Confronting the Language of Subtle Racism

Commenting Even When It's Not Convenient

Dee Watts-Jones

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 . Am I being oversensitive, or 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. He experienced himself as a black sheep, 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 African descent 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 African-American 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.


This blog is excerpted from "Social Justice or Political Correctness?" by Dee Watts-Jones. The full version is available in the March/April 2004 issue, The Secret Lives of Clients: The Inside Story of What Really Happens in Therapy.

Read more FREE articles like this on Cultural, Social, and Racial Issues.

Or, find articles just like this one in our Archives on the new, enhanced Networker mobile app! Click here for more details

Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!  >>

Photo © Kiosea39/Dreamstime

Topic: Cultural, Social & Racial Issues

Tags: African American | black issues | Cultural, Social & Racial Issues | culture | racial issues

Comments - (existing users please login first)
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Tuesday, July 23, 2019 11:22:34 PM | posted by Jen
I think we're trying to reinvent the history of language in this Q&A. If you research the origin of the black sheep of the family, it has nothing to do with targeting African Americans, so I feel there is a certain amount of "reaching & formulating an incorrect assumption" going on here. We cannot go back & remove the superstition about black cats simply because the word "black" is included. Yes, racism still exists and certainly has no place in our society, but this type of opinion is not helpful in furthering full, frank and far-reaching discussions to eliminate it. If you want to spend your time removing the word "black" from every possible phrase where it is included, best wishes on that task...there are more valuable lessons to be taught.

Thursday, October 26, 2017 11:08:55 PM | posted by Rhonda
Do you know the entymology of these words? I don't think it has anything to do with black people. Instead, these words came about because up until the Scientific Revolution, astrology was the paradigm that people used to interpret the world. The night was black. Spooky unknown things happened in the dark, so people associated it with sly underhanded goings-on, the opposite of day during which light shone on everything and revealed all truth. The night was presided over by the Moon, ruled by women. Patriarchal ideas of women was that they too were sly, underhanded, and secretive, something unknown to be feared. This was bolstered by the fact women went out at night to collect herbs, deliver babies, care for sick and dying people. Men went out only during the day when the Sun could illuminate their work. So originally light was associated with men (good) and dark with women (bad). When the distinction was made between black and white people, these associations tended to unconsciously carry over. You may well think that wherever they came from, they sound racist now. Perhaps the solution lies not so much in trying to change or expunge these words as in creating new examples that show that black can also indicate something positive (black foods like eggplants are some of the most nutritious, Black Beauty was a magnificent horse) and white can also indicate something negative (whitewashing, white feather which is a mark of cowardice).