This piece was originally published here on Medium.
Since 2012, I have fallen in love with the art, science, and practice of psychotherapy. Spaces created by this discipline serve as oxygen to the crushing suffocation of the anti-black, homophobic circumstances permeating the air, which I strive to breathe. Learning how to be a therapist has not only sharpened my eyes to see myself more clearly, but it has honed my ability to see my colleagues and the world. I believe the world can be changed by clearly seeing ourselves and others. It is with love and dedication to help us see ourselves, as therapists, that I offer this invitation.
Over the past eight years, I’ve worked in a number of settings that have exposed me to various mental health disciplines, including social work, psychiatry, counseling, and psychology. With this professional background, I can confidently attest we as therapists are failing to create space for black and brown people and the totality of their lived experiences.
In our treatment team meetings and case consultations, we choose not to consider how the chief complaint of our patients of color (e.g. anxiety, depression) intersects with their racial identity. We fail to recognize how the structural pillars of American society continue to press their knees on the neck of black and brown people. We reduce people to the results of psychometric tests or a slapped-on DSM diagnosis. We shortcut the relational work of humanizing the other sitting across from us. We become lazy. Our supposedly “objective” tools and practice models are not value-neutral; they are not anti-racist. Rather, they uphold false narratives and contribute toward the dehumanization of a suffering people.
White colleagues, I have seen how you salivate and run hurriedly towards the next non-race related training topic while not holding yourself equally accountable to learning about racism and healing methods to racial trauma. You hide from yourselves behind coded language, describing how your black and brown clients “aren’t a good fit for me,” or how you’re not “accepting new patients.” I wish that learning about and confronting racism was met with the same fervor as any other facet of clinical practice. Sadly, my ability to thrive and to live depends on whether you make the choice to open your eyes. Will you make the choice to see the power and privilege you hold?
At this point in my career, I have attended numerous national conferences and webinars. I am a member of a variety of professional organizations that have made calls for diversifying membership despite making little efforts to develop minority recruitment strategies. These organizations sometimes host four-headliner trainings without a single Person of Color. I often ask myself: what is the true intention behind these calls of diversifying? What is a “Call to Action” with no action?
White colleagues, your lack of vision and courage is painful and personal. Your fragility places me in a dynamic where you expect me to comfort you when there is another national headline of a black man laid slain in the street, or when you are perplexed as to why a black woman does not feel safe being vulnerable with you. But have seen how you cannot hold my big feelings, leaving me to hold back needed visceral discharge alone after being racially profiled. It is in those moments when your lack of action becomes another retraumatizing vehicle failing to undo the pervasive messages that say black and brown people are subhuman — less than dogs.
Your immobilization also causes you to forget your clinical skills. You fail to check in with your clients of color regularly about racism. Yet without your invitation to name and express their pain, these clients suppress deeply held emotions in a room in which they ought to feel at their most free. You do not shy away from other forms of suffering. You ask your client if they are suicidal, you check in about their phobias and compulsions, you fill out mindfulness worksheets as you have been trained to do. Yet do you not go there with your clients of color, as though you await their permission — where is your training then? Would you neglect to ask about sexual trauma if you had not experienced it yourself? You fail to check in with your black and brown colleagues, or if you do so, you pass over the discomfort and move to more neutral ground. You leave behind abandoned, unattended souls in your unwillingness to “say the wrong thing.” Even after healing from other traumatic events, racial trauma remains ongoing and ignored.
Yet I know that you are not to blame. You too are a victim of an American culture that teaches us to be silent to maintain the racial social order. Sure, you are the victors of this system but it costs you a great deal. To achieve liberation, we all have to be willing to sacrifice for the collective gain. There is a myriad of ways to unlearn this response and to learn how to see and name racism: join a racial equity consultation group, investigate and name your implicit biases, talk honestly to your white colleagues and clients about racism, read writers of color, and take the steps to decolonize your practice. Get curious about how racism impacts both the clients who look like you and the ones who do not.
The stigma surrounding mental health is wearing thin. As the mistrust in our institutions expands from the government to churches to mass media, more and more people are turning to therapy for help and solace. As such, we therapists stand to be primary influencers of American culture. This responsibility must not be taken lightly. In this spirit, by being alive at this time in history, we are invited to create a more anti-racist and socially just space for all of our clients. White therapists, you are invited to ask your clients about how racism affects their daily lives and your therapeutic relationship. I am dedicating my own professional life toward cultivating best practices to uplift those who are held down — I ask you, as members of the field that has given so much to me — will you join me?
In Justice and Love,
Hayden Dawes, MSW, LCSW, LCAS