Trapped in a Wall-Less Prison

Bridging the Racial Gulf by Listening to Untold Stories

Ken Hardy

I’ve spent the last four decades of my life working with young people who see themselves as trapped behind a wall-less prison with no exits, who live their lives hidden in the shadows of invisibility as far as white society is concerned. They know all too well that their daily experience—whether it’s going to lousy schools, or succumbing to drug use and abuse, or being the victims of crime, lack of employment prospects, or economic despair and hopelessness—doesn’t matter unless it interferes with or disrupts the lives of the white mainstream. While deeply rooted in the racial fabric of our country’s history, life behind the wall-less prison remains a mostly untold story.

Black inner-city youth understand the terms of the contract negotiated at the time of their births—you’re unseen, faceless, without value. You’ll forever be defined by others, losing the freedom to define yourself, to declare for yourself who you are. Instead of a proactive declaration, you feel trapped into a reactive one, a repudiation of how the world wants to define you. Perhaps this is why we so often hear black parents describe their children in terms of what they’re not, rather than who and what they are: “My son is not a bad child. He is not a criminal. He is not in gangs, and he doesn’t run around with the wrong crowd.”

Black kids know perfectly well how they’re perceived by white society: they’re threatening thugs and future criminals who need to be contained by any means necessary. Isn’t this the prevailing sentiment that undergirds the shooting of countless numbers of unarmed black men by law enforcement on a regular basis? Whether in a car or walking, running toward or away from the police, unarmed or carrying a toy weapon, the narrative is always the same: they were dangerous and we feared for our lives.

Despite growing up in a middle-class, two-parent, observantly religious family, I’d gone through my own harsh training in how to ignore the injustices and humiliations that are the daily experience of black people. And I’ve also realized that even with the insights my therapeutic training has provided, and the fact that I’ve facilitated all kinds of workshops and consultations exploring the impact of race and racism on the lives of both white and black people, I’ve still spent a part of my life isolated in my own wall-less prison. After all these years, I still have my own untold stories.

Learning about Race

As a kid, I knew which movie theaters were “okay” to attend, how loud or how soft-spoken we should be in certain neighborhoods, what clothes and hair styles—do-rags, hoodies, and braided hair—we should avoid. We had messages of empowerment, too, designed to imbue us with a sense of racial pride. My dad would often say, “Kenny, make sure you walk with your head up. Don’t let white people think they’re better than you.” And my mother continually reminded me, “Make sure you always look white people in the eyes when you talk to them. Otherwise, they’ll think of you as inferior.” But the messages of pride always had to be reconciled with the reminders that we lived in a white world, and if we forgot it, the world would let us know for sure.

My great-grandmother once implored me, “Kenny, please do something with your life. Make a difference in the world, even if it’s a small one. Too many black people have died for us just to have you squander your precious life.” These words helped shape how I practice as a therapist.

My first full-time permanent position as a clinician was in an outpatient mental health facility in Brooklyn, where I served as director of group and family treatment. My clients were largely lower-income and poor African Americans and Latinos. In treatment, clients routinely discussed problems that were never taught in my graduate training or treated in the university-based clinics where I’d worked. These problems often centered on social issues that seemed beyond the reach of the psychological solutions that constituted our preferred treatment protocol. Efforts to uncover the roots of depression, rage, or other serious mental-health issues repeatedly focused on the clients’ biology, psychology, and family-of-origin experiences, but almost never on their ecology and the impact of their social environment.

I’d never treated clients of color before accepting this position, but their experiences felt familiar. For the first time as a practicing clinician, I could breathe freely. Gone was the anxiety about greeting clients in the waiting room and the sudden paralysis they’d exhibit when discovering that “their doctor” wasn’t white. I relished being able to practice in a context where my race didn’t seem to matter. I felt that this job was a godsend. It’s what I believed I was called to do.

Dr. Stevenson, the white chief psychologist and my immediate supervisor, welcomed me with high expectations. He wanted to develop a strong family therapy program and repeatedly emphasized the importance of rooting it in a solid clinical foundation, nothing way out or radical. Whenever I brought up the possibility of addressing issues of race in therapy, he either saw it as a distraction from the real clinical issues that needed to be considered or intimated that I was allowing my personal views to obscure good therapeutic judgment. In the same way that I’d watched my parents defer to whites in a position of authority, I found myself taking the same role with Stevenson. I gradually realized that the more dismissive and disrespectful he was toward me, the more deferential I was becoming.

It all came to a head one day when he pulled me aside and said, ”Dr. Hardy, I’m going to remind you again, since you seem to suffer from some short-term memory, that we’re a psychiatric outpatient clinic, not the NAACP or Amnesty International. I suggest you take time during this forthcoming weekend to decide if this is the place for you. We’re a mental health facility. Do you understand?”

