Raising the Issue of Race in Therapy

Finding the Connection between Personal and Cultural Struggles

Marlene Watson

CaseStudyWatsonsmThe 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 is a powerful force shaping 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. His fiancée, Valerie, also African American, 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.

In my experience, African Americans are reluctant to discuss slavery’s residual impact on our relationships with ourselves and one another in modern times. To get Joe to the 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 his inner strength in accomplishing 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 them in mind as he told me his story.

To read the full article in the November/December 2013 issue, subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker magazine.

Topic: Professional Development

Tags: individual therapy | marital therapy | race in therapy | racial issues

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