A Black therapist offers guidance to white therapists and others.
Posted Jun 03, 2020
One week after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and following a week of protests across the world, Elizabeth McCorvey, a social worker in Asheville, North Carolina, began sharing “Stop Hesitating,” a one-page guide for white therapists about how to engage black clients about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, protests, and racial trauma in general.
McCorvey provides psychotherapy to college students at UNC-Asheville and also does office-based and equine-assisted psychotherapy. Her focus is working with people of color and LGBTQIA identified individuals. She graciously agreed to share some of her thoughts in this space.
Russell Siler Jones: The “Stop Hesitating” guide you created was so helpful to me, professionally and personally. It manages to be both direct and encouraging. What motivated you to write and share it?
Elizabeth McCorvey: I had a conversation with a colleague about how hard it can be, as a black therapist, to know how to say the right words to my black clients about everything that’s going on. Folks come to me because they want me to guide them to healing, but that’s hard to do when I’m also feeling traumatized by the same things they are. I realized that if I was having trouble finding the right words sometimes, my white and non-black colleagues may also be struggling. When I lead trainings on anti-racism for therapists, I frequently hear them say, “I didn’t know if I would say it right, so I didn’t say anything.” So I wanted to give them the right language.
RSJ: Can you share here some of what you said?
EM: My favorite “talking point” suggestion for initiating conversation with your black clients is that the therapist open the conversation with, “I feel a little nervous bringing this up. I want to give you the space to talk about race and everything that has been going on in the news lately, and outside of our sessions I’m committed to learning how. I’m not going to do this perfectly, but I don’t want to pretend this isn’t happening.” No one is going to expect you to do this perfectly. In fact, it’s impossible to do it perfectly, because every client is different and needs a different approach. Owning your discomfort is humanizing. It’s okay to feel awkward, but it’s not okay to avoid hard topics because of it. Your clients need you to show up right now, but they don’t need you to be superhuman.
RSJ: The last line of your guide says, “Check on your black colleagues.” That line meant so much to me, because it reminded me of the power of connection and caring. I know you can't and don't speak for all black therapists, but is there anything you’d want to say about what it’s like for you to be a black therapist right now?
EM: I can only speak for myself. I’m trying to find a balance between showing up for myself and showing up for my community. I have to constantly remind myself that it’s okay that I need breaks and increased self-care because I’m also being traumatized. I want to call my colleagues to action, but I don’t always want the burden on me to say, “HELLO! A man was murdered yesterday! I can’t have idle conversations about vacation plans right now!” I’m trying to be better about directing folks to books like How To Be An Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi, and White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, rather than try to fit a year’s worth of education into a 15-minute conversation. I think sometimes folks forget that when they’re asking me to explain racism to them, they’re asking me to re-traumatize myself. I don’t have the energy to do that all of the time.
RSJ: I thought that what you wrote to white therapists is helpful to white people in general. Every white person I saw in therapy today—every single one—brought up what’s happening, and said they wanted to do something to help, but they didn’t know what to do. I paraphrased your last sentence eight different times: “Check on your black friends.”
EM: It’s so important. It’s traumatizing to learn that someone who looks like you was murdered because they look like you. It might feel weird to say, “I want you to know that I’m paying attention to what’s going on in Minnesota and around the world. Please let me know how I can support you. I see you.” But it’s so much more damaging to a relationship to have the sense that the white/non-black people in your life care more about not feeling awkward than they do about the systemic oppression of people who look like you. Or worse, that they don’t even know it’s happening. The other side of it is that if you’re going to check on your black friends, make sure you aren’t adding to their trauma by making them hold space for you rather than the other way around. So I guess I would say, read White Fragility and then check on your black friends.
RSJ: You’re involved with an Asheville-area organization called "A Therapist Like Me.” Can you describe the work of that group?
EM: Yes! A Therapist Like Me was created by Catie Beaulieu, MBA, LPC, and seeks to match minority-identified clients with minority-identified therapists. There is also a voucher system where potential clients can apply for financial assistance in order to pay for sessions with a therapist of their choosing. A Therapist Like Me also offers anti-racism trainings and other forms of advocacy and support for folks in our community.
RSJ: This is a column about the intersection of spirituality and psychotherapy, so I’d also like to ask you how your spirituality is part of this moment for you.
EM: In church recently, my pastor reminded us that the word “nice” isn’t in the Bible. I think there are a lot of people who will say, “I wish we could all just be nice to each other!” But being nice isn’t Biblical. Being kind, just, and disruptive to the status quo, is.
RSJ: What else would you like to say?
EM: I’ve had a lot of folks ask to compensate me for creating the one-page guide, and in lieu of that I’d ask that they research their local/state funds for protestor bailouts and donate to those.
RSJ: Thank you so much for this conversation, Elizabeth.
EM: Thank you for having me and for using your platform to share this information.
This is a question-and-answer blog for therapists, therapy clients, and others interested in the intersection of psychotherapy and spirituality. If there's a question you'd like to see addressed, please contact me through my website. You can find Elizabeth McCorvey's "Stop Hesitating" guide by clicking here.
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