Race, ethnicity, and culture in supervision for trauma-informed
Trauma is intrinsically and systemically linked to experiences of racism,
sexism, classism, ethnoreligious oppression, and homophobia (Quiros &
Berger, 2015). Thus, if a supervisor is not able to ask supervisees about his
or her identities or experiences with race, ethnicity or culture, he or she risks
a superficial relationship, where the supervisees feel alienated or silenced. For
example, when simply assuming a dark skin supervisee identifies as African
American rather than as Dominican, the supervisor may miss out on how the
supervisee is seen in this world and the lens by which she or he is practicing.
This seemingly benign approach, where individual ethnic groups are amalgamated
into a monolithic narrative of Blackness, ignores the complexity of
the supervisee’s individual and nuanced experiences of race in the
U.S. context. How individuals see themselves and are seen by others varies
strikingly by contexts and, thus, attending to racial, ethnic, and cultural
aspects of identity is essential in effective clinical supervision (Watkins,
In her discussion of best practices in clinical supervision, Borders (2014)
emphasized the importance for supervisors to initiate conversations about
power and privilege, facilitate supervisees’ multicultural knowledge and
competence, use culturally sensitive interventions in supervision, and engage
in self-assessment of their own identity. This may seem demanding, given the
already intense tasks of supervision. Yet, if the complexities of identity are
ignored, there are potential damaging consequences for the supervisory
relationship. Despite its importance, anecdotal data suggest that open
acknowledgment and working with race, ethnicity, and culture within the
supervisory relationship are still not routine practices in supervision. In the
absence of systematic research in social work, the field of psychology offers
insight into what happens when race, ethnicity, and culture are ignored in
supervision. Constantine and Sue (2007) study noted that many of their
Black supervisees experienced their supervisors ignoring or avoiding discussions
about race, ethnicity and culture because of the supervisor’s own
discomfort or lack of expertise with these issues. Yet these same supervisors
engaged in behaviors such as stereotyping their supervisees or their supervisees’
clients, not placing clients’ individual problems within a systemic
context and offering treatment suggestions that were devoid of any analysis
of race, ethnicity, and culture. Furthermore, Toporek, Ortega-Villalobos, and
Pope-Davis (2004) noted that it was only in the context of critical incidents
when race, ethnicity, or culture was brought into the supervisory relationship.
Finally, Phillips, Parent, Dozier, and Jackson (2016) found that the level
of depth in discussions about race, ethnicity, and culture in addition to other
social identities resulted in “less role conflict, less role ambiguity, and
SMITH COLLEGE STUDIES IN SOCIAL WORK 5
stronger supervisory working alliances in the realm of rapport and helpfulness
of the focus on clients” (p. 205).
The examination of intersecting identities of race, ethnicity, and culture
within the supervisory relationship are important to professional education
and training in the helping professions in general (Estrada, Frame, &
Williams, 2004). In social work, acknowledging and interrogating the social
identities of the supervisee and supervisor as well as their positions of
privilege and oppression related to their race, ethnicity, and culture support
the social justice mandate of the social work profession (NASW, 2008).
Furthermore, supervision focused on social justice is supported by the code
of ethics (Hair, 2015; O’Brien, 2011). The examination of supervisor’s and
supervisee’s social identities may unveil the structural and relational power
within the supervisory relationship, which affects its process and outcomes.
This becomes even more important in supervision for trauma-informed
practice, where issues of power are at the core of the supervisory experience
and in light of documented evidence of racial and cultural affiliations shaping
all aspects of trauma exposure (Berger, 2015; Quiros & Berger, 2015). In the
next section, we provide suggestions for working with race, ethnicity, and
culture in supervision, upholding the social justice mandate of the profession.
Tools for preparing culturally competent trauma-informed
Given the importance of including race, ethnicity, and culture in the supervisory
relationship, the following is a discussion and illustration of engagement
with a culturally competent approach to supervision. While the term
“cultural competence” has been debated, it is used here because it is most
recognized in social work literature. Cultural competent approaches to social
work practice have been criticized for being essentializing or static, whereas
culturally responsive, critical race theory, or social justice approaches have
been characterized as engaging multilevel analysis, social constructivism,
and/or intersectionality (Varghese, 2016). The NASW (2015) statement on
cultural competency, which we draw on, is critical and expansive:
Cultural competence refers to the process by which individuals and systems
respond respectfully and effectively to people of all cultures, languages, classes,
races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, spiritual traditions, immigration status, and
other diversity factors in a manner that recognizes, affirms, and values the worth of
individuals, families, and communities and protects and preserves the dignity of
each (p. 13).
