As the country reckons with the ongoing reality of institutionalized racism and systemic oppression of Black folks, White individuals are also turning inwards to examine what they were taught about race and racism.
This process of self-questioning and realization is an uncomfortable one for many, and the safety of the therapeutic relationship offers a powerful place for folks to explore their own racial identity and internalized biases.
As a therapist, here are ways you can support White clients in exploring Whiteness and racial privilege, and thus begin the work of dismantling interpersonal racism. While we are specifically focused on Whiteness in this article, the framework below may also apply to other non-Black POC clients who wish to explore their racial identity, privileges, and biases.
1. Do the personal work of understanding Whiteness, identity, and privilege
To do the work of anti-racism in therapy, it's important that White therapists first have a strong understanding of their own Whiteness and commit to an ongoing practice of readings and trainings.
This practice is important for therapists both in their work with clients of color but also in their work with White clients: it enables therapists to hold space for the myriad feelings that may come up when White people discuss race, including defensiveness, anger, and guilt.
Bringing awareness to White identity requires recognizing the extent to which White privilege is internalized. For therapists, since 83% of the psychology workforce is White, this socialization occurs through having mostly White colleagues, going through an education system with mostly White professors and supervisors, and perhaps living in majority White neighborhoods or having kids attend majority White schools.
Learning to be comfortable with discussing Whiteness through self-study and peer consultation is important because, as Robin DiAngelo explains in her book, White Fragility, White folks tend to struggle to discuss racial issues, especially when their beliefs about race and racism are challenged or when they feel implicated in racist behavior.
If White clients have not previously discussed their racial identity, the process of critically examining the experience of Whiteness and racism can be uncomfortable.
To be ready to discuss these topics from a place of knowledge and awareness, consider utilizing the following resources on Whiteness:
- A Race Is a Nice Thing to Have: A Guide to Being a White Person or Understanding the White Persons in Your Life, book by Janet E. Helms, PhD
- Whiteness Matters: Exploring White Privilege, Color Blindness and Racism in Psychotherapy, article by Margaret Clausen, PsyD
- White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, book by Robin DiAngelo
2. Understand where your client is in the stages of identity development
As with any therapy topic, the first step is meeting clients where they are. You may have clients raise the topic of Whiteness in the context of their activism, or feelings of shame and defensiveness.
Context is always key to understanding where a client is coming from, and that’s certainly true when discussing race. Dr. Stephanie Thrower, a Licensed Psychologist in Boston, says that for her, assessing racial identity development begins at the first session.
“I attune to content that the client shares relating to their beliefs and attitudes on social identities and oppression in our society. Based on that, I develop a conceptualization that incorporates how they view themselves and others in the world,” she says.
Stacy Donn Cristo, a holistic counselor in Providence, agrees on the importance of meeting clients where they are: “As therapists we must meet our clients where they are,” she says. “The way that I address race and racism has very much to do with if and how it’s come up.... the client must show signs of readiness and I do introduce it in the context of understanding patriarchy and the power over model.”
There are a few frameworks that may be helpful to conceptualize and understand where your client is at in the spectrum of anti-racist attitudes and reactions. Not every person will go through every stage in a framework, and people may revisit different stages at different points in their lives, as well.
For therapists, Dr. Janet E. Helms’ Racial Identity Model can be a helpful way to conceptualize and identify where clients are in their racial identity development:
- Contact: Colorblindness. In this stage, individuals adhere to the “colorblind” perspective; they see racial differences but don’t notice racism in society. They aren’t consciously demonstrating racism, but by denying racism in society, they may be denying their White privilege.
- Disintegration: Guilt and shame. In this stage, the individual has new experiences or information that challenge their previous worldview. This can cause feelings of guilt and shame, which can either be channeled in a positive way, or lead to defensiveness.
- Reintegration: Defensiveness. If the individual enters a defensive stage, they may start to acknowledge White privilege but actually justify it, thinking they probably deserve it. Once the individual is able to overcome their defensiveness, they enter the next stage.
- Pseudo-independence: Learning from POCs. In this stage, which Helms identifies as the first stage of positive racial identification, the individual has a genuine desire to be non-racist. However, they look to people of color to confront and uncover racism.
- Immersion/emersion: Connecting with White identity. In the next stage of positive racial identification, the individual connects with other White folks around issues of race and identity, aims to uncover their own White identity, and attempts to be anti-racist.
- Autonomy: Pursuit of social justice. The last stage is reached when an individual has a clear understanding of and positive connection to their White identity and is actively pursuing anti-racism and social justice.
