How do White Female Therapists Address Racism?
“I won’t be able to make it today,” my colleague texted last month, referring to our planned lunch. “My client load is 80% people of color and each one has been coming in with heavy, weary, and angry souls due to state of the world. It’s been a lot of processing for me, while understanding they’re ‘sick and tired, of being sick and tired.’ I need to take some time for myself this afternoon.”
My colleague is Black, I am White. My therapy clients tend to trend White as well. It makes sense. This same colleague once said to me, “When People of Color want to discuss how race effects their lives negatively, they can tend to want to seek out a therapist of Color because there is this idea of shared experiences, and not having to go into a backstory before beginning whatever the topic is they want to discuss.”
The field of Psychology has been active for many years in diversity outreach, and yet, it still trends heavily White and Female, like me. Given that, I wanted to explore how my fellow White women colleagues work with the collective trauma of racism in their offices, with both clients of Color and White clients. Following are some responses from 5 of my fellow White, female colleagues, Lily, Cary, Molly, Jacquie, and Courtney. If you are also a White therapist, I hope this inspires you to consider how anti-racism can be a part of your professional life.
What do you notice about working with clients of Color vs working with White clients around race?
Lily: I’ve slowly become more aware of how my schooling and my thought process as a White woman have led me to not be as considerate of how how race impacts my clients’ lives or our work together when they are White. When I work with People of Color, suddenly there is this awareness of difference and that I’m doing “cross-cultural therapy.” This reinforces this myth that Whiteness doesn’t exist or has nothing to do with race or racism. When, in fact it has everything to do with it. However, recently I notice White clients talking about race and we’re really exploring it together. This may have to do with what’s being unveiled more and more in this country, or maybe something to do with the types of clients I’m attracting. I feel honored to be with my White clients as they touch into the grief and strive to become more aware of their privilege and impact.
Cary: I notice that my clients of Color are far more likely to bring issues of race into session and are more willing to and interested in exploring the racial dynamics in the therapeutic relationship. My White clients rarely, if ever, bring up race in therapy, even when there’s been a recent, high-profile incident of race-related violence. I suspect that’s largely due to the attenuated impact that such events have on White people because of their Whiteness, but I also imagine that many White clients don’t feel equipped to talk about race, or they’re reluctant to reveal ways in which they may be perceived as racist. Therapy is also generally billed as a time and space to discuss what’s happening in the client’s individual life, which for many White people doesn’t connect to a larger experience of race because Whiteness is still held as default and can vanish from discrete experiencing. I’m also aware that I make greater and more visible efforts to build an alliance and safety around issues of race with my clients of Color, but I do that much less with my White clients, which has everything to do with my own Whiteness and how issues of race fade into the background in White contexts.
Molly: If my white clients bring it up, I listen to the struggles they have around waking up. Transformation is excruciating, and undoing systems of oppression that are lodged within us is super hard work. There are parts of ourselves that battle against this process of waking up, whether it’s about racism or about other unconscious beliefs about our identity (like Ta-Nehisi Coates would say, people “believing themselves white…being raised to be white”). If my white clients do not bring it up, I am still listening for it, and try to make unsaturated connections, keeping myself ready for a time when they will say something about it. I believe that any work we do to bring thoughtfulness and awareness to the unconscious is also work toward social justice, by undoing the complexity of systems that we have internalized that oppress and hold us back. Yes, even our narcissism, because that especially holds us back from connection and empathy and makes it easier to take things personally.
Jacquie: I notice that clients of color are far more likely than white clients to bring race into the conversation as a meaningful part of their life. This is especially true when I’ve done the labor as a white therapist to invite the conversation on race, which I think is important.
Courtney: It is easy to notice difference. When I am in a room with a Person of Color, I am aware of my Whiteness because it is a difference; it is easier to know that my client and I have two different ways of seeing the world, and, as a clinician, it is easier for me to name that difference in what I hope is a kind a gentle way. When working with a client who is White, I find that I don’t look for issues of race unless it is brought to me through their own experiences.
The clients I see come to me through a crisis program, and I’m only with them for 4-6 session; due to the short term nature of our therapeutic relationship, I usually just call it out. I say something to the point of, “I know that I can never really know what it feels like to be a Person of Color in this world; it’s my hope that our time together will feel safe enough for you to talk about it with me.” It’s not very eloquent, but I think it makes space for different realities to be in the office together.
How do you address race and racism when you’re working with White clients?
