Category Archives: Multicultural

The White Privilege Piece for the Montana Psychological Association

Michael Smerconish did a feature on White Privilege today on CNN. It was excellent and reminded me of this piece I’d written on White Privilege about 4 years ago. Check it out if you like this sort of thing.

A White, Male Psychologist Reflects on White Privilege

I’m a white male writing about white privilege. This irony makes the task all the more challenging.

Gyda Swaney asked if I would write this piece. This brings me mixed feelings. I am honored. I met Gyda in 1981 and I like and respect her as a person and as a Native American leader in Montana. But the fact that she thinks I might have something useful to say to psychologists about white privilege is humbling. Rarely have I been asked to write about something I know so well and understand so little.

On Invisibility

The challenge begins with the definition. White privilege is defined as an “invisible package of unearned assets” (see McIntosh, 1988 or 2001 for more on this).

As a white, male, psychologist, and university professor, I’m pretty much a white privilege poster boy. Consequently, white privilege, by definition, is generally invisible to me . . . although I do occasionally glimpse it from the corner of my eye or notice its shadow if I sneak up on it when it’s not looking. In fact I think I just saw it – as evidenced by my certainty that I can write a sentence as silly as this last one and get it published in the Montana Psych Association Newsletter.

Like most things invisible (think UFOs, Harry Potter with his invisibility cloak on, ghosts) white privilege is problematic and controversial. This is because white privilege is not always invisible; it’s selectively invisible. It’s obvious to many (e.g., oppressed minorities), but beyond the awareness of those who are busily experiencing the luxury of their unearned assets.

Common Responses to White Privilege

This brings up what may be the most fascinating and disturbing component of white privilege: When the idea of white privilege is brought to the attention of those to whom it’s invisible, it typically evokes a response of defensiveness combined with anger, hostility, outrage, and occasionally guilt. And as we know from our work in psychology, dealing with people who are feeling angry, hostile, outraged, and guilty is very difficult.

There’s something about white privilege that has the potential to make everyone angry.

Personal Reflections

Although White privilege precedes me and I hold no responsibility for its origins, I was born into it and have lived with it every day for nearly 55 years. Even my birth, characterized by greater-than-equal access to healthcare, is an example of my white privilege.

Maybe that’s a phrase that captures much of the white privilege experience—greater-than-equal. My whiteness and the whiteness of most Montana psychologists affords us greater-than-equal treatment, greater-than-equal power, greater-than-equal access, and greater-than-equal perceptions of ourselves. But privilege is complicated . . . and so it’s possible that we also have a greater-than-equal means of denying our privilege.

Privilege grows in complexity when we look at all the different factors that contribute to a more privileged status in one person and a less privileged status in others. My wife consistently reminds me of my male privileged status and although I’m inclined to deny this along with my white privilege, I know better. I was born male and being born male is like being dealt an ace as your first card in a round of Texas Hold-Em. In most cultures it’s clear that to be male is to be superior. That’s the case even though, as most males know, being handed an expectation of superiority isn’t always comfortable or easy. Paradoxically or dialectically, being a white male cuts both ways and isn’t only an unearned asset or gift, it’s also an unearned burden. It’s a burden like having to carry too many gold coins and diamonds to the bank. The weight of gold hurts your back and the diamonds cut your hands, but it’s ridiculous to complain about the fact that you have to carry a treasure to the bank.

Solutions

There are no easy ways to make white privilege quickly materialize and become visible. The resistance and pain associated with being told: “You’ve got unearned assets” is natural, partly because most people hold the perception that they’ve worked very hard to get what they deserve. Here’s a short list of ideas:

  • Teaching and learning about Peggy McIntosh’s Invisible Knapsack is a good place to start. One of the items from her knapsack is:

“I can swear, or dress in secondhand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, poverty, or illiteracy of my race.”

  • Damn. That’s a nice privilege.
  • Teaching and learning about white privilege can be dangerous and so courage is another important factor in dealing with white privilege. Boatright-Horowitz and Soeung (2009) titled their commentary in the American Psychologist, “Teaching White Privilege to White Students Can Mean Saying Good-bye to Positive Student Evaluations.” When I recently posted about white privilege on my blog, I received one response that was so rabidly irrational it was frightening. Speaking out against the status quo always risks blowback.
  • A big part of the solution is to stop clinging to ideas about white superiority and instead, openly embrace and value the lessons we learn from other cultures. We should actively seek out other cultural perspectives. That isn’t about making the other culture better than ours . . . it just places it on the same, equal cultural footing where it belongs.
  • It’s also important to work on calming our anxiety over displacement from the top of the economic and power pyramid. We all get displaced someday; denying reality is dysfunctional. Actively sharing power along with values of egalitarian personal and community relationships is functional. This is part of the very important personal and communal work we need to do.

In closing, I’m painfully aware that I write this short column from a position of unearned privilege in a cabin on former Crow country on the beautiful Stillwater River; thank you Gyda Swaney, for handing me this challenge and opportunity.

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John Sommers-Flanagan (Ph.D., 1986, University of Montana) is a clinical psychologist and counselor educator at the University of Montana. His blogsite, featuring material on counseling, psychotherapy, and parenting is at: johnsommersflanagan.com.

