Why Some Blacks Won’t See 12 Years A Slave

Ask the Black Shadow

“I don’t wanna see no more slave movies,” a female radio personality in Philly agreed with a male caller who stated, “We don’t need no more slave movies. We’re living in slavery now. We don’t need to be reminded of it.” Later, a close friend told me her husband flat out said no when she asked him to see 12 Years A Slave. He too was tired of slavery. Another friend said his wife couldn’t take it so they left mid-way through the movie. Yet another friend wondered why she needed to see in detail all the horrors of slavery. “Why couldn’t it have been more about Solomon’s (Solomon Northrup, the free black man who was duped and sold into slavery) family and their lives after his abduction? It’s a movie and I don’t want to go to the movie and be upset,” she qualified. And if you’re thinking this is it, think again. A very distraught friend called to tell me about an altercation between her husband and a white male patron when they went to see 12 Years A Slave, and her husband’s near arrest. Margie and Shaun were talking softly about the movie when a white man told them to shut up. Shaun became irate, got out of his seat, walked up to the man and said, “You shut the “f” up. You don’t tell a black man to shut up in a movie about slavery.” To make a long story short, things got out of hand and the police were called. Shaun (not the other guy) ended up in handcuffs until things were sorted out. Feeling depleted, Margie and Shaun went home without seeing the whole movie. Margie ended her story with, “It probably was a bad idea to go see 12 Years A Slave for our anniversary. We should have kept it light.”

The bottom line is slavery still has a grip on our psyches. The mere mention of slavery pushes our buttons because it’s an unfinished chapter in the lives of African Americans— and the whole of America. As I wrote in my book, Facing the Black Shadow, many African Americans can’t bear to watch movies about slavery, let alone have a heart-to-heart talk about our feelings about it. The fact that we African Americans don’t want to remember slavery speaks to over 400 years of pain, shame and disenfranchised grief (grief that is not acknowledged by society). For example, whenever a black person braves it and brings up race, she or he is usually accused of playing the race card by whites. An accusation of playing the race card is meant to be a personal enforcer of silence about one of America’s greatest tragedies—slavery and its racist aftermath. Rather than avoid our grief about slavery, we should welcome and create opportunities to talk about slavery so we can heal. 12 Years A Slave is such an opportunity. Slavery happened. Talking about it doesn’t make it worse. It does the opposite because it sheds light on a taboo topic and can help African Americans live emotionally richer and happier lives.

I believe many of us don’t want to talk about slavery because of the black shadow, an unconscious, deep-seated belief in the inferiority of black people, which began in slavery. Talking about slavery conjures up our internalized racist beliefs about black inferiority and makes us feel bad about ourselves. Thus we fear our emotions. Facing your fear is not worse than living with your fear. It’s like what Hamden Rice said in an article about what Martin Luther King, Jr. did for blacks (http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/08/29/1011562/-Most-of-you-have-no-idea-what-Martin-Luther-King-actually-did?detail=email#). Blacks feared speaking up for their rights until Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south by teaching blacks that facing dogs, fire hoses and jail wasn’t worse than the constant threat of terror. Facing our internalized fear of black inferiority, we can embrace our history of slavery and reclaim our stolen lives.

Don’t forget to remember slavery!

Shining Light on the Black Shadow at School

The Power of Talk


Talk makes a difference. After the Deborah Brown Community School’s controversial policy about a little girl’s locs made national news last week (see blog post below), the school’s board voted to change its dress code policy this week (http://www.newson6.com/syoty/23383530/tulsa-charter-school-board-meeting-about-controversial-dress-code-policy). The school’s previous dress code policy declared “faddish” styles like afros and dreadlocks are unacceptable. The new policy focuses on personal hygiene stating, “Each student and the parents/guardians of the student are responsible for the personal hygiene of the student. The Administration reserves the right to contact the parents/guardians regarding any personal hygiene issues that it believes causes a risk to the health, safety and welfare of the student, his or her classmates, and faculty or staff or detracts from the educational environment.”

