Addressing Racism in the Therapy Room

Ten Ways You Can Be an Ally

Jonathon Carrington

Having a shared identity is one of the most commonly requested factors for individuals who identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). Therapists who identify as BIPOC add value to our field. However, according to the American Psychological Association, only 12 percent of United States therapists identify with a racial/ethnic group. Everyone deserves a space where they are fully seen, heard, and able to achieve their personal and professional goals, so it’s critical that non-BIPOC therapists are knowledgeable, empathetic, and compassionate when addressing racism in therapy.

But what does this look like in practice? Non-BIPOC therapists must strengthen their cultural competency about racist and anti-racist practices, interventions, and methods to create safer and more informed spaces for BIPOC clients to discuss their lived experiences. As a Black therapist in private practice, I created a peer cohort where therapists like myself have accessible tools, resources, consultations, and trainings to address racism, race-based trauma, racial identity, and identity-based trauma and violence in a safe, supportive environment with both BIPOC and non-BIPOC therapists. In an ongoing process, we’re developing a culturally sensitive framework to help clinicians become more mindful of race, racism, and identity in the consulting room. Here are the ten points distilled from our conversations.


1) Commit to Ongoing Practice and Research

The first step is to address your own unconscious racial biases. Addressing racism goes beyond the belief that you’re not racist. It requires the humility, time, and commitment of energy and resources to pursue training, actively identify personal unconscious racial biases, and understand how your own social positioning may impact your relationship with clients. Consider listening to and reading books, articles, and podcasts. Attend in-person and online trainings, workshops, and consider consulting with and speaking with colleagues who identify as BIPOC or are racially-informed.


2) Learn Outside Therapy, Not During It

Self-education is important so that therapy can focus on the client's healing, rather than countertransference from your own racial identity development. Develop a personalized continuing education plan involving multiple methods to learn about systems of oppression and cultural norms, both inside and outside of your individual experiences. Educate yourself on the common misconceptions about police brutality, protests, and looting. Prioritize conversations with other white clinicians about antiracism and antiracist therapy, and learn about the differences between individual and systemic racism.


3) Get Curious about Your Client’s Unique Experiences

Making assumptions based on a client’s race or ethnicity can undermine their trust in the therapeutic process or cause them to feel stereotyped. In addition, asking a client to educate you about their culture centers you in the counseling process, when your focus should be on your client’s healing. Instead, it’s important to focus on your client as a unique human being with unique experiences. Questions like “How did that feel?” or “What were you thinking?” are ways of generating curiosity with your clients and understanding their unique experiences.


4) Be Aware of Microaggressions

Common mistakes that non-BIPOC therapists make include gaslighting, microaggressions, or lacking curiosity. Gaslighting is the act of questioning and dismissing clients’ unique experiences. Microaggressions are subtle intentional or unintentional actions and behaviors that denigrate or degrade clients, causing them to feel unsafe, attacked, or retraumatized. Examples of gaslighting include questioning whether your client’s experiences related to their racial identities were actually racially driven. Microaggressions can include adopting or asking clients to adopt a colorblind or color-denial approach. It’s important that you gain self-awareness to know when you might be committing microaggressions, and learn how to counteract them. Look for workshops in this area or seek professional supervision to help. 


5) Validate the Impact of Race and Racial Trauma

Racial colorblindness or racial color denial as it applies to therapy is the idea and belief that you see all clients equally, regardless of race. A colorblind approach prevents therapists from noticing how race impacts a client’s lived experiences and allows therapists to dismiss and minimize racial trauma, along with the client’s reality. It’s important to validate the client’s interpretation of their situation and recognize and consider the degree to which racism is embedded in our society. A few ways to address racism with clients include recognizing and validating the gravity of these experiences, identifying racism that clients experience as a form of racial trauma, and acknowledging that working through the pain of these experiences is a critical part of healing.


