Standing Up to Microaggression: A Clinician’s Experience By Vinodha Joly, LMFT on 1/21/21 - 3:41 PM

Microaggressions (noun)—Definition: Everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. (1)

Looking back, a racial enactment between myself, a person/clinician of color, and my white therapist seemed inevitable. In our very first session, my therapist made some statements that revealed what I perceived to be her “White Savior” complex. I was taken aback by my therapist’s apparent lack of awareness of her own racism, as she had explicitly advertised herself as working through a critical post-colonial lens, and so I called her out on it. My therapist was quick to own her racist statements and take full responsibility. Despite the initial wounding and because of the subsequent repair, I continued to work with her because she did model a good relational and clinical holding style in following sessions, and I felt that she was helping me with the issues for which I was seeing her.

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Towards the end of our sixth session, I was sharing with my therapist how someone had explicitly sought me out for clinical supervision, mentioning familiarity with some of my work and writings, and how that had filled me with professional pride and confidence.

My therapist’s exact reply is now hazy, but she said something along the lines of, “I think they chose you to be their supervisor because, as a white person, they can learn how it is for you—from your experiences as a person of color”.

These words landed on me like a bolt out of the blue, and I instantly felt objectified. My therapist had unnecessarily racialized my experience, my whole identity reduced to that of “a person of color.” I had a vivid mental image of Black and Indigenous people literally being put in cages and zoos to be “observed,” and another of a laboratory rat being poked and probed—an object to be studied, “an other” whose experiences (painful or not) were being observed. A part of me still wanted to deny that it was I who was feeling the pain—to mask it as simply identifying or empathizing with those who have suffered racism.

My heart began to beat fast, while my mind was trying to digest what I had just heard. Knowing very well that I have historically tended to minimize or deny micro-aggressions committed against me in the past, I resolved to be present to this current painful experience. Curiously, my heart wasn’t pounding but rather flapping—like a weak fledging trying desperately to fly away, but not having the strength or ability to do so. Instinctively, I put my hand to my heart to calm and hold the young, hurt thing, a part of me afraid that it was actually going to fly away. Anger has always been easier for me to own, so I told my white therapist with visible anger, “I am trying to calm myself before I speak.” My heart was ready to flee—and escape the pain—the pain of the blow which was multiplied in its effect, having come so hard and unexpectedly in a place that was supposed to be safe. The rest of my body, however, was ready for a fight—“I will not back down!”

For the whole week, I allowed myself to fully stay and experience what had occurred in that painful therapy session. Paradoxically, this experience of staying with the pain of the micro-aggression pushed me into a spiral of transformative growth and healing, with the words of Rumi now resonating with me:

“If you desire healing,
let yourself fall ill
let yourself fall ill.”


It broke through my thick wall of defenses which had protected me from feeling or expressing my painful feelings in the past—especially those feelings when I had been “put down” or been the target of hate. Until then, I had vehemently denied and protested ever being cast in the role of a “victim.” Now I owned and allowed myself to feel them ALL—the feelings of indignity, humiliation, sadness, hurt, and fear—some of which were being held by very young parts of me.


I became my own therapist, healing these young parts, unburdening them from the pain and hurt they had carried for years—simply waiting to finally feel acknowledged and validated, but more importantly, to be held and healed with self-compassion.

“We are healed of suffering only by experiencing it to the full.”
― Marcel Proust


In the next session, I clearly let my therapist know how her racist words and projections had negatively impacted me. To her credit, she took full responsibility for her racist remarks without trying to defend them in any way. This time we agreed that this was not a rupture that could be “worked through” or repaired to allow the therapeutic relationship to survive or grow stronger. Basic trust and safety had been violated by my therapist’s unexamined racist views and beliefs, and we agreed to terminate our relationship. However, having my therapist witness and listen to the impact of her words on me and take full responsibility for it was healing to me, and I did communicate that to her.


In those moments, I recognized that as a therapist, irrespective of race, I have an ethical obligation not to perpetuate individual and systemic modes of oppression and racism, especially with my clients, and to pay attention to asymmetric power dynamics and intersecting identities to provide a safe relational context in therapy. I see how I have been guilty of protecting the status quo of white supremacy in my defensive denial of acts of aggression towards me (within and outside therapy settings) in the past. I have now vowed to directly challenge and dismantle oppressive thoughts and systems of power by speaking up against such micro-aggressions.

Here is a list of defenses based on Internalized Racial Oppression from the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond workshops shared with me by Nalini Kuruppu, LCSW, that I have found useful in my own self-reflections. My own defenses are highlighted.

Defenses of Internalized Racial Superiority (for white-identifying people):
White = Normal (unconscious understanding that white is the standard of humanity), White Denial, Intellectualizing, Individualism, White Distancing, Perfectionism, Entitlement, “Professionalism”, Expect Comfort, Rationalize, Minimize, Dominance, Demanding, Tokenism, White Saviorism, Self-Congratulations, Appropriation/Theft, Color Blindness, Addictive Behaviors, Defensive White Anger, Paternalism, White Tears, Dismissive, Arrogance/Expertism, Silence, Indifference, Need to be in control

Defenses of Internalized Racial Inferiority (for Black-Indigenous-Persons-of-Culture BIPOC):
Distancing (from race/ethnicity), Mimicking, Assimilation, Code Switching, Denial, Shame, Worthlessness, Fear/Hypervigilance, Guilt, Self-hate, Hopelessness, Ethnocentrism, Colorism, Protectionism (of whites), Tokenism, Invisibility, Exaggerated visibility, Addictions, Tolerance, Avoidance, Exceptionalism (the “model minority” myth).

What about you? Do you directly speak to the asymmetry in power and the dynamics due to intersecting identities in sessions? Can you identify how you may be perpetuating oppression and racism?


References:

(1) Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. John Wiley & Sons Inc.
 


File under: The Art of Psychotherapy