Confronting Subtle Racism in Therapy


Confronting Subtle Racism in Therapy

A Social Justice Perspective on Language

By Dee Watts-Jones

March/April 2004


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. 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…

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4 Comments

Sunday, August 30, 2020 12:25:22 PM | posted by Bianca Joseph
I agree with what Mr. Andrew Brown had to say interms of the etymology of some of these phrases and it's assimilation to darkness and light rather than skin colour. And in terms of therapy, I think that correcting racist overtones in clients would still be a therapist bias; because over here we're looking at merely one social issue, racism, when infact there are so many, how then are we to remain ethical and dedicated to the client's needs if we're going to spend effort and time correcting them to be politically and socially correct or concious? I agree it's difficult to listen to offensive language but isn't that one of our key learnings in this field, to set aside personal judgements and biases no matter how difficult? And perhaps the work in therapy itself would bring about social consciousness in the client, one could hope.

Saturday, August 22, 2020 12:51:37 PM | posted by Lynn Pierson
I second Mr. Brown's comment. I would also point out that people of all colors have different views, including Coleman Hughes' cogent review of Kendi's "How to be an Anti-Racist". I submit that as educated people we might wish to demonstrate that both views are worthy of respect.

Friday, August 7, 2020 12:10:55 AM | posted by tommalafarina
The opposite of racist isn’t “not racist.” It is “anti-racist.” What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an anti-racist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in-between safe space of “not racist.”

Saturday, July 4, 2020 7:11:40 PM | posted by Andrew Brown
Can I please ask why you have not looked up the meaning or origin of any of these so called "racist" phrases? It would have literally taken 10 seconds per phrase to find out that what you are stating in this article is baseless conjecture. Your opinion, (and that's all it is), appears to be based on your inference not that actual or intended use of said phrases. Then again, it is clear that would not fit the narrative you are trying to convey, as the fact that terms such as blacklist date back to the 1600's England and in no way shape or form had any connection to skin colour or race. To suggest so is be ignorant at best, or at worst, deliberately manipulative. Either way, I find it deeply disturbing that such bile would be spewed forth by someone from within the psychotherapy community. If this is how you address the issue of perceivably racist language with your clients, then I would suggest finding out the actual use and origin of the phrases you are attempting to demonise. The terms of white and black have historically actually been tied to light and darkness, rather than skin colour. The reason for this? In a period of history when there was nothing more than candlelight at best, the night (darkness) was viewed as dangerous because it was, (most crime took place at night and still does), the light (daytime) was viewed as safe and provided reassure. Trying to apply the modern day term for a denomination of race, to phrases that are centuries old is incredibly misguided. I usually find research and fact, to be far more useful than perception or opinion.