White therapists, talk to your white clients about race.

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This video is for white therapists who are worried about following their client’s lead in session and refraining from talking about race in session because they are fearful about…

therapeutic rupture or alienating their clients,

betraying their training or theoretical orientation to practice in a client-centered way, or

being unethical by imposing an agenda on their clients.

Don’t have time to read this post?  Here’s the gist:

There are guidelines in every ethics code for psychologists, social workers, licensed professional counselors and marriage and family therapists about addressing racism and white privilege in session– even if it is not a stated goal of your client. 

Scroll to the bottom of this post to see excerpts that validate this.

I understand doing this this may be a challenge for you, especially if it’s not a topic you’ve broached before.  Fortunately, it is a skill that gets better with practice.

If you need to be walked through a rationale about why these conversations are an important and ethical part of practice, watch the video and then go study antiracism work with the experts.

See the bottom of the post for a list of referrals for people of color to study with and resources for white therapists looking to grow in this area.

Here’s the basic transcript for the video:

1:30  How do I honor client self determination about the direction of their work while also bringing these topics into the room?  Is that possible to do if a client has not raised that as a goal for their treatment?  Is it ethical to do?

1:50  A few ethical principles at play here.  We don’t impose our values on our clients.

2:10  The question of whether social justice work is a value versus something that could be assumed.  Clearly that cannot be assumed or counted on, and I’m sure people of color have known that for a long time.

2:30  But it’s really important to acknowledge that if as a white therapist, if you are questioning whether or not to bring this in, that the fact that it is something your mind holds as an elective is a very part of the problem.

2:55 Racial justice is very much about trauma.  It is trauma at a global level.  It is built into systems.  That’s why people talk about systemic racism.  Even if you aren’t trained in systems, you know that your clients are a part of systems. Racism and other forms of oppression are aspects of systems we participate and are a part of in in our lives.  These systems differentially impact the mental health of all of us.

3:55  When we think about not imposing our values on our clients and we talk about racism as a value, I guess I really question that because it frames talking about the existence of racism almost as an opinion.

4:25  While I know that we have different lenses for how we approach the work, but my sense is this:  as therapists we broker in trauma and recovery from trauma.  Racism is a large scale trauma that impacts not just people of color, but white people.  Therefore, it is very much in our wheelhouse.  If you are questioning whether that should be in the room, I would ask you why.  Why is that elective?  Why is that something that you need to make a judgment call about?

5:35  For white therapists, this spotlights a place of privilege.

5:55  But what if it causes a rupture?  True.  It is very possible to hold awareness about this in the room and engage in curiosity and conversation about it without beating people over the head with it, without being agenda-ed, to hold it as a lens through which we work.  Seeing people as a part of systems, and making whiteness visible within that system, without imposing that on our clients.

6:33  Do we think about people’s participation in other systems or diagnostic categories, as imposing an agenda on people?  No.

6:50  I understand that doing this might feel like it’s breaking a rule and it’s true and that’s a part of racism at play.

6:55  As a white woman and a people pleaser, this is a huge part of my psyche and my work to undo, which is to not talk about the elephant in the room and to work with other people who are organized similarly.

7:15  Does this mean that we center this as the work for our clients?  No.

7:22  What it means is that we make room in our own minds as we conceptualize our clients and what is going on for them.  And we do this with them all the time.

7:34  If you tell me I am client centered, I follow the client’s lead, absolutely, I understand that, so do I.

7:49  So I value that.  And I also understand that in order for people to make change, people need to have a felt sense of safety—if I am in agenda or judgment, inherently there is a lack of safety.  So you might ask how can you have this value, I don’t know about calling this value, how can you hold this awareness and not be in agenda?  To which I would say:

8:11  It is very possible to hold this in awareness, and to not have agenda about what the client does with that or how they will respond if you bring it up, and that you have no agenda about them changing.  Just as you would with anything else.  Like with parts work and working with firefighters.  If someone is self harming or drinking or dissociating—those are not necessarily firefighters but let’s just pretend for a moment that’s how that person is organized and that’s how those behaviors are operating in their system—I do not wish those parts away, they have a role to play.  So, too, does white privilege, so too does racism.  Why is that any different?

