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Race and healing: Expanding the conversation, part 1

Written by and featuring S. Kent Butler, Gail Parker, Monnica Williams, and Zachary Taylor


Now more than ever, people want to engage in meaningful dialogue about race and racism. It’s a vital goal, but how do we translate intention into practice? In the therapy world, what are clinicians of color telling their White colleagues? In the therapy room, what kinds of conversations actually help heal race-based stress and trauma rather than pay it lip service?

Many BIPOC (Black Indigenous people of color) in the field are promoting self-care and community as they share their experiences amidst the ongoing push for racial justice. And many White therapists have joined the antiracism movement. But while they may be wholly comfortable delving into any number of significant issues with clients of color—trauma, relationship trouble, job stress, lack of job stress, depression, anxiety, and more—they’re realizing that all too often these clinical encounters have had a wary, incomplete quality, freighted by the thing left unsaid. The White therapist may wonder: Can I bring up racism with my client? The client may think: Really? How can you not?

In this two-part discussion—“Starting the conversation” and “Moving toward healing”—six clinicians of color spoke candidly with a White therapist about breaking this silence. The panelists reflected on, advised, and sometimes debated: How can White therapists most productively open a conversation with BIPOC clients on the profound impact of racism in their everyday lives? What kind of serious personal work must White clinicians undertake to earn these clients’ trust? And, as they begin these conversations, how can they learn to roll with the inevitable missteps they’ll make, so they’ll persevere in these dialogues with their clients—and colleagues, friends, and family—even when they feel deeply uncomfortable and unskillful?

Part 1: Starting the conversation

This panel included S. Kent Butler, PhD, president-elect of the American Counseling Association and interim chief equity, inclusion, and diversity officer at the University of Central Florida; Gail Parker, PhD, clinical psychologist, president of the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance and author of “Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma”; Monnica Williams, PhD, associate professor at the University of Ottawa, Canada research chair for mental health disparities, and coauthor of “Eliminating Race-Based Mental Health Disparities”; and Zachary Taylor, MA, LPC, NCC, director of Psychotherapy Networker.

Kent: It’s White society that needs to reckon with race and racism, not people of color. Every day, when I walk out my door, I know it’s as a Black man. These days, that feels especially true. After watching the George Floyd video, I got together with a group of brothers who are counselor educators. We just needed to be with each other and talk about what was going on for us. As we sat around, we shared our own personal accounts of dealings with police officers and how we were caring for ourselves these days.

Part of our self-care, we realized, was the experience of relating to each other’s experiences. We were holding each other up as we vented. Black males don’t have enough opportunities to just be real with one another in our pain. Too often, we’re protecting ourselves, showing we’re tough and able to get through these types of things, even when so many of us are hurting.

Zach, more than ever before, White therapists like you are reaching out and wanting to do more for people of color. But rather than trying to direct us away from our pain in a way that gives you comfort, it’s important to just recognize that our stories are true, to sit in that truth with us, and then to go inward and explore how your privilege has allowed you to put what’s been happening to communities of color on the back burner for so long.

Monnica: It’s important for therapists to understand that Black and White people live in two different Americas. Your experience going around in white skin is very different than the experience of going around in black or brown skin. That’s the truth Kent is talking about.

I have a poster from the old TV series “The X-Files.” Under a picture of a UFO it says: “I want to believe.” That’s how you need to approach your clients’ stories of racism, even if you’ve never experienced it yourself.

Gail: I think it’s necessary for therapists to do a deep self-study about their relationship to their own race. This is something that most Black people already do. It’s not something, in my experience, that most White people do. What does it really mean to be White in this society? I can’t answer that question. But we live in a racialized culture, so it’s incumbent upon us to be clear about it.

Monnica: There’s a misperception that racial injustice is a Black-person problem; it’s an every-person problem. Black people are disproportionately suffering, but the work is to find out how you contribute to it and what you can do about that. It may be overhauling your entire hiring policy and accepting more students of color into your clinical programs, or it may be something as small as calling someone out when they tell a racist joke.

Gail: But I recognize that calling out racism isn’t easy. It’s not safe. So if you’re waiting for it to be easy, or to feel safe, it’s not going to happen. This requires courage, a willingness to act in the face of your own fear that you might be rejected.

One of the mistakes White people tend to make right now is to say, “I can’t possibly know what it’s like to be you.” Well, that’s an invalidating remark. If a client came into your office and told you their story, you wouldn’t say that. You’d understand that shuts down the conversation, interrupts the relationship. Instead, when someone shares a story you can’t relate to, or is painful to hear, the most appropriate response is to listen and then mirror back what you’ve heard without interpretation. Validate the pain they’ve shared with you without trying to fix it.

