How Can White Therapists Become Anti-Racist? Part 1

When treating BIPOC clients, therapy must include embodiment inquiry.

Posted Sep 28, 2020

“Whether or not white-body supremacy is formally and explicitly taught to us, it’s in the air we breathe, the culture we share, and the bodies we inhabit.” 

These words by Resmaa Menakem, LICSW, the author of My Grandmother’s Hands, form the foundation upon which he writes about the trauma permeating American culture within the bodies of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), white people, and those serving in law enforcement.  

As a white, Canadian-born, Jewish-certified sex therapist, I witnessed the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and so many others since, including the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha a bit over two weeks ago. I am disgusted, moved, and shocked again to my core of the way Black bodies are targeted with a level of violence my white body has never experienced.

I see clients of color and interracial couples who come to my practice seeking help with their sex lives. I also supervise therapists of color in my practice and personally felt my whiteness more vividly as I read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, watched Dear White People, and attended a teach-in given by Isabel Wilkerson (Caste) and Ibram X. Kendi (How to Be an Anti-Racist) among other articles by therapists of color. 

 Erica Lansner, used with permission
Brooklyn Protests, NYC 2020
Source: Erica Lansner, used with permission

I found myself committed to staying present to support and listen to my clients’ and supervisees’ experiences as we all watched the streets of our cities fill with white bodies alongside bodies of people of color chanting: “Black Lives Matter,” “No Justice, No Peace” and “Say Her Name.”

In his book, Menakem describes how trauma affects human bodies in the moment and over generations. As a therapist who frequently works with clients who have suffered sexual trauma and boundary crossings, I focus specifically on helping clients remain “in the room” (now the virtual room) of therapy when they become triggered.

Those of us in the field of trauma recovery recognize the reactions of fight, flight, or freeze by clients who were sexually abused in childhood, raped in college, or physically and emotionally abused by a past partner. Clients come in for sex therapy because of their traumatic reactions to sexual experiences which cause them to disassociate, get flashbacks, or avoid any and all sexual experiences with new or longtime partners. 

Dissociation is a psychological state in which one’s psychic presence is unconsciously split off from one’s physical body in real time. It’s a technique developed at the time or after one or more traumatic experience(s) as a survival technique to keep the psyche from falling apart. 

 Erica Lansner, used with permission
Protest, NYC 2020
Source: Erica Lansner, used with permission

Menakem writes of the terms "dirty pain" and "clean pain," concepts based on the work of David Schnarch, a systemic sex therapist who writes about sexual differentiation within couples. Menakem writes that dirty pain is the pain that is expressed through avoidance, denial, and blame. I would add that many of my clients also use compulsive or hypersexual behavior, over-drinking, dependence on weed, and disassociation during sex as ways to cope. 

Clean pain, by contrast, is the processing of memories, experiences, and wounds verbally and through the senses in one’s body with a person you feel safe with and who can provide support and guidance. He describes his grandmother's rhythmic rocking and singing as a form of processing and healing ancient pain that came from her past as a cotton-picking farm laborer in the south. 

Embodied trauma therapy offers you: 

  • more choices on how to create and keep boundaries
  • the confidence to explore what you really want in life 
  • strength to take steps towards growing yourself up in health
  • skills of Sex Esteem to communicate what gives you pleasure sexually

Given my years of doing yoga and training in MBSR and somatic experiencing, I invite my clients to check in to their own physical states during sessions and teach them grounding and breathing techniques to learn how to calm their stress, anxiety, and fear states. I too try to stay present and embodied during sessions to be aware of reactions in my own body as I listen to clients’ struggles and achievements. Is my chest tightening? Is my breath shortening? Are my fingers relaxed or clenching the arm of the chair? 

 Erica Lansner, used with permission
Protest, NYC 2020
Source: Erica Lansner, used with permission

Code-Switching

I was educated to treat all people with Derech Eretz, a Hebrew phrase which literally translates as “the way of the world,” but was taught to me as a dictum to treat every human with the same level of honor and respect. Coming to America opened my eyes to a history of racism I had never encountered in my privileged, white urban neighborhood in Canada. I was shown German films of Nazi atrocities at the age of 10 in my school. It was part of the education of many Jewish day schools in that time to let us know we were living lives that were robbed from our ancestors. These images would enter my nights as terrifying nightmares transplanting me back to Nazi Germany, or bringing the Gestapo to my Canadian community, hunting for me and my family to send us to concentration camps.  

From a very young age, I saw how my mother changed her speaking intonation and choice of words when speaking to non-Jewish people as she took me from market to market doing her household shopping.  She even introduced herself or referred to herself by her Anglophone name rather than the Yiddish name all her relatives and friends used when speaking to her.

