Dear Racist Client,
I owe you some tuition money for helping me become a therapist.
“Have you heard about me?” was the first thing they said.
I had, but I didn’t want them to know. I was a family therapist intern at a psychiatric hospital and my supervisor had warned me earlier about there being a racist client in the group. She told me she would do their family session as to avoid conflict.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. My supervisor got pulled away to an emergency and it was now my responsibility to complete the session. Their spouse had already entered the office and I was standing outside the door, face to face with a racist.
“No, but nice to meet you. My name is René García,” I said, emphasizing my accents because I’m an asshole, “and I’ll be doing your family session.”
About me? I am a second generation immigrant born and raised in Houston. I am six foot one, fair-skin tone and have always been able “to pass.” To me, this means I could vacillate between white and Latino groups due to how I appeared and spoke, amongst other things. Basically, because I wasn’t short and brown, I was acceptable to whites. And, because my mom volunteered with the Spanish classes and we ate the same pan dulce at lunch, I had an “in” with the Mexican kids. My own dual citizenship. Today, I was the beaner.
Fast forward to grad school and finally becoming a psychotherapist. One fascinating topic we learned was a stance called Not Knowing. Dr. Harlene Anderson describes the position as when “A therapist genuinely wants to learn how a client makes sense of things: to grasp the current story, not determine its cause; to learn what, for a client, gives it shape.” (Anderson, 1997 pp 137) She describes that the “not knowing stance” isn’t flushing out your history of knowledge and ideals during a session, but to be aware of them and not to allow them to influence the clients position in their story. It’s your job to listen and be transparent about your own feelings in a way to remain curious towards the client.
For a new therapist in my first year in school, that made my head spin; I couldn’t understand where the line was for me to step in when things felt wrong. “So, Mr. Kaczynski, you like bombs? Well, I don’t, but tell me more!” It made no sense that I wasn’t supposed to know stuff. I know a lot of stuff and a tremendous number of life experiences which might be valuable. Why am I working so hard, and paying so much, for a degree to “not know” anything?
For example, I know I hate racists. What else are we supposed to do with them except hate them?
“Well, I just want you to know, I have a thing against Hispanics. I just don’t want to say something that’s going to offend you.”
Oh shit! A polite racist.
“Oh….well…you’re not going to say anything that’s going to offend me.”
Lie, but ok.
“And it’s my job to hear your story,” attempting to harness my inner Harlene, “but if you feel like you’ll be uncomfortable then I understand. We can wait until the other therapist is available, I just can’t guarantee when that will happen.”
“Well, that’s ok. [Spouse] already drove up here. Let’s just do it.”
The next hour session was a deep dive into this person’s hate towards Spanish speaking men. Respecting this person’s privacy and making a long story short, this person was influenced by their choice in media and information to hold negative feelings towards immigrants coming to this country and “taking jobs” from citizens of the United States. This was a narrative they had been exposed to on a nightly basis but they had no personal connection or experience with Latinos. Their boss, aiming to gain additional profit, decided to hire immigrants willing to take lower pay at the same working conditions and, to terminate these older employees.
As a result, they fired my poor racist.
Yeah, I felt for them. I had just been reading about how rampant age discrimination is in the workplace. Further, the discussion lead me to reminisce about conversations with my father and his own fears of getting laid off and having to find another job at his age.
They had a right to be upset. The issue was this anger was causing disruption in their life, in many places.
“My best friend is Colombian, they can’t come over anymore?!” exclaimed their spouse.
I hated this person and their ideas without understanding where it came from. And, this person hated me before knowing how I could help.
The next two weeks, I couldn’t get rid of them. We bonded.
By being aware of what I know, and doing my best to not know or assume what they knew, we came to the conclusion that their anger towards Spanish speaking men was really anger towards their boss for not respecting their work and fear of how they will support their family.
Not being appreciated for your hard work and being placed into a workforce that systemically, and statistically, is against you sounds like a terrible place to be.
The time I spent with this person put into practice therapeutic relationships, theoretical stance, and the art of dialogue/strength of listening as agents of change. In other words, being present in a conversation can yield amazing results.
I am very well aware that I am leaving out many details of this story for ethical and legal reasons. I am not saying that all racially charged individuals will be changed by a conversation, or that the men they hated don’t deserve a voice, and story, of their own. Through this experience, I realized our ability to listen and empathize is one of our greatest gifts as clinicians. Dialogue has power!
I owe you some tuition money, friend.
Owner of Garcia Mental Health, LLC in Dallas, Texas.
Host of Chubby Therapy Podcast: a show dedicated to making mental health not scary.
Anderson, H. (1997). Conversation, language and possibilities: a postmodern approach to therapy. New York: Basic Books.