Updated: Nov 29, 2021
Free-spirited, tall, and slender, was the mahogany-colored woman who sat across from me in my office. This was our first session—the intake—which usually consists of a series of impersonal questions about a client’s medical and mental health history. Typically, most people are reserved at this point in treatment as they’ve yet to build a level of comfort with their therapist that garners enough candidness to even scratch the surface of the issues that brought them into therapy. Yet, this wasn’t the case with this particular client; she was especially unguarded. After a few minutes of small talk, she stopped mid-conversation to tell me “You cool” She didn’t even have to go into detail; I knew exactly what she meant. But she did anyway.
Commonality Promotes Comfort
She explained she’d been to other therapists, and they didn’t speak the same language she spoke. Once again, I knew exactly what she meant. It’s rare for a therapist, even Black therapists at times, to truly understand the cultural experiences, let alone identify with the struggles of their Black clients. When she said other therapists didn’t speak her “language” she wasn’t speaking in the literal sense. Surely, she’d encountered other therapists who spoke English, her native tongue. She was speaking about a much less tangible language that extends well beyond verbal communication, a cultural familiarity that cannot be taught in any graduate program or seminar and is only gained through commonality; one Black people rarely, if ever, encounter within legal, educational, or professional environments.
A person’s comfort level with their therapist is vital for therapy to be a success. I don’t know if it was my relaxed attire--jeans and Yeezy sneakers—or the discovery that we shared the commonality of being HBCU grads after she commented on noticing my undergrad degree mounted on the wall behind me. It could have just been the idea that she didn’t have to explain cultural lingo like being “tight” about a white woman at her job constantly touching her hair without permission. But whatever the reasoning behind it was, one thing became abundantly clear to me during the time I worked with her: Black therapist matter.
Not only do Black therapists matter in terms of disrupting the status quo within a field where people of color appear to be aberration amongst an abundance of white practitioners but also to highlight the need of people who understand social and cultural dynamics within Black communities. Having a therapist who looks like you and understands the cultural context from which many of your issues derive is an act of healing in itself.
The Stigma of Mental Health in the Black Community
The experiences of Black people within the mental health field are almost always more punitive than transformative. We (Black people) just don’t do therapy voluntarily. Many of my Black clients have experienced therapy only through the means of a legal obligation or school referrals, which not only contributes to the stigma of mental health in Black communities but also amongst the very therapists who are tasked to treat them.
Black people are often stigmatized and misdiagnosed by (sometimes) well-meaning non-Black therapists just for being their cultural selves. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen normal, albeit disruptive behaviors like roasting labeled oppositional defiant behavior. Or men and women who are in many cases, products of ruthless environments incorrectly diagnosed as sociopathic. Sure some criminals who happen to be Black are indeed, morally corrupted individuals, but many of them are traumatized people caught up in a cycle of crime trying to navigate an oppressive system that is designed to fail them. While on the subject of misdiagnosis Black children account for aproximately16 percent of special education referrals. Many of them have no learning disability; they learn just fine. They simply don’t have a frame of reference to decipher information on the standardized tests provided through public schools because their culture was not taken into consideration during the creation of these so-called aptitude tests.
There is No Place for Color-blindness in Therapy
Every cultural group deserves mental health treatment that pays special attention to the socio-cultural aspects of their behavior, especially those who have endured a historical legacy of oppression like Black people throughout the African diaspora. Culturally competent therapists exhibit a certain level of empathy that is essential to guiding their clients to emotional wellness; they allow their clients to be seen and heard in a way they aren’t used to in most professional, educational, and legal spaces.
Most therapists subscribe to the supposedly well-intentioned idea of color-blindness which does nothing to help their Black clients and sidesteps the root of many of their issues. If you cannot see my Blackness, and every problem that comes with the hue of my skin how can you understand the nature of my problems? Understanding precedes compassion and compassion proceeds healing. If my Blackness is omitted from the comprehensive assessment of my problems how can I heal?
By no means am I suggesting that every mental or emotional issue that Black people suffer is based solely on race, but a 400-year system of oppression is a factor that cannot be excluded from therapy. The footprints of slavery, jim-crow, and mass incarceration press deeper than a matter of economic or social issues, but a problem that is also psychological, and must be addressed with care, best from one who can intimately identify with such conditions.