Jeff Guenther on Jun 10, 2018
Yes, white privilege should be listed on a therapist directory. And that’s why it’s listed on TherapyDen. Honestly, it didn’t even cross my mind to not list it.
White privilege exists and it is our job to educate ourselves and our clients about it in an effort to do our part to build a better world.
Using myself as an example, I want to take you on a journey of my ongoing development with white privilege and point out how much I (and others like me) really could have benefitted from a therapist who specializes in white privilege and uses a racial justice framework in counseling. And if you’re white, I really hope you read this article all the way through. I think you’ll be able to identify with many of my cringeworthy experiences.
But before I really dive in, I’d like to remind everyone that we live in a racist society. And that white people have been the ones to contribute to the racism. White people causing racism isn’t a very controversial thing to say. However, I’m also talking directly to you, the well meaning white person who is reading this article right now. You, my fellow white person, might feel like you haven’t done anything that’s racist. But you probably have. Actually, I’m sure you have. You just might not be aware of it. But people of color have been and you can absolutely be more mindful of your actions. I’m not here to make you feel guilty about it though. I’m here to open your eyes to it. We live in a society where white skin is valued above non-white skin. If you’re not thinking about your white privilege, then that means you’re inadvertently complicit in the harm that racism creates. And it also might mean that you’re experiencing alienation from people of color. Or possibly from other white people that are getting more in touch with their white privilege.
Side note: That last paragraph was really tricky to write. I’m not sure how successful it was. I’m basically calling all white people racist in the most gentle way I can so that they can try to get in contact with it and engage in curiosity. I don’t want white people to strongly disagree, blow me off and stop reading all together. Which I’m sure some people have already done. Ironically, I’m trying to use my whiteness (or white privilege) to connect with white people in a way that doesn’t feel aggressive. Since the white reader knows that I’m white that might cause them to be less reactive to my words.
Also, I have developed a fill in the blank worksheet that can really shine a light on where, specifically, your privilege is. It helps uncover blind spots you might have. Click here and I’ll send you a copy.
I am a white male and I feel like I’ve had a pretty typical relationship with the concept of white privilege throughout my life. I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood. It wasn’t until 10th grade, back in 1996, when the term “white privilege” was introduced to me. It was in a social studies class and we had a guest speaker that day. The speaker was black and he was teaching our class about racism and oppression. Along with the topic of white privilege, he spoke about microaggressions and reparations.
After the presentation, I talked amongst my white friends about white privilege and we all reacted in similar ways. We were defensive. Keep in mind that I was 15 at the time and being defensive defined my entire identity, but I probably felt extra prickly about white privilege. As you can imagine, in typical white kid fashion, I originally took white privilege to mean that I should feel guilty about what I have in life and that I haven’t truly worked hard to earn it. That things come easy to me just because of my skin color.
That felt unfair. I felt like I had a very tough life and the odds were stacked against me and if everything was supposed to work out for me then why didn’t I get that job at Hot Topic in the mall! I wanted it bad! I even filled out the stupid application using a different color of crayon for each word just like they told me to. I died my hair purple and wore my Full House Uncle Jesse t-shirt that was just the right amount of dorky and cool. Instead, I had to work at dumb Boston Market as a cashier, which was so much less glamorous.
Yeah I remember my little 15 year old brain really riled up about that. At that stage in my life I couldn’t even start to integrate what white privilege was. I was living an incredibly privileged life, but I couldn’t see that or admit it to myself. It felt like white privilege was an attack on my character. I took it personally and I couldn’t understand it objectively.
And I imagine some white people get stuck right there for the rest of their lives. They stay on the defensive and take it as an attack. They see it as a made up term by the political left in order to make them feel shitty about themselves. Or something like that. These are the people that could really benefit from talking to a therapist about white privilege. Not because they are mentally ill or crazy and need to be fixed, but because there are so many fiery emotions that are tied up in it. A therapist can sort through the underlying feelings. It would be messy and feel confusing, but a therapist could sit with a client in a non-judgmental way and explore everything coming up.
While I didn’t see a therapist for individual counseling, I did happen to spend a lot of time talking to the school counselor. I liked the school counselor. She listened to me and kept my secrets safe. While I may not have been open to direct confrontation of my racist beliefs she could have attempted to plant some seeds. She could have talked to me about what people of color experience. She could have given me more information about the historical trauma people of color have faced. If there was anyone that could have gotten through to me, it was her.
Her job would have been difficult though. I felt like my biggest problem was being judged unfairly for my purple spiky hair and polished black nails. Sure, I chose to dye my hair and paint my nails, but it didn’t really feel like a choice to me. It felt like it was an extension of who I really was.
God, I do not miss that 15 year old brain of mine. I mean, I can look back at my 15 year old self with compassion. But I was a serious turd. Sorry mom and dad. And everyone else.
Fast forward to grad school. I’m now 23 and I just entered the marriage and family therapy program at the University of Southern California. My cohort is small. Maybe around 30 people. And it’s pretty diverse. I’m one of the few men in class. It’s mostly women, as is typical for our profession, and probably about half the students are people of color. In the second year of the program, it’s time to take our cultural diversity class. The professor is a young Asian-American Ph.D. student. Many of the class topics are on growing up in a different ethnic culture and the significance this plays in developing your personality and moving through life. A lot of students in the class were able to contribute useful stories about growing up in the country as a non-white person.
