Counseling Today, Member Insights

Five points of discussion for conversations about racial injustice

By Amanda L. Giordano April 10, 2019

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.

 

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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 amanda.giordano@uga.edu.

 

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Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

18 Comments

    1. Shayla

      I am happy to see the topic open for discussion. The answer to many problems as we know as Counselors is having a conversation. Many times, not talking about specific topics begins in the family, if the topic is believed to be uncomfortable—then the topic is not discussed from generation to generation. There may be a few people in the family who know about the uncomfortable topic, until it creeps out at some unfortunate time. We MUST have open dialogues to gain understanding. We need to have more topics like this one to grow and so that we can truly help other people, and cause a ripple in some set patterns of thinking and believing. The world is constantly changing, and talking gets us to speak our perceptions clearly.

  1. Rhonda G Aubrey

    OMG, thanks so much. For the first time, I feel like someone has become my voice as a professional. Some of these also have taken place to me as a professional, and yes it hurts.
    The said issue is when I’ve spoken up on a situation concerning a Black individual or family it was dismissed until it turned for the worse and I was the scapegoat
    Again, Thanks.

    Reply
  2. Debra Mayo

    “The World is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” – Albert Einstein.
    Thank you for sharing this article.

    Reply
  3. Irma Perez

    Thank you for sharing this article! As a counselor of color, I’m finding it more difficult to have these conversations with my peers rather than my clients. Our existence is politicized and it’s nice to see our voice is being heard in the mental health field.

    Reply
  4. ALISON BOWLES

    I think this is a difficult conversation to have, but I’ll start with saying in a very simple and basic way why I don’t like articles such as these. And I’ll say this knowing that as soon as what I’ve written is responded to, all sorts of assumptions are going to be made about who I am, and why I’m saying what I’m saying (assumptions that have nothing to do with the content of what I say). As soon as one starts to make observations about a person’s color having something to do with who they are, what they say, what their obligations are, or what their life has been like, you’ve lost the argument. It’s simply not a solution to the problem of racism.

    I have many problems with the concept of “white privilege.” My main point here would be that I don’t see that it solves anything: one cannot cure racism with racism. And this article is profoundly racist. It makes all sorts of assumptions about “White” people, assumptions that could not be made in such a manner about any other group of people without being labeled racist or prejudiced. No one could make assumptions about the character or thinking of someone who is Black without being called racist and offensive. And yet, how is this any different?

    And as an aside, how do we even have this conversation when the “Black” and “White” terminology in this article completely leaves out the fact of another race? And based on this terminology, what word or words do we use to identify that third race? Yellow? Ugg. No! That’s pejorative, is it not? Isn’t this author rather racist by assuming that cultural competency only applies to White people in regard to Black people (and for some reason, Hispanics).

    There are a lot of conceptual problems with these generalizations. The labels in and of themselves are problematic, and make for poor logic and conversation to say the least. For example, can one say that President Obama is privileged? Or was he NOT privileged before he became rich? What makes him privileged or not privileged? He is the child of a White mother and a Black father. How would this article even apply to him? How much blackness does a person have to have in their ancestry to qualify as a person of color? What about a Black person who looks White? Is that person privileged or no?

    If I were to say that “Black people do not attend to the oppression of their neighbors,” I’d be accused of being racist (and it would be true). If I asserted that persons of color desire that White people “act Black,” well, I would indeed be racist because how in the world can I say what persons of color desire? And who speaks for persons of color? What if two persons of color don’t agree? Which one speaks for Blacks? For Hispanics? For Native Americans? For the Spanish? For Asian-Americans? For men? For women? For the rich? For the poor?

    What psychology needs is some good philosophy, and I wish that I were a philosopher and could correct these ills, but I’m not so all I can do is touch upon some of the problems. Fact is that, contrary to what the author says, not all viewpoints are equally valid. Some are wrong, some are right, some are false, some are true, some are fiction, some are non-fiction. The viewpoint that 1 + 1 equals 3 is not equal to the fact that 1 + 1 equals 2. Multiple, equally valid viewpoints? As another aside, I would agree with the Native Americans in the example that the author gave, and not the Spanish. These are not “equally valid” viewpoints. Once you give up the idea that there is a difference between fact and fiction, you are lost (and this author is lost — which is why our young people are coming out of school completely bewildered). What follows from notions such as this is that idea that the Spanish conquest was in some way “valid,” and the genocide that followed also had some sort of “validity.” I don’t know that this is what we want to be teaching our young people.

    Any notion that holds that one can know what a person thinks based upon their skin color is inherently racist. This article and this type of thinking is nonsensical, and I don’t mind saying why I find it offensive: I will not bow to any kind of pressure to apologize for the behavior of others based on the accident of having the same skin color. Blacks shouldn’t do this, and neither should Whites. In fact, no one should apologize for the behavior and thoughts of another person. One can only be held accountable for one’s own thoughts and actions. We would never tell a client anything different, and at the same time be considered a competent counselor.

    The “all White people are the same” and “all White people are racist even if they don’t know it” nonsense is getting old. Fact is that racism, tribalism, prejudice, etc. exists throughout the world, and the idea that persons of color — and all people for that matter — don’t have any sort of obligation to consider their contributions to collectivism seems like an incomplete solution to me.

