My therapist is white. I'm not.
April 8, 2016 9:47 PM   Subscribe

Have you had any experience with having a therapist (or client) who has a very different background and level of privilege from you? How did you address this?

I'm in psychodynamic therapy, which has worked pretty well for me so far, and I like my (conventionally attractive, young, seems like she grew up upper-middle or upper class) therapist. But I'm at this point where I feel like I spend a lot of time explaining to her what it feels like, to exist in a white space all day long. I also feel I tailor my recollections so that they fit a bit closer to what I imagine what a white person might want to hear, just to keep her... comfortable or something. To keep me from being cast as an Angry Asian Woman. I brought this up to her but she didn't say much.

I remember telling her, "it's kind of like you already have your story written for you by voices that are louder and more powerful than yours." She reflected this back to me, saying that she "really liked" the statement. What I really wanted to say was, You don't know what it's like to have grown up under the legacy of discrimination, violence, poverty; of being repeatedly taught by trusted adults that you, and your entire community, are invisible, not consistently seen as human, and abiding by some other group's rules. To have your skin color imply something about your character everywhere you go. To not only have your story already written for you, but also to be met with resistance if you try to revise it too far beyond the bounds of their allotments. I didn't think that I needed my therapist to share my background when I was picking therapists, but the general sentiment of "how can you even begin to understand (coming from your background)?" makes me frustrated now. I do not believe that people are ever truly alone in their struggles, but I do feel that white people just fundamentally can't understand certain aspects of being a PoC.

... But I try to explain my experiences, sometimes. Then she kind of steers me towards the notion that I have the power to react any way I want (which is true, I guess, except when you're a minority and the fact is you wear that skin 24/7 whether you like it or not, and people do treat you differently and do moderate your outward reactions in both informal and systematic ways) and it hasn't gotten much further beyond that.

Race aside, I think this question applies to many power-differential relationships where there is going to be a difference in the amount of fortune we've been doled out in life. As somebody who works in healthcare, I see patients from all backgrounds, and I've had patients use this as a device to maintain distance from me, too: the time the patient spends fleshing out what the drug scene is like is time taken away from dealing with more immediate problems. I might know what it's like to be a minority, but I've only lived one life, and I am a stranger to an infinite number of things. By virtue of being in healthcare, I'll have more education and income than many of my patients. I want to do my best to embody a presence that makes it as easy as possible for patients to feel comfortable and accepted in seeking help.

How can I even begin to understand?

Other notes: I'm not interested in switching therapists at this time; race isn't the only issue I'm working through and it has been pretty good on all other fronts!
posted by gemutlichkeit to Human Relations (23 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I'm white and I cannot even think to speak about the experience of a person who is from another ethnic, cultural or religious background. But, for a number of years, I had a (white) therapist who had grown up in a very privileged home in Central Canada, which is very different from the West Coast. I grew up very working class, but in a neighbourhood that was very poor, very dysfunctional and had entrenched trauma and attitudes going back for generations. I found that my therapist would really dismiss me when I'd try to explain the trouble I had understanding my new socioeconomic class and the stretch I was trying to make in going up several socioeconomic groups. When I tried to explain how white collar people grow up hearing certain things, learning certain things...even knowing how to play golf instead of bowl...she made it out like these were not very important. Eventually, I realized that the problem was that the therapist would do this with many things I said and really tell me my experience or interpretation of it was invalid. It got worse as time went on. ("There's nothing in the literature to suggest that women's anxiety gets worse with PMS. PMS is made up. There's nothing in the literature. Nothing." - example from her.) She'd also deny the ethnicism (?racism against my culture). So I think it was more that she didn't really allow me to have my own experience.

I've run into that a few times, but generally from wealthy white therapists.

I've had others who grew up in privilege who seemed to get things or at least tried to. I found one or two therapists for my kids really didn't understand my financial situation and would make recommendations for people with more money. But I think that was more because I don't "sound" like I should be in the financial position I'm in and so they kept thinking I had more money than I do, as they didn't realize how my kids' health problems limit my work.

