I moved to a small, relatively rural, and not very diverse town from a larger city. When I saw that a local organization that offers mental health services was having a panel discussion about working with African American individuals and families, I was intrigued. I was already on my third therapist in less than a year and still not feeling completely satisfied with the level of care of was getting.
What would such a discussion sound like?
I didn’t know what to expect but I never would have expected what I saw. It was a room full of white therapist asking a panel of two black people what it is like to be black. What was it like growing up black? What values do black families have, and similar questions. I wasn’t able to stay for the whole thing, so I don’t know if the questions got any more complex, but it was an eye opener for me. I went back to my own therapist a few days later ready to talk more candidly about some things that had been on my mind.
In my next therapy session, I rehashed an incident in which my son didn’t come home from a sporting event at all, staying out all night without a call or text to let me know where he was. When it happened, I emailed his coach to see if he knew the last person my son was with after the event. I then talked to my son’s teachers to see if they noticed changes in his behavior at school. Everyone I spoke with was shocked that someone as respectful and well-mannered as my son did something like that and was sure there had to be a good reason. The school staff and administrators were his biggest advocates. One of his teachers expressed that she was glad we moved to this small town because he was such a pleasure to work with!
For most parents, when your child doesn’t come home, you’re in a panic. You’re scared that something happened. You hope they are ok. You’re angry that they could be so irresponsible and inconsiderate, but there are some cultural concerns that I’m sure none of his non-black teachers and coaches took into account. One of my primary fears was that my 16-year-old son would become the next unarmed black person killed by police or some neighborhood watchman protecting their fine community. And I didn’t doubt for a moment that all the teachers and administrators that were so quick to advocate for him would remain silent while his character was assassinated by the community to justify the act.
I opened up to my therapist about my fears; those cultural fears that can be the blind spot of a white mental health professional working with black clients. To talk about my fear of racial profiling and injustices would be like trying to convince someone my son not coming home made me afraid that he had been abducted by aliens. To someone that can’t or won’t take the time to acknowledge racially motivated triggers as a legitimate concern for African American families, they both sound equally delusional.
My fear was probably no different than my father’s refusal to allow me to have a pager way back in 1996. He told me that only two types of people have beepers, doctors and drug dealers, and since I was neither, I didn’t need one. I thought he was being unreasonable but I’m sure in his mind he was just trying to keep me alive. Even if we go back centuries, I’m pretty sure there was a slave or two that complied with the master’s demands because they prayed the conformity would save their families from the inhumane torture that no slave was truly exempt from. As "cringey" as this panel discussion seemed surface level, it could have been on the right track by looking at black experience and black families. It could be what potentially opens the door for the conversational depth needed to have compassion for the African American experience.
Inclusion is often a discussion where the concept of conformity is purposely omitted. Conformity buys black people a seat at the “I don’t even see color” table of America. That seat is your reward for your willingness and effort to comply. With the appropriate amount of conformity, you might even earn the title of “not really being black” because you are so much like them now. What an honor, right?
It’s been a model that has kept the oppression of America running pretty well. Now, with talk of diversity, the country is taking an unexpected, and in some circles unwelcome, turn. Diversity encourages more than just inclusion. It promotes acceptance of differences. That acceptance requires changes in tradition, shifts in power, and compassion for others. This country was built on the antithesis. Although I’m sure that can be a scary thing for groups that have benefitted greatly from the system, we can no longer applaud our diversity when what we are really pushing is conformity and not recognize it as the racism that it is.
I commend those white therapists and black panelists that participated in the discussion. We have to start somewhere, and they started where they were. We’ve all been taught the model of inclusion through conformity. We are now trying to learn inclusion through diversity. It’s probably going to look really ugly before we can see its true beauty, but the beauty will be just as uniquely amazing as the melting pot of diversity that makes it up.
After spending a year in grief counseling, I started to see that my life needed a major overhaul. Yes, my boyfriend died making me the single mom of our infant twins, but I was still grieving my loss of innocence from decades of abuse. I decided to turn my pain into a new purpose and to share this journey with others that may need some motivation.