Ep. 10: The Risk of Discomfort

In the wake of Richard Spencer’s visit to Gainesville, FL, I sat down for a timely emotional conversation with counselor Kathleen Joseph. Kathleen talks about fighting cancer, experiencing racism, and struggling to find a therapist in a field of mental health professionals who don’t look like her.

When editing this episode, I chose to leave in many of the long, heavy silences between us.  It just didn’t seem right to cut out the places where we may have been the most uncomfortable. I hope to invite Kathleen back soon and risk even more discomfort. I found our talk extremely worthwhile. See below for resources related to our conversation.


Resources and a follow-up note (5/13/19)

Shortly after I released this episode, I received some critical, hard-to-hear feedback from a counselor friend who studies white privilege, multicultural mistakes, and how to have better cross-cultural dialogues. Her feedback led to countless difficult dialogues about white privilege, white fragility, and the appropriate and inappropriate places for white people to express our own vulnerability, grief, confusion, and guilt related to racial issues.  I am deeply grateful for my friend for challenging me and pointing me in a direction that has been, and continues to be, personally and professionally invaluable.

Let’s face it: I made a number of multicultural mistakes in my conversation with Kathleen.  For those of you already familiar with multicultural mistakes, I’m sure you will hear them immediately. Below are some resources that proved critical for my understanding the nature of my mistakes and what I can do differently.  One big “aha” moment was learning that, in a conversation with a person of color about racism, my own vulnerability, however well-meaning and certainly historically privileged, becomes something different–toxic, retraumatizing, and deeply dismissive. I am embarrassed to say that I perceived us to be having a mutually vulnerable conversation, and later learned that my own vulnerability was a demonstration of centering myself and crying white tears.

Being well-meaning in any area of counseling is not necessarily the same as being effective. And sometimes it’s tempting to hide out in, “Well, I didn’t mean any harm.” But we must recognize the places where we fail our clients in ways that reflect our own blind spots and areas of growth. Kathleen was not my client, of course, and I was not interacting with her as her therapist. But still, this conversation revealed my own growth edges related to multicultural sensitivity. As my mentor used to say, it isn’t easy to be in a field that requires us to continually take hard looks at ourselves, but that is the job.

While it’s difficult to keep these mistakes on the internet where others can hear me make them, and to know that I risk hurting people of color who listen to this conversation, I believe it’s another form of white fragility to hide these mistakes,  which ultimately formed the basis for a lot of growth. Cross-cultural conversations are hard, and often messy, and white counselors need to strive to do better, even though we will never get it “right.”

Thank you to Kathleen first for having the conversation with me, and to everyone else who has been brave enough to challenge me to keep learning. Over the past year and half since I posted this episode and began to deepen my multicultural education, many of my clients of color have thanked me for holding a healing space for their experiences of racism–something I was unable to do with Kathleen. So, while I am still and will always be imperfect with this territory, I am hopeful about indicators of development.

Please take the time to educate yourself if this is also a growth edge for you.

There are two categories of resources provided below that are relevant to the content of this episode.

  1. The first category is culturally specific resources for Black or African American people
  2. The second category is intended for White counselors who would like to learn more about blind spots and allyship

Culturally specific resources for Black or African American people 

White counselors who would like to learn more about Blind spots and Allyship


1 reply added

  1. J October 26, 2017 Reply

    Wow! This has been such a powerful episode to listen to. I am a White, female counselor in Idaho. While listening to the podcast, I feared that Kathleen may be feeling invalidated and having another experience where her intersectionality is not being fully seen and understood. I’m not sure if I can pinpoint exactly why I felt that way. However, I felt so relieved and moved as this was addressed openly and genuinely in the podcast. It seemed to take so much courage from both of you and it was amazing for me to witness. It has helped me think about my own blind spots, despite my best intentions, and serves as a model for how I can have an open conversation like this. I would love to hear a follow-up once you’ve both had the chance to process your experiences and are ready to enter this vulnerable place again. Specifically, Kathleen I am curious to hear more about your emotional experience because I wonder if you felt you had to minimize it. Knowing that you like time to process, I imagine you will have a lot of insight into this. Sara, I would love to hear more how you processed this conversation and acknowledged your own White guilt (I’m assuming) without letting it overtake your responses and allow you to continue the conversation. Thank you both for your openness, genuineness, and bravery!

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