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Whiteness Matters: Exploring White Privilege, Color Blindness and Racism in Psychotherapy

By Margaret M. Clausen, PsyD


White Therapist as Racial Subject

It is unclear to me what in my personal history served as catalyst to my awareness from a very young age of my pale skin, and to notice how simply because of an accident of birth, I was valued because of it. Pondering this now as I engage in my work—and as I do so in the ongoing wider context of live-documented racially motivated violence, murder, and xenophobic discourse—I wonder how psychotherapy and psychological thinking is useful (or not) to these realities perpetuating severe harm and death. Sitting with my white clients, I ponder, sometimes aloud with them, how race has shaped their lives, how it enters our therapy relationship, and notice how frequently when these reflections happen they move toward externalizing racial identity in people of color versus an exploration and understanding of white racial selves. It is a privilege of whiteness to not have to think of racial identity—the lack of needing to think is privilege. The unconsciousness of whiteness and how it impacts the internal world and external actions of my white clients and myself is one arena of my interest.

Our profession is concerned with multicultural competence (I assume readers of this article are as well). Despite that, our canons of psychological theory remain euro-centric, yet are largely assumed to be universal; our assessment and diagnostic systems are biased in the same vein, while they are used as guideposts in courts of law, prison, schools, and medical venues; research largely makes assumptions of universality without qualification that population samples are overwhelmingly white; and our delivery of services, even the “culture” of psychotherapy itself, remains white-centric.

Our canons of psychological theory remain euro-centric, yet are largely assumed to be universal.

Whiteness as the only representation of humanness is in the “air,” so to speak, of Western psychology, something many writers, researchers, and psychotherapists of color have written upon (see end of article for resources), and a few white authors have noted as well, Dr. Gina deArth1among them.

In my experiences speaking and writing about racial identity and racism as a white person in general, it has most often been challenging creating dialogues with other white people. My experience is not an unusual one. More often than not, when racial identity and racism are discussed among white folks, we primarily focus upon the racial identity and racism outside of ourselves (in others, in institutions, in systems, in history, and so on) while also claiming an individual absolution from racism—well, I’m not racist. The two are contradictory and deny the socialization we have all experienced in the wider community of the United States if not in our families.

No white person can reasonably claim that they do not participate in and are not shaped by racial subjectivity and racism, yet this is one of the more common claims that arise in conversations between white folks. Nadia Bolz-Weber, author of Accidental Saints, and an anything-but-conventional white Lutheran pastor, expresses well how white folks are seduced to hide the influence white supremacy has had on us, and the impossibility of escaping the reality of being formed by that supremacy: “Like so many of us, I was born on 3rd base and told I’d hit a home run . . . the fact is, just because I don’t like racism or agree with it, that doesn’t mean it’s not still part of my makeup.”

There is not enough investigated, discussed, and written in psychology about the racial subjectivity of whiteness, that is, the varied lived experience including experience of privileges and participation in racism on levels varying from the personal to the institutional, as well as the meanings of being white. I am interested in exploring conversations about racial subjectivity and racism.

Engaging in an ongoing investigation into my lived experience of whiteness both on individual and relational levels is a vital part of being an ally to people of color.

I consider this a lifetime kind of practice, albeit an uncomfortable and certainly imperfect one. Engaging in an ongoing investigation into my lived experience of whiteness both on individual and relational levels is a vital part of being an ally to people of color, and to being a better therapist to all of my clients, akin to how my personal psychotherapy enhances my work with clients generally.

Stating that, past exchanges with white colleagues and friends come to mind—all emotionally charged, sometimes emotionally injurious on all sides, anything but calm. I know how vulnerable and even incendiary talking about white racial subjectivity and racism usually is, how many defenses arise, and how it can be so difficult. I brace myself already for the “review” feedback to this article, for example. I think white folks need more practice in these discussions, including myself.

