When I first looked into therapy, I vaguely registered that the online directory I was using allowed users to control for racial identity, cultural sensitivity, and ethnicity. I mindlessly clicked all three boxes and then scrolled, combing through bios for my ideal therapist, who was nothing but a hazy reflection of myself: an Indian American woman.
My reason for the criteria was simple: I was lazy. I’m biracial—Indian and White—but my way of navigating the world is largely shaped by my Indian mother; I lacked the energy to explain my mishmash culture to a new person. My mother quit her PhD program and then her job to stay with my brother and me until we left home for college. To this day, I struggle to navigate the expectations of an Indian mother and a white father simultaneously.
This wasn’t, however, my primary reason for pursuing therapy. My heart was in a fickle place, caught between longing and utter apathy. Due to the pandemic, I had recently left North Africa, where I’d been teaching English, to return home to a situation that was much more severe. Viable jobs were vanishing, uncertainty was creeping into every facet of social life, and I was a listless twenty-something with a general lack of direction. But mostly, it was the gentle onset of a slow and crippling depression, a lack of anticipation and a certain numbness that made each day blur into the rest.
Most therapists in the United States are white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, though a recent American Psychological Association data point study suggests that the field is slowly diversifying.
Research is mixed whether the most successful therapeutic relationships are those between a client and and therapist of the same race.
Some therapist directories make it easier to find therapists with shared cultural backgrounds, and teletherapy apps like Ayana and Inclusive Therapy make it their mission to match therapists of color with people of color or from other marginalized backgrounds.
It was thanks to these sorts of identity-centered therapy databases that I settled on a therapist: a young mother by the name of Preeti*, in whom I was ready to confide all the colorless days, paranoid thoughts, and missed mornings. And while I didn’t assume direct continuity between my emotional-mental state and my cultural background, I suppose I expected the two to mutually speak to one another, in that each is a significant though not comprehensive lense into my psyche.
Research is mixed whether the most successful therapeutic relationships are those between a client and therapist of the same race. Though almost all clients—and clients from “minority” backgrounds in particular—felt more comfortable and better able to communicate with therapists of the same race, it’s not clear that their relationships are actually more productive or beneficial than others.
The first few sessions were par for the course: Preeti gathered background information, we discussed day-to-day tribulations, roadblocks, recurring negative thoughts. Then, one day, I mentioned the confusion I sometimes feel when negotiating my racial identity.
She asked me to make an “identity pie chart.” In my mind, the exercise was akin to the evergreen “What are you?” question: Though usually lobbed in good faith, it tends to send me spiraling.
In a world of perfect strangers, I alone hold the power to divulge who I am.
Deflecting, I told her I was a racial grifter—that in elementary school, I shaded in “Pacific Islander” on standardized tests because I wanted to live in the realm of Island of the Blue Dolphins, my favorite book at the time. I told her that in my hometown in Texas, most people assumed I was Mexican; that when I worked in Montana, perfect strangers would ask me if I was Native American.
That in India, I rarely pass as Indian; in Morocco, life was easier when I blended in as a local, which I usually could—though men I encountered in taxis and at train stations would mock me, at times, for my broken Darija. “Are you really not Moroccan?” They would ask. “Then what are you?”
Out of breath, I told my therapist that without effort, I can pass in all of these ways because of my racial ambiguity. It has made me feel unmoored and dishonest sometimes, I told her, but it's also made me feel powerful.
In a world of perfect strangers, I alone hold the power to divulge who I am.
Despite the unpredictability of others’ perceptions of my race, my conversation with Preeti quickly spun into absolutes.
She used all the right buzzwords: privilege and systemic racism to explain the macro-picture structures of society; neocolonialism and inherited trauma to push against my hesitancy to consider myself oppressed in a sustained or structural way.
“I want you to think of oppression less as a competition and more as a spectrum,” she told me, after I voiced my disillusion with the label person of color (POC). It recenters whiteness, I feel, because it collapses non-white identities into a blanket group, as if we all share common interests and agendas—wishful if not entirely incorrect.
So while I’m often confused on account of my whiteness and Indianness, I rarely feel “oppressed.” “Which is not to say that systems of oppression don’t exist,” I tried to clarify. She smiled and reminded me, again, that it’s a spectrum.
It recenters whiteness, I feel, because it collapses non-white identities into a blanket group, as if we all share common interests and agendas—wishful if not entirely incorrect.
I was familiar with these terms—they structured social life at my small liberal arts college—and had felt, for a long time, that these labels often fall short.
Despite the small hope I hold for the political possibilities of a term like POC (solidarity, maybe, or unification) and my continued observations of the realities of privilege and systemic racism, it feels soul-crushing to interpret my day-to-day emotions and outcomes primarily through the lens of color.
By the end of our session, I was at a loss for words. My therapist reminded me of my assignment to create the pie chart—to slice and dice those pieces of my identity I deem inseparable from one another. We hung up.
In a sour mood, I sulked for the next hour. It was the first time that my therapist and I had veered into the cerebral, impersonal territory of identity politics.
Why did it bother me that she had attributed various circumstances in my life to large-scale phenomena I believe to be true? I wasn’t bothered by her use of terms like anxiety and depression, near-universal experiences that plague humans the world over.
I realized, while writing this piece, that I had confused racial identity for what some psychologists called racial worldview. According to a 2013 article in the American Journal of Community Psychology, racial worldview match might be even more important than racial identity match.
Though therapy clients often assume shared commonalities based on culture, racial match might not even be a significant predictor of therapy outcomes.
It’s this distinction—between how I perceive race and how I am perceived because of my race—that has come to the fore in my journey through therapy. I benefit from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), in part, because reflecting my ideas and desires with another person can be a great boon for my mental health and clarity.
Part of the allure of therapy—for me at least—is that it’s a space in which you, the individual, are treated as such: a complex person with unpredictable life circumstances and moods.
Discussing my problems as symptomatic of a broken system, rather—abstract and untethered from the specificities of my experience—left me feeling disempowered, ultimately. It felt like there was little in my power to find peace with my multivalent identities.
I still see this therapist, though we largely do not talk about race.
Even though these “racial worldview” held water for me in theory, they felt trite and tired when trying to shove my life into their cookie-cutter confines.
Despite my hesitation, I drew the pie chart. Staking my pen in the circle’s center and moving outwards, I felt the inarticulable weight of each of its parts: “Indian” and “brown” were separate though similarly proportioned slices, “vague American-ness” and “shy” being other pieces of the pie.
I still see this therapist, though we largely do not talk about race. It comes up, of course, in the way that it inevitably does.
I’m not sure how I might depict my identity now, were she to ask me to complete the exercise again. But perhaps uncertainty is baked into the premise. For a little less than half of the circle I left blank, and inside of it I drew a single question mark. A testament to my capacity for change, I thought, or something that might avail itself with time.
* name has been changed
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Meyer, O. L., & Zane, N. (2013). The influence of race and ethnicity in clients' experiences of mental health treatment. Journal of Community Psychology, 41(7), 884–901. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1002/jcop.21580
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