Recently I joined a group of therapists in a ‘diverse race encounter group’. The intention of the group was to learn and interact with one another’s experiences, beliefs and feelings about race and its intersects. Witnessing therapists of different heritages acknowledging the importance of clients’ racial identities and experiences in therapy, was a relief for me. This was something I had felt missing in my early training.
As a therapist, I am witness to how experiences of racism and discrimination have had damaging effects on the well-being of my clients. The impacts of racism can take many guises – not all immediately obvious - but frequently infused with fear, guilt, shame and trauma. Internalised racism for instance, when a person has negative feelings, even hatred, of his own race, stemming from assumptions and stereotypes. Or the race ‘baggage’ passed down from one generation to the next, in memories, stories and beliefs, a belief such as ‘I am not as good as them’. (Generational trauma is also passed down biologically but I won't go into that here.) And then there are the complex intersections where racism collides with other ‘isms’ such as colourism and sexism. How we live our race is complex.
It saddens me that race is still ignored in some therapeutic encounters. What a loss that is, given the monumental part it plays in how we become the person we are. Racism is one of the major factors that can impact mental health. It isn’t a one-off event that you talk about one week and side-line in the following sessions - it is a daily lived experience for persons of colour. Overlooking race in therapy has consequences, even reinforcing for some people, feelings of powerlessness and privilege, and echoing experiences of not being wholly seen. As a client, withholding core aspects of your identity as a person of colour can create an anxiety you carry throughout the therapy.
Opportunities to explore how we are conditioned, impacted and shaped by racial experiences and narratives are rare but surely one of those places has to be in therapy? You might want to bring race and racism into your therapy but are struggling. Perhaps you can't find a way to do it without sounding clumsy, being seen as ranting, or playing the ‘race card’. You might be uncomfortable because the therapist hasn’t addressed that part of your identity. Or it may be the race of the therapist – same or different – that creates a barrier.
So what can you to do bring race into the therapeutic space? Here are 5 ideas:
1. Check out the therapist before you commit When you first start looking for a therapist, request an initial conversation with them either online or on the phone. Most therapists will oblige even if it isn’t mentioned on their profile. That initial conversation will give you a sense of your own comfort level when talking to them. Can you see yourself opening up to this therapist, race and all? And don’t commit until you’ve talked to a few – one therapist might feel good but the next could feel that much better.
2. Don’t ignore your gut feeling Sometimes a therapist’s profile will mention cultural counselling or they will belong to an organisation for therapists of colour or similar; this may ‘speak’ to. But it could also be something else that gives you a good feeling, their profile, their picture, their name – allow that inner sense to guide you.
3. Bring up race in the first encounter It’s often much easier to talk to someone you don’t know well – what have you to lose? Questions like: ‘Do you have experience of clients who speak about their racial heritages?’ or ‘What is your experience of working with people from different cultures?’ or ‘I’m black/Asian/mixed race and I wanted to know how that might be explored in the therapy’. Therapists are accustomed to potential clients wanting to know about how they work and their experience so your questions about therapy are not out of place.
4. What about if you are already in therapy? Go external! If you are finding it difficult to bring up race with your current therapist, try putting the focus on something external: ‘I’ve been thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement’ or, ‘I read something about how important it is to address race in therapy and realised we never have’. Any insightful therapist will take that and stay with it.
5. Be curious about yourself Do some self–reflection. Why are you finding it hard to talk to your therapist, what’s stopping you? Is it you judging the therapist? Perhaps you feel they wouldn’t understand you? What is going on for you? Try and name the feelings within: fear, frustration, do you feel conflicted?
Being a person of colour in a society in which you are a minority, is living a life in which you experience being both too visible and being not visible enough. A life where the colour of your skin is politicised whether you choose that or not.
Therapy is for every bit of you - race and all - to support you in bringing parts together into a more cohesive, integrated and authentic whole. If your therapy isn’t feeling that way, it may be time to change something.
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