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Navigating white privilege in the counseling room

September 2023

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DeVona Alleyne, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) at Millennium Counseling Center in Chicago, says people of color who seek counseling services face a particular reality — the likelihood that the therapist sitting across from them will be white. “The numbers are obvious,” Alleyne says. “There are far more white therapists than there are [nonwhite] therapists. So many clients would love to be seen by someone who looks like them, but unfortunately, that’s just not always possible.” That stark reality puts the onus on white clinicians to own their white privilege. That ethical duty can be laced with hidden challenges if white therapists aren’t regularly building their self-awareness through reflection or assessing racial dynamics in supervision. Alleyne knows firsthand that an unaware white clinician can induce emotional harm. Sitting in the client’s chair as a Black woman, she has experienced both subtle and not-so-subtle microaggressions with previous therapists. “Most of my therapists have been white guys,” says Alleyne, an American Counseling Association member. “One therapist kept praising me as a high achiever, as if I were some sort of anomaly, not realizing that he unconsciously was having an idea of how I should present as a Black woman. And then I had a therapist tell me I should slow down and not do all these things I’m doing. But even that statement is in ignorance because he’s got to understand that I have to do these things to be seen as competent. I had to say, ‘I can’t do that. I’m Black.’ He said, ‘I never thought about your race.’ I said, ‘That’s a problem because you need to.’” Sadly, clients often won’t broach their discomfort with an offending counselor, leading to a fractured alliance or distrust in the therapeutic process as a whole. That’s concerning for Kyle Goodwin, a licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC) in Aurora, Illinois, who wrote his dissertation at Northern Illinois University on “Christianity and mental health counseling: Voices of the Black-Negro American experience.” Goodwin’s research outlines how African Americans have long turned to religion over therapy. The data illuminates the essentialness of white therapists doing their due diligence to understand their privilege because of the walls that have to come down for some marginalized clients to seek counseling in the first place. “It all starts with the education white therapists receive, but then it doesn’t stop there,” says Goodwin, an ACA member. “There’s got to be a lot of self-reflecting, and that’s all before even stepping into session. A white therapist has to be able to say, ‘Hey, I have some biases or prejudices that I didn’t even know existed.’ That doesn’t mean you’re a racist, but you’re prone to show up in a discriminatory manner. Being able to take constructive criticism and see knowledge gaps [in supervision] is important to avoid perpetuating toxic whiteness in counseling spaces.”

