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Saving Your Humanity: Not Just Another Item on Your Multi-Cultural To-Do List

Psyched in San Francisco Editors ChoiceAs an immigrant Woman of Color*, who is also a therapist, I live and work at the intersection of race, class, culture, gender, immigration and trauma. The themes of racism, discrimination and microaggressions tend to be front and center in my professional life, as much as they are in my personal life.

Because I’ve been a person a lot longer than I have a therapist, I’ll start with the personal first. I spent the first 20 years of my life in India on a steady diet of Bollywood, Chai and conversations that seamlessly switched languages from Hindi to English to Bangla to English to Tamil and back again. My perspective was continuously challenged and expanded by the contradictions that make India so unique; picture an old temple priest reading scriptures on his iPad, or the Armani-wearing gentleman who steps out of his Lamborghini to savor his masala chai out of a chipped glass at a decrepit tea shack.

Psyched Rajani humanity

I have now spent about 20 years making my home in the Bay Area, accumulating many of those experiences that qualify as an American life in the global media. From cross-country roadtrips to camping, from Craigslist to cat videos and citizenship, I’ve amassed a wealth of experiences that seem to locate my life more securely within this context. I’ve attended a wedding performed by Elvis in Las Vegas and crushed grapes with bare feet in Napa. I understand American guilty pleasures, and even have a few of my own. Furthermore, I can skillfully recap just the right Seinfeld or Friends episode to emphasize what I’m saying.

Now in some weird world, having spent two decades in each country would make my perspective 20/20! While that is far from true, the thing I do know about these two worlds is my own experience!

I know what it feels like when I belong, and what it feels like when I long to belong. I know what it felt like for me to grow up in the dominant category of Hindu Brahmin in India, and how my own privilege was invisible to me. I also know what it feels like for me now, when I stew in the discomfort of being othered, of feeling alone, of feeling tokenized or uniquely located, and yet completely missed. In short, I often feel the familiar ache of being brown in America. I have also come to see that as a therapist of Color, I hold a place of privilege amongst those who have been othered in similar ways. My professional address is at this bustling junction where my understanding of privilege and oppression intersect.

A majority of my clients are People of Color who find me because they want to work with someone who (has experienced and therefore) understands the struggle to be seen, heard and validated in White America. 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.

As an immigrant Woman of Color, I have sat on both sides of the couch and decry the myth of therapist neutrality. Western therapy is culture bound, and the culture within which we practice pervades the therapeutic alliance as well. Therefore, race is a part of psychotherapy and when we ignore it, we perpetuate two dominant myths.

Myth # 1: Issues of race affect only People of Color

Myth # 2: White people do not have a race or are somehow “above” this conversation

As a professional, I am aware of the way in which my training in Western Psychotherapy makes me complicit in the reproduction of certain social norms that disadvantage clients of Color. When we think of therapy as neutral or of the therapist as endorsing universal values, we fail to see the dominant culture & the value system within which Western Psychotherapy is embedded.

When we shift the paradigm to acknowledge that each person in the therapeutic dyad belongs to a specific culture that has its own unique set of values, we begin to co-create a more productive dialog about race, culture, gender, class, values and their intersectionality.

Therapy is most beneficial when we name, acknowledge and address the ways in which therapy might re-create forms of social hierarchies. This needs to be an ongoing therapeutic dialog, rather than something that can be “handled” in a single conversation and then checked off the “multicultural sensitivity to-do list.”

It is unhelpful to engage with race, culture and diversity as an “Either/Or” conversation. In order to be productive, there is a dynamic “Both/And” perspective that broadens the lens. While I am Western trained, my very physical characteristics as a Woman of Color and my own immigration narrative represent something unique and valuable to my clients. I am a symbol of something familiar and comforting, someone who understands their ongoing struggle to belong. Additionally, I give face and voice to their aspirations, embodying the hope that brings many clients to this country. Our therapeutic alliance is built on and strengthened by our shared understandings and by what my non-Whiteness represents in the room. My willingness to elicit and embrace the pain and shame of being othered as well as my vulnerable acknowledgment that I do not have the answers pierce the veil of therapeutic neutrality. What lies in the realm beyond is the richness of therapeutic mutuality.

There is a quote credited to Lila Watson, Australian Aboriginal woman, that speaks to this vision of mutuality. She allegedly said to local missionaries, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us walk together…”

Within this culture, where progressive politics can belie a discomfort with difference and where the hidden wounds of race are creating deep chasms, acknowledging mutual impact allows us to heal together. The challenges of race are not just for People of Color, they affect all of us. When a White person loses their ability to be impacted by injustice, it is a loss of humanity. A loss OF humanity and a loss FOR humanity.

As in society, so it is in therapy. When we overcome our fear of bringing up uncomfortable topics of race and injustice in therapy, we move past neutral territory into the deeper terrain within which both therapist and client come alive. The therapy then blossoms. This does not apply only to clients of Color. This is true for each of us who lives in a society within which racial wounds continue to divide us.

In the dynamic intersection of race, class, culture, gender, immigration and trauma, my personal and professional experiences are the crosswalk that bridge opposite sides. While my perspective is still far from 20/20, my sense of being othered is deeply transformed through therapeutic encounters on both sides of the couch. America and India sometimes become borderlands within my inner landscape, celebrating their contradictions with aplomb.

Within each of our lives, an understanding of our own shared humanity allows us to traverse the intersections that divide us, bringing us into a communal sense of wellbeing. I invite you to bring your race, culture, gender and your humanity into the therapeutic dialog. It is these unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable conversations that allow us to find new borderlands within ourselves. And that just might Save Our Humanity.

*I have deliberately capitalized People of Color, following the scholarly tradition that acknowledges the uniqueness of this experience.

Rajani Levis

Rajani Levis

Rajani Venkatraman Levis is an immigrant therapist of Color who speaks five languages and artfully navigates the intersections of trauma with race, class, ethnicity and other facets of diversity in her writing, teaching and psychotherapy practice. She is a California Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, a Certified Trauma Specialist and an EMDRIA Approved Consultant in EMDR. She has a thriving private practice in Noe Valley and teaches at San Francisco State University. She is a valued mentor, especially for students and therapists of Color.

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