December 3, 2020 | Miki Goerdt, LCSW, ATR-BC

Earlier this year, I submitted an Annual Conference proposal for a focus group to discuss intra-cultural communication between BIPOC art therapists and BIPOC clients. Once the conference went virtual, my focus group idea evolved into a networking event, “Practice for Art Therapists Who Identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color,” and I became its facilitator. The topic of intra-cultural communication—as opposed to inter-cultural communication when a White therapist works with a BIPOC client or vice versa—has become an interest of mine, especially as I started a private practice. I have more Asian clients than ever, yet I can’t find much literature to describe intra-cultural experiences for BIPOC therapists and clients. By facilitating a discussion on this topic, I hoped to both gain collective knowledge and support other BIPOC colleagues facing the challenges of treating our own peoples.

“Living in a racialized society,” by Miki Goerdt, 9 x 12 inches, Mixed media. “White threads weave over other woven threads to signify the interactions witnessed during the networking event and in the larger society. In the background, there is a page about critical race theory and a page from a Japanese social manners book—two things that guide me knowingly and unknowingly. A yellow figure in Kimono is myself as a group facilitator. The figure is covered in white dust, indicating the influence of the dominant society on myself. The scene is covered with green, yellow, and light blue paint to depict a sense of being in a deep forest. The forest doesn’t have a clear path to get out—instead, it is a place to explore with courage and curiosity.”

As a first-time facilitator of a networking event, I experienced some difficulties, which I took personally at first, telling myself that I was not experienced enough to lead it. Several days later, after processing my experience with colleagues, I realized that my difficulties were systemic rather than something attached to myself or any participants of the event. They were related to the racial dynamics of the American society and within our profession.

Following the event and subsequent discussions with my BIPOC colleagues, I reached out to AATA and was invited to write this blog post about the event and how it fit into my lived experience as an Asian immigrant in America. In this article, I also address my White art therapist colleagues directly about the negative impact, however unintended, they can have on BIPOC individuals by taking over the discussion space or even just being present on certain occasions. I look forward to continuing to discuss important topics of race on the MyAATA forum as well during AATA’s diversity, equity, and inclusion listening sessions beginning this week. I hope this article will spark some thought and reflection for both my BIPOC and White art therapy colleagues.

Reflecting on the Networking Event as the Facilitator, a BIPOC Art Therapist and an Asian immigrant

1) Importance of identifying the audience

When discussing race or multiculturalism, I learned that it is important to clarify my intended audience. When I wrote a proposal for a focus group to discuss intra-cultural communication between BIPOC art therapists and BIPOC clients, it did not occur to me that White art therapists would be interested in participating. In my mind, my intention was to create a safe and productive space for BIPOC art therapists to connect and brainstorm together about what’s not discussed in typical multiculturalism courses: how to treat our own people, who are marginalized populations in this country. Lack of clarity on who this event was intended for (and not explicitly listing in the description who it is not intended for) created a mixed group of participants, which did not match the topic of discussion and limited the depth of exploration.

2) Influence of the past racialized experience

When I noticed that the group of participants was mixed, I wondered if I was allowed to say that the group was intended for BIPOC art therapists only. In the past, I have been criticized by White individuals in other settings that we, BIPOC individuals, are trying to isolate ourselves by creating an exclusive space. This is a common experience among BIPOC individuals. We’ve been told, “inclusivity is better, so why would you need space away from us?” During the event, I hesitated to clarify the focus of the discussion to be BIPOC individuals’ experiences only. I doubted my own right to exclude White individuals. In reflection, this hesitation is an effect of past racialized experiences in my body. Over the past 20 years, I have personally witnessed many anti-immigrant gestures. When was I ever allowed to exclude White individuals without penalty? Hardly ever.

During the networking event, my racialized experience from the past spoke louder than my ability to carve out space for fellow BIPOC art therapists. I let White art therapists talk at the expense of BIPOC art therapists’ time, even though White art therapists focused on their White-centered inter-cultural experiences. This, too, is a mirror image of what happens in our larger society: White individuals are the center of the society, and Asians are assigned by the dominant society to serve Whites as the “model (preferred) minority.” As Ijeoma Oulo describes in So You Want to Talk About Race, Asians, in the role of preferred minority, can create further damage to and a division from the rest of BIPOC communities.

3) Experiences of my BIPOC colleagues

During reflective discussion with other BIPOC art therapists who participated in the event, they shared that they were also negatively impacted by the amount and type of sharing White participants did during the event. Each of these experiences is shared with permission from the art therapist. A Black art therapist who participated in the event recalled several uncomfortable moments. She was in the breakout room with a White therapist. The White art therapist asked her and other BIPOC art therapist in the room if it was alright for her to stay. The Black art therapist said yes, even though she knew the White art therapist’s presence would be uncomfortable if they were to discuss the main topic of this event. As the Black art therapist reflected on this, she felt she had no choice but to accept the White art therapist because she would risk being perceived as the stereotypical angry Black woman if she said no. Once they started talking, the White art therapist assumed the role of facilitator/provider, questioning others and seemingly taking notes of their answers. This created significant discomfort in the Black art therapist.

When I shared my observations at the event with another Black art therapist, she concurred the disturbances caused by White art therapists and stated, “This goes on all the time.” She described this networking event as a reflection of the systemic issues in the art therapy field as well as American society—not an isolated incident. Another participant at the event, an Asian art therapist, shared with me that she “sensed the general discomfort with comments made by White art therapists in that [virtual] room.” She voiced her disappointment that “they chose to center themselves and misconstrue the intent/content of the conversation, rather than listen respectfully.”

