Racial Reconciliation: Do White Therapists Talk to their White Clients about Race?

When I first began writing this text, in the days following Charlottesville, I was in a different state of mind to where I am now. It is through a few relational transformative experiences and with the healing elements of time, I find myself more prepared and grounded to continue to complete whatever I have to offer. I cannot say that I have any less apprehension in publicly sharing this piece but I am more confident in knowing that this conversation will at least fall upon some friendly white ears.

Author Toni Morrison asserts in her discussions of race and identity that scholars have spent decades examining the question of how racism and white supremacy have affected people of color without fully exploring how these contexts have shaped the lives of white people. In a 1993 interview, Morrison stated that white supremacy and racism have as much of a, “deleterious effect on white people, and possibly equally as it does on black people.” In the shadow of Charlottesville, I have been sitting with this very notion. It reminds me that when I was in middle school, I often imagined how white people speak to each other when no people of color were around. When a news story about racial discrimination came on the television, what was said when I was not present?

Now being a clinical social worker, I take the question further by wondering: How do white clinicians and their white clients speak to each other about the social construct of race? How does the topic come up, if at all?  What might we learn regarding the effects of racism on white clinical social workers and their white clients?

Earlier in her comments, Toni Morrison added “…there is something distorted about the psyche… it’s a huge waste and a corruption and a distortion.  It’s like it’s a profound neurosis that no one examines it for what it is…it feels crazy..it is crazy…” Indeed, racism and white supremacy have also made white people “sick,” mostly without their own knowing.  This white racial socialization occurs as subliminally as family rules that are passed from one generation to the next. Of course, we are all aware of the overt messages of white racial supremacy—white men and white women chanting racial slurs while waving symbols of white domination, and the news of violent hate crimes being committed. However, the examples of white supremacy that need to be exposed are the implicit ones, such as housing and criminal justice policy, the achievement gap, job hiring patterns, and even seemingly hidden ones such as #AirBnBWhileBlack.

I venture to profess that most of our clients—black, white, brown or of any race—do not intentionally set out to harm others. Yet, with the unquestioned false belief of white meritocracy and the flawed idea of colorblindness, the cycle of racial oppression continues with some living fuller, safer lives than others. If I harm a dear friend, or a stranger, with my words, actions, or indifference, I hope those most trusted to me will choose to draw my attention to the harm I have caused.  How are we, as therapists, shielding white people from helping to undo the effects of racism?   From my view, white supremacy and privilege keep white people disconnected from helping to usher the Beloved Community that Dr. King dreamed about half a century ago. For them through the work of examining our social structures along the lines of race also lies opportunities for their own racial healing.

Being a clinician of color, the topic of race remains mostly inescapable during the course of my therapeutic relationships. Consequently, it is a raised by a passing comment or by some emotionally triggering racialized event that is the headline of the moment. When this occurs, the following moments within session are an opportunity to explore the queries of racial identity and the connection among varying cultures and ethnicities. Regardless of current headlines, for my clients of color, their intersecting identities and their faced discriminations both macro and micro weave in and out of our sessions. Together, we explore how the ongoing healing of their collective racial trauma is central to their holistic healing. For my white clients, their approach to the topic varies from feeling angry about where we are as a nation, feeling saddened and confused, or by making no mention of it. Some make it a point to say to me as a black clinician, that they are not racist. These reactions and non-reactions often leave me pondering; curious as to how I can assist us both in easing the harms of racial oppression and help to curb the frauds promulgated by privilege.

What is happening with my white colleagues within session?  Do you discuss the work of Black Lives Matters or lack of the racial inclusivity in our media? Sadly, I fear that this topic is going mostly unexplored. I worry that it is being considered “irrelevant” to the lives of white clients because “it doesn’t personally affect them.” It gives me flashbacks from the days in my graduate school cohort, when future social workers could not see the dialectic that they can both be a victim and one that holds a certain amount of privilege due to their social standings. Helping our clients see where they fit in our society with their intersecting identities is core to their functioning and helps them answer the age-old existential question of who they are. Further, it is where we can impact the larger society from a micro level. As another example, helping our male clients see how they may poorly treat the women in their lives is important to the work of gender equality and the safety of all women. It may also open up new avenues for deeper intimacy with their mothers, sisters and daughters.

For white clients, race is likely only operating in the background of their lives; something that they have very little awareness of.  The foreground—addiction, depression, trauma, or their interpersonal troubles—is whatever chief complaint that brings them into session. From my point of view, their motivating factors to seek our assistance may rarely explicitly intersect with the questions of race and the benefits of white privilege. The principal question is when there is a clinical opportunity, and this background becomes the foreground: What do white clinicians do?  All along, recognizing that privilege concedes to give some identities permission to opt out of this tough conversation, while others who without the privilege, remain sufferers of this silence.

I fear that conversations in our field focus too closely on how to assist marginalized and disfranchised populations in adjusting to the harms caused by an unjust society rather than treating those privileged folks who unwittingly cause the harm.  If we can learn from this dyad–white client, and white therapist–we might create more effective messaging on the importance of white people taking accountability for the inter-generational harm caused by their privilege and supremacy. Moreover, we might assist in alleviating their fears and anxieties of the browning of America and be better positioned to show them where they belong in the tapestry of our multi-racial nation.  For the time has never been riper to stretch the conversation of cultural competence to the very edges of social justice, therein lies the way to racial reconciliation.


This is part one of a three part series exploring race, belonging, and the clinical encounter.


Hayden Dawes, LCSW, LCAS-A, has been a member of the Clinical Society for over three years and currently serves as Vice President. His experience includes working in community mental health, facilitating groups, working with Veterans, folks with addictions, and families facing homelessness. Hayden current works as a clinical social worker at a hospital in the Triangle and in private practice.

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