Note from BBT: This is a topic I can relate to very well, even never having brought up the topic of race with a white psychologist. Over the past few decades, a number of conversations on the topic of race with white people come to my mind. And generally, the conversation always goes the same way: they will see it one way, while I’ll clearly see it in another way. Sometimes I don’t even like to discuss the issue with people who are supposed to be professionals.
I remember back in my undergrad college years, I attended a lecture on the university campus given by a Robert Jensen, a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas. Jensen had released a book called The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism, and White Privilege and his lecture would touch on the topics he covered in his book.
In his relaxed, but honest style, Jensen spoke openly about how whiteness had bestowed upon him a privilege that had been denied to America’s black citizens. The professor used a number of examples from his own life to demonstrate how just being white helped him get ahead in life. Of course, we worked hard to get where he was, but he recognzied that his skin color also gave him certain advantages. Jensen didn’t speak in a challenging or aggressive manner. He simply stated facts from his own life as well as situations in the lives of the average white person that give them a certain head start on non-whites.
At the end of his lecture, Jensen opened up the floor to take questions. After a few questions were asked, the head of the department of Anthropology, which is what I was majoring in, stood up and challenged Professor Jensen and insisted that being white hadn’t given him any advantages in his life. I was a little take aback to say the least. A black professor who sat next to me during the lecture whispered in my era that he had known that Antropology professor for years and would have never expected to hear him say such a thing.
After his comments turned into a semi-debate with Jensen, I remember thinking to myself that this head of a department at a major university really didn’t think that his white father might have had some advantages over my black grandfather in a 1950s America that functioned under blatant as well as institutional racism. If the head of a social science department at a university either didn’t get it or was in denial, what was it that the average white person thought on the topic, I thought.
From that point on, I never really wanted have discussions on race with white people because, generall, this professor’s view is very widespread. Of course, even trying to avoid discussions on race since then, inevitably, they will still come up from time to time. Whether people want to know the “black guy’s opinion”, or they want to prove that they aren’t racist or that a certain scenario had nothing to do with race, these conversations seem to always end the same way: they see it one way, I see it another.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a person who sees race in every little thing in life and I also am aware of some of the responsibility that black people have for the overall situation of the black community. But there is simply too much documented evidence for people to hold the view that the existence of racism is simply whining, denying personal and collective responsibility or a thing that’s “all in your head”.
With that said, I can totally understand why some black folks would prefer to discuss issues affecting their lives with a black therapist. Because sometimes it really is true: “É ‘coisa de preto’” (as they say in Brazil), or “It’s a black thing”. Really, you wouldn’t understand.
After trauma in therapy, blacks seek psychologists of the same color
By Nairim Bernardo
Summary of the article
- When consulting with white psychologists, many pretos (blacks) and pardos (browns) report having their pains minimized or disregarded.
- Psychologists rarely receive academic training on ethnic-racial issues, which can have negative effects on patients’ mental health.
- To seek psychological assistance for the first time or to change therapist, the tip is for the person to establish what their personal criteria are
Thaynara Floriano was fired on the very day that the museum where she worked promoted training for black women in science, with the exhibition of Hidden Figures (released as Estrelas além do tempo in Brazil), a film about black scientists who helped NASA to take a human to space for the first time. In addition, she had only 15 minutes to leave the premises. Theoretically, taking the situation to therapy would help, but it only got worse. “It shook me up quite a bit, but the psychologist dealt with it as if ithe issue of race wasn’t important. I had more anxiety attacks for the treatment I received from her than with the dismissal itself.”
When consulting with white psychologists, many pretos and pardos report having their pains minimized or disregarded and becoming victims of racism in an environment that should welcome them. In Floriano’s case, she only returned to therapy when a friend introduced her to a black professional.
Psychologists rarely receive academic training in ethnic-racial issues, which can have a very negative effect on their patients’ mental health. This is what psychologist Elânia Francisca, a master in sex education and a columnist for VivaBem, tells us. During undergrad, she had no contact with the studies of important black researchers in the area, such as the Martinican Frantz Fanon and Brazilians Neusa Santos Souza and Virgínia Leone Bicudo. She was only able to discuss these issues outside of the classroom, in initiatives organized by the black movement.
