Tag Archives: White privilege

It’s Not Unusual: John’s Weekend Reflections

john-rapA stranger posted a comment on my blog today. As Tom Jones might say, “It’s not unusual” for my blog to stimulate reader commentary. After all, I’m expressing my opinion, distributing professional information, and often I specifically ask for reader feedback.

Mostly I get positive feedback. Occasionally, I touch a nerve with someone and get pushback or criticism. What’s most interesting to me is that the nerves I touch are nearly always nerves related to White privilege or feminism. I suppose that’s not unusual either.

Today’s comment started with, “Wow. All u do is wafle here. . .” and went on to provide a rambling critique of White privilege (I think). Three thoughts on this: First, to find my several year-old White privilege blog post requires significant effort and searching. Second, with the advent of spellcheck, typically it’s very hard for your computer to let you misspell “waffle” as “wafle.” Third, the critique, as is not unusual, didn’t seem to have much to do with the content of my blog post. Instead, the commenter was clearly focusing in on his own personal issues and history and not so much on what I had written.

The next part of all is also not unusual. In response, I felt disappointment, hurt, and defensiveness. To be perfectly honest, I wanted to counterpoint or counterpunch my commenter. I managed to stop myself. Instead, I labeled his comment as spam and moved on.

Upon reflection, my “spamming” his comment was probably passive-aggressive. And, it was (and is) clear that I haven’t moved on. Funny how criticism has a way of hanging on long after the party has ended and everyone should go home.

In conclusion, here’s the sort of thing I wish I’d written . . .

“Hello beloved fellow human. I’m grateful that you took the time to read my blog and make a comment. Thank you for that. Based on your comment, I think you and I probably disagree on this topic. Rather than arguing and trying to convince you that I’m right and you’re wrong (which likely wouldn’t work anyway), I want to say that I respect your right to a perspective and opinion that’s different from mine. I’m sure we’ve lived very different lives and so it’s not unusual that we would disagree on White privilege. Although I feel defensive about what I wrote, I can also feel a part of myself that’s way down deep and not defensive. That part of me wants to reach out and say ‘Hey. No big deal that we disagree. It wasn’t my intent to write something that offended you. I wish you health and happiness. I wish us a better and deeper mutual understanding. Wherever you feel hurt or pain, I wish you healing. I hear your disagreement with me and, in the future, although I know I won’t be perfect, I will try to be more sensitive and compassionate in what I write.’

If you like, you can read the offending blog post here: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2012/09/14/a-white-male-psychologist-reflects-on-white-privilege/

Have a fantastic Saturday night.

John SF

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Talking About White Privilege with Tommy Flanagan

Tonight I’m in Absarokee, MT and had a chance to talk awhile with my very cool nephew, Tommy Flanagan. Tommy attends Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA. He shared with me this evening that he’s currently enrolled in several courses focusing on gender, feminist, and cultural issues. We talked about our respective invisible knapsacks and he even asked me how a White guy like me would approach counseling with a Black Lesbian woman. In response, I said, “Well, I just wrote something about that in the Clinical Interviewing text and I had a Black Lesbian woman review it so I would be sure to get some feedback.”

And so here’s the piece:

Working with Gay and Lesbian couples or couples and families from different cultural backgrounds can present clinicians with unique challenges (Bigner & Wetchler, 2004). As discussed in Chapter 11, when a clinician and client have clear and unmistakable differences, the client may initially scrutinize the clinician more closely than if the client and clinician are culturally similar or of the same sexual orientation. These circumstances call for sensitivity, tact, and a discussion of the obvious. Imagine the following scenario:

You’re a white, heterosexual, Christian male. You have a new appointment at 3pm with Sandy Davis and Latisha Johnson for couple counseling. When you get to the waiting room, you see two African American females sitting side by side. You introduce yourself and on the short walk back to your office you mentally process the situation and come to several conclusions: (a) You’re about to meet with an African American Lesbian couple; (b) you’ve never done therapy with this particular cultural minority group; (c) you’re aware of your uncertainty and your concerns about your lack of knowledge makes you feel uncomfortable . . . but also recognize that you want the couple to be comfortable with you . . . and realize they may be feeling similar discomfort about your cultural differences; (d) you are clear that it’s your ethical mandate to provide services to the best of your ability; and (d) although you don’t feel competent to work with this couple, this is a low-income clinic and so the couple may not have many alternatives. How do you proceed?

Below is a brief list of how a clinician might specifically handle this situation. After this list, we provide a description of the underlying principles:

  1. Welcome the couple to your office with the warmth and engagement you offer to all clients (e.g., “I’m glad you could come to the clinic today for your appointment and am happy to meet you. . .”).
  2. Explain confidentiality and the limits of confidentiality. Also, review relevant agency policies that you routinely review with new clients.
  3. If you know the purpose of their visit (e.g., couple counseling) because of the registration form, explain how you usually work with couples.
  4. Let the couple know you’d like them to ask any questions of you they may have . . . but before they ask the questions, explain: “My usual approach with couples is primarily based on work with heterosexual couples. I don’t have experience working with African American Lesbian couples. I’d like to work with you as long as you’re comfortable working with me and it seems like the work is helpful. I know there aren’t lots of couple’s counseling options available. What I propose—if it’s okay with the two of you—is that we start working together today. Today I’ll be asking you directly about your goals for counseling, but also about your interests, values, spirituality and other things that will help me know you better as individuals and as a couple. And toward the end of our session I’ll ask you for feedback about how you think our work together is going and I’ll try to honor that feedback and make adjustments so we can work well together. If, for whatever reason, it looks like we can’t work together effectively, I’ll offer you a good referral to another therapist. What do you think of that plan?”

As described in Chapter 11, the general multicultural competencies include: (a) Awareness (e.g., knowing your biases and limitations); (b) knowledge (e.g., gathering information pertaining to specific cultural groups); and (c) skills (e.g., applying culturally-specific interventions in a culturally sensitive manner). In addition to these competencies, the preceding case illustrates the need for clinicians to explicitly address cultural differences using the following strategies:

  • Cultural universality (treating culturally different clients with same respect you offer to culturally similar clients)
  • Collaboration (working with the clients to understand the particulars of their culture and situation)
  • Feedback (soliciting ongoing feedback regarding client perceptions of how the interview is proceeding and make adjustments based on that feedback).

No clinician can be expected to have awareness, knowledge, and skills for working with every possible diverse client. That being the case, if you also rely on cultural universality, collaboration, and feedback to help strengthen the therapeutic alliance, you’ll have a better chance for therapy to proceed in an ethically and professionally acceptable manner.

 

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.

This essay was published in the Montana Psychologist Newsletter in September, 2012.

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.

*********************************************************************

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.