Confronting Subtle Racism in Therapy

A Social Justice Perspective on Language

Dee Watts-Jones
Confronting Subtle Racism in Therapy

This article first appeared in the March/April 2004 issue.

Q: As a Black therapist who’s aware of the pervasive power of language, I’m troubled when clients or colleagues use the word Black to refer to negative or unwanted traits, in phrases such as black sheep and black mark. Is it appropriate to bring up the use of racist language in a session?

A: From a social-justice perspective, I believe that addressing racism, in whatever form it appears, is always relevant to therapy. As therapists, we have a responsibility not only to our clients, but to the wider community, to speak up in the face of values and practices that oppress. So when I encounter racist language in my office, whether it can be linked directly to a family’s presenting problem or not, I address the issue.

The English language is in bed with racism, even though most of us are usually unaware of that fact. Everyday language reminds African Americans in matter-of-fact ways that our color is related to extortion (blackmail), disrepute (black mark), rejection (blackball), banishment (blacklist), impurity (not the driven snow), illicitness (black market), and death. Casting aspersions on black or darkness while praising white or light isn’t universal, and regardless of the intentions of the user of these expressions, such usage colludes with racism. Words can injure, even if the wound isn’t immediately evident.

For years, I saw the racism in many everyday expressions, but glossed over them, largely for the sake of convenience. It was convenient not to face my feelings about yet another form of assault on my identity; however, silence isn’t neutral, but an acceptance of the status quo.

My own solution for this problem now is that whether it’s an African family, a European family, or a family of color, I no longer remain silent. In a manner as respectful of the family and myself as possible, I comment, even if it’s not convenient, on my experience of the way racism is embedded in someone’s language.

What and how much I say varies in each case. Sometimes I engage the family in reflecting on the way black is used in some derogatory phrase, asking them what meaning they make of it, what impact they think its use might have on Black people. A young Black Vietnamese man, Tra, adopted by an English family, said he felt like the “black sheep” of the family. This choice of term seemed particularly poignant in that he felt his feelings were disregarded and devalued in the family. He didn’t know if his experience had anything to do with his being Black or Asian, a heritage with which he seldom identified. I shared my experience that black in this idiom is used, as in many others, to imbue something with negative meaning.

With a term like black sheep, I usually invite the family to consider coming up with another term to describe the family member who’s being referred to in this manner. Sometimes I share some idea that I’ve come up with—like “one-down” sheep. Tra came up with the term outsider as an alternative way of describing the position he felt he occupied in the family.

People of color often smile in recognition when I comment to them about the racism implicated in a particular expression. They often describe having dealt with it largely the way I used to—by ignoring it for the sake of convention. Most people of European descent, however, have never thought of how black is maligned in the language, and the racial ramifications of this.

To address racist or any oppressive language, the therapist must first recognize it. This often means taking the time and thought to see past social convention into what’s embedded. After I raised this issue among the faculty at Ackerman Institute for the Family, a colleague shared that she recognized for the first time how the verb gypped maligned Gypsies. She caught herself mid-sentence and found an alternative way to convey her feeling.

When a client uses an expression like “white lie” or “Indian-giver,” for example, I’ll usually pause to query it. I deem it worthy of time and reflection. The exception to this is when the expression is part of a highly emotional or poignant communication. In that instance, I’ll delay a discussion until later in the session or the next session. The query isn’t only about the meaning of these terms, but how they came into common usage. As therapists, we can express our discomfort with such terms and stimulate an awareness of how oppression operates in the concrete, everyday world of language. For example, with African American families, we can ask if they think terms that convey black as undesirable are connected to the negative feeling some Black people have about dark skin. We can ask people of European descent how it might impact them if the same negative meanings given to black were instead given to white. As therapists we can challenge without being judgmental or accusatory.

What impact do my challenges have? They often seem tiny, when I consider the worldwide burden of racism, yet they don’t feel tiny when I witness relief among Black trainees at having their feelings about racist language validated. It doesn’t feel tiny when whites pause to consider how their use of language can be hurtful. Perhaps they’ll become more sensitive. It didn’t feel tiny for Tra to begin to talk about the racism he’d encountered after our discussion of black sheep.

Therapy that embodies social justice means practicing more fully our understanding of the communal context in which we live. As an African American therapist, I’m responsible to the long line of ancestor voices behind me, and to the songs of my great-grandchildren ahead of me. This means continually being open to seeing the ways in which oppression hides in me and in others, and to invite others to see as well, and to act. Yes, I choose tiny over the silence of collusion. As Mother Teresa once said, in so many words, tiny with great love is all we can do.


Dee Watts-Jones, PhD, is a psychologist at Columbia University School of Public Health and at New York Presbyterian Hospital. She has published on families and women of African descent.

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