Social Justice or Political Correctness?
Confronting racist language in the consulting room
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. Am I being oversensitive, or 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 convenient not to face my feelings about yet another form of assault on my identity; however, silence isn't neutral, but an acceptance of the status quo.
My own solution for this problem now is that whether it's an African family, a European family, or a family of color, I no longer remain silent. In a manner as respectful of the family and myself as possible, I comment, even if it's not convenient, on my experience of the way racism is embedded in someone's language.
What and how much I say varies in each case. Sometimes I engage the family in reflecting on the way black is used in some derogatory phrase, asking them what meaning they make of it, what impact they think its use might have on black people. A young black Vietnamese man, Tra, adopted by an English family, said he felt like the black sheep of the family. This choice of term seemed particularly poignant. He experienced himself as a black sheep, in that he felt his feelings were disregarded and devalued in the family. He didn't know if his experience had anything to do with his being black or Asian, a heritage with which he seldom identified. I shared my experience that black in this idiom is used, as in many others, to imbue something with negative meaning.
With a term like black sheep, I usually invite the family to consider coming up with another term to describe the family member who's being referred to in this manner. Sometimes I share some idea that I've come up with--like "one-down" sheep. Tra came up with the term outsider as an alternative way of describing the position he felt he occupied in the family.
People of African descent often smile in recognition when I comment to them about the racism implicated in a particular expression. …