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
Explore White privilege in the psychology profession and the importance of confronting it with education, curiosity & humility.


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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.

Our profession is concerned with multicultural competence (I assume readers of this article are as well). Despite that, our canons of psychological theory remain euro-centric, yet are largely assumed to be universal; our assessment and diagnostic systems are biased in the same vein, while they are used as guideposts in courts of law, prison, schools, and medical venues; research largely makes assumptions of universality without qualification that population samples are overwhelmingly white; and our delivery of services, even the “culture” of psychotherapy itself, remains white-centric.
Our canons of psychological theory remain euro-centric, yet are largely assumed to be universal.
Whiteness as the only representation of humanness is in the “air,” so to speak, of Western psychology, something many writers, researchers, and psychotherapists of color have written upon (see end of article for resources), and a few white authors have noted as well, Dr. Gina deArth1 among them.

In my experiences speaking and writing about racial identity and racism as a white person in general, it has most often been challenging creating dialogues with other white people. My experience is not an unusual one. More often than not, when racial identity and racism are discussed among white folks, we primarily focus upon the racial identity and racism outside of ourselves (in others, in institutions, in systems, in history, and so on) while also claiming an individual absolution from racism—well, I’m not racist. The two are contradictory and deny the socialization we have all experienced in the wider community of the United States if not in our families.

No white person can reasonably claim that they do not participate in and are not shaped by racial subjectivity and racism, yet this is one of the more common claims that arise in conversations between white folks. Nadia Bolz-Weber, author of Accidental Saints, and an anything-but-conventional white Lutheran pastor, expresses well how white folks are seduced to hide the influence white supremacy has had on us, and the impossibility of escaping the reality of being formed by that supremacy: “Like so many of us, I was born on 3rd base and told I’d hit a home run . . . the fact is, just because I don’t like racism or agree with it, that doesn’t mean it’s not still part of my makeup.”

There is not enough investigated, discussed, and written in psychology about the racial subjectivity of whiteness, that is, the varied lived experience including experience of privileges and participation in racism on levels varying from the personal to the institutional, as well as the meanings of being white. I am interested in exploring conversations about racial subjectivity and racism.
Engaging in an ongoing investigation into my lived experience of whiteness both on individual and relational levels is a vital part of being an ally to people of color.
I consider this a lifetime kind of practice, albeit an uncomfortable and certainly imperfect one. Engaging in an ongoing investigation into my lived experience of whiteness both on individual and relational levels is a vital part of being an ally to people of color, and to being a better therapist to all of my clients, akin to how my personal psychotherapy enhances my work with clients generally.

Stating that, past exchanges with white colleagues and friends come to mind—all emotionally charged, sometimes emotionally injurious on all sides, anything but calm. I know how vulnerable and even incendiary talking about white racial subjectivity and racism usually is, how many defenses arise, and how it can be so difficult. I brace myself already for the “review” feedback to this article, for example. I think white folks need more practice in these discussions, including myself.

As a white person, accounting for one’s own racial identity and racism, talking about the larger system of racism bestowing power and privilege, is typically a conversation stopper among white people. Attributing the suspended conversations among white folks to racism is certainly a part of the stagnation (at least in some cases) but does not entirely flesh out the sophisticated psychological dynamics in ways that can loosen up the tightness that chokes off genuine exchange. The obstacles to creating open dialogue seem to be about several factors, among them: white guilt; protecting privilege; the nature of trauma (racism and acts related to it) evoking blaming and shaming; the lack of practice white people have in talking productively to one another about racism; desires to maintain an all-good self; the lack of white racial identity development and awareness; and the significant discomfort of sitting with the realities of and felt gratitude for the enormous privilege and protection light skin brings in our daily lives.

Though white folks today may claim they did nothing to “deserve” this power and privilege, the acknowledgement alone does not give white folks a pass on critically examining our lack of curiosity regarding the lived experiences of whiteness and racism. Curiosity about these facets of our selves is one antidote to unconscious whiteness. My desire in this article is to begin pondering how the conversations about white racial identity, racism, and psychotherapy gets hijacked among white clinicians, and to explore ways I have found (imperfectly) helpful in continuing the conversation. While conversation is not enough in and of itself, it is integral to greater awareness and action.

All Good or All Bad

The white educator and author Robin DiAngelo writes about how most of white superiority is unconscious and internalized because we have been socialized in it. The socialization takes place sometimes in overt ways (egregious acts, prejudice, and the like) and more commonly in silent ways, such as attending majority white schools; seeing mostly white people in media, in positions of power, leadership, and mentorship; living in majority white neighborhoods; and importantly, living in and benefiting from a society that entitles whiteness such that white people generally do not feel race. Thus, white racial identity becomes an oxymoron, i.e. I don’t have a race.