In practice, a culturally competent approach recognizes and acknowledges
that issues of social identity, social location, and oppression are important to
the supervisor–supervisee and the supervisee–client relationship. Two
6 R. VARGHESE ET AL.
reflective practices for addressing race, ethnicity, and culture in traumainformed
supervision are locating oneself (i.e., self-assessment of own social
identities and social location) and engaging in a dialogue (i.e. deep listening,
suspending judgements, identifying biases and assumptions, and reflection
and inquiry). These practices uphold the principles of a trauma-informed
approach, providing choice, encouraging collaboration, creating safety, supporting
empowerment, and building trust.
A first step in culturally competent trauma-informed supervision is thinking
about one’s social identities and social location.
Social location is a way of expressing the core of a person’s existence in the
social and political world and the lens in which we see the world and people in
it. Furthermore, it places us in particular relationships to others, to the dominant
culture of the United States, and to the rest of the world. It determines the
kinds of power and privilege we have access to and can exercise, as well as
situations in which we have less power and privilege” (Kirk & Okazawa-Rey,
2013, p. 15).
It is the responsibility of the supervisor to initiate and maintain a discussion
of social identity and social oppression within the supervisory relationship.
To do so effectively, supervisors must reflect on their own positionality in
relation to supervisees. Kirk and Okazawa-Rey (2013) offer some preliminary
questions for beginning this process. A supervisor should ask herself or
himself: Where do I come from? Who am I? Who and what do societal
and community institutions say that I am? How has my identity changed?
How do I figure out my identity? Which parts of my identity do I emphasize?
Which do I underplay? Why? How have my identities resulted in historic
advantages or disadvantages? Who do I consider my “people”? My “home”?
My “community”? This conversation is effective when it begins as an internal
dialogue that is then translated into the supervisory relationship, while
paying close attention to one’s own discomfort and challenges in locating
oneself internally and externally. Such challenges and obstacles may occur
due to differences between the social positionalities of supervisor and supervisee.
In fact, “impasses can emerge in cross-cultural supervisory relationships
when White supervisees view the supervisor in the context of historical
objectifications” (Hall & Spencer, 2017, p. 238). For example, a Black supervisor
may encounter difficulties with a White supervisee accepting and
respecting the supervisor’s authority due to unconscious or implicit bias
related to Black female archetypes. Paying close attention to these dynamics
are key to developing and supporting trauma-informed culturally competent
supervision, particularly in building trust and creating safety.
SMITH COLLEGE STUDIES IN SOCIAL WORK 7
Engaging in a dialogue
hooks (1994) posited that
To engage in dialogue is one of the simplest ways we can begin as [people],
teachers, scholars and critical thinkers to cross boundaries, the barriers that may
or may not be erected by race, gender, class, professional standing, and a host of
other differences. (p. 130).
Dialogue, a form of communication, draws on the Greek words dia and logos,
which translates into “flow of meaning” (Isaacs, 1999). Dialogue supports
broadening the parties’ perspectives and developing a mutually shared meaning
of situations, which are critical to supervision (Huang Nissen, 1999).
Dialogue involves cognitive and emotional processes and allows for a deeper
level of understanding through focused conversation (Romney, 2003).
Dialogic inquiry and practice invite supervisors to create relationships that
emphasize trauma-informed principles such as collaboration, trust, and
empowerment. The learning happens “through dialogues that invite
exchanges of thoughts, opinions, questions and feeling” (Hair &
O’Donoghue, 2009, p. 76). Paying close attention to how conversations
occur within the supervisory relationship is as important as the content of
these conversations. For a dialogue about issues of race, ethnicity, and culture
to take place, supervisors and supervisees must “engage in a collaborative,
dialogic process of critical reflection and reflexivity (Hair, 2015, p. 351).
Bohm (1990), a physicist and key writer and thinker in the field, offers
four building blocks of a dialogue that support this level and type of
engagement. They are deep listening, suspension of judgment, identifying
assumptions and biases, and reflection and inquiry.
This refers to the person identifying what helps them listen attentively, the
degree of ease or discomfort they feel in being present or involved in
diversity and social justice–related conversations, and the content within
such conversation that is challenging to the self (Ellinor & Gerard, 1998).
Deep listening means not only listening to others but listening to ourselves
and paying attention and attending to our own reactions to what we have
heard (Isaacs, 1999).
At the heart of dialogue is a simple but profound capacity to listen. Listening
requires we not only hear the word, but also embrace, accept, and gradually let go
of our inner clamoring (Isaacs, 1999, p. 83). Our capacity to listen puts us in
contact with the wider dimensions of the world in which we live. It lets us connect
to it. Listening can open in us a door, a greater sense of participation in the world.
