In the private sanctuary of our offices, most of us can usually keep the emotional barometer within a comfortable range. Because therapy builds slowly on an established relationship, confrontations and criticisms, when they occur, tend to be muted and indirect. When we're activated by a challenging client, we have at our disposal an ample theoretical framework---transference, countertransference, family-of-origin issues---for keeping attacks at arm's length and helping us keep our composure.
But when we step outside our offices to apply our therapy skills in doing public work, the rules of engagement are vitally different. A journey through racism, sexism, homophobia, or other thorny and contentious issues means traversing a rockier road.
Facilitating dialogue on these topics often brings together people who've been historically divided, with little personal investment or trust in one another. We can't hide behind the walls of a private office: we're exposed, "out there," judged in a court of public opinion that isn't always kind or forgiving. Furthermore, we have no widely accepted framework or vocabulary to serve as a guide when the going gets rough---which is something I can testify about from painful personal experience.
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.
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 priv¬ileged, and being a person of color is a disadvantage"---I could sense a thickening of the air.
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.
Connecting with "the Other"
But even since then, I've come to see my role in a different way. My work isn't about educating the unenlightened: it's about helping people see the insidious impact of the "otherness process"---turning a person or a group into "the other." This may be a universal human experience: the manufacturing of "the other" promotes rigid polarization, based on the idea that one group is right and the other is wrong. Once this positioning has occurred, constructive engagement is virtually impossible.
The creation of "the other" is the dynamic at the heart of divorce and personal antagonisms, and it has always been central to racism, sexism, homophobia, and ethnic persecution. The mindset is always the same: "I/we are right, you/they are wrong, and if anything is to change, you/they must change."
My original identity as a self-righteous crusader for social justice had tripped me up. To become a true agent of change, I couldn't afford to see the world---literally and figuratively---as either black or white, us and them. I had to recognize how easily I myself could become "the other." I began to let in something that white women and gay white men had repeatedly reminded me of: that they weren't just white and privileged---they were also female and gay. To them, I was, as a heterosexual male, "the other," interacting with them from my own position of privilege. I needed to come to the uncomfortable realization that there may be a tiny piece of an oppressor in many victims---and a tiny bit of a victim in many oppressors.
When I'm severely tested in my work of helping individuals and groups bridge their differences, I've learned that the "otherness process" is usually at the root of the problem. Whether it's a white client in therapy who disparages "niggers" as he discusses his daughter's attraction to black males, or a member of the clergy accusing me of the being the Antichrist, who'll burn in hell unless I change my tolerance of homosexuals, my position is the same. I make every effort to adhere to the three core principles that guide my work: (1) the attack, insult, or accusation may be about me, but my reaction and how I respond must not be about me; (2) to find the healing and transformative potential in dialogue, my job is to respond in ways that promote, rather than suppress, heartfelt conversation; (3) validation is the bridge to constructive engagement across differences.
Anyone who wishes to move outside the consulting room to address racial, ethnic, or sexual differences must rely on the bedrock belief that everyone has redeemable parts, and you can find them if you have the will and the patience to look. The biggest lesson I’ve taken from my work is recognizing my assumption that there was nothing in any of the participants that could be redeemed: they were all 100-percent "other"---belligerent, resistant, recalcitrant, closed-minded bigots. That they'd shown up for the training, were engaging in the process, were expressing their views in ways that were (God knows) honest and transparent, and had long since committed themselves to the helping professions hadn't registered with me.
To do this kind of work, we must learn to see through the myth of otherness: we must recognize that all people, no matter how flawed, have redeemable capacities in their being. It's our responsibility to find their virtues and connect with them. Admittedly, when facing hostility and rejection, our task poses formidable challenges, but failing to look for the redeemable qualities in "the other" amounts to a retreat from the possibility of relationship.
Once we move outside our offices, idealism and good intentions aren't enough. We must bear in mind a fundamental principle of our work: whatever the seductions of the "otherness process," our apparent enemies have the potential to be fair, just, kind, and true---in other words, genuine human beings, just like us.
This blog is excerpted from "When 'Them' Become 'Us'." Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!
mental health professionals