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 antiracist 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 panel discussion—"Starting the Conversation" and "Moving toward healing"—six clinicians of color speak candidly with a white therapist about breaking this silence. The panelists reflect on, advise, and sometimes debate: 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?
We invite you sit in on this frank discussion among colleagues as they share their thoughts on talking forthrightly about race—in and out of the therapy office—and what’s wanted and needed from white allies as the nation pushes forward with this necessary work.
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Starting the Conversation
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 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 everyperson 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 relationship. By choosing 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 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 is 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 for 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.
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Moving Toward Healing
Lambers: After the killing of George Floyd, which affected me and my family deeply, I’ve been trying to stay boundaried-up, so I can be truly present for my clients who are wrestling with it too. Many of them are trying to figure out: How should I feel my grief? How should I feel my anger? How can I express it at home, at work?
I have other clients who are just now thinking about racism in this country for the first time. And I have to be just as present for them, without judgment. My challenge is to stay true to who I am as a Black man while helping them come to their own conclusions about what their role in this conversation should be. It’s a juggling act of emotions and professional obligations, and I’m glad that I get a chance to do it.
One client recently discovered that beneath her attempt to maintain a positive view of everyone was a harmful assumption: that bad things only happen to bad people. So every time she’d heard about police shooting a Black man, her mental picture had been of a violent and aggressive victim. Witnessing the death of George Floyd challenged this assumption and caused her to reflect on some past comments she’d made dismissing police brutality as an unfortunate overreaction or misunderstanding. Although admittedly unnerved by her previous lack of awareness, I admired her willingness to question her own beliefs, which I told her.
Amber: In my graduate program, they didn’t talk about how to wrestle with co-occurring, collective trauma. But with COVID-19 and then George Floyd’s killing, and so many others, that’s what’s been happening. As a Black clinician, I’ve been giving myself permission to recognize what I need to heal—that’s how I’m making sure I can still meet the needs of my clients. I make it a priority to be in nature every day. I’ve started a small victory garden, bought bikes to ride with my family, and I walk the dog around the block between sessions. I’m no longer apologizing for creating that kind of space in my life. In fact, an art therapist and I have started a weekly group for women of African descent to help process our communal trauma. It’s our own journey to learn to anchor our inner parts, rather than demanding someone else sooth them for us.
Deran: I don’t think you can hold compassion for someone else in a time like this until you’re able to do that for yourself. And I believe that starts with accepting every part of who you are: your experiences, your privileges, your ability to tune in or tune out to certain things. That goes for everyone. As a Black woman, I’m deeply tuned in right now, and I believe that’s a privilege.
Lambers: I’m hoping this type of conversation about race isn’t just a fad. This could easily be, “You remember that time in 2020? Yeah, it got real serious, but things went back to normal.” We don’t want things to go back to a “normal.” Let this be the spark that increases understanding, reduces ignorance.
As a mental health professional, your willingness to not only allow but encourage discussion could result in any number of small but significant changes, like helping a parent facilitate healthier cultural conversations around a dinner table, or a teacher to have healthier cultural awareness for students. If your client is a politician or law enforcement officer, the impact you make could be even more immediate.
Amber: But the conversation has to start with white therapists asking themselves some questions. What are your implicit beliefs about Black people seeking therapy? What are the sensations that come up for you with a nonwhite client? What are your fears around being their therapist? What does it look like to develop a healthy white identity and culture?
Zach: Robin DiAngelo claims in White Fragility that a lot of white progressives are doing damage to people of color by letting a sense of defensiveness stand in their way of recognizing their implicit biases, even as they call themselves antiracists. I’ve got to tell you, as a white progressive, I’d never thought about that being true until a few weeks ago.
Lambers: For a lot of people, the challenge of that exploration is the fear of its implications. Owning the fact that you have biases, or a skewed perspective—everyone does—does not make you a bad person. The goal of the exploration is not to feel horrible about yourself, but to recognize how you can have an impact on someone that you didn’t intend to.
It’s like what you might hope for in couples therapy, when one partner says, “What you said hurt me,” and you see a lightbulb go on for the other partner. That lightbulb may not take away the pain, but it’s a genuine step toward healing. The next step is, “Now, are you going to take the time to learn how I need to be loved? How I need to be treated? How to not hurt me?”
