WellNest co-founder and psychotherapist Zainib Abdullah discusses anti-racist therapy and how you can ask a therapist about their approach.
The momentous events that transpired worldwide over the course of the last month have put racial inequities and injustices on the forefront of our collective consciousness. While navigating these injustices are necessary, it can be toll-taking work. When considering seeking help, we must remember to make space for conscientious work as both clients and practitioners.
The landscape of therapy has, as we currently know it, mainly centered the work of White therapists and clients, leaving racialized experiences on the margins. This makes it difficult to find our various identities reflected in spaces that are supposed to be designed to provide us with safety and healing.
In fact, this is one of the main reasons we founded WellNest.
As therapists who identify as non-Black people of colour (NBPOC) we have and continue to examine our practice of therapy and what we are doing to be truly anti-racist. This includes all of us.
We request that you please read the introduction, where we address who we are, the legacy our identities carry, and the purpose of this contribution.
Purpose And Positioning
This piece is addressed to racialized folks considering starting with a new therapist or those who are reflecting on how their current therapy experience is going.
We are also addressing white and NBPOC therapists, along with other professionals in the mental health field with these racial identities.
It is not acceptable for mental health professionals to be ignorant about anti-Black racism and how it can seep into our practices. We must be willing and able to create space for this pain in our practices and educate ourselves with the myriad of resources that are readily available.
Our intention for this piece is to start a conversation around anti-racist therapy practices and to encourage white and NBPOC therapists to take an inventory of our own approach to this work.
We also want to provide some tips to clients around the types of questions to ask a therapist about their approach.
A single post can only be the beginning. Reflecting on our privilege and using it to change our therapeutic practices must be ongoing work.
Who We Are
As writers of this piece, we begin with the legacy of our own communities because it is a reminder that we do not possess moral superiority as NBPOC and what we write here applies to us as well.
WellNest is founded by two women of colour. Our identities as South Asian and Arab Muslim women who immigrated to this country are threaded through everything we do. In positioning ourselves, we will focus on these identities.
South Asian and Arab Communities Carry A Legacy of Anti-Black Racism
Our communities have an abundance of anti-Black racism. The younger generation is not off the hook- we have also internalized the racism passed down from our elders and express it both covertly and overtly
We also benefit from narratives that are directly harmful to the Black community:
The Model Minority Myth
Asian and Arab communities benefit from the model minority myth. This is because our identity is presented as upstanding, law-abiding, and successful; essentially checking off all the boxes that appease White North America and its colonial legacy.
We are thus deemed as "non-threatening," and in turn benefit off of this epithet.
This directly pits Asian and Arab communities against Black communities. The model minority myth is weaponized against Black people to say “Look. They struggled too and they succeeded, even excelled.”
The model minority myth serves two equally harmful purposes:
- It allows white people and NBPOC who benefit from the model minority myth to wipe their hands clean of addressing systemic racism. The sinister rhetoric that surfaces from this is that it’s not the fault of the system when other people of colour can thrive in it. This turns the blame on Black communities and diverts empathy from them.
- It perpetuates the idea that racism can be overcome by ‘hard work’ (and assumes Black people are not hard-working) while completely erasing 400 + years of enslavement, oppression, and system-building intended to suppress Black bodies
‘People of Colour’ As An Umbrella Term
South Asian and Arab communities also benefit from the seemingly inclusive umbrella term ‘People of Colour’. In reality, this term erases the experiences of the most vulnerable communities, particularly Black and Indigenous ones. At the same time, our inclusion under this umbrella elevates the face-value of our struggle and gives us access to certain spaces and experiences.
When therapists see clients, we bring these legacies of racism into the room with us. NBPOC therapists, we must understand that the colour of our skin does not automatically make us an ally. Our appearance does not guarantee that we are not racist.
Anti-Black Racism and Racial Trauma
Before we discuss anti-Racist therapy, let's talk about racial trauma.
Anti-Black racism is acts of prejudice, discrimination, and stereotyping that are aimed at those of African descent and rooted in the history and experience of enslavement.
Racial trauma, or racial stress, is the experience of real or perceived danger that occurs as a result of facing this prejudice, discrimination, and stereotyping.
What we traditionally associate with trauma are distressing events such as car accidents, the death of loved ones, or being a victim of violence. An expanded understanding of trauma includes experiencing things that are entirely out of our control and overwhelm our coping capacities.
The Black community regularly confronts all of these facets of trauma. In the United States, researchers have shown that African Americans are more exposed to racial discrimination compared to other ethno-racial groups.
Anti-Black racism exists in Canada too, even if it is routinely minimized and contrasted with the more overt racism of the United States.
The Effects Of Racial Trauma
In a brilliant piece titled ‘Healing The Hidden Wounds of Racial Trauma’, Kenneth Hardy outlines how racial oppression is a form of interpersonal violence which results in Black youth in particular experiencing three hidden trauma wounds.
Kenneth Hardy describes this as a direct by-product of racism, and a result of the demonization of non-white hues that is perpetuated by the very systems designed to protect and nourish youth.
The result is that Black youth internalize this message from childhood: “I am bad and unworthy”.
Assaulted Sense Of Self
It is very difficult to form a healthy and coherent sense of self when assaulted by devaluing race-related messages.
In this circumstance, Black youth are vulnerable to believing what people think is true about them, reinforcing internalized devaluation and perpetuating an incoherent sense of self.
The final hidden wound of racial trauma is the difficulty Black youth experience in defending themselves against this onslaught of dehumanizing messages.
The impact of these racial trauma wounds is intertwined. Voicelessness is a product of internalized devaluation and an assaulted sense of self, and it fuels them both.
As therapists, we need to be aware of how racial trauma interacts with our clients' lives. These hidden trauma wounds show up in many areas of life: including at work, school, parenting, and romantic relationships.
When Therapy Is Anti-Racist And Inclusive
In the video below, psychologist Dr. Jameca discusses the importance of working with an anti-racist and inclusive therapist. She mentions that anti-racist therapy helps people feel seen, heard, and understood.
To be seen, heard, and understood is to heal and to explore the difficulty of our concerns in a safe space, one that recognizes the wholeness of our experiences.
We all deserve spaces that reflect and accept the complexities of our identities to facilitate true healing, and eliminate the “Double Work" often expended by BIPOC in therapy, a term coined by former WellNest therapist Arij Elmi referring to clients wanting to explain how their pain is relational to their family and community, but simultaneously feels like they have to protect their culture from being maligned or misjudged.”
For those who have experienced the opposite of anti-racist and inclusive therapy, it can initially be difficult to build a trusting relationship with a new therapist. These experiences ultimately adds to one’s trauma. To muster up courage to confront yet another disappointing and harmful situation, while in a space meant to cultivate healing, is trying and difficult.
How can you go about finding a therapist aligned with an anti-racist approach?
Finding An Anti-Racist Therapist
While seeking a therapist, shared identity is often a priority for those who are racialized or have marginalized identities. However, finding a racialized therapist is not always easy, and finding a Black or Indigenous therapist even less so.
Dr. Jameca discusses the process of finding a Black therapist or non-Black therapist who is skilled in working with the issues that affect Black clients.
It may require some creativity (i.e. using social media). On our Instagram page, we have highlighted several Black therapists and their practices. Other excellent pages include: Black Therapist Collective, Therapy For Black Girls, and Black Therapist List Canada.
Our previous post on Intergenerational Stress also contains a list of excellent resources for BIPOC and LGBTQ2SIA supports in the Toronto area.
We can also ask family and friends for referrals, if safety is established in those circles.
There are also sources of information that we often miss. For example, many family doctors know about therapy resources in the communities they practice in. Therapists looking to grow their practices may advertise in community centres and local hubs such as cafes. Finally, community health centres can be a great resource for free or low cost mental health counselling.
10 Questions To Ask Your Therapist About Their Approach To Therapy
Most of the time, you don’t know much about a therapist until you meet them. Let’s discuss a few ways you can ask a potential or existing therapist about their alignment with anti-racist work.
We know this can be hard or awkward!
Keep in mind that most therapists want you to ask them questions. It also helps them gain a better idea of your needs and orientation. We pulled a few of the questions from this wonderful resource. Highly recommend checking out the full version!
- How do you navigate working with clients with very different social locations than your own?
- Have you worked with folks from various racial and cultural backgrounds?
- How do you practice anti-oppression and anti-racism in your sessions?
- What has shifted for you in the last month in terms of your practice and orientation?
- What are the concerns you feel most comfortable supporting clients with?
- How have you supported people with long histories of complex trauma?
- Would you be comfortable if I asked for your help in finding a therapist who shares my identity?
- What are your thoughts on policing and child protective services? In which situations would you contact them?
- What does intersectionality mean to you and how does it impact your practice?
