White Privilege: Carrying Your Own Weight


“To move the needle of diversity, we need to challenge what we believe about ourselves…

…what practical actions can we take to foster diversity in our own lives?”

-Lisa Sherman, President & CEO, The Advertising Council

My Dear Readers,

This week, I want to highlight the actions (or, in some cases, inaction) of mental health clinicians.  We help our patients heal from their trauma, but also often experience feelings of guilt and sense of powerlessness in our own responses to the enormous issues of privilege and racism that exist within the sphere of the work that we do.

I belong to a professional organization of clinical social workers here in Washington State. We, as an organization, have made the commitment to hold annual training sessions on diversity, and this year, the topic is race and privilege.

This year’s class is to be taught by a prominent African-American scholar, a skilled presenter who has a way of assisting others who are uncomfortable with the subject in a manner that feels less intrusive and diffuses tension.  In the invitation letter, the organizer described her admiration for the presenter’s “willingness to make herself vulnerable as a way to engage us and get the conversation going about race and white privilege.”

I do not want to minimize the value of diversity training, but this created a number of concerns for me.  Why invite an African-American speaker to come to an organization consisting predominantly of white privileged individuals, to speak about white privilege and racism?  If we are looking to learn about concerns regarding racism, white privilege, and implicit bias within the white majority, why wouldn’t you bring in a member of the same group to speak to those issues?

Lisa Sherman, President & CEO of The Advertising Council, and a white female, observes the following:

The place to start is at the source: by getting honest about our differences and our unconscious biases towards others.  No matter how open we think we may be, bias affects us all.  According to research by the Perception Institute, 85% of Americans consider themselves to be without bias, when in fact the vast majority of us carry biases that exist and operate beneath our conscious awareness.  We do 98% of our thinking in our unconscious mind.  And that is where we collect and store our implicit biases.

When I think about this in the context of the comment regarding the African-American presenter’s “willingness to make herself vulnerable,” I noticed that this is an example of privilege in and of itself.  It is African-Americans being required to educate white Americans on their own biases instead of white Americans working on those for themselves.  Instead, shouldn’t white Americans look for practical actions to foster diversity in their own lives?  Specifically:

  • What actions will the participants take to impact the lives and the ways people of color and the ways in which they continue to be underrepresented, unseen or dismissed?
  • How does an organization, which prides itself as “non-activist,” take action other than diversity trainings to assist in the lives of people of color knowing that these individuals continue to be underrepresented, unseen or dismissed?

Some suggestions:

  • Identify white diversity trainers. It is time that organizations encourage their membership to look within the white community to educate them rather than consistently place the responsibility and burden on professionals of color to do so.
  • Create safe environments where white members can meet on a regular basis and discuss their feelings of guilt, shame, and learned helplessness.
  • Stop being self-indulgent and take active action within the communities in which they are based and those nearby.
  • Cease offering the diversity training and CEUs at a reduced cost. The actions can be viewed as a bribe by the organization leadership and serves to weaken the purpose and validity of the intended training.

Concluding Words  

The vulnerability of African-American professionals are their own business and their own responsibilities.  It should not be used as a means of assisting others to “look within themselves.”

Most mental health professionals have to continuously practice their own self-care and self-education in order to serve their patients in the best way possible.  Just like you would attend additional training to support new patients, white American mental health professionals must want to examine their own lives, influences, and biases to see where their privilege assists them in a way that it may not assist their colleagues or patients of color.  Once people of color point out the privilege, it is not incumbent upon those people of color to fix that perception for white Americans… they must want to do it themselves—and then, actually do it.

Until the next crossroads…the journey continues…


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