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Katherine Reed

Claiming Whiteness: A Heuristic Study of a White Art Therapist in Relationship with Black and Latino Adolescents

Photo: mixed media installation by Katherine Reed.

        “Western therapeutic traditions have too often reflected and reinforced the status quo with their assimilationist and ethnocentric modus operandi. Art therapy has an opportunity to respond differently through self-critique and conscientious attempts to be a progressive and culturally sensitive enterprise” —Hocoy, 2002

            I began my thesis inquiry with a conscious question about my own identity as a white female art therapist and its affect on my work with clients of color. After working in health education in the developing country of Burkina Faso, West Africa, and in my new role as urban art therapy intern, I could not deny the automatic privileges afforded to me on the basis of my skin color, nationality, and education. My graduate work in art therapy provided me with internships in a psychiatric hospital, in a homeless shelter for women, and in the juvenile court system. In each of these settings, I was struck by the disproportionate number of people of color, especially black people, in crisis situations. Whether struggling with substance abuse, mental illness, homelessness, criminal charges, or a combination of these factors, the clients whom I worked with challenged my perceptions of racial equality in urban America.

Photo: Detail of mixed media installation by Katherine Reed.

Photo: Detail of mixed media installation by Katherine Reed.

Photo: Detail of mixed media installation by Katherine Reed.

            Working with children and adolescents in the juvenile court system, a system defined by labels and judgments, I realized that I too was trapped in its hierarchy of power. How could I, as a member of the most “privileged” race, write authentically about my experiences in a racist system? If I, like so many white Americans, deferred the responsibility of racial hostility to my ancestors, then who would claim responsibility to challenge racism today? How might art therapy serve as a bridge between me and my clients, between my clients and themselves, and between us and the larger society?

            I used the heuristic method of research to explore my own racialized identity and its effect on therapeutic relationships with clients of color. The word heuristic, from the Greek word heuriskein, means to discover or to find. With a focus on whiteness as the lens through which I lived and worked, I aimed to discover its inextricable ties to gender and class as markers of my identity. Using personal narratives, a review of relevant literature, artwork, and stories of work with clients to illustrate the process, I attempted to illuminate the meanings associated with my white female identity. My thesis work on cultural identity was my conscientious attempt to authentically navigate my path toward cultural competence as an art therapist.


         Katherine Reed earned her BFA at the University of Colorado in 1990. Her work as a Peace Corps Volunteer/ health educator in West Africa followed her career teaching middle school art and French in Colorado. At SAIC, Katherine held internships at Chicago Lakeshore Hospital, Deborah’s Place, and the Cook County Juvenile Court.


Thesis Advisor: Catherine Moon, Assistant Professor, Art Therapy

Thesis Reader: Verlena Johnson, Instructor, African American Art History




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