Category Archives: Racial Inequity and Solutions

White People

Up too early this morning, but I figure I’ll go back to bed in a couple of hours. The quiet in the house at this hour is lovely.

I’ve been thinking about the protests, especially in Louisville, and how overwhelming it feels. It’s hard to imagine how we can come to terms with the police and the political systems at this point, and that worries me. At the same time, I think about how long we’ve known that our systems are inherently biased to favor white people and how little we’ve done to remedy it in systemic ways.

I think about Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary, who has been talking about Post-Traumatic Slavery Syndrome for at least 15 years. We have made some progress in some places on offering support for black people around that. Not surprisingly, that’s happening in the context of mental health, so the work of healing is on the people that our systems have oppressed.

Healing is great, but when we offer services and maintain the systems that cause harm then we’re just creating a never ending stream of people who need those services. I think those services are necessary and important. It seems that the work is often being done by black people, which is good. But “providing services” is almost never a solution.

I think about the documentary “Uncommon Causes,” which was released nationally in 2008 and explores the social determinants of health and how race and class are factors that contribute to disparities regardless of individual health choices. I remember seeing a preview of the part of it that focuses on Louisville in 2005 or 2006 and thinking this would bring about huge changes in how we do things.

Of course, that has not happened. What has happened is that we point out the disparities over and over. Headlines read, “Black Americans more likely to get cancer/ get diabetes/ have high blood pressure/ die in childbirth/ die younger.” Over and over, we trumpet that news without the context of social determinants. Without changing the systems that maintain the disparities.

We have heard and seen, over and over, data that shows how racism plays out in the world. Disparities in school suspensions, racial profiling of black drivers, differences in arrest rates and sentence length, job opportunities, and so much more. Over and over, we have seen this and haven’t responded with real change.

We don’t change things because we – white people – benefit from the system as it is. The police tend to protect us – even if we just say, “There’s a black person here and I’m scared.”

We know that our social services such as Child Protective Services treat people differently based on race. Black people are more likely to have their children removed; white people are more likely to be offered supportive services. We have data that shows us this, and have had for a long time. It can be argued that this isn’t always a benefit for white kids, but in general it benefits white families.

The school system favors us. I heard that a black educator talking about schools was saying that white parents needed to give up the idea of “choice” with our charter schools and magnet programs and allow more room for black people to define what the education system looks like to meet the needs of black children. And my first thought? “Oh, but I love the Montessori program at my grandkids school! Surely I don’t have to give that up!”

Well, maybe not. Maybe my grandkids will still get to attend the charter school we love. But we’re going to have to give up something. We can’t end a racist system that’s existed in one form or another for hundreds of years, a system that benefits us white people, without giving up something.

Let me say this again. As things stand, the systems we have generally benefit white people. No, not all the time, not every single white person in every situation. Not all cops are bastards, not all men are sexist, not all white people are evil racists. It is almost never all or nothing. But in general, it is really clear that we white folks are more likely to get benefits and accommodations, support and protection. But only as long as we go along with the program.

You can see what’s happening with the protesters. Once white people step outside of the system, once we refuse to accept the status quo, we begin to lose privilege. Not all at once and not completely. But the unspoken agreement is that in order to benefit from white privilege, we pretty much need to maintain the system. The horrible, unfair, racist system that we say we don’t want.

I don’t have a great ending for this. Don’t have the perfect call to action. I guess the challenge, if you’re white, is to ask yourself what you are willing to give up to create a more equitable society. What are we willing to do?

This is the path ahead of us. Unclear. Unmarked. What do we do?

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.




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