No, We Should Not Have To “Explore” Racism With Our Clients

Janel Cubbage
5 min readDec 10, 2020
Image courtesy of Canva by Christina Morillo

The journey of becoming a therapist is an interesting one. You stumble, you learn, you fall, you have days where you remember why you became a therapist. I think one thing we can all relate to is anticipating awkward moments we would encounter with clients — most of which we pondered were seemingly innocuous. Some of the “what ifs” were even downright silly. What we all cannot relate on is the anticipation of a client expressing racism in session with us. As a white therapist reading this, it may seem far off or inconceivable — the possibility may have not crossed your mind. Or maybe it has, but you didn’t give it much thought past it making its brief entrance in your mind before quickly and quietly exiting stage left. As a Black therapist, this has been on my mind since day one — and I suspect I am not alone.

Let’s be honest — our curriculums to train mental health clinicians is Eurocentric. Pretty much all of the systems we exist within center whiteness. Programs have tried to address this with diversity or multicultural courses in their curricula but these courses fall short on adequately training clinicians on these issues. With whiteness being centered, programs also fail Black and brown therapists for the challenges we face when we begin doing clinical work. Black and brown therapists are more likely to have their credibility questioned by white clients and experience displaced aggression. 1 Research shows therapists of color attempt to brace themselves for experiencing microaggressions from clients in session, and even in doing so, considered the impact their response would have on the client. 1

In my training as a clinician, I have never had a Black or brown professor or clinical supervisor. I graduated my program feeling inadequately prepared to address the nuance of serving clients who look like me, and heavily relying on my lived experience to bridge the gap. When trying to receive guidance about issues impacting my Black and brown clients, I often felt my supervisors’ guidance fell short and lacked full understanding of the nuance and complexity I was presenting them with. My training program did address privilege in our diversity class, but we didn’t discuss racism, homophobia, and transphobia and how to navigate those situations should they come up in session. This situation was something I struggled with internally — afraid to ask for guidance because it seemed like something I should innately know how to respond to as a therapist. On one hand, I didn’t think I should be subject to racism in the course of my job — by colleague or client. On the other hand, was it ethical to directly address racism when it comes up from a client?

I think a lot of my fear came from counselor educators warning against the use of self-disclosure and saying we should be a “blank slate”. How can we show up authentically if we are to be a blank slate? If we are a blank slate, clients will project onto us (more than they already do). If we operate as a blank slate, we miss real opportunities to do relational work that is fundamental to therapy and healing.

One day I finally asked my clinical supervisor at the time — “What should I do if a client exhibits racism in session with me?” Without skipping a beat, my clinical supervisor at the time confidently said I should explore it with them. Explore it with them? This was yet another example of how the nuance of minoritized identities felt lost on my clinical supervisors and how centering whiteness continues to fail Black and brown therapists. Even when trying to search for research and guidance on this issue, effectively all of the resources available are directed towards white therapists. Why is this the case when Black and brown therapists are the most likely to be harmed by this situation? We are left to figure it out on our own or take privileged advice to “explore it” with our client.

White therapists may feel compelled and able to explore racism with their clients when it is expressed in session. I refuse to accept that this should be expected of Black and brown therapists. White therapists do not experience racism day in and day out. They do not experience the social inequities and physical and mental toll of racism like Black and brown therapists. In what other instances are therapists told to explore something when that ‘something’ is harmful attitudes and beliefs about their identity? We should not have to subject ourselves to harm in the course of our job.

Another common response I’ve heard from colleagues in similar situations has been that their supervisor asks them “What is the goal of treatment? Is the goal to address racism?” While this is a valid point to consider the goal of treatment, what about my goal of not being accosted in the course of my work because of my race? As therapists, we are to center social justice in the work we do both in and out of the therapy room. We are to advocate for the betterment of our clients’ lives and improve the systems they interact with. How can we do this if we fail to acknowledge racism when it comes up? I wonder if the supervisor’s response in this case was born of our ethics imploring us not to impose our beliefs and values onto our clients. I agree we should not do that. I think we should stop passing off racism, homophobia, and transphobia as difference of opinion and beliefs because by doing so, it falsely gives these hateful ideologies some sense of legitimacy.

There is research on how harmful microaggressions are for clients when made by therapists, but we do not have research on the impact of therapists experiencing racism from their clients. 1 We know enough about the physical and mental effects of racism to reasonably expect these experiences to be harmful to therapists of color. Ethically, we are allowed to terminate a counseling relationship if we are in jeopardy of harm from a client. That is what racism is — it is violence and it is harm.

There are too many Black and brown therapists who share this experience of not knowing what to do when we encounter racism from clients and who receive inadequate guidance from their instructors or clinical supervisors. We already lack diversity in our profession and our field continues to fail Black and brown mental health professionals by ignoring our unique needs in clinical training, supervision, and practice. Training programs and professional organizations must take a strong stance on protecting the wellbeing of therapists of color and providing guidance on how to respond to these situations in clinical practice. Clinical supervisors must receive training and do their own internal anti-racism work to better support their trainees and ensure they are not causing further trauma and harm.

To my fellow Black and brown therapists and therapists-to-be: we get to have boundaries too. You do not have to subject yourself to harm in the course of your work — not from colleagues, not from supervisors, not from clients. Your wellbeing and dignity matters.

1. Branco SF, Bayne HB. Carrying the burden: Counselors of color’s experiences of microaggressions in counseling. Journal of counseling and development. 2020;98(3):272–282. doi: 10.1002/jcad.12322.