Reflections of a White Psychotherapist

By Susan Donnelly

I have had the terrible opportunity of experiencing a black child’s first exposure to racism. I was in session with an African-American mom while her 4-year-old son played quietly on the rug. She told me she had recently enrolled her child in an all-white preschool and that the teachers reported her son had been taunted for the color of his skin.

Hearing this, the little boy came over to me and held out his arm. “May I please borrow your special soap to get rid of this brown?” he asked politely, tears on his beautiful little face.

I worked with an economics professor, also black. He told me that while walking the halls of his university in tailored suits he was sometimes mistaken for janitorial staff. “I’ve even tried an ascot, for pity’s sake,” he said.

It is at times like these that I, a white psychotherapist, need to acknowledge that empathy will only take me so far. I need a grasp of black history that goes beyond March 1. I need the humility to acknowledge that I may never truly get it — get what it is like to carry the legacy of ancestors considered 3/5 a person, to endure the small- and large-T traumas inherent in regular insults and ever-evolving institutional racism.

We boast we have a black president. But Barack Obama is biracial, although this is rarely noted. Are we still laboring under the “one drop rule”? That is the notion that if you have one drop of black blood you are black, a notion that was actually codified into law in the early 20th century. And to ignore that racism is partially responsible for the knee-jerk and virulent opposition to Obama’s policies is just plain silly.

My participation in interracial partnerships taught me many things. One was that we have been a multiracial nation since the 1600s. Hence to diminish Americans of color serves to impoverish me as a white American.

Another thing I learned was that I also am a racist; that racism is woven so tightly into the fabric of our cultural consciousness that I cannot escape it. The fact I don’t talk like a racist is misleading. But I can do what W.S. Coffin advised and live as a recovering racist.

Knowing this is exceedingly helpful when I encounter a white client who is quite comfortable with his or her racism. Knowing I cannot indulge in sanctimony, I can move more quickly into active listening. I may very well choose not to challenge my client’s racism, either in the moment or later on, if it is neither in their best interest nor part of our treatment goals. On the other hand, I no longer look at racism (or heterosexism, or ableism) as peripheral to a person’s overall functioning or well-being.

While race is undoubtedly a social construct, our ability to evaluate, deconstruct, and respond to race is ultimately the task of the individual, and is influenced by temperament and emotional development. Emotional disorders and distress constrict our responses to new people and situations, which can of course include people of a different race.

And racism cannot be maintained without fear, most often a fear that something I consider rightfully mine will be taken from me. At various junctures in our history, the corporate or political elite of the day have stoked the race-based fears of low-income whites in order to prevent an alliance with low-income blacks. Therefore, should racism be considered an anxiety disorder? I think not, but it is worthy of note that drapetomania, a disorder marked by a slave’s urge to run away, had a reasonably long life.

I grew up in a ridiculously racist family, where only white Anglo-Saxon Protestants were remotely acceptable, and where verbal abuse and ethnic slurs were seamlessly linked. My individuation included a revision of these attitudes, a process which possibly cannot be generalized to anyone else. On the other hand, have you ever known a person who engages in genuine personal growth who becomes more biased rather than less?

One spring evening, a friend and I got lost on our way to an urban school meeting. Being still GPS-less, I rolled down the window and asked directions of a group of black teenagers. I was familiar with the community, but it became immediately clear that the boys had zero familiarity being approached by a couple of white women. Their stunned and terrified faces told a tale that still breaks my heart.

We received the help we needed, but only after we could reassure the boys that this was not a trick. Their eyes were the same as the eyes of the tiny boy who thought he needed special soap.





Donnelly, S. (2015). Reflections of a White Psychotherapist. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 19, 2015, from

Newsletter Subscription

© 2014-2020 All Rights Reserved.
All Photos Published Licensed Under Creative Commons Zero