Zach: As a therapist, I’m well trained in how to talk to clients about sexual abuse, addiction, childhood trauma—but I never learned how to talk about race-based pain and trauma. Early in my career, I had a Black client who lived in a very rural, mostly White part of southwest Virginia. She presented with anxiety, and when I asked more about it, she focused on her recent job search. She’d landed several initial interviews and believed the reason she never got final offers was because they realized she was a Black woman.

She shared a long history of these kinds of experiences, and, while I listened with empathy, I completely glossed over the race-based part of her anxiety. It wasn’t just that she was in financial stress, she was experiencing race-based trauma, and I didn’t even see that until it was too late.

Gail: You can assume that all Black people who come to your office are experiencing some form of racial trauma and stress. You really dropped the ball on that conversation, but at least she felt safe enough with you to bring it up. In general, you wouldn’t just say to a client, “So how’s your racial trauma?” Therapists know not to touch the boo-boo directly. Rather, if you create a relationship of trust, it will come up.

Monnica: Some therapists have said to me, “Well, my Black clients have never brought up issues of racial stress with me.” And I’ve said, “Well, that’s because they don’t trust you with it. Whatever you’re doing in your relationship with them—it’s possible you’ve microaggressed against them in some way—you’ve communicated that what they have to say about race won’t be heard. So this is an area where you need to learn and grow.”

A White student therapist I was supervising once explained her approach to working with people of color by saying, “I don’t see color.” Mistakenly, she thought that a denial of racial differences would increase trust within the therapeutic relationship. She didn’t understand that to people of color “I don’t see color” means “I don’t see you.” It means “I don’t understand, or choose not to acknowledge, the unique and oppressive experiences that contribute to your distress.” This supervisee had good intentions, but she didn’t see how harmful a colorblind approach can be in the therapy relationship.

I think it’s so interesting that we learn how to ask people difficult questions about self-harm, sex; we even ask them if they’re molesting children. But somehow, we can’t say, “Hey, have you been struggling with discrimination?” How is that a hard question? Just ask it.

Kent: We’re told that talking about race and culture is taboo. The messages most people get at a very young age is that it’s inappropriate. When a lit­tle kid in a store points and says, “Look at that Black man, Mommy,” who’s embarrassed? It’s the White mom, grabbing the kid and chiding, “No, no, no, don’t say that!” But why not? I am a Black man.

Gail: I have to tell you, I don’t know how I’d feel if a White therapist flat out said to me, “So how do you feel about race?” I think I’d feel intruded upon, and it wouldn’t inspire me to open up. But I do have a lot of White friends I’m open with, and discussing these issues is an ongoing part of our relationship.

Recently, I shared with a White friend that I didn’t think White people think or talk about race, and she told me I was making an unfair assumption. Because we’re close friends, we’re able to be honest with each other and repair any ruptures that might occur. We don’t seek agreement. We seek to understand each other. As they say, you can either be right or you can be in a relationship. By choosing a relationship, we’re keeping the conversation open.

Monnica: I teach culture and diversity to clinical grad students, and one of my first assignments for them is to have a conversation with someone of a different race about their experience of their own race.

One White student admitted that he had no close nonwhite friends and was taught that talking about race was impolite. He said he wasn’t racist but was extremely afraid of saying something racist. As we talked, he came to terms with the fact that he likely held unchecked biased views he was unaware of. He learned that part of doing his own work would include messing up sometimes, acknowledging the privileges that whiteness has afforded him, and recognizing that his silence was doing harm.

I’m a behaviorist, so I see discomfort with these conversations as a skills deficit you can overcome through practice. You can engage in activities that change your cognitive distortions around race, so you’re better equipped to work with all sorts of clients. I urge students to be introspective and scrutinize their own racial identity. You can’t do that if you allow yourself to be encapsulated in an echo chamber. You have to intentionally seek out a racially and culturally diverse group of peers to talk to.

Kent: I assign students to go into a community space they’re not used to: a gay club, a rec center in a Black neighborhood, whatever. I ask them to do an ethnography, to go and watch people. The first thing they tell me is that they don’t want to go alone. The second is that they feel it’s intrusive. “Listen,” I say, “Every time I walk into white spaces, I know I’m walking into white spaces. When I ask you to walk into a space that’s not comfortable for you, then you have an issue with it?” They don’t like this challenge. I’ve gotten a lot of negative evaluations from students because of it, but that’s the kind of conversation we need to have.

