On Psychotherapy and Whiteness…

Martha Crawford (MC): Since the death of Trayvon Martin, and again last summer when the Ferguson protests began, and with the devastating Eric Garner case and the protests and demonstrations that have followed in its wake, I began noticing that I have become comfortable (or complacent?) in my role as a respectful listener and a grateful learner when a black client, friend, or acquaintance is trusting or generous enough to share his or her complex thoughts and feelings with me. In racially mixed settings, I also generally feel comfortable supporting and amplifying the voices of people of color. Maybe because I am a reluctant leader anyway. Maybe because, as clinical social worker, I’ve been trained to hold still and offer support. Maybe because I am aware of the ways I could inadvertently shut the conversation down or damage fragile trust with a thoughtless word or error. Maybe I hold still because I am cowardly and fearful of making a mistake. But most likely a combination of all of these.

But the places I feel most self-conscious, most “not right with myself,” and most disoriented is in dialogue with other white people: white clients, friends, and extended family. Whether heated confrontations; indulgent “patience”; righteous tongue-clicking, back-patting, or colluding avoidance—no position, no conversation, and no silence feels right.

So I decided to use this column to talk with a white friend and colleague, Jason Evan Mihalko, PsyD, a clinical psychologist (and author of the blog The Irreverent Psychologist) about how we, as clinicians, talk about these issues in our offices, on social media, and in our lives. Maybe there are few white readers out there, like Jason and me, who could always use another opportunity to check and challenge ourselves—to do whatever work we can do on our own—to examine our participation in oppressive systems.

Jason Evan Milhalko (JEM): Yes. I’m also thinking about how we are two white psychotherapists talking about these issues. It’s making me think about how rare it is that I hear the voices of psychotherapists who are people of color. Their voices, I find, are often hidden within a special “diversity” class or locked away in a department of African Studies. I get frustrated when diversity and multi-cultural practice is something that is limited to a special class or special circumstances. We aren’t often taught to look at all of our interactions and work through this lens. What worries me most of all is that many portions of my training taught me that race—and diversity as a larger topic—is something I’m only supposed to be thinking about if my client is a person of color. I had to learn on my own that race, racism, and diversity in general is something I need to be thinking about and talking about with all of my patients.

I think this is my work as a white man and a white psychologist. I have to do the work to understand racism, whether it is my own or institutional racism that is enacted by the systems within which I am embedded.

My very first semester at Antioch, I took a class called “Dialogue and Difference” taught by Susan Hawes, who would eventually be my dissertation chair. It was one of my more profound experiences in graduate school. We spent a lot of time talking about how conversation, as it is usually thought of, is trying to convince someone to believe something other than what they already think. If I remember correctly, Susan traced the root of conversation down to percuss—to beat someone over the head with our ideas. So I’m not down with the idea in conversation like that. But dialogue, well that’s another story. I love that.

MC: And then there is silence. Sometimes silence is collusion. Sometimes it is active support that allows other voices to be heard.

JEM: And sometimes silence is protection.

MC: Yes. I’m noticing the wish to be silent right now. It can be frightening, exposing to have this public dialogue. What will I miss? What mistakes will I make? Who might I hurt or anger? What might I learn about myself and others? And even though the information can move us further down the path of liberation – these can be painful lessons.

There are many ways in which professional psychologists and clinical social workers and the practice of psychotherapy can collude with systemic racism. But I believe that psychotherapy can also be a radical form of empathy and a liberating force.

JEM: Yes. I totally agree. I’m scared too. I think there is a tension in psychotherapy, and especially clinical psychology (which I know best) between pressures of identifying the status quo (normal behavior) with seeking liberation. I experience this tension daily in my practice between trying to find way to help people conform to what they consider normal behavior (defined as behavior not representative as categories of psychiatric illness) and seeking liberation from punishing standards of “normal” behavior, which are often rooted in racism, sexism, homonegativity, abelism, ageism, etc.

Just yesterday I was talking with someone and reframing psychiatric symptoms (in this case anxiety) as representative of normal responses to trauma. The trauma in this case was the experience of racist actions. The panic attacks suddenly became something much different when conceptualized as physical manifestations of the re-experiencing of racial violence.