(Isaacs, 1999, p. 87).
8 R. VARGHESE ET AL.
Deep listening allows hearing diverse viewpoints, ushering in new learning,
and expanding one’s worldview. It involves specific attitudes and skills. A
listening attitude refers to having a “person-centered attitude based on
empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard, and listening skills
[refers] to responses and techniques of promoting conversation” (Mineyama,
Tsutsumi, Takao, Nishiuchi, & Kawakami, 2007, p. 81). The attitude and the
skills are critical to building a strong relationship and working alliance
between the supervisor and supervisee in trauma-informed supervision.
Suspension of judgments
This means “holding our positions more lightly” (i.e., holding onto judgments in
a way that allows the creation of space for hearing other points of view and
enhances an atmosphere of trust and safety in supervision) (Gerard, 2005, p. 343).
Judgments were described by Bohm (1990) as thoughts deposited in ourmemory
bank. These memories, when triggered, result in automatic thoughts, which we
use to react ormake meaning of a conversation or exchange.While we may not
be able to stop judgments from occurring, we are able to notice the judgments
that we and others make (Ellinor & Gerard, 1998) and the “mental models and
maps that make up our habitual ways of thinking and making sense of reality”
(Carroll, 2007, p. 38). Although judging can be useful, “it can limit our ability to
see a whole picture, shut down our listening, and stifle…our learning” (Ellinor &
Gerard, 1998, p. 68). Supervisors and supervisees can get confined by what they
think or believe relative to race, ethnicity, and culture, stifling the potential for a
meaningful and profound supervisory relationship.
Identifying assumptions and biases
This connotes looking at one’s own beliefs in an effort to make sense of what
one believes and how one acts. Because assumptions are “transparent,” recognizing
them in the context of interpersonal interactions is challenging (Ellinor
& Gerard, 1998). Thus, we may not realize that we are operating from an
assumption until we hear someone say something based on an assumption.
Many times, such statements are grounded in thoughts or beliefs opposite to
our own (Bohm, 1990). It is not uncommon for the supervisor and supervisee
to make assumptions about each other’s respective social positionalities and
then relate to each other based on those assumptions. To create authenticity in
the supervisory relationship, it is critical to develop a process for enhancing
awareness about such assumptions. This requires deliberate self-exploration by
supervisor and supervisee of their own identification, the factors that shape
their identities, and the effects that it may have on the supervisory relationship.
Reflection and inquiry
Reflection allows pausing and thinking about what one has heard as well as
paying attention to the assumptions and biases that get in the way of really
SMITH COLLEGE STUDIES IN SOCIAL WORK 9
hearing what someone else has to say, whereas inquiry connotes asking
questions or eliciting new information to enable the deepening of one’s
understanding (Ellinor & Gerard, 1998).
“Supervision is reflection-on-action, or indeed, reflection-for-action … in
opening our minds and hearts we begin to perceive, to see, to understand and
to make sense of what has been and, in turn, we hope to learn what to do
next” (Carroll, 2007, p. 36). The processes of reflection and inquiry are
embedded within an analysis of power (Freire, 1972) and thus different social
locations and statuses of power across rank, gender, race, class, or ethnoreligious
identity impact the dialogic practice. This is particularly relevant to
the situation of supervision, as it is embedded within a structural hierarchy of
power and issues of diversity and social justice are part of the exchange. To
address relevant aspects of positionality in the supervisory relationship, a
supervisor should exercise deep listening, suspend assumptions, and embrace
opportunities for dialogue. Applying Bohm’s (1990) building blocks, a supervisor
and supervisee can transform subject-to-object relationships into a
relationship of partnership (Romney, 2003). The following vignettes reflect
the ways in which a supervisor can engage in a cultural competent traumainformed
Philip is a 25-year-old African American supervisee who has been working in
a multilevel hospital setting for 6 months. He comes into a supervisory
session with his supervisor Kathy, a White 55-year-old woman, looking
agitated. While checking in, he shares with Kathy that for the past couple
of months, he has been stopped and asked to show his ID by security in the
hospital. He reports feeling like he is being targeted but ends by saying, “Let’s
