I have withheld providing any significant comment as to the recent uprising in response to the brutal murder of George Floyd because I wanted to ensure that I use my voice respectfully, empathically, and in a manner that is impactful as possible as to hopefully spark reflection in other white therapists*.
I write from the perspective of a teacher and supervisor to fellow white clinicians. In my years as a therapist to date, I have had the privilege of being entrusted with the stories of many BIPOC people. I use the word ‘privilege’ intentionally. As a white therapist, it must be recognized that when BIPOC people share their stories it is an act of great risk and vulnerability. The moment a BIPOC person shares their experience with a white person, they are opening themselves up to the potential of having their experience invalidated, grossly misunderstood, and potentially denied. They are opening themselves up to the potential of being retraumatized, by rendering themselves vulnerable to an individual(s) who holds the position of the oppressor.
You may say that you are not someone who actively oppresses BIPOC people. I hear you. However, whether or not you are someone who actively oppresses BIPOC people, doesn’t matter, because as a white person you hold inherent privilege, and this is active oppression. I hear you say that that you’ve struggled too, and that consequently you are not privileged. I am not saying you haven’t struggled. I am not saying that you haven’t experienced pain. I am not saying that you haven’t experienced trauma. I am saying that the colour of your skin is not something that has led you to experience further trauma. I am saying that the colour of your skin is not something that has led to an obliteration of your personhood. I am saying that the colour of your skin has not provided a false sense of justification for your dehumanization and humiliation.
I am saying that as a white person, you get the privilege of existing in skin that keeps you safe from the assault of overt and covert racism. Your skin protects you from being subjected to the violence of assumptions and stereotypes, based solely on its colour. In this way, as a white person, you get the privilege of walking through the world with a relative sense of safety and with no need to assume a defended position on the basis of the colour of your skin. For you, the world is a place that you are inherently trusted. For you, the world is a place that you are inherently respected. For you, the world is a place that your dignity is preserved and protected.
As white therapists, we have a responsibility to actively recognize our privilege. We must name it and bring it to the forefront of all of our therapeutic conversations with the people we serve, but especially when we work with BIPOC people. A therapeutic relationship holds an inherent power differential, even if the relationship is informed by egalitarian principles. No matter what, the therapist is granted more power than the client. When the relationship is between a white therapist and a BIPOC person, the power differential is further heightened. Therefore, white therapists must be willing to open conversations about this, to provide a space to explore what it is like for the BIPOC person to lay themselves emotionally bare with a person who occupies the position of the oppressor. As white therapists, we must make pointed effort to understand the profound impact of racial trauma. We must make pointed effort to understand what it is like to exist in a world that is not on your side- that is actively against you, is suspect of you, and actively dehumanizes you.
As white therapists, we must assume the position of student rather than expert. We must allow our BIPOC clients to teach us. We must recognize that we will NEVER know what it is like to live in Black skin and remember that to assume the experience of BIPOC person is an active act of violence and oppression. As white therapists, we must commit to making active efforts toward empathy and compassion (while recognizing the limits of this as well). We must strive to foster safety for our BIPOC clients by validating their experiences of systemic oppression and discrimination. We must not explain the struggle of BIPOC people with the “lack of effort” narrative. We must strive to understand the psychological impact of living in a world that actively dehumanizes you. We must understand that the experience of dehumanization has a deep-seated impact on one’s understanding and relationship to themselves and others. We must therefore hold space for feelings of profound rage, fear exhibited through defensiveness (which is really an effort to keep one’s sense of safety intact) and deep sadness.
White therapists. White people. ENOUGH. DO BETTER. THERE IS NO EXCUSE.