Tiana, the little girl at the heart of the hair controversy, will not directly benefit from this new policy because her parents don’t plan on returning her to the school. They say they never received an apology and they are still unhappy about the impact of the school’s old policy on their daughter’s self-esteem. But other young black girls with natural hair at the Deborah Brown Community School may not endure the shame and humiliation that Tiana did being told she wasn’t presentable with locs. My wish for Tiana is that she’ll someday understand the myth of black inferiority and resulting internalized black inferiority—the black shadow—and feel proud that she and her parents helped to shine a light on it so other little black girls won’t be made to feel ashamed of their naturally beautiful hair.

The first step in facing the black shadow is to name it. While there were some who didn’t see racism as a factor in the school’s profiling of natural black hairstyles, others were willing to call the policy racist. Despite the board being comprised of blacks, the policy conveyed the widespread myth of black inferiority and, concomitantly, internalized black inferiority by blacks ourselves. By naming and talking about a school policy that disadvantaged black students by not allowing them to express pride in their heritage by wearing afros and locs, the community helped to shine a light on the black shadow at the school and to change school policy.

Audre Lorde, a Caribbean-American writer and civil rights activist said,“Your silence will not protect you.” She added, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” I’m sure Tiana and all the other Tianas out there are thankful for your voices. Let’s strive to celebrate our own and others’ differences.

Meeting the Black Shadow at School

Afros and Locs Not Welcome


It’s hard for little black boys and little black girls to believe their character matters more than their physical appearance. Just ask Tiana, the 7-year-old black girl in Tulsa, Oklahoma who was told last week that she was not presentable because she wears her hair in locs (http://shine.yahoo.com/parenting/tulsa-girl-switches-schools-over-dreadlocks-181400766.html). The Deborah Brown Community School has a policy forbidding what they call “faddish” hairstyles, including afros and dreadlocks, calling these hairdos “distracting.”

What makes locs or an afro more distracting that blonde ponytails or red-headed buzz cuts? Obviously, the judgment is subjective, and in the case of this school the standards of “acceptable” and “faddish” reflect the myth of black inferiority. Black people, with our kinky hair, need to keep ourselves in line – the white line. Would straightened hair be less “distracting?” Most certainly that would be the judgment call at the Deborah Brown Community School. Straightened hair looks more like white hair; therefore, it is superior.

Because of the black shadow, a term I coined to point to internalized black inferiority by African Americans, the faces behind the Deborah Brown Community School’s policy are as likely to be black as they are white. While often unacknowledged, the black shadow is a powerful force shaping how African Americans think about ourselves and perceive one another. And the bottom line is, we frequently don’t feel good enough – or acceptable, beautiful, proud — in our black skin and natural hair. Since we can’t change our black skin, we attempt to alter nature’s other folly: our “bad hair.”

The myth of black inferiority caused a young child to feel shame, bewilderment and sadness. When asked about the incident, beautiful little Tiana — with her neatly groomed locs topped with a pink bow — lowered her head tearfully saying, “They didn’t like my dreads.” She may have liked her dreads when she set out for school that morning, but can she still like them now, after being told by her school that her hair was unacceptable? The black shadow’s insidious message of “inferior” was reinforced in her young mind.

The damage done to a black child’s self-esteem every single day living in a racist society is immeasurable. Black girls are already at the bottom of society’s beauty totem poll, and now Tiana – who may have been delighted with her hair – has to doubt her beauty, her worthiness, her right to feel beautiful. Tiana met the black shadow at school, which should be a place that dispels ignorance instead of propagating it. The myth of black inferiority has been propagated since the time of slavery and it’s no wonder we African Americans still internalize the belief that we’re less worthy than whites because of our kinky hair and dark skin. Instead of being taught what India Arie told us in song, “I’m more than my hair,” the school gave Tiana the message that she was the sum total of her hair—her inferior hair, no less.

My hope is that Tiana will be buffered against internalizing this latest message that she is inferior because she is black. I applaud her parent’s decision to remove her from the negative atmosphere created by the school’s racial profiling of hairstyles. Afros and locs are natural hairstyles for African Americans – so what else can it be but racial profiling? The school is mandating that African American parents perm, press, curl or somehow make their children’s hair—and perhaps their children—seem less black for phantom acceptance.

Racism isn’t about the black appearance. Racism is about a set of power relationships between groups of people. When we focus on artificial things like hair, we disempower black children and put them at risk for lowered self-esteem and self-worth. More importantly, we advance the myth of black inferiority, fating another generation of blacks to grapple with the often crippling effects of internalized black inferiority.

