Thoughts about Racism as a Social Disease
This article – Confronting Racism as a Social Disease – just derailed my morning timetable. I was going to post it on Facebook with a little commentary, but it is too rich, and I have too much to say about it, to get away with a FB post. So here I am, writing about it instead.
The article, by Deborah Peterson Small, is well worth reading, so I encourage you to do that first.
I’ll start here – the last two paragraphs:
The Black Lives Matters movement—dealing with the immediate victims of trauma as a result of encounters with police and violence—could benefit from an alliance with people in the therapeutic community. I’d like to see poor communities of color served in the same way when tragedy strikes them as middle-class communities are served. It triggers me every time I hear that therapists are offering counseling to people traumatized by the latest shooting disaster but aren’t going to Detroit or Chicago or East New York or any of the mostly black places that are experiencing the same tragedies every day.
I’d like to see therapists acknowledge that when black young people are arrested and put in handcuffs and locked in cells, that’s a traumatic event. What do white people think it feels like for young black people, the descendants of slaves, to be handcuffed and sent to jail? The United States is a nation of people traumatized by centuries of pain as the victims and perpetrators of forced migration, forced extraction, and forced exclusion. Our collective pain is one of the root causes of violence in our society. If ever a society needed to put itself on the collective couch, it’s us.
I have been preaching that, or some version of it, for a long time. Starting in the mid 90s, I worked in a community that was experiencing a sharp increase in gun violence and homicides. I began to see how that impacted the community. I saw that when someone got killed, the impact rippled out through their family and friends, through the people who knew them, people who lived close to them, and so on, all the way into the community health center where I was, touching the therapists and staff there too. The victims were often people we knew, and if we didn’t know them, we knew their mama, their children, or their next-door-neighbor. Or maybe we knew the person who killed them.
I sometimes tell the story that in those days, I would get up and look at the newspaper first thing to see if anyone I knew got killed the night before. My view of the world had changed.
At the time, I started thinking about the impact of slavery over generations, how that might affect the people descended from those who had survived it, and I talked about it to anyone who would listen. Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome. Joy DeGruy describes it the way I was thinking about it, and I was thrilled when I found her work.
So trauma is “my thing,” and has been for a long time. I get so excited when I see a call-out for therapy like in this article. I’ve looked for ways to do that work – through workshops or therapy or anything for a long time, without real success. Maybe I haven’t looked hard enough or long enough, or maybe I’m not the right person to actually do it. But the work needs to be done, so I get excited when someone else says it. Yes, yes, yes.
The first part of the article, more directly about racism as a social disease, made me think about a discussion I was involved in at a workshop on diversity. The facilitator asked if we confronted and challenged racism when it was expressed by clients in our individual therapy practice. It was a great question because it creates some tension for therapists.
On one hand, we are committed to keeping the client’s goals first. We are not supposed to have our own agenda. I’ve argued with more than one therapist who works with children that no, I don’t think it would be more helpful for the mother to work on her parenting issues, that yes, she needs help with parenting, but she needs to work on resolving her own trauma issues first. Yes, the needs of her kids are super important, but if we want her to be a good parent, her own needs have to come first.
So I don’t think I can interrupt the flow of a therapy session to say, “You know, that thing you just said was a pretty racist perspective, can we talk about that for a minute?” unless it’s pertinent to the client’s goals. At the same time, I am committed to dismantling racism, so if my client says things or does things that are racist, how can I not challenge it?
The article points out:
“… the other part—never really talked about—is the harm that comes to white people from living in a racist society and the way in which it distorts their perspectives of themselves. Knowing that the conversation you have about yourself is inconsistent with what’s true, and feeling a constant need to preserve that image by obfuscation, projection, and denial, generate a permanent inner sense of shame.”
So one thing I can do – and I hope I already do this – is to be open to opportunities to challenge those ways of thinking when I see them connected with my client’s goals. Of course, first I have to look for them and challenge them in myself. The beauty of being a therapist is that it makes you do all this damn hard work on yourself first so you’re able to be there in a way that is helpful for others.
If I’m standing in awareness of how stereotypes and racist tropes have affected me, and if I’m aware of my own privilege, and how it impacts my life, then it’s possible for me to communicate those concepts, and challenge others, when appropriate. As is so often the case, whether we’re talking about trauma or racism, it comes back to making sure I’m doing my own work first.
I would love to hear your thoughts about the article or how you incorporate anti-racist work into your life, or what you think can be done to help people deal with the trauma around us. In the meantime, I’ll work on getting my morning back on track.