There’s so much that can be said about so many aspects of the racial tension and injustice going on in our country that I can’t attempt to cover it all here. Instead, my hope is to encourage you, especially my colleagues who don’t identify as people of color, to use your roles as helping professionals to contribute to positive change in your communities.
As an African American male, I wrestle continuously with how my ethnicity will not only influence the interactions I have with others, but also my ability to keep myself and my family safe. That said, as a marriage and family therapist, I, like many of you, am committed to helping people wrestle with life’s difficulties in a healthy manner. This therapeutic work is critical as social injustices become more public, exposing what regularly happens and always has happened in our society.
So as we all do our best to address our clients’ difficult experiences and emotions, heal traumatic wounds, and identify healthy ways to express feelings and engender change, I want to challenge you—and anyone with an open ear—to meet three important challenges.
It can be tempting to watch videos and listen to news reports, and simply be glad that the traumatic experiences directly impacting others are not affecting you or your loved ones. But for many of you, recent news has opened your eyes to a disturbing reality about the experiences of people of color and the abuses of authority by those who purport to serve everyone equally. It’s important to remember the current public outcry is the result of compounded injustices, the traumatic impact of which has been felt by individuals and communities for years. .
To those of you for whom this is new, I encourage you to be willing to expand your awareness of experiences beyond yourselves. Just because you don’t share those experiences—and the resulting feelings of fear, caution, frustration, and anger—doesn’t mean that those feelings aren’t warranted in others. After all, we’re trained to see that when a legitimate feeling is expressed in an unhealthy manner, change comes not by judging, minimizing, or silencing those feelings, but by doing the work of identifying healthier ways of expressing—and by making efforts to reduce the traumatic events that led to them in the first place.
And to those of you for whom what’s being discussed on the news is a more visible form of what you’ve always known and experienced, I encourage you to acknowledge the ignorance (merely the lack of knowledge) of those who are experiencing these realities for the first time. Instead of judging ignorance, try to inform the ignorant and support an increase in understanding and awareness that can keep them on the path toward shared action and change.
It can be easy to push aside the things that we’re seeing and hearing these days in an attempt to protect ourselves emotionally from the pain of it. But as helping professionals, I encourage you to be willing to feel disturbed by the experiences of those who are different from you. It’s not until we’re uncomfortable with the current state of things that we’ll be truly motivated to join in the effort to find and create solutions.
Also, it’s important to validate and feel the significance of the hurt, anger, and frustration of so many of people of color right now before rushing to lecture on promoting patience without action, forgiveness without accountability, and trusting a system that’s been shown to be biased against us. Remember that everyone is more open to hearing about alternative ways of coping when we’ve taken the time to truly understand the source of their current feelings and responses.
History has borne out that there are no quick fixes for challenges like these. But you don’t have to have all the answers to society’s ills to play a part in its improvement. In your role as a helping professional, you have opportunities, big and small, to make a difference. Whatever you choose to do, instead of hoping and waiting for change to come, intentionally act.
For some of you, this might mean public advocacy, such as making a statement as an organization to take a stance against injustice, or taking part in a protest, or collecting signatures on a petition, or even initiating policy changes in associations or the government itself. In other words, if you have the privilege of having a voice that’s more likely to be heard, use it to express the feelings and frustrations of those whose voice is less likely to be heard.
In a field that supports confidential one-on-one client support, you can even advocate for the experiences of others by simply creating a safe space for those wrestling with difficult experiences, so they can process those feelings without the threat of judgment and explore what healthy next steps could be. Your willingness to not only allow but encourage discussion could result in any number of small but significant things, like helping a parent facilitate healthier cultural conversations around a dinner table, or a teacher to engender healthier cultural awareness for students. If your client is a politician or law enforcement officer, the impact you make could be even more immediate—and you’ll have done it right in your own office.
I’m not asking you to be a cultural expert. Rather, I’m asking that you be willing to learn about the experiences of others, and care enough to find your own way to contribute to change. Try to increasingly see things you weren’t previously aware of, intentionally feel things that can help you empathize and compel you to support others, and intentionally act in a personalized way that contributes to change.
Lambers Fisher, MS, LMFT, MDIV, is a marriage and family therapist who has counseled individuals, couples, and families from a variety of cultural backgrounds, in private practice, non-profit organization, as well as ministry environments. He has a strong desire to help counseling professionals in various fields feel more comfortable, competent and confident in their ability to meet the needs of whomever they have the opportunity to serve. Lambers’ training experience includes facilitating workshops, guest lecturing, as well as being an adjunct instructor at Crown College on various aspects of diversity in counseling. Lambers supervises aspiring therapists as a board-approved supervisor for the Minnesota Board of Marriage & Family Therapists as well as the Minnesota Board of Behavioral Health.