We cannot get away from messages that being white is not only a universal representation of human experience and authority, but also an idealized one. Even if our white family of origin was anti-racist, larger society and systems socialize us otherwise. Psychologically, this is akin to being raised in an environment where caretakers delight simply in our existence; our attachment is secure while getting bathed in that unconditional love. This becomes our baseline normative experience of relationship and expectations of other people. We know how a childhood environment like that contributes to self-perception in permeating ways that are unconscious and influence life course. White folks have been bathed in unconditional acceptance and idealization for white skin; we have to work to become conscious of how this has shaped our expectations of how we move, interact, and think in the world.

White folks interested in what I am writing about understand that it is good to be anti-racist, and bad to be racist. It’s good to be aware. No white person I know wants to be bad. An entirely individualistic focus on racism, however, essentializes the discussion and understanding of racism, it occludes exploration of white racial identity, and it raises defenses exponentially. While of course there are individual acts of racism, they are occurring within an inherently racist milieu whereby all white people are benefitting, regardless of individual actions. For example, as a profession we do not integrate in every aspect of clinical education—from intellectual inquiry to clinical training—multiple and multicultural points of view on what is pathological, diagnostic, healing, and so on. Other points of view taught in one-off multicultural competency courses are just that—other.

Talking about and thinking about white racial identity and racism as a binary good-bad is a way to ignore the complicated and uncomfortable parts. The African American scholar and filmmaker Omowale Akintunde writes: “Racism is a systemic, societal, institutional, omnipresent, and epistemologically embedded phenomenon that pervades every vestige of our reality. For most whites, however, racism is like murder: the concept exists, but someone has to commit it in order for it to happen.” Racism is not simply individual action, nor is combatting it simply about courses in multicultural competency.

In talking with my white peers as well as in my own self-reflections, the feeling of power due to racial identity is rarely consciously felt. Yet if we wait until we personally feel the social power of whiteness to validate the reality of it, nothing changes.
If we wait until we personally feel the social power of whiteness to validate the reality of it, nothing changes.
Even if we are white and members of other oppressed groups of people on individual and societal levels such as being working-class, disabled, immigrant, or queer-identified, we may not have social power in the arena of economics, physical ability, native citizenship, or gender and sexual orientation identifications, however we nevertheless carry the robust social power of whiteness. There are studies upon studies validating the power of whiteness, let alone anecdotal evidence.

That it is difficult for white folks to talk with one another about racism or something racist that occurred in the moment (a microaggression, for example) is reflective of the positive reinforcement that silence among white people on the topic receives. The silence on racism is balanced only by the silence of white racial identity. Silence keeps the status quo; it also keeps everyone “comfortable,” and keeps white people connected to one another in “likable” fashion. When one white person breaks the barrier of silence, often he or she is shamed, ostracized, or defensively attacked by other white people. We are ejected from the group, placed in a binary of something like being disruptive, arrogant, myopic, or mean while the remaining silent members rest in being well-mannered (and defended). The white person who speaks up among white folks about racism often becomes the recipient of disavowed racism from other white people, something that has been observed in clinical encounters where white therapists disavowing their racism (and other unwanted characteristics) project them onto their clients of color.

Using Mindfulness to Notice Patterns of Prejudice

DiAngelo writes about the spectrum of feelings related to prejudice and discriminatory patterns that I find helpful when talking about racism to my white peers. She explains how negative feelings related to prejudice span the spectrum of hatred, fear, disgust, resentment, discomfort, and lack of interest. Discriminatory patterns partner with the feelings along the spectrum in a similar fashion: violence, exclusion, ridicule, blame, avoidance, and segregation. Conversely, when white people are perceived as superior, they are given the benefit of the doubt, deferred to, included, trusted, and treated as unique rather than representative. Considering individual racism, I think it’s useful to reflect upon where we are along these spectrums in any given moment, because we shift. It’s a practice of awareness and accountability that can and should happen not just on the individual level, but on the group and societal levels, to help white folks learn and understand how racism permeates us all.

An example may help elucidate, and I will give one that begins on the individual level and then includes a group level. If I walk down the street in the evening and see a black man standing at the corner wearing a hoodie with his hands in his pockets and low-slung (sag) jeans, I might wonder about my safety—if even for a split second. That I wonder less, if at all, if it were a white man is not benign—nor is it an egregious act of violence. It is prejudiced, however, and shaped by racist socialization on a level outside of my family of origin. When I catch myself in such a moment of thinking, I don’t spiral into a guilt trip or any other self-critical trip, but rather note the manifold ways racism is part of me even though my parents did not raise me as a racist, and even though I participate in white ally-anti-racism activities, and even though I continue to educate myself about racism and have done so since I was in high school. The practice alone of mindfulness regarding racism makes it easier for me to see its ubiquity, and to talk about it as well since a mindfulness practice is also a practice of non-judgment.