I was stunned and infuriated by his sarcasm and his condescension. After sitting in silence for a few minutes, overcome with emotion that I was trying desperately to ward off, I turned to him and began to angrily lecture him in return. “Who do you think you are?” I spat. “Do you think you can talk to me anyway you want because you’re white? I know you don’t want to acknowledge race, but for me this is racial. I do not wish to be in a relationship with you or anyone else where I’m disrespected, talked down to, and treated as if I’m nonhuman. I’m sick of this!”

When I returned to work the next Monday, I was barely through the door before the receptionist told me that the executive director, Stevenson’s boss, wanted to see me. I feared this was the beginning of the end, and indeed it was. He asked me to resign. I was devastated and immediately worried that my career was over. To make things worse, I felt humiliated and ashamed that I’d let down all of the other people of color who worked at the clinic. For months afterward, I was haunted by what had happened.

Between Two Worlds

It took me a little over a year to find another clinical job, but that gave me an opportunity to sort out what had happened. I was too white for the black people I worked with, and too black for people like Stevenson. I’d tried to play the game of belonging and fitting in, but instead I’d become an unwelcomed foreigner without a home.

Slowly, out of my endless self-reflection, came a kind of personal epiphany. I began to see that what was missing from my therapy with clients my way of interacting with colleagues was a full embrace of who I was as a black person. I was so worried about fitting in that I was constantly adjusting who I was to fit the situation. I was playing the role of the stoically detached professional, trying to be as impenetrable as possible. I was trying to be what I’d learned a good white clinician should be. In a strange way, it was my jailbreak moment with Stevenson that allowed the parts of me that had anxiously hidden inside my personal wall-less prison to break out.

I found a nonclinical job at a youth-service program in an impoverished black community with an all-black staff, and it was an entirely different experience. It gave me an opportunity to reconnect every day with other blacks and experience a deeper, fuller sense of home. I felt part of a community where it was okay to give voice to the role of race in our clients’ day-to-day struggles.

I now had a chance to observe life in a poor community and see how much barely suppressed rage provided the backdrop for the lives of the program’s clients. Every day, I saw how the intensity of built-up racial resentment led so many people to make impulsive, feel-good-in-the moment decisions that wound up being self-destructive. I learned to appreciate the larger forces that shaped people’s lives but remained unnamed in the DSM—conditions that I learned to call psychological homelessness, devaluation, and voicelessness. And I learned the power of giving language to something that previously had been unnamable, and how hard it is to heal from conditions that have no name.

Finding a Voice

Today, I spend much of my time working as a consultant on improving racial relationships within large healthcare and social service systems. Increasingly, my work has become centered on issues like the anatomy of racial rage, learned voicelessness, and an array of other invisible wounds of racial oppression. At the same time, I continue to maintain a practice where I see how easy it is to lose perspective on the social issues that shape our clients’ lives. To address the powerful role oppression played in my clients’ lives, I’ve come to see my mission as being not only a therapeutic healer doling out help in doses of one-hour appointment slots, but also an activist and a bridge builder.

***

White America pays close attention to the crimes that already fill the rap sheets of young black men, but fails to see the untold story in their lives of family dysfunction and breakdown, poverty, and racial oppression. Many young black men don’t see these connections either. Even worse, neither do many of the therapists and other professionals charged with helping them. Beneath these clients’ rage and bravado is a desperate plea—the same plea and desire that all children have—to know that they’re important, valued, worth fighting for. I know that feeling. I remember having it as a young boy, and it now fuels my work as a therapist.

My time with these clients is often grueling and disheartening, but the work has long since ceased to be just a matter of professional interest. It’s personal. I know that our lives are intertwined. Like many men of color, I’ve been arrested and presumed to be dangerous. I see and feel the fear in the eyes of some whites as I walk near them on the street at night. During these encounters, words are seldom spoken, but we both understand what just happened, and we implicitly agree to continue on as if it never happened. These relentless micro-assaults on dignity are part of what it means to be black. They fuel the hurt, rage, and hopelessness that have become a way of life. At times, bridging the racial gulf that divides us seems insurmountable, yet our mutual survival depends on it.

As I sat stupefied in front of my TV witnessing the uprising in Baltimore, I saw the face of my clients: Omar and Jamar and Ameer and Corey and Brandon and many others. My heart was heavy as I fended off feelings of sadness, anger, and despair. I knew there was so much more to report, especially the untold stories of black life. And I knew that no real conversation about race can begin until, as a society, we’re willing to listen to those stories.

***

This blog is excerpted from "The View from Black America," by Kenneth Hardy. The full version is available in the November/December 2015 issue, America's Conversation About Race: What Do Therapists Have to Say?

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Photo © Getty Images/Mark Makela

Topic: Cultural, Social & Racial Issues

Tags: black issues | Cultural, Social & Racial Issues | culture | Depression & Grief | grief | Kenneth Hardy | racial issues | rapport | shame | therapeutic alliance | Trauma

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