In 1968, an elementary school teacher named Jane Elliott decided to teach her young students an important lesson: discrimination is arbitrary and hurtful. For those who have not heard of her work or seen the video, she divided the children into groups of blue-eyed and brown-eyed children, each group taking turns experiencing what it was like to be ostracized due to an inherited characteristic. Lesson learned. Of course, it is unconscionable that any group of people should be judged superior or inferior based upon any aspect of their appearance, but we humans have no shortage of ways to diminish our fellow citizens.
The scourge called racism has been dominating the news for weeks now, but never has its impact been far from the consciousness of our fellow citizens of color. And I have little doubt that many therapists are bearing witness to countless tales of shame, disrespect, violence, and fear. Each heartfelt and troubling story is an opportunity for us to gain a deeper understanding of the burden and cost of racism as it is experienced by our clients, day after day, year after year, generation after generation. Important conversations are also happening in these clients’ homes, between spouses, siblings, parents and children. And while many of these conversations likely share similarities, each will be as unique as the DNA of its speakers. I got a glimpse into the power and pathos of such talks during my most recent sessions with my client, “Ed”.
Ed describes himself as a mixed-race child; his mother is black and his father is white. His parents divorced when he was nine years old, and while the children continued to have visits with their father, the mother was the primary caregiver. Both Ed and his sister identify as black. Our last few sessions delved into recent conversations he’d had with his father, children, and sister — raw, bold, and honest communions.
During Ed’s last talk with his father, he was horrified to hear him utter some racist comments. As the father of two self-identified black children, Ed couldn’t fathom how his father could hold any racist views. The father’s response was that throughout the years, he had had “numerous run-ins or altercations with black folks which left a bad taste in his mouth.” This is a perfect example of the danger of generalizing from a few examples to prove the theory. After speaking at great length with Ed about this, the father conceded the cognitive dissonance of his views, but maintained that they were his views nevertheless. Although Ed loves his father, he no longer feels as close to him.
“Very Waspy-looking — pale skin, straight, light blond hair, blue eyes,” was Ed’s description of his wife. Their children, 11 and 13, more closely resemble their mother than their father, and Ed believes “they’ll easily pass for white.” Sitting around the dinner table one evening, he asked the kids what they would say or do if they were socializing with a group of people who were disparaging people of color. Would they speak up and say they were offended because they were mixed-race, or would they laugh it off, as my client said he had done in his youth, to avoid conflict? Had they ever witnessed discrimination in school? Ed realized this was the first time the whole family had sat together to discuss racism and how it might impact each of them. He and his wife now plan to revisit this topic on a regular basis.
Another important talk was the one Ed with his sister, who is married to a dark-skinned black man. Their three sons are as dark-skinned as their father. His sister shared her fears with him, fears echoed by many other parents of black sons both privately and publicly. Will they have the same opportunities as Ed’s “white” children? Will they be subjected to police brutality? Will they be disrespected, spit upon, diminished as people? While this was not a new conversation between the two of them, they both admitted this one had a more urgent tone to it.
Sitting with Ed during these last few sessions, listening to him speak about the different ways discrimination has shaped him and his family, I wished I had thought to bring up the subject of race in our earlier sessions. When I asked myself why I hadn’t, I didn’t like the answer. I was uncomfortable. What if Ed felt my words of support weren’t authentic? What if he realized my knowledge about black culture was lacking? What if I inadvertently said something he construed as racist? Racism appalls me, enrages me, but here I was shying away from broaching this difficult but important subject with the very client who would have benefited from these talks. And all because of a bunch of “what ifs?” I thought about the countless times I would point out to my clients that “what ifs?” keep us from challenging ourselves by confining us within very narrow boundaries, shutting out much of life — both its beauty and ugliness. Now my own “what ifs” were keeping me from fully connecting with my client because I was reluctant to sit with discomfort. But I have vowed to break free of these self-limiting boundaries so that I can more fully support all my clients, especially my clients of color.
As Ed and his sister acknowledged, crushing racism is indeed urgent. Whether insidiously or blatantly, its loathsome tenets debase societies. Perhaps it’s time we brought Jane Elliott’s video out of storage, to be viewed far and wide. Because unlike Jane Elliott’s students, we have yet to learn her lesson that any form of discrimination destroys the soul.