Gail: Zach, I have a question. Therapists seem focused now on helping clients of color with race-based issues. How do you feel about asking your White clients how they feel about being White?

Zach: I’ve never asked that question.

Gail: I’m sure you haven’t. How would you feel about it? I think it’s an important question, because White people have a problem around race, not Black people.

Kent: [Chuckling] We’re all laughing a little right now. I think that’s because we can all feel the challenge that Zach and other White individuals have around this issue.

Zach: I know I’m not anywhere near where I need to be in understanding my own whiteness. I’m embarrassed to say that I just heard the word “antiracist” for the first time last week. I’d never thought of myself as a racist, but I’d also never thought much about growing up outside of Detroit, going to mostly White schools. And I realized that an unconscious part in me judged people of color based on how closely they acted White. I’m embarrassed that I never thought about that before. So that question—“How does it feel to be White?”—is going to become central for me. I don’t know, however, that I’d ask that of clients unless they brought it up.

Monnica: Being White affords you the advantage of not having to think about it if you don’t want to. As a person in brown skin, I have to think twice just going for a jog in my White neighborhood. Are people going to think I don’t belong there? I’d better look nice. I’d better have nice, new shiny clothes, so nobody mistakes me for a criminal.

Kent: Zach, you can also ask yourself: As a White male, what happens when I’m driving and hear a siren behind me? What happens when I walk into a store and see that black globe that tells me people are watching me? I live with the continual awareness that at any given moment someone is going to make a decision about who I am as a Black man and that I’m going to have to deal with that. It’s exhausting.

With the ongoing pandemic, I’m especially aware of my surroundings when I walk into a store or building with my mask on. People look at me, and the script in my head says, “I hope they don’t think I’m here to steal something.” I think about what I’m wearing, wondering if they’re taking note so they can recite my “fit-the-description” description to a law enforcement agent. I’ve never been stopped by police because I fit the generic description of a Black man, but I think about how it could happen at any time. Who wants to live like that—always looking over your shoulder?

Zach: I know a lot of mental health professionals want to get more involved in community response and making systemic changes. In your view, what should they keep in mind?

Gail: Dealing with issues systemically is not my area of expertise. I’m more focused on how individuals can deal with their own stuff as part of the system. As all therapists know, the connection, the relationships—that’s where the healing takes place. That’s what makes an impact. For me, the systemic work is to form relationships within the community, to become part of it.

Monnica: It’s not about taking a class or a seminar, or putting a sticker on your door. You have to patronize businesses in the community, get to know people. Seventy-five percent of White people don’t have one friend of color. If you don’t have one friend of color, you don’t understand communities of color. So part of doing your own work is forging those connections and having close, mutually reciprocal relationships.

Gail: But first, do the inner work: look at your own issues around race and ethnicity. That’s the preparation you need to show up for these relationships authentically.

Kent: This self-work doesn’t happen overnight, so the commitment is important. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and recognize that you don’t know it all. I don’t feel like I know it all. I’m learning and growing every day. Come, be a part of the circle. When somebody asks you a question, don’t shut down. Answer and share your viewpoint. Maybe it’s as simple as that.

Often, in group situations where there are people of different races and the topic of discussion is social injustices, the light on a conversation goes dim when a person of color opens up and becomes passionate (some would say excitable) or vulnerable in sharing their truth. It seems to scare the White individuals. I’ve heard them excuse it by saying, “I don’t like to talk in these situations. I like to listen and learn and take it all in”—whatever they think will get them off the hook for sharing their feelings in turn. It’s maddening.

So what can you do? What any good facilitator would do: Probe, try to get them to respond. When the conversation opens up in real time, the real learning can occur. People walk away realizing, “Hey, that wasn’t so bad.” They realize that maybe the reason they thought it would be bad is part of a problem.

This vital discussion continues in “Race and healing: Expanding the conversation, Part 2.”

S. Kent Butler, PhD, is president-elect of the American Counseling Association and the interim chief of equity, inclusion, and diversity officer at the University of Central Florida.

Gail Parker, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, president of the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance, and author of “Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma.”

Monnica Williams, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa, Canada research chair for mental health disparities, and coauthor of “Eliminating Race-Based Mental Health Disparities.”

Zachary Taylor, MA, LPC, NCC, is the director of Psychotherapy Networker.

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