5.) What are the challenges you face being a bilingual therapist? How do issues of race impact your work, being Caucasian and offering therapy in Spanish?
Sinead: As a bilingual therapist, there’s the awareness of difference because of language, race, cultural background, etc. So, right away there’s this awareness that we’re different. In some of my sessions it does come up in a strong way. In others, it doesn’t.
With some of my clients, I sense an appreciation for me speaking their language, because their normal experience is that white people don’t bother to learn another language. A lot of people are very curious to know where I learned Spanish, particularly since I have a hodge-podge of accents because I’ve lived in so many different places. For example, I have dual citizenship in both the US and Ireland.
For the most part, I feel a sense of receptivity from my clients and a lot of them demonstrate an ease of opening up. Some of that is due to – believe it or not – a preference to have a white, rather than a Latina clinician. Some clients definitely have a preference for a therapist who identifies as Latino/Latina, but for others, they may prefer a white clinician because they have experienced classism or racism from other Latinos in their country of origin. Consequently, they may actually feel less safe with somebody who speaks their language. For example, people from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico have a history of discrimination toward one another, so a Dominican person may not want to work with a therapist with a Puerto Rican background because it doesn’t feel safe, and vice versa.
KP: I’m glad you’re sharing this because I’ve also noticed this in my professional work – that sometimes people can feel safety with a certain amount of commonality, but if somebody has a lot of negative association with somebody who is of a similar background, then they can feel less open.
Sometimes, there can also be a real freshness to an interpersonal interaction like therapy, when two people come from very different life experiences, because it kind of takes them out of “trance” of familiarity. For example, I work with adults of all ages, and when working with elder clients, I’ll sometimes hear other non-elders say things to me like, “how can they relate to you if you’re so much younger?” Sometimes, due to things like internalized prejudice or ageism, some older adults will actually have an easier time exploring issues related to aging with me, rather than someone who is closer to them in age. It doesn’t always work this way, of course, but I wanted to mirror the point you made – that sometimes difference can increase the opportunity for connection, rather than creating more distance.