When I lead anti-racism trainings for therapists, one of the things they share with me most often when it comes to bringing up race in their sessions is, “I didn’t know if I could do it right, so I didn’t do it.”
My goal is to demystify and remove the shame that many non-black/POC therapists feel when confronted with issues related to race and equity. I created a quick one-page guide for therapists/healers to use in order to initiate conversations about race with their clients. I wanted it to be something they could use right away, and then after the session, continue to do their own work.
Here it is, with resources included at the end.
STOP HESITATING: A quick, highly directive guide to initiating conversation with your black clients about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, other lives lost, Minnesota, Louisville, and racial trauma
1. Not sure how to start? Pick a phrase, any phrase, and tailor to your liking:
a. “I’ve been thinking about you lately with everything that has been going on in Minnesota and the racial trauma you might be experiencing. Would you like some space to process?” They may tell you no! Own your discomfort. Sit with it. Move on.
b. “We don’t usually talk about race in our sessions, but I’ve been wondering how the news has been impacting you lately.” Side note – if you’re a white therapist and you’ve never brought up race in your sessions, you cannot possibly be doing enough of your own work. Period. I’m not talking about if you brought it up once and they responded by closing the door, I mean if you’ve never once acknowledged your white privilege in your sessions. It’s in the room whether you have the gumption to bring it up or not. Believe me, your black clients noticed.
c. “I feel a little nervous bringing this up. I want to give you the space to talk about race and everything that has been happening in the news lately, and outside of our sessions, I’m committed to learning how. I’m not going to do this perfectly, but I don’t want to pretend this isn’t happening.”
d. “I know that I am white/not of your race and can’t possibly understand what you might be going through. I want you to know that I am open to hearing anything you need to process right now.”
e. “Would you like to talk about the protests? Please feel free to say no.” This might feel shocking for your client if you’ve never talked about race before. They might feel flustered. You might feel flustered. I promise you, if you’ve never talked about race with your client before, it is far more damaging to not talk about it than it is to stumble through a few awkward moments. I promise you.
2. No matter how much you disagree with what they say to you, say these things and be careful not to talk too much because you feel awkward:
a. “I hear you.” “I see you.” “I’m so sorry.”
b. “I can’t begin to understand what this must be like for you.”
c. “Would you like for me to bring this up again in future sessions? I won’t be hurt if you say no.”
d. “Here are some options for how I can show up for you/support you, let’s brainstorm together for what that might look like, and add to that list.”
And then validate, validate, validate. Do not talk about your own personal experiences with racism unless invited or unless you have asked permission.
You’re welcome. Also, check on your black colleagues.
DiAngelo, R. (2019). White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Boston: Beacon Press.
Kendi, I.X. (2019). How to be an antiracist. New York: One World.
Menakem, R. (2017). My grandmother’s hands: Racialized trauma and the pathway to mending our minds and bodies. Las Vegas: Central Recovery Press.
Caraballo, J. (2017, Jul. 31). Therapy for people of color: Questions for potential therapists. The Talkspace voice. https://www.talkspace.com/blog/therapy-for-people-of-color-questions-for-potential-therapists/
Baker, J. (2018, May 23). 4 questions that women of color and LGBTQ+ people should ask every therapist. Into. https://www.intomore.com/culture/4-questions-that-women-of-color-and-lgbtq-people-of-color-should-ask-every-therapist
Tests and Surveys
Implicit association tests: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html
The UConn racial/ethnic stress and trauma survey: https://www.mentalhealthdisparities.org/docs/UnRESTS_0716_English.pdf
So you are suggesting a counselor to invite a possibly unwelcomed conversation into the counseling session to satisfy whose needs might I ask? I hope therapists think discerningly about this timely but not so wise piece of advice. I am Black (and a therapist) and am tired of these forced healing seances, discussions, and rituals many White folks are suggesting to involve Blacks about “racial reconciliation”- do that on your own time.
Hi Danielle! Thanks for asking. I love being challenged so I appreciate your comment.
I don’t think at all that I’m advising “racial reconciliation” – I completely agree, that should happen on your own time. That would not serve the client. What I’m advocating for is the notion that it’s absolutely appropriate and necessary for white therapists to open the door to conversations about race, in a way that is culturally competent and trauma-informed. No good therapist will “force” their client into the conversation – their clients have self-determination and choice and should be given the opportunity to say that they would not like to talk about it if they don’t want to. And that’s okay. But to not even open the door to give your black/POC clients the opportunity to talk about it, when we know how prevalent Racial Trauma is to POC and communities of color? Especially right now? Inexcusable and unethical.
Curious to hear your response to this! Please feel free to reach out directly – [email protected] .
I appreciate your response and can understand why you chose to maintain your position. I only aim to offer some real-person context based on conversations that I’ve had professionally and personally. Sometimes that might differ from what we see in trainings and read in research articles. So to further maintain my own position and offer some suggestions: know your clients well first before having these discussions. I’ve had had a few Black clients who were “confused” and “offended” when their (previous) White therapist did exactly what you suggested in 2016 after the elections. They wanted a place to explore depression, self-care, relationships, etc. “not to be reminded of social problems from their White therapist.” It was like we both understood that (in their particular situation) the therapist sought out to prove she was not color-blind or “woke”- not to really form a connection or bond. Many find healing from social traumas in community- not individual therapy. But please, be careful not to automatically assign or suggest POC as victims – many of us still see ourselves as victors despite the rhetoric.
I’m really valuing your perspective and I think this is a great reminder for white folks that even though we are both black, we have 2 very different ways of seeing what is a very nuanced situation. White supremacy culture often paints Ethnic/Racial groups as monoliths where one person can speak for everyone. Not the case!
Thanks for your comments! Please share further if more comes to you, I want to hear it and I hope others are reading it too.
More often than not, I feel race and white privilege is the huge white elephant in the room. I enjoyed your article and recommendations because I didn’t see it as FORCEFULLY imposed to satisfy anyone’s desires, but simply a means to open the door to the conversation…in examining the issue of race on America TODAY along with the death of our brother George Floyd who has ignited a movement from the grave, it’s better to say SOMETHING even if you don’t know what to say versus NOTHING!!! At least you provided reasonable and feasible recommendations to START the conversation…this is why I shared your article…we are ALL RESPONSIBLE!!!
Thanks for this article, Elizabeth. And I appreciated reading the comments which helped remind me of the complexities involved in working clinically in light of, and in response to this world issue. To always remember that each client is an individual, and to consider all aspects of each person is vital. I found your article helpful.