This is How I Address White Fragility in my Therapy Practice. How Do You?

Jeff Guenther on Feb 24, 2019

This blog is directed towards mental health therapists and how they do, or no not, address white fragility with their clients. For your reference, I am a white cisgender male. 

Robin DiAngelo, who recently wrote a book about “white fragility” coined the term. She defines it as "a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves” from a white a person. A white person may be able to admit that racism exists, needs be addressed and causes significant systemic problems. But when you point out how they could be perpetuating racism or contributing to the systemic issues they automatically get defensive. Which can make it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to have a discussion with them about how they can change their behavior and thinking in order to stop their racist behaviors. 

I created TherapyDen, a national therapist directory, and have included White Privilege and Fragility as a speciality that users can select when searching for a therapist. Unsurprising to me, it’s one of the least selected issues when people are filtering for a therapist. White people who suffer from white fragility typically aren’t aware of their fragility and are not seeking counseling for it. However, it does show up in my office with some of my white clients — predominately in white, cis-gendered, heterosexual men. 

I feel like it’s my responsibility as a therapist to address the fragility when it’s displayed in my office. I take the same approach with other issues that come up for my clients that they are not aware of. Of course, a certain level of trust and rapport needs to be built before I bring up white fragility. I can’t spring it on them in the first session. It’s not what they have come to therapy for and I need to respect that. 

White fragility on the internet

white fragility

The easiest place to spot white fragility is in the comments section of many pages on the internet. I decided to write this blog because of a recent onslaught of ugly comments and reviews left by white people about a movie that hasn’t even been released yet. I am referencing the soon to be released Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel stars Brie Larson, who said in a recent interview with Keah Brown: 

"About a year ago, I started paying attention to what my press days looked like and the critics reviewing movies, and noticed it appeared to be overwhelmingly white and male. So, I spoke to Dr. Stacy Smith at the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, who put together a study to confirm that. Moving forward, I decided to make sure my press days were more inclusive. After speaking with you, the film critic Valerie Complex and a few other women of color, it sounded like across the board they weren’t getting the same opportunities as others. When I talked to the facilities that weren’t providing it, they all had different excuses.”

This comment caused major backlash and a trove of primarily white men (you can tell they are white men from the photos next to their comment) took to the popular review site Rotten Tomatoes in order to sink the movie’s ratings and make sure it doesn’t perform well when it’s released next week. This is a perfect example of white fragility. Brie Larson makes a comment that she believes in inclusively and diversity and wants to be interviewed by disabled people and people of color and now white men are offended and feeling attacked so they are trying to tank the success of the film by leaving bad reviews in order to sink it’s rating. 

white fragility
white fragility
white fragility
white fragility

As a therapist, what would you do if a white man came into your office and started to display this sort of white fragility? Like me in the past, you might move past it and try to talk about something else. If they are there to talk about their anxiety then why focus on the complicated topic of white fragility, right? It’s really easy for us counselors to say something like that to ourselves. But there’s a chance that we are avoiding it because it makes us feel uncomfortable and we don’t exactly know what to say or how to address it. Well, let me tell you how I bring it up with my clients. 

How I have brought up white fragility in therapy sessions

I’m not going to claim that I am an expert on how to bring up white fragility with my clients. But I do give it a lot of thought and I find the topic of white privilege and fragility really fascinating. I see it as something that I am obligated to bring up in session as a therapist. It’s my job to reveal aspects of my clients that they themselves are not aware of and that may be getting in the way of living a peaceful and fulfilled life. The following examples are statements I’ll use when I want to address white fragility. They have all worked pretty well when starting the conversation. 

  • “I want to tell you about how I am experiencing you right now because others in your life may be experiencing you the same way. And I feel like it’s my duty as your therapist to bring this up even though it might be hard to hear.”
  • “Can I interrupt you for a second? This is going to be uncomfortable to bring up but while you were talking about your anger towards Brie Larson it really felt like it was coming from a place of defensiveness. And I wonder if we could drill down a bit further and figure out what that’s all about.”
  • “In the past I have said similar things that you’re saying right now and the outcome hasn’t been very ideal. People of color, women, disabled people and other folks have been really offended when I go off about…”
  • “Okay. In past sessions you have repeatedly said you want to find and keep a girlfriend and that you are unsure of why it’s so hard for you to maintain a relationship with a woman. What you just said is a good example of what could be causing that. Let me tell you how you might be coming off to women that you’re attracted to because it’s important to me that you know what could be getting in the way. And this is something that you can really look at and have more control over.” 
  • “Let’s pause for a second. You are coming off as really angry and upset right now. You feel like you’re being discriminated against. You feel like what you’re experiencing isn’t fair and that you’re being judged based on your gender and the color of your skin. You feel like you’re missing out on opportunities just because you look and present a certain way. Can you imagine what that’s like for a person of color that has experienced this feeling on a daily basis every since they were a child?”
  • “You seem really triggered and activated right now. Out of curiosity, have you heard of the term white fragility?”
  • “Here’s the thing. I know that you are aware of what white fragility is. But I think you only think of it in terms of “extreme white fragility.” Like the kind that showed itself in Charlottesville. That’s not what we are talking about here. You are not one of those horrible people marching in Charlottesville. However, what you are displaying is a more subtle form of white fragility that is still really serious. It’s harder to detect but I think it’s coming through in some of the things you’ve said today.”
  • “I want to say something that I think you might be offended by. But you’re paying me to challenge you so I feel like it’s my responsibility to bring this up. When I say it you might feel defensive, offended and angry. You might think I am making too big of a deal out this. And I get that. I want to hear about how you feel. But you have said that you want to grow as a person and I think there is a lot of opportunity for growth here.”

I know that with all of the above statements I am tip toeing around their fragility. But if I am not careful, I will come on too strong and I could cause a rupture in the therapeutic relationship. 

I have talked to many therapists that don’t believe it’s our duty, or in the scope or our practice, to bring up topics like this. But personally, I feel as though it’s important to bring up with all my clients that might be suffering from white fragility. I want them to be successful in the world and if I bring something up that could be getting in the way of their success then I feel like I am doing the job that they are paying me for. 

If you are a therapist and you feel competent enough to bring up white fragility or white privilege in session, please consider signing up for a profile with TherapyDen and selecting it as an issue that you can treat. The more we in the mental health community normalize it as an issue that needs to be studied and addressed, the more we’ll be able to challenge racism and make it a topic that can be brought up a little more easily.

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.

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