MC:There are also, it seems to me, psychological realities that are omitted from social justice conversations—for example: a real psychological understanding of the implicit bias research and its implications, which requires that we recognize that one of the effects and causes of systemic racism and anti-blackness are powerful and very real unconscious forces which inform and contaminate our snap-judgments, gut instincts, hunches, etc., impacting employment, policing, institutional access across the board, and which can have very violent external manifestations.

Understanding implicit bias requires an acceptance of the fact that we are largely unconscious beings—that there are and will always be impulses, fears, distortions, and prejudices, codes that have been uploaded by our culture, that exist in our machine, that we can’t completely eradicate, ever, and that we cannot experience consciously . This unconscious racist programming influences our choices and behaviors—the assumptions and expectations we have of others. En mass, these internalized biases become gatekeepers for our institutions and, collectively, our unconscious —implicit bias ends up crafting social policy.

JEM: I find some therapists and patients have trouble responding and grappling with the unconscious. I like how you are also mixing in her cognitive behavioral imagery — codes. Many folks who don’t prefer imagery of the unconscious can get traction thinking about this when they think about computer codes that are running invisibly in the background.

I always thought I was supposed to acknowledge I am racist and sexist and homonegative and abelist and…. How could I not be? I’m a product of this society at this point in history. I feel powerful when I can own these things, name them, and work toward being more than what my limited society offers me.

MC:Yes, this is the work of a lifetime—it’s not a process that can ever be completed. That being said, you and I also both know that 1) some unconscious content can be surfaced and made more conscious and 2) that once made conscious of implicit programming, we have a greater capacity to make choices and not be controlled, entirely, by our unconscious impulses.

And when clients dream—especially white clients—but not exclusively, for we all internalize these biases, you see the cultural coding emerge: a dream of being followed down a long street at night by a black man. A dream of being seduced by an Asian woman in a red dress. A dream of a black intruder breaking into the house. Consciously committed to anti-racism or not, we have all absorbed the racism that exists in our cultural myths (i.e., media) and stories. We drink distorted and objectifying stereotypes and project our own xenophobic fears on to any group we perceive as “Other,” and for white America, black Americans have become the symbol for all we are most fearful of in ourselves. It lives in all of us. We are psychologically steeped in it.

JEM: Yes. White America uses the other to project their own intolerable feelings of disgust and fear into the bodies and lives of whomever they feel are “other.” It allows white America to not own their own feelings. It is so destructive.

It now seems that many so-called progressive people are busy demonstrating how they are less racist than other people, or they are somehow more progressive (and thus better) and those “other” people. I find I have less and less time for this sort of sport because what gets hidden is the so-called progressives’ own implicit bias. None of us can exist outside of our bias-laden society.

MC:Individually, in the confines of my office—I have the opportunity to address these oppressive forces: when I can hold and validate the grief, fear, and anger of black clients and other clients of color who have chosen to work with me. They have needed space to mourn, to rage, to tremble for their children. I hope, and maybe even believe, that making sure that my office is safe for those experiences can allow people to rest momentarily and refuel before heading back out into the fray.

JEM: Shelter from the storm. And I imagine a white psychotherapist helping to create this shelter could be meaningful in ways that I can’t even begin to understand. I also know there are many things that I cannot ever understand or know about. Part of validating—part of helping construct this shelter—is knowing and naming that I cannot truly understand or know the experience of a person of color. I think of the ways in which my actions as a white psychologist hearing, attending, noticing, and opening discussions of racism and privilege might create some small amount of resilience and shelter for someone.

It doesn’t save the world, it doesn’t prevent violence, but I think this shelter can offer a profound and enduring validation that can become an internalized and fully owned part of self.

I also hope that in whatever small or large way, I can form a bridge and help people on their journey from here to there, wherever there might be.

MC:With clients of color, and with black clients in particular, at this historical crossroads, I can be receptive and respectful of the fact that there are parts of this experience that can never be contained, understood, or mirrored by a white therapist – and that there is a deep exhaustion at having to contend with this day in and day out—especially when white people around them, myself included, don’t “have to” contend with this unless we choose to. I’ve noticed more space for deeper breaths in my office when I name this explicitly.

