Awareness of White Privilege in the Mental Health Industry

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BY: SIMONE SMITH

Race has always been an uncomfortable topic to discuss; like religion and politics, it is usually seen as one of those topics that should be avoided. I am currently researching and learning how race and racism have become part of human history. This avoidance could possibly be the reason that there is a lack of awareness when it comes to the idea of certain cultures having “privilege,” in our society. Two researchers, Ancis & Szymanski, took this topic head on when they wrote their paper, Awareness of White Privilege among White Counseling Trainees in 2001. The article examines whether White counseling students are aware of the personal benefits they have based on just being Caucasian students.

Ancis & Szymanski argued that White privilege is viewed as normal, and is maintained through the process of denial, the belief of White superiority and the concept of meritocracy (as cited in Hurtado & Stewart, 1997). Ancis & Szymanski also note that counselors need to be aware of their personal biases that may affect the way in which they treat their clients (as cited in Fouad, 1999; A. E. Ivey; Fouad, Arredondo, & D’Andrea, 1999). They continue to argue that due to this lack of focus on developing racial self-awareness in counseling and psychology programs, it parallels the perpetuation of White culture as the norm, especially in the psychology profession (as cited in Bulhan, 1985; Thomas & Sillen, 1972).

I found it interesting that 10% of the students who were enrolled in the counseling program at the university were White (Ancis & Szymanski, 2001). It was noted that only 5% of the students enrolled in the same counseling program were non-Whites (Ancis & Szymanski, 2001). The study highlighted the fact that in most cases, the counselors and psychotherapist who are practicing are White, and many may be unaware of the privilege that they have.

A power differential is sometimes assumed when an individual goes to see a psychotherapist. The client unknowingly gives the therapist this power, and an untrained therapist may subscribe to this power differential. Now, how does this work out if a client of ethnic diversity walks into an office and finds themselves in front of a White therapist? What can be done if this therapist is unaware of their own beliefs concerning that client? This is why self-awareness is so important.

I was intrigued at the three levels of awareness; each level was explained in detail, and demonstrated the inability for some trained counselors to recognize their own “isms.” I appreciate that the researchers understand the limitations of their study. Ancis and Szymanski (2001) realize that White privilege manifests itself differently depending on a person’s experiences. Further research can be done on how exposure to other cultures, and enrolling counseling students in more racially/ethnically counseling programs, may assist White students on cultural awareness, and their own self-awareness.

I had to remain aware of my own thoughts and feelings while writing this article. There are many aspects of this article that triggered me, but also gave me a better understanding of how unaware some White professionals are when it comes to the privilege they possess in our society. I also had to consider the implications of this on a broader level. Is the psychological profession, the only profession where this trend exists? Is it possible that this is happening at a larger scale and should be investigated deeper? How pervasive is this in our business community? This article is only the beginning, and I am sure that more research in this area will bring up some uncomfortable realities.

As a writer and a mental health professional, it is my duty to bring to light some of the issues that we find hard to deal with.

Ase!

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