Dangerous Intimacies: Racism, Risk, and Recovery – Psychotherapy.net

Posted: September 12, 2020 at 3:51 am


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I Have These Fantasies I have these fantasies, Ivan told me, his voice low and cold as stone, his eyes sliding away from mine and fixing on the wall behind me. I wait for one of those women outside the building. I get her alone, and then I strangle her with my bare hands. As he said this, his hands tensed and grasped, as if wrapped around someones throat. "I can almost feel it," he said.

I have these fantasies, Ivan told me, his voice low and cold as stone

Resentment: A feeling of indignant displeasure or persistent ill will at something regarded as a wrong, insult, or injury (Merriam Webster)

Three years before this encounter, Ivana thirty-year seasoned social worker and substance abuse counselor who had received numerous commendationsfound himself in an unexpected situation. During a session, a client told him she had herpes and was planning to go out to spread it to as many men as she could. Alarmed, Ivan told her that was unacceptable, and that she absolutely could not do such a thing. The client became angry and stormed out. On her way past the front desk, she told the receptionist that Ivan had grabbed her and sexually assaulted her. Rather than come to Ivan and ask him what happened, or asking anyone else if they saw anything untoward during Ivans session (he always left the door part way open during sessions with female clients), the site manager broke protocol and went directly to the police. Ivan, unaware of the accusation, went about his day.

The following day, the police came for Ivan, hauled him down to the police station, and harshly interrogated him for four long hours. They pressured him. They threatened him with violence. They yelled in his face. They laughed as they told him they could plant drugs on him and throw him in jail anytime they wanted to, so he might as well just confess to what he had done. This kind of scenario would be a harrowing event for anyone, but for Ivana black man who grew up in the inner cityinterrogation by the St. Louis police was especially fraught. I really didnt know what they would do, he told me.

When you grow up in the city like I did, you stay away from the cops at all costs

Ivan was eventually released and, following a thorough investigation by both the police and the Department of Mental Health, was completely exonerated of any wrongdoing. Meanwhile, the client in question had recanted, admitting that she made up the allegation because she was angry. But it was too lateIvans life was in tatters. Word had gotten out among both the professional social work community and the neighborhood that Ivan was a sexual deviant of some sort, though in typical gossip fashion, the details became contorted. He came home to see child molester spray painted on his garage. He had rocks thrown through his windows. Neighbors crossed the street to avoid him, and he was asked to leave neighborhood gatherings. His girlfriend of two years left him because of the rumors.

"They know exactly what calling the cops on a Black man can mean," he stressed

Ivan, understandably, harbored a great deal of resentment about everything that had happened to him. Notably, however, he was not upset with the client who accused him: The client is, well, a client. You dont expect them to act rationally, he said. Nor was he upset with the police who interrogated him: The police were doing their jobs. I was just some guy they thought had done this thing. Rather, his resentment became directed at the coworkersall of them womenwho called in the police rather than following company protocol. Thats what I dont understand, he said. My coworkers, those womenthey knew me. I had worked there for six years. Thats what really gets me. In other words, Ivans resentment derived from the intimacy and vulnerability he had cultivated with the peoplewomenwho then turned on him and put him in danger. The fact that some of these women were Black women particularly upset him. "They know exactly what calling the cops on a Black man can mean," he stressed. "They put me directly in harms way. I cant believe they did that."

Re-Sentiment: To feel something again, to experience the past in the present.

When we first began meeting, about six months after the incident in question, Ivan insisted we keep the door opennot just a crack, but wide open. He was afraid to be alone with me behind closed doors. As he explained it, What if you felt uncomfortable or just decided to interpret something some way and accused me of something? The police told me I could get twenty years for sexual assault. Twenty years! Im 62thats a lifetime. If there was another accusation, they would put me away for the rest of my life. Given Ivans fear of women and his refusal or inability to become angry in session, it quickly became clear to me that the standard therapeutic interventions for PTSD were not going to be helpful. Not because Ivan didnt have PTSD or that they wouldnt have helped to relieve the internal push of some of his most troubling feelings, but because these interventions assume that a person is situated in a particular way in the social and relational world or, rather, NOT situated in a particular way. As a Black man, some of the many harmful stereotypes Ivan had to contend with were that of being construed as scary or threatening, prone to violence or loss of control, hyper-sexed. Not only is it likely that such stereotypes prompted his coworkers to call the police, it affected Ivans relationship with his own emotionality, especially his anger.

