(Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Brenda Russell)
When a Person of Privilege celebrates the accomplishments of People of Color and ties it all up in a happy happy feel-good bow without acknowledging the ways that systemic, intergenerational, communal and personal racism have done violence to those being celebrated, we perpetuate that violent, traumatizing system. We are demanding that People of Color once again cater to our comfort.
I decline. This blog will get necessarily heavy.
As February is Black History Month, I wanted to dedicate some space to appreciating the contributions of my colleagues of color. Trust me when I tell you, anyone who has been in therapy with me has been the direct beneficiary of trail-blazing practitioners of color who refused to accept the state of psychology as it was.
How Was It?
Let’s start with some facts: The field of Psychology did not start with Sigmund Freud at the turn of the 20th Century. Neither did it start, as some would suggest, in the 1600’s with Rene Decartes or even in the latter 300’s BCE with Plato. Kemites, (the people who eventually became the ancient Egyptians,) were actively seeking to understand the human psyche and experience as early as 3400 BCE. Unsurprisingly, most people are not taught this in school; Even in grad school programs that train therapists.
As in so many things in history, we are typically taught that the field of psychology didn’t exist until a cis-het male of European origin “started” it. As such, most of the models and assumptions of my field from that point up until rather recently remained steeped in a Eurocentric, hetero-male worldview that far too often fails to consider that people who are not straight, white, and male have very different life experiences, needs, and ways of understanding life. (To read more about the “White Washing” of Psychology, click here.)
Here are just a few that I have bashed my sensibilities up against over and over again:
- Individualism is more important than the collective in which a person lives.
- Emotions are to be “controlled.”
- Linear logic is superior to and more trustworthy than other ways of knowing.
- Fitting into the culture at large is always a healthy idea. Psychopathology is defined by one’s inability to accept and function within the dominant culture’s unspoken “rules of conduct.”
- Intergenerational households are inherently more problematic than single generation households.
- Mysticism is likely pathological.
- Science is more trustworthy than other ways of knowing.
And here are a few about the work of therapy itself:
- Therapists should be “tabula rasa” – a blank slate upon which clients can project whatever they need the therapist to be.
- Therapists should never voice their political, religious, or spiritual values so that the counseling room remains a safe space for clients to explore their own beliefs.
- Therapy is a one-way relationship.
- Therapists should never show their emotional reactions in front of clients, lest the client feel obligated to take care of the therapist.
- Therapy practices should always run according to time-oriented cultural expectations, (the time on the clock,) lest we fail to assist clients with “containment.”
- Therapists should never receive gifts of any kind from clients as that would create an improper “tit for tat” or curry favor with the therapist in a way that would damage the work.
I remember stumbling into the work of several eumelanated (brown-pigmented) Psychologists while I was doing research in my grad school program in the late 1990’s. I suddenly felt as though I could breathe. I had been trying so hard to learn the material, learn the art and science of doing good therapy, and trying to practice what I was being taught that I hadn’t even noticed how much “Wait, WHAT?” I had been carrying until I read these studies.
The articles and research projects were directly calling out the damage that was being done as practitioners were expected to apply this one, limited, culture-bound model to a whole lot of people for whom it was anathema. Yes. Thank you! This!
Slow, Painful Evolutions
Gratefully, the Loyola Pastoral Counseling program (where I trained,) was steeped in respect for each client’s unique experiences. We were expected to listen with empathy and hold differences with reverence/respect. Psychopathology was not defined by a person’s dissonance with the culture at large, but rather, stress points in the person’s own cultural context. Finally, we were shedding the unhealthy Colonizer-Think belief that straight, white males were the central reference point for all things.
(Note: I have absolutely nothing against straight, white males; They just aren’t the central reference point for all things.)
The persistence and empowerment of practitioners, educators and researchers of color on the intersectionality of mental health, race and culture opened the doors wide to an opportunity for a serious reconsideration of all of the so-called “norms.” Reconsidering that rigid dogma is working to make therapy a place where clients are genuinely respected and empowered in the ways that make sense to the client, rather than the clinician. This has gone far beyond ethnicity to open our empathic understanding of culture, age, gender identity, relationship constellation preference, sexual preferences, neurodiversity, physiological impairments, faith and spirituality – All of the things that shape us, challenge us, and help us create the lives we want.
I graduated from Loyola in 1999. The American Psychological Association did not formally accept responsibility for promoting harm in this area until 22 years after I graduated, a full century or so after the field was first challenged on these points. They finally acknowledge that they have failed to challenge Colonizer-Think narratives. They finally accept that they further failed to acknowledge the profound psychological harm caused by racism and discrimination within its organization, in the field, and in the lives of the people we serve.
People of color have been trying to tell us this at least the times of Freud, just as women of all ethnicities have tried in vain to address our truth outside of the pathologizing gaze of straight, white male practitioners and training programs. How insane is it that the people who are supposed to be trained in listening… haven’t been listening? No wonder so many people have been reluctant to go to therapy.
I want to take a moment to offer my profound thanks for all who have persisted in telling their truths against the oblivion and arrogance of my field. I want to try to express my profound grief over all of the precious human beings and their families, friends, and communities who have been permanently damaged by practitioners who failed to value and seek to understand the person in front of them; For all who have been discarded, maltreated, ignored, misdiagnosed, misunderstood, denied the resources required for healing, because of a practitioner’s biases or a warped system’s rules. We People of Privilege owe it to marginalized people and frankly, to ourselves, to do much better.
What happens in mental health practice is a microcosm of what needs to happen in order for our human family to heal: Humility, empathy, emotional courage, respect; Approaching differences with respectful curiosity rather than fear. Understanding people on their terms, not our own.
We call this month Black History Month. The month has been a necessary start in recognizing that the contributions and experiences of eumelanated peoples have been sorely absent in the history we are taught. The full history of who we are as a nation and how we got here has been just as Euro-biased as the field of Psychology. It has done phenomenal harm to all.
For now, I will mark, highlight and celebrate these critically important truths, hoping that one day we will understand that this history, (as well as the history of all marginalized peoples) belongs intelligently woven into all that we learn. To do otherwise is like celebrating the left shoulder of a body, pretending that it is an entire body in and of itself. Exploring all of the other body parts considering only how they relate to the left shoulder is equally skewed.
Friends, we cannot be afraid of whatever is true.
If this blog has pricked your thinking, contact Tiffany here. Let’s talk.