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Real Talk

Therapy is supposed to be a space for healing. And yet, years of seeing white therapists only brought Minelle Mahtani more pain.

The velvet paisley couch was stiff and unyielding. I sat wedged in the middle of it with my parents flanking me. My mother fidgeted with her wedding rings, my father fumed. I myself said nothing. I had already said everything I could say.

The therapist didn’t say a word, either. I remember thinking it was a lot of money to spend on silence.

Therapy—the idea of sitting down, talking to someone, sharing your story with unconditional regard and respect, and receiving sage guidance in return—had always been a foreign concept to me. Growing up with an Indian father and Iranian mother, whose families both eschewed the idea of therapy, it was never part of our culture’s consciousness. We would watch shows like Frasier and cock a brow in incredulity: Is that how white folks spend their money? Haram.

But when my parents split up when I turned seventeen, things changed. Therapy made a reluctant appearance in all of our lives.

It started when my mother told me she was leaving my father. She slowly explained that she had been waiting years to leave. Now that I was going away to university, she felt that she could go, too. I was struck dumb. A few weeks later, wire hangers danced in my parents’ formerly shared closet, sadly swinging, singing their miserable lullaby of loneliness. They missed her beautiful colourful dresses, striped silk shirts, scarves, saris, shalwar kameez.

Just before my mother left, it became clear that to keep costs down, mediation would be the most prudent route. Divorce through litigation was ugly—a mediator, apparently, would be gentle, less invasive. The first step in the process was visiting a family therapist—just me, my brother and my parents. When we did, it felt overly voyeuristic. Allowing someone of a different shade to peer into our strange little world felt odd. I grimaced as I watched my parents put on the faces they wore only around white people. Their sentences were clipped, their feelings sparsely shared. Thin, tight, wan smiles appeared on their faces.

I didn’t like what I saw, but I have to admit, it wasn’t new to me. I had seen this scene play out in a thousand geographies before: parent-teacher meetings, hockey arenas where my parents made paltry attempts at small talk with the white parents while I swirled awkwardly around the ice, or bumping into the parents of my white classmates at the shopping mall. This was a game I knew how to play. And so did they.

What I wasn’t prepared for that day in the therapist’s office, though, was the way the therapist saw through me and all the heavy lifting I had been doing for years. I thought we had our act down—the performance of placating the white therapist. As the interlocutor for my parents, the go-between, I had translated between these two for most of my childhood—between them, but also for them and to others. It was a complex choreography, one where I solemnly witnessed the tensions between my parents pierce the air. They often spoke to each other through me when it felt like they couldn’t speak to one another.

The surprisingly clever therapist had cottoned onto this immediately by noticing how my parents kept looking at me while they spoke to her. She saw me translate like the good little mixed-race interlocutor I had grown up to be. I uttered phrases like “I think what my Mom really means is...” and “Dad, maybe you could rephrase that?”

The therapist suddenly gestured to me to walk out of the room with her. As soon as we were out the door, she demanded: “Why are you doing all this work?”

I blinked, unknowing. “What are you talking about?”

“Why are you the go-between for the two of them? That’s not your job.”

When the therapist took me aside and spoke to me directly, it made me rethink the possibilities of what therapy could do for a family like ours. Maybe I had misjudged the process. Maybe she could understand me and my family, I thought—even though she was white.

Despite my subdued enthusiasm for therapy at the time of my parents’ separation, my next experience with it wouldn’t take place until twenty years later. Of course, I never thought I needed help—I was a success story! I had a PhD! I had fooled myself into thinking I had it all together.

But in 2000, when I couldn’t find a job, I began participating in a nightly routine of what we would now call suicidal ideation. I’d pour myself a glass of cheap merlot, take out the sharpest knife in my drawer in my tiny, sparsely furnished apartment, and gently drag it over my wrist. It wasn’t until I told my best friend about the procedure that she took me in to see a therapist.

What happened next is probably not an uncommon occurrence for BIPOC—Black, Indigenous and people of colour. The parade of therapists I would see over the next five years always made me feel like I was wearing an ill-fitting suit. White female therapists, often with their dogs on their laps, would ask me questions that never provided me with the answers I was looking for. I kept hoping that Dr. Mary, Dr. Karen, Dr. Sarah, Dr. Laura would lead me on the path to peace.

Instead, they asked me salacious questions about my so-called exotic background and my failed love life. They would probe and dig and ultimately pronounce me as simply the product of a mixed-up, mixed-race marriage. The questions weren’t so much about me, but how my parents met, what brought them together, what ripped them apart.

Turns out I was not the best of both worlds, despite that bright-eyed declaration of what mixed-race people purported to be. Rather, the therapists implied that I was the improper proportion of both. I was unwittingly falling back into all the old tropes of multiraciality: torn, confused, in other words, a mess. With a little cocktail of Lorazepam and maybe a few Xanax, they told me, I’d be feeling better in no time.

None of it worked.

Like me, you might have some good stories about bad therapists.The worst time was when I was asked to lie on the floor on a plastic mat and scream, “I hate my mother! I hate my mother!” I remember it vividly, because instead of saying, “I hate my mother!” I thought to myself, “I don’t hate my mother—I hate my new therapist.” Afterwards, I signed my name on the cheque with an angry flourish. It was the last one she would ever see from me.

The experts prescribed books along with my medication—books on the healing process, all written by white women, of course. Their titles were something like Authentic Success in Therapy and Healing Your Childhood Woes.

But I already knew that success for BIPOC meant something entirely different than it did for white folks. It didn’t come down to mastering gratitude or just being able to meditate. It was about honouring complex webs of history, cherishing relationships and radical reciprocity. Success, at least in my family, meant solemnly respecting our traditions, the sacred nature of our customs and the stories held within them.

Still, I kept trying to access therapy, even though it never felt like anyone white could truly understand my story. How could I explain to this person earnestly sitting across from me how deeply my experience of race influenced how I interpreted the world? I discovered I was once again doing double-duty: no longer translating between my parents, per se, but instead translating my experience of race to the therapist. I felt like I was reading out of a Critical Race 101 textbook.

At worst, I found I was deliberately trying to find ways to entertain the therapist to fill up my expensive fifty-minute slot. I would even store up stories to share, stories I knew she would laugh at, stories I knew she could easily work with to make her feel better about herself.

This couldn’t be the way that therapy worked. But maybe it was the way counselling maintained itself as a white-dominated industry.

The Freudian concept of blaming your parents for all that ails you mentally laces through most approaches to solving mental health dilemmas. Philip Larkin had it a little right when he wrote the oft-cited line “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” But for many of us, the idea of blaming your parents and then your grandparents and their great-grandparents is more than a little simplistic. It’s also hierarchical and Eurocentric.

Experts within the field have made similar critiques. Research by Dennis C. Wendt, a clinical psychologist and professor of counselling psychology at McGill, has explored how counselling practices have inflicted great harm on culturally diverse groups by invalidating culturally specific life experiences. “Mainstream psychotherapeutic interventions typically are based on a Western cultural concept of the self,” he writes, and rely heavily on “a Westernized worldview of individuality.”

US-based psychologists Silvia Mazzula and Kevin Nadal have studied how racial microaggressions regularly occur in sessions between white therapists and clients of colour. They argue that increasing self-awareness among white therapists and “preventing racial microaggressions from occurring in the therapy room [is] critical when working with clients of colour who ... encounter race-based experiences of discrimination on a daily basis.” Their research shows these changes will be necessary in order to “break down cultural mistrust of a system that has been historically oppressive to marginalized populations.”

Most white therapists aren’t taught to consider how white supremacy plays a role in a person of colour’s mental health. They’re not required to take courses about how white supremacy factors into their own relationships with their non-white clients.

That’s part of the reason BIPOC therapists are in high demand. And yet, the reality in Canada is that the majority of therapists are still white. You only need to scroll through the lists of available practitioners in Vancouver, Montreal or Toronto to confirm it.

Why is this the case? Well, we know that the white benevolence industrial complex shines more brightly in the so-called healing professions: social work, teaching and psychology. These fields are overpopulated with white women. Unfortunately, because of the ways that academic institutions honour particular kinds of merit—with letters of reference from academic superstars and stellar grades holding the most sway—those who get accepted to the rarified PhD program in counselling are often those who haven’t been systemically disadvantaged.

Potential BIPOC therapists-in-training whose histories might reflect the very intergenerational trauma that requires addressing with clients aren’t always readily welcomed in academic institutions. And that’s a loss, because the wisdom emerging from those experiences could shed some much-needed light on supporting and understanding BIPOC clients.

“Good BIPOC therapists ask different questions than white therapists,” says Angela Marie MacDougall, a Black woman trained in counselling psychology and executive director of Battered Women’s Support Services in Vancouver. “The questions grow out of the experience of living within white supremacy,” she says. MacDougall believes BIPOC therapists are better positioned to identify the sources of clients’ trauma as having roots in colonization, white supremacy, systemic discrimination and other forms of racial oppression. Being able to see their clients’ experiences within this context means they can often provide them with more comfort.

Hearing this assured me that maybe the way my stories were being interpreted and re-presented to me was skewed. For nearly a decade, I just kept trying to understand how I was doing therapy wrong. It had to be me—I just didn’t answer the questions right. Was it simply because I was obstinate, refusing to release or trot out my sad stories? Or was it because the doctor in front of me didn’t have the right key?

I remember thinking that therapy felt like a nascent form of gaslighting, where the client is blamed if the therapy doesn’t seem to work. I’d come to learn later just how common that feeling is.

