Razzan Quran, MSc

The year of 2020 exposed everyone to cross-boundary stress, fear, grief, strife, and uncertainty. The COVID-19 pandemic clawed into the early months of the year. According to the World Health Organization’s epidemiological update (WHO, 2020), by the end of December 2020 there was a total of 1.6 million COVID-19 deaths globally. By summer 2020, protests in the U.S. grew in angst and pain, as George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The rupture(s) of families, networks, and social fabrics engendered calls for change, radical reclaiming of rights, and an outpouring of pain, confusion, and devastation. This article explores the group dynamics of a 2020 cohort of doctoral students in the field of professional psychology during this time. I will be reflecting on my experience as a member of this cohort and the ways macro-level (group-level) and structural realities of oppression and disempowerment, in addition to disavowed grief and anger, influenced and shaped micro-level interactions within the cohort. Mention the case for clarity.  I will also touch on how it relates to the parallel aspects in the patient and how it could have been used to facilitate clinical training and the personal growth of both students and faculty.  


At the start of the academic year, there was a buzzing sensation in the air.for this xhohort? Each student plugged their laptop and attended the first day of graduate school virtually. For some, the comforts of home helped cushion the jitters of first-day meetings, for others, the nagging sounds and intrusions of family members made it ever more difficult to land in the moment; a moment of indulging in the harvest of one’s hard work. For the international students, the uncertainty and instability of the geopolitical conditions implicating the pandemic border controls, made a precarious situation, ever more stringent and chaotic.

Beginning in the initial week of classes there was a notable excitement, watered down by an invisible tension. Was this tension competition? Fear? Adult anxiety attachment? I was previously a member within a master’s level cohort group during 2018 – 2020, and I recall the feelings of excitement and nervousness which often accompany novelty and unfamiliarity. However, the palpable sentiment in the new cohort was different, there was a sharpness and zeal to it, the kind that hovers over immense existential reckoning. One of our first semester courses was a class titled “Diversity.” The instructor shared her intention was to provide a space for deeper understanding of ways the structural contours and interacts with the intrapsychic (Layton & Leavy-Sperounis, 2020). This class allowed for the release of socio-political tensions related to the murder of George Floyd, and five months of quarantine life, but it also made us ever so aware of the pressure valve preventing us from unraveling. It provided a space for students to put language to experience that felt raw, unprocessed, and unnamable.

Despite the raging fire on the outside (literally since some of us were located in Washington, D.C.), we were expected to continue work as usual. We joined with one another, with the scent of tear gas and burnt tires still fresh to some of us. There was a unison escape into academia and professional training, that simulated a familiar return to a secure attachment. We clung to the familiar as the world felt ever more uncertain and mournful (Marmarosh, Forsyth, Strauss & Burlingame, 2020). In conversations with one another, mainly through messaging applications, we shared memes, jokes, and side comments about the world. Our desire for closeness and belonging was manifested in a multitude of ways. For some students, there was a clear desire for closeness, as they sent out messages and initiated conversations. Others lingered in a distant way sharing emojis and memes; they were able to be in the group while also maintaining a safe distance. The group was not yet cohesive; we were sharing virtual space, as we were carrying with us the embodied burden of a virus that is unseeable causing deaths, and the lingering stench of structural oppression.

To explore the impact of group dynamics in this cohort, I will present a vignette from the first semester of our first year. The intention behind this vignette is to reflect the permeability of structural reality and apply group dynamics to understand how a supervision intervention led by white instructors left students of color feeling shamed and unseen. The vignette pertains to a required course titled “Case Conference.” The course is garnered through presenting recorded de-identified clinical material, allowing first year graduate students to reflect over what they are hearing, and they are asked to ascribe theory to moment-to-moment dyadic interactions. The client was a bisexual, non-practicing protestant, cis-woman, who was also middle class. Her presenting problem pertained to depressive symptomology and trauma, and she appeared to function within the borderline level of personality functioning when under duress.

From the very beginning, there was a division amongst the GW cohort, relating to counter transferential feelings. Almost all the international students and students of color, shared countertransference of resentment, anger, and disgust that the patient was over-dependent on the therapist. They appeared to see the white patient as having too much privilege and feeling angry about her neediness. Almost all of the white-identifying students, on the other hand, shared countertransference pertaining to sadness, longing, and helplessness. The instructors were two white identified clinicians, with over 10 years of clinical experience. One of the instructors was a Jewish, cis-gender female who had been treating the patient for many years in her private practice and was sharing the video for educational purposes.

