Clinical Notes with Dr. J
Psychotherapy and the therapeutic space are intended to be sanctuaries overseen by an ever-present, always-supportive clinician, but they not immune to societal pressures and challenges, such as racism and prejudice. Given my previous experience in psychotherapy as a young child and my recent experiences as a clinician, I truly value the ways in which clients allow me to co-create safe spaces with them so that we can conduct our therapeutic business.
Although the space in therapy is deliberately intended to be “safe,” the real world is far from a consistent or purposefully protective environment, and therapist and client alike can encounter significant societal dangers in between sessions. Issues related to identity are often ignored or discouraged in the greater community, and clinicians need to work diligently to avoid reacting similarly to their clients.
One frame that has been featured prominently in my recent therapeutic work has been the Black Lives Matter movement (Cullors, Tometi, & Garza, n.d.) and issues related to addressing the discord and tension between police and the Black community.
When the Black Lives Matter movement started on the heels of the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case in Florida in 2012, the organization was founded in order to both celebrate Black culture and to address areas of inequality that plague the lives of African Americans in the United States (Garza, n.d.). Today, that mission continues, although many have criticized the label “Black Lives Matter” and argue that the term is divisive and separatist. For those like myself who are members of the Black diaspora here in the United States, Black Lives Matter follows in the tradition of other statements of Black pride and affirmation such as “No Justice, No Peace,” “By Any Means Necessary,” and “Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).”
The stories of minority communities here and abroad often contain references to similar rallying cries, as methods used to assist the group in its march towards equality, while also affirming pride in one’s identities. Both on social media and in the public conversation, there are those who object to this slogan and instead would like to substitute it with the seemingly more inclusive terms “All Lives Matter” or “Black Lives Matter, Too” (see, e.g, Shapiro, 2016).
To many, these revised rallying cries speak to how society needs to focus on affirming the lives of all its people, but what it fails to acknowledge is that there has been a long and substantial history of subjugation of Black people in the United States. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” is necessary because that has not always been the case, with the most perfect example of the lack of acknowledgement of Black lives being how the United States Constitution, which was signed in 1787 and outlined the rights of the growing nation, failed to acknowledge African Americans when espousing the equality of all men (Fredrickson, 2003).
“Black Lives Matter” is not an exclusionary statement, but instead an opportunity to highlight the needs of a particular community that might get lost in “All Lives Matter” or similar slogans (see “11 Major Misconceptions,” n.d.).
Similar to how college campuses often orient sexual assault education and prevention toward female students, due to the vast and statistically significant gender differences in sexual assaults (RAINN, 2016), those institutions are not ignorant of the needs of their male students, but instead want to focus most (not all) of their energy on the most victimized population while still supporting males on campus to the best of the school’s ability.
As a minority psychologist who self-identifies as an African American or Black male, the recent clash between the Black community and police officers has had a unique impact on both my therapeutic relationships and on my own view of self. Black psychologists have had to conduct psychotherapy in the midst of various levels of acceptance and racism by the greater society and this has had significant impacts on the therapeutic delivery and job satisfaction for clinicians of color.
My modern experience is no different: My therapeutic delivery is permeable to not only the private circumstances occurring in my own life, but also to the current events of my community. Since the start of the New Year, at least 123 members of the Black community have been killed at the hands of police officers (Pazzanese, 2016). Additionally, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), 88 individuals out of the 598 citizens who had fatal encounters with police were unarmed (ACLU, 2016), with two-thirds of Black males killed by police reportedly being both unarmed and initially accosted by police for possible nonviolent offenses (Sinyangwe, 2016). In my current city of Boston, Massachusetts, the police homicide rate overall is 1.6 per million, while it skyrockets significantly for Black people to 7.6 per million (Sinyangwe, 2016).
For my clients and for myself, these statistics illuminate a reality for many African American people in this country: members of this community do not feel safe during encounters with police. In addition, the nuance of how many of these fatal encounters have been recorded to then be viewed on social media or the news has added a new dimension to this issue. Besides being reminded of these situations through anecdotes passed down by family members or discussed in community hubs, these incidents can now be viewed by the masses in graphic and explicit detail. For the clients I serve, being exposed to these videos and bearing witness to the violence caught on tape can increase stress and further the psychological agitation that the client already experiences.
Additionally, depending on how peers react to the videos or their views of the societal issues, clients might also feel further isolated from their support systems. I remember having a conversation with one specific client about racism and his emotions. During that conversation, and many others like it, we spoke about the impact of racism on his presenting issue and the client wondered out loud whether he would be “cured” if he were White and not the victim of consistent prejudice and discrimination. These conversations continue to haunt me, as the conversations highlight the unique stressors that clients of color face in terms of not only navigating life with typical mental health challenges, but also having to do so often on top of coping with racism and other societal ills.
As a clinician, I have felt racial stress before and I have yet to find a solution to overcome this painful distraction. What has worked best for me is to listen and acknowledge. Although the listening part of this equation seems easy, it can often be difficult to hear about some of the painful and disgusting experiences that some in our community have faced at the hands of others. Listening requires the clinician to allow the client’s story to have an impact and to help the client process the event in the context of the client’s own social-emotional challenges.
During these specific encounters, I often debate whether I should self-disclose and consider the potential impact of self-disclosure on the therapeutic alliance. My nonscientific observations on racial self-disclosure in therapy have been that Black children are curious about my experiences as an older, or slightly older, Black male. Whereas I was only one standard deviation away from the Civil Rights Movement and can watch footage from the marches or protest and envision my parents or other loved ones in those situations, 10 to 14 year olds today are even further removed from that revolutionary history.
