This month marks the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Eleven psychotherapists, from the Bay Area, Seattle, and Austin, TX, share how Black Lives Matter has impacted their work, how they work cross-culturally, and how race and racism appear in the therapy room.
How does the Black Lives Matter movement impact your work as a therapist?
Lily Sloane: For my clients who are People of Color, I am trying to hold open space for conversations about the way they have felt and perhaps internalized the sense that they don’t matter, and to also acknowledge my Whiteness and how that may be impacting them in the room – subtly and not subtly. For White clients I am becoming more aware of and curious about how they experience their culture, values, privilege. My hope is that therapy work is activism, and that by helping my clients heal old wounds, more space will open up for being with difference and caring for others.
Eboniña Evans: The Black Lives Matter is a movement for those outside of the community of Black Lives. It lets OTHERS know that our lives do matter. We obviously already know that. This movement is not for my people. It’s for Y’ALL. “Ya’ll” meaning Caucasian people, to help you understand that our lives matter just as much as yours do.
Mark Perlmutter: The movement itself hasn’t impacted my practice but its motivating issues have. The anger around a subtle but pernicious racism that plays such a big part in law enforcement relations with Black people, the desire for justice on one hand and feelings of helplessness and frustration on the other hand have certainly come up. And clients have described their feelings of not being heard and that “White people just don’t get it.”
Andrew Groeschel: The movement impacts my work as a therapist in that it stands as a reminder of our interconnected nature as humans. When we engage with clients across the constructed divides of race or class or gender and the like we can begin to construct new languages that see the suffering of young black men in prison, for example, as inextricably tied to our collective suffering. All these young black men are all of our sons as are their sisters our daughters, our brothers and sisters.
Traci Ruble: For several years I have been in a deep state of reflection about the place of psychotherapy in the larger socio-political and racial contexts of this country. Psychotherapy was created by white privileged men to treat a privileged upper class. Every psychological theory I am exposed to now, I investigate its cultural heritage. What was going on socially, culturally and politically at the time that theory came into being? Was there a rebellion between two therapists? Was there an unconscious agenda of that theory to shape racial discourse? How did a theorists wounding shape the theory that s/he came up with? Is there evidence that this theory works? Some good books to read: Constructing the Self, Constructing America,A History of Psychotherapy In America by Philip Kushman or Secrets of the Soul, a Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis.
Therapy and therapists (I) need to evolve because closed doors, locked rooms, one person, theoretical dogma, high fees, lack of insurance coverage, lack of culturally relevant outcomes research means therapy does not actually serve everyone and we are perpetuating “privilege stupidity” when we don’t challenge the very theoretical constructs of therapy. At it’s roots, this deeper system inquiry and activism is what Psyched in San Francisco is really all about…letting the tenants of therapy, helping people make a life worth living, stretch beyond theoretical dogma and reach our communities where they live. This mission has become clearer as time goes on and now my bones hum with the yearning to learn, understand, shake myself up and off my “white island of privilege”.
How do you think the Psychological community can best care for people who are on the front lines of anti-Racism activism?
Eboniña: This question is definitely from a perspective of someone who’s White. My people (all People of Color, not just African Americans) have always been on the front lines of anti-Racism activism. Always. Now, has it always been covered on the news? Not so much, and when it is it’s very jaded. But we are constantly having to be active in making people aware of their own ignorance.
So, how care for people on the front lines? The best way to go is an empathetic route. Purely to be a therapist. You know. LISTEN. Provide a place for the person to get out those feelings of disappointment, frustration, anger, anxiety, whatever they’re bringing. Leave space for that and validate those feelings.
For People of Color, a lot of it is self care. These are issues that are never going to be solved, or at least, not right now. It’s a rarity that you’re going to have a conversation with someone who then says, ‘Oh! I see the error of my ways! I was being racist just now! I apologize! How can I best educate myself going forward?” So, People of Color walk around with what I would call unresolved activism, from trying to educate those around you, yet you still having to push forward in your day to day without coming across as an angry Person of Color.
Now, when it comes to White people trying to be anti-racism activists, it’s a combination of self-care along with possibly seeing if there’s any shame or embarrassment within yourself for past generational influences. Were your parents or grandparents coming from racist points of view? See if shame is a motivation for you. If so, talk about that! Let your clients talk about that! And listen to the younger generation’s anger and frustration at the ignorance level. Along with self-care. Whoo! Caucasian anti-racism is complicated!
Mark: First, hear and normalize feelings [of helplessness and frustration], express our own similar feelings, and empower our clients to give voice to their thoughts and feelings in ways that support their own values and goals.
Rhea St. Julien: Gaslighting is a huge problem in conversations about race, and we in the psychological community can model empathy and listening when we see People of Color being responded to in ways that invalidate their experience. Instead of “You’re making this about race!” we can listen and reflect back to the Person of Color “Your experience is important and real. The world is hella racist. You’re not making this up.”