During the case discussion, the initial response to students of colors’ counter transference was framed as a “lack of empathy toward the patient.” At one point, the client shared feelings of entitlement pertaining to her living condition in a rented apartment, to which students reflected associations with a “Karen.”[1] The students of color perceived the white patient to be entitled and did not recognize the patient’s suffering, and both instructors appeared uncomfortable staying with these negative reactions toward the patient in the class. Rather than explore these students’ associations and projections of the patient being privileged, the instructors encouraged them to reflect more deeply into their feelings in a separate space outside of the classroom. This was the significant rupture because the white instructors were not open and curious about the legitimate reactions students of color were raising toward white people.  The faculty did not see the white patient as a privileged “Karen,” so they denied this possibility could exist. For the students of color, the white faculty started to act like white people in society who immediately reject the rage, pain, and hurt associated with people who have suffered from oppression, systemic racism, and intergenerational trauma. Over time, the students who expressed powerful negative feelings towards this client, began to withdraw. They felt judged by their initial reactions and misunderstood.

The conversation was then taken up by majority white students, who thought through the client’s traumatic childhood experiences, locating her sense of passive aggression as a byproduct of her trauma history and disavowed aggression. These students were often lauded for their capacity to demonstrate “compassion” and “attunement” to the client’s underlying suffering beneath her angry behaviors in the session. Empathizing with “sadness underlying her entitlement/anger” was rewarded, but expressing anger and frustration was not. Increasingly, the silence of the other group members grew louder. As Debiak (2007) notes, the possibility of utilizing group interventions in culturally competent ways, must be closely examined. She notes that group dynamics can “easily replicate oppressive conditions in the larger society,” adding that “therapists must pay special attention to the needs of individuals in the minority in a group” (Debiak, 2007, pp. 5–6). In many ways, the students of color needed the same empathy and attunement that the white students and faculty were generously giving the white patient. The students of color needed the faculty to see beneath the surface of their negative perceptions of the patient, to the more painful underlying group dynamics plaguing the students of color all the time, the lack of trust and safety they feel in society, in the program, and in this class. It was extremely painful for students of color to not receive the same empathy from the faculty or fellow students who were able to easily see the underlying pain in the white patient.

One of the main issues we also see is the inability to tolerate and acknowledge the rage and fear that comes from years of oppression, racism, discrimination, and injustice (DiAngelo, 2016). White society often avoids reactions to oppression. Instead of welcoming these reactions of rage and anger that were projected onto the white patient and exploring them as legitimate, the faculty shamed students of color by focusing only on their lack of empathy.  The faculty focused on the needs of the patient, and they missed an opportunity to address the needs of students of color, especially during a time where racism and hate surround them. The rage, anger, grief, and fear that comes from coping daily with social injustice, discrimination, and oppression was influencing the perception of the patient, fellow students, and the faculty.

As the semester progressed, the instructors became aware of students of color withdrawing from participation and asked people to share their honest reactions. However, the group space at this point had become mired for enacting macro-level processes, producing an unhabitable space to pick up this question without worrying of retaliation. Occurring on the margins of class, using the private messaging feature on the Zoom application, I was witness to side conversations, in which students of color began to conceptualize the client away from the gaze of the instructors. Something was happening, the students of color were finding a safer way to express themselves that was moving away from the primary medium of discussion. Because the group was not safe and the members could not trust the white leaders, they needed to find a safer way to express themselves. The class was having a powerful impact on my own sense of safety.

This experience brought revelations around the growing silence I was seeing on the streets. As I walked the streets of Washington D.C., I ran into Black Lives Matter sign after sign, but I wondered if I could trust them, similar to my uncertainty of trusting the white faculty and students. I wondered about the people behind the walls; were they virtue signaling? Was this a protection of their property? Or was there a shift happening, ever so incrementally in a collective reckoning with the years of enslaved labor and cultural erasure? I was not sure who I could trust.

Paul Gitterman (2018) notes that “when members of the larger social group are less secure about aspects of their identity, such as in high school or college settings, certain differences can threaten members’ emerging and fragile self-concept, thus leading to greater exclusion” (pp. 103). In this way, many students of color, insecure in their new role as a doctoral student, attempted to express their laden affect pertaining to the client’s presentation. They were taking a risk by expressing their honest feelings about the patient. They were not aware of the underlying group dynamics that would become enacted when they “walked” into the classroom led by two white instructors. The white faculty were not considering the underlying dynamics that could play out when students watched the case presentation and started to discuss it. The group dynamics were influencing everything, but no one was aware of any of it.

