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Can Therapy Solve Racism? A Conversation with Isabeth Mendoza

Can Therapy Solve Racism? A Conversation with Isabeth Mendoza

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According to a report by the CDC, nearly 20 percent of Americans turned to therapy in 2020. For most of us, we sought a safe space to process what was happening to us internally. This was due to a global pandemic, a controversial election, and of course, the racial reckoning.

Isabeth Mendoza, a former fellow with NPR’s Code Switch podcast, followed her curiosities about if therapy could mitigate the effects of racism and undo how we internalize racial trauma.

Isabeth Mendoza

BGN had the pleasure of speaking with Mendoza via telephone about exploring why we seek therapy in the first place, what it can accomplish, and how to go about finding a culturally-responsive therapist.

When I thought about the question, “Can therapy solve racism?”, I had to stop and give that some thought. In 2020, it was such a revealing year for all of us. I can remember trying desperately to navigate what was happening with me because of everything going on. It taught us so much about ourselves, and many (including myself) turned to therapy to navigate what was happening. How did this question come about for you, and why did you want to explore it?”

Similar to you, in 2020, I was absorbing what was happening at the time. The only sense of community was virtual. I was plugged into internet spaces throughout all of 2020 and also processing on my own.  It wasn’t until the spring of 2021 that I saw the fellowship for Code Switch, and you had to pitch a story idea. 

This was a long-term fellowship, so I wanted to pitch a big question that could take me through different journeys for that amount of time. I realized that the question included what the role was of therapy in racism – something that I always wondered about because I found myself putting therapy on this high pedestal – like it can solve literally any problem if you just go to it. I started asking, is this really true? I know we can talk about family trauma, and very personal, vulnerable things but are we using the space to talk about racism and what’s happening.

I was curious about it. That’s because I saw, mostly on in the Latinx Instagram community, people were being really open about mental health. I thought that was really interesting, and it was new for my generation because my parents were very much not like that. We are now super comfortable saying that we go to therapy, saying what we’re talking about in therapy, and recommending it to other people.

Are we really flipping the mirror on ourselves also and going in really deep after what just happened? Even more so because I was seeing conversations happening in the Latinx community where our experiences were barely being learned about. We have a lot of work to do as a community and I wonder if we’re bridging all those different intersections and all the things that are coming up in this one place that we consider to be safe.

So, I asked the question mostly because I didn’t have an answer, and I just had a lot of different threads to follow. That’s kind of why I pitched it. I wasn’t even sure of the answer myself. I figured this could be a journey I could go on for a long time and have the support of this amazing podcast team that knows how to talk about race and identity. They would be able to guide me in the right direction, and I felt I could trust them with this question. Even though I only had an inkling of where it might go.

Racism vs. Anti-Blackness

In the Code Switch podcast episode, we hear the stories of two Latinx people who tried to use therapy as a means to understand and combat anti-Blackness in their own lives. Through therapy, they could unpack their childhood trauma and begin to heal.

The word “racism” is used to explain all the things that cause Black people suffering and death. But racism fails to adequately capture what Black people in this country face. Racism is not a meaningless term. It’s just not specific enough. The correct term is anti-Blackness.

For non-Black people with dark skin, such as the Latinx community, Indians, and Filipinos, some of the racism they experience is rooted in anti-Blackness. There’s also colorism just like in the Black community. I realized, as a Black woman, I am more consumed with my own pain points. It’s time these things change. Until they do, therapy is an option for us to address these things in a safe space.

The Role of Therapists in Racism

Therapists play a role in helping to change a racist system that has negative effects on the mental health of those impacted by racism. I asked Mendoza where does she see things evolving, as far as therapy is a helpful tool.

If folks feel comfortable bringing it up in therapy, they should. I asked therapists what are some questions people can ask to see if their therapist is even capable to talk about this. There are a couple of questions to ask:

  • If I want to talk about racism, do you feel comfortable and equipped to guide me through that conversation?
  • If I want to talk about my own experiences, what are the modalities that you use for that?

If you want to explore your own internal racism and bias, ask how you will keep yourself accountable and on track with that. You can ask those questions to determine what it will look and feel like. The only disservice is not using the space where you have to talk. The biggest thing is that you do have to feel safe. If not, they may not be the therapist for you.

Can therapy solve racism?

My answer is no. From personal experience, I know that it can teach you how to face trauma and pain and put you on the path of healing. It can also create a toolkit, if you will, for managing daily life. I will say that Mendoza’s curiosities are valid: therapy can mitigate the effects of racism and undo how we internalize racial trauma.

I believe it’s also important to understand that we have to go deeper than racism. Anti-Blackness is prevalent, and is central to how all of us make sense of the world – socially, economically, and culturally. We have to address both if will ever be a better world.

If you’re looking for a therapist, start here.

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