As a white person, accounting for one’s own racial identity and racism, talking about the larger system of racism bestowing power and privilege, is typically a conversation stopper among white people. Attributing the suspended conversations among white folks to racism is certainly a part of the stagnation (at least in some cases) but does not entirely flesh out the sophisticated psychological dynamics in ways that can loosen up the tightness that chokes off genuine exchange. The obstacles to creating open dialogue seem to be about several factors, among them: white guilt; protecting privilege; the nature of trauma (racism and acts related to it) evoking blaming and shaming; the lack of practice white people have in talking productively to one another about racism; desires to maintain an all-good self; the lack of white racial identity development and awareness; and the significant discomfort of sitting with the realities of and felt gratitude for the enormous privilege and protection light skin brings in our daily lives.

Though white folks today may claim they did nothing to “deserve” this power and privilege, the acknowledgement alone does not give white folks a pass on critically examining our lack of curiosity regarding the lived experiences of whiteness and racism. Curiosity about these facets of our selves is one antidote to unconscious whiteness. My desire in this article is to begin pondering how the conversations about white racial identity, racism, and psychotherapy gets hijacked among white clinicians, and to explore ways I have found (imperfectly) helpful in continuing the conversation. While conversation is not enough in and of itself, it is integral to greater awareness and action.

All Good or All Bad

The white educator and author Robin DiAngelo writes about how most of white superiority is unconscious and internalized because we have been socialized in it. The socialization takes place sometimes in overt ways (egregious acts, prejudice, and the like) and more commonly in silent ways, such as attending majority white schools; seeing mostly white people in media, in positions of power, leadership, and mentorship; living in majority white neighborhoods; and importantly, living in and benefiting from a society that entitles whiteness such that white people generally do not feel race. Thus, white racial identity becomes an oxymoron, i.e.I don’t have a race.

We cannot get away from messages that being white is not only a universal representation of human experience and authority, but also an idealized one. Even if our white family of origin was anti-racist, larger society and systems socialize us otherwise. Psychologically, this is akin to being raised in an environment where caretakers delight simply in our existence; our attachment is secure while getting bathed in that unconditional love. This becomes our baseline normative experience of relationship and expectations of other people. We know how a childhood environment like that contributes to self-perception in permeating ways that are unconscious and influence life course. White folks have been bathed in unconditional acceptance and idealization for white skin; we have to work to become conscious of how this has shaped our expectations of how we move, interact, and think in the world.

White folks interested in what I am writing about understand that it is good to be anti-racist, and bad to be racist. It’s good to be aware. No white person I know wants to be bad. An entirely individualistic focus on racism, however, essentializes the discussion and understanding of racism, it occludes exploration of white racial identity, and it raises defenses exponentially. While of course there are individual acts of racism, they are occurring within an inherently racist milieu whereby all white people are benefitting, regardless of individual actions. For example, as a profession we do not integrate in every aspect of clinical education—from intellectual inquiry to clinical training—multiple and multicultural points of view on what is pathological, diagnostic, healing, and so on. Other points of view taught in one-off multicultural competency courses are just that—other.

Talking about and thinking about white racial identity and racism as a binary good-bad is a way to ignore the complicated and uncomfortable parts. The African American scholar and filmmaker Omowale Akintunde writes: “Racism is a systemic, societal, institutional, omnipresent, and epistemologically embedded phenomenon that pervades every vestige of our reality. For most whites, however, racism is like murder: the concept exists, but someone has to commit it in order for it to happen.” Racism is not simply individual action, nor is combatting it simply about courses in multicultural competency.

In talking with my white peers as well as in my own self-reflections, the feeling of power due to racial identity is rarely consciously felt. Yet if we wait until we personally feel the social power of whiteness to validate the reality of it, nothing changes. If we wait until we personally feel the social power of whiteness to validate the reality of it, nothing changes.

Even if we are white and members of other oppressed groups of people on individual and societal levels such as being working-class, disabled, immigrant, or queer-identified, we may not have social power in the arena of economics, physical ability, native citizenship, or gender and sexual orientation identifications, however we nevertheless carry the robust social power of whiteness. There are studies upon studies validating the power of whiteness, let alone anecdotal evidence.

