It’s All In Your Head, Except It’s Not
I’m sitting in a circle of white faces. I hate saying that because race shouldn’t matter, but it does, so I have to say it. The only other ethnic minority in the group is the therapist, who is a woman of Chinese descent. We’re discussing the training she went to the day before by the author of the book: My Grandmother’s Hands. As I understood it from what she’d told us the week before, the reason she signed up for the training is because she wants to better understand systemic racism and the experience of ethnic minorities, and especially Americans who are black. A group member asks her about the training, and she says that it was quite intense. She begins to mention her takeaway when cross-talk interrupts her. I’m deeply curious to hear what she has to say so when the crosstalk dies down, I ask her about her experience in the training. I don’t want to miss an opportunity to learn.
As I understand her response, her takeaway from the training is that black people face real psychic trauma because they still haven’t gotten over American slavery. Her response leaves me unsurprised yet deeply disappointed. In my mind, this can’t possibly be what author Resmaa Menakem intended as a takeaway because it would reinforce racist tropes that inequality ended with the end of slavery in 1865 and that any issue Americans who are black face today is the product of their own individual or collective moral failings. Notice how other ethnic minorities in the USA have managed to thrive.
I raise my hand and request to offer feedback because I don’t want that message to be what lingers in the group: that the trauma that Americans who are black face is that they just can’t get over slavery.
I suggest that the issue is not an inability of Americans who are black to “get over” slavery. I suggest that the issue facing Americans who are black is the persistent, ongoing, pervasive, and real systemic racism that Americans who are black face and continue to face. It is a problem in the past, the present, and unfortunately the future and if a therapist is going to try to help someone cope with it, they need to understand that. They need to understand that fully.
The therapist replies by thanking me for my feedback and agreeing that slavery was a terrible thing, which to me feels like missing the point for a second time. Yes, slavery was terrible, but that’s not what we’re talking about. This isn’t about what happened in 1865, this is about what is happening now and what will happen tomorrow and for the foreseeable future. This is not about past trauma; this is about present and future trauma.
A woman in the group — who is white — passionately states that slavery wasn’t just a disaster for Americans of African descent: “it’s just as bad on white people too. It a national shame. It causes suffering for all of us. I mean, I get asked about it all the time and I had nothing to do with it.”
Had I not just finished reading “White Fragility”, I might not have understood what I was witnessing. I recognized immediately what was happening and understood the futility of saying anything more. Had this been the first instance of white fragility in the group, I might have been surprised. Unfortunately, it was not. I felt my level of frustration and disappointment rise when the therapist didn’t speak up to correct an obviously inappropriate comment.
This isn’t a story about white fragility though. This is a story about the challenges I’m facing seeking treatment because the methodology of treatment appears to be based on “default white”.
From what I observe, a big part of the methodology of treatment for mood disorders is helping people understand the concept of “the stories we tell ourselves”. The process teaches that there are the various external stimuli that our senses perceive (sight, sound, smell), there is our filter on that input, and then there is the often distorted story we end up telling ourselves about that input due to our faulty filter. For example, you might say to me: “I notice you arrived late today” and while I hear the exact words you said I interpret it as: “You’re an unreliable person who’s always late and can’t even get to a meeting on time.” Your intention in mentioning that I’m late may have been to ask if I need support. You view me as a reliable person and when you noticed I was late today you were genuinely worried that something might have happened and you want to offer help. No judgment intended, just pure care.
A person with a history of being judged and a person with a history of being cared for will probably filter the exact same words in totally different ways.
I agree with the logic of “the stories we tell ourselves”. It’s objectively true and I know there are many stories I tell myself that I should consider changing. The problem is that I’m finding that this approach does not account for the real experiences of people of color.
In the stop-and-frisk regime of NYC, 87% of the people stopped by the police were Black and Latino, predominantly men. That is an objective fact. From what I am seeing in how the methodology is applied, a person who is white who expresses anxiety about walking down the street will be told the same thing as a person who is Black or Latino about walking down the street: “your anxiety is the product of a story you’re telling yourself. Try telling yourself a different story and your anxiety might go away.”
This isn’t fair.
For the person who is white, it might make sense that they’re telling themselves a story about danger that is inaccurate and that the streets are in fact safe. Perhaps the person who is white tells themselves this story because they were once almost kidnapped by a stranger as a child.
For a man who is Black or Latino, the fear of walking down the street might stem from a fear of being targeted for stop and frisk, which isn’t a past trauma, but a current concern that is rooted in objective facts. That story that law enforcement is stopping men who are Black or Latino at 10 times the rate of men who are white is not made up. It is real. The dangers associated with it are real. The possible negative consequences are much higher for a man who is Black or Latino, so why shouldn’t they feel anxious?
When I bring this up in the group, when I ask the question: “how should I apply the principle of ‘the story I tell myself’ to an environment where it isn’t about the stories I tell myself but rather about the stories other people tell themselves about me that cause them to treat me differently in objectively measurable and harmful ways”, I find myself feeling delegitimized and being told that I’m overthinking and trying to solve unsolvable problems. “Try to get out of your head and go into your heart. Try to focus on narrow problems, not global problems.”
I am not trying to solve a world problem. I am trying to solve an immediate and personal problem that is caused by a systemic issue so pervasive that I’ve discovered it’s worked its way into what should be a safe and healing environment. Telling me that I’m making up stories about prejudice is false and only adds to my trauma. Telling me in this specific set of circumstances that the issue isn’t other people’s prejudice, but my own distorted filter is deeply damaging. It’s so deeply disappointing, exhausting, frustrating, and demoralizing to find myself seeking help and then feeling like no matter where I am or where I go, or where I turn to, I’m in the wrong place.
Where is a safe space for me?
Where do I go for healing?