It was two o'clock on the morning of a summer day in 1988. I'd been lying awake for hours, tossing and turning on the twin bed of a retreat center at a beautiful national park in South Carolina. I'd been facilitating a diversity-training session for mental health professionals whose clients were mostly poor and working-class blacks and Latinos. My job was to help them become more "open, aware, and sensitive" to racial issues, but the first day had been an unmitigated disaster. Now, every time I closed my eyes, I saw and heard the evidence of my failure—participants' comments and faces flashing through my mind, one after another. I was being haunted by sneers, snarls, looks of disparagement, disdain, and disgust.
That morning, I'd begun presenting a list of "Ten Strategies for Coming to Terms with Race in Clinical Practice." At first, the group seemed respectful, though slightly distracted. By the time I'd gotten to my third point—that "whiteness is privileged, and being a person of color is a disadvantage"—I could sense a thickening of the air.
At the back of the room, two gray-haired gentlemen, both wearing wired-rimmed glasses, were whispering to each other; one shook his head emphatically in agreement, with a grim smile. Trying to break the tension, I somewhat playfully asked, "So what do you guys think about all of this, back there in your corner?" Both looked slightly embarrassed and hesitant about speaking, but after some prodding, one of them said sarcastically, "I don't think you really want to know what I think!" "Believe me, I honestly do: go for it," I encouraged, trying to defuse some of the tension.
"Well," he said, "I think this is all bullshit, and I have no intention of sitting through two and a half days of listening to you whine about how whites have done this and that to you. Maybe it's time for you and your soul brothers and sisters to start taking responsibility for your problems and stop using us whites as your whipping boys. I know exactly where all this is going, and I have better things to do with my time!" There were nods of assent, sarcastic laughs, a few high-fives.
I was completely unprepared for this reaction, first shocked, then hurt, then angry. I retorted in a louder, more aggressive voice than I'd intended, "Maybe we both know where this is going! You want to talk about responsibility? Why don't you whites ever take responsibility for what you do?"
The room was no longer silent, but buzzing with muttered exchanges, along with boos and jeers. One participant turned to her colleague and said loudly enough for me and others to hear, "And this angry bigot thinks he's going to teach me something! I don't think so! I refuse to sit here and allow him to try to make me feel guilty for everything that I've worked hard to get. Hell no!"
That night, as I lay there sleepless, I saw not only the hostile, white faces of this group, but also the faces of my own family: I saw my mother, a native daughter of South Carolina, and I felt the pain she'd suffered growing up as a black woman in the segregated South. I saw my father and my grandparents, who wore the emotional scars of racism their whole lives. I couldn't remember another time in my life when I'd felt so misunderstood, beaten, and hopeless.
Changing the World
When I got my doctorate in family therapy, I went to work in community-based organizations in New York and Pennsylvania, believing that I'd change the world, one black, inner-city neighborhood at a time. To my disappointment, the black youths I tried to help didn't seem willing or able to understand the complexities of racism and how it affected their lives: they seemed strangely complacent, without urgency. At the same time, the whites I worked with didn't seem anxious to change the status quo either. I found the lack of fervor by blacks and whites, and certainly my own lack of impact, deeply discouraging.
So I tried another tack. I began using the experiences from my community-based work to formulate ideas about what therapists needed to know to work with disaffected populations. I began conducting workshops for therapists focused on increasing their clinical effectiveness with African Americans and other clients of color. Much to my surprise, these workshops were a hit. People got it! And, within a few months, I'd begun to receive a steady stream of requests from diverse organizations. It was work I loved, not least because I finally felt that I was making a genuine difference.
A few years later, I received the fateful offer I couldn't refuse: to facilitate a diversity training session in my mother's home state of South Carolina. So at the end of that awful first day, part of the reason for my distress—besides the hurt of being attacked and my wounded pride at seeing my self-image as Racial Healer crumble—was that this wasn't just another training: it was taking place in a region fraught with history for my family, my people, my country.
The two-hour flight back to New York seemed like an eternity. "I can't do this anymore!" I thought, "It isn't worth the costs to my soul, spirit, or sense of self." I'd put my training and passion to some other use: I'd work with people who'd value me and appreciate what I could offer.
Resolved to walk away from it all, I felt a sense of relief and peace. Back home, ready for the first time in days to get a decent night's sleep, I fell into bed, closed my eyes, thinking that it was finally time to stop hitting my head against a wall. I'd never felt so tired.
As my eyes were closing, I was interrupted by my great-grandmother, Anna, whose image hovered above my bed. She'd lived with my family until she died, when I was junior in college. Now, leaning over me, lovingly but with an obvious look of disappointment, she administered a reprimand: "Tired? You say you're tired? Who are you to be tired? People have been hosed, jailed, beaten, shot, and lynched for you, and never once complained about being tired. You don't even know what tired is! You want to quit because it's too hard, but you can't be loved by everybody. It isn't about you, and you have to stop making it about you. I don't want to hear nothing else about you quitting or being tired!" Then her image evaporated.
I can't say that this was exactly my conversion on the road to Damascus, but I was disturbed enough the next morning that I decided that I couldn't quit just yet; maybe I did need to hang in and not give up so easily, maybe even grow up a little.
As I went about doing other workshops on diversity, the shadow of South Carolina loomed large. I felt less apt to rattle off quick, assured, ill-thought-out responses. I became less spontaneous and "authentic" in some ways, and more cautious. It was like learning to drive a standard shift again, all jerky and prone to unexpected lurches and stalls. But something new began to dawn on me: the power of patience, of being more willing to back up and try again, to listen before rushing on. It wasn't as much fun as being a self-assured star, but slowly I began to "find my touch."
During several ensuing trainings, I made a concerted effort to avoid getting seduced into "chasing ambulances," as I began to refer to the process of being mesmerized into going after participants' provocative, highly charged comments. While that worked as long as the exchanges occurred among the participants, I wasn't so great when comments were directed at me. With flashbacks of South Carolina, I often clammed up, my head nearly bursting with pent-up feelings, or I jumped too quickly into the fray, getting involved in nonproductive, one-on-one sparring matches. In either case, my inability to manage this recurring dynamic was stifling my effectiveness. I recognized that whatever strides I'd made since the South Carolina nadir, I definitely had room to improve.
One cold wintry Sunday afternoon after a long, intense workweek, I was sitting in my living room watching a tight NBA basketball game between my beloved Lakers and their archrivals, the Sacramento Kings. During the last, breathless seconds of the game, the Laker star player was about to score a basket for a sure win. But instead of just keeping it simple, he elected to do a flashy 360-degree slam-dunk, missed the shot, and lost the game. The Laker arena fell silent. The television commentator's remarks were merciless: "This is what happens when you allow the show to get in the way of the game."
His words struck me like a gong. It was as if he were talking to me, not as a basketball fan, but as a trainer/consultant. That's what I'd done—let the show get in the way of the game, letting my desire to be a heroic warrior for social justice get in the way of the slower process of working with people where they were to build relationships and expand awareness.
Today, I see my role in a new way. My work isn't about educating the unenlightened: it's about helping people see the insidious impact of the "otherness process." This may be a universal human experience: the manufacturing of "the other" promotes rigid polarization. Once this positioning has occurred, constructive engagement is virtually impossible, as I found in South Carolina. Admittedly, when facing hostility and rejection, our task poses formidable challenges, but failing to resist the seductions of "otherness" is failing at a fundamental principle of our work.
This blog is excerpted from "When 'Them' Become 'Us'" by Ken Hardy. The full version is available in the January/February 2009 issue, Face to Face: The Art of Connection in the Age of Screenworld.
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