This is a conversation that has been very active in my caseload since Trayvon Martin was killed—and part of my obligation is to respect that I benefit from a system that is terrorizing others. After Zimmerman walked, a client of mine had a dream about a sick black baby, near death, locked and forgotten in the back seat of an expensive white car. As the therapist, I am specifically called upon to care for that crying, sickened baby, yet I am also one who holds the keys and gets to drive in the front seat of the fancy white car.

JEM: I like this dream. I also like the idea of working to unlock the doors.

A patient of mine, a person of color, asked if it was okay they cancelled their appointment the night of a protest in Boston. They offered to pay my missed session fee. I told them I was proud of them for wanting to go, that their presence was important, and that I felt the world was a better place because this was happening. After I hung up the phone, I cried thinking about what it would have meant to have this person give me so much money so they could go to a protest, and what privilege was involved in that, and how awful it made me feel.

MC:Okay now, here is the confusing part.White clients: There are those that are actively engaged in processing their implicit bias and their participation in systemic privileges—who understand that this is ongoing work, the work of a lifetime, and is never done. We can engage in critical self-examination together.

And then, there are many people who have never once spoken about race in therapy—who are now suddenly talking about their response to Garner’s death, to the protests. Sometimes they are shaken, experiencing the first wave of the unfolding crisis of realizing that their experiences as white people are not universal for all Americans. Sometimes they are angry or complaining about the inconvenience of the protests or fearful of the up-swell of public passion and emotion.

And there are those who have made no mention of it, no reference to it at all.

I try to remember when I was much younger, fearful, confused and overwhelmed by the protests in Los Angeles that followed Rodney King’s beating, and all that I did not yet understand. I try to ask thoughtful questions that activate compassion and self-awareness in my clients. It is a narrow line to walk, to have empathy for the fear, or upset or avoidance —while still challenging it—and to face the unprocessed racism in my white clients as a reminder of my own, past and present.

JEM: I love the idea of being curious—shining the spotlight of my attention and curiosity on a particular topic. I try to do that when I see or experience something that seems like racism or unexamined privilege. I get super curious about what I hear, and wonder aloud why someone experiences or thinks something that they think, or share what I experience and think. My patients make fun of me because they always know when I’m moving in toward something, because I say “I wonder…”

MC:That is an extremely helpful idea and reminder for me. To approach with a sense of true curiosity—about the formative experiences and notions behind these beliefs. And to let my curiosity make them curious too—to let it begin to question, to challenge the premises underneath these reactions. Thanks for that.

JEM: I notice people are anxious and scared. I notice that white people don’t have a lot of resources and supports to safely talk about these anxieties and fears. I notice there aren’t a lot of supports of people to learn and share their experiences in a way that they (a) don’t hurt other people and (b) don’t get hurt by other people. I see people directing a lot of anger (understandable anger!) toward folks who are enacting their racism. I’m not so sure public shaming without the provision of tools is helpful. I think people need to also have access to tools to understand their experiences and how they have come to have racist thoughts and notions.

I think of it a bit like a coming out process. I spent significant resources of time and thought thinking about my sexuality. When I was a young teen and came out, I expected people to be where I was at, right away, and had little tolerance for people and their own process. It occurred to me that not everyone has spent so much time thinking about sexuality. I had to find ways to give people a break so they could have their own process—and had to find a way to keep myself safe.

I think about this a lot with racism. People of color have lived their whole life in a racist system and world. It is something they experience every day, with every action, in ways that I cannot even begin to understand. I think of folks who are just discovering racism—and are totally unprepared for the process they are about to experience. When white folks grow up embedded in racist institutions and racist communities, where have they developed a critical consciousness to explore these things? Where have they developed a community that can help them support their own process of growth and development?

Of course, I think white people are responsible for figuring this out for themselves. I think it’s my job to think about my racism in a place that protects people of color from being damaged by my own process.

MC:I am hearing a great deal about relationships damaged and friendships broken by the unconscious, unexamined and biased opinions or rigid identification of white privilege on social media.