Deran: This concept of good and bad people is deeply rooted in shame. I can hear a lot of those internal messages within myself: “I’m a good person. It doesn’t matter what someone says about me, because I’m a good person.” But rather than stay stuck in “good” and “bad,” it’s more helpful to reflect on my relationships. We all have an impact on each other. We’re all mistake makers, and there’s no shame in that. If I can hold compassion for myself, knowing I’m not always going to get it right, then I can commit to being in relationship with others who are like me and not like me.
I had a harsh childhood, and sometimes my inner critic can get really loud and forceful about protecting me from being hurt by “bad” people or coming across as a “bad” person myself. As a natural caretaker and bleeding-heart social worker, it’s easy to help others with self-compassion, but I’ve had to work hard to give that to myself. It gets tricky when I catch myself making a judgement about someone else based on something they did or said, especially on social media, where I spend so much time. In those cases, I try to do what we call a “U-turn” in Internal Family Systems, coming back to myself.
That means asking the parts of me that are annoyed or angry or resentful what they’re protecting me from. Typically, if I dig deep enough, it’s feelings of shame and unworthiness. Then I give those younger, vulnerable parts of me some nurturing and care. So as a therapist, a friend, even as a single parent with big career dreams, the work is to say, “I’m a mistake maker, and I’m going to show up fully present in who I am today.” There are systems of racism and patriarchy all around us, but doing this inner work allows me to bring my full self to fighting against them.
Amber: There are parts of me that are people pleasers and fear making mistakes, too. So it’s easy for me to see the fear in white culture of saying the wrong thing in discussions about race. But it’s kind of like when you first started practicing as a therapist: there was always that fear of making a mistake with any client, getting it wrong. We all had to learn how to sit with that, how to have the confidence in yourself that you can learn from the mistakes, how to recognize what’s going on internally.
Deran: Given the Black experience in this country from the beginning, one of my own biases to work through now is the belief that white people don’t care. In my family, for generations, they’ve carried that burden and believed, “It’s on us. We’re going to have to take care of ourselves.” After all, white-supremacy culture is a part of every system: education, healthcare, police. It’s deeply rooted in the mental health world, too.
A big part of the marginalized experience in this society is being silenced. So my healing began when I started using my voice and being really honest about my experiences, especially about the microaggressions and discrimination I’ve experienced as a mental health professional. Because I thought there were only compassionate, empathetic people in this field, I tried to tell myself all through graduate school that it was all in my head and that I was just too “sensitive.” But some of the comments students and staff made around social justice, welfare, and national policies were truly appalling and hurtful.
The pain of remaining silent continued into my career. As a therapist in the military, which predominantly comprises white men, I felt excluded and isolated to the point that I experienced a deep bought of depression after only a few years. It forced me to consider how race-based stress might be impacting my well-being—and my son’s. Would I be passing that legacy burden of silent depression in the Black community on to him?
After retiring from the military, I started Black Therapists Rock, a nonprofit to advocate for healing, increased resources, and awareness around race-based stress and generational trauma. Listening to other people talk about painful experiences that were similar to mine allowed me to understand it as trauma versus a failure to thrive on my part. I was able to identify negative racialized messages as coming from an external source—society.
This process has given me a legacy gift to share with my son: helping him talk to me about ways that racism has hurt him. We normalize it as a painful yet external challenge. I share affirmations and stories of our ancestors that help us feel proud and confident. I talk about the connection between oppression and privilege, and how important it is to be anti-oppressive when we meet others who seem different from us.
Lambers: Helping people of color give voice to their experiences—without minimizing them, without pathologizing them—is one of the things therapists can do for their clients. So if a Black client tells you in a session they were passed over for a job because of race, don’t immediately say, “Oh, maybe they were just looking for someone with different qualifications.” No, validate that feeling. Give it some time, consider it.
Maybe someone in an interracial marriage feels their partner’s family doesn’t really accept them. Don’t immediately counter with, “Well, did they actually say anything? Did they yell at you? Did they call you a name? Is it possible you’re overreacting?” You might say it in a soothing, positive tone, but it’s still invalidating someone’s experience because it doesn’t fit with your own.