Tiana, I am you and you are me. I had locs when I served in Congress and I have locs in my current position as an Associate Professor in a university. Your old school’s policy may have been well-intended, but it reeks of a long-held racist notion that black hair is inferior to white hair, causing many black women to spend lots of money and energy to change their perfectly lovely hair and make it “good” (more like a white person’s) hair. You’re in the company of other great black women with locs, such as renowned writer Toni Morrison. Please always love and appreciate your locs or however you choose to wear your hair and present your beautiful self to the world. I do!

Elevating The Dream

Confronting the African American Psyche


Fifty years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech, African Americans, as a people, are still grappling with black inferiority. Not only do African Americans today still live in the shadow of slavery economically and politically but also psychologically. The belief that blacks are racially inferior persists, even if we’re tempted to point to President Obama and believe we’ve risen above racism in America.

Many African Americans struggle with our identities because a story of inferiority is re-told to each successive generation through internalized racism. A white-dominated society continually reinforces this message in the media, entertainment, textbooks, etc. In the absence of talking about internalized black inferiority, those stories have become central messages about whom African Americans are and what we can aspire to. Those centuries of messages have become expectations that are formative to our children’s dreams.

When something is not talked about, it becomes more toxic. We aren’t talking about our psyches, and most particularly about the myth of black inferiority, the ongoing trauma of slavery. Consequently, African Americans have internalized the myth of black inferiority, which I call the Black Shadow. The Black Shadow encapsulates the dysfunctional racist beliefs promulgated in America since times of slavery and internalized in African Americans that blacks are less worthy than whites.

The Black Shadow resides mostly in the deep recesses of the unconscious mind. I tell my clients it’s a lot like a literal shadow: you don’t consciously realize it’s there until you shine the light of understanding on it. Then you realize it’s constantly with you, whispering in your ear, “You will never be as good as whites; you will never be pretty enough with kinky hair and dark skin. You are less intelligent than white people, so don’t even try to get ahead.” Confronting the African American psyche, black boys and black girls might judge themselves by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.

For justice to truly ring we have to challenge the 400-year-old myth of black inferiority and finally pry its claws out of the African American psyche. Then we might see the blossoming of hopefulness and the realization of dreams for more of our black sons and daughters. Remembering the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that,” let’s shine a light on the Black Shadow and let freedom ring from within every African American.

Trayvon Benjamin Martin

Blaming the Victim

Guilty for Trayvon Martin. Not guilty for George Zimmerman.

Trayvon Benjamin Martin

Trayvon Benjamin Martin

Our nation’s Black Shadow is causing tears of anguish throughout the country this week after George Zimmerman walked out of court a free man while Trayvon Martin lies dead. We feel again the sharp cut of injustice like a knife in the gut. How can this be happening again? It’s 2013; slavery ended more than 150 years ago. Why are black people still being killed by racism?

Trayvon Benjamin Martin was a 17-year-old honors student who had earned a full scholarship to college and had a bright future ahead of him. He was killed by a gun. He was killed by a 28-year-old white man. He was killed by racism.

A jury made up of all but one white women found white killer George Zimmerman “Not Guilty” of 2nd degree murder or manslaughter. How could they? How could they believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that a boy with Skittles in his hand provoked an armed man to shoot him in “self-defense”?

Marc O’Mara and Don West, defense attorneys for George Zimmerman, took a page from the Willie Lynch playbook and used it to convince the jury to blame the victim rather than the killer. The infamous Willie Lynch Letter: The Making of a Slave, was published in 1712, and gave detailed advice to whites about how to control their black slaves. The number-one strategy was to distrust all blacks. As Willie Lynch described, all black people are dangerous and must be controlled and suppressed at all times. White, mainstream America has been selling us all this idea in multiple ways: the biased reporting of the media, the depictions of black people by the entertainment industry; the selective “facts” given in American history books; and in courtroom after courtroom, prison after prison, in our so-called justice system. The racist message is that no matter if he is the president of the United States or a boy buying candy at a convenience store, blacks are to be mistrusted and feared.

Was this case about race? Imagine the situation was reversed and a 230-pound armed black male who was out patrolling his neighborhood shot a 17-year-old white boy who was clutching some candy, and then went to court and claimed he’d felt threatened and scared and pulled the trigger in self-defense. Do you think a jury would have acquitted a black George Zimmerman? We all know it wouldn’t have, because the national racist narrative is that white boys are innocents; black boys are dangerous.

