Does the Race or Ethnicity of the Therapist Matter?

As an African-Caribbean-American man who has felt as if I must be aware of my backgrounds at every turn, my experience as a counseling intern has been no exception. It has therefore, left me to wonder the extent to which, and how, the race and ethnicity of the therapist matter to clients. A few months ago I asked a client from another race/ethnic background if my race as a therapist matters to them. The response was that they do not pay attention to race, and it makes no difference to them. I was told that people make too much of a bid deal about race, and the color of a person should not even be noticed. I was told that my race does not matter and should not have anything to do with me being a good mental health provider.

Interestingly, I was told that my status as an intern caused the client a great deal of concern. They had first refused to work with an intern because they thought that their issues required more insights than what they believed a typical “intern in their twenties” could provide. But the client was encouraged by someone else to keep an open mind. When the client met me and realized that I have lived almost two decades more than they did, they felt as if it was worth it to “take a chance” on an intern. The client has told me many times that they felt they “hit the jackpot” because they would have never imagined I am the intern they would have received as their therapist.

Let’s go back to the issue of race and ethnicity. The client thought that my rapport with them, my years of experience in life, the fact that I was a US Army Veteran, and have a long career as an educator and have other skills, matter more than my race and ethnicity. The client said that they thought it was pretty cool that I was from the Caribbean because one of their favorite places to vacation is a particular Caribbean island.  From time to time, they would ask me about aspects of Caribbean life and compare it to life in America. Somehow, my service as a Veteran is referenced by the client as a way of being able to better understand what they are saying. But the client has never referred to me being able to have more or less difficulty understanding them because of my race or ethnicity. What do you make of that?

On the other hand, African American clients have made direct reference to my race and ethnicity as a resource in therapy. One young African American man told me that he is going to be very open about how comfortable he feels with me as a Black man working with him with his very personal issues. When I asked why, he said that it is because he feels more confident that he does not have to try too hard to explain things in a way that I can understand. I then reminded him that I was not born in America, and that I am still learning how to understand certain cultural aspects that are American. He replied, “But you are a Black man, though. That’s what I am saying.” I replied, “tell me more.” I am so glad that I did because his response gave me more insights than I imagined.

As the sole therapist at a location in Roseland on Chicago’s South Side, all of my clients have been African American, and women. I may address cross-gender issues in another blog because that is also very important. But it has been amazing how my race and ethnicity has been a good tool to build therapeutic relationships, and help the clients chart paths to breakthroughs and victories in their lives.

Recently, I had the blessing of being able to do therapy with African American children of one of my clients. Our first session included the use of an Accordion, Native American Hand Drums, a percussion instrument from the Dominican Republic, and a “shack shack” from my native country of Dominica. As we practiced Jing Ping music, they complemented my dashiki (African wear), asked me to show them African dances, and wanted to teach me how they made local music. Their mother was all smiles and told me afterwards that she believes her son will open up to discuss issues with me. I wonder; does my race and ethnicity matter there? If so, how?

So I ask, to what extent, and how, does the race or the ethnicity of your therapist matter to you? Why? Do you believe you should share this information with your therapist? If you did, do you believe that it would help or hurt your relationship with them, and your chances of resolving the problem for which you are seeing them for help?   

To be sure, I welcome clients from all race and ethnic backgrounds, and see us all as great resources to each other. I will be happy to work with you or someone that you refer.

Written By: Peter S.J., Masters Level Intern

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