To Our White Colleagues: Reckoning with Being the Problem*
Craig Haen, PhD, RDT, CGP, LCAT, FAGPA
Phillip Horner, MSW, LCSW, CGP
As group therapists, we assume that, like us, you come to this work valuing the importance of dialogue across lines of misunderstanding and difference of perspective. And yet, something still happens when we try to talk about race. We have seen it play out on the AGPA listserv and occur in our conference workshops. The dialogue reaches impasses with what seem like no conceivable resolution. The truth is, we all feel helpless in the face of the enormity of racial misunderstanding, and often, we white people don’t know how to respond. We push back, we theorize, we interpret, or we become silent and distance ourselves—often for fear of saying the wrong thing, feeling shame or guilt, or being perceived as racist. But perhaps we can better navigate those moments if we view ourselves not as the solution but, in fact, the problem.
Do not be fooled: Reading this short article will not be enough to understand the depth of racism or suggest the perfect steps for you to be an antiracist group therapist. You will not find everything you need to understand equity and inclusion or how to talk about race skillfully. As two white middle-class men, we have experienced firsthand how deeply ingrained racism is in all of us. Reading this may lead to feelings of shame, guilt, anger, and a further desire to pull away. We have found that giving in to the impulse to pull away usually perpetuates the problem. We can no more run from our whiteness than we can pull off our own skin.
We come to you with humility. This article doesn’t talk directly about group therapy or how to practice differently; it’s about something more fundamental. In writing this, we do not think that we have cracked the code, or that we are card-carrying members of some club of wokeness. We are in the soup with you, still messing up and still learning, knowing we have caused pain to others through our actions or lack thereof. We persistently attempt to mitigate that going forward. With that said, we do hope this article will invite us all to examine how whiteness is impacting our interactions and how even the smallest comments or empathic misses can greatly harm our colleagues who identify as Black, Ingenious, and People of Color (BIPOC). We hope that this article can be a beginning, a place to start, a reckoning with being a problem.
Seeing the Playing Field
Imagination and empathy are powerful tools in our practice as therapists, and they have aided us in being with the pain of others. But the experiential gap between white people’s experience—regardless of how much adversity you’ve faced in your life or who you’ve surrounded yourself with—and that of BIPOC is too great to expect anyone to fully grasp what it’s like to navigate a world not designed for you. White people move through spaces and settings where the unspoken rules of conduct and mode of being are geared to us as a default setting.
Even our history was taught in a way that spotlighted white exceptionalism by reframing some events of violence and oppression to show white people as heroic, while ignoring or eradicating others. As just one example, consider the revised narrative of what happened in Wilmington, North Carolina when the government was overthrown in 1898. The true story of this important moment in American history wasn’t taught to us. Racism is not a measurement of just our actions, it is sustained by policies (i.e., Jim Crow), old beliefs, and altered history that frames white people in a prejudicially positive light. Because we haven’t been taught to understand, we have to start with the ground we know.
Step 1: Recognize the Racist within Yourself and Others with Compassion
As therapists who have dedicated our lives to helping others, we can easily settle into thinking of ourselves as “good white people,” as “not racist,” as exceptions. Ibram Kendi is one of many prominent scholars who points out that the opposite of racist isn’t “not racist,” a defensive splitting that preserves one’s sense of goodness, but antiracist, which requires action and ongoing self-reflection. However, it’s not possible to be antiracist without grappling with the racist within—that part shaped by years of subtle messages about our own endowment. The expression of this part, no matter how committed we are to equality, is inevitable. It forcefully grabs the wheel at times and emerges in ways that take us by surprise. When it does, especially when pointed out by BIPOC, we tend to get ashamed and withdraw or vociferously deny what emerged. This shame is stultifying, activating our deepest insecurities and most powerful defenses so our efforts get marshalled toward self-preservation rather than hearing the other person. We want to assure ourselves and others that we are good.
In fact, feeling shame is an indicator that we are “good.” But operating from an instinctual drive to restore emotional equilibrium doesn’t allow us to hang in with, and be curious about, the ways in which we have just been co-opted by our internalized racist, nor to understand the conditions that led to its emergence. Keep looking inward with curiosity and compassion; stay with the shame through its natural rise and fall; stay with being a problem. Taking action (to self-examine, to change, to repair), despite the powerful desire not to, is part of being antiracist.
Our BIPOC colleagues have spent their lifetimes, by necessity and for survival, learning about their racial identity and ours. But most of us who are white haven’t lived in a world that requires the same of us. It’s not our fault that we haven’t been given the tools for doing this, but it is our fault if we continue to stay in the dark.
