How have you managed not to know?: White Supremacy and Psychotherapy

An important aspect of being a creative arts (or expressive arts) therapist is being an advocate and a translator. It is not unlike being an ambassador from a foreign country. Each of the creative arts therapies represents a unique theoretical approach to generating insight and change. As a result, creative arts therapists are tasked with explaining what we do to counselors, therapists, social workers, psychiatrists, etc in a language they can understand, outlining similarities and differences to theories and approaches they are more familiar with.

Yet, humans have been using the arts as a form of healing since the dawn of human society. Speaking to drama, since that is my wheelhouse, even from a Western perspective one can trace the lineage back to Ancient Greece. Jacob L. Moreno, the creator of psychodrama (and coincidentally, the concept of group psychotherapy), was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud.

A little research shows the American Counseling Association was founded in 1952, with the National Association of Social Workers not too far behind in 1955. For comparison, the National Association for Music Therapy (now the American Music Therapy Association) was founded in 1950. The American Dance Therapy Association was founded in 1966. The American Art Therapy Association and the National Association for Poetry Therapy were not long after in 1969. Drama Therapy was last on the scene, with what is now the North American Drama Therapy Association being incorporated in 1979. As with all creative arts therapy approaches, however, these techniques were being used long before enough momentum had built up around them to create a formalized organization. Yet, this history should make it clear that creative arts therapies have a history as long and rich as any other approaches in use today.

So how is it that more mental health practitioners have not heard of them?

This article shed some light on the subject for me.

For clarity, expressive arts therapy is an integrative approach which attempts to synthesize visual arts, movement, drama, music, writing and other creative processes for therapeutic benefit. Due to the nature of theatre and drama, drama therapy is the most integrative of the creative arts therapies. Most creative arts therapists specialize in a particular arts modality, though they may pull from any of the other arts approaches for a specific intervention.

I’ve been taking a course on Trauma Healing for individuals in social movements, where we talk a lot about decolonizing healing care. (If you want to learn more, go here!) As a result, I started to think about white supremacy culture and how it is influencing these dynamics.

Psychotherapy or “talk therapy” privileges verbal processing as the pathway to insight and healing. White supremacy culture privileges the written word, as well as cognitive and intellectual processes. In contrast, creative arts therapies use the arts as a language, and intentionally harness the therapeutic qualities of creative and expressive processes (sometimes known as catharsis).

Especially now, the most popular psychotherapeutic modalities come from “evidence-based” research, where that evidence needs to be, by and large, quantitative. Valuing quantitative data over qualitative is also an aspect of white supremacy culture. Because psychotherapy is itself a verbal process, it is much easier to translate into the written word for research purposes, compared to creative arts approaches. There is copious research showing the efficacy of creative arts therapies – but how much of that research is accepted as valid by our current systems of power?

I also see some aspects of “Only One Right Way” showing up in this discourse. If psychotherapy is seen as *the right way* to do therapy, that ignores the long legacy of humans healing themselves with art and ritual throughout history. Many of the current approaches to psychotherapy were popularized by white men. The creative arts therapies are themselves not immune from this problem. White supremacy culture is everywhere. Yet, psychotherapy has enough social capital at this point to use not only discourse, but systems of power (legal system, healthcare system, educational system, etc) to uphold its current status. In order to decolonize mental healthcare, we have to understand that BIPOC communities especially have been doing healing on their own for centuries, and psychotherapy can operate in White Savior mode if practitioners are not conscious of these dynamics and how they might play out. Part of decolonizing mental healthcare is unseating the therapist from the position of expert, and seeing therapy as a truly co-created process. Because creative arts therapies can incorporate rituals or cultural practices individuals are already using outside the therapy space, it is one step closer to a decolonized version of therapy.

Some aspects of paternalism are also in play in these situations. Especially “those with power often don’t think it is important or necessary to understand the viewpoint or experience of those for whom they are making decisions.” Being automatically dismissive or defensive when presented with new information is a part of white supremacy culture. When presented with new information, being curious and wanting to learn more is one way to get around paternalism, but that requires seeing the other person as an equal and an expert in their own right, as someone with access to valuable information that you need to know.

Some aspects of power hoarding are present in these situations as well -especially that “those with power feel threatened when anyone suggests changes in how things should be done.” In my experience, creative arts therapies are sometimes seen as a threat, as something undermining the validity of psychotherapy itself, instead of being seen as a legitimate alternative pathway to healing. Power hoarding also shows up regarding things like licensure, and who has access to it. Gatekeeping in mental healthcare can be influenced by white supremacy culture. Sometimes shifting the conversation to try to make it about ethics is a way to mask the deeper issues at play and deny that white supremacy is present in the first place.

The evidence of the efficacy of psychotherapy is ubiquitous in our culture. Yet, the same is true of the creative arts therapies. It is a matter of what is being counted as evidence. Saying that psychotherapy is only one possible approach to healing need not be seen as a threat or an attack on psychotherapy itself. As healing professionals, we all have the same goal to provide care and facilitate healing. How can we all come together, united, and collaborate in order to achieve this goal? Shouldn’t we want to use all possible tools at our disposal in order to create change in people’s lives?

This is a systemic issue, not caused by any one therapist, counselor, or social worker. Yet, as with all systemic issues, individuals have the power to uphold or disrupt these systems in any moment. What I am asking is for all mental health practitioners to raise their own awareness of how white supremacy is operating within the mental health field, and to be honest with ourselves about when and how we are upholding white supremacist culture in our work.

If someone says, “I am a creative arts therapist,” and the immediate response is, “I’ve never heard of that!” I am asking that you stop, take a moment to breathe, notice if you feel any defensiveness in your body, and to paraphrase the words of Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, ask instead, “How is it that I have managed not to know about this?”

And as always, if you have any further questions, or want to learn more, I am here as a resource.

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