White Privilege in Art Therapy: For White Folks

This blog post is going to be my sharing of thoughts on white privilege in the art therapy field. Let me start out by saying that these thoughts and ideas are not new, and not something that I have come up with, rather, they are things that I have learned by educating myself.

What is white privilege? Allow me to quote Wikipedia. “Wikipedia isn’t real!” you say, “it’s real enough!” I say.

“White privilege (or white skin privilege) is a term for societal privileges that benefit people identified as white in Western countries, beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people under the same social, political, or economic circumstances. Academic perspectives such as critical race theory and whiteness studies use the concept of “white privilege” to analyze how racism and racialized societies affect the lives of white or white-skinned people.”

I am a white, cis female that grew up in a middle class family. I hold a lot of privilege and it has been lot of work learning about it and understanding it. In fact, this post is about my work in learning about my own privilege, and it’s relation to my identity and work as an art therapist. I am going to STRONGLY encourage you to click on all the links in the article and spend the time reading them. They are an important part of this.

  1. White Art Therapists: We Need To Educate Ourselves on What We Missed. We have not been taught to decolonize. We have not been taught how to unpack our privilege.  Most likely in school, our history lessons did not include how to recognize our own white privilege because not knowing and not discussing it is how racism, which is institutional and systemic, continues to thrive. This type of work is difficult because it brings up many complicated feelings, brings up our white guilt, and somewhere in there our strong sense of empathy and sensitivity are tangled. I will explain this more later. Some of us might have family and friends who are unreceptive to these types of discussions, and it might have caused us to not have a space where we can learn in a supportive environment. Doing this type of work is uncomfortable. We need to be able sit in the discomfort. We need to surround ourselves by other people doing the work. Learn from white art therapists doing the work. Learn from POC critiques of this work. The process is ongoing. The information is out there for you. The process is long, and it is hard, and it takes a lot of work to learn and unlearn, but be in the process.   Here is a link to get you started.  Of note: Do not rely on POC to educate you. First of all, there are plenty of books at the library and resources online. Here is one list to get you started. Here is a second list for more learning. YAY Learning!!  Second, POC do not owe it to you to educate you. If a POC friend or colleague is providing you with that information, take it, but do not ask them to take time out of their lives to do the work for you. The work is yours to do.
  2. The Work Is Constant and Ongoing. Unpacking our privilege takes a long time to learn. Be patient with yourself. But also know that this work is not done overnight. It’s not like a light bulb goes off and we suddenly understand, as white people, all of the complexities and the impact of racism on POC, and how our privilege has and continues to impact POC. Our privilege and our impact on the racial system is complex and will take a lifetime to continue to be aware of the process and the intricacies.
  3. Burnout. This work can be tiring. It can be exhausting. Especially when we finally are learning, growing and understanding and we A) learn about the mistakes we have made that contributed to ongoing racism, and B) are met with pushback when we use our voice to call out other white folks. Learning about our past and current mistakes is tiring because it brings up FEELINGS. Feelings of guilt, embarrassment, shame, horror, remorse, you name it. These feelings are draining. But it’s part of the work. Here is a great read on moving from white guilt to white responsibility.    This is an important step that many art therapists have trouble with. Moving from guilt to responsibility. Being stuck in our white guilt is harmful to our work with clients who are POC. It is okay to take short breaks for nourishment and self-care when feeling drained and experiencing burnout. Just remember that POC are not afforded the privilege (see what I did there?) of taking breaks because the oppression they are facing is constant. My suggestion is to have discussions with other white folks doing the work to get support. I repeat, doing the work. Remember that as white people we are all benefitting from privilege, and we may all be in different places of our learning/unlearning.
  4. Space.  This is where I will talk about the White Savior/White Knight Complex. Let’s think about space in the context of art therapy sessions. We think of space in terms of physical space, where we are sitting/standing in relation to our clients. We can also think about space in the context of artwork. What kind of artwork is your client working on? Where are you physically, when your client is working? How do you process the art with your client? Again, where are you physically? Do you touch the artwork? But there is also the amount of space we take up by talking and doing. This is what we need to be highly aware of when working with clients. What are we saying? How much are we saying? What kind of space do our words take up? What kind of space do our clients words take up? When we are not aware of our privilege and the impact of racism on POC, we may replicate relationships of power dynamics that are oppressive to our client(s). What kind of space to you think white people have been taking up since colonization?

As art therapists, we are used to feeling the need to be validated externally. We understand the struggle of trying to prove ourselves as qualified clinicians and our practice as valid. This is mainly because of funding and obtaining/keeping jobs. Be careful of the need to validate yourself if you are a white therapist who struggles with the White Savior complex.  White Saviors have a lot of empathy but take up a lot of space. White Saviors have a need to “save” people who are suffering, who are oppressed, instead of allowing those who are marginalized to use their voice to empower themselves to do therapeutic work, with you as the space maker, the guide. Most of the work we are doing is actively structuring safety. We are not doing that if we are replicating relationship dynamics of power and inequality. We are causing harm and developing a dependency of POC on the white therapist. This is not therapeutic. White savior therapists take up a lot of space in the need to validate the work of art therapy, but also in the need to validate themselves. White savior therapists have a difficult time making intentional space for their POC clients to share their stories, which is required for them to learn and grow and benefit therapeutically. White Savior therapists don’t want to listen, they have a need to contribute.  What if you were to make art about what your white guilt looks like and how much space it is taking up in your sessions? This sounds super scary but this artwork is only for you to see. What does is consist of? what are the feelings? What kind of decisions do you make as a direct result of white guilt?

I myself struggled with the identity of White Savior. When I was in college I had dreams of doing art therapy in Africa and “saving” the children. The process of me understanding how problematic this is was one that took years of learning. The process of me having to internally validate myself so that I am not looking for validation through my work and replicating oppressive power dynamics has also taken years of internal work and processing.

6. Everything You Need Is In A Box Called “The Action Kit.” Just kidding, no it’s not! If you watched the Kony 2012 video (if you haven’t, go back and watch!) you’ll notice that at the end of the video the white dude who made the video says this exact line about solving Uganda’s problems. Here is where our white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy comes in. The answer to decolonization and dismantling racism does not come in a nicely packaged box. It comes in the form of toil and labor, of being honest with ourselves, of putting in the work. It comes from surrounding ourselves with people who not only support our work, but do their own work, then collaborate. It comes from us being willing to make space, to listen, and to learn. To validate and take care of ourselves so we have the energy to continue not only calling out but patiently educating other white folks. This system will not break itself down. It’s too strong for that. And the work will not be done instantaneously. It is long and laborious but we are required to do it so that we do not cause harm.


Education! Education! Education! Learn! Learn! Learn!

Self-Reflection! Self-Reflection! Self-Reflection! Work! Work! Work!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s