Step 2: Work to Understand Whiteness
Looking at race, for most of us, is akin to staring at the sun. It is painful, disorienting, and threatens to burn our eyes, so we don’t often talk about what it means to be white, which is an unfortunate gap in our own development. We have missed out on opportunities to talk to others about our race, particularly other white people. Our BIPOC colleagues cannot be expected to continuously bear the burden of our fears and fumbling attempts to get it. It is not their duty to teach us how to be antiracist, and our expectation that they do so can in itself be oppressive. But we can talk within our own racial affinity groups. How do our white friends, family members, and colleagues experience their whiteness? How do they reconcile with being a problem? We can also invite conversations with white patients about how they understand themselves along dimensions of race. We tend to engage in this exploration with BIPOC patients, yet often don’t facilitate the same examination with our white patients or groups.
In spite of our rudimentary understanding of ourselves as racialized beings, people of color still sometimes patiently volunteer to try to educate us: about how our words and actions or inaction have hurt them. When they do, listen to them. Racism is centered on diminishing the humanity and doubting the internal experience of people with different racial identities. Questions like “Is that really what happened?” and “Are you sure that was about race?” can intensify the injury. Challenging the reality of events we haven’t been taught to see reinforces silence, isolation, and the authority of our white perspective in a way that perpetuates racial trauma.
Hearing the authority of BIPOC encounters with white dominance is not merely a means to appreciate the other, but more importantly a way to better understand ourselves. Such self-examination doesn’t happen through theories and analysis, but through tolerating dissonance and vulnerability. Try to listen to what’s being offered not as an indictment or misunderstanding of who you are, but as though you’re being seen fully for the first time. It is only through understanding the unexamined parts of us that we can be whole and, perhaps, arrive at a place of genuine contentment in our whiteness that is not predicated upon subjugating others.
Step 3: Clean Up our Own House
“How can I help?” is a question that we often end up asking our BIPOC colleagues out of earnest desire to be supportive. But the question threatens to place us in a savior role, as someone who can uplift our colleagues and solve their problems for them. A more effective way to help is to begin to reckon with our own racial group. We middle and upper class white people have a history of projecting the racist within ourselves onto “those people over there,” usually poorer, less educated white people. In this classic scapegoating dynamic, we seek to rid ourselves of intolerable feelings and beliefs, seeing them as belonging to someone else. In divesting responsibility for these parts of ourselves, we leave the racist actions of others untouched, consigning BIPOC to do the work of responding.
If we can hold the racist within compassionately, we might also extend that compassionate understanding to other white people when those parts of them emerge. We can connect rather than distance ourselves, excuse, or look away from our white colleagues in their own attempts to see themselves. We can both name something as racist and invite a slowing-down that allows for empathic dialogue. In cleaning up our own house, we have a primary role in taking responsibility for the expression of racist actions and beliefs in our white professional spaces and investing in changing policies and practices in AGPA that allow for the exclusion and oppression of BIPOC members. In addition to addressing whiteness within our professional organization, if anyone has a role in having conversations with white supremacists and overt racists, it is us.
Step 4: Never Stop
For us to change, we can never stop doing our own work. Never stop pushing back on your gut instinct to be defensive when approached; listen more to what people say; read more about white privilege and systemic racism; talk with other white allies; and hold tightly to the idea that racism is so ingrained in white people’s experiences that it's impossible for us to be above it.
Processes of unlearning racism are never ending, and we know we are still in the midst of deconstructing our own racist within and how it impacts those we care about, including our clients. Although our paths have been different, we both know we still perpetuate white dominance, and because of this, we discuss and work on it with other white people. Sometimes this is done through affinity groups, other times through mutual relationships of reflection and joining. We know that, despite our best efforts, we still mess up. It’s inevitable. We are fairly sure neither of us will ever get this “perfectly,” but we will keep trying. We hope that many of you will join us, not just because antiracism helps others, but also because it can deepen one’s own sense of what it means to be human.
*We acknowledge the many BIPOC scholars whose writing has shaped our own understanding, including Janet Helms, George Yancy, Kenneth Hardy, Ibram Kendi, James Baldwin, and especially Mary McRae, whose recent listserv post urged white group therapists to engage in dialogue with each other and explore the “Amy Cooper and the White officer with the knee on the Black man’s neck” in ourselves.
Click here to return to the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Guides & Resources page.
View the Task Force's full list of resources on anti-racism and social justice here.