Today I began my 3rd summer semester of my graduate program. As I sat down and mentally prepared to engage in small talk with the only other person in the room, I scanned my mind for common interests. One of those interests was forensics and our current/upcoming practicum placements. Here’s a snippet of the conversation (I’ll call her Carly):
Carly: I’m at (forensic site) right now, and we just got boys.
Self: Oh yeah, I remember that! How’s it going?
Carly: It’s definitely different. Like, the girls, they’ll talk and it’s easier to actually have discussions and work on things with them. Therapy with the boys is so much harder because they’re all antisocial.
Self: …………are they all Black?
[So at this moment, I thought to myself, “Self, the Lord is testing you. You can come for her, but it’s only 8:30 in the morning, do you really wanna start like that?”]
Self: *I decided to respond politely.* hmm..that’s interesting. In my experience with that population [read: Black adolescent males], I see them as having a culture of mistrust. Being in gangs and having to protect themselves on the streets has made them wary of just trusting others without a second thought. It makes them even less likely to trust ‘authority figures,’ because the ones they’ve encountered weren’t always looking out for their best interests, which is probably why you’re having a hard time building rapport.
–What I REALLY wanted to say was, “That’s dismissive as hell and your white privilege is impairing your ability to see trauma and inaccessibility of resources. They’re not antisocial, you’re just used to people naturally liking you. As we [used to] say, ‘homie don’t play dat.'” But, I held back because of this thing called WHITE FRAGILITY.
Granted, I do believe that white people should be made to feel uncomfortable on occasion when it pertains to race issues, but I knew that my gut reaction to her dismissive statement would not have been well-received, and it may have shut her out even more. #ChooseYourBattles
Her reaction to the Black adolescent clients as “antisocial,” is something I see way too often by people in this profession. I’ve had my share of, “you gone learn today” moments at my current practicum placement, all because people are so dismissive. It seems like it’s almost second-nature to do that with Black clients, sometimes even by Black professionals, too. I see too many of my clients coming in with Conduct Disorder, Intermittent Explosive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder diagnoses when, in reality, these are often trauma reactions. If you see a child acting out, there’s usually a reason for it. Giving these diagnoses to kids with their backgrounds is often a quick and easy way of looking at the problem (or, rather, overlooking the problem). I do understand that there are times when these diagnoses are appropriate, but I feel fairly certain that about 95% of my clients were more affected by trauma which led to their outbursts, than not.
I’m tired of professionals not taking the time to understand Black clients. I don’t just see it with adolescents, either. I’m also working on the women’s unit and (surprise, surprise) I have only been assigned all Black clients. There’s a part of me that can appreciate this because I have some history with the Black experience, but at the same time, white folks are being further grounded in their complacency…never pushed to understand the experiences of their Black clients.
One particular issue that has come up on the women’s unit is Black women who choose to pray or sing in the morning. Many of these Black women rely heavily on their relationships with God to get them through the day, so starting with a prayer or a song is very important to them. I have heard counselors telling them to move to another location, be quieter, or stop altogether because the women were making other clients uncomfortable.
Too often Black people are silenced, women especially. As Malcolm X said,
What’s frustrating to me is that I know when I speak up about these issues, people are quick to dismiss me as, “emotional/biased/ridiculous,” because I look Black – therefore, my opinion is irrelevant because I’m too close to the issue. No, this isn’t always the case, but there are times when I definitely feel like people are writing me off as “the angry Black woman.” I own that, though. Hell yes, I’m angry. The mistreatment, neglect, dismissal of Black folks is ever-present. So, for anyone who wants to say we live in a post-racial society, you need to have several seats and start critically analyzing your position of privilege.
I wish I had an easy answer to this pattern of reception that Black folks are subjected to, but I don’t. There are days when I feel like, I have to educate these people…they stay sleepin on the stuff that matters! But I recognize that acting on that feeling is exhausting and, in reality, it is not my responsibility.
If you’re reading this and you’re in the MH field, I seriously hope that you’re taking these kinds of experiences into consideration. That goes doubly for white people. We need more white allies who can rally with their Black friends/clients/communities and speak up a little louder when Black voices are ignored. That doesn’t mean that white folks should speak FOR Black people, but it does mean that white people should aim to do a better job at listening with intentionality. The intent is to help make Black experiences heard, to validate them, to learn from them, to correct maladaptive ways of interacting with Black folks. When people sit back and say things like, “they’re all antisocial,” all that’s doing is reinforcing stereotypes, alienating people (read: People of Color) from the help they really need, and keeping privileged people in their comfortable privileged seats. Real change follows upset, discomfort, critical analysis… When sitting with POC, when trying to understand them, when faced with their behavioral outburts, hurtful actions, and distancing language, remember: