"So how does it feel talking about this with me, a white woman?" Rachel* asked, catching me a little off guard.
It was the end of our session, and she sat perched on the edge of her chair, signaling that our 45 minutes was wrapping up, which I usually gleaned from her glances at the clock. By "this," she meant my increasing sense of chronic fear as a woman of color in Trump's America.
"Umm," I said, my brain a scramble. I mustered a nervous laugh. "I don't know; I need to think more about what I feel about that." It was true, sort of—in the sense that I needed to think about how exactly I was going to say: "It sucks and I'd rather not."
I was impressed, though, that she had finally asked. After a year and half of working together, and my frequently bringing up race and racism in our sessions, she had named her whiteness on her own. It was a beacon of hope after what had felt like growing tension and disconnect between us, a gnawing worry that perhaps the time had come to find a therapist who really got me. I chose to give her the benefit of the doubt, and found the courage to tell her later: "Talking about race with white people has never been easy or comfortable, and it arouses a lot of fear and distrust." The session after that was my last one.
I had written Rachel a long and very candid letter that I read aloud to her. It detailed why discussing race-related topics was anxiety-inducing, and that often, talking about race with her felt unsafe because of my experience living in a brown body in a white world. It rouses my impulse to make sure she's not uncomfortable as well, making it tough for us to really go there. "That was a great letter," she said, smiling, when I finished.
But in our next session, she was hostile, combative, and blaming. She spun circular arguments around straightforward issues and aggressively offered contrarian viewpoints to events I recounted—essentially picking a fight. She followed that by asking if I'd noticed "things were getting adversarial," and found ways to imply that a lot of what I was dealing with that week were my own projections—an abrupt shift from our consistent work of pushing me to trust my own perceptions and emotions.
After three days of questioning what had happened, why, and how I might be responsible for her alarming behavior, I realized that I was playing out my trauma response in relation to my therapist. I knew that couldn't be good.
A few weeks later, I spoke to Agustina Vidal at The Icarus Project, a support network that fosters community responses to the impacts of oppression, while trying to grasp what I had experienced and where it fit into the bigger picture. Vidal's work aims to counter the dangers people of color face in the mental health field and explores how most white clinicians lack the appropriate tools to serve and care for their black and brown clients. "They pathologize the client," she says. "Racism becomes 'paranoia,' or 'hostility.' For black men especially, they translate their experiences into terrible mental health diagnoses that end up putting their lives at further risk." She adds that in my case, Rachel had been likely triggered by being confronted by her whiteness in a way that her training and education had not prepared her for.
I'm a South Asian woman from an immigrant family of mostly doctors. That is to say, I come from privileges that have allowed for my life to not be at risk in the ways Vidal was referring to. Nonetheless, my experiences as a woman of color within the mental health system, however minimal, put my wellness at risk and are part of the same story. Being on the receiving end of the defensive anger of white fragility from someone who I had not only trusted to be a professional care provider with the ethics and background to deal with my needs, but with whom I had also shared some of my most vulnerable thoughts and feelings, means that I am loath to seek out therapy moving forward. To be blunt, I felt exploited. This is something that no individual, and in particular no one opening themselves up for healing, should ever have to endure. But sadly, it's not uncommon.
"There have been countless stories of racial trauma happening in the therapeutic relationship," Erica Woodland, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of the National Queer & Trans Therapists of Color Network, tells me. Woodland's work in advancing healing justice comes through her commitment to working as an organizer for racial, gender, economic, queer, and transgender liberation movements.
She calls the dynamics of the therapeutic space a "power fuck," and explains that the majority of clinicians lack a racial analysis beyond the concept of "cultural competency," which still centers whiteness. "To not have a deep understanding of white supremacy, period, and then to be doing clinical work and not understanding how that plays out [in therapy] is really damaging," she says.
