Monday, November 9, 2009

African-Americans in Therapy: Does Race Matter?

The fact that Barack Obama, an African-American, is our President reflects both healing that has occurred in this nation (not that we're close to being done) and healing to come. There is a freeing, a bit of an exhale, among people of African descent that comes from having one of us shine so bright, so powerful, before this nation and the world. It allows us to relax a little more some of the defenses we've had to build up around our pain, the hurt. Yes, we can ease up some on our super Black woman, our super Black man and say that alongside our strengths,our adaptability to all kinds of hell through the generations, we hurt too. It doesn't make us inferior, simply human.

And so I read with encouragement, A.C. Workman's piece in Therapy in Black and White. She raises some good questions about whether the race of the therapist matters when it comes to African-Americans, and she notes that more and more of us seem to be taking that step -- to enter into a process that traditionally our community has seen as a violation of our boundary around personal business, and a pathway to another negative label slapped on our backs.

Does the race, the gender, the sexual orientation of a therapist matter when it comes to African-American clients? My answer is - maybe. As someone who has been trained in the mental health field and is involved in training, I know that the helping professions have been slow to recognize how issues of race, gender, and class impact not only our clients but the ways that we as therapists think and understand problems. Nor is it simply a matter of discrete assaults, like being followed in a store, or pulled over by a cop, that reflect the impact of race and racism, nor is domestic violence the only way sexism manifests in relationships between men and women. On top of that, therapists come with their training as well as their own life experiences, that also shape what they know and understand.

So while one can't assume that simply because a therapist is African-American that they will be attuned to issues of race and able to go there in the therapy, the odds seem greater based on their life experience. But it may also be that while they're Black, they were shielded by an upper class status, and their training might not see this issue as relevant, and therefore they offer less ability to address these issues in therapy than a white therapist who has been trained in the importance of understanding and talking about oppression, including her/his own position of racial privilege.

What I can say emphatically is that African-Americans, and any marginalized group deserve therapists who can understand, tolerate, and address how marginalization is a mental health issue. So feel free to ask your therapist how open they are to these kinds of conversations, and feel free to keep looking for a therapist until you find one.

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