Leaning into Discomfort: Wright Institute Faculty Member Presents on White Fragility

Lyman Hollins
Lyman Hollins

Lyman Hollins, a member of the adjunct faculty for both the Counseling Psychology and Clinical Psychology programs at the Wright Institute, recently participated in a fall symposium hosted by The Psychotherapy Institute (TPI) entitled: “Understanding White Fragility and its Impact on Clinical Work in a Multicultural Society.”

“The symposium allowed white therapists to understand that they do have a position in clinical work when it comes to talking about race,” said Lyman, who has collaborated in developing the Wright Institute’s Multicultural Awareness & Sensitivity courses for each program. “Oftentimes when talking about race, you find that those who identify as white can’t engage unless there is a person of color in the room or unless the person of color broaches it.”

Lyman explained that it is often difficult for people who identify as white to recognize that they do have racial experiences and can speak on them. “Oftentimes this inability to access these conversations happens as a result of a societal message that whiteness is the norm, so therefore if we are going to have a conversation about race, it is to have a conversation about what is not white—what is not normal.”

When faced with the recognition that people of color have different experiences in the world, white people often experience paralyzing shame, Lyman said.

“This causes guilt and discomfort, and in our society when you’re feeling guilt and discomfort, the message is that you should stop doing whatever you’re doing,” Lyman said. “So the result is often that when white people start feeling uncomfortable, we implicitly believe that it’s time to end the conversation.”

The problem with this logic, Lyman continued, is that people of color are always feeling uncomfortable.

“If people of color stopped engaging in conversations about race whenever we get uncomfortable, we would never leave our homes,” he said.

The TPI fall symposium addressed this fear of discomfort, engaging both white people and people of color on the fear white people often feel when speaking about race.
What made this meeting productive, Lyman said, is that it felt welcoming both to white and people of color mental health practitioners.

“For me one of the most exciting things was to see people of color there because oftentimes it is difficult to sit through other people’s process when engaging about issues of race,” Lyman said. “It was a wonderful experience to be on a panel that had African Americans and to be able to address some their concerns with the message: ‘I see you and recognize that what you need from this is different from what the white audience members may need.’”

As a clinician who focuses on multicultural issues, Lyman believes it is imperative for white clinicians to grapple with issues of race and be able to lean into questions regarding race, especially when it becomes uncomfortable.

“When Wright Institute students graduate, it is very common to be working with a lot of people of color and a lot of people who do not have as many economic resources, so the ability to know where other people perceive you are coming from is very important,” Lyman said. “Addressing all the baggage that is in the room before you even get there is incredibly important because otherwise the clinician is going to be sitting there thinking ‘everyone is resisting me.’”

And this “resistance,” Lyman believes, is both not personal and profoundly personal.

“Everything that you—as in that huge, royal YOU—represents in the world enters the clinical space. So for the client of color you become that representation, and the question is: Are you going to be the same, or are you going to be different from other people?” Lyman said. “And if you don’t recognize what the ‘same’ looks like, it really limits you in becoming something different for the client.”

Engaging In the work of understanding where whiteness—and other issues of power and privilege— fits in conversations about race, Lyman believes, allows clients to see us more fully and see the world more fully.

Lyman concludes, “Everything is about joining with clients—cutting through everything that makes us different—so that clients can have a different experience in the room with us. That’s truly the work of effective therapy.”

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