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Veteran Timothy Ryan had been working on anger management for a year in therapy when, while refueling his Dodge Ram in a Virginia Beach gas station, a white customer next to him made a racist joke. Ryan realized that because he was also white and drove a pickup, the other man assumed Ryan would be amused. Instead, he was outraged. “There was a pumping in my chest,” he recalled. “I was getting hot and tingly.” But he feared challenging the man’s comment and then felt ashamed for not speaking up. Later that week, Ryan brought the experience to therapy, where he began to sort through his response.
Ryan is an example of how some white people are bringing issues related to race to therapy. Though therapists say that such work with white clients isn’t common, Oakland-based therapist Jill Sulka, who conducts clinical trainings on whiteness in the Bay Area, said that professional communities exploring these issues have been developing for several years, and the trend has increased since the summer 2020 racial justice protests, when many more white Americans began to realize the urgency of having deeper conversations about race. The question is, are therapists also ready to have these conversations?
According to Sulka and the eight other therapists I interviewed who’ve done this race work with white people, if their clients bring up race, it’s usually because interpersonal experiences with people of color surface deeper psychological issues. To be clear, the issues these therapists identify as suitable for therapy work do not include hateful racism or the type of paranoid, violent extremism that produced the recent massacre in Buffalo, New York. Rather, the work involves white people with a conscientious outlook who may feel guilt and shame discovering their racial prejudice and insensitivity; harbor feelings of superiority; idealize people of color or desire their approval; or fear calling out overt racism by other white people, especially family.
Such problems not only damage personal relationships, but they also perpetuate larger societal patterns of racial harm. For that reason, most therapists who engage in this work emphasize that lasting healing requires that clients reach beyond the therapy container to do reparative work in their everyday personal and public lives, which often means connecting with other white people committed to doing anti-racist work.
Over several decades, researchers and clinicians have been developing methods to treat the race trauma people of color experience—essential work that still needs to be expanded and made more widely available. New York–based therapist Kenneth Hardy, who is Black and a leader in race trauma work, said that many therapists of color explicitly identify this as an area of expertise, and university clinical training programs now often include a race trauma component.
White people don’t experience such race trauma, but they have complex relationships of race and power—and no widely adopted, research-based treatment tools are in place to work with them on those issues.
Hardy, who is now drawing from his background to implement training on whiteness and therapy, believes that psychotherapy can further the education-based race work many white people have sought since the 2020 protests, when Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility became bestsellers. “Kendi and DiAngelo’s books provide enlightenment about race, but where they can fall short is in keeping us upstairs in our head, dealing with ideas and not dealing with all the emotional stuff that comes up,” he said.
David Drustrup, a white therapist and Ph.D. candidate in counseling psychology at the University of Iowa, worked with a woman who came to therapy because she felt isolated during the summer 2020 lockdowns and protests. She said she supported Black Lives Matter, but stopped communicating with a longtime Black friend after being angered by the friend’s Facebook posts that supported defunding the police. Drustrup took a dual approach, exploring both the client’s fixed political assumptions about policing and her relationship choice to stop contacting a close friend. When the client expressed interest in reading more about race and policing, Drustrup gave her a copy of James Baldwin’s “A Report From Occupied Territory.” She began to look at policing more from her friend’s perspective and then decided to speak about policing in an Iowa City Council meeting on Zoom, leading her to reconnect with her friend. “Finding this hook for white clients to connect concerns about white racism to their own lives is essential for long-term buy-in,” Drustrup said.
Kevin Henze, a white therapist in Boston, described a similar situation in which a white college student examined how a pattern of discounting his Black girlfriend’s accounts of racial distress was a form of racism. He felt shame and guilt and realized he had a responsibility to confront his prejudiced parents who disapproved of the relationship. “Anti-racism happens in relationships,” Henze said. “To take root, there have to be interpersonal relationships where the new way of doing race and being white is held.” Henze also encouraged the student to join a multiracial activist community on campus so that the therapy work wouldn’t be limited to just improving his individual relationship. (Identifying details of both the clients above have been changed to protect their privacy.)
Henze first became interested in working on race with white clients during his Ph.D. training at Boston College, where he studied a white racial identity development theory designed by Janet Helms, director of the school’s Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture. But Henze noted that therapists lack accessible clinical tools to assess race-based psychological problems. “If a client comes in with depression, I can administer a questionnaire, relay the scores, get their input, and then fill in for them the common symptoms of depression,” he said. “But if a client comes in and says the country is fading away and they’re concerned about their immigrant next-door neighbors, it’s not acceptable for me to hand out a screening tool for racial bias.”
These therapists agree that the most important training tool to support this work is their own racial self-investigation. “You have to engage in a process of self-interrogation,” Hardy explained. “What does it mean to you personally to be white? Where are your blind spots? The training is designed to get people to do a deep dive into their psyches. Then the skill part becomes easier.” Sulka’s trainings involve ongoing personal reflection and self-disclosure in multiracial and separate race groups about one’s position in a system of structural racism and unequal privilege. For white therapists, Sulka said, “a stance of humility is key. I need to acknowledge that I’m subject to the same conditioning as my clients.”
Therapists of color face distinct dynamics working with white clients directly on race. White clients might not speak openly to a therapist of color about their own prejudices, or they may hope the therapist will provide reassurance or easy solutions. For this reason, said Maryam Jernigan-Noesi, a Black therapist in Atlanta, it’s crucial for more white therapists to take on this work. “If we know that white people will be more comfortable talking in uncensored ways, to help facilitate this work, we have to make sure white clinicians are comfortable talking about race and sitting with those views,” Jernigan-Noesi said.
Ultimately, the most important factor in promoting healing may be the therapist’s commitment to deeply self-examine. “My vision,” Jernigan-Noesi said, “is that such training becomes a norm for everyone.”
State of Mind is a partnership of Slate and Arizona State University that offers a practical look at our mental health system—and how to make it better.