ART THERAPY COUNSELING MASTERS CANDIDATE
AND NEW PARENT
Aaron: What was your initial feeling like getting that email and thinking about this project and considering being involved or not?
Mariah: I had totally a dual reaction of, one: it was an honor to be asked because I really struggle to call myself an anti-racist or feel like I have allyship, especially. Like being called an ally. I am so aware of where I do not succeed in that area that it, um, feels like, oh, I'm, you know, That's. Yeah, that's not something that I am like 100% of the time and it's a constant learning of how to embody that, I guess.
So I had like this, oh my gosh. I'm so grateful that that's something that like you were noticing in what I've been focusing on. And then at the same time, I was like, oh, like, I could really get cocky here. Like I could really be like, oh, look like somebody noticed that's so great.
Yeah. Yeah. So then that felt like, oh, like where is this line of like it being performative. And this is like me doing something that looks like I'm doing what I should be doing. And I, I know what to say. But then couple that with like in talking and conversation, I will not say all the right things. I will not do all the right things. I will not be, you know, this perfect model of that. And so that feels extremely vulnerable. Even the process of being photographed. There's like a control piece in there that I was thinking about.
I think that that added vulnerability then is part of what felt to me like, it makes it a little bit less... For me that makes it less performative because I I'm sort of like, okay, like, you're shepherding this. You're going to get to choose what snippets and quotes and all of those different things. So then I was just thinking man, like how much does this control piece also seem like it plays into white supremacy and whiteness.
And I just was wondering if there's a link there somewhere for me, like of getting to be in control. And then in situations where my whiteness really shows up. You know, do I gravitate towards hanging onto that control as opposed to really recognizing that everybody in the room gets to choose or should get to choose what happens if that's, I don't know, making sense. It's pretty abstract, but those are some of the thoughts that I was having in choosing whether or not to participate because. It was like so many, both/ands yeah. That were coming up.
Aaron: Totally. Yeah, totally.
Aaron: I would love for you to tell me a little bit about how you got to this place of being really intentional with examining your whiteness, um, and kind of, you you've touched on it a little bit, but like what, so how did you get here? And, well, let's just start there.
Mariah: So I think when I think like big picture, I grew up on the side of a city that was pretty diverse. As a white girl, I was the minority at this elementary school that I went to. But my parents changed me to a private Catholic school they had a lot of concerns about the middle school, gangs, drugs, like different things like that. So Catholicism is really wrapped up, I think, in there for me too, I think in just shaping how I came through. so I switched to a private school. That one was also really diverse, but then we moved across town and we actually moved across town to the "safer" part of town. And it was the whiter part of town, for sure. And so suddenly the Catholic school that I was at, it was primarily white. And I don't know that I had any really big concept of that. Um, I just knew that suddenly people were telling racist jokes and I just wasn't used to that being that didn't, that had never been okay. It was also an environment where they could and they could do it without any pushback, I guess. Because it was just an all white environment and nobody was challenging each other on it. So then I was in predominantly white schools from there on out like seventh grade on.
My high school was an all white Catholic girls high school. And then I went on to a private school in a small town in Pennsylvania for college. And that also was predominantly white. And also, I think what I noticed there was I started to become aware that there was not really necessarily intermingling of races. And also in that area that I went to college, they were much more blatantly racist than what I was used to.
So I would say I grew up in sort of like the color blind form of it. That was the predominant white narrative that I think I grew up with.
And definitely is the one that I think really runs through my family. You know, we're accepting of everybody and, and that kind of thing. Um, but then have those concerns of, you know, Um, the safe neighborhood or like, oh, we're driving through and there's a black man walking down the street and it's really late at night and this is the bad part of town and so we're locking our doors. In Pennsylvania, where I was at and where I met my husband, it's much more blatant. It's much more in your face.
So it was sort of like in these spaces, that tended to be predominantly, that have continued to be predominantly white spaces, that I was starting to see it in these different forms. And then, um, I think that I totally have had, and continue to have a lot of this, like. Not getting it. Like, I was not aware of my whiteness as a culture. Like to me being white was not culture. Everyone else has like these awesome, cultural histories. And they just have these really unique traditions and things like that. And I don't have anything like that. And it wasn't until I was taking like a race, class, gender course when getting my bachelor's. Um, and then I took like Latinos in the United States, I think, or something that was another course that I was taking these courses with a sociology professor.
And in addition to that was really struggling with Catholicism and the relationship, um, with anyone who wasn't heterosexual. So the heteronormative norms. So I think that there were these conjunctive things that I was navigating and seeing these people that were really important and special to me, and I was very close to, um, realizing that they were really being... you know, Catholics were really rejecting them. Um, and then, that whiteness and white supremacy was really rejecting people of color. So I think there were like multiple things that I was starting to see and realize.