I could still hear my 15 year old narrative chirping up in the back of my head. But I wasn’t as jumpy at the ripe old age of 24. I was very mature and I told myself that every day thank you very much. Instead of jumping to the defense, I decided to listen and be open to their stories. And this is painful to admit, but I’m sure at that time I felt like I deserved some sort of award in the form of a medal that I could pin to my bomber jacket next to my favorite 90’s punk rock bands. I mean seriously, everyone needs to see what an evolved white person I am. Listening to all these diverse stories and being so open to different realities. I thought I was miles ahead of my white family and friends. And maybe I was. But what was really happening is that I was privileged enough to go to my cultural diversity class once a week to take part in some deep thinking, only to conveniently forget it all when I stepped out the door of the classroom.
Ugh. You know, I kinda respect the 15 year old more than 24 year old me because at least I was honest about the emotions I was experiencing and not on some pretend high horse about how fucking evolved I was. Makes me want to barf. But at least I was less offensive. Or maybe just offensive in a different way.
I did see a regular therapist at this time, but I almost exclusively talked about how incredibly devastated I was because the love of my life, Marisa, broke my heart into a million pieces. And no matter how much I listened to Death Cab for Cutie and Jimmy Eat World sing about the tragedies of falling in love, once I got talking about my lost love nothing would really derail the topic of conversation with my very inexperienced but well-meaning Ph.D. student therapist collecting hours for his practicum.
But he did ask me about school every time I came in. And if he could keep me on the topic I would sometimes go into detail about things that were being discussed in class. And I know I talked about the cultural diversity class I was attending. Now this is tricky because I’m not specifically going to see him to talk about white privilege or racism. So is it his responsibility to steer the conversation in that direction if all I really want to talk about is my grief? I think we might all answer this question in different ways. Personally, I think it is the job of a counselor to address it. Or at the very least bump up against it a few times to see how receptive I’d be.
At that age, in my current situation, why would I bring up white privilege? I thought I was “evolved” and that I didn’t see color. But if my therapist specialized in talking about white privilege, then they might have been able to gently challenge my “post-racism” views and push me in a way that could have revealed how guarded I was. They could have shined a light on the fact that I was simply hiding behind a convenient made up belief that I truly understood what it was like to be a person of color. Obviously I really didn’t know what it was like to experience life as a person of color. Deep down, I felt guilty and ashamed. I felt like a fucking idiot. I felt like I was in over my head whenever I went to that class. I experienced my white fragility in a real way, but I experienced it alone inside of my head. I covered it all up with the belief that I was evolved. A talented therapist can call you out on this. A therapist that you have a trusting relationship with that you are paying so they can challenge you and help you grow should call you out on this in a compassionate way.
I have a better understanding of racism and oppression now. I don’t know everything, but I am eager to learn more. I read books, go to trainings, follow activists on twitter, write articles about my process and how others like me can become more aware. I feel super motivated to do something about racial injustice and I feel like I’m fighting the good fight.
I also know that because I am white and live in a society that allows me to forget about my privilege and not be aware of it at all times, that every now and then I will do or say something that is ignorant or not fully attentive to every aspect of racial and social injustice. And if that happens, I am 100% open to feedback. I don’t want anyone to worry about my white fragility. If someone feels inspired to let me know honestly and directly how I am coming across, I will be more than willing to address the issue.
I cannot claim and I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in the field of racism and oppression. It’s something that I will continue to learn about and I will gladly defer to experts that can speak about it better than I can.
I do feel confident in speaking about the responsibility that we have, as therapists and good global citizens, to become more aware and to help our clients do the same.
I think it’s important for white people to ask themselves what they can do to move our society forward. What are you good at? Where is your strongest talent? Take that thing and do something important with it. Personally, I am really good at making online therapist directories. Can’t you tell?? So I have created an online mental health community that has a mandate to challenge racism, homophobia and all other forms of discrimination. This mandate is carried out on the site with inclusive, representative search filters, featured content and philanthropic support of like-minded organizations.
This website isn’t going to solve everything, but it’s at least going to do something. It’s going to help a person of color find a therapist who is specifically trained in a racial justice framework. It’s going to share content from a wide range of diverse voices. And it’s going to help well-meaning, but maybe slightly ignorant, white people find therapists who will challenge them to acknowledge their white privilege and help them find ways to actively combat our inherently racist society.
So yes, white privilege absolutely belongs in the issues list on a therapist directory. A therapist that specializes in white privilege can help you think about how you can create a more meaningful and purpose filled life. They can help you come up with ways to be a good ally and part of the solution – rather than the problem. They can help uncover fears that are holding you back. They can help you prepare for tough conversations that you want to have with your family, friends or colleagues about diversity, inclusion or racial justice.
Although I wasn’t actively looking for it at the time, I wish that one of my past therapists had gently challenged me to look at that aspect of myself a little harder. I’m almost 40 and I don’t want to move through these white privilege stages as slowly as I have in the past. I want to keep learning and do more, faster. I know there is more growth for me to experience and I want to be open to it every time. Looking back at my journey, I am happy that I’m at least headed in the right direction. However, I still think it’s complete bullshit that I didn’t get that Hot Topic job.
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.