So I really think it comes down to the individual therapist. The therapist I have now is pretty wealthy and comes from wealth, but is super down to earth, feminist and really into social justice - and, more importantly, never tries to impart their experience or assert their opinion. A much better fit, in my view.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:20 PM on April 8, 2016 [15 favorites]

Would your therapist be willing to read books/consume media about the PoC experience so you're not stuck explaining all the time?
posted by Tamanna at 11:03 PM on April 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

All my therapists save my first one in Malaysia have been white, and they've all been pretty good, though the last one stands out as being especially good with managing difference.

We did have one particular thing in common: we were both international students in the US (she's originally Canadian). This gave her an incredible amount of empathy and understanding for my particular issues stemming from immigration that even other American POC could not wrap their head around. For the other aspects of my identity she didn't have in common with me, she accepted my situation at my word (unlike Chaussette's) and never judged that particular identity (queer? kinky? poly? cool beans) - her focus has always been on whether my situation was working for me, what I needed at that moment, and what sort of support would be most useful given my logistical restrictions.

Race did come up in our discussions a lot, just due to the nature of my life, but there was never really any issues with explaining to her about how racial dynamics come into play (nor has it really been an issue with my other therapists, all of whom were of a different race to mine). It was mostly about how I can still feel empowered and able to manage any situation, including ones where race plays a huge factor. She never claimed to be able to understand what I was going through, that would have been disingenuous - rather, she helped me build my own understanding on my own terms. She doesn't do the "you choose whether you want to be offended!!" shaming all that often - when it comes up, we examine what lay behind the reaction, whether I felt it was warranted or not, how to move on from the situation.

I lucked out with my therapists (though I haven't had a therapist in the last 8 months since I moved out of the US, due to lack of access, and it's kinda taken a toll on me). I don't think the key is in the therapist having an innate experiential understanding of the issues that you face: rather, it lies in believing their client's stories, asking them questions about the client's perspective on it, and letting them lead the way.
posted by divabat at 11:04 PM on April 8, 2016 [16 favorites]

I'm a woman and have had many male therapeutic providers over the years. Some discounted my experiences of being marginalized due to my sex and I didn't see them as allies, but many of them were clearly empathetic and had done plenty of thinking about gender, sexism, casual misogyny, gender roles, etc. Until I had some sort of evidence during therapy that my therapist was casually or even aggressively misogynistic, I never made any assumptions about their ability to treat me. I mean, most of my therapists didn't have bipolar disorder, PTSD, or eating disorders either, but I still generally believed that they had enough education, experience, and empathy to help me with my problems until they indicated otherwise.

Ultimately, when I'm looking at health providers I'm looking for someone who is on my side, listens to me, and tries to help me achieve my immediate and long term health goals. I don't require them to have walked a mile in my shoes, but they definitely shouldn't be blind to the wear and tear just because they've never worn that pair. And based on my experiences with people who belong to various minorities, I never make the assumption that just because my provider is a woman or gay or a PoC that they don't suffer from their own prejudices and hangups surrounding gender, class, sexuality, race, etc.
posted by xyzzy at 11:21 PM on April 8, 2016 [8 favorites]

I think it is misguided to expect a therapist to have experienced your life experiences regardless of what they are: race, gender, religion, life experiences. It may be helpful, but soon you'll come to a point where your lives diverge. The therapist must still be able to help you at this point. Their skill must be in supporting you, not necessarily in sharing the same experiences.
posted by jazh at 11:27 PM on April 8, 2016 [14 favorites]

I think you are facing something many POC and other oppressed members of society face. I think recently there has been more of a call for therapists to start taking their client's larger experiences into account, not just the micro view of family and relationships but the inescapable pressures of structural violence. This piece talks a little about that.

If you feel she is being helpful in other ways and you don't want to switch, then I think you're facing the personal choice of whether the trade-off of the other help she is providing is worth the frustration you feel in this arena.

Then she kind of steers me towards the notion that I have the power to react any way I want

I'm White. I don't think I would ever say "Well, you choose how to react to this" to one of my non-White friends. Like you say, it's one thing to say that when it's a classmate who likes to needle you, it's quite another when it's an entire system of inequality that's arrayed against you and is going to affect you whether you think about it or not. There are other ways to cope with the stress of systematic oppression that don't boil down to "well maybe you just need to not let it bother you."
posted by schroedinger at 12:12 AM on April 9, 2016 [24 favorites]

Regarding class background, yes, in therapy it can definitely be an issue. I can't personally speak to differences in ethnicity, but I have ongoing conflicts with my therapist that stem from differing approaches to learning styles, spirituality, and class experience, and I find it unbelievably irritating and aggravating.

We share a specific life experience, adoption, and I try to take our differences as an opportunity to learn and to practice respect toward another person's religiosity. But it is awfully distracting to me and deeply frustrating when I realize how large a gap there is between our cultural perspectives and experience. It can create concrete problems in therapy, such as when she has recommended faith-based readings as a possible route of exploration.

In sum, it's TOTALLY reasonable and cool for you to seek a therapist who has a class and ethnicity more similar to your own.
posted by mwhybark at 12:28 AM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Like you, I'm Asian and my therapist is white. I did have a mental hurdle to cross in talking to her about race, and about culturally specific aspects of my life, but I've since overcome that. In a way, it required to give up on the idea that my therapist was there to be the expert, and provide me with 100% authoritative interpretations of my experience. She can't correct my understanding of what it's like to be a racial minority - and she doesn't remotely try. What she does do is mirror what I say in language that lets me hear it more clearly and to better understand the implications of what I've said. The fact that I feel I can't presume knowledge of what it's like to be in my skin has actually helped in a way, because it means I elaborate on exact features of what it's like in more detail than I would with a therapist of my race. And she is good at being receptive to these explanations and drawing more out of me.

So I think the race barrier hasn't proved much of an obstacle, because of the approach my therapist takes to our work. I think things would be much harder with a therapist who felt it was her job to correctly interpret my experience; her race would really be a barrier in that case. I have to admit my limited experience of CBT did go badly partly because of big gaps in experience between the therapist and me -- that therapist did try to substitute her expert understanding of my life for, you know, my expert understanding of my life and I found it irritating and unhelpful. (Obviously not all CBT needs to go this way and I was probably unlucky). But I think this is what properly understanding the experience of others means: you listen a lot, you talk a little, and most of what you say is in the form of open-ended questions. Not questions intended to lead the other person to some conclusion - not "are you sure that was racism" - but exploratory questions, like "has that happened before?" and "what was the first thing you felt when he said that?"
posted by Aravis76 at 1:28 AM on April 9, 2016 [11 favorites]

This is a thoughtful question, and I don't think it's an inconsequential one. Over time, particularly as I get older, I think points of reference and shared values matter in intimate relationships, and therapy is a pretty intimate relationship. Shared points of reference can help you make yourself understood; they function as a kind of short-hand by mentioning this book or movie or place, and knowing that your audience will likely know what you're describing. Shared values would include therapeutic values, and I certainly don't agree with all the approaches to therapy out there.

So, yeah, for myself, I want someone who roughly understands where I'm coming from. I don't want to feel alien, or judged, or sorted and typed into "this" sort of person or "that" sort of person, and that's an important component of it. To your specific situation with the therapist, I have had a few relevant experiences. I've been to two therapists in the last decade, and they are a study in contrasts.

My last therapist put me in a reverse situation to you. I'm a white straight woman who had a black lesbian therapist for about 6 months, not because I asked for her, but because I was assigned to her after being interviewed by an intake coordinator who matched patients and therapists.

I'm trying to think if those most obvious differences between us mattered. And in subtle ways they did. As the white woman in the room, I was aware of not seeming overprivileged or troubled by race in any way. Rationally, I don't think either is a problem for me. I'm pretty poor first of all. I've also worked in majority black professional situations several times. But I was aware, even overaware, that she likely came into contact with far more troubled people than me, and so this brought out a little bit of the apologist in me, too.

In the end, I don't think she thought that I had trouble with either of those issues, but there were other ones, again, subtly. She was startled to find out I wasn't lesbian, and she was startled that I didn't know a lesbian poet she referenced more than once. She also mixed up the ruralish, mostly white state I come from once or twice (this is within the context of the big city I live in now), which actually offended me because it felt like she wasn't listening, and my state has a markedly different reputation than the one she kept mistaking it for. As a therapist, she was helpful in certain ways, and I sort of liked her; but in many others I thought she was arrogant, and even ultimately a little irresponsible. This had a lot to do with her personality traits, rather than her background, however.

The therapist I had before her was a near perfect match. From dress to tone to approach, there was commonality between us, and I certainly never felt like she wasn't listening, or like I had to minimize my issues. This was mostly luck, helped along, perhaps, by code words on my part: In that coordinator intake interview, I asked for a reflective counselor who was also older than me. I debated at the time whether I should specify gender, and I decided against. (But because she turned out to be a woman, and we were such a good match, I specified a woman therapist when I ended up with the black lesbian.)

I also had a long conversation with a psychiatrist I met a few years ago who was black and specifically treated black patients for the kinds of reasons you cite: patients otherwise feeling alienated because white therapists weren't understanding their points of reference or everyday challenges. Between that, my own experiences, and hearing friends from all sorts of nonwhite backgrounds talk about this issue, I think you do well to be aware of it with your therapist.

If this specific lack of commonality should become an issue at some point, and you can't identify any Asian therapists in your area, you might consider exploring seeing a therapist of any sort of nonwhite background since even though they won't have shared your exact experiences completely, they will have lived with the concept you're describing, which you may find helpful.
posted by Puppetry for Privacy at 1:34 AM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm a WoC who's experimented with therapy to sort out SES-of-origin issues similar to what Chaussette mentioned. I never really wanted to touch on race in therapy because I was worried about my worries being misconstrued as being a request for special treatment*, but I wanted to get some feedback on whether my troubles were about being the only [person of particular ethnicity] in a particular space or because I'm Weird And I'm Doing Something Wrong.

I've never had a non-white therapist. The ones who didn't get the working-class experience and the non-white experience sometimes had a way of making me like I'm some sort of pathological Negative Nelly for thinking about this stuff, and I never really stuck around for long. I did have a really good experience with a young white therapist who grew up in an immigrant "ethnic" family and as far as I could tell had been raised working-class. Of course, he had a somewhat different set of experiences and perspective than me, but in general, he got it. His objective wasn't to tell me that the world was out to get me because of X, Y, and Z, but instead try to sort out that some of my square-peg-in-round-hole feelings are at least partially attributable to various -isms rather than anything the DSM covers.

I think that the key is to find a therapist who really gets intersectionality and lives its consequences in a significant way, rather than necessarily finding a therapist who is of your race.

*Which is a realistic worry when discussing race; people, even therapists, may simply want to mishear you.
posted by blerghamot at 3:10 AM on April 9, 2016 [5 favorites]

I am white woman and my therapist is black woman. We have very different backgrounds. We connect on the things that matter. We are all human. We all have to exist in skin that doesn't ever feel like a perfect fit. She's a perfect match for me because of her training and who she is as a person.
posted by myselfasme at 5:05 AM on April 9, 2016 [6 favorites]

In the psychodynamic paradigm, your relationship and feelings toward your therapist are part of the therapy experience. Psychodynamic practitioners believe that the therapist/client relationship reveals or reflects aspects of the client's psyche. Although it doesn't always have to be addressed explicitly, combining that with the clear distress you feel about your relationship with your therapist, it should absolutely be part of the conversation.

I encourage you to talk about these feelings explicitly in session. Even pull the MeFi classic "print out this post and bring it to your appointment" if you want to. I get the sense from your post that you haven't been as candid as you want to be (e.g. your "what I really wanted to say" statement) because you want your therapist to like you, or you don't want her to judge you, especially based on stereotypes. Please explore those feelings with your therapist.

I know you mentioned that you brought this up once before and she glossed over it. To reframe what happened, think about how much energy you are devoting to appearing to not care as much as you do during your sessions and how that might have led your therapist to not engage in the conversation as much as you would have wanted her to.

After all is said and done, if she really won't explore this with you, I would probably consider changing therapists.
posted by telegraph at 6:00 AM on April 9, 2016 [18 favorites]

i see you don't want to change, but i'd suggest reconsidering that. even with the power balance going "the other way" (in a sense) i find this to be a real drag. unfortunately, it's difficult to find alternatives, and the people you do find often don't match in other ways (in my case, i found someone who spoke english and he was a privileged condescending asshole, for example).

so you adapt. you try not to say things you "shouldn't". you adopt the idea you should "be like them". you try to make the most of it. in a sense you're playing on a different level. you know more than they do; you're smarter than they are. but they have access to knowledge you can only intuit... it's odd i am white explaining this to a poc. you must know this already, more than me :o/

but that contradicts the whole idea of therapy. particularly if this kind of role playing is what you want to explore.

i think some of the answers here are misleading, because it's not the simple difference in colour / culture, but who is aware of the water the fish are swimming in. if you're white in the uk, say, and you see a poc therapist, fine - you both live in a predominantly white society. the poc therapist has to put up with more crap, but that doesn't get in the way of the white client, so it's not an issue. but if the client is in the minority - whatever the colour - then it *is* an issue.

i'm sorry - really i am just saying the obvious. i honestly don't know of a solution apart from a better therapist. and by far the simplest path to that is someone who shares your experience.
posted by andrewcooke at 6:32 AM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've mentioned this story elsewhere on Metafilter, but yeah, I've definitely experienced having assumptions made about me by dint of my race, sex and age. I was speaking to a therapist regarding my Pure O OCD, health anxiety and depression, and she said, "Yes well it's common for unmarried Asian* women in their thirties to feel like they've failed because they're single and don't have families." I was like, where are you getting that from??! Being single and not having a family was pretty low on my list of problems at that point, did not feature at all in what I was speaking to her about, in fact they barely registered at problems at the time, and still don't really.

She herself was a South Asian woman, but from a different country and background - a British-born Gujarati while I am not from India, and did not grow up in England - so obviously our culture and experiences would be extremely different. Later I looked up her bio on the clinic website and it said that she apparently specialised in helping British Asian women with their problems... So I guess she was looking at me and thinking that because I shared a skin colour with a number of her other women clients, I shared their problems.

This is a long-winded way of saying, I don't think sharing a skin colour is the be-all and end-all in these things. I've had better conversations and been understood better by white friends who went to Oxbridge (ie, our life experiences are pretty different) but who are deeply interested in matters of intersectionality, admit their privilege, and really listen to what I have to say. And vice versa, of course.

What did I do re: this therapist? I just didn't see her again. Sorry, I know that's not helpful, but I didn't find her simpatico for numerous reasons, so I didn't feel good about going back to her.

*The term Asian is used to refer to South Asian people in the UK.
posted by Ziggy500 at 6:43 AM on April 9, 2016 [7 favorites]

A huge point of therapy is to help clients manage their self-care and self-advocacy. In an unhealthy relationship, for example, while it is critical to place sexism in a social and political context, I think few therapists would just stop there without saying, ok, now let's talk about the elements that you *can* theoretically control...

I agree that finding someone you don't have to "explain" yourself to is helpful. But as you mention in your post, just because you look kind of the same doesn't mean your politics or knowledge or experiences will always be aligned (though I agree that it makes it more likely). We are all trying to improve ourselves and that can itself create a lot of discord in family circles, communities of color, etc.

However, it's important that you have mutual respect for your healthcare provider. So if you think you will have a hard time taking what your provider says as anything less than helpful insight or with some authority and expertise, then it's a waste of your time. As someone else's provider, you can't control their response to you, whether they look like you or not. Ultimately, we have to respect the person's insight (whether or not they disagree with you, and whether or not they look like you or you like them) for therapy/healthcare to work. Sometimes (most times?) we have legit intuitive reasons to be/feel/sense alienation. I think both parties need to be open to reflection. Unfortunately, we can't mandate human connection.
posted by RaRa-SpaceRobot at 8:32 AM on April 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

Heh. I remember Ziggy500's story from the same thread where I told the story I am about to tell. Party for POC with frustrating therapy experiences at my place at 8!

I had an older white therapist when I was 20. One thing I was working on was my terrible relationship with my mother, and my therapist was really hung up on this idea of "culture" being the problem and kept asking me about it (and mentioning Amy Tan). I would try to steer the topic away from it and she'd be like "But isn't there a culture clash between you two?" (My mom and I are third and fourth generation American; neither of us is the child of immigrants and my therapist knew that.) Since I was 20, another thing I was talking about a lot was doubt about what I wanted to do, my future life path, that sort of stuff. So for my final project in my newswriting class I reported on an event where Japanese Americans who had been in internment camps spoke about their experiences, and I absolutely killed it, I was so proud of myself and so psyched about these badass activist old people who were telling their story and speaking out against anti-Muslim sentiment. So I was talking about it with obvious pride and excitement and she cuts me off to tell me about her Japanese American friend whose parents were so ashamed about the internment that they never talked about it and it was like this shameful family secret. And then she tries to connect that to my relationship with my mother. AGLKHJSLDJDFLGKJDFLKG.

Sorry for ranting. The reason I tell this story, which isn't really similar to yours at all, is one, to say that yes, it's a problem, and two... well, I don't think "it could be worse" is often useful advice, but I mean, it could be worse. I think my therapist was genuinely trying to relate to me because she knew that our life experiences weren't similar. It's just that she had very limited tools to do so. I tend to agree with you that a white person can't fully, viscerally understand some of the things you are trying to explain, but given that, it sounds like your therapist is doing a pretty good job.

About the "you have the power to react any way you want" thing: I think, actually, in a way, she is right. I also see how that doesn't help you. But I agree with RaRa-SpaceRobot that ultimately most therapists are probably going to talk about what you can control. I think maybe it would feel more useful to you to hear it from someone who fully understands the consequences of "reacting any way you want" as a POC, and still empowers you to do that, but I think the sentiment is the same.

Do you have any POC friends who you can talk to about this stuff? I wonder if that might take a bit of the burden off needing your therapist to understand. If you don't and would ever like to rant or commiserate, feel free to memail me, seriously.
posted by sunset in snow country at 9:49 AM on April 9, 2016 [7 favorites]

To me, it sounds like your therapist is a poor match. I know you're asking a more general question, but I think the answer to the more general question suggests they're a poor match for you.

This post has made me realise that I've never actually had a therapist whose identities matched mine (I'm a white queer man). I think I prefer queer therapists, but, like in Ziggy500's example, that doesn't always mean they're good at understanding that your experience, while perhaps at first glance superficially similar, is not their experience. (Preferring queer therapists does seem to limit the scale of the disaster, though.)

The best therapists (and medical providers generally) I've had were the ones who actually listened to what I was saying and believed me, even if it wasn't what they expected. That sounds like it's what they teach on day one of therapist school, but apparently not. If I come to you about anxiety, I might just be right when I say it's not about being queer. On the off chance I'm wrong about that, surely a decent therapist helps you see that yourself. (And what good does implying otherwise do me? Am I magically going to become straight? I somehow suspect that's the only suggestion those people would have.)

I did have one therapist who was totally out of his depth (when some of what was going on was actually about queer stuff) and either didn't realise it or didn't know how to refer me to someone else.* That was failure at the other extreme, but it was a lot less awful than the other disasters.

*Or he knew that all of his colleagues at the university health center would be totally disastrous. That's possible. He was the best of the three I saw there.
posted by hoyland at 10:29 AM on April 9, 2016

I'm a white therapist and this is something I think about a lot. The general issue would fit under the idea of cultural competence, which is considered necessary for ethical therapy work. Different therapists and different training programs have different comfort levels and emphases on it, though.

As others have said, no individual is going to have the exact same life experiences as any other individual, but a therapist should be able to acknowledge that and not (as Aravis76 says) try to substitute their own life experience for their client's. The general idea for culturally competent care is that the therapist is an expert on therapeutic technique, the client is the expert on their own life, and therapy is a collaboration between those two experts.

Some schools of therapy are more collaborative in this way than others; like others, I also have found a lot of CBT therapists (though not all!) to be a little naively mind-over-matter and dismissive of structural inequality. Super-traditional psychodynamic therapists can get into that mindset, though, too, in assuming that all conflicts are coming from a client's internal issues rather than acknowledging the unjust social pressures we all face.

In working with clients, I try to be aware of my own privilege and differences and to bring them into the open when appropriate -- I try to do so early in the process in a low-stakes way, so that I signal that I'm open to talking about race, especially, and then try to follow the client's lead. Or I might use the word "racism" or "classism" or "sexism" or "ableism" when I sense that a client might want to label their experience that way but is worried that I'll be dismissive or defensive, again to try to signal that I'm open to talking about those societal injustice issues and not going to put blame back on the client. I don't push it, though, and I try to follow the client's lead after that. Sometimes clients pick it up and go with it, sometimes they drop it, and I'm often not sure if they're dropping it because they don't want to discuss it or because they're not comfortable discussing it with me, but I think I just need to be comfortable with that uncertainty and not make it the client's issue. (I tend to work with trauma survivors and one of my core tenets for trauma-informed and trauma-focused care is that I let clients set the pace and work at their own comfort level, so, for me, ethical practice means that I don't push it.) I have ended up teaching clients who are members of marginalized groups of which I'm not a part about things like internalized homophobia or internalized racism, which felt super-awkward at first but has seemed to help clients enough that I continue to do so, I just make sure I'm coming at it from a very humble stance and not straightsplainin' whitesplainin' etc.

I also just make sure that I continue to do my own work around my own biases and to engage with diverse social-justice advocacy groups to keep educating myself around issues that I might be ignorant of or might have glossed over. While also reminding myself that just because a social-advocacy group believes X issue is important for people in that traditionally marginalized group does not mean that any particular client in that group is going to find X important or relevant or agree that it's an issue. I recently was reading information on being a culturally competent healthcare provider for trans clients, and one of the takeaways is that the culturally competent practitioner will be comfortable and knowledgeable about trans-specific mental-health issues but will also recognize that not every problem in a trans person's life is related to their being trans. I try to hold onto that general idea, that I need to have the tools and training and knowledge to help people with issues that come up regarding cultural, etc. issues, but I also need the wisdom to know when they're relevant and when they're not, and the respect for my clients to trust their judgment about when they're relevant and when they're not. So, for example, I've asked POC clients about whether their race and culture were playing a part in some of their family issues, because I needed to make sure we were talking about it if it was and to signal that I was open to talking about it if it was, but I've absolutely accepted when some clients have said that, for example, no, their parents were assimilated or the pressure was actually coming from the white members of their family or whatever -- because I also needed to signal that I was open to shutting up about it if the client judged that it wasn't an issue. It's a balancing act, I guess, and it requires a lot of humility for white practitioners to be even competent at it.

Black Girl Dangerous had a few articles about it, which might also be helpful to you in thinking about the overall issue: Going To Therapy As A QTPOC, Without Being Harmed, Erased Or Baffled and Trying Therapy As A Queer Person of Color, Despite All the Reasons Not To.
posted by lazuli at 10:30 AM on April 9, 2016 [8 favorites]

Also, as a white therapist, I absolutely believe you should be able to say what you wanted to say about racism and to share or display any and all of your anger and hurt and frustration about it with your therapist, and if she's steering you toward "Just think more positively!" bs, that sucks and should not be an inevitable condition of working with a white therapist, though I'm sure it's an unfortunately common one.
posted by lazuli at 10:35 AM on April 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think your therapist could offer you two things: 1. acknowledgement of your situation/validating your feelings and 2. helpful ways to deal with circumstances out of your control. It sounds like she is skipping to two, without acknowledging your feelings. Worth a conversation with the therapist?
posted by Toddles at 12:22 PM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am a young woman of color and was talking to my older male white therapist about having anxiety and dreading leaving the house, and part of that is dreading being catcalled from the moment I step out of my building in the morning. (If you saw that YouTube video where a girl filmed herself walking around all day and was catcalled like 97 times in 4 hours or whatever... I live one block away from where she was walking.) He was kind of struggling to be sympathetic and asked something to the effect why was it hard for me to be "complimented" (his word) all day...

Now I know there are plenty of men who "get" this. There are plenty of women who don't get it and have responded similarly when I talk about street harassment. But male or female, my therapist needs to get this.

I don't know if you have to have a non-white therapist, but you definitely need to feel like your therapist gets what you're talking about.
posted by thebazilist at 8:17 PM on April 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

The Another Round podcast is amazing. One reason it's so good is because it's hosted by two black women, having a conversation for an audience of black women. Others are welcome to listen, but it is unapologetically by and for black women. And that's why it's amazing. Because they are on the same page and they expect their audience to be on that page, too. So they don't spend a single second teaching what racism is. They don't explain what racism feels like. They don't speak with the expectation (which we all have, that we barely even realize we have, but we definitely have it) that a white voice is about to jump in and speak over them. No white voice is on the verge of interrupting them to demand they elaborate or justify or defend or moderate tone regarding what they just said about racism. No white feelings get hurt. No white fragility to placate. Instead of all that emotional labor, it's a bunch of people able to stop wasting time justifying and instead enjoy a deep, meaningful, supportive conversation about racism, with proper respect given to the topic. And generally they also have space to make fun of the topic too, because they don't have to fear that they're letting out leash that they can't retract later (ie the reason Chapelle cancelled his show).

Anyway all this to say, that in my opinion- the opinion of a very well-read, very well-spoken, very-good-at-explaining, mentally tough as nails WoC who is a huge expert on this topic because I have had easily ten thousand long conversations (I just did the math) about race with white people- and about 10 of those have gone well and not fucking damaged my soul on some level- my conclusion is this: you cannot meaningfully investigate the effects of racism on your psyche by discussing race with white people*.

*The only white people I personally have encountered in my life who have some sense of how racism might feel are white people who have significant physical disabilities. I have spoken with, and regularly read a couple blogs written by, people who use wheelchairs or are visually impaired, and sometimes they understand structural and interpersonal oppression on a deeper level that offers me useful insights that I can take back into my own life. So maybe if your white therapist is personally experienced w disability, their opinions might be useful.

PS, If you are a white person who wants to jump in and tell me I'm wrong, or that what I just wrote hurt your feelings, you are illustrating the dynamic I described in my first paragraph. As is the fact that I have been so-well trained by similar interruptions that I have already taken space to acknowledge these interruptions while I'm here talking to another WoC about our personal lives.

Anyway, all this to say, if you want to plumb the depths of how racism affects you- and it affects you tremendously, and in some very subtle and insidious ways that will not be obvious to people who don't also feel these effects- you simply must talk to PoC. Any therapist can help you re-frame your reactions I guess, but from a therapist who actually knows the subject, you can also gain much more- new insight, new resources, and soul-nurturing validation, which, when it comes, feels like warm rain.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:36 AM on April 10, 2016 [9 favorites]

I had a different but similar issue....I am a lesbian and I sought therapy a few years ago for sexuality and coming out issues. I went to a straight therapist and while she was very nice, the moment I switched to a therapist who also happened to be a lesbian I felt so much better.

There's a lot of intricacies about gay life that I feel can only be understood by another gay person, and I honestly feel 100% confident that I did the right thing by finding a therapist who had "been there". I cannot even imagine going to a straight therapist for my issues which center largely around dating/accepting my sexuality/etc.

If it's bothering you that much you could entertain a few other therapists who are of your race or another person of color.
posted by argylesockpet at 3:57 PM on April 10, 2016

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