I know that my own relationships with old friends and extended family members changed very dramatically when I became when I became a transracially adoptive parent—and I see many people having to reorganize their own boundaries and expectations about the previously latent racism that is showing up on their friends’ timelines.

I have clients who’ve had to block or unfriend family members for self-care.

Others have engaged in challenging conversations—which can be painful and result in loss.

And I’ve also heard of a handful of satisfying conversations where a Facebook friend is open to ideas that are new to them.

What are your thoughts about this?

JEM: I think we do the best we can. I think we all have to find what our limits are and make sure we aren’t exposed to ugliness that we cannot process, handle, or are currently lacking the resources to metabolize. I wish we had more tools to invite people back into fellowship and community with us after they’ve done their own work. There is so much polarized us/them conflict that I worry we will faction off into smaller and smaller communities and lose our connections to our larger society and world.

The other day on my Facebook page, I told someone I would not agree to disagree. I knew I’d end a relationship saying that. It was important for me to take a stand against throwing people away and creating a group of people who were voiceless.

A mentor of mine always talked about spending privilege and the choices about how we spend it. I hope I’m a big spender, that I make wise investments, and that I continue to find ways to offer it freely. As far as I can tell, the society around me and history behind me has given me a supply of privilege that cannot be exhausted. I’ve decided to make my life about spending it in the service of helping the hurt, lost, and forgotten stand on my shoulders so they make themselves be heard.

MC:Yes. We can spend privilege—but we can abuse it, and we must also consider how and when we can rescind it too. I practice martial arts and often have a practice weapon—usually a sword that I work with in the park adjacent to the federal courthouse near my home. I’ve had that privilege. Young white cops occasionally approach me—and I show them that my sword is plastic, foldable. They say how great it is that I do this at my age…

JEM: Ouch. A woman of your age.

MC:Yeah, no kidding—and they tell me to keep it up, that they wish their mothers would do something like this—and they walk on. When Darrien Hunt, a biracial black man, was killed for carrying a fake sword on the street, just exactly as I have done—I decided that it was an abuse of privilege and now I practice with a stick or with a imaginary sword. Does this change the world? Does this overturn centuries of systemic exploitation and oppression? Certainly not. But it undermines its hold on my own perceptions. And I am no longer unconsciously flaunting a privilege or modeling that it is okay to do so. When we can’t dismantle destructive systems, we can at least try not to reinforce them.

JEM: I think white people need to consider carefully how they spend their privilege. Sometimes it means letting someone stand on my shoulders so they can shout louder. Sometimes it means getting out of the way. Sometimes it means standing up and giving voice to those who cannot be heard or do not yet have the skills to be heard. Sometimes it means waiting quietly until someone is ready to listen.

Most of all, I think about who the audience is. If I’m in an all-white environment, then I’m more likely to be louder and more forceful in my ponderings and thought. If I am around people of color, I’m more likely to work toward figuring out how I can be supportive of the work they are doing.

Unless of course someone’s humanity is getting denied. Then I’m likely to get myself into trouble.

My first dissertation chair spent a lot of time thinking and researching about allies. She thought it was important allies had a space to talk about things outside of the view of the community that they were allies to. I think it’s important that white people have places to discuss our racism, our participation in racism, our unawareness of racism, and the ways in which we’ve benefited from a racist system.

I’ve heard from people who’ve tried to set up settings like this and have been attacked for being racist.

MC:I think this is what is daunting to so many white people—that there is no way to actually “do it right”—there is no way, no path, no action we can take that we can be assured will result in our feeling “good” or “right.” We fear failure, and the consequences to ourselves and others. And if there is anything that being a therapist has taught me, it is that failure is inevitable. There is not a single case I have treated in 20 years where I “did it right” and was perfectly attuned. I fumble, I flail, and I have to apologize and humble myself again and learn from it. I used to have a George Bernard Shaw quote on my wall that read: “You have just learned something, and that always feels at first, as though you have just lost something.”

JEM: What a great thought to end on. In confronting our own racism, and learning about it, we are going to lose something. What a scary and destabilizing process. I wonder what will happen when we cross that bridge, from here to there, and work to undo the racism and violence our world has created? I wonder what will grow in the empty space that contained all of our implicit biases and violent impulses?

~ Martha Crawford