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How Therapy Can Help You Be Anti-Racist

You have probably noticed the recent explosion of helpful resources on how to fight racism. Still, you may be struggling to put your ​goal of being anti-racist into action in your daily life. Below are some examples of how therapy can help you grow in your efforts to confront racism.

Initiating Hard Conversations

A quick Google search can yield many scripts for how to respond to racist comments you encounter, but ​you may ​still need help gathering the courage to actually ​start those conversations. If you aren't used to speaking up, the prospect of confrontation can be daunting. Therapy provides a safe space where you can get comfortable discussing uncomfortable topics.

​Therapists​ can aid you in identifying the fears or hangups preventing you from starting hard conversations. They’ll also use their knowledge of human nature to coach you to be an effective communicator. In other words, they can help you state your message in the way that the other person is most likely to receive it.​ That said, an anti-racist therapist should be able to tell the difference between tone policing and effective communication. In addition, therapists can ​help you ​role-play these conversations​ before you try them out in real life​.

Tackling Tough Feelings

If you are new to exploring racism and the ways you unknowingly perpetuate it, you are probably overwhelmed. Confronting racism is a long-haul process, and it takes effort and a commitment to emotional wellbeing to stay engaged without getting burned out.

In addition, if you are White, you need to take time to address any defensiveness, anger, guilt, or confusion you feel arising in yourself. That work is best done in reflection on your own, with White peers, or in a setting such as therapy. This is because people of color are the ones whose voices need to be heard in the public regarding racism. If you are struggling with feelings surrounding racism or your own part in a society plagued with White supremacy, therapy is an appropriate space to explore that confusion.

Confronting your own difficult feelings allows you to be a better ally in the fight against systemic and everyday racism because you're less distracted by your own emotional needs.

Setting Boundaries

It can be so hard to know when to back away from a conversation that is going nowhere, where to draw the line in relationships, and when to give yourself a break. ​It is crucial to be able to walk away when a conversation becomes unproductive, while still leaving the door open for more discussion in the future. Particularly for White allies, it is our responsibility to attempt to get through to our family members and peers who hold racist beliefs.

You can work with a therapist to gain clarity on how much you are able and willing to do, how often you are able to do it, and when you will give yourself a break. It's important to remember that “self-care is not a lapse in activism; it’s part of it.” In addition, you can't take on all aspects of racism at once. Finding the areas where you can be most effective keeps you from being overwhelmed.

Finding the Right Therapist

The most basic question you can ask, as laid out by Thema Bryant-Davis, PhD, is, "What are your thoughts about the impact of racism on mental health?" You can also directly ask a potential therapist, "How do you practice anti-racism?"

If the professional does not have a response to that question, they are probably not the best person with whom to explore these issues and will likely be especially invalidating for a client of color. (Stay tuned for a more thorough list of red flags that a therapist may not be anti-racist in the future!)

Important Things to Keep in Mind Please remember: all of the work above is done in therapy so you can be actively anti-racist in the world outside your therapy sessions. That means voting, listening to Black voices and other people of color, educating yourself, talking with your peers and family members, and donating to important causes to fight racism. The point is not to focus on your experience of your existence in a racist society if you are not a person of color. The goal is to do your own personal work so you can grow beyond where you are now and stop contributing to systems that harm people of color.

In addition, I am writing this from the perspective of a White woman. Do not take my word as gospel in matters of racism and how it is experienced or what allies can do about it. If the only people you are taking advice from on how to be anti-racist are White, that is a dangerous hindrance to this movement. I could not have written this post without the uncannily massive amount of work put out by the Black community, particularly Black women and trans women.

Lastly, the fields of psychology and social work have deep histories of painfully exploiting marginalized populations, particularly Black and Indigenous populations. When a profession has racism at its roots, it inherently affects the present. It is up to individual therapists as well as their national and state regulating organizations to confront the remaining oppressive nature in social welfare and mental health systems.

If you encounter a therapist who displays overt racist behaviors or downplays the impacts of racism in society, it is important to call them out directly and take it up with their employer and licensing board. It can be scary to do so, but remember: racism rarely happens in isolation, and you are likely not the only one witnessing this behavior.

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