Lily: This is a tricky arena for me as a therapist. Social justice is often about calling shit out. And there’s some room for that in psychotherapy but my role is really to help facilitate self-discovery. Everyone comes into my office at different levels of awareness and at times I can feel frustrated, trying to restrain myself. At other times I can sit calmly and plant seeds or ask gently challenging questions. Psychotherapy has classically been hyper-individual. Meaning, a client sharing some racist thoughts might be interpreted in terms of their individual unconscious. Or a person of color telling their therapist about how racism impacts them would be diverted towards their individual life story. That layer is interesting and useful but I prefer to balance this with a wider lens of looking at what it means to grow up in a racist culture. If we don’t include the collective, we risk minimizing the experience of people of color and putting too much responsibility on them as individuals to heal themselves.
Courtney: The short of it is: I don’t, and that’s where I’m learning to grow.
Cary: My cultural competency training taught me some basics on how to notice, formulate around, and attend to issues of race when working with People of Color, but it said less about how to introduce race into conversations with White clients. Race and privilege sometimes come up if a White client has had formative experiences of examining their privilege, but my ongoing work is around continuing to bring race and privilege into my own consciousness and into the therapeutic field when there is no direct prompt.
Jacquie: Since part of white culture is an unspoken, often unconscious agreement between white people to never talk about race, one practice I have is to have racial and ethnic identity on the intake form. As a white therapist with white clients, during the first session, as I go through the intake with the client, I note aloud the client’s racial identity (white) and and my racial identity (white), and I let the client know that part of what we’ll explore ongoing is what it means to be white, and how race works/impacts them (including in the dynamics between client and therapist). This practice helps to break white silence from the very beginning of our work.
Another thing I am learning to do is watch for, problematize, and make explicit how racism/whiteness/white supremacy works–individualism/independence, perfectionism, dominance, silence around race. The way I think about it is that we white people individually and collectively need healing, and this includes racial healing from white supremacy. I don’t expect my clients to know that when they walk in the door, like I don’t expect them to know the ins and outs about how narcissism or attachment anxiety works. I think racism and how whiteness works is a serious mental health issue for white people.
Where do you still need to grow and be challenged when it comes to anti-racism in your professional life?
Lily: I’m still learning how to do anti-racism work with White clients. Especially when they never mention race. What does it mean to bring a social justice lens to work that in many ways I let my clients lead? And of course, I’m continually unpacking my own deep buried privilege.
Cary: I’m in the final stages of internship and hope to launch a private practice soon, which has me thinking a lot about the institution of psychotherapy, how its structures frustrate the delivery of services to disadvantaged populations (which, due to institutionalized racism, often include People of Color), and my participation in that system. Private and public insurance make it easier for more people to access services, but how much will being on insurance panels encroach on my work and where my energy is spent? Community mental health agencies provide invaluable services, but my experience with agency work has been one of over-extension and subjugation to an unforgiving and sometimes absurd larger system. To what extent would my non-participation in systematized mental health care be a parallel process with how my White privilege allows a disengagement from important areas of anti-racist work? As I develop my practice as a licensed clinician, I expect to repeatedly confront (and refine the answer to) the question of how I can best serve communities beyond those who are White or otherwise financially-privileged.
Molly: Growing up in a racist household in a racist and conservative small town, I have a lot of work to do around my own racism and the intersectionality of my internalized oppressions. It has helped to talk about it in groups of other white people in similar processes of waking up, and to push the edges of my discomfort in my public conversations about my racism. I’m good at sitting in discomfort, it’s kind of a masochistic skill I’ve developed from my upbringing. I use my capacity for being uncomfortable as part of my process of addressing the shame I feel about my ignorance and compliance in a system that is set up to keep some of us on top and some of us on bottom. Undoing my racism, as well as upending racist policy, is a lifelong process. I have countless experiences of, “Oh I feel like I get this!” and then suddenly I do something stupid, say something stupid, or remember saying/doing something stupid (like that time I touched my Black colleague’s hair!) and I go, “Oh, shit, it’s a really fucking long road.” Self-compassion and accountability are essential.
Jacquie: I need to continue to learn how intimately racism and whiteness works, how it is working in any given moment within me. I think this will look like understanding and moving internalized superiority and dominance from my unconscious to my conscious awareness, so that I can interrupt it in my relationship dynamics with clients.
Courtney: There was a moment in my graduate school program called Multicultural Issues (if I could rename it, I would call it Racial Reconciliation) and the professor, a black woman, talked about the difference between being safe and comfortable. Our culture has taught me that whiteness is comfortable, and talking about race is uncomfortable, but it’s not unsafe. I’m hoping to make discomfort my new norm.
If you’re female or another non-cis-male gender, or if you’re a member of another marginalized group, do you think your experiences of sexism or other oppressions have helped or hindered you in working with racism? In what ways?
