Breathing Room

Breathing Room

Creating a Zone of Safety and Connection for Angry Black Teens

By Ken Hardy

May/June 1996

At 14, Malik is nearly full grown. He bops into his first therapy session dressed in jeans so baggy that two of him could fit into them, with a 3-inch black belt that doesn't do anything to keep them from riding so low that they could fall off at any moment. He's here because he has been suspended from school for talking back to his teacher. As he slouches in his chair and looks bored, I sit with the team, observing the session through the one-way mirror.

Valerie, the therapist in the room, is a white woman in her early thirties, one of my trainees. Because Malik is African American and dressed in the uniform of his generation, I worry that Valerie will automatically experience him as menacing. As she closes the door, I can already sense how her discomfort pervades the room. A fine therapist, Valerie is clearly more guarded and tentative than I've ever seen her. Later, she denied she was afraid of Malik then added that she was never comfortable with teenagers. When we discussed it further, she said she worried that admitting to being afraid of a 14-year-old African-American boy who hadn't done anything but slump sullenly in a chair would mean she was a racist. This is a problem many of my white colleagues and trainees encounter: when is their fear justified, and when is it the noxious fallout of racism?

Malik describes his unhappiness in school, telling the therapist, "You can't trust the Man," and "They're out to get you." He is speaking in code,…

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