Before I became a therapist I didn’t realize the impact that my ethnicity would have on my work. I noticed that a lack of ethnic diversity in mental health providers added to a narrative for many people of color: “Therapy isn’t for people like me.”
First of All — Who Is a “Person of Color”?
The term “person of color,” or “POC,” refers to an individual who is not White or of European descent.
There’s been debate surrounding who “qualifies” as a POC, whether the term is actually inclusive of all non-White people, and whether it should be used at all. If you’re a non-White person, how you choose to identify is completely up to you. For example, I identify as a POC as well as an Indian-American woman.
I’ll primarily refer to “people of color” opposed to specific ethnic groups. This isn’t to detract from unique identities, but to more clearly discuss experiences that are inclusive of most non-White people.
Birds of a Feather
Think of a time you easily felt comfortable with someone who shared a similar family background, ethnic identity, or culture. This sense of comfort, with others seemingly similar to us, can also apply to the relationship between a therapist and client.
This experience of connecting with others similar to ourselves has underpinnings in social psychology. It’s been found that worldview similarity fosters interpersonal attraction, and that we typically associate with those we perceive to be similar to us. This feeling of similarity also affects our perceptions of others, so those perceived as similar to us are more likely to be initially trusted than those perceived to be different. (1, 3, 4)
“Excuse Me — I’m a POC and I’m Very Happy with My White Therapist.”
That’s awesome! A strong therapeutic alliance can also be formed between a POC and White therapist. Factors like cultural sensitivity, personality, humility, and open-mindedness in a therapist can sometimes bridge the gap of ethnic or cultural difference.
Additionally, not all POCs necessarily want a therapist of color. For example, some POCs may not mind that their therapists can’t identify with their ethnic identities. People seek therapy for different reasons and have unique preferences for what feels comfortable.
“I’d Love a Therapist of Color… but Can’t Find One.”
In 2015, 86% of psychologists in the U.S. workforce were white, 5% were Asian, 5% were Hispanic, 4% were black/African-American and 1% were multiracial or from other racial/ethnic groups. This is less diverse than the U.S. population as a whole, which is about 62% white and 38% racial/ethnic minority. (2)
A lack of ethnic diversity in mental health providers has added to a narrative of many people of color: “Therapy isn’t for people like me.”
Why Does a Therapist’s Ethnic Identity Matter?
Therapy can be an intimate experience of honestly exploring and challenging your thoughts, emotions, and experiences. It can be incredibly therapeutic for a POC to engage with a therapist of a similar ethnicity, culture, or with someone who simply looks like them.
“If You Don’t Share My Worldview, How Can You See My World?”
Underlying a POC’s desire for a therapist of color is a desire to feel fully seen and understood. Our ethnic identities — the texture of our hair, the color of our skin, the languages we speak, the cultures and religions we live by — inform how we see the world and how the world sees us. Life in the United States as a POC poses unique challenges, and sometimes full understanding can only come from lived experience.
The following are some concerns that may prevent POCs from engaging with White mental health providers:
- “They’ll judge my family’s culture and values.”
- “I won’t feel comfortable talking about discrimination.”
- “They’ll probably try to touch my hair.”
Similar on the Outside — Not so Similar on the Inside…
A POC may meet with a therapist of color only to find that they don’t have much in common. While I’m of Indian origin, I’m first-generation American. There have been times that Indian clients — who grew up in India — were disappointed that we didn’t share the same language, religion, or lifestyle.
If you’re a POC looking for a therapist of color, it may take a few tries before you find one you connect with. Keep an open mind and don’t give up! This also applies to anyone seeking therapy, regardless of race or ethnicity.
I Don’t Have All the Answers as a POC
I’ve experienced different cultures, customs, and religions, and this exposure has increased my cultural-sensitivity with clients. My worldview as a POC guides my awareness, and I still have a lot to learn. It’s a privilege to approach clients with humility, acceptance, and curiosity. It’s an incredible experience and I’m fortunate to do this work.
1. Byrne, D. (1971). The attraction paradigm. New York: Academic Press
2. Lin, L., Stamm, K. & Christidis, P. (2018). How diverse is the psychology workforce? APA’s Center for Workforce Studies, 49(2), 19.
3. Newcomb, T. M. (1961). The acquaintance process. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston
4. Simons, H. W., Berkowitz, N. N., & Moyer, R. J. (1970). Similarity, credibility, and attitude change: A review and a theory. Psychological Bulletin, 73, 1-16.