One day, as he sat in my office trembling and sweating and talking about how his life had become a shambles, I tried to get him to express his anger about what had happened to him. After a few minutes of this, he looked up at me, incredulous. Im sitting here in this room with a White woman and youre telling me to get ANGRY? Youve got to be kidding me. I cant do that. I assured him that it was ok, that this was part of his process of healing, and he just scoffed. Doc, I know you mean well but seriously, you dont understand. I just cant do that. Im a Black man. Youre a White woman. I cant get angry around you. Ive learned my whole life that thats a dangerous thing to do. I just cant do it. Despite my assurances that it really was ok to do so, Ivan was adamant. It was, he said, for my own protection.

Not that he would ever actually hurt me, but, rather, that I might become afraid of him

Ressentiment: The persistent indignation of the historically oppressed (Nietzsche)

In Ivans case, it was obvious to me that race likely played a role in his coworkers assuming he was sexually dangerous and calling the police

One day, as Ivan sat on my couch jiggling his leg and wringing his hands, I said, I wonder how your being a Black man might have figured into what happened to you. Do you have any thoughts about that? He immediately stopped jiggling his leg and looked up at me, intently. I worried that perhaps I had offended him. Doc, he said. It has everything to do with it. But I didnt know if it was ok to talk about that in here. I assured him that it was, and this opened up a whole new line of exploration in our work together. It was only in the wake of this that he was able to tell me why he was afraid to get angry in session, and for us to work toward making that a safe thing for him to do.

Ivan doesnt blame racism for everything, though. I keep thinking I must have done something to bring this down on me, he said. I must have. Otherwise, why me? Though at the same time he is adamant: If I had to do it all over again, I wouldnt do anything differently. Not one single thing. You cannot go out and spread herpes to a bunch of people. No! You cannot do that! So, I would tell the client the same thing. I wouldnt do anything different. That gives me comfort.

As I write this now, Ivan is doing well. We are down to one session every three weeks. He still gets triggered and has moments of intense rage or panic, but now he can go to the grocery store and complete a shopping trip without having to leave if a woman walks too close to him, and he can ride the bus without having to sit way in the back to make sure no women are behind him. Hes even considering dating again. I never would have believed it, he told me. When we first met, I thought Oh Lordy, how is this White girl going to help me? I thought, God has a pretty sick sense of humor. But you know what, Doc? Ive learned a lot; youve taught me a lot.

Affect and emotion are highly racialized in the United States, and for some people, the honest expression of those feelings can be literallyeven fatallydangerous

So what to do? Does this mean that clients of color should only see therapists of color, and white therapists should only see white clients? No. But it does mean those of us who are White clinicians are ethically obliged to educate ourselves about racial dynamics and injustices and be prepared to discuss them from a place of respect and openness with clients of color. We need to be willing to take an honest and hard look at our own privilege and how it shapes our beliefs about health and healing. And we must recognize that the theories and interventions we have learned as best practices are based on White norms and do not take into account the legacies of bias and oppression that shape Black clients emotional experiences and expression. This does not make these tools useless or ineffective. But it does make them partial and in need of active interrogation and adjustment (for a collection of excellent resources on where to begin, see Race and Racism: Resources for your Practice).

I am incredibly fortunate that Ivan took a chance on me. He was traumatized and vulnerable and he took an enormous risk working with a woman, and a White woman at that. He says I taught him a lot, but what he has taught me is infinitely more valuable: he taught me to recognize how much I dont yet know.

References

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Resentment. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved July 7, 2020, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/resentment.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1989). On The Genealogy of Morals. (W. Kauffman & R. J. Hollingdale, Trans.). Vintage Books. (Original work published 1887)

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September 12th, 2020 at 3:51 am

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