A Black Therapist in America

Speaking Out against Learned Voicelessness

Ken Hardy • 11/17/2016 • 3 Comments

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 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

At an early age, I’d learned that it could even be dangerous to use your hands around white people. When my friend Julius and I would go shopping with our parents, we were sternly told, ”Now, be sure to keep your hands in your pockets while we’re in the store. Do you understand me?” Even writing this now brings tears to my eyes. Keeping our hands in our pockets was an accommodation that we had to make for white people because our parents were worried that we’d otherwise be presumed criminals—even at age 5. Julius, now a respected physician, recently mentioned that he still finds himself jamming his hands into his pockets when walking through a department store.

This is what black parents refer to when they mention “having the talk” with their children. “The talk” is a toolkit for racial survival designed to remind black children that they’re living in a white world, where they’ll often be prejudged and presumed guilty until proven innocent—and the latter is no easy task. This was what happened to Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old black boy shot to death by police in Cleveland, Ohio, for playing with a toy gun. Black kids don’t have the luxury of playing with toys guns in public spaces.

In 1973, early in our freshman year as undergraduates at Pennsylvania State, my friend Julius and I naively entered a Howard Johnson’s restaurant offering a weekly all-you-can-eat fish fry, a smorgasbord of food not available in our college cafeteria. Right away, we attracted the wide-eyed gaze of a young white girl, about 9- or 10-years-old, sitting with her parents. As we walked by, she loudly exclaimed, “Mommy! Mommy! Do you see what I see? It’s two niggers!” There was scattered laughter in the background from other tables as her mother quietly shushed her and resumed eating. But the mother said nothing to Julius or me, nor did anyone else.

Away from the comfort and safety of home for the first time in our lives, we didn’t know whether to stay or leave the restaurant. Should we speak up to protect our dignity and risk our safety? Or should we remain silent and swallow our humiliation and outrage? As the fidgety hostess escorted us to our table, the short walk past the little girl’s table to ours seemed like it took an eternity. By the time we arrived at our booth, everyone was looking at us, except for the couple at the next table over, who studiously ignored us. When Julius and I finally summoned enough composure to look directly at each other, we knew immediately that we couldn’t stay. Full of rage and a sense of being defeated and unmanned, we made our escape.

Becoming a Therapist

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. Their referral sheets typically showed presenting problems similar to what we’d expect to find in any behavioral-health treatment center: anxiety and other affective disorders, psychoses, and a myriad of child-centered family dysfunctions, all compounded by trauma. However, 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.

I soon learned that my starry-eyed dream and the reality didn’t quite match. Early on, I felt a barrier to connecting with my clients that I found hard to name. Eventually, my clients and colleagues began to name it for me. The first was my Latino client, Luis, who one day at an awkward juncture in a session announced, “I don’t really get you, man. You look black, but everything else about you tells me you’re white. I really can’t trust someone like you, who has the complexion but not the connection. Even though technically I’m not black, I feel blacker than you.”

I began to wonder how I’d gone from being the model of a racially sensitive grad student to a deracinated surrogate white therapist. In my relentless efforts to prove to professors and classmates that I belonged, had I lost myself? Maybe I should’ve been more suspicious of a professional training process dominated by whites and designed to serve the interests of whites. In gaining my professional credentials, had I lost my soul as a black person?

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!”

As Stevenson listened with a look of cool disdain on his face, he calmly said, “Dr. Hardy you’re quite an interesting character. Once again you’re inappropriately introducing race into our discussion. I’ve had enough of this. Our meeting is over.”

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 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 like Luis 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. Luis knew this and had done me an enormous service by calling me on it. 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. 

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: Business of Therapy

Tags: counselor | psychotherapy | racial issues | therapist | African American | race relations | networker | anger | inner city | Kenneth Hardy

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Sunday, November 29, 2015 11:19:56 AM | posted by Linda Castor
I have known Dr. Hardy since 2000, when I was a graduate student. He came to speak to all of us and helped us understand the deep wounding African Americans feel in our culture and society. He encouraged us to talk about race with one another. As a white woman, this encouragement was profound and has shaped my own psychotherapy practice today. This article shows that we have NOT progressed in the 21st Century, and ALL of us need to come together in peace and solidarity and finally end current day injustices.

Friday, November 18, 2016 5:01:28 PM | posted by Frederique Roy
I very interesting read. I'm also very interested in "voicelessness" and in helping people find theirs.

Friday, December 30, 2016 7:25:36 AM | posted by I.G.
Dear Mr. Hardy, I read through your profound piece with tears in my eyes. I am a new therapist, recently graduated from a Canadian University. What you speak of - the awareness of marginalization that multiple groups experience, systemic forces and their impact on people's lives - were a mandatory part of our curriculum. In fact, we were told that therapists helped maintain status quo for too long, and therefore part of our therapeutic duty is to help change unjust systems. In my training, advocacy was seen as a core clinical competency. This is not fringe. This is now becoming mainstream, together with emphasis on evidence-based interventions - at least in Canada. I cannot get a licence if my training does not cover cultural influences (e.g., the impact of race, sexual orientation and gender identity, immigration, Indigenous heritage, ability/disability, etc.). And everyone in my cohort - all the students, and all the faculty - were enthusiastically on board with these developments. Yes, the road ahead is still long and difficult, but these types of changes in how our profession is practiced give me hope.