Part I: Systemic Racism is Failing White People, Too

Part I: Systemic Racism is Failing White People, Too

This year has seen the murders of Ahmaud Arbery on February 23, Breonna Taylor on March 13, and George Floyd on May 25. In the last two weeks, protests against police brutality and systemic racial inequality have reverberated across the US. In many cases, these protests have been met with further repressive action by local and federal governments.

Deeply embedded patterns of racial prejudice and violence in the US have, for centuries, negatively impacted the individual psyches and interpersonal relationships of black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). Sometimes the effects of systemic trauma in these communities are clear and linear; other times, the effects are esoteric, unpredictable, and difficult to parse.

Like all causes of trauma, systemic racism is frequently relevant to the work of psychotherapy. BIPOC are at an increased risk of illness, violence, physical/sexual abuse, political disenfranchisement, institutional abuse/neglect, and financial insecurity/poverty because there are specific social, political and economic systems in place which directly and indirectly undermine their pursuit of health, safety and prosperity. These conditions do not help build healthy self-esteem, promote self-care, or foster peaceful, satisfying relationships; however, therapy can be a healing context in which BIPOC can achieve those despite the conditions of systemic racism.

However, systemic racism should not only be considered in the treatment of BIPOC clients. I have often made the mistake of intellectualizing racial violence and injustice as the psychological, material, political, and biological burden of non-whites only. This is a massive disservice to my white clients. Systemic racism harms everyone: white people living in this system—benefiting from it, sometimes perpetuating it, often ignoring it—incur harm that is rarely discussed or analyzed (Dawes, 2019). Therapy can and should be a context in which white people can also rebel against the conditions of systemic racism. For that to happen, however, white therapists like myself must carefully investigate our own psyches to detect the wounds we carry from living in this system, as well as the ways in which we comply with it, and our reasons—conscious or unconscious—for doing so.

Before I go further, I should clarify: this post, as well as its accompanying second installment, is mostly for white people. While I am certainly open to and would appreciate feedback about what is written here from any black, indigenous, or person of color, my goal is to foster self-reflection and ultimately inspire anti-racist action in white readers.

In Part II I plan to discuss in-depth the results of my own self-work in this area: specifically the process of acknowledging painful emotions—grief, fear, anger, shame, guilt, confusion, defensiveness, etc.—I have in response to the realities of systemic racism, and then identifying and challenging the thoughts that hold me back from wisdom, compassion, and constructive action.

The rest of Part I will focus on the resources I have found beneficial in this journey. A major step in the process of understanding how systemic racism narrows and weakens my psyche is by learning (and re-learning) the many ways it negatively impacts my external context. The following links and quotations are a good place to start, and they are only a small sample of the resources available:

As a therapist, I have found this, this, and this instructive, inspiring, and only mildly excoriating (that is OK, that is how I learn) (Dawes, 2019; Dawes, 2020; Dawes, 2020). They are somewhat specific to the field, but I want to be transparent about what has informed my perspective in this area and these have significantly:

What is happening with my white colleagues within session?  Do you discuss the work of Black Lives Matters or lack of the racial inclusivity in our media? Sadly, I fear that this topic is going mostly unexplored. I worry that it is being considered “irrelevant” to the lives of white clients because “it doesn’t personally affect them.” It gives me flashbacks from the days in my graduate school cohort, when future social workers could not see the dialectic that they can both be a victim and one that holds a certain amount of privilege due to their social standings. (Dawes, 2019)

This is helpful for understanding the broad view of systemic racism in the 20th and 21st century, with a particularly keen look at the economic consequences (Coates, 2014). This is a gripping historical narrative of how both the fields of public health and criminology in the US have been and continue to be marred by racial prejudice (Kendi, 2020).

This and this offer powerful critiques of the treatment of black women both inside and outside their communities, and can be useful for prompting reflection and informing conversations about intersectionality and misogynoir (Monique, 2020; Scott, 2020):

Those who pay attention will also notice that when Black women are killed by police, there is very little fanfare if any at all. This can place an undue burden on Black women who wish to show loyalty and solidarity with the race while bearing the brunt of high rates of both intra-community violence and violence on the part of law enforcement. In other words, Black women are expected to advocate for their biggest victimizers against their other victimizers. With the national focus on either the deceased men or the police and the communal expectation of subservience to the race, Black women are constantly pushed to the back of the line. (Monique, 2020)

This is an insightful analysis on the politics and prejudice underlying the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on black and brown communities:

Although the full picture remains unclear, researchers have found that disproportionately black counties “account for more than half of coronavirus cases and nearly 60 percent of deaths.” The disproportionate burden that black and Latino Americans are bearing is in part a direct result of their overrepresentation in professions where they risk exposure, and of a racial gap in wealth and income that has left them more vulnerable to being laid off. Black and Latino workers are overrepresented among the essential, the unemployed, and the dead. (Serwer, 2020)

This and this provide well-researched and historically grounded information about race-based economic injustice and police brutality in Minneapolis, MN, where Mr. Floyd was murdered (;, 2020).

This, this, and this help elucidate the role and responsibilities of being a white ally in the fight against systemic racism (Long, 2020; Ariel, 2017; Griffin, 2020). These include deeply practical advice and directives as well as stirring moral and philosophical edification:

Ask when you don’t know—but do the work first. This is nuanced. Some marginalized/disenfranchised folks will tell you not to ask them anything; don’t be offended by that. Folks are tired, and that is understandable because it is exhausting to be a marginalized person in this world. However, there is something special that happens within human connections and relationships. In a nutshell, don’t expect for people to educate you. Do the work to educate yourself. Ask questions within relationships that feel safe, and do so respectfully. (Ariel, 2017)

If you have gotten to the end of this and are thinking “this makes me feel bad about myself,” or “I want to help, but this seems too overwhelming,” you will probably benefit a lot from Part II. If you have gotten to the end of this and are thinking “this seems like a bunch of crap and I disagree entirely,” I am honestly impressed that you read the whole thing! Here is one last prompt for you: I posit there are invisible cultural and political systems outside your control which have significant power over how you conceive of and behave towards others, and yourself—does that resonate with your lived experience? Moreover, are you interested in taking some of that power back? This work is difficult, and, as always, therapy can help.

Janine Joly-DeMars provides individual, couple, and family therapy in our downtown Bethesda, MD office and virtually to those located in the state of Maryland. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Janine.