Naming the elephant in the room

George McMahon, a clinical associate professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Development Services at the University of Georgia, says one of the primary concepts he teaches master ’s students is the importance of white clinicians broaching and naming their whiteness early in sessions. “As a straight, white male myself, it’s hard to imagine me being an effective counselor without considering and naming the racial dynamics when working with a marginalized client,” McMahon says. “It’s very important that a counselor states it explicitly first, without waiting for the client to bring it up. … By broaching, you’re letting folks know, ‘It’s OK to talk about this, and I’m aware of my own privilege.’” Alleyne concurs, saying that as a client, she felt her walls come down as soon as her white therapist mentioned her race. “My therapist who I see now asked me something like, ‘Do you think they were treating you that way because you’re Black?’ I thought to myself, ‘Oh, you really see me, huh?’ Then I felt like I could stop coding and start saying Black stuff. I stopped wearing makeup and no longer had to be performing in a white world,” she recalls. McMahon says many white therapists walk on eggshells or wallow in guilt because of the harm that the white world has caused clients. But he believes these therapists have a unique opportunity to offer a corrective emotional experience on a micro level. “When a client is around a therapist who they think wouldn’t understand them outside of counseling and then they do understand them, it can lead to the client feeling seen in a unique and healing way,” McMahon explains. “When you’re broaching, you can show the client that you’re always trying to be aware of your privilege by stopping a conversation to make sure they feel like they’re being heard. That humility can help to build a therapeutic relationship quicker. But broaching isn’t just a one-time thing.” Kristin Miserocchi, a staff psychologist and groups coordinator at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote her dissertation at the University of Kentucky on the effect of therapists’ white privilege attitudes on client outcomes and the therapist-client relationship. She says broaching isn’t just about naming race; it’s about acknowledging how the macro world — outside the therapy arena — has benefited the white therapist and potentially harmed or disenfranchised the marginalized client. “It’s most important for white therapists to know that they can live their whole life oblivious to their privilege,” says Miserocchi, an ACA member. “I’m a white person, and so it’s a privilege for me to walk around the world thinking ... that I don’t have it better than anyone else and that everyone has the same experience I do. That way of thinking alone can be an enormous knowledge gap and lead to invalidating a vulnerable client.” “I do try to call that notion out,” she continues. “I work at a university where a lot of times clients will ask for a clinician who matches them racially or ethnically. That’s because that matching represents safety. Knowing that, it’s important to state my awareness … [that] I’ve had experiences you’ve never had and even ask if this could be a potential barrier for us. This shows that I have empathy, but [I explain] why I’m stating it so that it doesn’t feel like it’s all about the differences between us.” Katherine Atkins, an LPC and clinical training director at Northwestern University, says various barriers can stand between white clinicians broaching their privilege with clients from marginalized groups. “It’s undoubtedly the elephant in the room that needs to be addressed. When I was in my master’s [program] in 2003, there wasn’t even a multicultural course at the time,” says Atkins, an ACA member. “I vividly remember going into practicum being supervised behind a two-way mirror and told to call this stuff out. I didn’t know how to navigate those conversations because I was colorblind and hadn’t engaged in deeper self-reflection about how I see the world.” Atkins says her personal life — she is in a biracial marriage and has a biracial daughter — has deepened her empathy and broadened her worldview in ways that classes never could. “For a while, my go-to in talking with my husband was believing that everyone isn’t aware and they’re not intending to do harm,” Atkins explains. “That’s a privilege that I can see from that lens. The same thing happens in classes I teach or oversee, where students try to justify their stance. That’s damaging to ignore history, to not speak about the truth that’s occurred in our society. Broaching is about regularly checking in with the client and regularly checking in with yourself.”

Understanding white fragility

Robin DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility” in 2011 to describe discomfort by a white person when confronted by information about racial inequality. She further outlined its meaning in her 2018 book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Among the key takeaways from the book is the notion that white people can immediately become defensive at the suggestion of racism or privilege. Melanie Lindell, a licensed mental health counselor in Seattle, says she had to face her own white privilege when she moved to a predominantly African American neighborhood nearly three decades ago. Initially, she downplayed her level of privilege, reasoning that she had her own trauma background. But then she took the time to distinguish between her micro suffering and the macro trauma that has caused widespread pain to people of color. “For white therapists, that initial defensiveness when someone … calls out your privilege isn’t necessarily the problem. It’s only wrong if you stop there and don’t do anything about it,” Lindell says. “Your defensiveness as a white therapist is more like a traffic light. It reveals something. It’s what you do with it next that matters.” “There’s always room to say, ‘I’ve benefited from cultural racism, and I’ve had a leg up.’ That doesn’t take away from my trauma or experience. And it doesn’t need to be a shame spiral,” she adds. McMahon says that sense of shame can initially be piercing for white clinicians because it is associated with a distinct feeling of failure. “Counselors are particularly prone to white fragility because they get into this field wanting to be helpful and believe they’re good people who set out to make a difference,” McMahon says. “It goes against their identity if they’re confronted with this idea that doesn’t fit with how they see themselves. In other words, we’re prone to fragility because we care too much. It goes to the point of privilege is unearned. We didn’t do anything to create it, and there doesn’t need to be guilt attached to it. But it becomes a responsibility, particularly in counseling, to be part of a process to always be aware that oppression and power dynamics exist.” Miserocchi says she has learned to lead with empathy as a way to mitigate her own defensive feelings that she believes are meant to be ironed out in supervision. “We all want to help people, so when we hurt people instead, it’s the opposite of what we want to do,” Miserocchi says. “As vulnerable as I am learning that I hurt someone, it’s not nearly as vulnerable as a person who was hurt. It’s so important that I take ownership for any hurt I may have caused as a therapist. The fact that a client or supervisor is letting me know is generous of them. It goes a long way toward repairing those ruptures.”

