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.
Delving into Uncomfortable Truths
Phil, a 44-year-old Caucasian man married to a professional black woman, sought me out for treatment because he’d started to recognize some negative thoughts about his 12-year-old son’s interracial background, and was feeling distant from him as a result. This was a difficult topic for Phil to share because of the pain he evidently felt.
“You seem really distressed about these thoughts. It sounds as though you’re surprised to have them.” He just nodded. “You know, Phil, living in America, none of us escapes having some negative, race-based beliefs,” I said. “I get the sense that something specific happened to motivate you to schedule this appointment. Are you ready to tell me about it?”
Having encouraged a conversation about race, emphasizing empathy and validating the reality of race issues, I moved on to explore the specifics of the distressing race-based experience that had brought him into therapy. Phil told me of a recent incident in which he’d decided to surprise his 12-year-old and pick him up from school after basketball practice. As Phil walked from his car toward the school, he saw a group of adolescent African American males walking down the street, talking and laughing. Phil found himself thinking of the boys as “hoodlums” and “thugs,” and even thought of crossing the street, before recognizing his son in “the pack.” He looked up at me with shame, saying, “There’s a black man living in my house, and he’s my son.” He wondered when he’d stopped looking at his son adoringly and protectively, and started looking at him as “other than.”
We were ready then for the next step, bridging from the race-defined experience to more universal experiences. This incident had damaged Phil’s self-image as a decent human being and loving father, and had alienated him from his son. The goal of therapy became to help Phil see this young man as his son again, not just as a black man-child; to help Phil to reconnect with his role as a father; and to take the conversation from the narrow focus of race to a broader view of our shared humanity.
I asked him to tell me more about his son: “Tell me about his birth, and what you felt when you held him for the first time.” I then asked Phil about his most cherished memory of his son to help rekindle paternal feelings of connection and protectiveness. This process helped him reconnect with his sense of decency and humanity within the realities of race relations in America.
Cathy, a 50-year-old Caucasian woman, entered therapy complaining of depression. She’d had a significant, but not debilitating, injury at work. During her recovery, her mother had been very supportive; however, when Cathy’s African American sister-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer soon after Cathy’s injury, her mother was noticeably unsupportive of the sister-in-law. Cathy had always been uncomfortable with the fact that her mother favored her over her sister-in-law. The current circumstances served to highlight this privileged status. Cathy tried to compensate for her mother’s neglect, and she pleaded with her mother to change her ways. As these attempts failed, guilt and depression began to set in.
I began treatment with Cathy by focusing on everything except race. We discussed her depression and codependent tendencies. I worked to help her develop distress-tolerance skills, assertive communication, you name it. She’d listen patiently, and then bring the focus back to her greatest concerns: her racist mother, her sense of privilege resulting from her mother’s racism, and her guilt about that.
Cathy had come to therapy seeking a conversation about race. She was forthright in speaking about her distressing experiences. I was the one who resisted, and, as with so many in the profession, I resisted out of discomfort; however, my discomfort was related to fatigue and overexposure, rather than lack of experience in dealing with race matters.
After the second time that Cathy refocused me on the family race issues that so distressed her, I began to question myself. Why did my client have to remind me of the focus of treatment? Then it dawned on me. I was tired of dealing with race—from banal transgressions to overt acts of racism—on a daily basis. Out of my fatigue, I’d been trying to create a place where race couldn’t intrude, but Cathy wasn’t having any of that. So rather than retreat from the pain, I leaned in to it once again.
Since Cathy was ready and willing to talk openly about race, we moved quickly to the third step, broadening the therapy scope from her mother’s racism to Cathy’s sense of loss in that relationship: “What’s it like to see your mother in this light?” “What has recognizing your mother’s racism meant in your relationship with her?” Cathy began to tear up as she talked about her changed image of her mother, and the sadness that resulted.
The therapy process then transitioned seamlessly to the fourth and final step. We explored her lost hope that her mother would change and the different type of relationship that would need to develop, which would have to encompass understanding and tolerance of the reality of family racism. The focus of therapy had progressed from changing her mother’s racist actions to accepting her mother’s limitations and grieving the loss. As with Sandra and Phil, race was a vehicle that helped Cathy confront timeless issues of connectedness, compassion for self and others, and the limits inherent in all relationships. This also got at the root of her depression about her mother’s limitations.
The approach outlined here validates the difficult aspects of race relations, the reality of racism for all of us, and the often difficult feelings and painful self-discovery associated with race issues. It allows us to begin challenging the taboo of race, along with the judgment and shame that our society has ascribed to race issues. Working through this process, I see clients shift from shame and anger to greater self-acceptance, from the perspective of us versus them to a potentially broader perspective of just us—humankind.
Shari Kirkland, PhD, a licensed psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area, is coauthor of Red Hot Relationships and Cooling Red Hot Relationships, and a frequent guest on KCBS radio.