Trayvon Martin, an honors student, a beloved son and friend, was characterized by the defense attorneys as a threatening, larger-than–life, dangerous black man armed with a slab of concrete. George Zimmerman, a self-deputized fully grown man with a gun, who drove around patrolling the neighborhood for “punks and f—ing a-holes,” was characterized as a helpless, innocent, caring, delicate white male. Willie Lynch would be proud.

What happened in that Florida courtroom a few days ago is so toxic that I can barely breathe when I think about it. You see, only the black man’s race was on trial. Trayvon’s blackness reverberated in the courtroom while George’s whiteness was protected, allowing many whites and possibly some blacks to believe that race was not an issue. Since whites are simply accepted as the norm and therefore not raced, white people constantly tell us that blacks see race where it doesn’t exist. Those who believe this was not about race must genuinely believe that color-blind justice was served in the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin. But of course it wasn’t. It’s racism that allowed Zimmerman’s race to be a non-issue; and Martin’s race was the sole reason he was murdered.

Since slavery, blacks have been stripped of our humanity. Arriving in chains, the white imagination was inflamed by images of dark-skinned human beings as sub-human, not much better than beasts; three-fifths of a person. Today, images of blacks as thugs and welfare queens flood the white imagination, consciously and unconsciously. It also floods our imaginations as black people, causing us to doubt ourselves. That’s our black shadow, whispering the lies of white superiority and black inferiority in our own heads. To white people, and even sometimes to black people, our blackness is seen as the problem — not the legacy of slavery (under which we still labor), not racism, not the unjustified, unfair, unacknowledged white fear. For this reason, a jury of, one presumes, thoughtful people was able to find a dead black boy guilty of his own murder and could acquit the white man even though, unprovoked, he accosted Martin and pulled the trigger.

One of the more heartbreaking moments of the trial occurred when defense attorney Marc O’Mara asked Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, to agree that her son had caused his own death. The acquittal of George Zimmerman stands as more evidence of how our own society devalues and disregards us simply because of the color of our skin. O’Mara was asking the murdered boy’s mother to agree that Trayvon was guilty of being black and therefore deserved to be gunned down in ‘self-defense.” I was sickened.

What this verdict does not only to the Martin family, but to all of us who yearn for justice and fairness and kindness in our country, is evoke the deepest disappointment, bitterness and anger. I have to watch my own black shadow carefully now and monitor the doubts that whisper through my mind, doubts that are shaped by the internalization of slavery’s messages. “Trayvon shouldn’t have worn that hoodie. What was he thinking? He should have known better.”

The black shadow is loud in our minds right now, trying to rope us back into our own self-doubts and shame. I refuse to allow my Black Shadow to blame the victim. I reject the lie of black inferiority, the Willie Lynch lie that blacks are dangerous beasts who deserve to be put down when they cross their white “betters.”

I am so grateful to Trayvon’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sabrina Fulton, who are not distracted by the lie that their beloved child caused his own death. Like them, I will try not to be distracted by the “Not Guilty” verdict of the armed, white, vigilante who was responsible for this senseless death. They are remembering their son as the bright blessing that he was, and they are not going to let anyone or anything change what they know to be true. We have to do the same, and not just when it comes to the tragedy of this young man, but in the face of the daily tragedies of racism confronting all of our young men and women, and when we remember the struggles of our ancestors, and when we face our own black shadows.

When mainstream, white society agrees that we should all blame the victim, it has the effect of sapping our energy. That is a problem for us, because it takes massive amounts of energy to stand up to injustice and resist the lies about black inferiority. The antidote is to work together, to strengthen our resolve to achieve equality for all, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age and ability. There can be no greater justice for Trayvon Martin than to help make Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream a reality: justice, kindness and equal opportunity for all. As he reminded us, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The First Family