My experience is that some white folks deny this kind of racism, which is impossible given socialization. When I attended a meeting of white therapists focused on racism and our profession, one of the therapists wondered if it would be a good idea for us to out ourselves to one another about racist thoughts and acts in order to reduce shame, build awareness, and enhance conversation.
Even as well intentioned as this group of therapists were, as a group we were not ready to really engage with one another around our racism.

The room of about 30 white therapists fell silent. After some time of silence, I spoke about a similar kind of story to the one in the example above and reflected that using mindfulness as a vehicle to uncovering racism, to me, is essential to deepening learning about racism and practicing unlearning racism on an individual level. No one else in the room spoke including the person who brought up the idea in the first place. After even more silence, the topic was changed to how “difficult” it is that the larger professional organization of which this group was a part had not considered ever focusing on racism and psychotherapy like “we” were doing, and the remainder of the meeting was a discussion focused on how the organization should change. Racism was located suddenly outside of the group of we white therapists.

DiAngelo describes similar patterns of interactions among whites such that the person breaking silence receives response from other whites ranging from attack to being ignored, and the group shifts focus to racism occurring outside of the group. It is so risky, so emotionally charged, and perhaps even threatening for white people to talk with one another about racism. Even as well intentioned as this group of therapists were, as a group we were not ready to really engage with one another around our racism.

Color blindness and the Costs of Unexamined Whiteness

When the Black Lives Matter movement increasingly became part of public discourse, a rallying cry from white folks, All Lives Matter, began. The African American psychologist Dr. Monica Williams2 eloquently articulates the problem of this kind of colorblind whitewash of movements that are counteracting racism, claiming visibility, and focusing powerfully on justice.

If we hold the perspective of colorblindness, it falls to us as individuals to make it on merit, on individual characteristics versus larger forces.
If we hold the perspective of colorblindness, it falls to us as individuals to make it on merit, on individual characteristics versus larger forces. This means that folks who are unemployed and poor are so due to character rather than systems of oppression and the after-effects of transgenerational trauma that are set within those oppressive systems. If subscribing to colorblindness, psychologically we might consider that symptoms of paranoia, depression, and anxiety are universal and not influenced by living in a racist society, nor adaptive and normative, rather than pathological. While intellectually I think most white therapists would understand these concepts, applying them experientially is another matter.

If we are colorblind, we cannot examine both the privileges and the costs of our whiteness. We are literally blinded. Some white folks do not want to be “lumped in” with the white group, and I certainly can identify times when I feel the same, yet as it has been widely noted, regardless of our personal desires regarding white affiliation, we are not granted privileges as individuals but because of the lack of melanin in our skin. The white sociologist Dr. Amanda Lewis reflects that while examining whiteness can be challenging (because whites generally do not understand themselves as being a part of a white group), nevertheless it is vital to explore not only because of the aforementioned, but also because whiteness shapes sociological and psychological imagination.

In writing about whiteness in the psychological imagination, African American psychologist Dr. Jonathan Mathias Lassiter suggests costs of whiteness to white people; heightened defensiveness, emptiness, meaninglessness, disconnection, and loneliness are among them. I can feel all of these to greater or lesser extent along some kind of continuum when I begin to examine how white identity manifests in me moment to moment, and specifically when I am experiencing some privilege, aware of this, and at the same time feel conflicted about it. I find this is primarily a self-focused reflection, and seems wrapped up with the lack of interdependency whiteness rests upon. The maintenance of privileged whiteness requires subjugated “others,” even when we are unaware or unconscious of this. Recognizing the costs of unconscious whiteness is not an exercise of victimhood undermining racism people of color experience; it is a practice of noticing how socialization of privilege also cuts us off from greater meaning, connection, and openness.

Guilt, Shame and Blame

Guilt, shame, and blame ensconced in white racial identity, unconsciously held, projected, and disavowed is slippery to hold, commonplace, and serve as blocks to productive conversation. Recognizing them within myself is also part of the practice of mindfulness, noticing how this “trifecta” of extremely uncomfortable emotion states arises in a variety of circumstances, for example, when confronted by my privilege or when reminded of my less than conscious racism.

