Jeff Guenther on Nov 26, 2018
I am a white, heterosexual cis gendered male that comes from a mostly privileged background and I’ve created a therapist directory that has a focus on social justice and equality. I write a blog every week that’s typically focused on issues around privilege, racism, discrimination and other similar topics. Even though I feel like I have the best of intentions, sometimes I step in it and use the wrong term or offend people who are doing similar work. I also offend racist people, but I really don’t care too much about that. What I do care about is offending people that I am trying to align with, defend, protect and improve mental health access for.
I have been called out by social justice activists and therapists that just know better than I do. Every time I am called out I learn a lot and I have a growing moment. I also experience guilt, embarrassment and sometimes a bit of shame. But that’s okay. I’d much rather be called out than continue to be wrong. I’m not perfect and I am happy to be politely called out when I inadvertently offend someone or a specific population. So if I have offended you, please email me and call me out. If you’re racist or just a shithead then you should also call me out. It only inspires me to continue the work I’m doing. But please come up with something other than telling me I am suffering from “liberal white guilt.” I’m not. I promise. And it’s a dumb dis.
I want to highlight five times I have been called out so that you can learn from my mistakes. Some of these were real surprises when brought to my attention. And others are just stupid mistakes and I should have known better. If you’re a white dude like me, I bet you’ll learn something. So please read on!
Woke isn’t a word a white person should use. I didn’t know that. I used it when I first launched the site and created an FAQ page. I said, “I want to be the white guy who is woke.” I later changed it to “I want to be the white guy who fights for justice and exposes unfairness in the system,” which is more palatable coming from a guy like me.
“Woke” is African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and refers to a perceived awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice. It has been used for decades by African Americans. It became widespread in 2014 through the Black Lives Matter movement. There is no need for me, as a white person, to culturally appropriate the word. So I don’t use it anymore. And if you’re white, then maybe you shouldn’t use it anymore either. You can Google more about it and figure out what feels right for you.
I write about race and I say “people of color” a lot in my articles. Sometimes I don’t want to keep repeating “people of color” over and over again. It just sounds redundant to me and I hate repeating words. So in it’s place I’ll throw in “non-white people,” just to mix it up a bit. I used to think to myself that it means the same thing and gets the job done. However, recently I was asked not to use the term “non-white people” anymore. The reason is because the phrase “non-white people” is white centered. And white people should do their best to not center everything around their experience. I agree and I won’t use that term anymore.
I wrote an article and made an infographic about all the Psychology Today magazine covers dating back to 1992. They rarely feature people of color and pretty much only feature white women that are thin, skinny and pretty. I did point out in the article that they don’t feature older people but I didn’t include that fact in the title of the article. I need to do better pointing out ageism. I received a polite message from someone asking me to keep an eye on that. I promise I will try to do better. And I want to encourage everyone else to do better too.
This one came as a surprise to me, but it makes perfect sense when you think about it. The term minority, when describing people of color, is really similar to the term “non-white people.” When you use words like minority or non-white, you are defining people of color through a lens of whiteness — implying, by definition, that whiteness is the norm or standard by which all people are categorized.
I have used the word “minority” to describe groups of people. For example, I’m often using it when I want to write about different groups that might not have good access to mental health care. I’ll say something like, “TherapyDen has a mandate to help minority groups and the disenfranchised access competent mental health care.” Here, the “minority groups” I am referencing are the LGBTQ community, the disabled, people of color, etc. Going forward, I’m going to name the groups of people instead of simply lumping them into the word “minority.”
A little while ago I created a worksheet that helps therapists and clients get in touch with how much or how little privilege they’ve grown up with. It’s a handy form that can help a therapist understand how their own privilege may be shaping how they counsel their clients. And it can bring up interesting issues about how society, culture and family have effected the development of a client when they choose to fill out the form.
When I created the first draft of the form, I asked the person filling it out if they grew up with a body that was “height and weight proportionate.” The purpose of the question is for the person to reflect on how they were treated based on their body size and how society valued them. The problem with using the dated term is that is presupposes there is a correct body size. That we should judge our bodies against an ideal body size that has been created to fit today’s beauty standards.
I should have known better. Especially because I support health at every size and body positivity. TherapyDen even has a special search filter that allows clients to find a therapist that practices health at every size and is body positive. I was contacted by a handful of people that I should not use the term. And instead I should ask people if they are “fat or skinny.” I was raised in an era where I was told you should never call people fat. I know now that “fat” doesn’t have to carry a negative connotation with it.
I’m going to keep saying the wrong thing. Not because I want to but because it’s hard to keep up. I try my best and I do my research but sometimes it’s not good enough. Luckily I have a polite network of people I am connected to that correct me when I get it wrong. If you’re going to write about race and social justice, you have to be open to being corrected. I know some folks don’t write articles or appear on podcasts because they are afraid they’ll say something offensive. I get that. But for me, a fear of being corrected or misinterpreted is not an excuse to stay quiet and complacent. As a mental health advocate, it’s my duty to speak up and be a good ally. As long as I am making my very best effort to educate myself and be thoughtful in what I say, I’m fine.
If you are open to feedback and don’t take it personally then you should be okay too. And if you start out stating that you’re trying your best and you’re sorry if you mess up then most people will be pretty forgiving.
There will be times where the feedback you get is less than gentle. I’ve gotten angry and upsetting feedback from progressive and liberal people that I said something wrong. It’s not too common, but it happens. Even if I feel reactive or defensive or guilty and ashamed I need to do my very best to understand the message they are sending me. In these situations I suggest you do your best to listen to their point and apologize. If you don’t understand why you are wrong, then Google what you said and learn something new.
Jeff Guenther, LPC, is a therapist in Portland, OR. He has been in private practice since 2005. Jeff is the creator and owner of Portland Therapy Center, a highly ranked therapist directory. Jeff, and his team, have launched a new progressive therapist directory, TherapyDen.