Can We Break the Cycle of Racism? A Couples Therapist’s Perspective

With all that is happening in our world, I feel compelled to use this week’s blog post to share a message that offers helpful perspective, hope, and encouragement; but that also calls to light some tough realities about the reasons our country is where it is today, our responsibility in creating these circumstances, and some insight about how we might change it for the better. At the same time, I recognize that my position as a white woman calls me to focus a good deal of my energy on listening; that my voice, and the voices of others like me, are not the important ones in this moment. I’ve been doing a good deal of listening since the day George Floyd was murdered — and as a therapist, a big part of my job is listening to multiple voices and then reflecting in a way that, hopefully, invites understanding and moves a conversation forward. That is what I hope to do here. 

If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend picking up Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. DiAngelo does a phenomenal job of explaining the ways in which white people have allowed systemic racism to exist over centuries and generations; and how even (and maybe especially) those among us who don’t consider ourselves racist often miss or ignore opportunities to challenge or combat the racist dynamics that surround us every day. From DiAngelo, I will borrow what I believe to be a helpful and current definition of racism. Rather than focusing on individual racist acts, we are challenged to think of racism as “encompassing economic, political, social, and cultural structures, actions, and beliefs that systematize and perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources and power between white people and people of color,” (DiAngelo, 2011, p. 56). White privilege, then, refers to the myriad ways in which our whiteness conveys access to resources and privileges not afforded to other groups in a society in which race-based inequality exists. Put another way, white privilege doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been difficult; it simply means that your skin color isn’t what made it that way. If you are white, you are not being asked to consider whether you enjoy white privilege; by definition, you do. You are instead being called to examine your privilege, recognize it when it is at play, and do what you can as an individual to not continue to use it to your personal, and white America’s collective, advantage.

I can’t help but notice parallels between racism and one of the toughest issues I see as a couples therapist — namely, relationship abuse. In this case, I am not referring to relationships in which both partners use unhealthy tactics during conflict and inflict upon each other pain of similar intensity; rather, I am referring to relationships in which one partner creates and maintains a power dynamic that consistently disadvantages and controls the other, using fear, manipulation, punishment, and often violence. In such relationships, day-to-day life is characterized by limits and threats that become “the norm” and act to keep the abused partner in line–largely out of fear of the abuser’s reaction to any failure to meet their expectations, or to any attempt to threaten the power structure itself. The needs and desires of the abused partner are subjugated to those of the abuser whenever the two are in conflict.

Over time, an abused partner learns that what they think and feel, their experience in and of the relationship, doesn’t matter to the other. Inevitably and understandably, a sense of powerlessness emerges. When they do speak up, ask for fairness, demand to be heard, or advocate for themselves, they are met with out-of-proportion force, often resulting in physical harm and nearly always chipping away at the abused partner’s sense of self.

What we often see in abusive relationships is a cyclical pattern to the interactions. Episodes of overt abuse are preceded by a period of building tension and followed by a “honeymoon period” in which the abuser says (whether or not they believe) that things will be different this time. In both of these periods, the abuser clings tightly to denial — minimizing the abuse and its impact, acting as if the abuse did not occur, and promising to change. This denial perpetuates the violence and allows the cycle to repeat.

And then, for some victims of abusive relationships, there comes a point when they just can’t continue. The cumulative impact of riding this damaging, exhausting cycle over months and years becomes too much to bear. In a desperate attempt to break free of this oppression once and for all, some find ways to fight back. For others, an overt act of violence gets so out of control that an abused person is killed. And when this happens, we act surprised and confused; we ask, “How did this happen? Why didn’t the abused person just leave? Why didn’t they ask for help?” What we fail to realize is that almost certainly, they DID ask for help, and help didn’t come; they TRIED to leave, and were prevented from doing so or had nowhere to go; they were without options to effect change.

Black America and White America have been in a similarly abusive relationship since 1619, when the first slaves were brought to Virginia. Since then, systemic and structural racism has acted to perpetuate a broadly unequal power dynamic that advantages whites and disadvantages People of Color. This plays out at every level of society and in ways both large and small; its pervasiveness means that for Black Americans, daily life is characterized by limits and threats that act to keep them “in line,” and allow white Americans to remain in a place of privilege. Over time, as we maintain this system and structure, we have shown our Black friends and neighbors that what they think, how they feel, their very experience in and of their relationship with us, don’t matter — at least not enough to really do anything about it. Inevitably and understandably, many Black Americans feel powerlessness to effect needed change. When they have spoken up, asked for fairness, demanded equality, and advocated for themselves, they have been met with out-of-proportion force, often resulting in physical harm or death, and chipping away at Black America’s ability to believe that they will ever be treated as equals in American society.

And now we find ourselves once again at an all-too-familiar part of the cycle. After a period of building tension, an incident of overt abuse occurs — too often, the cruel killing of an innocent Black man, woman, or child. We pay some attention to the issue, share on our social media feeds in support of equality, and promise to do better. But then… we don’t. We cling tightly to our denial, telling ourselves that racism is a problem, but we are not racist. We excuse ourselves for enjoying the privilege that our whiteness conveys, or pretend that that privilege doesn’t exist. We pay lip service the cause, but don’t actually take it up. And so, the cycle continues.

Now we are asked to consume the fruit borne of our toxic tree. This time around, the tension-building phase of the cycle included a global pandemic in which a failure of American leadership has led to illness, unemployment, insecurity, and instability that powerfully and disproportionately impacts minorities. The overt act of abuse was so egregious, so vivid, and so shocking that few among us can miss it. Our Black friends and neighbors are telling us that they just can’t continue. They have tried in so many ways to make us see, to convince us to change; they have knelt before the flag, they have used their public platforms to raise awareness, they have shared themselves with us, they have tried to educate us–and we have failed them. The cumulative impact of riding this racist abuse cycle over centuries and generations has become too much to bear. In a desperate attempt to break free of this oppression once and for all, our Black friends and neighbors are calling out and fighting back. And we each have a choice to make.

In this moment, White America has been given an opportunity to finally make a change–to admit to ourselves and each other that we have held on to our privilege for far too long; to do the work to transform our relationship into one in which our Black fellow citizens feel seen, heard, safe, and valued; to humble ourselves to our individual and collective wrongdoing and be willing to earn back the trust of our Black fellow citizens, which we have so deeply and unforgivably violated. This is a call to real, meaningful, committed action. This moment demands that we commit ourselves to a quest for equality and don’t stop working until we achieve it. We have SO MUCH work to do to heal racial division in this country, and we must begin this work now. 

I love the list of concrete, specific action steps shared in 75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice. Broadly, you can: 

  • Listen. Many black voices are raised right now, being far more generous with their words and their experiences than we deserve. 
  • Follow black influencers on social media; listen and learn.
  • Read. Read with the intention of learning about experiences outside of your own.
  • Confront your own biases and work on them. 
  • Share your thoughts and ideas with other white people. 
  • Protest. 
  • Challenge racist acts and policies when you observe them. Silence is complicity.
  • Find a piece of the racism structure you feel particularly passionate about and dive into it deeply — there are many to choose from. 
  • Consume media created by Black Americans. 
  • Support Black businesses. 
  • Write to your legislators. 
  • Donate to organizations that support anti-racism causes. 
  • Talk to and teach your children about the realities of racism and set them up to do better than we have. 
  • And vote.

DiAngelo, R. (2011). White Fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3(3), 54-70.