Reflecting now, I do not know how much was related to the client directly, and whether my cohort was commenting on the salience of holding space to process white fragility, in a world that felt unstable, uncertain, and fearful. It was a rupture in the group caused by the instructors/leaders, who unbeknownst to them, were ignorant to the fear, rage, and confusion experienced by the students of color when they saw the white woman complaining about her experience to another white woman. Many of the students of color had strong negative reactions that expressed a larger issue in society. How could they not be activated by seeing a white patient complaining and entitled. This is triggering.

The white students, on the other hand, were students who did not experience the same systemic discrimination, hatred, and oppression, and they were not triggered by two white faculty evaluating them or watching two white women engage in psychotherapy. The white faculty and students, with their white privilege, were not aware of the group dynamics influencing the entire classroom experience. The faculty focused on the lack of empathy toward the patient and were focused on protecting the patient from the negative projections (maybe related to their own denial, white privilege, to protect the patient with a history of trauma and abuse, supporting another white female, or because the treating therapist who cared about the patient was one of the faculty), but they missed an opportunity to be empathic with the students of color. The students were shamed when leaders used the term “unempathetic” and asked them to  “reflect deeper on your own,” it led to withdrawal, silencing, and a lack of space to talk and engage in repair.. 

As Marmarosh (2022), Debiak (2007), and Ribeiro (2020) all emphasize: the group space can very much activate and repair structural and systematic wounding. However, the group space must be approached with a cognizance, a curiosity, and a critical pedagogy willing to tolerate fragility, ambiguity, and the righteous rage that has long been disavowed. The group space could have been utilized in a more curious way, by not foreclosing the students’ countertransference as shameful. When students felt embarrassed, they recoiled. Possibly, if the leaders could have opened the space to name and identify the students’ feelings as a reaction and response to white fragility, they may have felt witnessed and understood, expanding space for deeper insight and self-awareness into their countertransference and what was coming up. The alternative space engendered in the “Diversity” class, became a place in which students of color learned the term “white fragility” and the vestiges it holds. In one way, the ruptures in one group space, were repaired in an alternative space. However, this has not given chance for both the instructors/leaders of the original course and the students to repair the confusion, erasures, and hurt feelings.

I am currently completing my third year in this graduate program, and I have noticed how time has healed some of these wounds, while also worked to maintain walls of difference. I write this, with the hope that we create and expand spaces of critical reflection, so we not only encourage but model to students how we can engage in what is happening “out there” by bringing it “in here.” I have learned that whether we like to acknowledge it or not, our groups are always in the room.


Debiak, D. (2007). Attending to Diversity in Group Psychotherapy: An Ethical Imperative. International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, 57(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1521/ijgp.2007.57.1.1

DiAngelo, R. (2016). White fragility. Counterpoints, 497, 245-253.

Lang, C. (2020, July 6). How the Karen Meme confronts history of white womanhood. Time. Retrieved October 4, 2022, from https://time.com/5857023/karen-meme-history-meaning/

Layton, L., & Leavy-Sperounis, M. (2020). Toward a social psychoanalysis: Culture, character, and normative unconscious processes. Routledge.

Marmarosh, C. L. (2022). Attachments, trauma, and COVID-19: Implications for leaders, groups, and social justice. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice26(2), 85.

Marmarosh, C. L., Forsyth, D. R., Strauss, B., & Burlingame, G. M. (2020). The psychology of the COVID-19 pandemic: A group-level perspective. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice24(3), 122.

Paul Gitterman (2019) Social Identities, Power, and Privilege: The Importance of Difference in Establishing Early Group Cohesion, International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, 69:1, 99-125

Ribiero (2020) Examining Social Identities and Diversity Issues in Group Therapy: Knocking at the Boundaries. Routledge Press.

WHO. (2020, December 22). Weekly Epidemiological Update – 22 December 2020. World Health Organization. Retrieved October 4, 2022, from https://www.who.int/publications/m/item/weekly-epidemiological-update—22-december-2020

[1] Karen is a popular term used to connote an entitled and demanding white woman (Lang, 2020).