I thought about this a lot in regard to what occurred between me and Rachel. So much of the experience of being a person of color in this world is living your life largely misrecognized, invisible, hypervisible, distorted, and unseen. The therapy space is supposed to be one where your therapist is working to help bring you into your whole, integrated self, by reflecting back to you exactly who you are through the ongoing process of listening, assuming your full humanity, and trusting the validity of your experiences.
I had let so many instances of being unseen by Rachel slide because of how low my standards are for being seen authentically, which she is aware of, as my therapist—everything from her minimizing the insidious colorism in my community and seeming confused by my anger over black people being killed by the cops, to suggesting I was being unfair, projecting, or misreading things when I mentioned microaggressions on the part of white friends. I admit, I overlooked these moments because she had given me immense insight into the family issues I was working through. But in the end, the two parts of myself, the personal and political, were impossible to untangle when it came to my psychological well-being.
"Ultimately the therapeutic process is about being witnessed," Woodland says. Rachel refused to witness me as a woman of color whose mental health is impacted by reality of systemic oppression. And she refused in part because she didn't want to see how this reality implicates her.
The mental health care system cannot bear witness to what people of color go through because it is not designed to. As Vidal points out, it pathologizes and dehumanizes instead of affirming and healing. It upholds white male psychological wellness as an ideal, and anyone who doesn't meet that is likely to get a diagnosis. This is the standard, Vidal says. And it's a very palpable threat.
"If you look at the field of psychiatry and psychology—and social work is not off the hook at all—it is rooted in the degradation of indigenous people, black people, women, queer people; the entire system is set up to uphold the systems of oppression we live in," Woodland says.
Therapists of color are not automatically in a position to better serve clients of color, but Vidal says they often are more equipped by virtue of being able to identify with the reality of those clients. "They understand that for a mother of color or a parent of color, having a mental health diagnosis means being more at risk of having your children taken from you. For a woman of color, it means being more at risk of being abused. For a black man, it means being more at risk of being murdered by the police. And white therapists do not want to see this even though it is very well-researched."
Both Vidal and Woodland work at the intersection of mental health and social justice with the goal of increasing access to resources for people of color, queer and trans people, and other communities that face barriers to getting the help and healing they need. But both express a dismal outlook on people of color being able to receive such care within the system as it currently functions, partially due to the fact that therapists of color face tremendous obstacles themselves in getting training and support. (Approximately 90 percent of mental health professionals are white.)
In the work I do as well, calling out white supremacy—knowing and saying out loud what this white world does to me—is one of the most important pieces of my efforts to dismantle racism and affirm myself. Prior to our final contentious sessions, I found myself unable to even say the word "white" in the therapy room as I tried to articulate what was bothering me, regressing to an earlier and terrifying stage of life when I considered whiteness to be a sacred space that should not and could not be named, because I was afraid it would make my white therapist uncomfortable.
In my formative years, I was met with alternating exoticization and disgust from my white peers, and later, the apparent fact that the color of my skin cast me as sexually and romantically undesirable. My therapist tried to impress upon me that my feelings of being racially othered were a product of an internalized self-hatred that we could fix through psychotherapy. I know enough about the process to understand what we were trying to do together based on her assumption: alter the structures of my brain so that the part of me that makes me feel dehumanized as a brown body is eliminated. But what of the structures of society and of the state? I felt she couldn't go there with me.
Vidal echoed this more broadly. "So much of what people of color experience as mental illness is plain oppression. They have to deal with racism, xenophobia, intergenerational trauma, and living in fear all the time, and we need to place these challenges in context. When we don't, what happens is that we just tell people that they are very broken and we try to fix them. And it's impossible to fix someone when what's broken is the system."
Because Rachel couldn't acknowledge this truth, it was as if she was saying that my interpretation of the world was wrong. That it wasn't real. And in that way, she perpetuated the trauma that I had sought out therapy for in the first place.
"I can't speak for all people of color and what they need," says Woodland. "But on a personal level, I'm not about to go see a white therapist. It's not happening. I'm not here for that. At all."
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*Name has been changed