Leanna Ramsey-Corrales: I think that the psych community should offer free therapy to BLM activists. I would like to have seen therapists driving to Ferguson the way firefighters drove to NYC after 9/11. It would have been nice to see people in private practice shell out a bit, believe that they had something to contribute. I wonder if most therapists don’t feel like they have an understanding of what short term crisis work looks like, and how it’s valuable. Like they think, “If someone isn’t sitting on my couch once a week for the next two years, I don’t know what we’re doing!” So that might have been a block to offering help.
If you are White, what is a mistake you’ve made as a therapist working with issues of race and racism? What did you learn from it?
Lily: During my practicum I worked in a hospital with a diverse, largely African American patient population. A woman was telling me about a horrific shooting outside her home and a lack of police responsiveness. I found myself not wanting to believe her, thinking it was dementia, paranoia, exaggeration. Had I held more power to create a diagnosis that impacted her treatment I might have pathologized a person because her (very real) experience of the world was so different from anything I experienced in my mostly white, suburban hometown and my gentrified San Francisco neighborhood. This could have caused serious harm. Yikes.
Christine Canty: I’ve made the mistake of assuming my Clients of Color experience racism in a way similar to perspectives I’ve read online or what others have told me. But my most common mistake is not bringing up Whiteness with my White clients, thereby reinforcing the myth that White is Normal or default.
Leanna: I mean, the most common mistake I can make is to believe I can save my clients from being violent inside a culture that sets them up to do exactly that.
Eboniña: This question is not for me, but I’m gonna answer it anyway: Don’t act like you know me and you know where I’m coming from. There’s a difference between a place of knowing and an empathetic stance. Don’t act like you know my experience, but understand the feelings that come from it. Also, don’t act like racism is a brand new thing. I had a therapist who acted like “WHAAAT? REALLY?!” Like it was brand new information. Don’t act like we live in Utopia. Maybe YOUR ass lives in Utopia. Mine does not. This is why People of Color often look for Therapists of Color, because they’ve either dealt with that kind of ignorance before, or they just want to avoid it as a whole.
Traci: The carpet was pulled out from under me when I started volunteering 20 years ago and then worked in a low fee counseling center where I saw clients who didn’t live on my same “white island of privilege”. Just getting medical treatment, I remember, for one client, for a serious condition seemed like an impossibility for her. I was outraged that this smart, able-bodied, motivated person was being denied access to care and denied the ability to create a life worth living. But she wasn’t outraged and I had to learn how to ask a lot of questions and understand how her own hopelessness about race and her relationship to me and my whiteness inside the therapy room stifled her voice, her outrage. Her life was not shaped by entitlement to her own outrage the way mine was. She accepted that the color of her skin meant her outrage was pointless and the color of mine meant I didn’t want to hear it. I wish I could say this is my last mistake but mistakes and the willingness to make them is what makes a good therapist, in my humble opinion. We have to risk to liberate.
If you are a Person of Color, what do you hear from clients that you imagine your White colleagues may not?
Rajani Venkatraman Levis: It is not unusual for clients to share something in session, followed by: “I didn’t feel comfortable telling my previous therapist because it might have made her uncomfortable” or “My therapist never talked about race, so I didn’t mention it either” or “There were times she just didn’t get it, but I’m used to White people not getting it, so I just let it go.“
Eboniña: I have always gotten clients who reach out to me because they are People of Color and they have either gone to therapists in the past who are Caucasian and didn’t understand, or didn’t feel comfortable going down the path of racism. And/or these clients have experienced things in school, in the workplace, or in their personal lives, where they’d like to be able to talk to someone who looks like them. Just like anyone you have shared experience with, you don’t have to give background before you start your story. Racism is something that clients constantly come to me for. It isn’t necessarily the THING that they’re coming to me for, but they understand that that’s going to infiltrate the therapy and certain topics.
I have also heard racist rants from therapy clients, that they then try to buffer with “But you’re not one of THOSE black people.” Or clients who come in on the verge of tears with a ‘Does this make me racist?’ Like I’m supposed to be the beacon for all Black people to let them know whether they were being racist or not. And I’ve heard low-key racist shit. Downplayed, stuff that causes you to step out of the session in a way, because you’re wondering, are they trying to downplay this story right now? Do they recognize they’re being racist? You have to do some side-conversations within yourself. Where you’re like, how do I not make this about me right now? And that’s another part of it. You’re having to stay within yourself as with any triggering conversation, trying not to say, Are you fucking out of your mind?! But obviously that’s not very therapeutic.
How do you work with Whiteness in therapy (or outside of it)?
