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Joe paused. “My initial sexual desires were for the white girls in my class when I was growing up. Back then, it seemed like white girls were pretty and clean, and black girls were the opposite. Now it’s more complex. The whole thing has left me confused, unhappy, and hating myself. When other men were experimenting, dating, finding out who they were, I was sitting alone in my room, studying, and feeling frustrated because the white girls I was attracted to wouldn’t give me the time of day. A more normal person would get married and live a happier, fuller life.”

Over the course of several sessions, Joe detailed his desire for white women and negative attitude about black women. He seemed anxious at times, lowering his head as he spoke, not looking directly at me. I asked whether he was concerned about my being a black woman and judging him. He said he was, because black women often bashed black men for chasing white women. I assured him he wasn’t the first black man to struggle with this issue in my office. In fact, I told him that this is what racism did to a people, not just him. I told him his struggle was related to the age-old myth of black inferiority, which dates back to slavery and is coupled with our modern-day alienation from each other in our common struggle.

In our next session, I asked Joe more details about his family history and childhood. He said his father was active in the civil rights movement, but his family didn’t discuss the daily racism they experienced. Instead, they maintained a focus on achievement, loyalty, and the way “proper” children should act. Yet his father was adamantly “pro-black” and forbade romantic relationships with white people. Joe and his siblings were expected to be model African Americans who’d someday use their education to make a difference in the plight of Africa.

One time in the fifth grade when Joe had failed to complete a homework assignment, his white teacher had stood him up before his white classmates and said, “See him, he’ll never amount to anything.” He was devastated, and never told his parents or anyone else in his family about this experience. From then on, however, he focused obsessively on his studies. In high school, he traded dating and friendships for perfect grades, graduating as the valedictorian of his senior class, along with a white girl.

“Being valedictorian seemed to reinforce your sense of being ‘the exceptional black’ but not of being as good as whites,” I said.

“I wasn’t black, but I wasn’t white,” Joe replied. He then added, “I still worry that if I make a mistake at work, my white colleagues will think it’s because I’m black. I’m the first car in the parking lot, and the last to leave.”

“Being the exceptional black seems to leave you suspended in midair, disconnected from blacks and not feeling accepted by whites. You’re sort of homeless,” I noted.

Joe confirmed my observation as he described the rage and worthlessness he’d felt during his university years. “When I’d cross campus, I’d be so angry. I’d see pretty white women on campus, and feel they didn’t even see me. I was a nonentity to them. I’d think to myself, I’m a nothing? Why would they want to see me? I’d see other black men on campus sitting on corners begging for money and food, and I’d feel ashamed. I’m ashamed of being black,” he confessed, “and ashamed of being ashamed of being black. Not only that, now when I see a well-to-do black man with a white woman, I feel like he’s a traitor, having given up on black people.”

Facing the Black Shadow

Clearly, Joe was being strangled by his intertwining beliefs and experiences, and he needed help to untangle himself from them. “Joe,” I said, “that voice in your head that whispers, ‘I’m a nothing’ is what I call your black shadow. I’ve learned to befriend my own black shadow and to converse with it. I tell my black shadow, ‘Black inferiority and white superiority were made up to justify slavery. I will not let it poison my mind.’ You can do the same. You might say, ‘It’s absurd to look at white women and feel like a nothing. That’s the black shadow talking. In reality, I’m a conscious and conscientious black man. I know I’m not a nothing.’”

Joe looked shocked when I offered this affirmation, but he seemed to digest it. Each week, when I checked in with him about his relationship with the black shadow, he told me he was getting to know it and could even feel it creeping over him at times, at which point he’d say to himself, “I won’t give you power over me.”

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