Before 2011, I planned on playing professional basketball after college. My knees had other plans. So instead of heading toward the NBA or international pro teams, I pivoted toward clinical psychology PhD programs. Drowning in what felt like a sea of applications, I decided to take a break and visit my African American father, who was 54 at the time, and engaged in a head-on fight against racism within the local fire department where he worked. At his job, the message was subtle but clear: whites were welcomed, and non-whites were begrudgingly tolerated. His fervor and courage were palpable, but everyone’s energy has limits, especially considering how white supremacy is systematically hellbent on destroying the minds, bodies, and dignity of Black people.
I was afraid. I noticed his stress increasing year after year, decade after decade. I saw how he carried it in his body, how it increased his use of vices, and how it led to challenges regulating anger. One evening, during my visit, I voiced my fear.
“You can’t just keep fighting,” I managed to tell him, my voice laced with fear. “You have to think about your health and staying alive. This fight will kill you.”
Holding a cigar in his weathered hand, he released a cloud of smoke from his mouth. “If I don’t draw a line in the sand, if I let them push me around, they’ll fuck over every Black person behind me,” he said in a deep voice. “Fighting is our message.”
Racism Is Warfare
I saw dad as a superhero: relentless, powerful, energetic. I thought nothing could stop him, until I saw the toll racist psychological warfare took on him. His self-esteem had been continually challenged through microaggressions, such as the denial of his obvious intelligence or the unbalanced enforcement of rules depending on the rulebreaker’s skin color. No matter how much they demeaned him, Dad always responded by working even harder to become the best firefighter he could be.
Eventually, evidence was found that the fire department had been systematically denying Black firefighter applications for decades. To keep the fire department as white as possible, they’d even threatened violence against my father. Early on, a senior white firefighter had dangled a noose behind Dad’s head when his back was turned, as white firefighters laughed at the dehumanizing gesture. (That firefighter is currently a top officer at the department.) Later, another white firefighter cut holes in Dad’s firefighter gear, which, thankfully, he noticed before entering into the next fire, because he likely would’ve died from smoke inhalation. This behavior wasn’t surprising. In the ’60s and ’70s, in this very department, Ku Klux Clan membership forms were openly handed out in between shifts.
Still, Dad beat these odds. He rose to the rank of Fire Marshal, protecting residents in the same Norwalk housing projects he’d lived in as a child. Despite his advancements, more psychological warfare followed. I knew it sapped his energy, but at the same time, he seemed energized by the fight. As a person whose life had been filled with hardship, he seemed ready for whatever the world threw his way.
When Dad was 11 years old, his mother had fallen into a deep depression after losing her granddaughter to leukemia. Eventually, that depression escalated into obsessions, hoarding, and finally early-onset Alzheimer’s. Emotionally abandoned, with no father present, and needing to care for his ill mother, he had no choice but to become a man. And like many Black boys living in the projects in the 1960s, his environment demanded he fight, or die.
I’ve always admired Dad’s warrior-like attitude, but his deteriorating health showed me his fighting back wasn’t sustainable. So with the clinical knowledge I hoped to garner, I was determined to find a way to make the fight with racism sustainable, to provide Black and Brown people with more energy and resilience as they engage in psychological warfare against white supremacy.
Owning the Grit America Gave Me
In 2013, I began my clinical PhD program, thinking, like many nonwhite students recruited to “diversify” psychology, that higher education was genuine in its support of research that challenged white supremacy (ha!).
Almost immediately, I was shocked by the truth. Every day, I witnessed Black mentors experience racism in the same institutions through which they were seeking to eradicate it—and these were professors who’d been recruited to improve the diversity of faculty and graduate students!
I also witnessed the gaslighting component of racist warfare. It was as if these white institutions were saying, “Come, we aren’t racist! Help us solve racism in the world. Your work is so valuable!” But then they’d use subtle hostility, denial, and retaliation when held accountable for their own racism. They acted as if no one had a racist bone in their body, even as they perpetuated racism in plain sight.
My Black mentors didn’t talk about the warfare they experienced, but I could see the toll it took on them, the demoralization they felt. I felt as if they were supposed to protect us nonwhite students, but they couldn’t even protect themselves. I was afraid, but I had to learn to protect myself.
A former college basketball player, I’m no stranger to developing skills and pushing myself hard. Many Black men are told they can only become athletes or rappers—the roles white supremacy sees as most fit for us. When I was younger, this meant long hours on the blacktop, working on my game to attract college recruiters, all while avoiding run-ins with gang members, resisting the drug life, and plenty of other obstacles.
The grit my childhood environment demanded of me translated to academia as well. I read everything I could get my hands on. As a Black man, I had to be better than average. By training to become the best psychologist possible, at least racism wouldn’t gaslight me out of the abilities I’d earned through hard work—exactly what dad had taught me. Later, I recognized the fight would take all of me—and like my father, I had to be relentless.
Western Systems, Western ‘Truths’
In 2015, I was placed in a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) supervision group led by an older white woman—who happened to be one of my Black mentor’s racist tormenters. She gave my white peers full caseloads, while rarely giving me clients at all. I decided to keep my head down and take what clinical hours I could get, rather than provoke attacks from a racist with power over me. After all, I felt blessed as it was: here I was, a Black man in a PhD program, only one generation out of poverty. So, with my two-client caseload, I continued to sharpen my craft.