No Laughing Matter

The First Family

The First Family

The First Family produced by Byron Allen is one of the latest black sitcoms. It is filled with familiar black actors and actresses from the 80′s and 90′s and even includes Grammy Award winning music icon Gladys Knight. Many of us have been wondering, “Where are they now?” I watched two back-to-back episodes of The First Family one Sunday evening and then another two the following Sunday. I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t overreacting. I’m sure. The show not only perpetuates stereotypical views and images of African Americans but also promotes seriously risky health behaviors. The White House is portrayed as a hang out for the President’s extended family (and their friends) whose personal crises interfere with him doing his job. In one episode, the white Vice President and the President’s black father don’t support the President’s healthy eating initiative. They continue to eat oversized burgers and fried foods. Another casts the First Lady as a poor cook desperate to bake good cookies. Then the First Lady’s sister takes her cell phone from her bra in a scene with the President. When the President walks in the room where his sister-in-law is playing cards with former co-workers, a second woman does the same. She wants the butler to use her cell phone to take a picture of her with the President.

What’s the problem? Cell phones may be linked to breast cancer. Cancer has been found in women at the exact site of the breast where the cell phone rests. While African American women are less likely than whites to get breast cancer, we have a higher death rate. Breast cancer tends to occur in African American women at a younger age and in more aggressive forms. Fewer effective treatment options exist for more aggressive forms of breast cancer. Obesity also is a risk factor for breast cancer. Hence the image of two overweight black female characters taking cell phones from their bras may be more deadly than humorous. We should be encouraging all of our female family and friends not to carry their cell phones in their bras, not glamorizing this potentially dangerous behavior.

Curious about the show’s producer Byron Allen, I goggled images of him. I saw a wedding photo of him to a Caucasian woman (in appearance) and another of them and their biracial daughter at the beach. My first thought was, “Why didn’t he do a show about a biracial family?” After all the backlash from a Cheerios’ commercial featuring a biracial family, such a show might help all Americans to be more tolerant and accepting of biracial and multiracial families. And then I mused, “When will we care more about little black boys’ and girls’ self-esteem and identity than we do about laughing at racial stereotypes of ourselves?”

I know sometimes we might laugh to keep from crying but positive social action, not more laughter at our own expense, is what we need to counter racism, internalized and externalized. Picture the power of millions of African Americans turning away from the movies or television shows using the N-word or stereotypical black images. Imagine flipping the script on Hollywood, staying away from the box office and television until we get the respect we’ve earned. Visualize a future generation of black children without learned black inferiority. What will it take—You and I.

All the Single Ladies

I do....Do I?

I do….Do I?

Black Men Want Commitment

More black men (43%) than women (25%) say they want commitment according to a poll of African Americans’ views of their lives and communities conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. It is surprising, even shocking, to say the least given the prevailing narrative that black women, not black men, want commitment. Seriously?

Some explanatory theories of this switch suggest: financial stability of women; men giving socially acceptable answers; and the possibility that we had it wrong. I’m sure you have a few theories of your own. I know I do. But what does it matter? It’s like asking, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg.” Regardless, one does not exist without the other.

Whether it’s black men or black women, our families and communities pay the price.
African Americans have the lowest rate of marriage of any ethnic group. Why? We don’t profit from our failure to marry, contributing to our fractured families and communities.

At the end of the day, it’s not about whether more black men or more black women are willing to commit. The reality is that we have yet to reclaim marriage as a valued right. Slavery took away marriage as a critical turning point in the black family life cycle. Slavery began the battle between the black sexes. Polls tend to add to the rift, causing black men and women to blame one another rather than examine slavery’s continuing impact on our intimate relationships. Awareness of the psychological residuals of slavery, not finger pointing, is what might energize African American men and women to marry and create healthy bonds of love and commitment. African American men and women must not miss out on commitment because we let the polls dictate our expectations and thus our possibilities.

United, black men and women can find a way to the altar. Divided, we’re stuck with slavery’s negative views of us as mates. Single, the black woman projects blame onto the black man and the black man projects blame onto the black woman. Both the black man and black woman should look behind them to slavery. Slavery dismantled black marriage. Post-slavery, racism and internalized racism play a role in the poor statistics on black marriage. Interestingly, the polls don’t account for the social structures that privilege some and disadvantage others.

Healing our relationships means dealing with slavery’s leftover baggage. Together we need to engage in meaningful and genuine conversations about our losses from slavery so we can repair our relationships. Marriage is an expression of our full humanity. It’s up to us to claim it.

Dark Girls

What’s Changed?

