering how it is landing with us?

EY: It is a big risk to dialogue about race for someone like me with marginalised identities, whether the risk is real or not – I can see one of my parts wants to help by minimising the risk – but I know there is a massive risk for me in speaking out. I don’t know if you feel like that in any way, but for me, the risk of speaking out is I could lose opportunities. I won’t be seen in the same way anymore.

Historically, labels of ‘troublemaker’ have been used for people speaking out. And in my experience, Chinese people often get missed; we’re not seen as in need as others, but we do have needs. We’ve been an invisible community in the UK. If we look at the Afghans, Ukrainians and Hong Kong people who in the past few years have been seeking refuge in the UK for different reasons, they’ve all experienced different traumas. But because the Hong Kong people are perceived to be ‘fine’ and have financial privilege, they get overlooked. They’re not eligible for most benefits, but they’re experiencing trauma. They will also need the help of the mental health system. The British system is limited because they are oversubscribed, but also the cultural sensitivity is lacking to work with this community as not enough attention has been given to them to understand their needs, let alone the Chinese communities that have been here for a few generations that have been overlooked.

JP: It feels like what you’re saying is that there’s a way of perceiving that is a kind of pecking order for who’s suffering the most, which can result in genuine suffering, trauma, racism or abuses or issues, whether it be physically or otherwise, not being attended to.

EY: Yes. And in my lived experience, there are massive issues within the counselling field and I realise I’m a part of that too, but for different reasons.

I would love to see an overhaul of how we train people, so that counselling can train people in a way that is inclusive. It needs to be equitable because my current reflection is that it hasn’t been. It hasn’t been intentional, but a lot of my identities were not welcome so there was no freedom to express and integrate my whole self.

Certain parts of my identity and culture that were obviously different were not explicitly acknowledged to me or others; it was as if talking about differences was a no-go area. In my time at Waverley, I do not recall any literature that mentioned Chinese people, let alone centred them. And being at Waverley as a college, the first thing I used to do when I entered the space was always check who was in the room – it so unconscious. Am I the only person of colour in the room, are there any other East Asians in the room? I then do the mental gymnastics of how I think I need to be in that space in order to fit in. All that is going on and I realise I have unconsciously expended a lot of energy navigating the environment to survive and keep myself as safe as I can because I didn’t know how safe it would be.

JP: That’s another kind of concrete outworking that tells me about the emotional labour you have to do on so many levels that I do not as White person and that’s probably repeated in many, many ways throughout the days and weeks and months.

EY: Exactly. It is exhausting. I now realise why I’ve had periods of anxiety and overwhelm, because it has been too much. My baseline for operating in this world is very different to someone like yourself.

JP: There is so much that I have not had to process. It can leave me with a sense of ‘What can I do?’ ‘How can I help?’ Some of that might tip into rescue mode, but also a part of that brings me back to the value of really hearing people’s lived experience and simply allowing space for that.

EY: What we are saying now is similar to what I’ve written before in an article, but racism is a ‘we’ issue. For so long from what I’ve heard in organisations, whenever the topic of racism comes out, it is always the people of colour that talk about it and the White people have nothing to say; they feel as if it doesn’t affect them so they sit back. But racism is a ‘we’ issue. And none of us are exempt from it. We are all part of the issue and so we will need to do our part.

You cannot choose to be not racist; you have got to be anti-racist. We are in a racist system; we cannot escape it. You can be in denial about it, but then that is being complicit. And if you don’t think racism is real or relevant then is there an unethical element to your [counselling] work, because you’re negating the experience of the clients in front of you?

That goes back to how we need to train our counsellors differently. In my experience IFS has really helped to facilitate that compassionate space to really look at one’s shadow sides. We need to do the internal work as counsellors because there is the risk of perpetuating harm and trauma.

A part of me says, ‘Who do you think you are trying to do this in academic contexts?’ Being Chinese, I’m such a minority within the Christian counselling field. There’s definitely not many that look like me in Christian counselling spaces and there’s not many that are like me in the Chinese Christian spaces. So, I’m not going to be heard. But I’m at a point where if I have space to talk, then I’ll talk.

I would like East Asian counsellors and anyone that identifies with a shame honour culture for them to know that you [JP] were my lecturer way back in 2004 when I started at Waverley and then you were my supervisor for my dissertation during my MA. The fact that we can now speak as peers, inhabiting a space that is more equitable, it is very strange. This would not be heard of within a Chinese context. People would ask, ‘How dare you question your elder? Who do you think you are?’ ‘Who do I think I am to do this? Who do I think I am to take up space with someone who used to teach me, the audacity.’ The cultural narratives are strong. Equity with someone ‘superior’ is not heard of. But here I am… because we are both committed to doing our own internal work about these issues.

JP: That is so powerful to hear. I am aware that my own impulse, because of my own history, is to resist perceiving myself as that elder figure image. And from a Christian perspective I am not that figure. But if I did that, that would negate your experience and your culture. I can hear for you this is important. There is the social reality of our history and our cultural realities. My temptation would be to psychologise it or pathologise it, and minimise it, rather than actually understand that is the process that you have gone through.

EY: It is huge. There is the shame, the backlash of ‘I’m a rebel, I’m insubordinate, I don’t know my place’ would come. In Chinese culture, it is unheard of that you would think you could have equality and equity with a ‘superior’. So, this is a weird experience but also liberating and a free place. But there will be parts of me that will be thinking, ‘What does she think of me?’, because there is always that constant inner dialogue. But it is not as loud as it used to be.

