Where to Start in Becoming an Anti-Racist Therapist

July 30, 2021
Laura DeSantis

If you’ve been paying attention the past few days (weeks, months, years, decades), your heart is broken over the myriad of ways in which racism and violence towards Black people is woven into the past and present of this country. George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers in Minnesota is just one of the latest high profile examples.

I’m not here to talk about how this happened or how shocking it is. It’s not shocking, and we do know how we got here. 

As a white woman, I come from a place of immense privilege. I have little to add to the conversation from that perspective and a lot to learn. What I can contribute is to call on other white therapists to discuss how we can be good therapists and be anti-racist. Indeed, we must be anti-racist to be good therapists.

No matter your therapeutic orientation, you’re likely asking your clients—regardless of their race—fairly regularly to examine their closely held beliefs. You might find that some of those beliefs are rooted in white supremacy, normalized violence towards people of color, or internalized racism. 

As skilled clinicians we can take the same principles we use to have people question their cognitive distortions from childhood to encourage people to question their distortions about others. “Others” likely includes Black people and other people of color. This is not political; it is just life.

Start by checking your own privilege

Therapists are predominantly white, and we are all educated at the graduate level. If you are white, examine how you benefit from white privilege and how you perpetuate it, both in and outside of the office. Read books written by Black authors on the Black experience, including ones written on Black mental health* by Black therapists

Listen closely and carefully to Black people and their pain. Don’t think you know everything you need to know because you took one multicultural class in grad school or a continuing ed course this year. If, like me, the standard presented to you was to be “culturally competent,” ask yourself if that’s enough. It’s not.

Look at your countertransference

Do you more readily believe your white clients? Do you feel aversion to hearing stories of pain from people of color, specifically Black people? Have you ever thought something along the lines of “Jeez, here we go again with the victim mentality?” or “She just wants to be angry” when working with a Black client? 

We need to examine how our reactions to people of color in our office might differ compared to the white people who sit on the same couch. We must use interventions that acknowledge and validate the different experiences of Black people. We cannot be defensive if a client requests a Black therapist. We must be prepared to address our shortcomings and be unafraid to discuss race openly.

Do you have Black clients? If not, why is that? 

In San Francisco, where I work, my clients are predominantly white. I know this is something I need to step back and think about. After all, there are Black people in San Francisco. So what is my role in this, and what should it be? I’m a trauma therapist, and there is overwhelming trauma in the Black community and all communities of color. What am I doing to make sure that trauma doesn’t go unhealed?

These are the types of questions we need to be asking ourselves, and, like many of you, I’m still finding my own answers. Some pragmatic ideas that come to mind: Consider bringing your therapeutic community together to discuss racial violence and oppression, committing to reading one book written by a Black author for every book we read by a white author, or finding volunteer opportunities that utilize our unique skill set in the service of anti-racism. 

My first personal commitments are to find an organization that offers pro bono therapy to Black men and to identify Black therapists in the Bay Area so I’m prepared to give excellent referrals if necessary.

The pillars of good therapy—including unconditional positive regard, awareness (individually and systemically), openness, and connection—mean little if we don’t see them through a radical commitment to the well-being of every single person that could potentially come into our office.

By practicing anti-racism, we become better equipped to provide all our clients the informed services they seek in the way they deserve.

This is just the very beginning on where to start in becoming an anti-racist therapist. Do you have other ideas or resources?

*This book is written for Black individuals but is an important resource for non-Black therapists, nonetheless.

**For clarification, this does not mean calling on your Black colleagues to explain their experiences. This is not their job, and we should not expect free labor from them. There are already loads of resources out there. It is up to us to find them.

Thank you to Rebecca Eisenberg and Shameem Patel for lending their expertise and time to the writing of this article. Rebecca is a freelance editor and writer who has worked at Headspace, Upworthy, and Medium, with a focus on publishing stories at the intersections of identity, social justice, and mental health. She can be found at rebeccaeisenberg.com. Shameem is an elementary school teacher in Dallas, TX, and a former registered nurse and child psychotherapist. She can be found on Instagram @livefromfirstgrade.

Originally shared on Medium.

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This post is to be used for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal, business, or tax advice. Each person should consult his or her own attorney, business advisor, or tax advisor with respect to matters referenced in this post.

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