And then I finished my undergrad and I started working in a psych hospital, as an activity therapist. While I was there, I would notice how it was predominantly people of color that were there for both having mental illness, but also I was working on units that, um, they had been charged with a crime. So they were not guilty by reason of insanity. So I started to, I think, really question like why I was seeing so many people of color.
And then of course, like, staff that were in administration realizing how much whiteness there was there. And just wondering about resources and also like, we categorize like being quick to blame, or, or label someone of color with something that we don't necessarily label a white person with. So like diagnosis wise, that kind of thing. Um, so in the process of being there, I think I was also very conscious of, I'm this 20 something white girl I'm working with guys that are all people of color. Like what does this girl have to say about my life and recovery, you know. Cause the whole goal was to get folks to the point that they could be released and not have to be in a locked psychiatric hospital anymore.
So I think I was really starting to realize like, what do I have to say? Like who am I to be, you know, here and, was really becoming so aware of how different my life had been in comparison to, you know, the lives that I was hearing about from my guys. And how much that felt like it rubbed up against each other. And then the fact that I'm in a position of power. I'm the one that's writing notes in their charts that are going to the court system, that then, you know, a judge is reading.
I was also getting really burned out, and I knew I had wanted to go back to school specifically for art therapy. In the process of applying, I started reading some Art therapy books. And one of them was social justice in art therapy by Savneet Talwar. Um, and I know there was that one and I think maybe there was another one or two. As I was reading, it was just making so many things be like, oh, like, I think so much of what I think I was personally picking up on and reflecting on or noticing. Um, I suddenly just started to feel like I was really seeing that and understanding it in a different way.
Aaron: Can you talk a little bit about what cultural humility is?
Mariah: So cultural humility... there've been a lot of different frameworks for it. Um, the one that I really like has been the one person that is especially experienced with this in art therapy, in particular, Dr. Louvenia Jackson. They focus on the original four principles of cultural humility that include, one it's a process of lifelong critical self-reflection and self-critique. So it's a never-ending journey. Like you're always reflecting. You're always critiquing yourself. You're always developing that awareness.
The second piece of it is readdressing the power imbalance in the patient-provider dynamic. So you're really looking at how power is showing up and how do you readdress that in that relationship? The third is advocating for and maintaining institutional accountability. And the fourth one is developing and maintaining mutually beneficial partnerships with communities on behalf of individuals and defined populations.
So the institutional accountability and the community partnerships, um, what I feel like I have come across is that those tend to be, um, a lot more abstract for folks. They're very difficult. Like they're very large and, I think that they can be a little bit intimidating and like, well, how do I... I mean, institutions are massive. There's so many layers to them. How do we really advocate for that and figure out how to do that, as therapists? And then both institutional accountability and community partnerships are more systemic ways of thinking, but I also think that they tend to be... like therapy's a very westernized medical model. It has grown from that and as has art therapy. And so I think that thinking about therapy as something that operates in the setting of multiple relationships in multiple communities, um, I think that's a much more collective value.
So what I have found in the literature is that cultural humility tends to be talked about with those first two, the power dynamics and the self-reflection. The community partnerships and the institutional accountability is sort of left out. So I just say that because for me, it's become very important to really emphasize, like, and think about and reflect on all four of those original principles that were mentioned.
But I think what was interesting was I had seen that in the literature and that happened in the interviews too. Some people talked about the last two principals more in-depth, but it was a lot easier for them to talk about self-reflection and self-critique. Way more easy. And then power and balance was an interesting one. Really, I think someone could like, just study how people think about the word power. Because for some people it was like, are we sitting in the same kind of chair? And then for other people, it was, I'm a white woman and I'm working with an African-American third grader, like, and there's like all this power in there that I need to then be able to account for. And am I accounting for them? Um, but then for other people, it was just the client's perception of power that I have as a therapist, as opposed to what is like the reality of the power that I hold.
Aaron: So we've talked a lot about like how you are examining whiteness within your research. Can you talk a little bit about how that's shifted things in your personal life. Yeah. Um, and yeah, just how, how it's changed who you are and like what you do, which is sort of a little bit like, I mean, can you really pinpoint that? I don't know,
Mariah: I think like therapy work is tricky because there's so much, um, like give and take. I mean, it's such a like personal investment. It takes so much of my person, I guess. I think like the emotional energy and that is, it carries over so much that it does feel very, very fluid. Right. So like in, um, I think part of what makes the work and even studying cultural humility and really reflecting on that part of what makes it so hard is that it, it does infiltrate every aspect of my life.