6) Acknowledge Differences and Express Your Commitment to Inclusivity

If you don’t understand the lived experiences and reality of someone who identifies as BIPOC, be transparent and open about your lack of understanding and cultural competence. Acknowledging cultural differences lets clients know about your openness to discussing race or racism. It’s an invitation to collaborate. Acknowledge and validate your client’s reactions to racism with statements such as, “Of course, your reaction and response to racism is completely understandable.” Acknowledge and validate that working through and processing these experiences is a critical part of healing and recovery. White therapists should tell their BIPOC clients something along the lines of, “While I may be a white person, I’m actively committed to creating an inclusive practice and a therapeutic space.” Acknowledge that every topic can be brought into the therapeutic process, which creates a safe and welcoming space for the reality and lived experiences that BIPOC people face on a daily basis. Topics related to race and racism are challenging to discuss, so it’s important to develop a sense of comfort in the discomfort.


7) Use Self-Disclosure to Bridge Social Distances

Multiple studies demonstrate the profound influence that white therapists’ self-disclosure can have in creating equal spaces for clients of color. This might include judicious sharing of personal information, such as your family life, which can make clients feel more trust and openness. Or, more generally, you can share your genuine reactions to your client's experiences of racism and oppression. However, there are instances where self-disclosure is not beneficial and may even worsen the cultural and social distance between you and your client. For example, non-BIPOC therapists may use the opportunity to self-disclose to placate themselves, putting their needs of ahead of their client’s. Self-disclosure should always be done in the interest of your client, not for any self-serving purposes. Carefully consider whether self-disclosure is an appropriate tool, and if relevant, introduce it to build a stronger bond and trust with your clients.


8) Respect Your Client’s Desire to See a Therapist with a Shared Identity

If your BIPOC client feels the therapeutic relationship with you isn’t a good fit or they want your help finding a therapist with a shared identity, make sure to respect their choice. Too often, therapists brush off or question a client’s desire to see a therapist with a shared identity. But if seeing a therapist of the same race will help your client in their healing journey, it’s important not to dismiss this.


9) Seek out Consultation and Supervision

Supervision, peer consultation, and personal therapy can be particularly helpful in identifying your biases, bringing awareness to countertransference, and helping you develop comfort discussing race. Many therapists who specialize in diversity and inclusion also offer formal supervision. Even if you’ve been practicing for years, supervision can be a useful tool to bring greater awareness to countertransference and ensure you’re growing as a therapist. If formal supervision is difficult to obtain or doesn’t feel like the right path for you right now, you can still do a lot of this work in peer consultation with non-BIPOC colleagues, by regularly discussing articles or books on the subject, for example.


10) Keep Doing the Work!

It’s important to recognize that this is challenging and ongoing work—but don’t give up! While it can be hard to hear a client say, “you don’t understand me,” keep investing your time and energy in understanding your own privileges and biases in order to assist BIPOC clients. Margaret Clausen, a clinical psychologist in Berkeley, California says, “Our privilege as white folks is that we can dip in and out of this work. I think of white therapists’ professional development regarding talking about race as an ongoing practice, one that involves further dialogue with other white therapists, and ongoing education."

This is hard work, and it can bring up feelings of guilt, shame, or defensiveness, so you’ll want to practice self-compassion and lean into the discomfort. After all, the only way through is through.

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As issues of race and racism are being publicly explored, along with a more open dialogue around the experiences of BIPOC individuals, we therapists have a great opportunity to dig deeper into this work. This requires ongoing commitment and practice, but with the right tools and resources in place, we can begin creating more healing, inclusive spaces for all of our clients.

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Jonathon Carrington, MA, LPC-R, LGPC, NCC is a resident in counseling at Sunstone Counseling in the Washington, DC area, where his goal as a therapist of color is to help clients with processing and transmuting their life stories and histories.

Photo © iStock/simarik

Topic: Cultural, Social & Racial Issues | Professional Development | Trauma

Tags: black issues | Cultural differences | Cultural identity | Cultural values | Cultural, Social & Racial Issues | culture | Personal & Professional Development | processing trauma | Professional Development | race | race in therapy | race relations | therapy for trauma | Trauma | trauma and recovery | trauma recovery | trauma therapist | trauma therapy

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