An African American client of mine once remarked on my shoes, more specifically how I maintained them (which is inattentively to say the least), and how if she would do the same thing with her footwear white people would interpret her poor care of her shoes as an example of laziness, as fulfilling stereotypes of African Americans. Immediately I heated up, and thoughts jumped in my head arguing with her point of view—wasn’t she exaggerating?—and then feeling horribly guilty and ashamed that I was thinking these thoughts about my client with whom I have worked and built strong attachment over years of treatment. Initially, I named the racism she was talking about and only because, I think, of our long-term therapy relationship did I feel courageous enough to share with her my internal process, feelings, and how I had to “check” myself before I spoke. It was not the first time the client and I had talked of racism and how it plays out in our relationship, and I know it will not be the last. Coming clean with my client dissipated the guilt and shame I was feeling—as well as the blame toward my client. The conversation also brought us closer together. As she remarked, she always feels she can trust me more when I take a chance in being so honest.

I cannot say that I would take that risk with all my clients of color, most likely due to aspects of my defensive process. Invulnerability is integral to unexamined white identity, and to racism. The wish to remain seen and felt in a “good,” well intentioned way, in a liberal way, in a way that is understood as conscientious, is brittle when we are not willing to also be seen as speaking or acting in a privileged or racist way—or defending and refusing to examine these reflections of self when called upon to do so. This kind of invulnerability, however, cements guilt, shame, and blame in place.

In her article describing psychotherapy with an African American client, Melanie Suchet, a white South African émigré and psychoanalyst in New York City, describes how white guilt, shame, and blame gets in the way of productive therapy with her African American client. As therapists, what is most vulnerable in us with any particular client is frequently where we falter in the process. The faltering can be productive if we can use it, process it and understand it. In terms of white clinicians, our socialized racism and lack of white racial identity development, the vulnerabilities of white guilt, shame, and blame related to privilege, power, and other facets of racism are played out in particular ways with clients of color, and numerous articles, including Suchet’s work, highlight these.

It seems to me that the trifecta of guilt, shame, and blame is also silently played out with white clients and white peers, sometimes voiced with disavowal. Among white folks, what we do with shame, blame, and guilt makes a difference.
White fragility is an intimate companion of invulnerability, both inherently defensive, and both soaked in the trio of guilt, shame, and blame.
We may freeze, disengage, become enraged, or use the guilt or shame as defenses too, all allowing us to leave the conversation of racism and white racial identity behind. DiAngelo notes how discussions around racism among whites evoke common responses like anger, withdrawal, freezing, cognitive dissonance, and argumentation—in other words, quite a bit of defensiveness. She calls this white fragility. White fragility is an intimate companion of invulnerability, both inherently defensive, and both soaked in the trio of guilt, shame, and blame.

Continuing Education in Talking about Racism

Education in how to talk about racism on personal, institutional, and societal levels has really helped me, but I also feel like I continue to need education about it. While I was politically involved in anti-apartheid and other U.S.-based anti-racism activities from 18 years of age onward, learning to talk about racism especially among white folks entirely eluded me. In my first career in academia as a 25-year-old more than twenty years ago, my African-American supervisor sent me to an intensive multi-day anti-racism workshop as a way to enhance my training. It was a vulnerable, emotional, and unforgettable experience, one that my supervisor and I brought further into the workplace as we trained others. The emotional intensity continued there as well, but through the process I felt for the first time that I began to comprehend how to talk about racism.

In mental health professional meetings, I find it curious that white clinicians may not be interested in enrolling in anti-racism seminars such as the one I attended, nor to even take advantage of learning materials.
Some white psychotherapists have explicitly said that this kind of training is irrelevant to psychotherapy, or not concerned enough with emotional safety (of whites), and generally not necessary for therapists who are trained to listen deeply with empathy.
Some white psychotherapists have explicitly said that this kind of training is irrelevant to psychotherapy, or not concerned enough with emotional safety (of whites), and generally not necessary for therapists who are trained to listen deeply with empathy.

Recently, a professional organization of which I am a part offered an excellent day-long seminar regarding the psychological pain of people of color. I find these kinds of workshops more or less well attended by white therapists, but they are limited in that they continue to focus on people of color as “the other”—which is more comfortable. It would be so useful for the multicultural competence, let alone for further growth among white clinicians, if we engaged in experiential (not intellectual) seminars on anti-racism such as those offered by StirFry Seminars and Consulting near where I live (I don’t work for them by the way, but offer them up as an example as I have participated in trainings there). I could see from that baseline kind of education, white therapists might develop additional seminars for further training such as countertransference racism, guilt, and shame; how to develop awareness of racism within us and how this impacts the therapeutic relationship, and so forth. If our conversations among all of us about racism are to deepen and widen, if our awareness is to expand outside the binaries of good and bad, continuing education about racism is necessary.

