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…