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Delving into Uncomfortable Truths

Phil, a 44-year-old Caucasian man married to a professional black woman, sought me out for treatment because he’d started to recognize some negative thoughts about his 12-year-old son’s interracial background, and was feeling distant from him as a result. This was a difficult topic for Phil to share because of the pain he evidently felt.

“You seem really distressed about these thoughts. It sounds as though you’re surprised to have them.” He just nodded. “You know, Phil, living in America, none of us escapes having some negative, race-based beliefs,” I said. “I get the sense that something specific happened to motivate you to schedule this appointment. Are you ready to tell me about it?”

Having encouraged a conversation about race, emphasizing empathy and validating the reality of race issues, I moved on to explore the specifics of the distressing race-based experience that had brought him into therapy. Phil told me of a recent incident in which he’d decided to surprise his 12-year-old and pick him up from school after basketball practice. As Phil walked from his car toward the school, he saw a group of adolescent African American males walking down the street, talking and laughing. Phil found himself thinking of the boys as “hoodlums” and “thugs,” and even thought of crossing the street, before recognizing his son in “the pack.” He looked up at me with shame, saying, “There’s a black man living in my house, and he’s my son.” He wondered when he’d stopped looking at his son adoringly and protectively, and started looking at him as “other than.”

We were ready then for the next step, bridging from the race-defined experience to more universal experiences. This incident had damaged Phil’s self-image as a decent human being and loving father, and had alienated him from his son. The goal of therapy became to help Phil see this young man as his son again, not just as a black man-child; to help Phil to reconnect with his role as a father; and to take the conversation from the narrow focus of race to a broader view of our shared humanity.

I asked him to tell me more about his son: “Tell me about his birth, and what you felt when you held him for the first time.” I then asked Phil about his most cherished memory of his son to help rekindle paternal feelings of connection and protectiveness. This process helped him reconnect with his sense of decency and humanity within the realities of race relations in America.

Overcoming Avoidance

Cathy, a 50-year-old Caucasian woman, entered therapy complaining of depression. She’d had a significant, but not debilitating, injury at work. During her recovery, her mother had been very supportive; however, when Cathy’s African American sister-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer soon after Cathy’s injury, her mother was noticeably unsupportive of the sister-in-law. Cathy had always been uncomfortable with the fact that her mother favored her over her sister-in-law. The current circumstances served to highlight this privileged status. Cathy tried to compensate for her mother’s neglect, and she pleaded with her mother to change her ways. As these attempts failed, guilt and depression began to set in.

I began treatment with Cathy by focusing on everything except race. We discussed her depression and codependent tendencies. I worked to help her develop distress-tolerance skills, assertive communication, you name it. She’d listen patiently, and then bring the focus back to her greatest concerns: her racist mother, her sense of privilege resulting from her mother’s racism, and her guilt about that.

Cathy had come to therapy seeking a conversation about race. She was forthright in speaking about her distressing experiences. I was the one who resisted, and, as with so many in the profession, I resisted out of discomfort; however, my discomfort was related to fatigue and overexposure, rather than lack of experience in dealing with race matters.

After the second time that Cathy refocused me on the family race issues that so distressed her, I began to question myself. Why did my client have to remind me of the focus of treatment? Then it dawned on me. I was tired of dealing with race—from banal transgressions to overt acts of racism—on a daily basis. Out of my fatigue, I’d been trying to create a place where race couldn’t intrude, but Cathy wasn’t having any of that. So rather than retreat from the pain, I leaned in to it once again.

Since Cathy was ready and willing to talk openly about race, we moved quickly to the third step, broadening the therapy scope from her mother’s racism to Cathy’s sense of loss in that relationship: “What’s it like to see your mother in this light?” “What has recognizing your mother’s racism meant in your relationship with her?” Cathy began to tear up as she talked about her changed image of her mother, and the sadness that resulted.

The therapy process then transitioned seamlessly to the fourth and final step. We explored her lost hope that her mother would change and the different type of relationship that would need to develop, which would have to encompass understanding and tolerance of the reality of family racism. The focus of therapy had progressed from changing her mother’s racist actions to accepting her mother’s limitations and grieving the loss. As with Sandra and Phil, race was a vehicle that helped Cathy confront timeless issues of connectedness, compassion for self and others, and the limits inherent in all relationships. This also got at the root of her depression about her mother’s limitations.

The approach outlined here validates the difficult aspects of race relations, the reality of racism for all of us, and the often difficult feelings and painful self-discovery associated with race issues. It allows us to begin challenging the taboo of race, along with the judgment and shame that our society has ascribed to race issues. Working through this process, I see clients shift from shame and anger to greater self-acceptance, from the perspective of us versus them to a potentially broader perspective of just us—humankind.

Shari Kirkland, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area, is coauthor of Red Hot Relationships and Cooling Red Hot Relationships, and a frequent guest on KCBS radio. Contact:

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