Uncovering White Racial Identity

African American scholar Dr. Janet Helms has written extensively about racial identity development of whites and people of color. Her seminal work on white racial development proposes a framework of multiple stages, beginning with the initial stage of contact, characterized by not fully understanding racism, having minimal interactions with people of color, possibly being oblivious to racism, and/or claiming “colorblindness.” Socialization of the superiority of whiteness is most embedded in this stage, however unconscious. The model continues through five other stages, describing how moving from dissociation of the part of ourselves as racist aggressor to the recognition and integration of that same part of ourselves is vital to white racial identity development. Similarly, in her framework, moving from defensiveness about being inevitably socialized into white supremacy to non-defensiveness of the same is also demonstrative of white racial identity development. Integrating the racist aggressor means accepting in a conscious way, in an affective way, how whiteness is situated in our lives, interactions, and wider society. Her perspective suggests that non-defensiveness toward socialization of racism and white supremacy as well as actions that flow from it are signs of a more sophisticated white racial identity.

Of course these stages are not abandoned once we pass through them, or at least that is not my experience. The nature of privilege is that we have a choice to not engage experientially and affectively the work of anti-racism in whatever ways we are able to do so. Our privilege as white folks is that we can dip in and out of this work, and we can choose what aspects in which we want to participate. I know that I dip in and out of the work myself, evidence of privilege and how the stages of identity development are not linear. I do this at times even while intending to further my awareness practices. I am still able to “break away” by choice, and sometimes I do. Inhabiting a sophisticated white racial identity, to me at least, is not a static state; I do not know how it could be as the nature of privilege is constant, whereas awareness tends to vacillate. I think of white racial development as a practice for this reason, and one that involves further dialogue with other white therapists, and ongoing education along the same lines.

Emotional Home

As therapists, we are trained in how to create safety in relationship, how to allow for and encourage vulnerability. We build these “emotional homes” with each client we encounter to the best of our mutual abilities, and the house takes a different architecture with each person. Whatever vulnerabilities we possess that we cannot experientially and affectively incorporate—even moment-to-moment within a session—impacts the solidity of this emotional home. Those impacts are bound to occur for we are human, and our practice is to develop heightened awareness and non-defensive incorporation of these impacts. When it comes to racism and white racial identity, these seem universally challenging where other individual pockets of vulnerability are perhaps more easily managed. Open dialogue between white therapists about these predicaments would seem to enrich us as people, not only as therapists.

Living and practicing as a white psychologist I grapple with these questions: Have I recognized my privilege today? How have I used my privilege today, and to what do I attribute the privilege received? Psychologically, how do I hold the trauma of current and historical racism without defensively deflecting it? How do I practice daily recognition and understanding of microaggressions in which I participate? How does racism impact my clients and me, regardless of racial identity? How do my favorite psychological theories and practices possess an assumed universality of humanity when actually they are only about one group of human beings? How does my white subjectivity influence and shape my work in general?

There are no clean, clear, sure-fire answers for these ongoing questions of mine. It does seem to me, however, that psychological thinking around dynamics of defense, racial identity development, and trauma (racial, transgenerational, and otherwise), are all useful to such a vast, permeating, and incendiary topic as racism and white racial development. It would be fitting for all of us practicing in this profession of helping humanity to lend our energy to ongoing personal exploration, wider discussion, writing, and speaking publicly about these topics. It is vulnerable, yes, but within the vulnerability as we all well know is the seed of growth.

1. Dr. Gina deArth's works can be found here.
2. Dr. Monica Wiliams' blog, "Culturally Speaking" can be read here

Further Reading
Fox, Prilleltensky, and Austin (Eds). (2009). Critical Psychology: An Introduction. California: Sage.

Mesquita, B., Feldman Barrett, L., and Smith, E. (2010). The mind in context. New York: Guilford.

Nelson, J.C., Adams, G., & Salter, P.S. (2013). The Marley Hypothesis: Racism Denial reflects ignorance of history. Psychological Science, 24, 213-218

Phillips, N., Adams, G., & Salter, P. (2015). Beyond adaptation: decolonizing approaches to coping with oppression. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 3 (1), pp. 365-387.

Salter, P. & Adams, G. (2013). Toward a critical race psychology. Social & Personality Psychology Compass, 7(11), pp. 781-793.

Photo by Gerry Lauzon, some rights reserved.

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Margaret Clausen Margaret 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.

CE credits: 1

Learning Objectives:

  • Describe the concept of white racial subjectivity
  • Discuss the importance of ongoing education around internalized racism
  • Describe how white privilege impacts psychotherapy relationships with all clients

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here