White Fragility and What It Means as a Counselor

Colleen Paul on Sep 28, 2020 in Life Transition

Meeting with a client for the first time as a counselor-in-training is an exhilarating and terrifying experience; yet, a more impactful “first” for me as a White counselor was broaching the topic of race with my first client of color. To this day, I still have not worked with a Black client, and I have been counseling for over a year now. What may be the reason behind this?

As counselors, we are instructed to follow the ACA (American Counseling Association) Code of Ethics (2014) which specifically notes in the preamble to “[honor] diversity and [embrace] a multicultural approach in support of the worth, dignity, potential, and uniqueness of people within their social and cultural contexts” (p.3). Even with this documented professional value and multicultural considerations throughout the Code, it is a well-known and sad fact that many White counselors show cultural bias when working with Black clients, thus the lack of this type of cross-cultural counseling.

This bias can appear in a number of ways: assuming that clients have the same view on what accounts as “normal” behavior; clients of all cultures will understand abstract words more frequently used in Western culture; and counselors are already aware of their cultural assumptions (Todisco & Salamone, 1991). Even though I had taken the necessary courses and truly viewed myself as a multiculturally competent counselor, in that moment where I first addressed the racial differences between my client and myself, I felt my heart rapidly beating.

What is it about this topic that is difficult for White people to address? Why am I able to freely discuss sexuality (even kinks), gender, and traumatizing experiences with my clients, but the second race becomes involved, I second guess myself? White academic Robin DiAngelo wrote a book entitled White Fragility, which looks into, not only the sensitivity, but also the disbelief white people display when they are told they are complicit in institutionalized racism (Iqnal, 2019). As this book review’s title suggests (We have to stop thinking about racism as someone who says the N-word), it is not simply using racial slurs or macroaggressions against Black people that counts as racism; it is the lack of awareness to benefits White people receive on every economic and social measure in America, and so much more (Iqnal, 2019).

With my clients, I love to apply a quote that is written on the chalkboard at our site: “The first step to change is self-awareness; the second step is acceptance.” In the case of my change and recognizing how I have been complicit in institutionalized racism, I first had to go through self-awareness. I was born in a suburb outside of Chicago, and I spent my childhood surrounded primarily by other White, middle-class, heteronormative people. I sang along with songs that had the “N” word in it with no regard. I chuckled at racist jokes. I was privileged in every sense of the word and rarely had any thoughts about it. It was not until I started my undergrad that I actually began interacting and making friends with members of the Black community. Experiences during college and post-graduation have given me a better understanding, not only of ways that I have contributed to racism, but also how I could continue to do so in the future.

In my Cultural Diversity class, we had a discussion about our separate cultures, and my immediate thought was, “Well, I don’t have a culture.” This is simply not true and also a demonstration of white universalism. To say this means that I believe my values, ideals, and practices are widely shared. Anything outside of that is uncommon, unusual, or worthy of the title “culture”, since it does not match my own.

White people do indeed have a culture, and the harsh truth is that it is one to not boast on. Sure, one might think of baseball games, cowboys, and hamburgers when they think of America, but there is an uglier side to our heritage. This idea came up in one of my classes within the last week. As I was voicing my disgust at the negative response people had to the rioting, I said I wished they would see these actions as what it is: a trauma reaction. Natural trauma reactions are agitation, aggression, and acting out. I ended my spiel in a nervous sort of finality, declaring, “People need to see that being born Black in America is being born with trauma.”

A Black classmate spoke up in response to my comment, and I have not stopped thinking about it since that day. She said that, yes, Black people are born with trauma in America. But White people are as well. Derek Chauvin felt justified in doing what he did to George Floyd. He knelt on his neck for eight minutes without showing any regret nor hesitation. He did so as Floyd gasped, “I can’t breathe” and cried for his mother. My classmate simply said in regard to Chauvin, “That man is broken.” We have a lineage of ancestors, family and community members that are okay with enslaving Black people, murdering them for no reason, and refusing to reflect on the psychological poisoning that has transcended over White generations in America. We are a broken race.

My classmate continued to explain that a privilege we do share as White people is that we are able to individualize ourselves within our culture. We have heard it just in the last two weeks: “Well, that cop is racist, but that doesn’t mean that I am!” “I have plenty of Black friends, so I am definitely not racist.” “Just because one White cop did that doesn’t mean that all cops are capable of doing such a wicked thing!” Where is that same allowance for Black people? When one Black person breaks the law, they’re all thugs. When one whistles at a White lady, they are all predators and rapists of White women. When one ends up in prison, they all ought to spend the rest of their days there.

The second step to change is self-acceptance. We have to recognize that this is what White culture looks like: deep-rooted fear that is supplanted with colonization, violence, stealing, and genocide (Wallace, 2018). Along with that privilege of individualization comes a desensitization to others’ feelings and pain, which may have made it that much easier for Chauvin to watch the life leave Floyd’s eyes; for Daniel Pantaleo to wrap his arms tighter around Eric Garner’s neck; or for Ahmaud Arbery’s killers to call him a “f***ing n***er” as he lay dead on the ground before them.

This is a painful realization to face, our culture of death and stolen traditions. It is never easy to admit always being complicit in racism in some way, but White people can no longer participate in this personalized self-delusion. It has been 400 years of us doing that, and it is our obligation to look at history, accept our damaging role in it, and fight against White culture for future generations’ sake. There are great things about our culture, but we do not have time to highlight those things; we lost that privilege years and years ago. It is the time to educate oneself in every way: go through the painful process of self-awareness and -acceptance; read up on racial injustice; donate; defund the police; shut up and listen; but then also call out the bulls**t you see in yourself and loved ones. This last one is a hard one to do, but it is the least we owe as allies to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Big changes have already happened in the revolution, but do not slip into complacency. This is and will always be a part of our lives, and we need to remember that this movement is far more important than reaching a state of self-actualization or growing as a person; it is about saving Black people’s lives.

I am a counselor, but I am also human. During these last two weeks, I have learned something new about myself and racism/oppression across history every day, and it is painful. However, it is my duty to take my “White girl tears” and do something productive with them: call officials across the country; pick up an informational book or article; and donate to supportive causes. When working with my clients of color, it is not their job to keep me informed of their background; it is my duty to understand where they are coming from and what external sources may have caused them discomfort. I will be aware of my own biases as I take on their cultural viewpoint; diligent in noting both verbal and nonverbal communications; and remain curious and open in hearing their values and traditions, never assuming that they hold the same as mine. I will, on no account, reach a peak in this movement, and I know I never will. Things are shifting every day, so my attitudes and actions must do the same.

Colleen Paul is a Counselor in Chicago, IL.
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