originally published Jan 6, 2019
I DID NOT KNOW TO CITE MY RACE DURING THE INTERVIEW INTAKE
The decision to seek out therapy was not an overnight sort of thing. I had known for years that there were many issues I needed to work out with a mental health professional, yet I had also spent years with the smug perspective that if I had been through emotional and physical trauma, I did not need to experience the financial trauma of paying a stranger to listen to my life story.
Oh my, I am so glad my perspective changed.
What prompted me to pursue therapy was a tidal wave of emotions that ceaselessly crashed on me after I quit consuming alcohol. A coping mechanism I trusted dearly since I was a teenager, I was lucky to learn that I did not need any outside substances to provide me with comfort and security. A great glass of rosé had been my therapist for longer than I’d like to admit, and when I cut off my nightly sessions, I was left with the murky puzzle pieces that make up my psyche.
My first therapist was chosen out of a feeling of crisis. I wanted to quit feeling how I was feeling and I wanted to quit those feelings now. I was exhausted by feelings of depression and anxiety, and I was perturbed by the fact that these large ailments were affecting my day-to-day life. Minimal energy, huge reactions to minor infractions, and a general sense of emotional, physical, and spiritual discomfort were making it difficult to show up as a romantic partner, employee, and friend.
As a biracial black woman, my identity has been a personal evolution, one that comes with ebbs and flows in my relationships to both sides of my family and to myself.
At this particular point in my life, I was also experiencing a lack of financial health, so I found low-income services in my area. In this particular mental health agency, I did an intake interview with a counselor on-staff. Then, depending on my issues and scheduling availability, I would be matched with a therapist. During my intake interview, I did not specify race as something that I felt I needed to explore in therapy. As a biracial black woman, my identity has been a personal evolution, one that comes with ebbs and flows in my relationships to both sides of my family and to myself. Yet, as a complete therapy newcomer, I did not cite identity as an issue I needed assistance on. In my mind, I was in therapy to work on the lump sum of who I was, and my blackness was just as concrete as my last name – meaning, there was no need to mention this in an intake interview.
When I met my match, she was wonderful, warm with the ability to maintain a great rapport. Blonde and blue-eyed, she was firm with her boundaries and kept the focus on me throughout the entire session – something that should be a given but unfortunately isn’t always. As the weeks stretched on, I looked forward to our Sunday evenings together. Our therapy sessions kept me going during a deep depressive rut and I enjoyed parsing through difficult childhood memories, identifying where the root of my coping mechanisms came from and exploring alternative ways of being. In fact, I was nearly surprised at how much I did enjoy therapy – which showed me how vital exploring my life experiences with a mental health professional was to my well-being.
My identity is not a matter of favoring my black father over my white mother. My identity is intrinsically linked to a deep lineage of pain, suffering, and erasure.
In our seventh session, I mentioned my identity as a black woman when speaking of how I felt affected by public displays of race-based trauma on social media. In particular, I was referencing how the death of Alton Sterling and Eric Garner triggered feelings of grief, despite me not knowing either one of the gentlemen personally. To me, feeling an intimate and immediate emotional reaction to the highly publicized deaths of innocent black men is indisputably linked to my identity. While I may feel outraged, frustrated, and sad when faced with race-based trauma as a non-black person, it is a testament to the intimacy of the black community. We are brothers and sisters and when one of us is unjustly taken too soon, it is felt as a whole. In response to this, she asked me, “Why do you identify as black?”
“Well, because I am black.”
“Yes, but you are white too.”
“Oh right… Hmm… Let me think of how I can explain this.”
In that moment, the chemistry in the room shifted because I became uncomfortable. I was being asked a question that I felt berated me during my upbringing in a primarily white community. My identity is not a matter of favoring my black father over my white mother. My identity is intrinsically linked to a deep lineage of pain, suffering, and erasure. I am of the same blood of the broken backs that built this country, with a great-grandfather who chose his own last name. My kin are black. While I am biracial, or what we may have called mulatto some decades ago, I am perceived as black, I live my life as black, and I am proudly black. Light skin privilege and all.
When I am asked why I identify as black and not as anything else – I am curious, what else could I truly identify as without entering the murky water of transracialism – I am torn from the present moment and dipped deep below the ground we stand on, intertwining with my roots and their painful origins. To explain this to a white therapist, even if there was a therapeutic intention, is to perform emotional labor in a space where I am coming to rid myself of my emotional baggage. We do not go to therapy to set down a couple of heavy suitcases and immediately pick up another set of luggage.
Alas, baggage cannot be created from the simple questioning of one’s identity, can it?
“I identify as black because I look black, I feel black, I embrace black culture and black culture embraces me. There is an immediate sense of familial comfort when I meet another black person – it is the awareness that not too many years ago, we could have shared the same living quarters, perhaps even the same last name. I identify with the culture that feels like home.”
“So that is to say you do not identify with white culture?”
I begin wracking my brain to understand what white culture is. Is there white culture? Do I personally know a white culture to identify with? Perhaps baggage can be created from the simple questioning of one’s identity.
We do not go to therapy to set down a couple of heavy suitcases and immediately pick up another set of luggage.
“I am not sure what white culture is, but I do not feel immediately embraced by white communities. I never have.” There is a sort of closeness that exists within the black community – we nod when we pass each on the street, we might inquire about family members in hopes of sharing a blood relation if we happen to share the same last name. It is a quiet bond that exists within black culture. This bond – the acknowledgment, the open dialogue, the subtle intimacy – is not one that exists readily within white communities – or if it is, it is not accessible to those who are not fully white.
She frowns. “Well… That is really sad.”
Of all the things in my life that I find really sad, not identifying as white is not one of them. Our session hits time. I wonder how ten minutes of therapy – a large chunk of time when you only have fifty minutes – was dedicated to pondering my identity, an issue that I do not believe required therapeutic attention.
After that session, I continued seeing her for another five months. In my mind, one awkward exchange highlighting a lack of cultural competency was not enough to terminate what was an otherwise fruitful therapeutic relationship. As many great realizations are, the decision to terminate treatment with my therapist was swift. I had quit discussing my complex feelings as a Black American woman. Rather than risk having to educate my therapist on cultural differences, I saved those complexities for my closest friends. However, friends aren’t therapists and therapy, by nature, should be the one safe space where you can fully show up as yourself.
About one month later, I found myself sitting in front of a biracial therapist who identifies as black. She asked me why I terminated treatment with my last therapist. I explained that when I told my therapist I do not identify as white because I do not feel a sense of kinship, acceptance, or familiarity with whiteness, I was met with the words, “Well… That is really sad.”
As soon as those five words escaped from my lips, I realized how hilarious it sounded. Biting my lip and looking at the floor, so as to not burst out laughing at what could be considered an inappropriate time, I was pleasantly surprised to hear my therapist avoid such restraint. She let out a long laugh and slapped her knee.
“Say no more. I’m glad you’re here.”