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  • Writer's pictureMeg

Race, Anger, and the White Female Therapist

I used to have a client who I perceived as yelling at me every session. We’d sit down and within moments his voice would be loud and his gestures would be big and expressive. My general response to anger is to freeze and in our early work that is what I’d do every session. His voice would go up and I’d freeze and be mostly unable to provide more than platitudes because I was so afraid of being yelled at. Even though he generally wasn’t really yelling at me but rather near me I would freeze. I was a shitty therapist, especially in the beginning, and I worked with this clients for years.

As you might imagine, given the title of this post, this client was Black.

I, like many white folks I know, did not grow up in a household where anger was handled gracefully. My family is a bunch of WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) and repressed Irish Catholics and anger was just not the done thing. Anger was loss of control, anger only came when things were past the breaking point. Anger was terrifying and I learned to swallow it.

As a cis white woman I learned even more about how to swallow my anger. To be a good woman was to adopt deference toward the men around me and never raise my voice. I have never been particularly good at deference but I still almost never raise my voice.

As an adult, having experienced more of the world than the buttoned up WASPy white New England locales of my youth, I know that anger is different in different places, in different homes, in different cultures. It doesn’t have to mean loss of control, it does not have to mean something scary. Unfortunately after my years of childhood conditioning I still feel a twist of fear in my gut when I perceive that someone is angry at me.

The beauty of being an adult is that now I can recognize it and choose not to enact it.

To return to the client I opened with, it’s important to consider my hypersensitivity to his perceived anger as influenced by cultural scripts about anger. It’s not just that my childhood taught me anger was dangerous, I also live steeped in a culture that teaches that anger, especially Black anger, is dangerous. This client was a big man and the myths about the danger that Black men present are very real, very loud cultural stereotypes. When you combine my white lady fear of anger and the cultural script about race and anger it produces a truly toxic environment for Black clients who come to me with raised voices and angry feelings.

I truly believe that I was a better therapist to that client by the time we terminated than I was when we began our work together. In the years we worked together I was doing a lot of work around race and around anger and about the intersection of the two. I was reading and thinking and attending trainings and talking about it with my friends and my therapist. I was (and am) working on my shit.

It would be disingenuous to say that I magically unlearned my cultural and familial conditioning but I am much MUCH better at recognizing when those thoughts enter my mind and I am much MUCH better at not acting from my racist fear of the anger of my clients of color. By the time I terminated with the client from my example (we terminated when I left my agency for private practice) I was able to sit with him, let him be angry, and focus on what he was saying.

My Black clients are mad at shit, for sure. They have a good reason to be. We live in a ferociously anti-Black society. For a long time I experienced my Black clients as being significantly more angry than they probably were because of raised voices and cultural stereotypes. To me, tense bodies and loud voices have always meant fight/flight/freeze. Even as an almost forty-one year old who has worked on this shit for years I still have moments when I have to talk myself down in a normal conversation because someone gets loud. With clients I take a breath, consciously relax my shoulders, recognize what’s coming up for me, and turn my attention back to the client.

I have a lot of shame about the way my anger issues have impacted my work with clients of color. Many of my clients of color don’t work on anger much in therapy. They tell me about their anger but they rarely show it. I know, as a multiply marginalized person, the ways that we hide pieces of ourself to make others more comfortable. I have had plenty of therapy interactions where I have tried, consciously and unconsciously, to be less obviously queer and less militantly pro-fat. I think I can safely assume that some of this self-editing has occurred with my clients of color who don’t feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to their white female therapist.

I also have a lot of anger about the way that my anger issues have impacted my work with my clients of color. Nobody taught me in my (mostly) white MSW program how hard it would be to hold back my instinctive fear of anger to be present with a client. Nobody mentioned to the classrooms full of (mostly) cishet white women that our fears made us dangerous to the health and mental health of our Black clients. Everyone in my program took a mandatory class on racism and other systems of oppression and if I am remembering correctly, there was nothing about differing cultural and gender perspectives on anger. My white lady fear of anger is toxic to my clients of color, especially my Black clients, and why aren’t we talking about that phenomenon more?

I’m responsible for dealing with my individual anger shit, and I am also responsible for starting conversations around why white women in the helping professions aren’t given training around race and anger, and aren’t held accountable when they mess it up. What would that accountability look like? How do we repair things with clients when we have been oppressive? How can we work to develop systems that lead to more education on this topic? MOST importantly how can we care for and support all the clients of color we have harmed? What can we offer to ameliorate our harm? How can we center the voices of our clients of color to make sure we are going about all this in an anti-racist and decolonized way?

On a systems level social work training at large must change to contain explicit unpacking of gendered and racial experiences of anger. We must address the lack of education about the impact of cultural ideas around anger on the therapist client dynamic. This topic should be added to the syllabi of courses specifically about oppression and should be discussed in practice classes. Once people are in the field, supervisors should be checking in around anger, helping their supervises to unpack their anger learnings and the impact those ideas about anger have on clients of color.

On an individual level we need to start owning our anger shit. Read about it, write about it, think about it, art about it, talk to your therapist about it, talk to your friends and family about it. Develop ways to manage your own anger (I like rage walks and painting my feelings). If you can’t handle it when you get mad you are never going to be able to sit with an angry client. Learn to recognize your oppressive thought patterns. Do what you need to do to change them.

Don’t do these things as white people looking only toward other white folks. When you are reading about anger, make sure you are reading the perspectives of folks of color. When people of color talk to you about anger, listen. If clients ever bring it up, LISTEN. And when you have listened, change. If you are bringing a training that deals with anger to your agency make sure the training is created and enacted by folks of color. If you are adding readings about anger to your anti-oppression course syllabus seek out work by folks of color.

When it comes to healing harms, it is much harder to envision a way to do that. The best thing I have found to do is work to be better. Do the work of examining and challenging your beliefs and show up better each time you see those clients. You can’t seek out an apologize to clients from the past. You can’t magically repair all those ruptures with clients you no longer see. You can, however, show up better for your current clients, work to repair current and future ruptures.

Come on white folks, let’s deal with our anger shit so we stop harming folks of color.

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