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  • Writer's pictureAtara Vogelstein, LCAT & Founder @TherapyWalks

White and angry and grieving; the privilege of looking away

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

To my white friends, family, and colleagues,

I have been struggling these last few weeks to figure out what to say, if to say, how to say, something, anything over social media, publicly, in my own words, to address the recent abuses, killings, and injustices toward Black and Brown people in this country. I have been full of anger, sadness, and grief. I have watched the eruption for change occur and questioned how I can participate, as I lament how long it has taken and the necessity for such an eruption. And I have been wary of taking up space by expressing this outside of my family and immediate circle, aware that my narrative or views could detract attention from a non-white person’s, and attending to these narratives and reactions is so essential. I want to express how hurt I feel watching everything unfold, knowing the pervasive racism and systemic abuse toward Black and Brown people that has existed in this country since its founding, and knowing that however outraged I feel, it does not and cannot compare to the people directly impacted, the families and communities of color and individuals with black and brown skin who hold and carry and live through the fear and anguish and frustration and violence and desperate need for change every single day. I have reacted to family members and shared posts on social media hoping to communicate solidarity and share truths as I see them. But I have struggled to find my voice, and to feel that I’m taking meaningful action, enough action, without doubting my right or place to take these actions, and the potential effects of these actions. Who is my audience, will I overstep or cause further harm, and what can I do to respond?

Rather than take space, today I can hold space. Space for grief, and anger, and sadness, and overwhelm, and fear, and discomfort. In my professional life, where the personal is always present, I have made a conscious effort in each session I have held with clients to hold space for their reactions to recent events and how they have been and chronically are affected by systemic racism; whether of black or white skin, whether they brought it up or didn’t, whether they are aware of pandemic racism or experience its damage directly or don’t. I have processed with clients how their racial presentation and heritage has been perceived, questioned, and responded to in their lives. I have discussed with clients how and where they feel empowered or disempowered in their lives. I have worked and continue to work to understand each client’s experience, how this surfaces in the therapeutic space, and how my presence impacts theirs. I have discussed with white and black clients what it’s like to be in their white or black bodies, what privileges or fears come with each color, what it’s like to observe or participate in the protests occurring outside their windows, what it’s like to see the looting, what it’s like to walk the streets each day. For some it’s overwhelming, for others it’s uplifting. For others scary, always scary.

I have worked hard to balance my therapist and human responses as I listen, which ideally are inextricably present. I have listened to clients acknowledge their own internal racism and to clients who have been the societal recipient of this. I have heard clients express detachment from recent events as both defense and coping mechanisms. As I continue to listen and respond, I know this is a process and there is more to be done. I know this is a process that is ongoing.

I know that I need to address all of the ways in which I hold privilege in my personal life and in my clinical work, not only now, but consistently. I have had effortful, frustrating, ongoing, and sobering conversations with family members around the privilege we hold and recognizing the responsibilities we carry to respond to racial injustice and chronic criminalization and trauma imposed on black and brown bodies. I have held conversations with both of my younger brothers about how they are affected, asking them to consider the privilege and responsibility they hold as young white males, and encouraging them to ask how they can respond to societal change. I have participated in conversations with other white therapists to process how we initiate dialogue or respond to racial differences and experiences as they occur in the therapeutic space, and how we attend to our own biases and positions of power and discomfort within and outside of the clinical dynamic. This isn’t the beginning of this work for myself, and it certainly won’t be the end.

As a white person, a white female, a white therapist, I carry a great responsibility. And I have been fumbling lately to gather the various threads of my responses to systemic oppression of Black and Brown people and hold them up for view outside my own window. But today, I choose to carry even though I fumble. I choose to speak even though it might make someone uncomfortable. I choose to look toward and acknowledge that I have the luxury to look away. And I ask of every white person reading this to look toward. To not qualify or quantify the pain of Black and Brown people and communities with the pain of white individuals and communities. To not quote a statistic that minimizes or dismisses the chronic and systemic abuse and trauma of marginalized communities because you are unable to look your whiteness in the face. It is all there, all the pain, the grief, the anger, the sadness, the injustice, the anguish, the intolerance, collectively. Your hurting is not diminished because you can see theirs. In fact, I hope it grows, so that you can grow with it. Today, I urge you not to look the other way. I urge you to hold space for these experiences that you have never lived through because you do not have dark skin. I urge you to look your own whiteness in the face, and ask yourself what a black person sees when they see you. What a white person sees when they see you. What you want your family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, law enforcement, parents, children, grandchildren to see when they see you. What do you see when you see a black person, a brown person, a non-white person? How are you affected by racial injustice, and how can you choose to respond?

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