Racism, Therapy, and People of Color
By Michelle Santos Odle
READY FOR THERAPY
It’s a new year. Whether or not you’re a person who makes resolutions, there’s no lack of cultural mainstream to remind you that it’s the time of year to do just that. Set new goals, form new habits, abstain from bad ones. Along with a superficial slew of resolutions that might have you eating more greens or committing to less screen time, you might be inclined to press into the deeper questions, the darker hurts that keep resurfacing. You might be inclined to try therapy. As a therapist myself, I think this is one of the best things you could do with that spur toward change. In our digitized and disconnected cultural milieu, the therapy room has become a rare space for meaningful, embodied human connection. As a person of color, however, I think therapy is one of the worst things you could do with your want for personal growth. In our de facto racist America, the therapy room becomes yet another space in which white supremacy, the racist ideology of the superiority and assumed domination of people defined and perceived as white, is unaccountably upheld. How could you go about laying hold of the good gifts of therapy without turning a blind eye to the pernicious racism embedded in therapy itself?
THE GOOD GIFTS OF THERAPY
Therapy could be the best thing for someone intent on deep personal transformation. For any process of change to be effective and sustained, I am convinced that three features must be present: care, commitment, and challenge. First, the therapy room offers a foundation of care by presupposing dignity, beauty, and goodness within each person. This is more than a benevolent disposition for humanity; as the trust relationship grows, the care you get from a therapist is profoundly personal. The particular traumas, losses, and grief engendered by your individual story are held in the heart and mind of your therapist with a depth of empathy and tenderness mirrored in the best relationships between spouses and the dearest of friends. The dreams, longings, and desires you carry in shy silence and vulnerability are given the vital attention and deep pleasure necessary for you to risk taking your place and filling your space in the world, with the trust and confidence that you have good and significant gifts to offer.
Second, to engage in therapy is to enter into a relationship with someone committed to your well being. It’s a covenantal exchange: if you show up in the therapy room, the therapist is bound by law and license to show up for the singular purpose of seeking your health and healing. This commitment is not conditioned upon who you know, what you know, or how you could benefit them. The therapeutic relationship is free from the multiple barriers of everyday relationships, which often feel conditioned on factors as changeable as whether or not your kids are on the same nap schedule, how demanding the load is at work, and the compatibility of friends to work through offense and hurt when they inevitably arise. To have a therapist can feel like having an unwavering champion in your corner; you have a fierce and faithful advocate who is for you and with you, no matter what you bring when you walk in the room each week.
The care and commitment provided in the therapy relationship creates an environment of emotional safety and relational security from which the third gift can be offered: challenge. Without challenge in the relationship, the therapist becomes nothing more than a cheerleader, only telling you things that may give you a self-esteem boost but that ultimately falls flat. No one but a fully fledged narcissist wants a relationship like that. Love without truth dies; without the space for honest, even hurtful, challenge, the relationship dissolves into inauthenticity and distance. But, truth without love kills; without the foundation of care and high regard, what might be intended as constructive feedback can cause shame and helplessness that may be relationally destructive. In therapy, you get truth offered in love, especially provided for by the privacy enacted in the professional therapy setting. Every conversation between therapist and client is sealed, protected by the highest ethical and legal standards in healthcare. Remember the cautionary tale of the emperor who was conned into believing he was wearing clothes when he was actually naked? He proudly paraded before his town until a child spoke the truth of the matter. If you were the emperor, it would be a dignity and would have spared you public shame to have been privately informed of your nakedness by one of your attendants, before even stepping out of your personal quarters. The private setting of therapy provides a protected environment in which challenge can be offered without being shamed. In other words, with a therapist you can have an experience of shame without the humiliation that comes from being left alone in that experience. I believe that it is not actually shame itself that causes harm, but it is being left alone in shame that effects the distorting impact of isolation. The privacy of the therapy context allows challenge to occur while maintaining connection; you are offered the hurt of honest challenge without the harm of being shamed.