“Once I saw a black child who wanted to have straight hair. I took this case to my teacher and she suggested that we create strategies to suggest a straightener for the girl. This was a racist view at the suffering of the black person,” remembers Francisca.
According to her, racism can present itself in the behavior of a psychologist when:
She/he makes his patient’s suffering invisible, that is, the person says that racial discrimination affects him in a certain way, but the psychologist replies that the issue is not related to any prejudice, but to some childhood trauma, for example.
The professional ignores social and racial structures and tends to attribute patients’ emotional suffering to individual issues. Thus, they disregard that the situation is similar to the lives of other people of the same race.
If racism is structural and structuring, it will have an effect on people’s bodies. In whites, it strengthens self-esteem, in black people it has the opposite effect.”
Elânia Francisca, psychologist and master in sexual education
“At the office, they didn’t think I was the psychologist”
In the wake of a lack of identification, black psychology professionals are creating clinics and therapeutic circles exclusive to the black population. This is the case of Diego dos Santos Barbosa, co-founder of Clínica Preta.
“I didn’t see clinical psychology as a possibility for me, and most black psychologists I know also didn’t, they are in the field of social psychology,” says Barbosa. In this field, the focus is on the individual’s relationship with society, so professionals in the field are more present in NGOs and in working with marginalized groups. Clínica Preta, according to him, was created to be a welcoming space for both patients and psychologists.
When I worked at the college clinic, people made an appointment with me, they were surprised that I was black and they didn’t continue. Now, even by the name of the clinic, people already know that I am black
This is the case of Diego dos Santos Barbosa, co-founder of Clínica Preta.
Barbosa emphasizes that proposing a focus on black people is not disregarding the ability of non-black professionals to serve them. But due to structural racism and the fact that white people are unlikely to see themselves as racialized and privileged people, the tendency is generally to minimize prejudice and not to empathize with blacks.
As in this relationship the patient is the more vulnerable part, he tends to mold his perception to that of the psychologist. With this, he goes through a process of “forced whitening”, that is, he ignores the social and racial structure as a generator of his traumas.
For Francisca, when the black person seeks psychotherapy with another black person, she is looking for an identification. According to her, some white psychologists ridicule this demand and even equate the search for vegan patients for therapists with the same lifestyle and diet.
“Black people sometimes go through so many racist situations that, when faced with a white person, they find themselves in a power relationship in which they are inferior. They seek a relationship in which they feel at ease,” explains the psychologist, who also serves white patients.
“It seemed that racism was just in my head”
Many black people still don’t consider it necessary to take care of their mental health, and the lack of trained professionals makes it even more difficult to receive them.
“It seems superfluous to think about mental health and quality of life when we still need to fight for basic survival issues,” says Barbosa, referring to the suffering of the black population with police violence, difficulty in social mobility and suicide rates. According to data from the Ministry of Health, while the suicide mortality rate among white youth and adolescents aged 10 to 29 years remained stable from 2012 to 2016, among blacks it increased by 12%.
Consulting with black professionals was crucial for tourism student Victor Silva, 18. “I’m a light-skinned black man, and for a long time, that was an issue. I was very confused. When I commented on racist situations that I suffered, white psychologists said that I was not black or that it wasn’t racism.” He says that he even exercised a pedagogical function with his therapists: he researched the subject on his own and sent content to the professionals.
“It seemed that racism was just in my head. I once said that I was followed around in a pharmacy and the psychologist said that this was normal, that’s how security guards act” – Victor Silva, student
After visiting three white therapists, he decided to seek out black specialists. “At the first consultation, I already said that I changed because of that and I felt very welcomed. Black psychologists understood me, knew what I was going through, that it was not in my head, and helped me deal with these issues.”
To seek psychological assistance for the first time or change therapists, the tip is for the person to establish what their personal criteria are, for example: health insurance coverage, price, location, gender, race, area of research. Then, it is possible to get referrals with friends or specific groups on social networks. If the patient does not feel comfortable at the first appointment or at any other time, he/she should seek another professional and, if necessary, change his/her criteria.