“I’ve had therapists before, but they’ve all been white,” says Alexis Kienlen, a biracial woman living in Alberta. “My South Asian therapist was the first therapist that I could discuss some of my identity issues and feelings with.”

Kienlen recalls travelling to South Africa through Dubai and Seattle under Trump’s travel ban. “As a person of ambiguous ethnicity with olive skin, I was a little anxious about this, and I was able to discuss my fear with my therapist in a way that I couldn’t have done with a white therapist,” she says. “Having a BIPOC therapist really opened doors to new areas of discussion for me as a mixed-race woman.”

Clearly, it can make a difference for people of colour when a therapist identifies similarly. The TV show This is Us highlighted this when Randall—one of the show’s main characters and a Black man adopted into a white family—walked viewers through the complicated process of eschewing his white female therapist in favour of a Black male one. I remember cheering at the screen watching that episode.

Elan Mastai, supervising producer of This is Us, told me, “As writers [on the show] we asked ourselves who that therapist could be and should be, leading the character to ask those same questions.” Mastai says if the plotline inspires viewers to “ask those same questions in their own lives, all the better.” The show helped me see that maybe I wasn’t alone in my experience with white therapists.

The models that do exist for training culturally competent therapists often don’t go far enough. Sundeep Mirchandani, a South Asian therapist-in-training based in the US, told me that sessions on multicultural competencies still tend to cater to the perspective of white folks. Mirchandani (who isn’t using their real name for fear of career repercussions) explained that the courses mostly focus on promoting awareness of white individuals and their own self-reflexivity without necessarily seeing themselves as complicit in white supremacy.

Meanwhile, BIPOC trainees are forced to sit and watch white folks grapple with their whiteness and hold space for that with minimal discussion of how BIPOC trainees can support their BIPOC clients. It becomes a way for white therapists-in-training to learn about what whiteness is for them, rather than what it means for all their clients.

How do we go about ensuring that more of us get the culturally competent healing we all deserve? Where are the alternatives to Eurocentric therapeutic models that can offer proper support and guidance to people of colour?

My own mental health challenges quelled slightly when I finally landed my first tenure-track job in New York City. But I still dimly recognized that my parents’ divorce took up a strange, subdued space in my body. The constant to-ing and fro-ing between my parents’ apartments over the years taxed me, as well as the continued complexity of trying to translate between the two of them.

And then the time came when I moved back to Vancouver many years later, colicky infant in tow, without a job and unsure of what the future held for me. I got a job hosting a radio show, and it was only in posing questions to guests behind the mic—mostly BIPOC—that I began to see that I had been asked the wrong ones in therapy.

Thinking about the power of questions has become my professional and personal pursuit ever since. I remember reading somewhere that it will take a whole new world of questions before we have a whole new world of answers. But what I hadn’t anticipated, while working at the radio show, was how asking questions would change not only the content of the interviews, but also how I looked at the world.

Early on in my time hosting the show, I spoke with the award-winning African American writer Colson Whitehead, just as his book The Underground Railroad was doing the rounds. I had my list of carefully curated questions in front of me, and I jettisoned most of them when I felt intuitively that they just weren’t going to fly.

Instead, I asked him what constitutes a Black sense of place, quoting from the Black feminist scholar Katherine McKittrick, who has written extensively about how Black matters are spatial matters. I asked: “Why are space and place so significant to Black authors?”

Whitehead replied that he grew up in New York City, which is a strong part of his identity. “I remember when the World Trade Center came down, and I went to see my therapist, and I was like, ‘I thought they’d always be there—always in the sky, looking over me.’ And my shrink said: ‘Sounds like you’re describing your parents.’”

Whitehead told me that moment resonated with him. “My psychology is definitely inextricably tied up in my hometown,” he said. “You have these two looming figures on the skyline.”

I’ve thought a lot about that conversation ever since. I’ve wondered how that particular question led to him telling me about that moment with his therapist, one he hadn’t spoken about in other interviews. I’ve thought a lot about his answer, too, because of how it resonated with me due to the loss of my own parents, both of whom are now long gone.

I’ve wondered how Whitehead made the decision to share that story, what ancestral energies had passed into the studio to allow for me to be gifted with it in that second. It was the space between reading McKittrick’s powerful work that provided a place for me to ask a question that he wanted to answer intimately.

But maybe it was also a matter of trust—and who was, and wasn’t, in the room that day. It’s not something we talk about, but there’s a certain intimacy that can exist between BIPOC—sometimes, not all the time—and that intimacy can flourish when white people aren’t present. There can be a sense of ease and shared understanding. In making himself more seen that day, Whitehead gave me a space to feel more seen, too.

