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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.

 

 

 

What I Was Trying to Say about Rape and Blame and Teachers and Teens

I got into a discussion that became an argument yesterday, on Facebook.  I know, I know, that’s a bit ridiculous in itself.    A Facebook argument with people I don’t really know, who don’t know me and don’t have any context for the things I say, is probably not all that productive.   But I began clarifying my thoughts, and that led me to this post today, so maybe it was helpful

It started with this article by Betsy Karasik entitled “The unintended consequences of laws addressing sex between teachers and students.”   But the more popular reference to it was “Sex between students and teachers should not be a crime.”

Background.  Earlier in the week, a judge had released the teacher who raped a 14 year old girl.  The girl killed herself, the rapist served 30 days in jail.  Even when he violated the requirements of the treatment program he was attending, the rapist was not held accountable.   The judge’s comments blamed the victim and revealed a total lack of understanding of how rapists function.    There was a huge outcry against the judge, and, as I write this, it seems possible that both the rapist and the judge may experience some strong consequences.

Then comes Betsy Karasik’s article, suggesting that maybe we shouldn’t criminalize rape when it’s an adolescent and a teacher, that maybe teenage girls aren’t completely victims, that maybe men can’t really help themselves and we’re being unrealistic to expect them to.

Let me be perfectly clear.  I do not agree with her.  Do NOT agree.  Do NOT AGREE.  DO NOT AGREE with her.

Background.  I’m a therapist – mental health – and I work primarily with people who have experienced abuse, particularly sexual abuse.    One in four, or maybe one in three, women experience some kind of sexual assault or molestation.  One in six men.  That’s not always the issue my clients come to therapy to address, and it’s not always *the problem,* but it’s often part of the story.

So I’ve spent a lot of time listening to people talk about their experience of abuse.  What happened, what they thought at the time, what they think now, and how they feel.  I’ve got extensive training in a number of approaches to working with trauma, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Cognitive Processing Therapy, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy.   I can talk all day about trauma and survivors and healing and moving to thriving ~ and will if you get me started.  But I’m going to try to really stay on track here, which means I’m leaving out a lot more than I’m saying.

I believe that when people are abused, two things that happen that contribute greatly to long-term emotional suffering afterwards.   First, we don’t experience our feelings when the trauma is happening.  We’re focused on surviving.  It’s not safe to feel our feelings, we just need to get through the trauma.  And that’s protective.  Numbing out or dissociating protects us from feeling the full impact of what’s happening.

That’s really helpful at the time, and helps us survive.  But.  It creates a whole new set of problems if we’re not able to reclaim the feelings and process them later – and really, who wants to do that??

The second thing that happens, typically, is that the victim ends up feeling like it was their own fault the trauma or abuse happened.   Perpetrators of sexual abuse ~ and our culture in general ~ have a real talent for victim blaming in a way that often completely convinces the victim.   From “I shouldn’t have gone to Walmart at night” to “I should have known better than to go with him,” to “But I wanted it ~ it’s totally my fault ~ I actually started flirting with him!” the victim is convinced something they did caused the abuse.

I don’t believe the victim is ever responsible for getting raped.   People get raped because they cross paths with a rapist at a time when they’re vulnerable.   It is always the rapist’s fault.

But believing that we had some control over the situation sometimes helps people believe that we can keep it from happening again.  It feels protective.  The desire to believe we can keep ourselves safe is really at the heart of lots of victim blaming.

So ~  when I first start working with a client,  often, they’ll say, “Here’s what happened.  I know it wasn’t my fault.”  Then they tell me 35 other things that suggest they’re living their life like they totally think it was their fault.

And at some point, they say, “I know in my head that it wasn’t my fault ~ and that’s what everyone tells me ~ so I don’t know why I still feel like it’s my fault.  I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

That’s a powerful moment.  The confession “I still feel like it’s my fault” carries a load of shame.

Carl Jung says, “Shame is a soul eating emotion.”  Brené Brown says,  “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”

If I try to convince my client that it wasn’t their fault, that they shouldn’t feel like it was, I am adding to the shame they already carry.  I’m dis-validating their feelings, telling them they’re wrong to feel the way they feel ~ which is part of what helps create the shame in the first place.

It’s more helpful to point out that of course they feel that way, it makes perfect sense, and then begin to look at how that works.

So that’s what I heard when I read Betsy Krasik’s article.  I heard the same thing my clients often say ~ particularly ones who were teenagers when the abuse happened.  “Men can’t control themselves,” “I was mature for my age,” and “I wanted it.  I asked for it.”

I have no idea if Betsy Krasik was speaking from her own experience or other people’s  ~ and I don’t think it matters.   She’s not my client, and I’m not particularly concerned about changing her mind.  But.

It seems like people are responding to Ms. Karasik the same way they dd to the judge who made the victim-blaming comments and the poor decision in sentencing.  As if she should never have voiced the opinion, as if just saying her thoughts out loud was wrong.

Ms. Karasik got the “Asshole of the Day,” award.  Someone said she had “just given a free pass to pedophiles,” as if her article would allow pedophiles to feel justified.    Just for the record, pedophiles don’t need a free pass ~ they act based on their own motivations and already feel justified.

But I think our response to Ms. Karasik adds another layer of shame for people who have those thoughts.  She isn’t a judge; she isn’t making decisions that affect sexual offenders.  She said something that lots of people secretly believe.  If we yell at her and act like she’s awful for saying those things, we pass that shame on to people who have the same questions, carry the same doubt.

We need to refute what Ms. Karasik says.  We need to explain why she’s wrong.  But  we don’t need to act like she’s wrong for saying it.  Lots of people won’t speak up because they *know* it’s *wrong* to feel that way.  But if we can’t talk about it, how do we process those thoughts?  How do we find “the facts of the matter”?

I think Ms. Krasik did us a service by speaking her mind.  She opens the door to having a real conversation about it with people who secretly think she’s right.  I don’t want to vilify her and shame her for speaking up.  I want to thank her for putting her ideas out there. That’s what I was trying to say on Facebook yesterday.

“If we are going to find our way out of shame and back to each other, vulnerability is the path and courage is the light. To set down those lists of *what we’re supposed to be* is brave. To love ourselves and support each other in the process of becoming real is perhaps the greatest single act of daring greatly.”
― Brené Brown