Jacquie Gallaway: I’ve been shifting to integrate working with Whiteness into my practice with clients. Feminist scholar and affect theorist Sara Ahmed writes about how Whiteness operates as a narcissistic character structure with a pull to be orbited, producing entitlement and fragility. For me, this includes how as a White therapist, I participate in this, with a pull for clients to orbit me/white norms. Often unconscious. Often enactments.
Grace Nichols: One day in an elective course taught by Dr Caprice Hollins, I was lamenting the fact that I wanted so badly to talk about issues of race, but didn’t have lots of friends of color who wanted to engage about it with my newly educated, eager self. She blew my mind when she suggested that maybe my work wasn’t in engaging with individuals already talking about it all the time, many of whom are tired. Maybe my work involved talking with my white friends about it. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I do it with my clients as well, but much more subtly than in my personal life. Like gently pointing out to my white male client – who can’t figure out why he is handed everything so easily – that he personifies privilege and so benefits from this.
Rhea: I have been using my psychological training in conversations about race by helping White people have more embodied responses. Us White folks get really heady and use our intellectual defenses to explain away the impact racism all the time. I have been encouraging myself and others who are doing this to sense into their bodies when they are getting activated in these conversations, instead of flying away into intellectualization. People of Color don’t have the choice to stop engaging in matters of race, so we can’t quit as soon as it starts making us feel.
Christine: I would like to engage my clients in more conversations about how they as White people experience their own culture and privilege, whether it’s visible or invisible to them, etc. The job of the therapist is to help people know themselves more deeply, and White people are often discouraged from exploring how their Whiteness impacts and affects them, or they are scared to do it because of the feelings of guilt and shame that come with privilege.
How do you personally balance self-care with activism? If you’re in a position of privilege, how do you check yourself when you opt out of engaging in difficult conversations?
Andrew: Balance comes for me in trusting the general resilience of myself, my clients, and our communities, nation, the world. There is never a guarantee of success or major change, but if we see such discussions as opportunities vs. fraught challenges that prevent “self-care” we create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Mark: I could do a better job of looking at whether my perception of someone as “just another right-wing crazy” and not worth my time is really a way to avoid a conversation that may be uncomfortable but could change a mind or heart.
Christine: I try to ask myself whether my self care is a way to avoid discomfort, helplessness, and shame, or a way to make it more possible for me to sit with these feelings so I can participate in conversations about race and racism in a helpful way. And I try to acknowledge that a part of my White privilege is that I get to opt-out of the conversation, while People of Color don’t have that option. My hope is that my self-care practices strengthen my ability to grieve, listen, and fight.
Leanna: This year I’ve felt like my therapy work with a few young African-American boys was enough. I am working on behalf of Black lives, trying to intervene so that their next stop is not jail, and trying to educate them on how the world sees their blackness and maleness and how to be safe around police. I did not engage at all in any kind of public activism in my city. I did not have the energy to, even though I wish I’d had the energy to. My work includes kids calling me an ugly fat bitch a lot of the day. So I really stay away from White Men on the internet, and anything with anyone who think it’s fun to fight on the internet. I fight all day. I have to figure out how to make those kids fight fun, so I stay away from anything that is like that outside of work. And I feel ambivalent about that. Obviously nothing feels like enough.
Eboniña: Self-care for a Person of Color is a little more complicated. Yes, exercising and meditation and you know, all that stuff. All that shit, I do it. Yet, when you talk about forgiveness and moving forward, it’s challenging to forgive, and then go out again and educate people around the fact that it’s fucking melanin. It’s not that I’m a totally different creature. It’s just melanin.
It’s complicated because [as a Person of Color] you have NO resolution to most of these situations. I had an experience where I applied to a doctorate program and in my interview, this woman said that I should just be happy because not a lot of minorities have Master’s, so I should just be happy where I am and I don’t need a doctorate. With shit like that, which happens all the time, there’s a disconnect. Self-care is good, but there is always going to be some residual anger. So that has to be disconnected or avoided, because there’s no resolution. That’s not an isolated incident. And Black women get the title of ANGRY BLACK WOMAN so easily. We’re fucking angry because of what occurs around us, but we’re not even allowed to be angry! We really aren’t fully allowed to release what it is that we go through. You HAVE to have a roll-off-your-back attitude to survive.
Lily Sloane, LMFT, San Francisco.
Eboniña Evans, MFTI, San Francisco.
Traci Ruble, LMFT, San Francisco.
Mark Perlmutter, MFTI, San Francisco.
Andrew Groeschel, LMFT, San Francisco and Austin, TX.
Rhea St Julien, San Francisco, LMFT.
Leanna Ramsey-Corrales, LMHCA, Seattle, WA.
Christine Canty, MFTI, San Francisco
Rajani Venkatraman Levis, LMFT, San Francisco.
Jacquie Gallaway, LMHC, Seattle, WA.
Grace Nichols, MFTI, San Francisco.
Responses compiled and edited by Christine Canty.