In the wake of the disturbances in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray this spring and other protests throughout the country in response to police shootings of young black men, the subject of racial injustice and what to do about it has received intense national attention. A New York Times poll reported this summer that 61 percent of Americans think race relations in the United States are generally bad, and 4 in 10 people think they’re getting worse.

In turn, many therapists have been considering how they can help address the problem of racism in America. One response that has rapidly gathered momentum since the unrest in Baltimore came not in the form of developing some new therapeutic approach, but in the shape of a growing self-help movement developed by and for the black community. Known as Emotional Emancipation Circles, it’s part of an effort to bring African Americans together to share their experiences and struggles with what Enola Aird, a lawyer, activist, and one of the founders of the movement, has called “the lie of black inferiority and the truth of black humanity.”

The Emotional Emancipation movement began in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 2009. Three years later, at a gathering led by Aird, representatives from the Association of Black Psychologists met to find ways to use the self-help model of Alcoholics Anonymous to promote intraracial healing from the emotional legacies of slavery and the historical oppression of black people. Under the guidance of leaders like Daryl Rowe, former president of the Association of Black Psychologists and professor at Pepperdine University, Emotional Emancipation Circles emerged to help create a safe place to discuss racially charged issues, including anger at police harassment, personal stories of racial discrimination, and hard-to-process feelings of racial inferiority. The name was inspired by a speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1967, titled “Where Do We Go from Here?” in which King asserted that African Americans would be free only when they wrote and signed their own emancipation proclamation.

The circles are structured as a 14-week curriculum, but exploration and action can continue indefinitely, as in Alcoholics Anonymous. Rowe describes an exercise in which a leader goes around the circle and asks people to give examples of the lies that they’ve been told about black people’s inferiority. “We get people who say they’ve never told this story in public because they were too ashamed,” he says. “What’s it like to carry that amount of shame? It’s incredibly limiting.”

There’s little to no advertising about the Emotional Emancipation Circles, as attendance is largely promoted by word of mouth. Adanna Johnson-Evans, an associate professor of psychology at Loyola University and cofacilitator of a Baltimore circle, explains that “historically, for people of African descent to find a place to recognize their humanity, they haven’t publicized those spaces.” A key element of circles is that participation is limited to African Americans. “I’ve been doing diversity training for the last 30 years,” says Rowe, “and one of the things that happens in that conversation is that there’s a conversation about white guilt, or there’s a conversation about white folks needing to be understood. But that begins to limit the engagement of black folks.” Rowe adds that he supports others’ forming complementary groups to do their own work on racial myths.

In the wake of the attention focused on police violence and racial unrest in the past year, the demand for training to begin circles has skyrocketed. Leaders have been trained in about 15 US cities, including Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown, New York after the death of Eric Garner, and Charleston after the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. “What we wanted to do in those places was to offer space for immediate trauma relief,” says Aird. “But we also wanted to help build an infrastructure to talk about the continuing trauma of racism.”

Many black therapists believe that the narrow clinical focus of the therapy field has limited its ability to address the broader social issues that underlie racism. “Psychotherapy has seen emotional struggle with racial issues as something that resides with the individual or the family,” says psychologist Marlene Watson, author of the book Facing the Black Shadow, “rather than naming and exposing historical traumas, such as the myth of black inferiority and the corollary myth of white superiority.” Watson claims that the field has been woefully negligent in attending to the therapist’s “racial self.”

Johnson-Evans challenges clinicians to examine whether the more traditional tools of therapy are sufficient to illuminate the deep historical legacy of racism. She cites reality testing a person’s dysfunctional thought record during cognitive behavioral therapy as an example. “When people come in and say they can’t get a job, or their kids are in horrible schools, or their community is dilapidated,” she says, “we can’t pretend that our job is just to talk about their feelings, or how they can think differently about their community. If therapists aren’t about expanding the conversation to talk about the social context that perpetuates oppression, then I don’t know what conversation you’re having.”

Johnson-Evans recommends that clinicians wanting to do racial work should find a mentor of the same race who has engaged in self-reflection. She warns that it’s not the responsibility of colleagues of color to help white clinicians process all racial issues: “This work is ongoing, painful, and difficult. You might come to some realizations about yourself that you don’t like. But if you say that cultural competence is important to you, then this is work that needs to be done.”

In the meantime, the Community Healing Network will host the first Global Emotional Emancipation Summit this September in Washington, DC. There’s a waiting list of 500 requests for assistance and training in running Emotional Emancipation Circles around the country and the world. The network’s goals are ambitious. “We don’t always want to be just survivors of racism,” says Aird. “We want to become a flourishing, thriving people. But because of racism, that requires concerted and intentional work on the part of all black people.”

Kathleen Smith

Kathleen Smith, PsyD, PLLC, focuses her practice on treating a number of clinical issues including: anxiety disorders (generalized anxiety, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and specific phobias), depression, ADHD, and traumatic events, including abuse and domestic violence.