Unlearning anti-Blackness in therapy: 'The Buck Stops Here'
At the start of the pandemic, Grisell Valencia was living in Atlanta and working in human resources. She worked for a retail company that was determined to remain open, so she spent a fair amount of her time advocating for employees' safety to the company higher ups. Later that year, when George Floyd was killed and people took to the streets, Valencia's concerns about safety only grew. Suddenly, she wasn't just worrying about staying safe from COVID; she was also worrying about the safety of her family and friends. She was terrified that one of her loved ones might be harassed or harmed by the police.
"I felt sad and I remember feeling hopeless," says Valencia. "I [was] just praying and hoping that my loved ones [weren't] killed on their way home driving."
Valencia, 35, is a first-generation Colombian American and identifies as Afro-Latina. In the summer of 2020, she was also one of the few people of color in HR at her company. At the time, many employees started calling her department to demand the company release a statement about Black Lives Matter. Valencia was asked to educate colleagues and approve the company's statement – in large part because of her identity. So when her coworkers approached her, "It wasn't like 'Let's chat, how are you feeling?'" says Valencia. "It really got to me."
By later that summer, she was struggling to make it throughout the day without fixating on her worries. So she decided to turn to therapy.
And she wasn't alone. Twenty percent of American adults sought out therapy in 2020, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Compared to the year before, that was an increase of 2.8 million people. Like Valencia, many of the people in therapy were looking to process some of the big, painful events they were living through, including the pandemic, a contentious election cycle, and of course, the summer's racial reckoning.
But Grisell Valencia faced a particular challenge; she wanted to find a culturally competent therapist who could respond directly to some of the questions and experiences she was dealing with as an Afro-Latina.
That provided a bit of a demographic obstacle. As of 2019, only 17% of licensed therapists were people of color, and an even smaller percentage of those people were Afro-Latina.
"There's grieving, loss, and mourning happening for the Afro-Latino community," says Luisa Bonifacio, a New York licensed psychologist. "It's more surfaced and alive in conversations...What I think the 2020 uprisings did was uncover a seething. There was an urgency around social justice that spilled out into all parts of people's lives."
Bonifacio identifies racially as Black, and ethnically Dominican-American. Her clients are mostly people of color; a quarter are Afro-Latino. Since the summer of 2020, she has noticed her clients seem much more willing to discuss their experiences of being marginalized in all parts of their lives. Many are re-evaluating friendships and social support networks where they no longer feel safe or understood.
"We get to [anti-Blackness] as we talk about family issues, or as we talk about relationship issues," she says. "It'll come in the form of, 'My mom keeps making these comments,' or 'Somebody at work keeps talking about my hair.'" Bonifacio says these conversations help her see her clients in their fuller contexts.
Adriana Alejandre, the founder of Latinx Therapy, a directory and bilingual mental health podcast, has seen a shift in her conversations, too. During the summer of 2020, she received many messages on social media from community members wanting to learn how to be anti-racist.
"They've grown up with racist grandparents or parents and have a lot of things that they need to unlearn," says Alejandre. "I grew up with those narratives, too, and don't want to pass them on to the younger generation." In her private practice, Alejandre approaches anti-Blackness with clients by asking questions: "As their therapist, I want to understand where this learned narrative comes from and how much of them is associated and tied with it."
If and when someone finds a therapist who is a good fit, the next hurdle may be establishing parameters of what therapy can and can't do.
Mariel Buqué, a New York-based holistic psychologist, believes therapy can serve many functions. One of them is to explore racial trauma. "I think the purpose of therapy is to bring people to a place where they feel good in their own skin and feel like their own mind, body and spirit is a safe place to land," says Buqué.
Luisa Bonifacio agrees. She says therapy is a powerful tool that can allow people to put their guard down. "We know that a lot of mental health issues come about because of shame, guilt, and being silenced," she says. "Once [you] have the words for describing what's happening to [you], then [you] can connect to other people, find community, and feel empowered."
Other therapists mentioned that therapy can help people sort through the pain of experiencing racism. It can provide methods for communicating better with friends and family members. And it can also give people strategies for unlearning internalized white supremacy.
But Daniel Olavarria says it won't fix everything.
"Therapy cannot go back in history and change what people may have said or done to you," says Olavarría, who is a licensed clinical social worker with a practice in New York. "Therapy can't erase what you will experience today and what you will experience tomorrow. Therapy will not change what your parents said or did to you when you were younger."
What it can do, he says, is help us reconsider the meaning that we draw from those experiences. It can have a tremendous impact on the stories people tell about themselves. And it can shift feelings of inadequacy to an understanding that, "There are some broken parts about the world as it exists today, and that has nothing to do with me."
After weeks of sorting through directories and reaching out to therapists, Grisell Valencia finally found a therapist who seemed like a good fit – someone she could speak Spanglish with, who is in her age range, and understands her lived experience. Growing up, Valencia was told she had "pelo malo." On trips home to Cali, Colombia, she often heard dark-skinned Colombians be called "negra" or "negro," which is often used as a term of endearment. But Valencia always wondered how much of these norms were actually rooted in colonization. Since starting therapy in October 2021, she's been unpacking these experiences. Right now, she is working with her therapist on "healing her inner child."
Valencia also resigned from her human resources job and now works as the Director of Diversity Equity and Inclusion for a non-profit aiming to end food insecurity. She says she's grateful for her new role and for having a therapist to support her transition. Valencia's therapy sessions have become pivotal for unpacking her workplace triggers. They've also helped her take conversations back to her family where racial dynamics weren't discussed.
"I [want to be] able to identify these things as unhealthy, as not normal or actions that we should not enable," she says. "I want to be that person...where I'm like, the buck stops here."
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