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.
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.”
One week, he told me he’d stopped going into the office on weekends, though he checked his email on Sunday evening so as not to have any surprises Monday morning. “Sometimes I feel like I should still be working every chance I get—because what woman wants an unemployed black man?—but then I realize that’s my black shadow talking.”
As he began to reframe his personal narrative into a larger picture and understand the black shadow’s role in his life, Joe started to heal. Together we developed more affirmations to help him keep the black shadow at bay, such as “I’m a smart black man. I’m not a nothing. I grew up in a white environment that told me I was nothing, but I don’t have to accept it.” Since he enjoyed film, I encouraged him to look for positive sources of black identity in movies. In subsequent sessions, we used those external sources as bridges into his new, positive identity. For instance, I asked Joe to make a list of adjectives or phrases that describe positive black male identity. “Pride in your black heritage, standing up for what’s right, thinking positively, and giving back,” Joe listed.
“You can practice daily gratitude and appreciation when you observe these behaviors in other black men or when you exhibit them yourself,” I suggested.
Eventually, Joe’s conversation with himself shifted from focusing on negative feelings about homeless black men to positive feelings about African American contributions to society. “My work, what I do, is my proof that I’m a man of worth,” declared Joe in one session, and he went on to tell me that he’d joined a professional association of black men in his field, which helped him connect to a larger community.
Rewriting the Story
On his own, Joe looked up four white classmates from high school and met them for dinner a few times. Grinning, he told me they were happy to see him. “I wanted to know what they’d thought of me back then,” he continued. “And I was surprised when they all said that they thought I was the smartest guy in school.” This helped Joe remember that he hadn’t been totally alone in high school—at least a few of his white classmates had been friendly and thought well of him.
Eventually, Joe decided to go back to his elementary school to speak to the students about his profession and accomplishments in school. That experience had a profound effect on him, bringing his lifelong feeling of shame and humiliation to the forefront of his awareness. “I recognized the little boy inside me who felt so bad about himself all the time,” he said. “I told him he’d grow up to be a very smart black man. I told him he’d understand better why he felt the way he did. I told him the way he felt wasn’t his fault, no one had prepared him to face blatant acts of racism. Most of all, I told him I was grateful to him for not giving up.”
After several months, Joe ended therapy on a good note. He no longer went to the strip clubs he’d visited for so many years to get relief from his sense of shame and inadequacy. He joined a dating site with the intent of finding a long-term partner (he preferred it be a black woman but was open to other ethnic groups), and he was no longer distraught about making mistakes at work. As he put it, “I’ve pulled stuff off from the top to find something new underneath. I know who I am. I feel like I’ve become an enlightened black man.”
By removing his exceptional black male mask and being more authentic, he found that he could be in touch with his real feelings and the true struggle that African Americans face. He became better able to accept himself as a black man without any shame, knowing the difference between his true worth and society’s myth of black inferiority.
The seemingly personal problems that Joe worked through—his deep sense of worthlessness, his isolation, his perfectionism—were all connected to larger issues of race and identity. I believe that helping clients recognize that our minds absorb and repeat the myths about our worth that we get from our caregivers, teachers, and the culture at large is a central part of the therapist’s task. In Joe’s case, I addressed the black shadow. In other cases, people have internalized negative messages about their sexual orientation, gender, or other identity markers in ways that affect their relationships, livelihood, and sense of well-being. By confronting toxic, unacknowledged beliefs that live in the shadows of clients’ awareness, therapists can help them enlarge their personal stories to tap into a powerful source of transformation—turning the isolation of suffering into a way of connecting with a larger community that shares their struggles and their hopes.
By David Waters
My hat is off to Marlene Watson for presenting her interesting concept of the black shadow in this case study, which involves a number of powerful issues, both sociological and psychological. Beyond that, it poses questions about a range of therapeutic issues and theories, and allows us to debate what works best, with some excellent particulars in hand.
The case begins not just with the huge challenge of racism and its effects, but sexism as well, as Joe’s race and his view of women—and even the race of the women he has feelings for—are sources of confusion and shame. That nasty double jeopardy has disabled Joe in terms of feeling successful and legitimate in the world, being capable of intimacy, and even knowing what he desires. In fact, he starts out struggling with the two most basic (and intertwined) issues of therapy: acceptance of one’s self and the capacity for intimacy with others.
As Watson steps into this fierce mix, her own legitimacy as a helper for Joe is potentially undermined by her gender and his projections about how black women see black men, especially around racial choices. Yet she succeeds at bringing Joe into a new relationship with himself and (we can hope) women. Along the way, she introduces and seems to make good use of a wide variety of therapeutic approaches: cognitive-behavioral therapy, internal family systems work, narrative therapy, systems therapy, and a family-of-origin focus, supported by a healing trip back to the site of an early and formative trauma. But more importantly, I see Watson’s case study as an excellent example of undoing shame through an attachment-oriented approach, which is characterized by the kind of strong relationship between therapist and client that makes much greater emotional depth in the client’s self-inquiry possible.
Shame is a difficult issue to treat and requires extraordinary trust in the therapist. From the start—even in the wake of the failed premarital therapy—Watson conveyed her acceptance of Joe and her belief in him as a person of value and potential, allowing him to open up to her about his deeply felt sense of inadequacy. In fact, she conveyed her acceptance of him so genuinely that, with her support, he was able to confront his self-disgust and the humiliating early experiences that had shaped his view of himself. No amount of cognitive therapy in the world can accomplish what Watson did through the healing relationship she established with Joe, allowing him to feel like she “got” him and his experiences.
Although I’d like to understand Watson’s ideas more fully, addressing the black shadow in therapy appears to have been enormously helpful in supporting her sympathetic understanding of Joe. It gave Joe a wider context for understanding the choices he made in his life and enabled him to move beyond a focus on the “wrongness” of those choices to a broader grasp of the challenges imposed by the black shadow—challenges that, rather than isolating him, now connected him to a much larger narrative than the story of his own life.
Illustration © Sally Wern Comport
Marlene Watson, PhD, LMFT, is an associate professor in the Couple & Family Therapy Department at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She’s the author of the e-book Facing the Black Shadow.
David Waters, PhD, is a psychologist in private practice in Charlottesville, Virginia. He was a professor of family medicine and psychiatry at the University of Virginia Medical School for 37 years. He retired in 2008.