Reflections on White Privilege

As many readers already know, “White Privilege” is defined as an “invisible package of unearned assets” (see Peggy McIntosh’s work, 1988 or 2001 for more on this). White privilege is also a concept that often activates strong feelings–one of them being anger. Recently, Gyda Swaney, an American Indian psychology professor at the University of Montana asked me to write a piece on White Privilege for the Montana Psychological Association Newsletter. The newsletter isn’t out yet, but here is a short highlight from the essay.

Personal Reflections

Although White privilege precedes me and I hold no responsibility for its origins, I was born into it and have lived with it every day for nearly 55 years. Even my birth, characterized by greater-than-equal access to healthcare, is an example of my white privilege.

Maybe that’s a phrase that captures much of the white privilege experience—greater-than-equal. My whiteness and the whiteness of most Montana psychologists affords us greater-than-equal treatment, greater-than-equal power, greater-than-equal access, and greater-than-equal perceptions of ourselves. But privilege is complicated . . . and so it’s possible that we also have a greater-than-equal means of denying our privilege.

Privilege grows in complexity when we look at all the different factors that contribute to a more privileged status in one person and a less privileged status in others. My wife consistently reminds me of my male privileged status and although I’m inclined to deny this along with my white privilege, I know better. I was born male and being born male is like being dealt an ace as your first card in a round of Texas Hold-Em. In most cultures it’s clear that to be male is to be superior. That’s the case even though, as most males know, being handed an expectation of superiority isn’t always comfortable or easy. Paradoxically or dialectically, being a white male cuts both ways and isn’t only an unearned asset or gift, it’s also an unearned burden. It’s a burden like having to carry too many gold coins and diamonds to the bank. The weight of gold hurts your back and the diamonds cut your hands, but it’s ridiculous to complain about the fact that you have to carry a treasure to the bank.

Four Good Ideas about Multicultural Counseling and Psychotherapy—In Honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.

1. Don’t think about multiculturalism as being about tolerance. Instead, approach other cultures with an attitude of “what can I learn?”

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1974) wrote about his deep regrets for the ways religious missionaries contributed to cultural genocide. He wondered:

“What would the world be like if different cultures had encountered each other with questions instead of answers? What if the questions went something like these?”

What can you tell me about yourselves?

  • What would you like to know about us?
  • What can you teach me about the Creator?

This same idea forms the foundation of affirmative therapy for GLBTQ clients. Because they’re so used to and sensitive to negative judgments, we should approach GLBTQ clients not only with openness, but with a positive and affirming attitude. When I really think about it, it doesn’t make much sense to approach clients who may be different from us with anything other than a positive and affirming attitude?

 2.  Try to Understand the Implications of White Privilege

As a White male I sometimes have difficulty stretching my neck far enough to be able to see all the White privilege I carry around in my invisible knapsack (see Peggy McIntosh’s 1998 article for more on the Invisible Knapsack). White privilege is defined as the unearned assets associated with being an upper or middle class member of a dominant culture. Although White privilege is often hard to see (because unearned assets are invisible), Prochaska and Norcross provide three darn good examples in the 2010 edition of their psychotherapy theories text. They wrote:

  • · “White privilege is when you can get pregnant at age 17 and everyone is quick to insist that your life and that of your family is a personal matter, and that no one has a right to judge you or your parents, even as Black and Latino families with similar challenges are regularly typified as irresponsible and pathological.”
  • · “White privilege is when you are a gun enthusiast and do not make people immediately scared of you.”
  • · “White privilege is when you can develop a painkiller addiction, having obtained your drug of choice illegally, go on to beat that addiction, and everyone praises you for being so strong, while being an ethnic minority who did the same thing is routinely labeled a drug addict who probably winds up in jail.” (p. 408)

3.  When Counseling, Make Cultural Adaptations

Not long ago it was reported that 50% of diverse clients dropped out of therapy after only one session (S. Sue, 1977). This suggests that it only took one therapy session to convince half of all diverse clients not to return for session number two. This is not very impressive.

To address this and other issues, counselors and psychologists now talk about making cultural adaptations so the therapy experience is more appealing to clients from diverse cultural backgrounds. Several cultural adaptations have proven at least somewhat helpful. Two of the most significant are: (a) Language Matching (Surprise! Clients tend to benefit more when they can do therapy in their native languageJ); and (b) explicit incorporation of cultural content/values into the intervention (Griner & Smith, 2006).

 4. Remember that multicultural counseling is like qualitative research; you may not generalize.

This is one of the puzzling paradoxes associated with multicultural counseling. Of course we should learn as much as we can about other cultures—but, because skin color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disabilities, and other client characteristics all exist within unique individuals, groups, and communities it’s inappropriate to make assumptions about clients based on knowledge about any of these factors. Just as you would never generalize your findings from eight clients in a phenomenological-qualitative study, you shouldn’t use your knowledge of any “categories” to make generalizations about the person or people in your office.

Related to this, S. Sue and Zane (2009) commented on how, when it comes to multicultural knowledge, a little bit does not go a long ways (and often a large amount of knowledge won’t take you very far either). They wrote:

“. . . cultural knowledge and techniques generated by this knowledge are frequently applied in inappropriate ways. The problem is especially apparent when therapists and others act on insufficient knowledge or overgeneralize what they have learned about culturally dissimilar groups.” (p. 5)

Working cross-culturally or interculturally is both a challenge and a privilege. This is part one of a three-part blog about how we can meet this challenge and honor clients who have diverse characteristics. Thanks for being interested enough in this topic to read this and stretch your multicultural competence.