    Reply
    1. Elaine Young

      I’m guessing you don’t actually know what the term “White privilege” mean. It’s has nothing to do with wealth. It has to do with the fact that a white person who may be poor, will not additionally suffer because of the color of their skin. I’m honestly surprised that you, as counseling professional, don’t know that already. If George Floyd had been White, that incident in Minneapolis would not have happened. He would have been arrested without incident, just as so many other White perpetrators have in the past (see Dylan Roof).

    2. Sarah Hoops

      Yikes. Assuming the person who wrote this is a practicing counselor, this reflects serious failures in counselor education, implementation of ethical standards, gatekeeping, and basic standards for client safety.

      This racism and willful ignorance is incredibly scary to witness on this forum, and to think that this person is actually working with clients. (And this is in response to a rather benign article–hope to see more radical voices uplifted in this publication as well.)

      ACA: What is your response to comments like this, when a counselor shamelessly touts her serious unethical behavior? We have ethical standards for a reason, and if this kind of dangerous thinking goes unchecked on this very website, it makes me question why we have those standards in the first place.

      Sarah

    3. Khadija A Zeig

      I am guessing you are one of those looking to pick a fight and not solve the issues we have. You were never checked in to start, we get the point. Lets distract by arguing semantics. Please go away..thank you

  5. Katy Hawthorne

    The article is very much on point…Thank you for the much needed piece on the reality people of color face through out their daily lives. Typically, this is a tough topic for White people as viewed in two of the offended sentiments shared above from those who have not yet closely looked at our society as a whole on racism. Racism is systemic and embedded deeply within the foundation of our country through our ancestors, passed on for generations. It can come in the form of microaggressions which are not thought to be offensive but are instead debilitating. Individuals who do not completely understand what white privilege means. struggle most. I think this is a fantastic start to opening up a world of understanding; to uncover a world of pain. The verbiage shared is exactly what is discussed in the book “White Fragility” by D’Angelo. She is tough on readers, but there is great truth to her words of wisdom. Self-reflection is what we need and I believe everyone can use some direction. Another book, especially for professionals is “Counseling the Culturally Diverse” by Sue & Sue. Thank you again for the valid picture of our reality.

    Reply
  6. Christine Lucas

    I believe that it takes consistent effort and rigor to reach accurate empathy for clients. There is no finish line to reach for this. It requires putting events in context of history and also viewing them in context of power differentials in the world. It means moving from individualist to collectivist perspectives and thoroughly desiring to weed out one’s own bias and discriminatory practices. If we treat what is in the room we must, no doubt, be educated on more than race relations. We must be educated on housing discrimination, inequities and barriers to resources ( educational, medical, and otherwise). White privilege is the primer on a blank canvas of our existence. It has to be held up to the light and scrutinized without the intent of disproving its existence. It isn’t about who is racist or not racist. It is an awareness that we play a present part in a discriminatory system of which we must work to become aware. Accurate empathy and competence requires an endless unfolding not a terminal position.

    Reply
  7. Miriam Goodwin

    Most of these are insightful and valid talking points. However, the 2nd topic totally contradicts the premise of the 1st.
    1. “attributing characteristics and behaviors to race that have no rational correlation”…..”we need to examine the correlations we make between a person’s race and her or his personal characteristics or behaviors.”…”his behavior cannot be attributed to his race”…”This is something that we need to unlearn.”
    2. “fit into the mold of White cultural norms”…”White individuals know very little about the cultural norms of other racial/ethnic groups.”

    Not saying both aren’t true….but you can’t say we should have no bias correlated to race and then open a discussion on “White cultural norms”. You are contradicting yourself….can’t have it both ways. Delete #2.

    Reply
  8. Lourdes Ibarra

    This was a really good article, but I would have loved to see more data to back up the information. We all know that racism still exists and there are a lot of individuals who are at a disadvantage because of their race. Still, it’s important to provide valid information that can be backed up like the articles that I have included below. We are fighting a system that has been established for centuries and it is very easy to ignore that fact since we do not experience or witness it. I am a Latina and I have experienced my own discrimination and so I know the feeling of oppression. However, I believe in educating our society rather than fighting it with protests and exposing everyone with COVID-19.

    Suggested sources:

    Collins, W. & Margo, R. (2001). Race and home ownership: A century-long view. Explorations in Economic History.

    Favaretto, M., De Clercq, E. & Elger, B.S. Big Data and discrimination: perils, promises and solutions. A systematic review. J Big Data 6, 12 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40537-019-0177-4

    Reply
    1. Counseling Today Post author

      Thank you, Lourdes. Counseling Today is a magazine, not a scholarly journal, so our articles do not contain citations, footnotes or reference lists (see more in our writing guidelines here).
      Feel free to reach out to the author (her email is listed at the bottom of the article) if need you more information on any of the data points in her article.

  9. Carol Wilson Mack

    Misunderstanding is an inevitable part of life. We, human beings, are different from one another. We have a lot of differences in terms of attitude, personality, belief, opinion, point of view, upbringing, and more. Because of this, it is not uncommon for us to misunderstand one another. Sometimes, however, this misunderstanding that stems from our innate differences can lead to serious conflict. War, for example, is believed to be mostly a product of unsettled differences between people. For this reason, it is necessary for all of us to cultivate a sense of understanding all the time.

    Reply

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