Does the race of your therapist matter?
As much as some people would like to think that they are “color blind” and impartial to all people, the reality is that race and many other diversity factors are plain to see. The most obvious diversity factors that are difficult to ignore are gender, race, age, certain physical disabilities, and sometimes socio-economic status to name a few. There are other diversity factors that are more hidden such as sexual orientation, spiritual beliefs, and even certain mental health challenges. Being that therapists themselves are the agents of healing, every therapist has his or her own unique set of diversity factors.
So the real question is “Do these diversity factors matter when it comes to choosing and working with a therapist?” The answer is again “It depends.” There is research to support that people build quicker rapport with those who are perceived as similar to themselves. It is like that saying, “Birds of feather flock together.” Given that counseling effectiveness is strongly linked to a trusting and safe relationship, anything that strengthens therapeutic alliance is great! That is why there are many organizations and groups that are centered on race and culture. I actually grew up in a Taiwanese-American church because my parents were Asian immigrants who found a community that shared similar experiences. There is this almost unspoken understanding that people “get it” and therefore no further explanation is necessary. People tend to open up more easily to people who look like them and share similar experiences.
There is actually a danger to working with someone who seems to look like you, but it can be prevented when you are aware of it. Since there is this assumption that the therapist who has the same race or background as you just “gets it,” sometimes that prevents the client from truly sharing their story. This can easily happen on the flip side where the therapist may say or believe certain things about the client that may not be completely accurate because he or she never bothered to ask clarifying questions. There may be an easier tendency to assume similarity and understanding without really checking it out first.
Another thought that comes to mind is this notion that “a doctor does need to have had cancer (or fill in the blank of any disorder) in order to treat someone with that challenge.” That means a therapist does not necessarily have to share the same experiences in order to help a client in need. On many levels, the therapist may not fully understand where a client may be coming from especially on a experiential level, but they can still empathize and care on a humanity and emotional level. If you are human, then you have experienced a wide variety of emotions. All of us have been angry, hurt, sad, and disappointed (to name a few). Even if our circumstances are not the same, it does not necessarily prevent a therapist from relating and understanding on a deeper level. Professional therapists have also been trained with certain ways of thinking and equipped with both knowledge and skills that can help a client without having experienced that particular challenge themselves.
That being said, I strongly believe in cultural or diversity competence for all effective therapists. What does that mean? It means that therapists are well aware that there are cultural differences that inform clients’ worldview and experiences that can greatly differ from their own. There are certain experiences that a certain group of people share as a common experience worth honoring and understanding. It is a therapist’s willingness to ask the hard questions and be humble enough to admit when he or she does not know something but cares enough to learn from their clients. It is caring enough about the client to understand and allow them to voice their experience and story in their cultural context. To me, having that kind of cultural awareness and humble attitude that truly matters in an effective therapist and less so on the therapist’s own diversity factors.
I also want to put out there that if you identify as Caucasian, white, or American, that is also a unique and valuable culture. It is not only the “minorities” that have a unique story so hopefully you do not feel left out because your cultural experience matters too! For more entries like this, please visit me on my blog.