Therapist Nadine Moore, talks about why she thinks therapists of all colours find it so hard to talk about race ...
As a therapist I have attended many workshops, group experiential sessions and lectures about ‘difference’.
Of course difference includes more things than just skin colour - namely sexuality, disability, class, gender and many more.
'I’ve seen discussions among therapists about colour become heated, offensive and shaming'
But here I’m talking about race.
When the issue of race comes up, even among therapists who you would hope would be very aware of their own unconscious prejudices, it is always awkward.
Not only awkward I’ve seen discussions among therapists about colour become heated, offensive and shaming.
'Any discussion of difference among therapists can quickly become ‘personal’ as if it’s only an issue for the therapist in the minority who is of colour'
This may be in part because these sessions happen in a room where only one or two of the therapists are of colour.
This is reflective of the state of affairs in society. You just have to scroll through the BACP’s directory of registered therapists to see how hard it is to find a black or a brown face. And that applies to places like London too.
This means that any discussion of difference among therapists can quickly become ‘personal’ as if it’s only an issue for the therapist in the minority who is of colour.
As if it only concerns them. And an ‘us’ and ‘them’ power dynamic is quickly set up.
Why do white therapists find it hard to talk about race?
Of course I am theorising here and I don’t know everything. Because to be clear, I am a brown therapist. I am of mixed race.
'No one likes to admit to having unconscious bias associated with race. But especially if you’re white'
So if you are a white therapist and I haven’t fully considered your experience – let’s talk in the comments.
No one likes to admit to having unconscious bias associated with race.
But especially if you’re white. Perhaps it comes with a feeling of shame, a feeling of being judgemental, a feeling of acting as if you were a colonial leader.
Things that we do not want to associate with ourselves if we see ourselves as empathic ‘therapists’.
Everyone has unconscious biases
But everyone experiences unconscious bias. Everyone makes automatic assumptions based on how people look, even if they are later checked by logic and compassion.
As a brown therapist I am aware of my own unconscious racism associated with other brown therapists. I catch myself thinking – what’s their training? How much can they really understand about me?
I have some internalised racism about my own abilities. I can feel some tug and pull with the idea of putting a photo of my face on a website that markets my private therapy practice.
'What if clients don’t want to come to see me because I am brown? These are thoughts that show up my unconscious bias when it comes to colour'
What if clients don’t want to come to see me because I am brown? This could be based in some realism of racism that does exist, but also shows how I may be biased against myself. How I feel perhaps that my colour deskills me.
These are thoughts that show up my unconscious bias when it comes to colour.
By denying our own bias we are putting our clients at risk. If we do not truly and honestly see ourselves how can we expect to be able to help a client see themselves?
It is about colour
I have seen some therapists use the thinking that they are ‘colour blind’. They just don’t see difference. They relate person-to-person.
Of course difference matters. Discounting difference discounts real experiences that a client may have had in their life associated with the colour of their skin, associated with their culture.
And to be clear – culture and colour do not go hand in hand. Being of colour doesn’t mean that you have any experience of a ‘non-white’ culture. But it can.
'That’s not to say that just because you are not the same colour as your client you cannot understand their experience. But I think we should be aware of our limits and be humble'
Perhaps by acknowledging how we are different from a client, as therapists we also have to acknowledge that we are not universally able to understand everything. Perhaps we have to say – I don’t know.
As therapists our work cannot exist free-floating, separately from what happens in society. It is all about context.
That’s not to say that just because you are not the same colour as your client you cannot understand their experience. But I think we should be aware of our limits and be humble.
If a client wants a therapist who looks a certain way eg. a black woman wants a black female therapist – then this is about a number of things. It’s not just about her issues.
It is about her own unconscious bias about people who are black and white, sure. It is about perceived sameness – the idea that because her and her therapist share the same skin colour that they will have had similar experiences, yes.
But it’s also about the very real experiences people of colour have with white therapists. The othering that can happen, the re-traumatisation of the racist experiences.
'Do we need to admit our own incompetence and be up for learning about things that are different from us?'
As therapists we may be able to theorise in our ‘ivory tower’ that a client does not understand that all therapists can understand everything. That you don’t have to be gay to understand someone’s experience of being gay.
But can you truly? Or do we need to admit our own incompetence and be up for learning about things that are different from us?
And it's true that some clients would like a therapist who mirrors them in terms of identity in order to feel safe and be able to open up about things without worrying about being discriminated against. For some that is essential to their therapy journey.
Why do therapists of colour find it hard to talk about race?
I have often found it hard to talk about race as a brown therapist because I fear I will be pinpointed as the angry, unprofessional one who likes to stir things up.
When you talk about race, some therapists answer with 'but we're all different'. And of course they're so right. But colour is a very noticeable difference.
That's why I don’t like talking about race, because it makes my colour feel very noticeable and different.
Whereas before I wouldn’t have noticed, suddenly sitting in my chair I feel like I'm glowing. I feel very different from the other therapists who I sit alongside, because my colour is most often in the minority.
I also don’t like talking about race as a therapist because there goes the thinking that we are all ‘blank slates’.
That we should not give away too much about our identity in order that a client can project onto us and we can work with what comes out of that.
But you can’t really hide the colour of your face.
Mirroring working with difference
The colour of therapists working in counselling centres is worth talking about. It does matter.
It does matter how many brown or black therapists are employed by a counselling centre because this affects how many black or brown clients come to the centre, whether this is due to an unfounded idea of perceived sameness and a wish for real understanding or ideas about how the whiteness of a centre’s therapist reflects their true feelings about colour.
'Seeing a face of colour working in a service perhaps would make someone feel more safe about the service as a whole and their organisational attitudes'
Even if this isn’t true, when a centre employs a therapist of colour perhaps its clients take away from this an idea of how the centre thinks about race and so feel more up for trying it out. Seeing a face of colour working in the service perhaps would make someone feel more safe about the service in its entirety.
Should counselling centres positively discriminate with a policy of favouring individuals belonging to groups which experience discrimination?
Difference only ‘doesn’t matter’ if you are in a position of privilege to not feel that such things affect you. To feel that you would never be put in an unfair position due to someone else’s unconscious bias.
So you are a therapist who is different from your client. Should you name the difference? Will it jar? Is it appropriate?
We can say that we are willing to learn from our mistakes but will our ‘mistake’ put off clients from ever coming back?
Perhaps we should only bring up difference for a client if we are ready to look honestly at our own identity and our own unconscious biases.
This is why as therapists, whatever your colour, it is always worth considering the awkward topic of race.