Why is it so hard to talk about ethnicity?

Why is it so hard to talk about ethnicity?

Siobhan Lynam with her EMCC UK award

24 February 2023

Rachael Hanley-Browne, EMCC UK President, was delighted to present an award in January to Siobhan Lynam (above) at Oxford Brookes University ‘for the dissertation with the highest potential for social benefit’. Siobhan carried out an action research study with the aim of developing a coaching model to optimise rapport in cross-ethnicity coaching relationships. She writes and speaks here about her research findings.

In Western cultures, the experience of ethnicity is filtered through white-centric social norms, which assign experiences outside of whiteness as ‘other’. Therefore, despite advances in our legal systems, racism and discrimination remain omnipresent. Research suggests that people of colour [1] have better coaching and mentoring outcomes when they are ethnically matched with their coach, but due to a paucity of coaches and mentors of colour, they often have little choice but to be coached by a white coach.

Above: Research findings for white coaches

Research has demonstrated that, when coach and coachee are of different ethnicities, appropriate discussions related to ethnicity are associated with healthy rapport and good outcomes. However, discussions on ethnicity are frequently neglected by white coaches.

I myself was guilty of this. When I was coaching a person of colour, I was aware of the effect of ethnicity on our power dynamic, and yet I chose to ignore it. It was my reflection on this that inspired me to undertake a study to develop a model of coaching to optimise rapport in one-to-one coaching when the coach is white and the coachee is a person of colour. Below I discuss one imperative finding from both the literature and my study, namely the importance of providing space to discuss ethnicity.

Why is ethnicity often ignored in cross-ethnicity coaching sessions? Two reasons stand out: the obstructive behaviours of white coaches, and the unique experience of coachees of colour.

The obstructive behaviours of white coaches

White coaches may avoid discussion of ethnicity for several reasons. They might believe such discussions are taboo. This is what counselling psychologist Derald Wing Sue refers to as the ‘politeness protocol’, where ethnicity is not discussed to avoid discomfort in the white coach. The avoidance can also stem from strategic colour-blindness. In this scenario, the coach evades the topic of ethnicity or ethnic difference to protect themselves from appearing prejudiced. But colour-blindness denies the oppressive realities of coachees of colour, and adversely affects cross-ethnicity coaching relationships.

A deficit in cross-ethnicity skills can also hinder white coaches’ ability to discuss issues related to ethnicity. The most pertinent of these is cultural humility, which requires introspection on what it means to be white, including an awareness of the effect of whiteness on others and acknowledgement of the struggles brought on people of colour due to ethnic discrimination. It also requires an openness and understanding of the experiences of other ethnicities.

I had often reflected on my Irish heritage, but I had never previously considered my white identity. This is a privilege not afforded other ethnic groups. With cultural humility comes an improved sensitivity for discussion around ethnicity, and an appreciation that the white experience is different to that of coachees of colour.

The unique experience of coachees of colour

While my study found that white coaches need to be open and attuned to discussions of ethnicity, the control of the discourse must be led by the coachee. Giving coachees control of when and how discussions take place is fundamental to the equitable power dynamic in one-to-one coaching relationships.

Coachees of colour may choose to avoid these discussions, especially early in the coaching relationship. This filtering of what is discussed with a white coach must be respected, because hesitancy to discuss ethnicity is not unfounded. It can stem from negative personal and indirect experiences that result in mistrust of white people and white institutions. In addition, coachees of colour have often had negative experiences during discussions of ethnicity with white people. Insensitive discussions can result in microaggressions or outright racism.

Above: Practical steps for white coaches

Discussions on ethnicity may also be avoided by a coachee of colour if a white coach misguidedly claims to have insight into the experience of being a person of colour. Alyssa [2], one of my study participants, summarised how derogatory this is: ‘I have this thing against people who say “they know”... When you come into something knowing, then you are already assuming superiority of information.’

Coachees of colour may also avoid the discussion because it is simply exhausting having to explain to a white coach what life is like as a person of colour. In contrast, explanation is unnecessary with a coach of colour, as Leal, another participant, said: ‘It’s exhausting to think you even have to explain everything first. With a person of colour you don't have to explain.’

Another reason for mistrust of the white coach, and the reluctance to discuss issues related to ethnicity, is the justifiable perception of coaching as a white space. A worldwide survey of EMCC members found that only 17 percent of coaches are people of colour (Passmore, 2021). Therefore, coachees of colour do not see themselves represented in the coaching industry. My participants felt that the industry is run by and for middle-class white women. Consequentially, they viewed the coaching space as unwelcoming, exclusionary and disempowering. Adaku, another study participant, said that coaching is ‘predominantly for and delivered by certain groups of people who are really exclusionary.’

What facilitates appropriate discussions on ethnicity?

White coaches need to engage in critical self-reflection on whiteness, and seek out knowledge of the experience of other ethnicities. Doing so helps the development of cross-ethnicity skills and improves the ability to be open to discussions on ethnicity. As previously stated, control of the discussion must remain with the coachee and cannot be forced, but several factors can facilitate discussion about ethnicity.

Coachee feedback – the first factor is an invitation for coachee feedback. This enables the coachee to point out any coach errors or microagressions, allowing the coach an opportunity to repair any rupture in rapport. A coach’s openness about their own willingness to learn can also illustrate an openness to ethnicity and other sensitive discussions.

Preferred terms – for each individual coachee, ascertaining early in the relationship their preferred ethnicity terms illustrates respect and sensitivity. It is not the white coach’s prerogative to decide what terms are appropriate.

Curiosity – most importantly, the coach must respond with humanity and curiosity to ethnicity discussions as they arise.

What can the coaching industry do?

Cross-ethnicity coaching skills and the above suggestions cannot replace the understanding associated with the lived experience of oppression of the coach of colour. There is therefore an urgent need for strategies to attract more coaches of colour. Affirmative action is needed by industry leaders to position coaching as a welcoming space for all ethnicities, and this requires reconsideration of the structures and mechanisms limiting coaches and coachees of colour. The industry needs better accountability and opportunities for coaches of colour to train and work as coaches, and a review of the white, western approaches on which coaching is based.


[1] I have chosen to use the term ‘coachees/people of colour’ because they were acceptable to my study participants. They felt it was important to avoid terms that suggested they were ‘less than’.

[2] Pseudonyms are used throughout.

Suggested books

Sue, D. W. (2015) Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and facilitating difficult dialogues on race. Hoboken: Wiley.

Shah, S. (2022) Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging in Coaching: A practical guide. New York, NY: Kogan Page Inc.

Ryde, J. (2009) Being White in the Helping Professions: Developing effective intercultural awareness. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Dabiri, E. (2021) What White People Can Do Next: From allyship to coalition. London: Penguin Books.


Apfelbaum, E. P., Sommers, S. R. and Norton, M. I. (2008) ‘Seeing race and seeming racist? Evaluating strategic color blindness in social interaction’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(4), pp. 918-32, available at: https://doi.org/10.1037/a0011990

Davis, D. E. et al. (2018) ‘The multicultural orientation framework: A narrative review’, Psychotherapy (Chicago, Ill.), 55(1), pp. 89-100, available at: https://doi.org/10.1037/pst0000160.

Passmore, J. (2021) ‘Future trends in coaching: Executive report 2021’. Henley-on-Thames: Henley Business School and EMCC International.

Image: Simon Jenkins