Is a Non-Culturally Safe Therapist Better Than No Therapist?

African-american woman talking with a male psychologist


While the importance of therapy is gaining awareness amongst many, there can be concerns for those with marginalized identities when seeking out a therapist. Racism, xenophobia, and homophobia aren’t just issues that plague our society as a whole. They can also seep into the therapy room, causing distress for clients who are hoping to receive culturally-safe care and instead are faced with microaggressions and discrimination.

A recent study found the psychology field to be 84% White, making it challenging for folks of color to find a therapist who looks like them. This can lead to some therapy-seekers deciding to settle with a provider who does not share a marginalized identity with them.

In doing so, they may receive care that doesn’t feel culturally safe. This article will explore if a non-culturally safe therapist is better than no therapist, and your options for finding the care you deserve.

What Is a Non-Culturally Safe Therapist?

Let’s begin with understanding what the term culturally safe means. Culturally safe care extends beyond merely gaining education about folks from different social, economic, and racial backgrounds. While that type of cultural awareness is helpful, it doesn’t always translate into a sense of safety.

Cultural safety is a concept that requires those providing care to assess the power dynamics present in their relationships with their clients.

For example, a White culturally aware therapist may research the impacts of generational trauma in the Black community to better support their Black clients, participate in classes and workshops on whiteness, racial oppression, and racially informed trauma treatment, and continually invest time, energy, effort, and resources into actively understanding how their White identity impacts the world and impacts their interaction with others, including their clients of color.

That is a great first step. However, a culturally safe therapist will work to directly address the power dynamic of being a White therapist providing support to a person of color. Addressing this power and privilege dynamic directly in a therapy session can provide the client with support in determining how safe interactions feel with the therapist.

Another way the power dynamic can be addressed is to acknowledge the inherent differences in the identities of the therapist and client, allowing space for the client to process how it feels to be in a relationship with someone different than them, inviting them to ask for what they need in order to feel safe in the clinical relationship, and offering opportunities to process how that may be uncomfortable, difficult, or challenging in and of itself.

A non-culturally safe therapist is a provider who does not address the power dynamic in the room, thus not creating space for the client to process how they feel as someone with a marginalized identity in a therapeutic relationship with a non-marginalized provider.

Even worse, a non-culturally safe therapist may make statements based on stereotypes or assumptions about your identity and become angry, defensive, or gaslight you if you mention that they are misunderstanding your experience. A non-culturally safe therapist will be uncomfortable or avoid addressing race or having their whiteness and views on race addressed or challenged.

Rather than be reflective, curious, and flexible in their role as a therapist, they may be rigid in their views and role or approach learning about others’ lived experiences as a checklist. Such an attitude can lead to issues in making progress in therapy and may even traumatize the client further.

Is No Therapist Better Than a Culturally Unsafe One?

When trying to heal from pain, trauma, and challenges, it can be tempting to overlook a therapist’s lack of cultural safety. However, working with a non-culturally safe therapist runs the risk of experiencing further pain and trauma. It can be frustrating, exhausting, and harmful to attempt healing in what is supposed to be a safe space with a person whose ignorance, lack of awareness, and racism causes greater harm.

Furthermore, it may feel very challenging if not impossible to trust a non-culturally safe therapist who violates trust without a sincere effort to fully repair rupture. This can prove problematic since the relationship between the therapist and the client is a major factor in effective treatment.

Therapy is an investment of time, energy, and resources and an experience that you hope to get the most out of. However, if you find yourself faced with a therapist who is unable, uncomfortable with, or unwilling to address power dynamics and engages in harmful, disrespectful, or ignorant and damaging behavior, you run the risk of experiencing further distress, emotional turmoil, and trauma.

A non-culturally safe therapist is not better than no therapist at all.

That being said, this shouldn’t deter you from seeking care. The goal is to find a culturally safe therapist, and there are ways to make this goal a reality.

How to Find a Culturally Safe Therapist

It has been proven that when a BIPOC individual receives therapy from a BIPOC provider, rates of treatment dropout are significantly decreased. While this is an encouraging statistic, culture extends beyond race and can include religion, sexuality, and even economic factors. This is to say that even finding a provider who shares the same racial identity as you may not automatically mean they are culturally safe.

There are a few steps you can take to find a culturally safe therapist. First, consider seeking out a provider on a directory that prioritizes diversity and inclusion, such as:

When you find some therapists that seem like they could be a good fit based on their treatment specialty, fee, location, and bio, go ahead and schedule a consultation call.

Once on the call with them, you have the opportunity to assess for cultural safety. You can ask them about how they address power dynamics in the therapy room, how they’ve handled bumps in the clinical relationship due to cultural differences, and how they believe they cultivate a culturally safe environment.

If there are particular aspects of your identity, like your religion or sexuality, that you want your therapist to be aware of, consider bringing them up in the consultation call.

Questions to Ask a Therapist to Assess Cultural Safety

Here are questions that you can ask a potential therapist during your complimentary consultation with them to assess strength of fit:

  • What is your experience when it comes to working with ________ (i.e. specific racial/ethnic backgrounds, immigrant populations, LGBTQIA+, etc.)?
  • How do you feel your race may impact your work with people from different racial/ethnic/cultural backgrounds?
  • What kind of work have you done to address, deepen your awareness of, and take accountability for the dynamics of being white and the privilege that comes along with whiteness? How do you address this in your work with clients of color?
  • What does it mean to you to provide culturally sensitive, aware, and competent care?
  • What is your comfort level and experience when it comes to talking about topics such as white privilege, racism, discrimination, microagressions, and systemic oppression?

Notice how they respond. Do they sound caught off-guard or irritated? Are they struggling to provide an answer? Or are they comfortable and warm as they engage in the conversation?

A provider that is truly invested in cultural safety will welcome these questions. It can take some trial and error to find the right therapist for you. Don’t settle for someone who isn’t willing to honor your experiences – it is possible to find a culturally safe therapist who can help you feel better.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. Psychology’s Workforce is Becoming More Diverse.

  2. Curtis E, Jones R, Tipene-Leach D, et al. Why cultural safety rather than cultural competency is required to achieve health equity: a literature review and recommended definition. Int. J. Equity Health. 2019;18(1):174. doi:10.1186/s12939-019-1082-3

  3. Norcross JC, Lambert MJ. Psychotherapy relationships that work III. Psychotherapy. 20181018;55(4):303. doi:10.1037/pst0000193

  4. Ibaraki AY, Hall GCN. The components of cultural match in psychotherapy. J. Soc. Clin. Psychol.. 2014;33(10):936-953. doi:10.1521/jscp.2014.33.10.936

By Julia Childs Heyl
Julia Childs Heyl, MSW, is a clinical social worker and writer. As a writer, she focuses on mental health disparities and uses critical race theory as her preferred theoretical framework. In her clinical work, she specializes in treating people of color experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma through depth therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) trauma therapy.