The Struggle of Seeing Therapists Who Have Privilege In Areas I’ve Been Oppressed
I have two therapists right now. One is about to retire so we are thinking ahead to transitions. Both of my therapists are white, middle class, educated, one of them is cisgender, mentally stable (from what I can tell), and privileged.
I have privilege too, I should not forget to say. I was raised middle class, a two-parent household, good master’s level education, raised and currently live in a relatively safe neighborhood, my health is stable, I have access to SSDI and I have numerous friends. I am very fortunate.
But there is still a barrier in my therapeutic relationships that feels impenetrable. I am a Black woman and a lesbian. I spend every session very cognizant that the therapists are members of the oppressor race. My worldview is so different from theirs, it is sometimes hard to relay my concerns about my trauma or other situations I am in.
When I was clearly struggling with my Blackness and fears around violence in my community, I felt my concerns fell on deaf ears. I found my white therapist trying to reassure me that I was safe and had nothing to worry about. Telling me that I would not be targeted because somehow, I am inherently safe. That I do not hang around those kinds of people. I even recall being told I should not fear being stopped by the police since I would obey them and not spark a confrontation. (Please note, most of the people shot were complying.)
I am exhausted with educating therapists. They should not be in this line of work if they cannot provide the basics. They are good people and they make a good effort, but fall short of meeting me where I am sometimes. They lack education and real-world experience. They suffer from a myopic view of the world. They see me through their lens instead of through the lens of cultural competency. These are older therapists and surely were not taught about working with patients different from themselves, but it is still no excuse.
I recently began a journey to learn about my disordered eating and how I could address it. One of my therapists is an eating disorder therapist as well as a specialist in trauma and dissociative identity disorder (DID). I took this opportunity to speak with her about getting help for my disordered eating. I recognized that she is in a thinner body than me and has thin privilege. The first thing she did was recommend some books for me to read, some videos to watch and some social media accounts to follow. To my surprise, the writers, influencers, and actors were all thin and white. How was I supposed to relate? I could not see myself in these people. I could not see my story that was emerging.
If I was supposed to be OK with my fat body, I needed to hear from and see others like me. When I confronted my therapist about this, she acted surprised and wondered out loud how she had not noticed. I tell you why she did not notice — it was because she does not have to think of these things. The world is built for her. She does not have to maneuver to fit. The world fits around her.
Some would ask why I don’t change therapists; as many of you know, it is just not that easy. I did, last fall, find a Black therapist for a while to work on my racial trauma issues, but she is not a DID therapist and had limited trauma or eating disorder training. I saw her for six sessions. My current white therapists have more than 20 years each doing trauma therapy in various modalities, they both have an extensive background in serving DID patients, one of them has eating disorder training and experience, they both take Medicare (you do not know how rare this is) and they both are located within five miles of my home (I have driving anxiety). I also like them.
When you have a therapist who is not of the same racial group, sexual identity, gender expression, faith community, or ableness, you have the right to be heard and cared for.
If you are not getting what you need and cannot for whatever reason change your therapist, you can:
1. Add on a therapist if this is affordable to you.
2. Read to educate yourself and share the books with your therapist.
3. Find associations that focus on what you need learn what you can from them.
4. Find online and in-person support groups (many are free) that meet your needs.
5. Follow social media accounts (if you can) that are good for you and relate to what you need. (I set up my Facebook for just friends and family, Twitter for only news and social justice groups I like, and Instagram with all body neutrality, intuitive eating, and positive body image pages. That way I can segment off what I feel like engaging with that day).
When you are looking for a therapist that can relate to you:
1. Start with people you know and ask who they see. Even see if their therapist can recommend someone for you. They can even send your specific wishes to a listserve with other therapists they are on and see if they get any feedback.
2. Check out your state-specific professional organizations’ web pages. They have lists of therapists and descriptions.
3. Search Psychology Today. They have pictures so you can at least get a good idea of who you are dealing with. They also have a list of specialty areas, allowing you to single out those you can work with.
4. Call the behavioral health contact number on your medical health insurance card and ask for the specifics you are looking for (such as race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, faith, and so on).
5. When you first do a phone consultation with the therapist, ask if they see patients like you and what has been their success and retention rate of such clients. Ask them their style of therapy and any specialized training they have received. See if they feel honest and open with you.
It is hard, engaging with therapists who share the identity of an oppressor. It is possible if that is your only option, but you must be careful to know what is going on and how to protect yourself if needed. Below is a list of organizations that have lists of professionals that you can reach out to for help. Do not try to tackle this alone. We can all use some Mighty Help!
Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash