I’m a white therapist and I care about racism. What next? What do I do? Where do I go from here?

By Dawn Gwilt and Gillian Downie

I’m a white therapist and I care about racism. What next? What do I do? Where do I go from here?

This is the title of a workshop being run by Dawn Gwilt and Gillian Downie. Earlier this month they had a dialogue about why they are running this workshop. Here is a summary of what was said.

1) What is your interest in the topic of racism and white privilege?

Dawn: Something shifted in me with the murder of George Floyd back in May. I was astounded, and hugely impacted when I saw the video of that slow and sadistic murder; the white policeman’s knee on the black man’s neck for almost 9 minutes, ignoring his pleas of “I can’t breathe”. Was this really happening in 2020? How can this level of cruelty exist in modern-day race relations?

Since then I’ve been educating myself in the ways that racism persists in the UK today. I’ve been horrified to find that the vast majority, if not all black people and people of colour in the UK deal with and experience racism on a daily basis. I learned that parents of black and mixed-race children know that at some point they will have to have ‘the talk’ – they will have to prepare their children for the inevitable racist comments and behaviours that will be directed at them because of the colour of their skin and the texture of their hair.

In contrast, I, my family, all my relatives, most of my predominantly white community – we have never had to deal with racist comments based on our skin colour. We have never been refused a mortgage or a bank loan because of the colour of our skin. We have not been followed around by store security because of the colour of our skin. We have not had to worry every day about our sons (or brothers or fathers) being stopped by the police; placing them at real risk of harm or even death. Once I became aware of this ongoing racial injustice, I couldn’t un-know it. I realised how much I care, and I’m intent on finding ways to be part of the solution, not an unwitting contributor to the problem.

Gillian: A couple of years ago I spoke to a mixed-race friend of mine, telling her there were no people of colour on the training course I was teaching on. I was hoping through her network she might be able to encourage people of colour to join our training, or at least be aware of it. I was struggling with working with an all-white group. She said to me, “Look at your whiteness.” Rather than looking at others and asking “What can I do to include you?” look at myself, and ask “What am I doing? What is it I have to look at within?”

That started something for me. No one had ever said to me, “You’re white, look at what it is to be white.” I did anti-racism training 25 years ago, when I was training to be a teacher. There was a year-long comprehensive module, and my main research project was to do with teacher’s attitudes and methodologies towards race education. A trigger for me back then was going into a school for an interview for a teaching job and asking, can I see your race policy? They said, “We haven’t got a race policy. There’s no need, we only have one black child in the school.” Even now I feel tearful as I think of that. As if race only applies to people of colour. In fact, being white is a race, and we have to look at our race collectively. We have to hold up a mirror to ourselves, and stop looking out there.

2) That leads onto the question of why this workshop is for white therapists. Some people ask, “Shouldn’t we be having discussions across race?”

Dawn: I don’t think useful discussions about racial difference can take place until we as white people address our discomfort, fear and shame. If we meet in mixed racial groups before we have made the effort to look at our own out-of-awareness prejudices and assumptions, the dynamic is likely to become muddled. Experience shows that in mixed racial groups, as white people begin to get in touch with their feelings of despair and guilt, black people end up taking care of them, which takes them away from their rage. We need to take one step at a time, and the first step is to look at our whiteness, our history, including white-bodied trauma, and how we go on benefiting from being white in modern Britain.

Gillian: I’m thinking of the skeletons in the closet – what have I unintentionally colluded with, what have I missed, what could I have done better in the past? – that will all be there. At the moment it’s so delicate because we are looking at the white shadow, and that needs the safety to go “Urghhh, I can’t believe I colluded with that!” The shame of the white shadow is something we all have as white people.

Dawn: And the shame of the white shadow is intergenerational. Our silence has been built on generation after generation. I definitely look forward to discussions and dialogue across race, but I don’t think we are there yet.

Gillian: That gets me in my heart and my tears – thinking of the generations of white shadow that I carry, and then thinking of friends of colour, who carry slavery in their intergenerational history, and what that is like for them.

3) Can you say more about what’s behind the white silence in our profession?

Gillian: I think there has been a shift in awareness, and more people are now doing trainings, reading, and discussion groups to do with race and white privilege. There is something for me about how hard it is to put anything into words on this topic. Immediately I can feel shame, or it’s not right, or I’m doing something wrong. That makes it difficult to move from the silence into the words.

Dawn: For me, the discomfort of staying silent has become greater than the discomfort of saying the wrong thing. It’s not an easy process, and there have been recent times when I have raised the issue of racism in a group of predominantly white therapists, and my comments have been met with silence by my white colleagues, whilst my colleagues of colour invariably respond! That can be uncomfortable – knowing that my words are making others uncomfortable. However, I find the more often I speak up, the more I develop that particular muscle. It’s hard to speak up because we basically have no tradition, no history of talking about race issues.