Erica Lansner, used with permission
BLM Protest, Brooklyn, NYC 2020
Source: Erica Lansner, used with permission

I learned this technique of bilingual language through osmosis from the time I was a small girl. Luckily, I had a talent for mimicry and prided myself that I could “pass” in non-Jewish communities. While it was somewhat of a game with myself, it came from a deeper sense of mistrust of my surroundings. Many times I would wait in a new social setting to see if it was safe to reveal my true self. 

This type of linguistic navigation is called code-switching. As therapists, we need to be aware of how our clients of color may be using a type of dialect used primarily for white people. 

When I came to America, I saw my whiteness when I saw white people clutching their purses as they passed Black people on the street, the way white subway riders moved to another end of a car if a group of Black students entered. This countered both my education as a child to treat all humans with honor and respect and my experience as a professional modern dancer who worked and performed with folks in multiracial communities made up of dancers who were gay, lesbian, queer, bi, gender-fluid, and outside the mainstream. In the art world, one’s identity as an outsider was usually expressed proudly.  

I’m aware I have to inquire about and listen even more deeply as my clients who come from communities of color describe stories of past victimhood due to racial violence as well as the many daily experiences of structural racism. In my early training days, I was directed to wait to discuss a topic only after a client brings it up. 

But after a couple of years of never hearing about couples’ sex lives, I began to ask the question: “How’s your sex life?” as part of an initial assessment of all my clients. It was bringing up the topic of sex that broke open the floodgates to clients feeling safe to discuss so many sexual issues, disorders, past assaults, and unhappiness in their sexual relationships. It also led to my pursuing my AASECT Certification in Sex Therapy.  

The topic of racism in therapy can be kept unexamined since so many white therapists are unconscious of deeply embedded racist views that may have filtered into their world-view. But like sex, the subject can't be relegated to the sidelines of treatment.  

I now actively check in with clients and with therapists who consult me on cases on how they are impacted by the protests if they don’t bring it up themselves. I ask it with an open-ended framework like: "How have you been impacted by the protests?" or "What kind of feelings have come up for you since becoming aware of George Floyd's death?"

These questions state that there was some likely reaction but left open many varied responses like: 

  • "I feel too sad or enraged to discuss the protests."
  • "I don’t think the protests should be discussed in the forum of couples or sex therapy."
  • "You couldn’t fully comprehend the level of fatigue and rage I’m experiencing after watching murder after murder with nothing being done." 
  • "I know you’ll think I’m racist but I’m furious about the looting that sets back our economy."
  • “I do identify as a POC and I really sided with the protesters for the first two months after Floyd’s murder and was so glad they arrested those officers—but what are they achieving by continuing it?” 
  • “It’s so hard. I’m so tired every day and I still have to do my work which is so stressful since COVID-19.” 
  • “My wife wants me to open up about this and she’s talking about Black Lives Matter and the protests all the time but I really can’t. For her it’s all-new; for me, it’s been my life since childhood.” 
  • “I really get why they’re protesting but I’m a cop and I have to do my job to keep order in the streets." 
  • “My white co-workers keep texting me asking if I’m okay. I mean I guess it’s nice of them, but I really don’t want to have to respond. My plate is full with work and the kids, just trying to get through each day.” 
  • “My boyfriend is more careful with me now during sex. He’s afraid he’s going to trigger me as a white man. I want him to be more assertive and physical in bed because it allows me to get out of my head.” 
  • “I know my skin isn’t as dark as his but I’m still a minority in this country. I just didn’t grow up in a lower-income urban area and I had access to better education. But maybe you don’t consider me Black?” 

The world outside does affect each and every one of us—whether it’s the global pandemic COVID-19 or the murders and subsequent protests raging through almost every community in the U.S. and in other countries. The BLM movement and the protests occurring outside therapy or coaching sessions are a part of the fabric of what each person is grappling with, whether they are fully conscious of it or not. The racial inequities exposed more fully during this pandemic and after the recent murders impact the way we feel about ourselves, our partners, families, communities, and governments.  

Part 2 of this piece can be read in the next blog entry.  

References

History.com Editors. (2010, February 09). Emmett Till Is Murdered. Retrieved September 22, 2020, from https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-death-of-emmett-till

Intergenerational transmission of paternal trauma among US Civil War ex-POWs. Dora L. Costa, Noelle Yetter, Heather DeSomer. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Oct 2018, 115 (44) 11215-11220; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1803630115

Khazan, O. (2018, October 16). Inherited Trauma Shapes Your Health. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2018/10/trauma-inherited-generations/573055/

Menakem, R. (2017). My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized trauma and the pathway to mending our hearts and bodies. Las Vegas, NV: Central Recovery Press.

Resisting and complying with homogamy: Interracial couples’ narratives about partner differences. Killian, Kyle D. Counselling Psychology Quarterly. June 2012, Vol. 25, No. 2, 125–13

Stereotypes of Black American Women Related to Sexuality and Motherhood. Rosenthal, L .  & Lobel, M. February 2016 Psychology of Women Quarterly 40(3):414-427