Doing the work

Andrea Stiles, an LCPC at Klutch & Well in Chicago, says before white therapists can name the racial dynamics in a counseling room and build toward competency, they must find their own state of acceptance about their privilege. “As an educator, supervisor and therapist, one of the things I see from someone struggling to manage their white privilege is an unwillingness to name their whiteness, not just in the room for the benefit of the client, but within themselves,” Stiles says. “When a clinician denies whiteness, for whatever reason, they’re denying what it means in the outside world and the type of impact it could have had on a particular client. That doesn’t just affect the counselor-client dynamic, it affects perception of a client for a diagnosis and a treatment plan.” Stiles has often heard white colleagues in the field speak of their multicultural competency as if they’ve completed their training and are now equipped to treat clients from other cultures. Of course, it’s not that simple. “In so many textbooks, it’s stressed that practicing multicultural competency is a lifelong journey. There’s no finish line,” says Stiles, an ACA member. “When therapists feel like they’re not done with something, that can be scary, but you’re missing the mark if you go into this work thinking awareness isn’t always ongoing. This goes beyond the white-Black dynamics too. This rings true for Muslims, Arabs and Jewish people. We should never stop trying to be attuned to a client’s culture.” Goodwin views managing white privilege with clients as more of a responsibility or purpose than a form of progression. “You’re not climbing a ladder of awareness about your whiteness,” Goodwin says. “I personally don’t believe in the term ‘multicultural competency.’ I believe in cultural sensitivity because competency insinuates that there’s this level to understand people of color. That ladder doesn’t exist. Culture is forever changing, and competency is a skill versus sensitivity, which is regularly and continuously choosing to set your power aside as a therapist. The reality is it would be a privilege for a white therapist to choose to not understand clients of color.” Goodwin says an example of the need for white clinicians to regularly practice sensitivity comes with current events that traumatize marginalized clients on a macro scale, such as repeated news of police brutality toward people of color. “I think the role of the white clinician is to acknowledge what’s happening in the world,” Goodwin says. “You don’t move forward unless you address it.” Stiles says supervision plays a major role in holding white therapists accountable to regularly understand their privilege. Therefore, it’s essential for white supervisors to be comfortable bringing up racial dynamics with newer therapists. “A lot of times what I’ll ask my class is, ‘Can you conceptualize this case from a culturally specific lens?’ It starts with the supervisor to help a therapist know that framework is necessary to cater treatment to a client’s culture,” Stiles says. “White supervisors have to acknowledge and lean into these things with inexperienced clinicians early on in development.” One red flag Goodwin has noticed in supervisory sessions and other experiences is an unfair weight being placed on therapists from marginalized groups to educate white colleagues about privilege. “It’s not a person of color’s job to teach a white therapist about their community,” Goodwin stresses. Alleyne says white clinicians in the field will often ask her what they can do to better immerse themselves in cultural awareness. She says as a Black client, she feels more emotionally held by a white clinician who doesn’t pretend to understand but also isn’t afraid to state what’s real in the world. “I tell my white colleagues to start by noticing people of color in [their] orbit and try to engage,” Alleyne says. “Don’t just read about us in books that are written by white people. … No person of color in my opinion wants to hear, ‘I could never understand your experience.’ Well, duh. But state your awareness of discrimination that exists out there. Say, ‘Sorry you’re experiencing that.’ Because remember, Black people in particular are taught not to be angry or let those emotions out.”  
Scott Gleeson is a licensed clinical professional counselor in the Chicago suburbs, specializing in trauma and relational dynamics. He spent over a decade writing for USA Today, where he won national writing awards from the Associated Press and NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ+ Journalists. He’s collaborating on a book about fighting cancer with legendary broadcaster Dick Vitale, which is set to hit bookshelves in March 2024. His debut young adult fiction novel, The Walls of Color, comes out the following year.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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