How Can You Use the Principles of Therapy to Further Your Anti-Racism Journey?

Ally is more than just a label. It is a particular way of showing up in the world. When it comes to anti-racism, allyship involves making a commitment to actively identify and fight against policies, behaviors, beliefs, and perceptions that perpetuate racist ideas and actions. Any action that takes a step toward ending racial inequality is considered anti-racist. Anti-racist actions can look different depending on your level of investment, the particular setting involved, and the scope of your efforts. For instance, anti-racism actions that are low-level investments may entail anonymously calling out racist language in your therapist group on social media, whereas high-level investments may involve completely restructuring your mental health organization to be more equitable. The way you engage in anti-racist efforts can also vary across different settings, such as in private family discussions versus in public town hall meetings.

Given the limitless number of anti-racist actions out there that vary across all these dimensions, the goal isn’t to “check off” an allyship list but instead develop a new framework for approaching anti-racism in a way that is sustainable, is impactful, and provides a clear direction for moving forward. One way to obtain this sense of direction is to focus on effective anti-racist allyship.

What is Effective Anti-Racist Allyship?

In terms of how you do anti-racism work, we believe that this work must be effective. Our use of the word effective is informed by dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), an evidence-based psychotherapy approach that blends cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with mindfulness and acceptance strategies. From a DBT perspective, acting effectively is about moving away from a focus on what seems fair versus unfair (or who is right versus wrong), and instead moving toward a focus on what works. This is a powerful shift because it is easy to become overly attached to the way you think things “should” be or how you would like things to be, especially on your anti-racism journey. Perhaps you find yourself becoming overly attached to the desire for a foolproof checklist that lays out easy steps on how to be an anti-racist ally. Or maybe you believe you need to be a “perfect” ally before you take the risk of engaging in anti-racist actions. However, acting effectively means letting go of an attachment to a particular way of doing things or to a particular outcome and focusing instead on actions that will get you closer to your goals.

According to DBT, acting effectively requires:
  • Paying attention to your thoughts and feelings in the moment
  • Avoiding unhelpful self-judgment
  • Choosing actions that are designed to move you closer to your goals
  • Doing your best in a given moment
To drive this point home, imagine you have been hired as the head of a new psychiatry department at a university. Within a few months of starting your new job, you begin to learn about long-standing issues of racial inequality in the department. Suddenly, you receive a lengthy, strongly worded letter co-signed by BIPOC medical students calling out racism in the department and charging you with the task of addressing their concerns. You may initially be distraught by this and find yourself thinking, “But I am not the one who caused these inequities! Why are they mad at me?”

In this case, you are 100 percent correct—you are not the one who created the harmful policies, nor did the inequity start with you. This intense discomfort and defensiveness in response to learning about racial injustice is referred to as White fragility. In this scenario, giving in to White fragility and doing what feels “right” or “fair” might entail defending yourself by reminding the medical students that you did not create the harmful policies and by restating the anti-racism efforts you have taken in the department so far. Although it might feel good to get this out of your system, this response prioritizes your own emotions and your need to be perceived as the “good ally.” The students’ concerns take a back seat while your hurt emotions take the steering wheel, both of which do nothing to advance anti-racism in your department.

In contrast, doing what works could involve asking, “What responses will help me advance our department’s anti-racist mission?” This might mean sitting down and processing the feelings you’re having and also taking the time to really consider the issues brought up by students. You can then build on this by asking more questions, setting up meetings with students, and using this new knowledge to implement changes. To shift your focus toward what works, the question “What is the most effective thing to do?” should always be your North Star, guiding you to impactful anti-racist allyship.

Although focusing on what works may seem easy, it often requires doing things that are uncomfortable or unpleasant in the moment. When it comes to being an effective anti-racist ally, it requires recognizing how you may be participating in and benefiting from racism, attending to the unpleasant thoughts and feelings that accompany this awareness, and doing your best to learn and try new anti-racism skills to eliminate racism—no matter how uncomfortable using these skills may be.

One way to persist when this work gets hard is through the use of affirmations. Affirmations allow you to replace negative or anxious thoughts with positive and encouraging statements, which can help calm your mind and body, improve your ability to cope with uncertainty, and improve your self-worth. This is especially important given that any effective anti-racism journey will be fraught with uncertainty. You can use the acronym DEAR ALLY to help you remember the gist of each affirmation:
  1. “I am dauntless in the face of resistance, and my consistent, courageous actions create change.”
  2. “I am an engaged anti-racist ally and I take intentional actions to disrupt White supremacy.”
  3. “I am attentive to the needs of BIPOC and use their guidance as my North Star for anti-racist work.”
  4. “My reflexive attitude makes me open to learning and being challenged.”
  5. “I am adaptable and can meet the changing demands of anti-racism work.”
  6. “I participate in lasting anti-racism efforts that range from small, everyday actions to large, big-picture actions.”
  7. “When I release my attachment to White supremacy and privilege, I allow for collective liberation to occur.”
  8. “My anti-racist journey is yearslong and not confined to arbitrary dates and holidays.”
Being an effective anti-racist ally requires that you go outside of your comfort zone and really try to do things differently even when it’s hard. When you feel stuck, draw on your therapy skills by writing down these affirmations and repeating them to yourself to help you break through!

You can find more information on how to use the principles of therapy to further your anti-racism journey in our book, Beyond Fragility: A Skills-Based Guide to Effective Anti-Racist Allyship. The skills we introduce in our book are informed by strategies from dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), motivational interviewing (MI), and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—strategies that can help you commit to the lifelong work of undoing racism.
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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