When teaching multicultural counseling courses, I often get questions from White students about how they can leverage their White privilege to help change America’s broken social system that privileges some while oppressing others. In addition to continuing to explore their own White racial identities, I encourage these students to initiate conversations with other White people in their lives about racial injustice. As more White individuals become aware of their White privilege and the racial injustice that exists in our country, greater degrees of systemic change are possible.
Counselors and counselors-in-training are uniquely equipped to facilitate these discussions, given their strong interpersonal skills and passion for advocacy. The goal of the conversation is to invite White individuals to engage in a dialogue about systemic privilege and oppression rather than become defensive. In an effort to assist White individuals who desire to initiate conversations with other White people about racial injustice, this article provides five possible points of discussion.
1) What characteristics do we attribute to race? Since the start of this country, we have fallen prey to an insidious scheme based on faulty logic: attributing characteristics and behaviors to race that have no rational correlation. We do it so frequently and so automatically that it often goes unrecognized. For example, if a Latino contractor does not complete his work satisfactorily, we are tempted to conclude, “Latino contractors cannot be trusted.” We erroneously attribute personal work ethic to race. Or, if we are cut off in traffic by a Black woman, we somehow link her behavior to the fact that she is Black rather than to an isolated driving decision.
When we pause and reflect on what characteristics and behaviors we attribute to race, we may be surprised by what we find. Logically, we know that skin color, eye shape and hair texture have no correlation with an individual’s morality, intelligence or trustworthiness — yet we have been socialized to make these associations. This is something that we need to unlearn.
Consider what would happen if someone watched a documentary about Charles Manson and concluded that he was a cult leader because he was White. We likely would explain that Manson’s role as a cult leader was the result of myriad factors (psychological state, early childhood experiences, environment, etc.) and that his behavior cannot be attributed to his race. In the same way, we need to examine the correlations we make between a person’s race and her or his personal characteristics or behaviors. How logical are these attributions?
2) Do we desire people of color to “act White”? Many White people are genuinely trying to learn how to be culturally competent, but sometimes they can get stuck in a particular mentality: “I enjoy diversity … just as long as people of color act/talk/think in ways that I am familiar with.” Whether intentionally or unintentionally, we may encourage people of color to deemphasize their unique cultural identities to fit into the mold of White cultural norms. As a result, many people of color expend a lot of energy working to make White people feel comfortable around them (such as expressing only certain aspects of themselves while in the company of White individuals).
What is the cause of our desire for people of color to “act White”? It’s likely that we feel more at ease with what is familiar to us. There is a certain way of being that we deem “normal,” and it makes us comfortable when people behave accordingly. Therefore, the desire for people of color to “act White” is for our comfort.
Sadly, we rarely consider the discomfort that people of color face as they navigate White cultural norms every day. Often, their culturally diverse ways of being are not reflected back by those around them. As a result, people of color are forced to learn all the nuances of White cultural norms, whereas White individuals know very little about the cultural norms of other racial/ethnic groups.
What would it be like to let go of the strong grasp we have on our own cultural preferences and enter into the preferences of others (despite the unfamiliarity)? “Different” doesn’t have to be synonymous with “negative”; different can be exciting, invigorating, enlightening. Can we create space for all people to be proud of their cultural identities and to express those identities in whatever ways they choose?
3) Do we acknowledge that multiple interpretations exist for past and current events? Education is an amazing gift, and the opportunity to learn is something we should never take for granted or outgrow. At the same time, we must acknowledge that the stories we’ve read and the accounts we’ve learned in school represent one perspective, one side of the story. Authors of textbooks and class curricula write from their own frames of reference — they are not neutral, blank slates who simply report the facts. These authors make interpretations, derive meaning and present information from their personal lenses. It is important to consider that authors from different cultural backgrounds may have different interpretations, derive different meanings and present information differently, simply due to their frame of reference.
Consider an example from history: the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Depending on the perspective of the storyteller, this could have been a brutal uprising against the Spanish who were dedicated to bettering the community (Spanish as protagonists) or a liberating revolt in which oppressed Pueblo Native Americans took back the land that was rightfully theirs (Native Americans as protagonists). There are always multiple perspectives to every event, and it is important for us to consider differing viewpoints. Can we concede that what we think we know is only one perspective and that multiple, equally valid viewpoints exist?
4) Does defensiveness keep us from truly listening to people of color? It is important to consider what comes up for us when we hear people of color share their experiences of oppression. If our initial response is defensiveness, it is likely that our focus in that moment is off. Rather than focusing on the lived experience of the speaker, we are focused on what the information says about us. We are not attending to the oppression of our neighbors and how they feel; instead, we are attending to the impact of the information on our own sense of self.
One strategy that can help us maintain the proper focus is to listen with the goal of understanding rather than evaluating. Often when we listen, we are evaluating what we have just heard (Is this information right or wrong? Do I agree or disagree? What does this mean about me?) and simultaneously developing responses and counterpoints in our head. This process keeps the focus on us — our reactions, our beliefs and our assessment — and gets in the way of truly listening. There certainly are times when evaluation in conversation is necessary, but when people of color are sharing their experiences of oppression, it is more helpful to listen with the intent to understand, not to evaluate.
If we feel ourselves becoming defensive, we should do a quick mental check-in: “Am I evaluating what is being said and focusing on what it means about me?” If so, perhaps we should press pause and mentally switch our focus back to the speaker (“What was that like for her? How did she feel when it happened? How did this experience affect her life?”). When a person of color shares her or his experience, can we truly listen with the goal of understanding rather than evaluating?
5) We could do nothing about racial injustice, but do we want to? If we are honest, we all know that something is wrong with our social system. It is clear that people are treated differently as a result of their race. Consider two high school students (one White and one Black) who get caught with marijuana. Sadly, it is more likely that one of these students will be sent home with a warning (to a family who will “get him back on track”), while the other will be ushered into the criminal justice system. Or consider two identically qualified job applicants — one with the last name Jones and the other with the last name Hussain — who submit their résumés for an open position. Again, it is likely that one will get the interview because he seems like a “better fit,” whereas the other will stay on the job market.
We know, just by looking at the world around us, that inequity exists and that things are unjust. We also know that we can go our whole lives without saying or doing anything about it. We can choose to live in silent disapproval and never challenge the status quo, but is that what we want? Saying and doing nothing despite evidence of racial injustice likely means that we are living in opposition to our values (e.g., equality, justice, respect for the innate worth of all human beings), which can lead to incongruence and cognitive dissonance.
Also, if we allow our unjust system to continue, we likely will never experience the true joy that comes from living in a diverse community and celebrating cultural differences. We will not have the opportunity to see the world from different perspectives or to feel the excitement of experiencing new cultural norms. We may never form deep, meaningful relationships with those from different racial/ethnic backgrounds or experience the gifts that come only through diverse friendships. If we remain silent, we may be living life, but are we living it to its fullest? Those with privilege have a responsibility to leverage their unearned advantages to combat injustice and oppression. What does that look like for us personally?
There are many more talking points to consider, but these might help start conversations with White people in our spheres of influence. Let’s remember that as counselors, we have a unique set of interpersonal skills that can be extremely useful when facilitating conversations about racial injustice. We are primed to listen well, validate, and gently present alterative viewpoints. Perhaps we can all commit to using our skills to facilitate meaningful dialogue that could lead to lasting, systemic change.
Amanda L. Giordano is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Development Services at the University of Georgia. Her research interests include addictions counseling, multiculturalism, and religious and spiritual issues in counseling. She is a licensed professional counselor and national certified counselor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.