When I asked questions of guests, I realized I was making tiny wishes; dreaming that they could answer a question for which I longed for the answer. What is each question, if not a wish? A wish to know more, maybe—to hear a point of connection. Am I really hearing you, is the question I am really asking. It’s also the implicit question I wanted asked of me in therapy, but no white therapist I’d met had ever done that with me.

My conversation with Whitehead opened up a space for me to ask new questions—not just to guests, but to myself. Why wasn’t I asking myself the kinds of questions I was posing to my guests? Didn’t I have the courage? Or maybe I just didn’t think I deserved to be asked. I wasn’t delving into my own history the way I was delving into my guests’—reading over their words, scrutinizing their lives with care. I wasn’t showing myself that same generosity of spirit. So I started tentatively by finally coming to grips with this question: why hadn’t therapy worked for me?

Over time on the radio show, I discovered that the freight of the interviews with Black and Indigenous activists, scholars and people of colour was becoming such a heavy burden that I was becoming cross at home, impatient with my little boy, picking fights with my husband. The stories were beautiful, heart-rending, intimate and intense. The pain for me and for the guests to share those stories was palpable at times, in spite of the many moments of joy.

A highly respected Indigenous therapist offered me an emergency appointment. I was lucky. Her wait list was long, but because I worked with BIPOC she said she would see me, just this once. She sat across from me, in a comfy chair, and wordlessly handed me Kleenex as I wiped away tears. I explained what I did on the show. I told her I was exhausted. I couldn’t hear the stories anymore. The listening was overwhelming me.

She listened, and then said, “The problem isn’t how you are listening. It’s your personal geography. You need to shift how you sit in the studio.” I was initially confused and unsure what she meant. She continued: “Right now you’re sitting across from your guests, and you are ingesting their stories. They are becoming part of you. Their stories are taking up space in you, as they share that story with you. You need to have your guest sit farther away from you, and after, you pick up the stories they shared,” she gestured, “and sweep them to the ground.” She enacted the scene. “Take the stories,” she said, “and return them to the earth. The next day, do the same thing, over and over again.”

What this therapist did, of course, was help me approach my situation differently. She explained to me that I could interpret the experience by shifting my relationship to the stories I was hearing. Her method was a cultural way of responding to stories, of recognizing their power, and of seeing the land as an ally and repository for them.

She didn’t blame my inability to listen on my parents, or tell me that I just needed some emotional rewiring through cognitive-behavioural therapy or some such. Instead, she gifted me with a strategy grounded in Indigenous knowledge to help me approach the freight I was carrying; an approach where I was not merely a victim, but empowered.

That was the moment I finally decided to end my passive-aggressive fascination with white therapists.

Two years ago, I searched for a BIPOC therapist locally. When I finally did find one, I discovered within minutes of sharing a story with her that the very person I wanted to speak about was one of her best friends. It seemed to me like yet another example of how hard it was to find a great BIPOC therapist—those who were known to me at the time were already working with others I knew, or the constellations of care were too crowded.

That’s starting to change, as is evident through important new resources like Healing of Colour, a project which gets that “for BIPOC, finding a therapist who understands our lived experiences can feel next to impossible.” They make the search easier by offering a directory of BIPOC therapists who are, as their website says, “committed to supporting BIPOC in all our intersections. By helping to connect our community in this way, we aim to revitalize a legacy of healing, liberation work and resiliency practices that have been lost/taken.” Just reading this made me breathe a little easier.

But of course, BIPOC therapists are still not ubiquitous. And it remains an open question if the white therapists who continue to dot the therapeutic landscape are actually doing the important work of challenging white supremacy in their own practices. I’d like to believe they are asking new questions now, but I’m not so sure.

Last March, I tried again to find a good therapist. Given I wouldn’t be able to see them in person, I widened my search—and ended up connecting with a South Asian practitioner who lives in Mumbai. My new therapist has a beautiful name. It’s Vasheli—the same name of my closest friend in grade two, incidentally, and a name I adore. It means “great” in Sanskrit, and she is.

Vasheli speaks to me twice a month, laughs with me on the phone, calls me “yar” (friend in Hindi) and when she does, I hear my father’s voice in my ear and am immediately calmed. Rather than draw on destructive and tired stereotypes, she patiently allows me to tell my story.

Vasheli confessed to me recently that she thinks she maybe feels a kinship with me because her father, while Indian, spent most of his childhood in Iran. She holds a particular kind of affection towards me because of her father’s nostalgia for my mother’s homeland. The two towers are taking a different shape here.

In our conversations, Vasheli doesn’t make me feel gaslit, nor unseen. She just asks me different questions.

Minelle Mahtani teaches at the Social Justice Institute at the University of British Columbia. She’s the former host of the Vancouver radio show “Sense of Place,” which amplified the voices of Black, Indigenous and people of colour. She has written for the Walrus, carte blanche, VICE and THIS magazine.