Why Ignoring Whiteness Is Harmful: 5 Ways To Change Racist Patterns

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He was a Black man, a school counselor, speaking to our group about his experience working with kids in Minnesota.

He looked out over the sea of white therapists and said what we were all thinking: "I have one question. Where are your Black people?"

This annual psychotherapy conference was a favorite of mine. But, the overwhelming predominance of white bodies in the group said it all.

"Once again," I grimaced. "I've managed to surround myself with people who basically look and act like me."

I felt ashamed and frustrated. I never wanted to feel racist, not at all! 

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Could a life surrounded by white people mean anything about how racism showed up in my own life?

Later that weekend, I met up with some other concerned therapists worried about the fact that this conference was predominantly attended by white people.

We openly discussed how we felt about being in such a segregated group and what we could do to correct the problem.

Though it was obvious that societal racism was the basic issue, we realized we needed to address it personally before we could do anything else.

The simple lunch meeting at that 2015 conference led me into a two-and-a-half-year project with several other therapists.

We worked in dyads and in group conversations using a therapeutic model called Internal Family Systems to help us get clear and to unburden racist thinking and behavior — starting inside ourselves.

A crash course to understand my own whiteness — and racist blind spots.

In 2020, despite (or maybe due to) my years of work on racism, felt like I was in a crash course to understand my own whiteness.

The layer upon layer of ignorance residing within me continually amazes me.

In fairness, it's so hard to see what we've inherited, breathed in, and swallowed for our entire lives.

Here's one of the most important things I've learned: Once you begin to notice the truth about what it means to be white in this world, you just can't stop seeing the privilege and double standards absolutely everywhere.

And I've learned that racist patterns respond a lot like the worrying parts in our personality. It seems like it's better to ignore or deny them, but when met with curiosity and compassion, they heal.

White people: Don't put your head in the sand about privilege and racism.

If you’re white and you tend to worry, I know it can feel good to put your head in the sand and just go on with your life.

Unfortunately, that won’t help you. You see, if you ignore the plight of anyone who has been systematically discriminated against and thought of as less important, you ultimately harm yourself.

I don’t mean this in a self-concerned way. It’s just truth.

See the canary drop and watch the coal miners die. Ignore the coral and watch the whole ocean collapse. Disregard the high maternal mortality rate of impoverished people in this country, watch when it hits your pregnant white friends.

Dismiss the opioid deaths in inner-city and extreme rural communities, see your suburban friends’ children die.

Black people have always been treated as second-class in our society. It's time to acknowledge, address, understand, and heal yourself of literally centuries of lies and bias.

Here are 5 ways to change your racist patterns.

1. Read, read, read.

Make sure the information is accurate and complete.

To get started, you can check out the following resources:

Anti-Racism Daily: A daily email newsletter with enlightening and well-written essays.

The Great Unlearn: A platform to educate and inspire, written by Rachel Cargle.

My Grandmother's Hands: A book and workbook to heal radicalized trauma by Resmaa Menakem.

2. Listen and learn from those who know.

This means Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC).

3. Do your own work.

Use a number of tools so that you can help biased and racist parts of you from an open and compassionate place.

4. Keep in mind that your pain doesn't compare.

When you recognize the ways we are trained to protect white culture as supreme, it feels painful.

But, it’s never as hard as being the ones tortured by those lies.

5. Be willing to make mistakes and look foolish.

Occasionally, you'll say the wrong thing. Still, you need to keep going.

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I was raised in the '60s and '70s in an overwhelmingly white rural community and, as a little girl, received various messages.

For example, I was told that everyone is the same. Never mind that we don’t know any Black people.

Black people are a different race from us. But, by nature, they can be cool, especially talented, and often hilarious. Look at the Jackson 5, Flip Wilson, Sammy Davis Jr., Moms Mabley, and Shaft.

Black people are also often shown on news stories of arson, murder, and theft.

By the time I was in college, I felt so confused about Black people, I didn’t know how to relate to them.

When I was around the one or two people who I knew shared or assimilated to my culture and dressed and spoke as I did, I could calm down enough to try and socialize.

When I met urban Black students from Chicago at college, I felt confused and disappointed. (Yes, I know, this thinking is completely embarrassing, but I’m owning it anyway.)

I felt anger (toward them) that was protecting a deep sense of shame (toward myself).

If you're white and it frightens you to look at yourself and your biases, prejudices, and outright racism, you're in good company.

In fact, it's so tough to look at that white people have, over the years, responded with various ideas to help us feel better.

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These include rejecting the idea that we see people's skin color and make immediate and sometimes unconscious opinions.

How often have you heard or said, "I don't see color! And I hate being called white or identifying that way."

Simple denial solves nothing.

Similarly, we deny our own culture. This has been a stance of people who live in white bodies and feel terrible about the behavior toward BIPOC.

I lived here for a very long time and occasionally still visit this position. It sounds like this: "We as white people are horrible. I cannot stand my culture!"

This statement, while it might feel accurate, serves no one. The point is not to hate yourself or your origins. It's to be able to care enough about yourself to heal the wrongs while you seek justice for everyone.

We can know for sure that everyone is a person and as valuable as another.

But, to imagine that anyone has the power to just dismiss the dismal bigotry and oppression that Black people endure by denying white culture or by proclaiming color as no longer relevant by any other shortcut, is the arrogant assumption of the privileged.

In our society, white skin is either invisible or preferred. This is not true for Black and brown bodies.

Anti-racism work is painful, haunting, humbling, frightening, and frustrating.

Still, it's nothing compared to the trauma of simply being a black body in the United States.

I'm not advocating doing anti-racist work as a self-improvement course. However, if we want to improve life for all beings, we must address racism.

And, if you, like me, are living in a white body, confronting white privilege and healing racism has incredible systemic effects on your life and the planet.

When you confront white privilege and work to heal racism, it benefits everyone.

You have the opportunity to gain compassion for the Earth and all its beings, decrease your own ambiguous anxiety, and gain self-confidence.

You can also move toward more authentic relationships and clarify other burdens that hold people down like body shaming, perfectionism, classism, etc.

You can help transform the burdens of your own ancestors and pass a better future to your children.

Developing daily awareness of safety and wholeness in a diverse community allows you to be open to and enjoy the gifts of all those around you.

You can increase your understanding of accurate history and remove automatic body cues of danger placed there through generations of conditioning.

You'll realize that you'll become a more honest, productive, and loving member of society.

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Ingrid Helander is a marriage and family therapist. For more information on her services, visit her website and sign up for her newsletter.

This article was originally published at Ingrid Y Helander, LMFT Blog. Reprinted with permission from the author.