Understanding the Psychological Processes of the Racial Match Effect
Research by: Oanh Meyer, Nolan Zane, Young II Cho
This study sought to deepen our understanding on the impact of "client–counselor racial match" on outcomes such as "therapist credibility" (expertness, trustworthiness) and "working alliance" (shared goals, tasks, and an attachment bond) - since these have consistently and robustly been linked to clinical outcomes. Particularly for Asian Americans, if race is salient, then racial matching could be important to building trust and credibility -- and to overcome any fear or distrust of the mental health system.
Racial matching did produce greater therapist credibility, probably because of the perception that the therapist has undergone similar life experiences and/or comes from a similar culture. Perhaps the individual facing a certain stressor, such as prejudice or discrimination, perceived their therapist better equipped to help them than someone without those life experiences.
However, independent of racial match, shared attitudes and values (attitudinal similarity) had an even stronger effect on counselor credibility. Also, attitudinal similarity may be a stronger determinant of outcomes because it was related to both “counselor credibility” and the “working alliance.”
Racial matching is a valid suggestion that should be offered if the option is available. It's why the mental health profession needs to continue investing in diversity programs if it hopes to address its underlying health equity challenges. However, I think this idea that racial match needs to be in place for a successful client-therapist relationship is false. There are several pathways to developing an initial, positive relationship. To explore the depths of your mind, your vulnerabilities, your fears, your truths; the study suggests shared attitudes and values have a stronger overall impact.
I hate this idea of us default-segregating our mental health solutions by race, gender, sexual orientation, disability - or any other identity factor. We are intersectional beings; our identities and self-concept flux over time. Besides, it might make sense to switch therapists as your life evolves - or your working partnership changes in a way that forces you to seek a new therapist. While this study only involved Asian American participants, it suggests to me that both therapists and clients should keep an open mind. I recommend we consider the demographic identities as equally as the life experiences when seeking this important partnership.
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