JP: The danger is I could slip into an intrapsychic perspective on this experience. But to pause to really receive that that has been your experience, that this is a big deal in a way for you that it is not the same for me, is important.

EY: Thank you for acknowledging and validating the differences between us.

For me, what is important, is the acknowledgement of the impact of racism between us, and the fact that you have been my ‘superior’ and now I’m experiencing a different relationship that is more open, genuine and authentic with someone who used to teach me. And now to know that I have my own expertise that you don’t have is strange, but also beautiful. It is a redeeming relational experience for me.

JP: As I reflect on what the conversation has been like today, it does feel like such a gift that you have given me – to be open to talk about this. And I’m hoping this will be a gift beyond us.

EY: Thank you. It highlights the importance of our ongoing conversations. It takes both of us because racism is a ‘we’ issue. There needs to be enough space of safety for both of us to enter into the dialogue. And you are not doing it for a performative reason; you are doing it to see genuine change. I am not interested in tick box exercises or performative action. I am interested in genuine transformation. This is where the IFS really comes into its own. What conditions do we need to foster and allow for so that we would both enter and transform each other, to have transforming and redemptive conversations? From my experience, I can say in the years we’ve been doing this, I feel like there have been unhurried, genuine, consistent, redeeming, ongoing, sanctifying conversations. These conversations could continue for our whole lifetime; it’s not a one-time only quick fix and we can bring about awareness to the counselling profession.

I have seen you experience these thoughts and feelings and have courage and confidence to move towards them for the both of us and for the greater good. In turn, my parts that have been on survival mode have been able to increasingly relax at finally being seen, heard by you and also experiencing your commitment to make a difference, together. So, it has been a journey and a joy to embody this experience together, thank you.

Personal reflections

Ellen Yun

Being able to have this conversation at this point in time highlights for me that I have navigated enough of my personal history with regards to keeping silent and not speaking up to have the courage and confidence to use my voice and state my opinion. At the same time, when Janet and I initially started dialoguing after George Floyd was murdered, I experienced her willingness and curiosity towards exploring racism and its impact personally and on Christian counselling. This gave me space to practice using my voice. As we’ve continued to dialogue, I have witnessed and experienced Janet genuinely desiring to be anti-racist and do her own internal work. Experiencing this within relationship with Janet created enough safety needed between us to continue to move towards uncomfortable conversations and into the unknown for ongoing transformation.

The words in this conversation are not enough to show the depth of internal work that is involved, because that comes through experiencing the ongoing journey of it. But my hope is that readers would accept the invitation to having curious, uncomfortable conversations about racism for authentic and genuine personal and collective healing, redemption, liberation and transformation.

Janet Penny

What drew me into the conversation about race arose from at least two experiences. Firstly, my relationship with Ellen, over many years now, has moved through a number of changes, initially from student and tutor to eventually colleagues and peers. Over that time, we have dipped into conversations about race. As is evident in our dialogue, I have not always appreciated the impact of this shift in relationship for Ellen, owing to my negation of her cultural context in this respect. But our conversation on race has remained alive and impacted us both.

Also, in parallel, some of my own doctoral research on power dynamics in Christian counselling forced me to reflect on what it meant for me to be White, and Christian. As Ryde points out, ‘White people tend not to consider themselves as having a race’ (2009; p. 33). My own experience resonates with this; being White has been wrongly thought of as neutral, which is a position that impedes any genuine dialogue about race. Also, with a focus on power dynamics within Christian contexts, I have questioned how we can know and experience the theological truth of being one in Christ, while also being wise and redemptive about our social realities that shape our relating. Undoubtedly, these are some of the questions and issues I will continue to reflect on.



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About the authors

Ellen Yun 甄婌婗 (Yun Shuk Yee)

MA in Integrative Psychotherapy, BA (Hons), Internal Family Systems Level 3 Trained, Dip Supervision, MBACP (Reg), ACC (Reg)

Ellen is Chinese British and works as a psychotherapist, supervisor and speaker. She has also worked as a tutor at Waverley. She has contributed a number of articles to the Association of Christian Counsellors Accord journal and the SOLA Network. She is committed to a journey of personal and collective healing, liberation and transformation, one encounter at a time. In recent years the Internal Family Systems model of therapy has been an integral part of this personally and in her current approach to therapy.

Ellen has sixteen years’ experience of offering therapy to children, young people and adults.  She has a particular interest in attachment and intergenerational experiences that impact who we are, and also of the intersection of identity, faith, culture and ethnicity. She seeks to offer a safe and welcoming space to those with diverse and often marginalised experiences.

Ellen is committed to a lifelong journey of being and working in an anti-oppressive and anti-racist manner and advocates for this in psychotherapeutic and Christian spaces.


Dr Janet E. Penny, BA (Hons), MSc, PGPDip, C. Psychol., AFBPsS; HCPC Registered Psychologist, Chartered Psychologist, Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society

Janet is the Head of Post-Graduate Counselling and Research  at Waverley Abbey College. As well as having a private clinical practice, Janet is a research supervisor for doctoral candidates at the Metanoia Institute. Her own doctoral research was on power dynamics and the development of intra-cultural competence within Christian counselling. She has many years’ experience teaching in higher education, focusing on the integration of faith and psychology in Christian counselling, and research methodology.


Copyright 2023 Ellen Yun and Dr Janet E. Penny

[1] Given the relational and conversational context of the topic, the article has kept that conversational style.

[2] While there are other views on this question, the choice has been made to capitalise the word ‘white’ when referring to identity as to not do so could imply that White is the norm or neutral compared to other identities.

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