How Can White Therapists Support Asian American Clients?
Being a Good Clinician and Ally
Q: As a white therapist, I’m not sure how to support my Asian and Asian American clients right now, as violent attacks against Asian Americans are increasing. How can I be a good clinician and ally?
A: Recent racial attacks have been perpetrated against people who look like me. I’m a female-presenting Asian American clinician, and many of my colleagues have been asking me the best way to support their Asian and Asian American clients. I wish I had a simple answer, but I don’t, and I don’t believe there is one.
I recognize, though, that if you’re a clinician in a white body, you could potentially face scrutiny—including self-scrutiny—over whether and how you address race and racism. You’re also probably genuinely interested in supporting your clients in the best way that you can. As an Asian American clinician, I have access to an array of Asian American perspectives, reactions, and experiences, through my own personal community and my clients. Although there’s no cure-all approach, I want to share insights on how you can hold space for your Asian and Asian American clients right now.
My three main recommendations include: First, be conscious of the diversity among Asian American communities and individuals. Second, don’t try to understand your client’s lived experience. And third, use a relational approach to manage your White Shame as you hold space for your clients of color.
Be Mindful of the Diversity of Asian American Experiences
Asian Americans are not a monolith. It’s important to be mindful that your Asian or Asian American client’s experience could greatly vary from your Asian American friend's, what you read in the media, or your other Asian presenting clients'.
This variation between Asian American experiences and perspectives has never been more apparent to me than on March 16th of this year, when six Asian women were murdered in a series of shooting sprees in Atlanta. That day, I had five sessions and four were with Asian American women. Each brought up the murders and reacted very differently. Here I’ll share with you some of their responses to the murders to illustrate how our emotional reactions are rooted in our own unique histories, a reminder that we clinicians cannot assume individuals of the same race will experience the world around them in the same way.
My first client, Amy, was a 23-year-old woman who’d been raised in an affluent Chinese family. That day, she’d received several text messages from white friends checking in on her. Though she knew the texts were intended to be supportive, they made her feel more isolated. After growing up in a traditional family where she’d endured endless criticism, she’d found solace in her white peers and teachers while attending college in the Midwest. College was the first time she had people validate her emotions and approach her with nurturance, a refreshing contrast to her childhood. She experienced whiteness as welcoming, safe. But receiving those messages from her white friends after the shooting unveiled the reality that she herself was not white. She was confronted with the notion that not all whiteness was in fact safe. Suddenly, she felt that her newfound home was fake. She felt confused and like she didn’t belong. “I don't want to be so aware that I’m Asian,” she told me. “I just want to be me.”
My second client, Maggie, brought up the murders, too, but she gingerly acknowledged the shootings and said, “I don’t understand why people are so shocked about this, this has always been going on. Yup, Asian Women are targeted, especially in this way.” This client is a sexual assault survivor sadly aware of the objectification of women who look like her. This client preferred to spend our time discussing more “pressing personal issues.”
Lian, my next client spoke as if she urgently needed to tell me her life story in 30 seconds. She was on a mission to take action and create change. Her frustration and determination were evident in her furrowed brow as she listed what she was going to do to fight racism. We spent our time honoring her anger and discussing boundaries and avoiding burnout.
When my fourth client appeared on my screen, I noticed her eyes were glazed over. She told me in a frightened voice that she couldn’t feel her body. My heart dropped. I nodded my head to acknowledge her and said “I know, it’s scary when we feel numb. You’re here with me. You are safe in this moment.” As we allowed her consciousness to float away, she slowly started to come back to the present. This client, Jasmine, is only 24 years old and has already survived multiple rapes and cyber exploitation, in her words all “thanks to being Asian.” She recognized that her perpetrators saw her identity as permission to use her as an object for their own pleasure. “Some days I want to rip my face off,” she told me. The day of the murders was one of those days.
Don’t Try to Understand.
Not trying to understand may go against your clinical training, and yet if you’re a white presenting clinician, seeking to understand the experiences of those who’ve faced systemic racism could backfire. Clarifying questions are a great tool to connect with the phenomenology of your client, but when the subject at hand is racism, I’d encourage you not to ask many questions.
If you’re a clinician in a white presenting body and living in the United States, you haven’t experienced the same intensity of oppression as people of color. When you sit across from an Asian American client (or any client of color), no matter how much they explain their experiences, you may never truly know from a felt sense what that oppression is like, and your Asian American client will feel that, no matter how well-intentioned you are. Clarifying questions will often only deepen the divide. When a client feels that divide, they may experience the divide itself as invalidating. Oftentimes, when we, non-Anglo folks have to explain our experiences, and we can feel that the recipient isn’t resonating with what we’re sharing, our inner dialogue responds with “See, you shouldn't feel this way,” or, “No one is going to ever understand you,” or, “You’re just being crazy.”