My beloved mother

My beloved mother

Not much has changed for dark girls since Mamie and Kenneth Clark’s famous doll test in the 1930s. Black children preferred the lightest doll then and do now in contemporary versions of the infamous doll test. The documentary Dark Girls which recently aired on OWN reveals that the struggle for beauty and equality continues for dark girls and women within the black community. As an African American therapist, I can’t say that I was surprised by anything in the documentary. We African Americans still have a tough time talking about slavery—the origin of colorism. Seriously, what can we really expect to change without acknowledging and challenging the psychological residuals of slavery in our families and communities? What doesn’t get resolved in one generation is passed on to the next so our issues from slavery go from one generation to the next.

Confronting the secret about skin color in our families and communities is necessary for all black girls to feel lovable, worthy and deserving of care and for all black boys to feel their value lies within them, not a dark, light, bright, near-white or white woman. African Americans need to get that preferring light over dark or dark over light is problematic for all of us. Skin color preferences in the African American community follow society’s racial hierarchy. African Americans as a group are at the bottom in the larger society and dark-skinned African Americans are at the bottom in the black community.

African American families and communities must buffer our youth against racism, not subject them to poor self-esteem and identity with skin color valuations. Regrettably, racism makes us mean. Desperately needing recognition or alleviation of bad feelings, we say and do nasty things to the people we claim to love. Hence black youth are not only bombarded with negative messages from the media, teachers, mental health professionals and others but also family and peers.

Watching painfully as one little girl in the documentary softly admitted that she didn’t like being called black, I remembered another little girl. Over 30 years ago, six-year-old Angel (not her real name) didn’t like her dark skin. Angel was brought to see me by her black foster mother. Prior to her new placement, Angel was in a white foster care residential facility. Once in the play therapy room, Angel immediately reached for a white doll. I selected a black doll. Mirroring Angel’s love and attentiveness to her white doll, I held my black baby close, telling her how beautiful her dark skin was and how important she was to me. Angel and I repeated these actions for about six months. One session, as I had hoped, Angel reached for a black doll. I silently rocked the same black doll. Angel affectionately stroked her black doll’s face, telling her she was beautiful, special and loved. I hugged Angel, telling her she was beautiful, special and loved. Then I placed my hand over hers and said, “we’re both black and beautiful.” Previously, Angel said I was white because I was lighter than her with permed straight shoulder length hair.

My dark-skinned 80-year-old mother lived and died thinking herself ugly because that’s what she learned in her black family and community. African American girls and women must not continue to live and die with the stigma of dark skin. For all the Angels out there, “You’re beautiful, smart and worthy to be loved.”

Exposing the Myth of White Superiority

How to Have Constructive Cross-Racial Conversations

As someone who has been involved with multicultural and anti-racism work for decades, I have been inspired to see a number of white people come to understand their part in racism and how their whiteness and the privilege they get from it affects people of color.  It can be a very depressing and shameful process to admit that they believe in the myth of white superiority.  White people often experience a soul crisis when they absorb the truth that they’ve been raised to believe this without questioning it.  When they have to look at structural forces of racism that helped them be successful in life – how white skin and a white way of speaking opened doors and opportunities for them – they have to rewrite their own narrative.  Do they merit their rewarding jobs and padded bank accounts, or was the playing field uneven?  Have they judged and condemned their black neighbors, colleagues, friends and strangers for being less successful and secretly or unconsciously accepted the myth of black inferiority?

Facing the lie of white superiority is what whites must do to be available for their own healing. Facing the white shadow as whites and facing the black shadow as blacks, we can all do the real work of healing our nation.

For a genuine black-white conversation on race to work, I believe whites have to own up to the unfair advantage racism has given them. Doing this validates blacks’ experience of disadvantage, and that’s a crucial first step to forging trust and allowing for vulnerability.  Because of our own black shadows, African Americans have a lot at stake when we open up to white people about our pain and sorrow and anger.  These conversations are not equivalent for blacks and whites.  I compare it to working with couples in therapy when one partner has had an affair.  The perpetrator is expected to do a little more giving (be more vulnerable, accept responsibility) until the system is rebalanced and some trust is restored. Only then can the victim feel safe enough to start talking about his/her part in the relationship breakdown.