That it is difficult for white folks to talk with one another about racism or something racist that occurred in the moment (a microaggression, for example) is reflective of the positive reinforcement that silence among white people on the topic receives. The silence on racism is balanced only by the silence of white racial identity. Silence keeps the status quo; it also keeps everyone “comfortable,” and keeps white people connected to one another in “likable” fashion. When one white person breaks the barrier of silence, often he or she is shamed, ostracized, or defensively attacked by other white people. We are ejected from the group, placed in a binary of something like being disruptive, arrogant, myopic, or mean while the remaining silent members rest in being well-mannered (and defended). The white person who speaks up among white folks about racism often becomes the recipient of disavowed racism from other white people, something that has been observed in clinical encounters where white therapists disavowing their racism (and other unwanted characteristics) project them onto their clients of color.

Using Mindfulness to Notice Patterns of Prejudice

DiAngelo writes about the spectrum of feelings related to prejudice and discriminatory patterns that I find helpful when talking about racism to my white peers. She explains how negative feelings related to prejudice span the spectrum of hatred, fear, disgust, resentment, discomfort, and lack of interest. Discriminatory patterns partner with the feelings along the spectrum in a similar fashion: violence, exclusion, ridicule, blame, avoidance, and segregation. Conversely, when white people are perceived as superior, they are given the benefit of the doubt, deferred to, included, trusted, and treated as unique rather than representative. Considering individual racism, I think it’s useful to reflect upon where we are along these spectrums in any given moment, because we shift. It’s a practice of awareness and accountability that can and should happen not just on the individual level, but on the group and societal levels, to help white folks learn and understand how racism permeates us all.

An example may help elucidate, and I will give one that begins on the individual level and then includes a group level. If I walk down the street in the evening and see a black man standing at the corner wearing a hoodie with his hands in his pockets and low-slung (sag) jeans, I might wonder about my safety—if even for a split second. That I wonder less, if at all, if it were a white man is not benign—nor is it an egregious act of violence. It is prejudiced, however, and shaped by racist socialization on a level outside of my family of origin. When I catch myself in such a moment of thinking, I don’t spiral into a guilt trip or any other self-critical trip, but rather note the manifold ways racism is part of me even though my parents did not raise me as a racist, and even though I participate in white ally-anti-racism activities, and even though I continue to educate myself about racism and have done so since I was in high school. The practice alone of mindfulness regarding racism makes it easier for me to see its ubiquity, and to talk about it as well since a mindfulness practice is also a practice of non-judgment.

My experience is that some white folks deny this kind of racism, which is impossible given socialization. When I attended a meeting of white therapists focused on racism and our profession, one of the therapists wondered if it would be a good idea for us to out ourselves to one another about racist thoughts and acts in order to reduce shame, build awareness, and enhance conversation.

Even as well intentioned as this group of therapists were, as a group we were not ready to really engage with one another around our racism.

The room of about 30 white therapists fell silent. After some time of silence, I spoke about a similar kind of story to the one in the example above and reflected that using mindfulness as a vehicle to uncovering racism, to me, is essential to deepening learning about racism and practicing unlearning racism on an individual level. No one else in the room spoke including the person who brought up the idea in the first place. After even more silence, the topic was changed to how “difficult” it is that the larger professional organization of which this group was a part had not considered ever focusing on racism and psychotherapy like “we” were doing, and the remainder of the meeting was a discussion focused on how the organization should change. Racism was located suddenly outside of the group of we white therapists.

DiAngelo describes similar patterns of interactions among whites such that the person breaking silence receives response from other whites ranging from attack to being ignored, and the group shifts focus to racism occurring outside of the group. It is so risky, so emotionally charged, and perhaps even threatening for white people to talk with one another about racism. Even as well intentioned as this group of therapists were, as a group we were not ready to really engage with one another around our racism.