4) What are your main reasons for running this workshop?

Gillian: The reason for me wanting to run this workshop is so that we can have a dialogue, and so that I can bring myself in more, including my developing verbal self. I’m thinking of the programme, The School That tried to end Racism, and how the students were split into two groups, with people of colour, in all their diversity in one room, and the white Caucasian pupils in another. The white group found it much harder to bring things to words, and to really think about racism.

There was some great anti-racist teaching in my education degree, and institutional racism was brought into my awareness. This was like blinkers coming off my eyes! However, in my youthful fervour, it was much easier to see racism in others, not myself. I saw the work needing to be done ‘out there,’ a social justice response to racism. My more recent shift is, “Hang on a minute, I’m white and what does that mean?” That’s been the shift for me.

Dawn: I’m offering this workshop because I don’t think we can do this work in isolation. I believe we can only really unearth our unexamined prejudice in community with others. We need others to hear and share our stories, to be heard in our shame, our guilt, our ignorance, our anger and rage. We also need others to hear and share our growing awareness, to celebrate our victories, our understandings, the repair of our ruptures. We need others to inspire us to keep at this work when it feels too difficult, too painful, too much. We need others to hold us accountable, to keep us on a path of learning that will never be easy, but will contribute to fundamental and necessary change.

5) What are your hopes for ongoing change in our profession?

Gillian: I do have hope, because I need hope. I feel like people are beginning to take initiatives. There is our CPD on offer, and other people in the gestalt community who are offering CPD, and I think, “Great!” We are at a new beginning, and there is a build-up of momentum. Judy Ryde has been writing about this for years, as has Lynne Jacobs. There have been Marianne Frye Lectures, Faisal Mahmood has written a very powerful chapter in the book Applied Psychology and Allied Professions Working with Ethnic Minorities, and the 2020 GPTI conference keynote speech on racism was given by Sharon Beirne. Lots of things are happening, and I think the momentum has picked up since the Black Lives Matter movement became more prominent after George Floyd’s death. I see hope increasing and I see it as more figural in general.

Dawn: I hear you, and at the same time, perhaps I hold more of the polarity of disillusionment! Our profession remains predominantly white, and race issues often remain unspoken. I was fortunate that in my training ethical issues were woven throughout and were intrinsic to the training. However, I would have liked a much more in-depth attention to racism. My learning was to bring it into the room with a black client by asking “What’s it like to be in a room with a white therapist?” This diving straight into relationship assumes a level relational field which does not exist in our society. I now see this approach as naïve and not taking into consideration the complexity around issues of race, including how we work with the legacy of intergenerational and transgenerational trauma in post-slavery Britain. I feel there is so much to learn, and that this topic has been avoided because we white therapists haven’t addressed our discomfort.

Having said all that, I DO have hopes – for ongoing openness and continuation of the current interest and awareness. My hope is for more dialogue amongst colleagues, so that speaking up about racism doesn’t seem so exceptional. Maybe in time it will become the norm.

6) What would you say to someone who is unsure of whether this workshop is for them?

Gillian and Dawn: We have as a priority the creation of a safe space where people can experiment with moving from silence into articulation, and it doesn’t have to be articulate, or formed, or “I’ve got the answers”. We aren’t coming to this workshop with any magic solutions. We are coming having spent a lot of time talking and researching, and dialoguing, just like the other participants. We’re allowing tentativeness – Can I experiment with saying this, even if it’s not right? Let’s take away the idea of right and wrong and just experiment.

Dear reader, if you have any reactions or responses to our discussion, please be in touch. We would be extremely happy to hear from you. Whether you are interested or disinterested, it would be very helpful to hear how this article lands with you, and how you relate to the topic of racism:

If you would like to attend the workshop Dawn and Gillian are facilitating, please see the event flyer.

Dawn Gwilt is a Gestalt Psychotherapist and supervisor-in-training: ‘The title of this workshop sums it up for me. I care deeply about racism and inequality, and I’m actively seeking out ways to be part of the change. I want to challenge myself and other white therapists to increase awareness about our innate white privilege, and to find ways of doing this without driving our prejudiced thoughtsunderground.’ 
[email protected]

Gillian Downie is a Gestalt Psychotherapist, supervisor and workshop facilitator: ‘My undergraduate research was in the field of institutional racism and since then my understanding of the impact of colonialism, racism and my white privilege has been an ongoing journey. I am increasingly aware of the subtlety and sensitivity required to facilitate explorations in a way that provides a safe space for this rigorous and essential work.’ 
[email protected]

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UKAGP Newsletter – Spring 2021
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