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This Therapist’s Message To White Men: Become An Agent Of Change Or A Victim Of Progress

As a couples therapist, Andrew Horning had become accustomed to a predictable yet problematic pattern—eager wife schedules appointment and arrives ready to share and engage while husband proceeds with extreme caution, even skepticism, defensiveness and at times stubborn resistance. Predictably, the husband’s struggle to be vulnerable and open would invariably hinder both connection and progress within the relationship. Fast forward several years…Horning participated in a two-day DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) workshop with a racially mixed audience. As the workshop progressed, the facilitator labored to coax more openness from the White participants—they were visibly resistant. For Horning this resistance reminded him of the proverbial husband dragged to counseling scenario he’d witnessed so many times before. To help attendees understand the privilege that seemed invisible if not fictitious to many of the White participants, the facilitator explained, “You know you have privilege when equity feels like discrimination.” For Horning that moment was an epiphany. “I thought ‘That’s it! We have to be willing to handle the discomfort of this work internally if we are to move forward with a deeper understanding of the experience of Black and Brown people in this country.’” He noted a clear parallel between the individual White male resistance that hindered emotional intimacy and marital success and the collective visceral White male resistance and defensiveness in the workshop inhibiting productive exploration of the realities of racial inequities.

His conclusion—just like men need to grapple with themselves to show up better in their relationships, White men in particular need to grapple with their identity, their privilege and even their racist patterns to show up better in the world and become change agents for racial equity.

While it can be tempting to view racism and race-based discrimination as a Black/Brown problem, many would argue that it’s really an ongoing toxicity that White people must address, particularly White men, if it’s to be eradicated long term. Psychotherapist Andrew Horning has embarked on a mission to urge White men to do just that. In his new book Grappling: White Men’s Journey from Fragile to Agile, Horning urges White men to grapple with the reality of their identity. “If you’re a white man in America, you have a decision to make: become an agent of change or a victim of progress,” says Horning. “White men have found themselves entrenched in a privileged status quo for centuries. Old patterns and learned behavior have contributed to their success, but things are changing; our world is evolving. We’re tackling racism and sexism head-on, and White masculinity, as we know it, is in the midst of a revolution.”

Horning views the process of grappling—engaging in a close struggle without weapons—as the work that White men must do to build the racial stamina required to actively lean into this moment of racial reckoning. In practice grappling requires purposely exposing oneself to discomfort in order to emerge stronger and better with a simultaneous sense of power and humility. “As White men we have to stop putting our finger in the dike that is preventing change and instead be agile in navigating it.” insists Horning. “We can’t just say, ‘If a Black person brings it up, I’ll deal with it.’ Our defensiveness and avoidance is more problematic than we realize.”

Recognizing that a barrier for many White men is a sense of shame, guilt or feelings of being a bad person, Horning insists that innate goodness and racist patterns are not in fact the same thing. (Similarly, Robin DiAngelo famously refers to this concept as the “good/bad binary” in her New York Times bestseller White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism). “We have to realize ‘I can be a good person and have racist patterns,’” explains Horning. “Patterns we learned are not us; it’s learned behavior that can be unlearned.” He implores White men in particular to acknowledge those patterns as a function of their upbringing and environment. “It’s the water we swim in,” he insists. Furthermore, he highlights the significant long-term benefits awaiting those who are brave enough to wade into this admittedly uncomfortable territory. “The feeling of discomfort or possibly shame is only a temporary state, and if we can sustain ourselves through it, we can come out the other side confident and free,” he explains. “We must build up our own capacity to navigate the uncomfortable emotions that race and gender bring up among White men. We must build the muscle that has been atrophied as a result of our privilege.”

That work doesn’t just yield long term benefits for the individual, but it can also change how they show up in the workplace among peers and colleagues. When they meet a new person of color at a race related event, they’re less likely to awkwardly rattle off their “racial resume” and more likely to actually engage with the individual. When uncomfortable discussions ensue in the workplace, they’re less likely to focus their energies on defending their character and more likely to think critically about how to create more equity. Even when they might be accused of an offensive or racist comment or action, they’re more likely to lean into the discussion and get curious instead of reflexively responding with defensiveness…or anger.

In his new book Horning also urges White men to step up in a new, more forceful way to become agents of change for racial reconciliation and equity. “We have to stop defending and distracting from the original sin in our country of slavery,” he insists. “As White people we have to be willing to deal with the truth and be an ally and amplify the voices of Black and Brown people.” Horning also challenges the concept of American meritocracy and instead considers it more of a “mirror-tocracy” as White men have continually benefited by seeing their own archetype continually reinforced and celebrated. Possibly most importantly, this grappling can yield significant tangible advances in racial equity outcomes. He insists, “When White men who hold the levers of power start grappling, larger systemic change can happen.”

For those who question or criticize his focus on White men specifically, he first acknowledges that White men are undeniably at the top of the proverbial food chain in America, a phenomenon that Pulitzer Prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson explores in her New York Times bestseller Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. “This potent, problematic and paradoxical combination of whiteness and maleness has given us so much and yet left us with so little,” admits Horning. “We have so many advantages that largely go unacknowledged and unseen by us, and those privileges have left us with fewer skills at dealing with the changing world around us.” He asks White men to grapple with the idea that they’re not entitled to psychological comfort and to consider the fact that insistence on comfort may be what’s preventing many of them from progressing from fragile to agile. For this reason, he refers to the “gift of the grapple” insisting that this conscious exposure to what’s uncomfortable ultimately yields more inner peace and a stronger emotional capacity.

While it may be tempting to paint a myopic view of white supremacy as men in hoods burning crosses in yards, the truth is that the general ideology of White male supremacy is much more subtle, nuanced and ubiquitous. As a White male psychotherapist, Horning has grappled with that himself and asks other White men to join him in grappling with their White male identity. He reflects, “As White men, we have been lauded for changing the world, then we were told to change yourself first and then change the world. This new era is asking us to first allow the world to change us. We don’t know what we thought we did, and that is a hard place to be when you aren’t used to it.”

Stay tuned for the follow up article based on Horning’s work “If You’re Ever Called Out As ‘Racist’ At Work, Remember These Four Simple Steps.”

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