How White Therapists Can Better Support the BIPOC Community
I’ve been in and out of therapy for all of adulthood, and I’ve had wonderful therapists and horrible therapists. They’ve had experience and different modalities and have helped me explore different parts of my mental illness. But there is one commonality between all of them that sometimes creates problems: they’ve all been white.
While I don’t know anything about their upbringing or life experiences, when our conversations turn to topics of race, privilege and discrimination, their white privilege becomes painfully obvious. I’ve had to stop seeing therapists before because of their inability to understand or help me work through my racialized experiences.
Some people may be wondering “well, why don’t you just see a therapist of color?” While that’s a valid question, there are a lot of reasons why that isn’t always possible. For starters, there are disproportionately more white therapists than therapists of color — so the pool is much, much smaller. From a pure logistics point of view, I also have to consider where they are located, how much they cost, if they’re covered by my insurance and if they have availability outside of work hours. Then you factor in things like modalities they’re trained in (ACT, CBT, DBT, psychodynamic) with the ones I respond well to and the pool becomes virtually non-existent. So, more often than not, there are no therapists of color in my pool after I start to narrow it down.
Last fall, I had to stop seeing a therapist because after I experienced racism in my friend group, she insisted I be the one to confront my friends and educate them. In her mind, it wasn’t emotional labor that BIPOC (and particularly Black people) are always expected to do for white people; to her, it was necessary for me to express my needs and boundaries. This is a prime example of where white therapists fall short — when they are not informed of how racism and racist dynamics play into relationships, and the power imbalance that creates. White therapists are often trained in healing methods developed by other white people, to use on white clients. They are not racial-trauma informed, they are not anti-racist, they are not considerate of other cultures and societal structures.
Another example is individualism vs. collectivism. As a South Asian person raised in a family who highly values community, I was raised to believe that if everyone looks out for the community, then everyone gets taken care of. Western ideals generally promote the opposite — that everyone has to take care of themselves. In the name of self-care and self-love, we often forget about the importance and value of community care. So when I try to explain to my therapists that setting boundaries and asserting myself in the way they advise me to doesn’t necessarily work for my family dynamic, they struggle to understand and chalk it up to it just being difficult to set boundaries.
A few months ago, as George Floyd related Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests were picking up throughout the United States and in Canada, a lot of racial trauma started to resurface for me. When I tried to work through it with my therapist, she struggled to understand why it was so difficult for me, and why I thought racism was so prevalent. In her eyes, it wasn’t as big of an issue in Canada. She was unwilling to acknowledge that there was a difference in power dynamics because she was white and I was not, and tried to argue that because I was the client and paying, I actually had more power. Without an understanding of the systemic issues at play and no willingness to acknowledge them, she wasn’t able to provide a safe space.
At multiple points in my life, therapists have often insinuated that the racism I’ve experienced and the trauma I’ve had is part of my perception, and that the prevalence of white supremacy is a belief that may or may not be challenged — similar to how with my social anxiety I can perceive my friends as angry with my when they’re not. It creates a form of gaslighting where the reality of racism is placed into the same box as other beliefs that may be a manifestation of my mental health issues rather than a systemic and societal reality. As such, healing from that is focused on addressing my thought patterns and behaviors, as if being hurt by racism is something that should be controlled within my mind rather than a devastating truth BIPOC have to grapple with every day.
Because of this, I often get asked if I can reframe a situation, or if I could perceive it differently, and my therapist asks me to consider more of the other person’s perspective and how I can use it as an opportunity to educate them or assert myself and my needs. That makes perfect sense when it comes to expressing other boundaries and needs to friends, but it’s not fair to expect the same thing when it comes to racism. It forces me to take responsibility and action for their harmful actions.
It’s only been in recent years I’ve started to explore my racial trauma and engage in those conversations with my therapists. It is extremely awkward to talk about the anger and hurt that comes up around white supremacy to a white therapist who participates in white supremacy in unintentional ways. The thing is — I don’t think the therapists I’ve had are bad people. But I think because of their lack of awareness, education and action on anti-racism, they participate in a system that actively harms BIPOC. One of the therapists I had to stop seeing kept asking me if I was angry at her because she was white — and I had to keep explaining over and over again I wasn’t angry because she was white.
What I really was, was frustrated and disappointed that her training and education did not equip her to support BIPOC clients, and that she believed the reason I couldn’t engage was because she was white. The issue with that is it took any responsibility off of her (since she couldn’t control her whiteness) and made it seem like I just didn’t like her because she was white, instead of understanding she had work she needed to do and I couldn’t spend my sessions paying to educate her on racial issues.
When you have a history of trauma, one of the things therapists often teach their clients is to remind themselves they are safe now — that the trauma was in the past and now you’re safe and OK. But that doesn’t work with racial trauma, because it’s ongoing, every day. When a therapist tells me to remind myself I’m safe, I have to explain I’m not because I still have to be mindful of my race.
The hypervigilance of BIPOC is not something that can be pathologized as a symptom of a mental health issue — it’s a pervasive necessity to survive moving through a racist society. So to question our hypervigilance and to try and diminish it could put BIPOC in further danger, and negates the reality of what we have to deal with on a daily basis. It’s not just in our heads; it’s a legitimate and necessary survival tactic.
Whenever BIPOC friends are looking for therapists, I always advise them to ask the potential therapists they’re meeting about their training and competencies around working with BIPOC clients. In my experience when I’ve done this, I’ve never had a therapist actually say they have formalized anti-racism or anti-oppression training — which is a bit of a red flag. I’m lucky my current therapist has been doing a lot more work and learning to support BIPOC clients better, but there’s still a certain level of educating I have to do. I’m personally more OK with it, because she’s fantastic in a lot of other regards.
It’s important we recognize that just because therapists may work with BIPOC clients, doesn’t necessarily mean they are properly equipped to support you through issues around race. It’s imperative we create further opportunities for BIPOC to enter professional fields to become therapists and psychologists to ensure the racial and demographic makeup of our mental health supports mirrors what we see in society and the general population. Without this, we are depriving BIPOC of the opportunity to receive care in a culturally sensitive and appropriate way. Furthermore, we cannot have true mental health support without trauma-informed, anti-oppressive and anti-racist framing, because they are inexplicably intertwined.
I strongly believe the vast majority of people in the mental health field have a genuine desire to help people and support them with difficult experiences and times throughout their life. That means all people, creating specific care and attention for BIPOC to receive the care and support they deserve. If we do not demand that intersectional approaches be prioritized and valued, we are not only doing a disservice to folks who need it the most, we are also doing a disservice to our therapists. Building accessible, anti-oppressive and anti-racist mental health supports not only benefits BIPOC clients, it benefits everyone.
Getty image by artbesouro