THE EMBEDDED RACISM OF THERAPY
To strip it down to its bare essentials, therapy is an individual consumer service in a private setting. The individual focus, consumer service, and private setting in fact necessitate the good gifts highlighted above: the individual focus allows for care that is personal, the consumer service assures the strength of relational commitment, and the private setting enables challenge without harm. None of these inherent characteristics are in and of themselves morally wrong or racist. However, within the context of the white hegemony that controls the theory and practices of therapy, the individual focus becomes individualistic, the consumer service reinforces meritocracy, and the private setting allows for unchecked white centering. Individualism, meritocracy, and white centering are facets of white American ideology that uphold systems of inequality and oppression.
One of the strongest beliefs of white American ideology is individualism, which is the principle of being a unique, self-reliant person who is free to act apart from the will and desire of another person or social group. With this ideology at play, the individual focus in therapy becomes distorted into individualism. Too much power is vested in the power of individual relationships while dismissing or altogether denying the significance of social and cultural conditions, and other collective aspects of experience. In therapy, this easily translates into the hope of change being placed in the power of the therapeutic relationship. Isolation is often a significant component of what brings a person into therapy; there is a felt need for authentic human connection. In training to be a therapist, we are taught that our deepest wounds occur in the context of relationship, and so corrective healing of these wounds requires relationship for authentic and sustained change. But our deepest wounds occur in a system of relationships, and so corrective healing of these wounds requires a system of relationships. At the end of the day, the therapist is only one person. A system of relationships does not exist in the therapy room, and moreover, the therapist is ultimately powerless to usher clients into any such web of belonging.
A second essential tenet of white American ideology is meritocracy, which is the belief that you can earn your way to goodness, belonging, and security. Since therapy is a consumer service, meritocracy is reinforced, in that access to a committed relationship with a therapist is through a financial transaction. While the foundation of care offered in therapy mirrors the best of intimate, loving relationships, the closeness experienced in the therapeutic relationship is a transactional intimacy that solely benefits the consumer (the client). Ultimately, this is a contrived commitment, conditioned upon having the resources to access the relationship in the first place. The commitment given is not freely given, born of free choice or mutual affection; rather, the therapist’s commitment to you is bound up in your annual insurance benefits or your ability to drop $110 per session. To put if crudely, if you have the money, you can buy your way to authentic human connection, deep care, and safety in relationship, just like maybe you can buy your way into a “safe neighborhood” with “the good schools” and “nice neighbors.” Unless you’re regularly experiencing relationships of free, mutual commitment, therapy insulated in the ideology of meritocracy is ultimately a risk-free endeavor in a self-improvement project.
A third and foundational aspect of white American ideology is white-centered normativity, which is the presupposition that the white way of life is the normal, universal human experience, and everything else a deviation from that norm. Because of the nature of an ideological belief, this is not usually a conscious reality for white people. In fact, white people have a deep investment in allowing whiteness to remain unnamed and invisible. If whiteness is allowed to remain silent and hidden, then the structure of the racial hierarchy remains intact, allowing the deep-seated entitlement to privilege, power, and protection to be theirs for the taking. Given the pervasiveness of this ideology, the private setting of therapy protects white-centered normativity from accountability and challenge. Therapy is often touted as a “neutral” setting in which a “third party” can bring their perspective to someone’s present circumstance. As a white institution, the therapy room is anything but a neutral space: the white frame of reference and white worldview is implicitly understood as normative. This is significant given the power to define reality given to the therapist. As the therapeutic alliance becomes established, you entrust your therapist with the power to frame what is good, important, and healthful. Conversely, and even more significantly, the therapist has the power to define what is shameful, unhealthy, and pathological. The determining factors of health and pathology lies within the parameters of white-centered norms. Unspoken assumptions about matters such as family dynamics, sources of pride and shame, and priority of values are normed against whiteness. The private setting of therapy, however inadvertently, engenders the continued invisibility of whiteness. The imposition of whiteness is shaming to people of color, as our lived experiences, which do not incontrovertibly look white, are treated as deviant from the norm and irrelevant to diagnosis and treatment. Our stories of racial-ethnic stress, flagrant instances of injustice, and other overwhelming realities of racism are dismissed, invalidated, or denied altogether. The white-centered normativity of therapy creates an environment that is inhospitable and even hostile to people of color. Apart from any kind of structural or systemic accountability, white-centered normativity remains protected within the private setting of therapy.
HOW THEN SHALL WE DO THERAPY?
For therapy to truly be a valuable place of change for people of color, current practice needs to be reformed and remade. I do believe there are ways to engage in therapy that enables you to receive the good gifts while also repudiating the embedded racism.
First, remain connected to your need for community, a place of belonging within a trustworthy web of relationships. When there is a deep, personal care for your therapist, it is easy to have the desire for authentic human connection to feel satisfied. Let the good gifts of therapy propel you out of the therapy room, giving you an emboldened hope that you can enter into closeness in your everyday relationships. This will be uncomfortable, because everyday relationships and community webs of belonging are less consistent and predictable than therapy. But remember that your entered into the room not to stay but to be able to leave. Therapy is intended to be a temporary incubator of care to gain healing and strength to re-enter communities of care.
Second, maintain a sense of the contrived nature of the therapy relationship. I am not saying this to undermine the therapeutic alliance between you and your therapist, but I do want to draw attention to a proportionate view of the relationship. The level of commitment you receive in the relationship can feel secure, but consider some of the artificial realities of the client-therapist relationship: you’ve told things to your therapist that you have never told another soul, and yet your therapist does not have license to give you a hug; you receive attention and empathy like you never thought possible from someone else, and yet your therapist has to ignore you if they see you in a public setting; your therapist can name both sides of your family tree, and yet you’ll never meet their spouse or know their kids’ names. Therapy is one point of connection among many points of connection toward becoming a person who can more fully engage with their community. As you rest in the commitment of the service you receive with your therapist, commit all the more to initiating or agreeing to authentic human connection with someone else or in a local, community setting. Feel the risk of pursuing mutuality in friendship, the awkwardness of sharing a large desk at the public library, and the slow pace at which trust is built in real time.
Third, find a therapist who is skilled in working with people of color. I strongly recommend finding a therapist of color to work with, whose expertise fits your needs. When asking for referrals from your doctor or friends, ask specifically for a therapist of color. Drive out of your way, pay extra and go less frequently if you have to. To work with a therapist of color, you will be much more likely to be working with someone who has matured in their racial-ethnic identity and is competent to challenge the racial status quo of white-centered normativity. However, the field is dominated by white therapists; seeing a therapist of color may not be a feasible possibility for you. If you’re considering a white therapist, make efforts to find someone who has dealt with their own whiteness. Not only should they be culturally competent to serve you, but you want a therapist who has reckoned with their deep investment in whiteness, made themselves professionally accountable for structural racism and the invisibility of their whiteness, and has consciously committed to be an agent for social justice in their profession. Practically, I recommend considering a few preliminary indicators toward this end. The first is location. Zip codes are racially coded. The location of a therapist’s office indicates something about what kind of clients they want to market and make themselves accessible for. Find someone who has made their office easily accessible to a racially diverse population. The second tell is an all-white office. Try to avoid a place that ostensibly only employs white therapists; the institutional hegemony of whiteness and white solidarity is likely upheld with little to no structural accountability for white-centered normativity. Then, when you meet for an initial session, note whether or not they allow whiteness, their own and/or yours to remain unnamed. A therapist who is not addressing race-ethnicity in the first session is demonstrating their racial incompetence.
A GOOD THING FOR US ALL
We are living in a cultural moment in which therapy has currency. Popular culture has embraced therapy as a social good, medical insurance plans increasingly cover individual sessions, and neighborhood schools have therapists on staff just like school nurses. Therapy is taken for granted to be a Good Thing to Do. What I’m asserting is not that therapy is not a good thing; rather, that it is a complicated thing, made complex by the same injustices and oppressive forces that we encounter in every institution in this land. Even as you work toward change in your personal life, may you continue to give thoughtful care and committed action toward changing the therapy space to be a truly healing place for us all.
Michelle Odle is a licensed professional counselor in St. Louis, MO. For questions or comments, she can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org