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The Black Shadow: Facing The Taboo Issue of Race in the Consulting Room

By Marlene Watson

The black shadow is a mostly unconscious, deep-seated belief in the myth of black inferiority. A term I coined myself, the black shadow serves to encapsulate the dysfunctional racist belief, promulgated in America since times of slavery and internalized in African Americans, that blacks are less worthy than whites. While often unacknowledged, it’s a powerful force that shapes how African Americans think about themselves and perceive one another. While race is an issue most therapists—and most clients, for that matter—are hesitant to raise in therapy, doing so expands the perspective of African American clients and helps them reframe their personal narrative by connecting it to a larger story, one shared by a community of people grappling with the same destructive self-attitudes and negative cultural legacy. Helping clients face the black shadow can help them transform it from a force of shame and isolation into one of positive connection.

My work with Joe began with premarital, not individual, therapy. Joe was a 45-year-old, never-married African American man with no children. He’d received a doctorate degree from an Ivy League university and made more than $200,000 annually working as an executive at a Fortune 500 company. His fiancée, Valerie, also African American with a six-figure salary, had a master’s degree and was an administrator in a school system. She was the one who initiated premarital therapy because she thought Joe’s frequent visits to strip clubs signaled a problem she wanted to solve before the wedding. For his part, Joe insisted that his interest in going to strip clubs was normal and Valerie’s objection to it was just her being a prude.

I began therapy with them as I would with any client, explaining that I work from a systems perspective, with attention to contextual variables, such as race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and spirituality. I told them that since race is fundamental to the life experiences of African Americans—just as the family is to each individual—it’s likely to be highly relevant to what takes place in our work together. Over the course of several sessions, I tried to uncover any individual or family behaviors, beliefs, and patterns that might shed light on the presenting issue. But Valerie grew tired of waiting on Joe to see things her way and issued an ultimatum: “Me or the strip clubs.” Joe chose strip clubs, ending their relationship and therapy.

A few months later, I received a call from Joe requesting individual therapy. “I’m an unhappy person,” he told me. So that’s where we started.

Telling the Story

In my experience, African Amer-icans are reluctant to discuss slavery’s residual impact on our relationships with ourselves and one another. To get Joe to a place of self-reflection and trust that would let him face his black shadow, I commended him for having the courage to strive for a happier life, and acknowledged the inner strength it took to accomplish all he had in his life. Most importantly, I didn’t pretend racism and internalized racism were things of the past. I told him I knew they were a reality, and asked him to keep that in mind as he told me his story.

“I guess I’m the product of my black middle-class family’s flight from urban black America to suburban white America to fulfill the American dream,” he started. “When I look at pictures, I’m the only black child surrounded by a sea of white children. I was spat on and called ‘nigger.’ But I never did anything in those situations, and sometimes I hate myself because of it.”

“What do you wish you’d done?” I asked.

“What could I have done? If I’d fought back, I’d have been suspended. I suspect being an A student was how I responded. But I paid the price emotionally. I chose strip clubs over my fiancée, and now I realize it’s because I lust after young white women.”

“When do you think this started?” I asked.

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