9:01  If you say well that’s political.  If I’m a Christian therapist I’m not supposed to proselytize to my clients if that’s not where they are.  Sure.  True.  There’s a lot of literature that talks about the harm that racism causes physically and emotionally to people of color and white people as well.  That’s to me is qualitatively different than the matter of you having a personal belief about faith and not imposing that on your people.  Do you see the difference?  I think there’s an important difference there.

9:37  I realize you may not agree with me.  The matter of racism has been so politicized that it is seen as political and therefore should not belong in the therapy room.  To that I say, can we broaden this and really think about his from the context of history for a minute and consider that human rights should not be a political issue.  Even though it is.

10:04  As therapists we have a duty to do no harm, that does not mean beating people over the head with an agenda about how they need to change this.  What it does mean is having an awareness about our own blind spots, our own privilege, holding that awareness in the room and periodically checking in about this the same way we would check in about a client lacking awareness or being in the precontemplation stage of change around any other behavior, a firefighter or otherwise.  Where it’s, “You don’t have to change anything about this sweetie, I’m just really curious about where this comes from, and what this feels like for you, and how is it for us to explore this together and to talk about this.”

10:49  And if there’s a rupture, ok.  Let’s go there, let’s tend to that, let’s explore.  Does it put on the table that we have different values or political alignment?  Perhaps.  Can we explore?  What is therapy if not a conversation between two people that’s courageous and explores these pieces?

11:16  I want to meet my people where they are.  Absolutely. I also know from a lifetime of people pleasing that so completely contorting myself to be a blank slate is not the kind of therapist that I want to be– and if there are no ripples in that river at all?  There could probably a few and it would perhaps be to the benefit of the work.

11:40  Some of the most powerful work we do comes through rupture, if it can be repaired and safely tended to.  So if you’re questioning is it possible to bring this lens into the room, to raise this topic, especially if it has never been raised before, especially with your white clients have not had frank conversations about race and racism?  I hope you’ll take these words to heart.

12:11  If you’re a therapist who identifies as feminist, and you are white, I invite you to consider why feminism gets to be a talking point in the room where you work with your mothers and your female-identifying clients and you talk with them about the burdens of sexism but you’re not willing to do it about racism.  I don’t see that we can ethically cherry pick.  It’s all or nothing.  That’s what intersectionality is about.

12:35  We have to have these conversations on all fronts, not just the ones that are nearest our experience.  Especially the ones that are not near our experience, we are likely to have lots of learning to do in those topics.   And that we can cause harm inadvertently by not holding this lens and doing this analysis and thinking about this in our work.

13:01  Racism is trauma.  Trauma is what we do and what we work with and what we heal.  This is simply one more layer of that, a powerful one.  If you’re resisting exploring it in that way, I gently and lovingly invite you to consider why that is.

13:20  If you would like to talk more about this, I am glad to do it.  I will also say I am no expert in this, not by a long shot, and if you would like to advance your learning from people of color who are activists and true specialists, they have a lot of published work that I would strongly recommend and you can find those bodies of work linked in the bottom of this post.  Thank you for watching, I hope you’ll consider what I’ve said.  Take good care.


People of color to support and learn from:

Resmaa Menakem, LCSW, course, podcast, book, instagram, facebook, twitter

Ijeoma Oluo, patreon, book, instagram, facebook, twitter

Ibram Kendi, PhD, books, Antiracism Center, interviews, instagram, facebook, twitter  

Rachel Cargle, patreon, course, the Loveland foundation, instagram, facebook, twitter

Deran Young, LCSW, of Black Therapists Rock, facebook, instagram

Joy Harden Bradford, PhD, of Therapy for Black Girls, podcast, articles, instagram, facebook, twitter

Tiffany McClain, MFT, of Lean In.  Make Bank, podcast


Just a few studies and projects documenting the impact of racial trauma from a 15 second google search:





This list could be so much longer.


Ethical guidelines from the ACA addressing the impact of cultural identity and racism:

ACA Code of Ethics:  https://www.counseling.org/resources/aca-code-of-ethics.pdf

“Section A.  Counselors actively attempt to understand the diverse cultural backgrounds of the clients they serve. Counselors also explore their own cultural identities and how these affect their values and beliefs about the counseling process.

E.5.b.  Counselors recognize that culture affects the manner in which clients’ problems are defined and experienced.”

American Counseling Association—Assessing Client’s Prejudice in Counseling


“Similar to counseling for most other issues, it is not always feasible to expect clients who express prejudices and biases to completely resolve all of their issues. Much of the change in the area of prejudice depends on the factors just discussed and how much clients wish to change this aspect of themselves. However, at minimum it may be important to develop an awareness of the origins and functions of clients’ prejudicial attitudes as a means of better understanding their presenting issues.”

American Psychological Association Guidelines on Race and Ethnicity in Psychology:


“Social structures such as mental health services, research, education, and the discipline of psychology itself are cultured and therefore reflect, create, maintain, or resist ethnocultural hierarchies, racialization, and related systems and hierarchies of privilege and oppression. An understanding of the ubiquitous influences of ethnicity, racialization, power, privilege, and oppression for individuals and communities (Prilleltensky, 2012; Vera & Speight, 2003) is therefore a cornerstone of ethical responsiveness as a psychologist.

Racial and ethnocultural responsiveness thus includes applying psychological theory and science to promote changes to address the root cause of distress (Toporek, Gerstein, Fouad, Roysircar, & Israel, 2006; Vera & Speight, 2003), disrupting discrimination and oppression in various forms, whether at an individual level (e.g., challenging an offensive or discriminatory comments from a colleague) or using the best available science and local knowledge to challenge policies and social practices that systematically create racial and ethnic inequality (e.g., policies that disproportionately punish American Indian, Black, and Latinx youth in schools).”

American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy—Resources for MFTs in a Racialized Climate


“AAMFT encourages authentic dialogue within the MFT community on race and trauma. Marriage and family therapists understand and recognize the systemic effect that oppression, inequity, and overt and covert racism have on individuals in marginalized communities, and have a role in fostering healing and maintaining change.”


“Hot topics such as racism and prejudice can be especially problematic for counselors who value the tenets of multicultural awareness and social justice in their personal and professional lives, making it difficult to respond therapeutically.  Regardless, it is our responsibility as counselors to respect clients’ values. This does not mean, however, that those values cannot be addressed in helpful ways in counseling.

National Association of Social Workers:  Institutional Racism & the social work profession: a call to action


“The responsibility of individual social workers is to recognize that structural racism plays out in their personal and professional lives and to use that awareness to ameliorate its influence in all aspects of social work practice, inclusive of direct practice, community organizing, supervision, consultation, administration, advocacy, social and political action, policy development and implementation, education, and research and evaluation.”

“NASW is committed to social justice for all. Discrimination and prejudice directed against any group are damaging to the social, emotional, and economic well-being of the affected group and of society as a whole.”


Resources for white therapists:

Stages of Racial Identity Development

Stop Hesitating a quick directive guide for talking to your black clients about racial trauma in current events by Elizabeth McCorvey

An invitation to white therapists by Hayden Dawes

Start here, start now:  A guide for white folx who want to do better by Sarah Morrison

Anti-racism Resources by Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein

75 Things White People can do for Racial Justice by Corinne Shutack

Collective Legacy Burdens with Deran Young and Dick Schwartz

Hey, white therapist, here’s where we start with Elizabeth Irias


Come on, y’all.  This is important work.  Please get started.  There’s lots of help available.  You can do this.

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