move on … I don’t want to talk about it.” While Kathy feels personally
dismissed by his comment, she continues to listen [deep listening; suspension
of judgment] and ask questions about what his experience has been in the
hospital and how that affects his work with clients [inquiry]. She reflects on
her very different experiences in the hospital with the security guards, all of
whom she knows by name. She recognizes how she may get treated differently
from Philip as a White, middle-aged woman [reflection on positionality/
locating oneself]. Furthermore, she acknowledges her own assumptions when
first meeting Philip in her office, that he was visiting a family member in the
hospital, as opposed to being her supervisee [identifying assumptions or
biases]. She responds to his comments about “moving on and not wanting
to talk about it” and says, “I don’t know what your experience has been, but
understanding your experiences as a man of color is central to our supervisory
relationship.” She shares that in their work together, they had not yet
discussed their own social identities and positionality. Kathy inquires if that
10 R. VARGHESE ET AL.
is something Philip would like to do. She ends by asking if he would also like
to collectively brainstorm ways to address the behaviors of the security
guards that were making Philip feel potentially “unsafe” and that he did
This vignette is an example of the ways in which supervision is the arena
for acknowledging, identifying, and addressing complexities of race, ethnicity,
and culture through a trauma-informed approach. Physical and emotional
safety are critical to the practitioner–client relationship. Philip cannot
effectively practice with his own clients from a trauma-informed approach if
he feels silenced, dismissed, or unsafe in the agency or organization in which
he interns. By engaging in an exploratory dialogue of her own social identities
in relationship to Philip’s, Kathy is helping to build a “safe enough
space” for Philip to examine what being asked to show his identification
means for him. Furthermore, this exchange opens the door to a dialogue
about what clients of color who come to that organization may experience
and how Philip could use his experience in his own practice. Ideally, a
supervisor would have set the stage for culturally competent traumainformed
supervision by reflecting on their own social location and then by
having a conversation about social identities and positionality as part of the
supervisor–supervisee relationship rather than having to bring it up in the
context of a critical incident. However, there are always opportunities to
engage in such reflective practices as long as the supervisor is aware of the
importance of doing so and seeks such opportunities.
Philip’s ambivalence relative to exploring this critical incident is evident
in his response to Kathy; however, she is able in her supervisory capacity to
begin building trust in her relationship with Philip by asking questions and
listening in a deep way. The supervisor in this vignette brings into the
discussion choice, collaboration, and empowerment by acknowledging that
the supervisee and she had not talked about their own identities in their
supervisory relationship and by asking if Philip wanted to engage in a
conversation about his and her identities and social location as part of
their work together. Because supervisory relationships are embedded within
systems, when critical incidents occur, they require responding in the
context of the supervision and in the broader system in which the supervision
resides. Through a dialogue with Philip, the supervisor offers him an
opportunity to collaboratively respond to what has happened to him. In
many cases, speaking up about what has happened can be empowering, and
allows clients and workers alike the opportunity to feel that they have
control of their environment and what happens to them, an important
tenet of trauma-informed work. This vignette provides insight into the
ways of locating oneself and engaging the building blocks of dialogue can
be useful supervision tools for a trauma-informed culturally competent
SMITH COLLEGE STUDIES IN SOCIAL WORK 11
Nicole is a 35-year-old Puerto Rican supervisee who has been working for a
month in a short-term rehabilitation center with older adults. She meets
weekly for supervisory sessions with Miguel, a 60-year-old Puerto Rican
man. In discussing one of her clients, Nicole bursts into tears and Miguel
stops the session to check in with her. He notes her strong affect in the
discussion of her case and asks her if she would like to talk about what is
going on for her. He listens while she reports that she is having strong feelings
working with her client, an older Puerto Rican woman [deep listening]. She
shares that the client reminds her of her grandmother, whom she had cared for
until her death. Nicole shares that she did not get the opportunity to grieve her
grandmother whom she was very close to and she was not able to adequately
contain her sadness and anxiety when meeting with this client. Miguel
acknowledges what Nicole has shared and normalizes her reaction highlighting
potentially unresolved grief [suspension of judgment]. In talking more
about that relationship, Nicole discusses the “color politics” in her family
and how as a “White”-passing Latina, her grandmother, who was much darker
than her, grounded her in her Puerto Rican identity. Nicole shares that her
grandmother affirmed that “I was a Boriqua.” Miguel, in listening to Nicole
process her relationship, recognizes that she was not grieving the loss of her
grandmother but someone who affirmed her racial/ethnic identity as a Latina.
