Therapists who identify as queer people of color, like me, are few and far between. As a result, women of color (WOC) and LGBTQ+ people of color (POC) often take a keen interest in my mental healthadvocacy. I am routinely asked for advice about how to find WOC and LGBTQ+ POC therapists, in particular, and many also inquire about my availability. In response to the latter question, I began to notice over time that sheer disappointment washed over some folks’ faces whenever I shared that I don't currently practice therapy.
Findings from a 2013 study by the American Psychological Association Center for Workforce Studies revealed that white Americans comprised 83.6% of psychologists, while representation of black Americans stood at 5.3%, Latinx at 5%, and Asian Americans, a mere 4.3%. Native Americans — a demographic that researchers seem to routinely disregard because of cultural erasure— were not even accounted for (despite Native American youth having the highest rate of youth suicide by ethnicity, according to a 2015 report by the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics). Likewise, WOC and LGBTQ+ POC psychologists, as well as therapists of all types, are also underrepresented, both in research and in the field. This invisibility has alarming implications.
For one thing, research on race-matching in therapy suggests that for some clients, sharing a minoritized identity with a therapist may reduce guardedness, mistrust, and self-consciousness. Yet, the dearth of WOC and LGBTQ+ POC therapists means that clients from these backgrounds often face an uphill battle searching for a cultural match along the lines of race, gender, and sexuality. Add to this the fact that studies have shown that rates of depression are higher among WOC and LGBTQ+ POC, compared to cis-hetero (cisgender-heterosexual) men of color and white people who identify as LGBTQ+.
This Mental Health Awareness Month, I created this resource about therapy, specifically for WOC and LGBTQ+ POC, for these reasons. My aim is to share the most frequent question asked of me: “How do I find a therapist who ‘gets it’?” Keep reading to find out four simple questions and tips that can help you do just that!
I. Why do you do what you do?
Pro-tip: If you ask a therapist why they got into counseling, and they reply, “I just wanted to help people”...run.
The “I just wanted to help people” type of therapist is what I call a general practitioner. They can surely support you with one-size-fits-all interventions that aren’t culturally specific. But when it comes to addressing mental health stressors related to identity and oppression, they usually overpromise and underdeliver. Rarely, if ever, have these therapists demonstrated a strong, unwavering commitment to centering underserved communities in their work.
Furthermore, these “I just wanted to make a difference” therapists will sometimes subject you to their self-serving savior complex. Their motivation for working with minoritized communities is often not rooted in a genuine interest in social change, but in ego and pity, instead. As a result, many disregard a core principle of cultural humility: that impact trumps good intentions. Failing to recognize their own blind spots and implicit biases can lead to some very awkward and offensive interactions. Don’t be their “cultural competency guinea pig.”
II. How do you do what you do?
Pro-tip: If a therapist can’t cite the spiritual healers, philosophers, theorists, therapists, or even revolutionaries who inform their work...run.
Every therapist informs their work with one or more theoretical orientations (i.e. “standard interpretive frameworks” and “philosophical assumptions” that guide interventions). Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is probably most well-known. Feminist therapy, which is particularly affirming of WOC and LGBTQ+ POC, is much less mainstream, on the other hand.
The good news is that clients can exercise the right to request feminist therapy, or any other orientation. In fact, you could ask your therapist to get familiar with any school of thought or healing practice that supports your goals, no matter how “alternative,” non-Western, or unempirical. Simply ask, “How do you do what you do? Could you please describe your preferred theoretical orientation(s), as well as your willingness to consider other approaches?”
WOC and LGBTQ+ POC rarely assert their needs in therapy, especially to white, cis-hetero therapists. But closed mouths don’t get fed.
III. Who and what informs your understanding of oppression?
Pro-tip: If a therapist can’t define intersectionality or, at the very least, make an educated guess...run.
During therapy sessions, intersectional feminists often find ourselves pausing after every sentence to explain social justice terms like positionality and rape culture, and concepts like “the personal is political” and “prejudice plus power.” On top of that, we’re burdened with unpacking the historical context around myriad forms of internalized oppression, as well as nuanced intracommunity issues. WOC and LGBTQ+ POC get into these predicaments partly because no one encourages us to screen the politics of our therapists.
Often, we just take a chance on new therapists. We simply pray that they will share our awareness of structural intersectionality, and the language that we use to make sense of it. But the only surefire way to gauge whether a therapist is equipped to meet you where you are is to ask, “Who and what informs your understanding of oppression?”
Be sure not to settle for run-of-the-mill answers about cultural competency workshops, either. Ask what you really want to know, like whether they are familiar with the work of certain feminist scholars of color, or if they follow certain blogs, podcasts, or activists on social media. Only the most thorough and specific answers will clue you in to their learning curve.
IV. How will you hold space for me when we discuss my oppression?
Pro-tip: If your therapist isn’t willing to lean into discomfort...run.
According to author Heather Plett, “holding space for someone”means bringing your entire presence to them, and walking alongside them on their journey, without judgement. She suggests eight tips for holding space, including: “give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom,” “don’t take their power away,” “keep your ego out of it,” “give guidance with humility,” and “create a container for complex emotions, fear, trauma, etc.”
When you settle for therapists who can theorize about oppression, but not process the emotional texture of it, you settle for therapists who cannot hold space for you. Almost always, these therapists will shift the focus from your needs to their countertransference of defensiveness and guilt. It often looks like being tone-policed, treated like a know-it-all, mocked as a “social justice warrior,” schooled about non-existent “reverse”-isms, or even pressured to apologize because of your therapist’s tears.
Moreover, a therapist who cannot separate their work from your work, especially your anger, is not mature or skilled enough to engage with you about oppression in healthy and affirming ways. Holding space for you should always be a therapist’s first priority, even if leaning into the discomfort of their privilege means leaning into your rage. As writer Amy Dentata penned, “People often say ‘stop being angry and educate us,’ not understanding that the anger is part of the education.”