It's Because You Are White

White therapists should talk to white clients about racism.

Posted Jun 09, 2020

This post was written by Marianne Celano, Ph.D., ABPP, on behalf of the Atlanta Behavioral Health Advocates.

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As a psychologist, I struggle with how to bring anti-racism efforts into the therapy room, particularly when my white clients act as if I share their racial prejudices or privilege blindness because I am also white. 

In a testing feedback session during my internship, a white mother informed me that she was withdrawing her child from his public school to enroll him in a private, parochial school.

“Why?” I asked. 

“You know why,” she said.

New to the city and naïve, I asked for more details. She gave an explanation that I don’t remember, but clearly understood as code for racial prejudice: She didn’t want her son in a school with a predominantly Black student population. 

I remember my silence, and worse, my shame in not confronting her. 

At the very least, I should have connected the code to its underlying prejudice. 

More than 30 years later, I am still in a position to address privilege and racial bias in the therapy room. Like many psychologists, I have learned that I have to explore and confront my own biases before I can help my clients, and I have had many good teachers, colleagues, and friends to help me in this lifelong effort. But it is one thing to explore privilege in the context of a classroom or a friendship, and another to bring it up with a client in therapy. 

Recently a white, 16-year-old male client told me about an encounter he had with the police. He and a male friend had been caught hanging out in an elementary school playground after dark during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the shelter-in-place order had been lifted, schools were still closed. The police officers had questioned my client and his friend briefly and then released them, telling them to go home. 

I couldn’t help thinking about another client, also 16, who had reported a more negative encounter with the police a year ago. This client, who was Black, had been walking in his own neighborhood with a friend after dark. The police officers asked him his name and where he was going. Outraged and feeling targeted because of his race, this client refused to give his name but told the police where his parents lived. The police put him in handcuffs and drove him to his parents’ home down the street. 

These two clients have many similarities: Both were 16-year-old boys with behavioral health problems, both live in middle-class neighborhoods in Atlanta, both were accompanied by friends when confronted by the police, and both were scared. 

Their experiences, however, were very different. It would be easy to say that the police treated the Black client negatively because he didn’t give his name, whereas the white client was more cooperative. However, the Black client was walking in his own neighborhood, whereas the white client was clearly trespassing in an elementary school playground. 

My white client was relieved that he was not arrested or handcuffed, but he was also incredulous that the police appeared to believe the boys’ lame explanations for why they were at the school, as well as the fake names they gave. When I asked him if he thought there might be another reason why the police let him go, he drew a blank. 

“It’s because you and your friend are white,” I said. I told him about my Black patient’s encounter with the police a year ago, omitting any details that would give away his identity. He listened. “That’s not fair,” he said at the end of the story. And then we moved on. 

I don’t know yet if my comment had any impact on him. It may have closed a door in our therapeutic relationship, as he may now be hesitant to bring up any beliefs about race that he doesn’t think I will validate. Like many white teens, he may not think about his racial identity or his privilege, and my remark may be quickly forgotten. I’d like to think I’ve helped him to become aware of his white privilege and his responsibility to challenge racist policies.  

But I’m no longer naïve. I did it to erase some of the shame I’ve accrued in the years I was silent in the face of racial injustice and bias. And I did it because I believe that white people need to acknowledge their privilege and confront racism with other white people, even clients, to truly effect social change.

In recent weeks, I’ve heard white clients, both teens and adults, express their outrage and sorrow about the tragic deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. These clients have shared their view that the men who killed Mr. Floyd and Mr. Arbery were racists, and that the murders were hate crimes. A few decades ago, I would have validated my clients’ pain, explored their feelings in more depth, and perhaps asked them how their reactions to these hate crimes resonate with their own lives. Now, I ask: “What are you going to do about it?” 

I don’t think it is enough for us to listen, to raise awareness, or even to educate our clients about white privilege and anti-racism. It is time to take positive action to confront racial injustice and bias in all of its forms, including the silence of white people. We can do this with our friends and colleagues, and we can do it with our clients. Otherwise, we risk perpetuating a system that is inherently and fundamentally unjust.

Dr. Marianne Celano is the author of Something Happened in Our Town: A Child's Story About Racial Injustice.