Yes, It’s Uncomfortable to Call Out Racism, and Yes, You Can Do It Anyway

Let’s imagine that at your clinic’s next team meeting, your colleague, Tom, shares with the group that he recently spoke with a client on the phone whom he wants to take on as a new client. Another colleague, Sharon, looks at the potential client’s file and says, “Actually, her file says she prefers a Black therapist who will understand her experiences as a Black woman.” Tom immediately replies, “She’s Black? That’s weird because she didn’t sound Black to me!” The weight of his comment hangs in the air for a moment, and quickly Tom adds, “Oh, come on, you know I didn’t mean it like that. She just . . . sounded White!” Tom looks around but no one says anything. Flabbergasted that no one immediately soothes his distress, Tom leaves the room and doesn’t bring up the incident again.

Take a moment to notice how you feel. Awkward, uncomfortable, enraged, confused? Do you notice the urge to put your head down, divert your eyes from Tom and other team members, or respond to Tom’s misstep? If you have ever found yourself in a situation where a racist comment or joke was made, or a racist incident took place, and you didn’t know what to say or how to say it, we get it. Engaging in anti-racist work is hard. It is also necessary, and we believe you can learn new skills to effectively and consistently do this work.

An increasing number of White allies are trying to do more to support Black folks, Indigenous peoples, and other people of color (BIPOC). This desire to “do” something may be particularly strong given your status as a mental health provider. After all, you have a literal ethical responsibility to “respect the dignity and worth of all people.” However, despite your ethical responsibility to prioritize justice, ensure human rights, and safeguard against biases in your work, you may not have received systematic training during your professional career regarding how to actually do this work effectively.

In our book, Beyond Fragility: A Skills-Based Guide to Effective Anti-Racist Allyship, we introduce sixteen skills designed to help you and other White allies do just that. In particular, these skills are designed to help you overcome the cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal barriers that prevent you from ensuring justice and safety for all clients, especially those who are most vulnerable due to the realities of racism in this country. One such skill is named CALL OUT, which teaches you how to effectively and assertively call out a racist incident in the moment. CALL OUT is a stepwise process based on each part of the acronym: CALL teaches you what to say and OUT teaches you how to say it.

Let’s consider the case example above. The first step in calling out racism is to Clarify what happened by explaining the factual details of what was said or done. This means you stick to the facts without expressing your feelings, opinions, or perspectives. This process gets everyone on the same page about what occurred. In the case with Tom, this would look like saying, “In our team meeting, you stated that a prospective client didn’t sound Black. When it was brought to your attention that she was Black, you insisted that she sounded White.” As you can see from this statement, you’re not making any judgments about Tom or expressing your thoughts and feelings about the situation. You’re simply stating what happened in a factual way.

The second step is to Acknowledge the person’s possible intentions. When people are called out for a racist misstep, they assume that they are being perceived as acting in bad faith or as intentionally being racist. As a result, people often instinctively redirect the conversation to their good intentions. If you acknowledge the other person’s intentions at the outset, you eliminate the need for them to get defensive and redirect the conversation. In the scenario with Tom, this could involve making a statement like “You likely didn’t mean to stereotype Black people” or “You likely didn’t mean to cause harm.” We know that a person’s intention and impact are not the same. And, for many people, racist missteps happen despite their good intentions.

Then you want to Lay out the reasons the comment or behavior is racist. In some cases, individuals may be unaware of the historical and cultural implications of certain words or phrases and may not immediately understand how something they said or did could cause harm. Therefore, you want to provide concrete feedback on why the statement or behavior was racist. For Tom, this could look like saying, “Your statement assumes that there is a specific way that Black people sound and a specific way that White people sound. These assumptions are rooted in stereotypes—stereotypes that are also connected to assumptions about differences in intelligence, professionalism, and even educational attainment across these two groups.”

It is then imperative to List possible solutions the person could take to repair the harm they have caused and avoid future missteps. The key is to be as clear, specific, and behaviorally oriented as possible. Possible solutions can involve asking the other person to apologize for the harm caused, educate themselves on the impact of their behavior or language, or take steps to actively work toward becoming more aware of their biases and prejudices. For Tom, you might ask that he attend an upcoming training on implicit bias, apologize to the team, and/or review client files (and their socio-demographics and preferences) before coming to the team meeting. Overall, intentionally directing the conversation toward possible solutions helps shift the focus from blame or shame toward constructive action and accountability.

Again, CALL teaches you what to say, and OUT teaches you how to say it. You can find more information about the OUT portion of this skill in our book (and continuing education workshops!), where we guide you through each step of CALL OUT. After all, we understand that how you say something is just as important as what you say.

When you remain silent in the face of racism, you allow it to continue. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” His statement highlights the importance of White allies doing the hard work of speaking out loudly against injustice alongside their BIPOC colleagues. Remember, too, that as a White mental health provider, you must leverage your training to promote the human rights, health, well-being, and dignity of all people. We hope the skills in our book, like the CALL OUT skill, boost your sense of self-efficacy and courage to root out racism whenever you witness it so that the reality of an anti-racist society is one day realized.
Learn new skills that allow you to engage in impactful and sustainable allyship in every space you occupy
Beyond Fragility
As society shifts its perspective on true allyship – moving from being “not racist” to "anti-racist” – White allies are being called upon to actively work toward changing the status quo. However, the vast majority of resources on this topic emphasize educating allies about anti-racism without teaching them how to actually do anti-racism work. This leaves well-meaning allies feeling stuck, frustrated, and afraid of getting it wrong.

Beyond Fragility fills this undeniable gap by providing you with a concrete, step-by-step approach to effective anti-racism allyship. Filled with case examples, guided reflections, and skill-building exercises, this book provides you with the skills to understand and avoid common mishaps in anti-racist work, such as misunderstanding what racism is, not knowing how to recognize racism, or not having a clear anti-racist identity.

Meet the Experts:
Yara Mekawi, PhD, is a licensed psychologist, co-founder of the DEAR project, and assistant professor at the University of Louisville. She earned her PhD in clinical-community psychology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Her work focuses on examining racial discrimination and racial prejudice at the intersection of affect and cognition. She is interested in the assessment and integration of anti-racism and social justice-oriented practices within organizations and the implementation of interventions designed to effectively dismantle white supremacy at individual, cultural, and systemic levels. Learn more about her educational products, including upcoming live seminars, by clicking here.

Natalie Watson-Singleton, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist, co-founder of the DEAR Project, and associate professor at Spelman College. She received her PhD in clinical-community psychology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on two lines of inquiry: (1) Understanding how racism influences African Americans’ health disparities, with special attention to African American women, and (2) Modifying interventions to meet the cultural needs of African Americans. Overall, she aims to produce research that can bridge science and practice to improve the lives of marginalized communities. Learn more about her educational products, including upcoming live seminars, by clicking here.

Danyelle Dawson, MA, is a doctoral candidate in clinical-community psychology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and co-founder of the DEAR Project. She received her master’s degree in psychology from North Carolina Central University. Ms. Dawson’s program of research focuses on (1) The mental and physical impacts of racism and discrimination on marginalized populations and (2) Individual and community-level engagement in resistance and healing. She has won several awards recognizing her commitment to diversity and anti-racist endeavors in her work. Learn more about her educational products, including upcoming live seminars, by clicking here.

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