So these things I'm thinking about and studying, carry over into, you know, every personal family conversation that I'm having or um, I see it a lot more and then it's very hard to, um... and addressing it takes energy. And so it feels like a not constant because I get to choose to ignore it. I get to choose to ignore a lot of it. Um, so, but it, it just turns into this... because I am more aware of it and I see it more often that choice of whether or not to address it becomes more and more frequent. And that can be really exhausting. Um, and also very challenging. Because in so many spaces in, you know, my life, then it's like, whoa, oh my gosh. Okay. Mariah, like, yeah, like, and, and I know that, um, that, that's what it causes. Like I, or at least I have this, this fear of what bringing up the topic or what addressing the issue could cause. And so, it feels very hard for me. Or more challenging and then balancing the question of, am I doing enough? Like, you know what I know, well, I saw myself dodge out of that conversation or addressing that conversation X, Y, and Z number of times. And so I know that, and then I try to show up and talk about cultural humility and therapeutic Alliance at work? And like, that this is really important to me. And I'm like, who do I think I am? Like, let's be real.
Um, so I think the understanding and knowledge that I've gained, even though it maybe has been, you know, initially very concentrated in like this work element. It's impossible for it to not shift how I think about or observe, I guess, other relational interactions and whether or not I choose to address them. And I think personal relationships are tricky. And then I think then being pregnant too, and thinking about raising a kid and thinking like, oh man. I know how much the culture I grew up with shaped me and influenced me. And I didn't get it, you know, for a very, very long time. Like how do I try to raise a child with that very different mindset and then recognizing that like, you know, but we come from a family filled with lots and lots of people that are going to be telling the child lots and lots of things that are going to be different than maybe what I would want that to be believing or hearing. You know, um, uh, the prejudice, the bias and the assumptions and all of those things.
Aaron: How do you maintain the practice or like, um, you know, beyond that feeling of exhaustion, which can come so frequently when, you know, like, well shoot today, today I was in five different conversations where someone said something or I saw this microaggression you know?
Mariah: It has helped to find people that are trying to do something similar. Right. Like I can think of at least two friends that I have that are very invested in developing an anti-racist practice and really growing in their conscientiousness of that and you know, embodying it. And that are white women. So I think that that is one thing that helps because I know that I can bring...they're easier to bring up that conversation with and say, oh, I was in this situation. I froze, did not know what to, you know, like how, like think through it with me. And too that are not relationships where it will just be, oh, it's okay that you didn't do it. But that will really be up for rising to the challenge of thinking through like, okay, well what could have been shifted a little bit, you know? And, and also like, I get it, it's really hard and like really grappling with, I think, the challenge. So that for me has really helped make it sustainable because I know that they will, um, rise to the occasion of challenging me as I need it. And also are people that are in touch with, like... that I also need self-compassion so, and that will encourage me to practice self-compassion with it too. Yeah.
And so I think that the self-compassion piece in the process of like cultural humility has felt very necessary, uh, and like I was saying with interviewing, you know, eight different people and seeing how we all are at different places in our awareness... that I'm on that continuum too. And I'm on that continuum and it will slide to different places on the continuum, in different moments of the day and in different times of my life and that it has. And, like I recognize who I, you know, have been, and I feel like I can see that then in other people and I become very hypersensitive to it. And I would say, then I have this allergic reaction, but then it's like, okay, but do I really get to have an allergic reaction to that? Because the reality is that I came from that too. And so how do I have the self compassion and then the compassion for other people and give everybody space to grow, um, because I'm also giving myself space to grow.
Aaron: In thinking about bringing another human into this world and becoming a mom, how has that shifted how you think about this work?
Mariah: I think one thing that I've thought about is how I'm hoping. We can be very mindful of what we say and how we talk about it, you know like with the baby. Um, and you know, things like, what books do we have around the house? What authors are we reading? What artists are we looking at? So I think I've thought about in like our personal home space, you know, here, that's maybe something that I've been trying to be thinking about for myself, but now it feels like very relevant in the sense of raising our kid.
And I think, especially because of the fact that we live in a very small town. And it's a rural small town. And it is predominantly white. And it's historically a sundown downtown. And so knowing that, um, the mindset of the majority of the people that if we're still there when they're starting school, that they'll be going to school with is going to be very different than, um, the mindset. That I want them to have. I think that that piece of it then makes it feel like even more necessary that we're prioritizing what we're bringing into our home space diversity-wise and value-wise, um, and you know, just what we're taking them to do or talking about, or, you know, like different experiences that were taking them to. That kind of thing. Um, or listening to, you know, and just that. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Aaron: Almost like you've gotta create a really strong foundation because you know that when they step out into the world, there's going to be all kinds of wind knocking down that door, trying to blow that house down. Right, right. To be able to at least do what you can do, like do what you do. You have, um, the ability to control.
Mariah: Exactly. Yeah. Really taking power over that and choosing to see it and think about it and act on it.
Resources Mariah has found helpful:
Art Therapy for Social Justice: Radical Intersections edited by Savneet K. Talwar
Cultural Humility in Art Therapy: Applications for Practice, Research, Social Justice, Self-Care, and Pedagogy by Dr. Louvenia Jackson