Lily: I am reluctant to say my experiences of oppression are anything like what POC experience. But I do feel a profound sensitivity to this. For whatever reason, I’ve always carried a deep fear of being a target, with no one to turn to, no one to trust. I imagine this fear relates to both personal and collective traumas. And it often led me to avoid looking at how real this experience is for all kinds of marginalized groups. Now, I can look with out falling apart and tap into my empathy.
Cary: As a cis-woman, I definitely notice that my experiences with sexism and misogyny allow me to more directly empathize with some of my clients’ experiences of oppression. However, I don’t assume that oppression based on gender and oppression based on race are the same things or are felt the same way. I also notice that having a point of connection around oppression provides me with a sense of relief from my own guilt and shame if I hold more dimensions of privilege than my client. This feels like a tricky moment to me, as it signals my own incomplete work around White supremacy and privilege, which has the potential to block me from meeting my client with honesty and authenticity in our relationship and a system that affects us both—though infinitely more lethally for People of Color. At this point in my development, I try to be present with both the softening and the stiffening, hold myself with compassion rather than spiral into collapse or defensiveness, make a mental note to process more later in supervision or therapy, and re-center my client’s experiences and needs in the moment.
Courtney: In some ways, my experience with sexism has hindered my own work towards racial reconciliation. I remember taking a class in graduate school over racial reconciliation, and I just kept thinking, “what about me? I’m oppressed as a woman, so what about me?” This is now where my understanding of intersectional feminism comes in, and I realize that it all intertwines, and that my freedom is wrapped up in the freedom of those around me that don’t look like me (a white woman). So, sometimes I fall back into that “what about me?” mindset, but my goal is to live life and do this work or reconciliation through an intersectional lens.
Jacquie: Both. My experience of sexism and heteronormativy as a white cis lesbian woman was what made me care about racism. I had a concern to not just care about my own needs and oppression but to understand oppressive systems and seek liberation for all of us.
However I notice that the defense mechanisms that I have used to adapt as a woman in a patriarchal world for example, is to get small or to cry. These have been to some degree helpful and effective coping strategies as a woman in various moments. Yet it’s been my experience (and it’s also been well documented) that those very defense mechanisms that I developed to navigate maleness are very ineffective and actually enact racism in cross-racial conversations on racism, asking folks of color to take care of me rather than attending to racism.
What do you need from your fellow White colleagues when it comes to working against racism as a therapist?
Lily: I need us to be engaged together in talking about how to fight racism as therapists and how to be flexible about what therapy can look like.
Cary: Most of the therapists I know (and I myself) identify as sensitive—a trait that I believe is invaluable in facilitating healing—and I strongly believe that we cannot be of service if we are overwhelmed or flooded. However, I would like to invite my fellow White colleagues to explore the bounds of their sensitivity when it comes to images and videos of racial violence. Watching the videos of the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were excruciating and definitely fucked me up, but I recovered and was left with a much deeper and more embodied sense of urgency around anti-racist work and what my clients confront on a constant basis. Overexposure to these images and videos can be traumatizing, and I would encourage everyone to be attentive to their limits, but I wonder to what extent White people’s avoidance of them is an avoidance of the pain we all carry as members of a culture rooted in oppression, violence, and genocide.
Molly: I need us to keep talking, reading, listening, writing, listening some more, and thinking together. I need us to be vulnerable with each other. I need us to share with each other about how we benefit from this system, how we are hurt by it, how we hurt our colleagues of color, how we hurt Black people that we are trying to help, how the system is set up to keep us racist and blind and easily wounded so that we give up the fight and hide our heads. I need us to get together and validate how shitty this is, and how we can’t stay silent, and how we have to listen even more than we think we already are. We have to listen to Black people and non-Black people of color about the lived experience that white people tend to intellectualize. We need to find ways to speak from our own hearts. Then we need to speak to other white people, especially the white people who hold positions of power in our lives whom we’re scared of (our supervisors, our parents, our neighbors and friends we’re afraid to alienate) and do it in a way that’s authentic, vulnerable, and not performative. I’m coming to terms with the ways I perform anti-racism with other white people- for example, in the ways I call white people out for the ways in which they are racist as a response to how guilty I feel for being racist myself- as a way to avoid the shame I feel for being compliant and unaware, sometimes, of how trained I am to be racist and mysoginist in a white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative system. This is the long, excruciating, necessary work and I do not want to do it alone.
Jacquie: I need more company. We need to do this together.
Courtney: I wish my fellow White colleagues would challenge me to speak about racial reconciliation more often with other white people so that it was feel quite as daunting when it needs to happen in the therapy room.
Cary Ann Rosko, MFTI, San Francisco, CA
Lily Sloane, LMFT, San Francisco, CA
Jacquie Gallaway, LMHC, Seattle, WA
Courtney Warren, LMHCA, Seattle, WA
Molly Merson, LMFT, Berkeley, CA