4) Effects of the “model minority” myth

When White people spoke at the networking event, I struggled to create a balance between keeping White people satisfied and advocating for BIPOC individuals’ space. As a BIPOC individual in American society, my habit of catering to White people is automatic and conditioned. I know White people don’t explicitly ask me to do that. It’s just that my body remembers what I experienced in the past, and my body wants to avoid the same pain of microaggression and racism. When a White person speaks, I react by carving out space for them–unless I am being reflective and mindful of my own reaction.

Whites in American society get to decide who is included and who is excluded. The United States has a long history of institutionalized exclusions against Asians, including Chinese immigrants being barred from obtaining citizenship and Japanese Americans being interned in camps. According to David Eng and Shinhee Han, as they write in Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation, the mainstream society sees Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners and refuses see Asian Americans as part of the American melting pot due to a legally and socially sanctioned interdiction. The “model minority” stereotype is a tool of the dominant society to fool Asian Americans into believing that they can be included by Whites if they are compliant, cooperative, deferent, and productive. Eng and Han call these qualities “the social contract of Asian American model minority citizenship in the United States” (p.124). The contract sets conditions for Asians’ acceptance and survival, which are to be granted by White people. Eng and Han also assert that to take a part in this social contract means to accept color blindness, as the contract falsely leads Asians to believe that they can be included if they can deliver these conditions.

As an Asian immigrant who landed in this country without knowing much about this racial construct 20 years ago, I fell right into this scheme and unknowingly received the social contract. It took a while for me to recognize what impact it has had on me. It is constant work to monitor and self-reflect on this matter in order to be my true self—especially in a predominantly White context such as the art therapy conference.

5) Racial battle fatigue

The networking event brought up a range of feelings in me after it was over. I felt guilty for exposing BIPOC art therapists to the colorblindness described by White art therapists. I blamed myself for the incapability to name their comments as colorblindness at the time in order to raise White art therapists’ awareness. These emotions are racial battle fatigue, as described by Dr. Angela Clack during her conference presentation in 2020. It’s the tax BIPOC individuals pay to exist in the White space.

To My White Art Therapist Colleagues

To all White art therapists who are reading this: Your presence has historical representation. Whiteness represents a lot of things without you even knowing. Your race comes with the power to exclude others and to take away others’ freedom without you even trying. Many of your BIPOC art therapy colleagues come with generational trauma and racialized experiences from the past, which can be triggered by the mere presence of White bodies. As Dr. Clack described in her presentation during the conference, trauma lives in our bodies. As a result, the existence of a White body often makes it difficult for BIPOC individuals to feel safe in the same place, especially when race is the topic of discussion.

BIPOC individuals have been punished and erased for speaking up historically, and their bodies remember this. Hearing from you that you are not “the type of White people who discriminate” does not help BIPOC colleagues feel safer. In fact, it does the opposite. It only ends up highlighting colorblindness or fear of exclusion, which are both elements of White fragility. In My Grandmother’s Hands, Resmaa Menakem names various ways that White Americans avoid facing their own racial trauma as White individuals, including False Compatriotism (e.g. “I am women/Jew/grew up poor, so I know what you are talking about.”), exceptionalism (e.g. “Not all White people are like that. At least I am not.”), and defensiveness through association (e.g. “My best friend is from India, and my child is married to a Black man, so I am not like other White people.”). Through presenting White fragility, you unconsciously or consciously ask BIPOC individuals to soothe you and eliminate your guilt.

I know you want me to say, “you’re ok, you are good,” so that you can be relieved of the discomfort. However, your BIPOC colleagues are unable to give you a get-out-of-jail-free card. The “work” can only be done through self-reflection and a collective reflection with other White individuals. The importance of self-reflection on your own beliefs and cultural identity is extensively described in Cultural Humility in Art Therapy by Dr. Louvenia C. Jackson. If you want to be an ally for BIPOC individuals and clients, you can choose to practice cultural humility instead of resorting to White fragility. It is a great framework to support BIPOC individuals.

At the event, I was glad to see that some White art therapists were willing to talk about race. I recognize that there is a need and a desire to process what it means to be White, and this work would be most productive to you and least harmful to BIPOC colleagues if it were done with your White colleagues only. This is an approach that Menakem, a Black therapist who specializes in cultural somatics, recommends as well. I am sure that there will be occasions that all of us will discuss race and racism as a mixed group in the future. But this does not replace the need for White-only groups to process the meaning of your race to yourselves and to your BIPOC colleagues and clients.

In closing, I must admit that it has been uncomfortable to write all of this. Often times, I feel inadequate in words to describe my racialized experience in this country. Yet, I decided to share because there is no perfection to achieve when it comes to “race talk.” In addition, many BIPOC art therapists must be feeling the impact of race and racism in our field, day-to-day, and the annual conference is no exception. A desired change will not happen unless we talk about what’s not working. I am also sharing my thoughts with much hope that all of us are striving to create a community with patience and more understanding of each other. Like all of you, I love and believe in art therapy. I welcome and hope to continue these dialogues with my art therapy colleagues in order to advance our shared passion and help guide the future of our profession.

With much respect to all who are building the art therapy field together,

Miki Goerdt, LCSW, ATR-BC

Miki Goerdt grew up in Japan, and she is a Board-Certified Art Therapist and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Virginia. She is also an adjunct faculty for the Master of Social Work program at George Mason University. She has a private practice in Falls Church, Virginia, with the focus on providing therapy for older adults and BIPOC individuals.