One client was an adult Black male struggling to finish his degree while living in a predominately Black, impoverished environment. CBT focuses on helping clients track and challenge “unrealistic” or “unhelpful” thoughts and replace them with “helpful” thoughts. As the theory goes, by changing thoughts, feelings change, thus cultivating wellbeing. But when I’d ask this client to consider the reality of his thoughts, or challenge his own perspectives related to the impoverished environment he was trapped in, he’d roll his eyes. “Accepting my reality helps me navigate it, bro,” he’d say.
Over time, I learned that he rarely had space to rest in his life, constantly feeling the need to prove himself, defend himself, be his own cheerleader, and finish his degree. He’d spent so much of his life fighting. Now, he was fighting his therapist to prove that his thoughts weren’t “distorted.” He knew his experience.
I decided to shift my approach and allow him simply to be himself: to be well-boundaried, to argue with me whenever he felt he needed to, and to have the swagger and compensatory confidence that his environment demanded of him—without calling it into question. I learned to listen instead of challenging what our white-led field deemed “realistic.”
White supremacy had infiltrated his community via gerrymandering and elections. It had drained financial resources from it through gentrification and redlining. It had traumatized his family, friends, and neighbors by creating conditions of scarcity- and then punishing natural responses to scarcity, like theft and violence, with mass incarceration.
“You’re not worthy!” the world had been screaming at my client. White supremacy wants to gaslight Black and Brown people like him into seeing their perceptions as “distorted,” and my client’s compensatory sense of confidence was his means of psychological survival. Despite the messages he was being sent, he wanted to love himself anyway. His confidence was not something that should be pathologized. After feeling my acceptance of him, he began to open up and accept himself and his reactions as natural and necessary. This self-acceptance led to a reduction in symptoms and increased his school and relationship satisfaction, after which he could better align with his values and cultivate a sense of peace, one that wasn’t dependent on white supremacy’s approval.
Several weeks later, in group supervision, I was sharing his success story and improvements when my white supervisor cut me off in front of the group and said that my client likely had narcissistic personality disorder. I could hardly keep from rolling my eyes. Imagine that, I thought to myself. A Black person who actually loves himself as he is!
This led me to confront an ugly truth about psychotherapy: most of its doctrines, teachings, and modalities—things that many therapists consider to be objective truths about mental health—are based on white-led research and white research subjects. Woven within this is the unconscious belief that white people, experiences, and forms of expression are at the center of the universe. Then, these whitewashed perspectives are framed to unassuming clients as “universally healthy.” Even when Black thinkers make it into the halls of academia, they’re forced to adopt whitewashed perspectives if they wish to be taken seriously.
Awareness as Armor
By 2016, I’d found a different supervisor. He was white, but he was also an avid practitioner of mindfulness, which I took deep interest in.
Mindfulness originated outside of Western psychology, in Eastern philosophies of well-being. The more I’d been looking for answers on how to combat supremacist psychological warfare using Western psychology, the more I came up short. I realized that my clients—and I—needed sharper tools to liberate us from what society had conditioned us to believe about ourselves as non-white people.
Once I took up mindfulness practice, I was able to anchor my awareness in the moment. I started seeing suffering in myself and in clients not caused by symptoms or sickness, but by environments.
Thanks to mindfulness, now I looked at the quality of soil, not at the tree’s wilted leaves. I later learned this thinking style is called Liberation Psychology, which aims to identify and challenge culturally biased, normalized lifestyles that cause suffering via systems. Despite what the medical model asserts, I realized there’s nothing inherently wrong with humans. Nature labels none of her creations disordered for responding naturally. If we want to eliminate psychopathology, then we should be diagnosing the systems, the collective psychological soil which is the root of all suffering.
Over the remainder of my graduate school career, I practiced mindfulness and meditation daily to liberate myself. I stopped thinking about concepts and observed life as it happened. Awareness showed me the truth of my direct experience. Awareness revealed the so-called “truths” that supremacy was attempting to force upon me. Awareness cleansed my mind and expanded my heart.
I was directly experiencing my humanity, and trusting what I saw more than what I read—or what white supremacy told me. Awareness was the balance I’d been seeking, cool water to balance the fire of warriorship I’d learned from my father. Now, I felt fully ready to meet the challenges of racist warfare.
A student once asked a Vajrayana Buddhist master, “How do I dissolve experience?”
The master replied, “You don’t dissolve experience, you penetrate it.”
Today, I experience the rage, sadness, and fear of supremacy, but awareness allows me to feel so fully that these emotions become fuel for heart-directed purposes. Thanks to dad, mentors, clients, and awareness, I’ve learned what it means to contact my humanity directly and ride the energetic intensity into battle, rather than being overwhelmed by the waves.
Like my father before me I’ll continue to wage war against racism, confident that awareness will hold my aim steady.
Broderick Adam Sawyer, PhD, or “Dr. B,” is a clinical psychologist, consultant, public health educator, and meditation teacher. His work centers on liberation psychology, compassion, meditation, and racial healing. He trains therapists, activists, businesses, and universities across a variety of applied topics, such as liberation psychology, compassion, meditation, and more. He also leads monthly online meditation retreats through his website. Contact: brodericksawyer.com.