Also, the influence of President Barack Obama cannot be ignored (Anderson, 2016). Although we, as adults, have only spent a small portion of our lives with Black people occupying significant and pivotal leadership roles in both the private and public sectors, Black children today have had the luxury of spending the majority of their lives during a time when a person of color occupied the most powerful position in the Western world. My experience as a child was significantly different than that of children today, as the most prominent Black people I saw were either family friends or fictional characters on television.
I can also distinctly remember experiences as a young child in which the invisible hand of systemic racism squashed my dreams, including being chastised by peers for writing a short essay in second grade about wanting to become President.
Clinicians like myself can seek support in a variety of ways to help mollify the ill effects of racism, including consultation and supervision; by reaching out to other clinicians, especially those who share similar sociocultural identities, therapists can distill their own feelings, ultimately improving collaboration with the client. Taking this space as a clinician is critical, because collaborating around these issues in ways that are simultaneously authentic, boundaried, and therapeutically effective can be challenging.
Through curating particular stories from my Black experience, I can provide reasonable expectations for clients, while also fostering more conversation regarding preparation for increased exposure to racism throughout the lifespan. But with this self-disclosure comes a tremendous responsibility. Self-disclosure does not mean indoctrination or the random or careless sharing of experiences, but it entails the thoughtful, age-appropriate disclosure of certain experiences that can serve to further the therapy and inform the client with a thoughtful intention.
When I reflect upon my own archetype related to policing within the Greater Boston community, I am compelled to think about both historic events involving police and the Black community in Boston, and my own personal history with police officers. As a Black 11 year old boy growing up in the Greater Boston area, I, like many other Black males, was given “the talk”—where both of my parents educated me about how to interact with police, even during times when I was in the right. This “talk” has become more widely known by the greater community as several media commentators have spoken about the term and its recent appearance in an episode of ABC’s acclaimed show, Black-ish (Patel & Barris, 2014).
Although I am sure that most people’s hearts skip a beat or two when accosted by police, my heart beats faster because I am consciously aware of my fear. I often hate this fear as I have had plenty of interactions with pleasant, rational, and dedicated police officers, but my mind still holds onto those less than stellar interactions. In my own life, I have suffered unwarranted harassment by the police and have taken no recourse because, for me, these instances were just a part of what it meant to be Black in America.
But it is not just my own experiences that inform my concerns about police; significant historical events also reverberate in my mind, including the embarrassing guns-drawn stop of Boston Celtics Rookie of the Year, Dee Brown, in Wellesley, Massachusetts in 1990 due to the generic description of a bank robber from earlier that morning (Butterfield, 1990).
Stories like these and my own memories mix to create a complicated understanding of my relationship with police officers. I strive to be as holistic as I can in my thinking and acknowledge that there are poorly trained and racist police officers, without painting my words with too broad of a brush and labeling all police as corrupt or dangerous. I also recognize the power that I have as a clinician, in that my words carry significant weight in the minds of my clients. I do not want them to accept any biases that are going to be in contradiction to their stated goals of therapy or cause them physical or emotional harm in the real world.
As a therapist, the best way I can support the Black Lives Matter movement is to continue to provide a safe space for all people to speak about issues related to power, privilege, and prejudice, while celebrating the identity and accomplishments of my fellow Black community members and other minority groups. Outside of direct clinical service delivery, I can also support the Black Lives Matter movement by illuminating the unique experiences of clinicians of color, so as to make us more visible within our own professional community. I am fortunate to have a platform to advocate for the unique needs of the Black community both in and out of the therapeutic space, and, with these platforms, I hope to foster continued dialogue on this subject so that positive growth may occur for all communities.
Cite This Article
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Anderson, M. D. (2016, March 21). Obama and the kids. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/03/obama-and-the-kids/474462/
American Civil Liberties Union. (2016, July 26). ACLU of Florida statement on the police shooting of an unarmed man in North Miami. American Civil Liberties Union.Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/news/aclu-florida-statement-police-shooting-unarmed-man-north-miami
Butterfield, F. (1990, September 28). Mistaken identity or case of racism? New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1990/09/26/us/wellesley-journal-mistaken-identity-or-case-of-racism.html
Cullors, P., Tometi, O. & Garza, A. (n.d.) About the Black Lives Matter network. Black Lives Matter. Retrieved from http://blacklivesmatter.com
11 Major Misconceptions About the Black Lives Matter Movement. (n.d.). Black Lives Matter. Retrieved from http://blacklivesmatter.com/11-major-misconceptions-about-the-black-lives-matter-movement/
Fredrickson, G. (2003). The historical construction of race and citizenship in the United States (Racism and Public Policy Project, Paper No. 1). Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. Retrieved from http://www.unrisd.org/80256B3C005BCCF9/search/8A0AE7EACD11F278C1256DD6004860EA?OpenDocument
Garza, A. (n.d.). A herstory of the #Blacklivesmatter movement. Black Lives Matter. Retrieved from http://blacklivesmatter.com/herstory/
Patel, V. (Writer), & Barris, K. (2014). The talk [television series episode]. In A. Anderson, K. Barris, B. Dobbins, H. Sugland, & L. Wilmore (Executive Producers), Black-ish. New York, NY: American Broadcasting Company.
Pazzanese, C. (2016, July 11). Death in black and white. Harvard Gazette. Retrieved from http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2016/07/death-in-black-and-white/
RAINN [Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network]. (2016). Campus sexual violence: Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.rainn.org/statistics/campus-sexual-violence
Shapiro, A. (Host). (2016, July 13). Black Lives Matter founders describe “Paradigm Shift” in the movement. All things considered [Radio broadcast]. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2016/07/13/485895828/black-lives-matter-founders-describe-paradigm-shift-in-the-movement
Sinyangwe, S. (2016, July 9). Mapping police violence homepage. Mapping Police Violence. Retrieved from http://mappingpoliceviolence.org/home