Unfortunately, what I generally hear from whites during racism workshops is that they want a guarantee of safety (“I don’t want to be called a racist!”) and they want to be taken care of, (“I feel so guilty! I hate this feeling! Tell me I’m okay”).  It’s no wonder these conversations are often endured through gritted teeth by black people.  How could it be different? If white people faced their white shadows, we could start this conversation at a whole new level. We wouldn’t reenact racism (whites are just nice folks; blacks are always so angry).

anti racismIn my previous blog, I addressed a question a white woman asked at a recent presentation I gave about the book. She asked why African Americans don’t “narrate their own story.”  As a black woman and therapist, I get why we haven’t, and I wrote Facing the Black Shadow to help African Americans begin having long-needed conversations about slavery and its ongoing trauma, which manifests in the myth of black inferiority. Talking about slavery and the myth of black inferiority will help African Americans become energized so we can tell our own story. The more we talk about our shadows – black and white – the closer we’ll get to the day when we can tell healing stories about our pasts that help us move forward into a happier future.

The Other Face of the Black Shadow

Facing the White Shadow

Why don’t blacks narrate their own story?

This is what one white woman wanted to know at a recent talk I gave on my book, Facing the Black Shadow. What she meant by that question was, why do African Americans let themselves be defined as “inferior?”   Her question was a sincere one, and I’ve heard white people ask this before in different ways over the many years I’ve been speaking and teaching about racism.

If you’re black, this question probably didn’t occur to you because you live in a reality where you’re constantly being defined in a negative way by the white, mainstream society.  It’s an everyday reality for you to be restricted and denied access to resources and opportunities, and then to be blamed for not achieving the American Dream.  If you did do well in school, graduated from college and graduate school and seem to all the world to be a black success story, you also know what it means to be feared and hated simply because of your dark skin.  You know your nice clothes won’t necessarily protect you from white police suspecting you of being a criminal in your own neighborhood. You know your educated way of speaking might get you called “uppity” either to your face or behind your back.  Sadly, you  probably have experienced the truth that racist beliefs about black inferiority sometimes seep into your own psyche and cause you to hate yourself for being black.

Black people know, because we live it every day, that centuries of slavery left its mark on African Americans, making it hard for us to believe in our own intrinsic self-worth.  In answer to the white woman’s question, we do work hard to rewrite the white narrative that defines us as inferior.  But the reason we don’t “narrate our own story” is because we are still digging out from under the rubble of the narrative of the white society that allowed the business of enslavement of dark-skinned people to thrive for hundreds of years in America.  The lack of honest engagement about slavery – the rape of black women by many of our nation’s revered Founding Fathers, for example – makes narrating our own story something like an uphill swim through toxic sludge.

The white woman who asked this question has to make a leap of understanding to really hear what the black shadow does to her African American friends, neighbors and colleagues.  Because she was not raised in a culture, family or history that constantly bombards her with the message that whites are inferior, it might take some time for her to really absorb the truth of the black shadow.  I am grateful she asked the question because it helped me to explain to white audience members how complicated the black shadow is for black people.

But I am so glad she asked her question for another reason:  it revealed to me that there is also a white shadow.  The white shadow blinds white people to the impact of racism on black people. While the black shadow is the internalized belief in the myth of black inferiority, the white shadow is the internalized belief that racism isn’t that bad.  Haven’t we all heard a white person at times dismiss or minimize racism by saying, “Oh come on, it’s not that bad for black people. We have a black president!” Or, “Black people always play the race card.”  They don’t mean to be racists; they truly believe they aren’t.  Their white shadow blinds them to the ways the myth of black inferiority affects not only black people, but themselves as well. All white people are raised in a racist society, just as all black people are raised in racism. But being white comes with a “we don’t have to think about racism” privilege. Their white shadow causes white people to too easily dismiss the truth about racism and white privilege to blind them to the pain and suffering and legitimate grievances of African Americans.

Racism is an entrenched system of white invisibility (because white = normal) and black visibility (because black = “other”).  Of course, genetics prove that humans are 99.9% similar across all races and ethnicities.  But until we evolve to the point where skin tone doesn’t matter, we have to talk about the black shadow.  But by only talking about the black shadow, are we saying whites don’t have to think about their own white shadow? I’ll be asking myself this question more as I continue to give talks around the country about Facing the Black Shadow with racially mixed audiences.