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The New Face of Racism: Today, No One is Immune to the Effects of Discrimination

By Shari Kirkland

Q: More of my white clients are coming into treatment presenting with issues related to discrimination against them or their discomfort about racist feelings and actions within their own families. What do you suggest?

A: As an African American psychologist, I’m used to hearing about race matters from my clients of color; however, my Caucasian clients now seem to be facing race-based challenges of their own. These newer racial issues haven’t replaced the historical ones faced by people of color, but have taken their place beside them. Far from entering a postracial era in this country, ultraracial may be a more accurate term, reflecting the realities of interracial unions and multiracial offspring, international adoptions, and increasing immigration to the U.S.

That boundaries between groups have become more fluid means that whites are now struggling to deal with a decline in their privileged status, accommodate family members of other races, and confront their own racism. These changes occur in a therapeutic community that’s uncomfortable addressing race and fails to see how race issues fit into the larger picture. This avoidance is sometimes related to the belief that race issues are a “societal problem” beyond the realm of psychotherapy or the worry about saying something offensive or politically incorrect on the topic.

Having a clear model for addressing race issues, therefore, can free us up as therapists. I use a 4-step approach, the first of which is simply inviting a conversation about race. Next, I delve more deeply into any specific race-based experiences that have brought clients into my office, emphasizing empathy and refraining from anything that could be heard as judgmental. I make explicit the pain associated with race-based issues, whether one is on the receiving end or exhibiting one’s own racism. The third step is to broaden the scope of therapy from the race-defined experience to more universal problems. At the core of racial hurts are often more global struggles concerning connectedness, self-worth, image, or loss. In the fourth and final step, I begin to explore with clients how to cope with the distress caused by race-based comments or actions.

Validating the Experience of Racism

I first met Sandra, a 43-year-old Caucasian woman, in my Job Stress group. She worked as a nurse, and complained of “politics” on the job. She seemed hesitant to say more until David, a Latino mail carrier, began to talk about the discrimination in his workplace. Slowly, Sandra opened up about “favoritism” at work. I explored a bit, wondering if “politics” was her term for racial issues. “You said ‘favoritism.’ Can you say more?”

Sandra tentatively noted that she was the only white nurse in a department of largely Filipino nurses, uncertain if her implication of discrimination would be heard. I then took the first step—opening the door for a conversation about racism—saying, “Sandra, anybody can be discriminated against, even Caucasians.” I followed with, “It takes a lot of courage to talk about racism. I’m glad that you’re willing to take the risk here.” Next, I clarified what’s changed in recent years: “We’ve all had experiences of not being liked by others, but I get the sense that this is the first time that you’ve been disliked because of your race, and this has been hurtful for you.” After a few more empathic and validating statements, Sandra felt that she had the green light to talk in greater detail about her struggles with racism at work, and began to paint a fuller picture for all of us.

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