Hopefully, more therapists will start to pause and say, “Maybe this is more common than I thought.” It doesn’t mean you don’t play a professional role in the room or have a valuable perspective to offer; it just means you know enough to own what you don’t know.
Amber: Owning what you don’t know means asking questions like, “What is that like for you?” “What’s it like for you to be in an interracial relationship?” “Teach me about how you identify. As a black woman? A multiracial woman? A person of color? Do you identify as Dominican?” Black people aren’t monolithic. Be a student of the client’s life experiences.
Zach: I know there’s no manual for this, but how do I send the message to my Black and Brown clients that I want to listen to their experiences of racism? My feeling is that they might still feel uncomfortable talking with me about them.
Deran: Brené Brown recently said in a meeting, “Now’s not the time for white people to be comfortable or quiet.” And I was like, “Amen, sister!” So maybe it’s important to ask yourself why you may be feeling uncomfortable. What is it that might stop you from saying something to a Black client like, “I’m feeling some energy in the room that it might be uncomfortable for you to really deeply talk to me about certain things. What do you think?” You can share that experience. It’s not on them, it’s not on you. Let’s do this together. That’s my perspective, anyway.
Amber: Sure. But since it’s kind of a trend now to ask about the Black experience, I think it’s important to look at what you’re asking and why. Recently, a group of therapists asked me to be a part of their podcast. I believe they’re well-meaning therapists who just wanted to hear from a Black woman, but the way they asked me made it feel like they were fetishizing my pain. Here’s what they wrote: “We’ve been reading and watching news related to George Floyd’s murder and the killing of other Black citizens, and it led us to think we’d like to have a panel of Black African women talk about what it’s like to constantly fear for the lives of their sons, males, partners of color, and themselves from police violence.”
There’s nothing about healing in that statement. They just wanted me to share my trauma. They weren’t seeing me as a professional and then asking me to give of my time freely. It felt like they were fetishizing the pain by assuming I live my life in constant fear.
Lambers: Some therapists might be frustrated with this conversation. I can imagine them saying, “Fine, I get it in theory, but when I have my very next counseling session, what do I actually say? How do I broach the topic of recent events, of racial stress in general, without making it seem like I’m assuming I know how they feel? If I say, ‘I imagine you’re feeling pretty bad,’ is that going too far? If I say, ‘So how’s it been since the last time we met?’ is that not going far enough?”
Everybody’s trying to find their own voice, and it’s not like there’s a script to follow. But I might advise trying something like, “Hey, Amber, we’ve been hearing a lot of things on the news. I’m not sure how that’s affecting you, if at all. Is that something you’d like to talk about?”
It’s not saying, “Be my educator, be my professor.” It’s not saying, “Be completely vulnerable.” It’s an open-ended question. If they respond with, “You know what? I got other things going on that I’d like your help with,” at least they know they can come back to it. You’re giving them an invitation with some type of soft acknowledgement, and you’re not pushing your agenda on them. Just having you lob it out there could be a very pleasant surprise. It could be therapeutically beneficial for both of you.
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S. Kent Butler, PhD, is president-elect of the American Counseling Association and the interim chief of equity, inclusion, and diversity officer at University of Central Florida.
Monnica Williams, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa, the Canada research chair for mental health disparities, and the coauthor of Eliminating Race-Based Mental Health Disparities.
Gail Parker, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, president of the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance, and the author of Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma.
Lambers Fisher, MS, LMFT, MDIV, is a marriage and family therapist specializing in multicultural counseling in private practice, nonprofit, and ministry environments.
Amber Flynn, MA, LCPC, NCC, is in private practice and specializes in race-based trauma, behavior analysis, and Internal Family Systems.
Deran Young, LCSW, is the founder of Black Therapists Rock and works with Brené Brown, training on the topic of diversity, inclusion, and equality.
Zachary Taylor, MA, LPC, NCC, is the director of continuing education at Psychotherapy Networker.
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Illustration © ILLUSTRATIONSOURCE / JANUSZ KAPUSTA