My 13-year-old client Tina* began our session saying she had something serious she wanted to talk about. She said, “We went to dinner the other day, and my grandmother told me, ‘You look so exotic today!’”
Then she stared at me for my reaction. Immediately, I hung my head and let my shoulders drop to let her know I understood exactly what she was getting at. Then I started to get more details about what happened.
An important part of this story is that Tina’s grandmother is white. Tina, on the other hand, is mixed race and would check off the “white” and “Black or African American” boxes on a census form.
Validating the Experiences of Mixed Race Clients
Tina is well aware of common microaggressions that are tossed at mixed race people on a daily basis—and knew I would be too. She knew that she could tell me this story in our session and be understood and validated. She knew she could safely express the anger, pain, and hurt she felt as a result of her grandmother’s words. She told me she felt treated like an animal in a zoo—othered, and not complimented at all. She told me, “I never thought I would have to deal with this from my own family.”
And she’s right to feel all that. What hurt Tina more than the microaggression itself was the fact that someone in her own family didn’t understand what they were doing—or the impact it would have on Tina. Tina hoped she would be safe from racial microaggressions from her own family members. Unfortunately, she faced too many instances where she simply wasn’t.
Addressing Your Own Blind Spots
Some readers might be thinking, “Wait—is that all the grandmother said? Is it really that big of a deal?” The answer is yes, that’s all the grandmother said, and yes, it is that big of a deal.
If you’re a therapist who works with mixed race adults or adolescents, it’s extremely important that you’re able to recognize the significance of smaller—or micro—moments like these. Mixed race people face “little” things like this every day—in addition to larger, more painful situations. And the impact of these incidents is cumulative.
As a clinician, it’s important that you’re aware of your own blind spots when it comes to race. This awareness can help prevent you from othering your mixed race clients in a session.
The Invisible Mixed Race Population
Being mixed race most commonly refers to one parent being of one racial category and the other parent being from a different one. Think Vice President Kamala Harris, Keanu Reeves, or former President Barack Obama. As of 2010, there were about 9 million people in the United States who identified themselves as mixed race—meaning they checked more than one racial category on the census form. While that’s less than 3% of the total population, the mixed race community is rapidly growing.
Society hasn’t had much education or a deep understanding of the mixed race experience, and as a result, identity development is a complex issue for this community.
As a mixed race person myself who is now working as a clinical psychologist with this population, I see from both a personal and professional angle how important it is to educate people. My hope is to help them make space for mixed race people to develop their own identities.
I speak to many parents of mixed race children who experience a society that doesn’t understand their child’s existence. Some of these parents may enter a restaurant and be asked, “Are you all together?” Other parents I’ve worked with have been asked if they’re the babysitter or nanny for their child. I’ve even worked with people who have been accused of kidnapping their own child.
What most of these parents say to me is that they don’t know what to say or how to act with their children in those moments. They don’t know how to correct the person saying these things—or whether they even should. And they don’t know how to debrief the situation with their children. This leaves mixed race children without a way to process many confusing and uncomfortable situations.
The Importance of Cultural Humility in Working with Mixed Race People
Clinicians are well-aware of the importance of cultural competency. We can have the clarity to refer our clients to a colleague when they have a concern that we’re not trained or experienced in working with, like eating disorders.
We do that less often when working with racial groups that are different from our own. Many clinicians assume that as long as we treat all people equally, the racial difference in the therapy room won’t matter.
But we’re learning more and more how untrue this is. There are far too many people who experience painful race-related microaggressions by therapists who are meant to provide empathy, understanding, and safety to clients.
Shifting to Cultural Humility
Cultural humility presents the idea that we’ll never fully understand the experiences of every cultural group that’s different from our own. However, if we acknowledge our lack of understanding, then we can be more open to learning. We can provide more empathy, and do the self-reflection that’s needed to create change.
As more and more mixed race people are brought to the public spotlight, there’s never been a stronger need for cultural humility. Mixed race people are craving for monoracial people to be open to their different life experiences. They’re wishing for more empathy when they share their stories, and begging for people to do their own self-reflection to recognize how they contribute to an often-complicated racial identity development process.
Dos and Don’ts of Cultural Humility for Mixed Race Clients
If you’re working with mixed race clients in your practice, knowing the “right” thing to say can feel overwhelming. But it’s important for clinicians to do the work to make sure they’re creating a space for their clients that feels safe and validating. Here are a few questions you can use in your sessions to make sure you’re practicing cultural humility—and a few things to avoid.
DO SAY: “You said your mother is Black and your father is Latino. What was that like for you growing up?” The most important aspect of cultural humility is demonstrating your willingness to learn something new. When you ask your client to explain their own experience, you’ll help check any assumptions you may already have. It’ll allow you to explore the issue further based on what your client tells you, rather than drawing and acting on your own conclusions.
DO SAY: “When you say people think you aren’t “Asian enough,” what do you think they mean by that? Does that happen often?” Mixed race people are often told in various ways that they’re not “enough” of one race or another in their racial heritage. This poses a serious conflict to resolve for mixed race people. They might feel deeply connected to a racial group and community. But when that connection is questioned by outsiders, it can prompt feelings of insecurity and other coping issues that can impact other areas of their life.
They may start to exhibit different ways of “proving” their belonging to a certain group, and will need your support to understand that no one has the right to deny them membership to a group they’re already deeply tied to.
DO SAY: “You mentioned you’re mixed race. How do you identify racially? Is this something that’s changed over your lifetime?” It’s common for monoracial people to assume how someone else racially identifies based on how they look. Asking your clients directly how they identify and then listening to any nuances in their answer will help you challenge your understanding about race and how it’s experienced by other people.
DON’T SAY: that you know someone who’s mixed race as a way to indicate you understand their experience. The experiences and identity development process for mixed race people are vastly different from each other, even though they may share some similar experiences. Make sure your comments and questions are focused on your client and their individual experiences.
DON’T SAY: that you find your mixed race client attractive, beautiful, “interesting,” or “exotic,” no matter their gender. Like we saw with my client Tina, comments like these are heard so often by mixed race people that they just feel othered, sexualized, and objectified—not complimented. It can be problematic to comment on the appearance of any client, but such comments can be particularly marginalizing to mixed race clients.
DON’T SAY: that you think your mixed race client is “confused” about their racial identity. If your client brings this up in a session, validate that it can be complex and confusing to navigate their identity. But it’s their environment (their family, neighborhood, etc.) that hasn’t created the space for them to exist as they already are. This isn’t an internal confusion, but rather an imposed expectation that mixed race people are unable to meet. Validate that your mixed race client is a whole person with a rich cultural history, and that they don’t need justification.
True cultural humility in the therapy room takes work, and these dos and don’ts are the tip of the iceberg. But by checking your own assumptions about race and making an effort to center the experience of your mixed race clients, you’re taking the right steps needed to offer your clients the best possible care.
*Tina’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.
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