And while Miguel created time in supervision to talk about their similar racial/
ethnic identities and the ways it impacted their supervisory relationship, he
recognizes this as an opportunity to go deeper and unpack the complex
relationship between skin color and racial/ethnicity identity as it relates to
his own experience [inquiry] and the assumptions he had made about Nicole’s
race/ethnicity [reflection on positionality/locating oneself & identifying assumptions
or biases]. Phenotype and features play a crucial role in the experiences of
Latinas of various skin tones that have implications for their early formation of
racial and ethnic identity, as well as how women are identified and treated
within their families of origin (Quiros & Araujo-Dawson, 2013). Thus, recognizing
the effects of colorism on the Latino/a/x population is essential for
culturally competent trauma-informed practice.
Miquel realizes that this is an opening to talk about the ways race and
ethnicity show up in their supervisory relationship (as Nicole is light skinned
and Miguel is dark skinned) and in the relationship between Nicole and her
client [identifying assumptions or biases]. Miguel ends the supervision session
by encouraging Nicole to obtain counseling to work through her grief as he is
concerned about her countertransferential feelings about her client.
This vignette illuminates the ways that discussions of race, ethnicity, and
culture should be ongoing in the supervisory–supervisee relationship.
Although Miguel acknowledged his and Nicole’s racial or ethnic identities
12 R. VARGHESE ET AL.
at the beginning of the relationship, he recognizes that one’s awareness about
racial/ethnic identity development develops or deepens in interpersonal
relationships. He and Nicole could use this as an opportunity to examine
or reexamine their own relationships to ethnic/racial identity through the
prism of skin color, inviting collaboration and trustworthiness. By offering
the space for Nicole to begin processing her feelings and allowing her the
opportunity to disclose how her grandmother’s death affected her, Miguel is
addressing safety and choice, principles of a trauma-informed approach.
Finally, encouraging Nicole to seek counseling while simultaneously continue
their supervision illustrates empowerment in that Nicole can make a
choice about how she wants to process her unresolved feelings about her
grandmother. This vignette highlights the ways that a culturally competent
trauma-informed approach is useful to interracial and intraracial supervisor–
Social work practitioners regularly encounter individuals, families, and communities
who are profoundly affected by trauma. Trauma more commonly
describes varied psychological responses to war, sexual assault, and/or
domestic violence (Herman, 1997).
“Traumatic experiences take many forms, but they typically involve an
unexpected event outside of a person’s control such as criminal victimization,
accident, natural disaster, war, or exposure to community or family violence”
(Levenson, 2017, p. 105). This article offers a more complex framework and
broadens the use of trauma to include responses to racism, sexism, classism,
and ethnoreligious oppression (Quiros & Berger, 2015), which is supported
by research that links discrimination to traumatic symptoms (Watson,
Langrehr, DeBlaere, Zelaya, & Flores, 2016). Furthermore, we link traumainformed
principles such as creating safety, inviting collaboration, offering
choice, establishing trustworthiness, and supporting empowerment with the
supervisory process and a critical awareness of the role that race, ethnicity,
and culture play in the supervisor–supervisee relationship. Supervisors are
instrumental in training social work practitioners, and, thus, we have introduced
and illustrated what it means to have a trauma-informed culturally
competent approach to supervision, attention to social identity and social
location, and engagement in dialogue, using dialogic behaviors such as deep
listening, suspension of judgments, identifying assumptions and biases, and
inquiry and reflection. Although Berger, Quiros, and Benavidez-Hatzis
(2017) recently examined the intersection of social identities of the supervisor
and supervisees for supervision for trauma-informed practice, future research
is needed to further expand professional knowledge about a culturally competent
trauma-informed approach to supervision.
SMITH COLLEGE STUDIES IN SOCIAL WORK 13
Notes on contributors
Rani Varghese, MSW, EdD, is an assistant professor at the School of Social Work at Adelphi
University. Dr. Varghese’s clinical experience has been in the context of college campuses
supporting survivors of gender-based violence. Her research focuses on the intersections of
social work education, clinical social work, and social justice practices and principles. She is
also involved in studying the impact of intergroup dialogue on participants and facilitators
who have been trained in this model.
Laura Quiros, PhD, is an associate professor and Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs at
Adelphi University School of Social Work. Dr. Quiros’ research and scholarly interests
include the social construction of racial and ethnic identity, social justice in higher education,
and trauma-informed practice. The common thread in her service, teaching, and scholarship
is elevating complexity and furthering the social work mission of social justice.
Roni Berger, PhD, is a professor at the School of Social Work at Adelphi University. Her
areas of expertise include trauma, specifically cultural aspects of trauma, supervision and
posttraumatic growth, international social work education, the application of evidence-based
practice in field education, and clinical supervision. Her clinical practice has been with
families, specifically nontraditional families, immigrants, and refugees, as well as groups.
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SMITH COLLEGE STUDIES IN SOCIAL WORK 17
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