- Do you incorporate trauma-informed methods into your work?
How To Approach Anti-Racist And Inclusive Therapy As A Therapist
For White and NBPOC therapists, engaging in continuous reflexive anti-racist work is imperative and non-negotiable.
Accept That You May Not Be The Best Therapist For A Client
It’s important to be open to a Black or racialized client’s desire to work with a therapist who shares their identity and moves through the world the way they do. We know that sharing an identity is not the only factor that impacts the effectiveness of therapy.
However, right now, non-Black and non-Indigenous therapists may not be the in the position to help Black or Indigenous clients process what is coming up for them.
The fit between the therapist and client matters! It’s a crucial part of building a strong therapeutic alliance, which is one of the most important vehicles for change in therapy.
This is an excellent opportunity to amplify the leadership, voices, and skills of BIPOC therapists in your city.
If a client expresses concern about lack of intersectionality and awareness throughout a session, consider listening to the concerns that they have voiced. Understand that it is necessary to work from an anti-oppressive structure. If a client has expressed that you have perpetuated the opposite, remove any charges from the session and provide resources to help them find a therapist who will more effectively meet their racial and diverse needs.
Validate Experiences Of Racial Trauma
When working with clients whose racial identity you don’t share and who feel safe and seen by you, it is crucial to validate their experiences of racism and anti-Blackness. This should be at the center of the work we do, as well as considering the impact of these experiences on all facets of their life. It’s important to also validate their interpretation of the events as well as their reaction or response.
Questioning their interpretation or dismissing experiences (i.e. gaslighting) adds to the pain and trauma clients are experiencing. Recognizing the injustice of the events may help clients feel safer and better equipped to manage the stress and emotional toll of racist experiences.
Learn About Yourself/Decolonize Your Practice
Knowing and understanding our biases and the way they interact with our work is not only necessary but ethical.
This includes knowing our social location, the ways in which it is apparent, and how it affects the way we move in the world. Understanding the way this influences the dynamic with our clients is vital.
If you are a white or NBPOC therapist who considers themselves to be actively anti-racist, this is an opportunity to reflect on how that approach is actually showing up in your practice. Part of learning about ourselves is reflecting honestly on the discrepancy between intentions and actions. It’s the only way to improve!
Commit To Anti-Racism Learning And Training
There are countless resources to educate ourselves on race, privilege, and racial trauma.
Part of committing to ongoing learning and training as part of our personal and professional development is doing this work outside the therapy space.
The experience of racialized clients should not be the source of your learning. This is personal work that should change the assumptions we hold about the world and how we do therapy! However, we cannot rely on or expect our clients to help us fill in the gaps- the burden of teaching should never be on them.
Critically consider the colonial lens of psychotherapeutic approaches and how they impact the way in which we participate in the process of therapy with a strong focus on the individual, while dismissing the impact of existing racist Eurocentric and capitalist systems.
Check out @melissatmsw for great posts on decolonizing your practice.
Listen To Your Client
Being curious about our clients’ unique experience of the world may seem like an obvious part of therapy. However, our own learned anti-Black and anti-Indigenous biases may be at large. It is imperative that we continue to decolonize ourselves in order to hear and amplify our clients' voices.
As therapists, it’s important to remember that we need to continue to be curious about our clients and not assume that the research and learning we are doing applies in a singular manner to their lives.
Supervision Is Key
Sometimes, we need to engage in this process of examining ourselves alongside others. Seeking supervision, peer consultation, or even our own therapy can be particularly helpful in identifying our biases, processing experiences of countertransference, and working through the emotional impact of what comes up.
The right supervisor can also help us build precision to identify issues in our practice and organization that are impacting our work.
If you have made it this far, thank you. We write this piece in the hopes that it contributes to the ongoing learning many of us are doing.
We also hope that after reading this, those who are undergoing therapy feel more comfortable approaching a therapist with their questions and needs.
There is always more to learn and more to do. We would love to hear from you!
What have you learned about adopting an anti-racist approach to therapy in the last several weeks?
Sending meditations of compassion and healing to you.
Zainib Abdullah is the co-founder and a psychotherapist at WellNest Psychotherapy Services. Her approach to healing incorporates various therapeutic modalities. She works from a client-centred, anti-racist/oppressive/colonial & trauma-informed framework. As a yoga teacher and student in the lineage of Classical Yoga, she further incorporates mindfulness based therapies to support clients in accessing greater connectedness to their inner wisdom and peace.