Whiteness Matters: Exploring White Privilege, Color Blindness and Racism in Psychotherapy

Whiteness Matters: Exploring White Privilege, Color Blindness and Racism in Psychotherapy

by Margaret Clausen

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White Therapist as Racial Subject

It is unclear to me what in my personal history served as catalyst to my awareness from a very young age of my pale skin, and to notice how simply because of an accident of birth, I was valued because of it. Pondering this now as I engage in my work—and as I do so in the ongoing wider context of live-documented racially motivated violence, murder, and xenophobic discourse—I wonder how psychotherapy and psychological thinking is useful (or not) to these realities perpetuating severe harm and death. Sitting with my white clients, I ponder, sometimes aloud with them, how race has shaped their lives, how it enters our therapy relationship, and notice how frequently when these reflections happen they move toward externalizing racial identity in people of color versus an exploration and understanding of white racial selves. It is a privilege of whiteness to not have to think of racial identity—the lack of needing to think is privilege. The unconsciousness of whiteness and how it impacts the internal world and external actions of my white clients and myself is one arena of my interest.
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Margaret ClausenMargaret M. Clausen, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Berkeley, California where she specializes in the treatment of trauma, addiction, and living with cancer. She is affiliated with the Chronic Pain Program at Kaiser Permanente – San Francisco, and with the Commonweal Cancer Help Program in Bolinas. In addition to providing psychotherapy and consultation, Dr. Clausen enjoys writing, teaching, and supervision. She is working on a book of essays regarding psychotherapy practice. She can be reached through her website at www.drmargaretmclausen.com.
Thank you for this article. More like these need to be written and read by white therapists, and discussed, of course!
Will Patton
Margaret, thank you for this powerful essay. More people need to read this. As a therapist of color, I'm heartened by your candor, directness and willingness, as you said, to break the barrier of silence. Hopefully, more white folks can be inspired to keep addressing white privilege and racism, even as the conversations are difficult.
Shin Yi Tsai
Excellent article. Thought provoking. I appreciate the author's vulnerability and specific examples. Her words encourage me to look deeper within myself for the benefit of myself, my own clients, and humanity as a whole.
Dr. Carisa Authier
Thank you for sharing this article. I have had the same experiences you describe in groups. One was an unlearning racism seminar led by an African American therapist and the group was mixed race. When we started, there was a lot of silence so I decided to dive in and shared some of my own problematic racist process. Big mistake. I was attacked from every angle imaginable until I was in tears. I think the point was lost that I was revealing this as part of my unconscious process that I was working through. But everyone took what I said concretely no matter how much I tried to explain and things just got worse and worse. The teacher was not psychoanalytically oriented, which I think was part of the problem. I couldn't understand what went wrong until I did some reading and realized that maybe what I was trying to do belonged in a white's only group. Curious if others have had similar experiences.
Superb article. I hope more white therapists read it. As a therapist of color, I am glad to see a white therapist take such chances to name what is rarely named.
R. Jackson
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CE credits: 1
Learning objectives:

  • Describe the concept, "white racial subjectivity."
  • Illustrate the importance of ongoing education and mindfulness around internalized racism.
  • Understand how white privilege impacts psychotherapy relationships with both white clients and clients of color.
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