3. Hold healing space for guilt, shame, and blame
During the past few weeks, many White clients may have experienced feelings of guilt, shame, and self-blame. In session, hold space for them to express any accompanying emotions such as sadness and anger, and guide these experiences towards actionable change.
As a therapist, it’s also important to recognize the difference between guilt and shame: Guilt is the concept that one did something bad; shame is the concept that one is bad. As Brené Brown explains:
- Guilt is “holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort” and is an emotion that can be “adaptive and helpful.”
- Shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” Shame is not “helpful or productive.”
Where appropriate, help clients positively frame guilt as an opportunity for learning and behavior change. Guilt can be seen as a warning sign serving a purpose; rather than ignoring it, clients can use it to shift behaviors in meaningful ways.
Kristen Neff’s self-compassion exercises can be a helpful start for clients to reframe negative self-talk, avoid building any defensiveness to the criticism they’ve received, and focus on constructive behavioral change.
By holding space for clients to process these intense emotions, you help clients open the emotional bandwidth to learning more about racism and take action towards social change.
4. Use curiosity and the therapeutic alliance to dismantle defensiveness
If clients are showing signs of defensiveness, use curiosity and empathy to help them explore where their views originate.
Donn Cristo shares that “curiosity and wonderment always goes a long way.” She “invites clients’ own leadership, curiosity, and inquiry” through open-ended questions such as: “Where do these beliefs come from?” and “What part of you carries this story and how did it come to be?”
Similarly, Dr. Sunitha Chandy, a psychologist in Chicago, takes the approach of acceptance and respect for the client’s personal views.
“It’s all too easy in our society today to dehumanize people whose viewpoints and perspectives we don’t understand or agree with,” shares Dr. Chandy. “All perspectives come from somewhere, whether it comes from our community, what our families believe, what we’ve been taught is right, or our own experiences. Accepting the stories and person behind the belief is key in building that unconditional positive regard.”
“In the same way that I want to be engaged with POC feelings, thoughts and responses to cultural dynamics I am not a part of, I want to do the same for clients who share political views I am not a part of. We live in a diverse society and asking a client to reflect on their thoughts, feelings and experiences in their communities related to their perspective can be helpful in building understanding and empathy for our clients and their ideologies while also creating space to help them navigate engaging with others who have different worldviews.”
5. Address racism head-on
If a client expresses racist views, therapists agree that addressing these beliefs directly can be therapeutic.
“When a client expresses blatant racism it is quite uncomfortable and distressing as a person of color -- but clients often feel so connected to us that they assume we hold the same beliefs,” shares Dr. Chandy. “Depending on the client relationship and our therapeutic goals, I do think that noting and asking questions about racism is therapeutic.”
Dr. Thrower agrees on the importance of talking about racism in therapy: “Some White therapists often share concerns that addressing racist comments in session is somehow not relevant to treatment. This concern highlights some White therapists' need to further develop their own racial identity in order to comfortably inquire about and discuss how racism and systems of oppression negatively affect clients' relationships, functioning at work, and their overall mental health.”
Navigating the balance between helping clients grow and identify biases versus changing their views is a delicate act, and it’s important to not lose the client in service of your own beliefs. If you are struggling to find the right middle ground, consider seeking supervision and consulting with your peers. Here are providers who offer supervision on social-cultural issues, such as race, class, gender, and inclusion:
- Stephanie Thrower, PhD (Boston)
- Nina Miller, PhD (New York City)
- Sunitha Chandy, PhD (Chicago)
- Christiana Ibilola Awosan, LMFT, PhD (New York City)
- Melba Sullivan, PhD (New York City)
- William James Jones, PhD (Los Angeles)
- Aaron Skinner-Spain, LCSW (New York City)
6. Share resources for White clients to further their learning
Some of the greatest behavioral and attitudinal changes can come from clients’ personal education and work outside of session. If clients are at a stage where they are open to outside resources, consider sharing the below:
Books and articles
- White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo, PhD
- The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, the history of mass-incarceration in the United States
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a letter from father to son on being Black in the United States
- Citizen by Claudia Rankine, a lyric on being Black in the United States
- How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (plus titles from his Anti-Racist Reading List)
- Let’s Talk About Whiteness (Krista Tippett, with Eula Biss)
- Seeing White (John Biewen, with regular guest Chenjerai Kumanyika, PhD)
Movies and videos
- 13th - Ava DuVernay, a documentary exploring race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States
- How Studying Privilege Systems Can Strengthen Compassion Peggy McIntosh, a TEDx talk on issues of privilege through the lens of race, gender, and class
- Black Feminism & the Movement for Black Lives Barbara Smith, Reina Gossett, Charlene Carruthers; a panel on Black Feminism
- Reimagining Policing with former President Obama