The Usefulness of Counseling White People on Racism

I’m a biracial Black woman from the United States, and I’ve been in RC for sixteen years. Over the last couple of years, I’ve done some experimenting with counseling white people I’m close to on racism. It’s been useful for me and for them. I’ve even found it fun and inspiring!

For a long time I was pretty1 opposed to the idea of counseling white people on racism. I have a Black father and a white mother, and I was raised by two white parents after the age of five. They were well meaning and politically liberal but not able to be much of a resource to my brother and me in the area of racism. And like many children, I was a frequent counselor to my parents. By the time I found RC, I felt pretty well2 done with paying attention to white people’s feelings about racism.

I have certainly given permission over the years to white Co-Counselors, who I know will work on it thoughtfully, to work on racism with me—in particular in mixed situations in which we have been working on racism as a group. At other times, white Co-Counselors have started working on racism, either directly or indirectly, without asking and have shown things that were hard on me. I have then struggled to speak up, and we have fumbled through.

I’ve worked on addressing those moments more often and more quickly—expecting my counselors to be more effective allies and not to be careless with my resource. But lately, I have begun experimenting with intentionally counseling white people on racism and the chronic material3 that holds it in place for them. And it’s been going well.

I had a white regular Co-Counselor for ten years whom I would occasionally listen to about her heartbreak related to racism in her childhood. That was my first try at what has recently become my more concerted effort, and it went well. It was easy to remember how good she was, and is, and she worked really honestly on how the racism had impacted her.

About two years ago, I challenged a white Co-Counselor of mine, while I was client, on where she holds back in our relationship. It led to her unoccluding some early memories related to racism, and to realizing more deeply how her chronic material, racism, and our relationship are connected. We were about to be at a couple of workshops together, and both at and between those workshops we did several more sessions in which we went back and forth working on racism and our relationship. This was the first time I had explicitly decided to counsel a white person directly on racism. She and I both discharged hard, and got a lot closer quickly, by taking this on4 together. We made a commitment to each other that it would be a shared long-term project.

Last fall, I was at a workshop with another white Co-Counselor whom I love, and who I’ve been getting a lot closer to over the last year and a half. Since we first connected about a decade ago, it has been clear to me that this white man has some perspective about racism that has a noteworthy level of integrity. This has been a big contradiction5 to me as a Black female, and it was a key part of why I wanted a relationship with him. At this recent workshop we spent a lot of time together, and during one of our longer sessions, a childhood memory related to racism came up for him and he asked if it was okay with me to work on it. I said yes, and it went well. I could so clearly see the reality of who he was, and it wasn’t hard on me to listen to him fight for himself while he faced what it’s like to be in the oppressor role.

I decided later that I wanted another chance to counsel him in that spot, and to offer some additional perspective based on our relationship, so we did that in a mini-session near the end of the workshop. Another success! I drew his attention to the integrity I’d noticed, and what a difference it had made to me and to other Black women I knew, and he discharged hard and fought to take on6 the perspective I had about him. After counseling him, I discharged hard on the hope I felt that maybe we really could end this oppression. Once I got home, I decided I wasn’t done, and so I proposed that some of our phone sessions be ones in which I counsel him on racism. He agreed; we’ve done some already, and it’s gone well. I’m excited to keep experimenting!

This experiment has been really useful for me and for the people I’ve decided to counsel. Here are some ways it’s been useful and some strategies that have made it work well.

What’s been useful for me:

I’ve been able to have sessions in which I more easily look directly at racism—both before and after counseling these white people, and generally over time.

Counseling white people on racism vaults me out of the victim position. I have a stronger sense of my power and my mind, and I feel more powerful about ending racism in particular.

I can see the difference I am making to the person, and I can tell7 it’s a significant contribution to the larger effort to end racism.

I feel so much closer to the person I’m counseling. Making this choice requires me to open my heart even wider. And for my white Co-Counselors, showing me this material requires them to be more vulnerable as clients.

I feel more hopeful about the long-term project of ending racism. This has been a really important effect. Counseling these clients has given me another glimpse of hope every time I do it.

I get reminded of the humanity of white people. Given the brutality of racism, it can be easy for all of us to confuse white people with the patterns that keep racism in place. When I’ve decided to counsel white people here, I have a clearer path to seeing past those patterns and finding the person underneath.

