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Racism. Not... "Just The Way It Is"

Updated: Jun 19, 2020

A White counselor’s view through the window of racism. I did my post-graduate clinical training in a Partial Hospitalization/Intensive Outpatient program. This type of program serves people who are too symptomatic for traditional outpatient counseling, but not at imminent risk of harm to themselves or others. They attend groups, receive medication management, and are assigned an individual therapist to oversee their care. About a year or so into my training, I met a Black man in his 60s who had been assigned to my caseload. As with all of my new clients, I asked him about any history of trauma in his life, and he replied that he had none. He described himself as a man of even temper, usually happy and often the life of the party. He was referred to our program because at the time, he was experiencing daily anger and even rages, which frightened him.

In our weekly individual sessions, as I was getting to know him, he would casually mention some terrifying experience or other that had happened to him, over his lifetime, including service in Vietnam. As a new counselor, it took me a while to put the brakes on and say, Wait a Minute! At our intake appointment you told me you had no experience with trauma! He responded: “I didn’t think of that as trauma. I just thought that’s the way it is”.

The following week at our individual session, he told me that he had gone home and reviewed his 60+ years, writing down every experience that could be characterized as “trauma.” This list included multiple experiences of seeing friends and family members being shot by police officers, seeing loved ones joining gangs and getting caught up in gang violence, and being grabbed as he exited a dry cleaners and set upon by multiple police officers who were responding to a report of “a Black man robbing a dry cleaners”…at a different location. When I suggested that perhaps his sudden experience of anger and rage might be his body releasing years and years of pent up emotion from a lifetime of trauma, he sat back and quietly pondered the possibility that no, that’s not “Just the way it is.”

That was the first time that I really began to notice the impact of Racism on mental health. I think it will be helpful for White Americans to ponder, as we give consideration to the Black Lives Matter movement, that our society has had its knee on the neck of Black people for 400 years, not just 8:46, and that oppression should not be so commonplace and endemic to our society that Black people think “that’s just the way it is.”

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