So how can white clinicians respond to their Asian American clients when they bring up racialized experiences without further isolating them? Here’s what I suggest: Simply hold space. Listen attentively and acknowledge what they’ve said with a nod, a hand over your heart, or even a murmur indicating you hear and see them. Validate any way they respond to racism, including self-judgment, shame, fear, denial, or rage.
If you feel your client needs you to vocalize something, try an affirming statement such as “You deserve to feel safe,” “This is so unfair,” “It’s okay to feel angry,” or simply stick to a tried and true reflection such as, “I hear you feel guilty for staying silent,” “‘I’m hearing you feel scared, but you don’t want to seem weak.”
Manage Your White Shame with a Relational Approach.
When we look like the oppressor, it can be hard to not lump ourselves into the oppressing group. You, as a therapist in a white body, are not the problem. Racism is the problem. Do you unconsciously hold white-centered ideals and beliefs? Probably. So do I. As someone primarily raised in the United States and trained in Western Psychology, I’m constantly having to unlearn white ideals and beliefs. Does that make me or you the problem? No. There is a distinct difference here, and I encourage you to remind yourself of this, otherwise the mounting shame you’ll experience could alienate your Asian American clients.
This shame is known as White Shame, and there are steps I encourage white clinicians to take to manage theirs.
Pre-process your shame. My first recommendation is to continuously process your own thoughts and emotions about your own privilege with colleagues and friends, so your shame doesn’t stun you when it shows up during sessions. You can pre-process your shame by finding a space to talk candidly about your own experiences and feelings about your racial privilege. Approach this just like any subject of countertransference that is deeply rooted. Hire a consultant, go to a workshop, find a process group. Keep in mind that these conversations must be part of an on-going practice.
Processing your own emotional reactions to racism is crucial because unprocessed shame can feel like a sudden volcano erupting. Your body might tense, your eyes might water, your voice might crack, and tension will slowly fill every space between you and your client. This visceral experience has the potential of distracting you from your client's experience and preventing you from doing your primary job — providing the undivided attention that is the central reason your client is coming to sessions. We clinicians sometimes forget that non-judgmental attentive witnessing is one of the most powerful interventions we can offer. In order to provide that attention to your Asian clients right now, white clinicians must unpack their internalized shame so that it doesn’t dilute their focus on their clients.
Prepare for your shame to seep out during sessions. My second recommendation is to prepare for your White Shame to seep out in sessions. This might sound counter to what I just recommended, but bear with me. Racism is deep-seated, so the reality is some amount of White Shame is going to bleed out into your sessions with clients. You are human after all. Trying to ignore it or suppress it just allows tension to brew and takes space away from your clients’ healing. Prepare for your shame to rear its head, and when it does, have ways to manage it.
Embrace a relational approach. A relational approach that invites the clinician to self-disclose and, well, be human will help you more closely mirror what occurs for the client outside of session. Here’s what that approach can look like in session with your Asian American client:
When you feel shame emerge, your body language will likely show it, and if you’re attuned with your client, you will notice them noticing you. This is where you need to be transparent. Don’t try to hide what you’re feeling. It’s impractical to expect yourself to hide your reactions. Instead, take a deep breath and acknowledge it. Say, “You can tell I’m uncomfortable, can’t you?” Then directly ask your client of color to allow you to take care of your own feelings while they continue sharing. If they stumble, continue to give them permission. Your client may be so accustomed to subverting their own feelings that they’ll think, What? I don’t have to take care of the white person’s feelings? This can be a powerful unburdening for any person of color to experience and can transform a fissure between clinician and client into an opportunity for healing.
Don’t wait for clients of color to bring up race. When racist events dominate the news, you need to check in with your clients of color, especially if the targeting is towards people that look like them. If you’re not accustomed to doing so or talking about race with your clients, simply acknowledge this. Say, “I recognize we don’t usually talk about this and I want you to know that we can. Granted, I’m white, and it’d be warranted if you’d rather talk to someone of color about this, but please don’t let my whiteness prevent you from using this time to process such things, if that’s what you’d like.” Your client may feel relieved to know they can digest racial topics in session moving forward. Your client may also decline your offer because they genuinely don’t feel comfortable talking to you about race, and that needs to be okay. Be prepared for either responses.
Finally, I’d like to leave you with this: You didn’t ask for your privilege but have received it nevertheless, and as a result you can walk freely through the world feeling safe. There’s no way getting around that. It’s okay that you’ve never had the felt experience of what your clients of color are going through. In fact, I’d prefer more people to not know what it’s like to be persecuted because of their race or ethnicity. My advice is no matter how your client responds to racial violence, simply open your heart. You don’t need any fancy intervention to do that.
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