I gain confidence about interrupting people who begin to client on oppressor material without my permission, and I have higher expectations of my Co-Counselors that they be thoughtful about me in this area.

What looks useful to my white clients:

My clients are reminded of their goodness because I am so clear about it, and I have a perspective on them that is so outside of their own.

They can discharge hard when faced with how much I love them, and how I’ve decided to take on this challenge to back8 their re-emergence and to get closer to them.

It provides a live contradiction to the common confusion that we are fighting this battle separately.

They are taking a more powerful position when they rise to my expectation that they face the distresses of racism head-on,9 and not use my attention to dramatize how bad they feel.

I think they move faster through the oppressor material when they do face it head-on, and don’t get distracted by the pull to pay attention to how bad they feel about it.

Where the patterns of racism make white people hold back from people of the global majority, doing this kind of project together is clearly a major contradiction—it requires them to take big steps toward me, with their full selves.

My taking a stand against my own powerlessness means they have more of the real me in front of them, and I think this contributes to their being able to have big sessions.

Strategies that have made it go well:

It’s been important for me to choose white people to counsel who have already done a lot of work on racism and their oppressor role, as they have probably developed a sense of what their material looks like and how to be thoughtful about what they work on with people of the global majority.

It’s also been important that I have done a lot of work on racism and internalized racism myself before trying this experiment.

It’s made a difference to counsel them on racism for a short turn the first time, or first several times, so I can see how it goes and what comes up for me. Sometimes, if we have a long time to work with, we have gone back and forth so that I can discharge on what gets restimulating as we go. And whether we’re doing a mini or something longer, I almost always take my turn second, so that I have a chance to discharge hard on any restimulations that have come up while counseling them.

Assisting and expecting them to face the oppressor distresses10 directly has been critical to their working openly on the chronic recordings that are the foundation and to their not using my attention to dramatize how bad they feel about racism.

It has also worked best so far for them to use these sessions to work on the feelings and chronic patterns that propel them in their oppressor role, without spelling out the content of their racism.

Being open and direct when things get hard has been really important, though it is not always easy. I have so far found that it is always better for me to say something when things get hard in relationship to this project, rather than to go quiet—even if it’s uncomfortable or I feel like I don’t know the “best” way to bring it up. It brings us closer together, and we both usually discharge hard on whatever early distresses get restimulated in those moments.

Using the added resource of workshops to do these experiments is really what made them possible in the first place. When I can get the daily restimulations about racism cleared out of my way, get my feet under me more solidly, and feel more closely connected than I might on an average weekday at home, I have much more to offer as counselor, of both my heart and my mind. And at a workshop I can have some confidence that there will be resource and time to discharge thoroughly if it doesn’t go as well as I hoped, though so far it always has. It’s been fun to leverage those moments, and sometimes also the extra attention I have post-workshop, to take another leap forward in this work.

I get into agreement with my clients that they’ll work on racism with me when we’ve made a plan, or I’ve offered, or they’ve asked me—that our doing this project doesn’t mean they should automatically feel free to work on it anytime it’s up for them.11 That’s important to me, because sometimes I don’t have the slack and sometimes I do. I’m quite close with each of these people, and I want to do this project with them. Even so, sometimes the internalized racism makes it hard for me to speak up if they start working on racism without my permission at a moment when I don’t have the slack to be their counselor. So continuing to be clear about when it’s okay with me has been important.

Some of my most forward-moving sessions on racism have been after counseling these beloved white Co-Counselors on their oppressor material. I’m finding that there’s a big contradiction in taking charge of moving my oppressor forward—in opening my heart and daring to move closer not in spite of the oppression, but in the face of it.

I would encourage any people of the global majority who have a close relationship with a white person who you think can client strategically to try this for yourselves. And I’d love to hear what you have tried and learned in this area.

Shani Fletcher
Roslindale, Massachusetts, USA


1 “Pretty” means quite.
2 “Pretty well” means mostly.
3 “Material” means distress.
4 In this context, “taking this on” means undertaking this.
5 Contradiction to distress
6 In this context, “take on” means adopt.
7 “Tell” means see.
8 Distress recordings
9 “It’s up for them” means they’re feeling it.

 


Last modified: 2019-05-02 14:41:35+00