Black Man Grove Series (Photo credit: afsart)
African American experience and the healing of relationships
by Kenneth V. Hardy
The following interview appears in the book: ‘Family therapy: Exploring the field’s past, present and possible futures’ edited by David Denborough (Dulwich Centre Publications, 2001). Kenneth V Hardy lives in New York where he works at the Ackerman Institute for the Family.
DCP: Could we start perhaps with how it is that you came to be engaged with the field of family therapy?
I grew up in Pennsylvania in Philadelphia as the oldest of six siblings. Throughout my childhood there was significant emphasis placed on the importance of the family. My maternal great-grandmother lived with us until I was a junior in college. She was the granddaughter of a slave and I can’t think of another person who’s had a more profound influence on me. She taught me what can’t be learnt from books. She told me stories about humanity and human beings, about the potential for kindness and the potential for inhumanity. I heard so much from her about the ugliness of slavery and the impact it had on her parents’ life and my parents’ life.
I knew very early on what I wanted to do with my life. I had an insatiable yearning for some greater understanding of what we had become as a people and why. When I was exposed to the whole area of psychotherapy, I found that there was some attention being paid to issues of poverty, race and ethnicity but only in superficial ways. This was when I got excited about family therapy. I think my own family predisposed me to be interested in this area.
As an African-American working in a field that is dominated by white people and white values, I’ve had to get in there, step in the mud, make mistakes, have people laugh at me, feel ashamed and just continue. There certainly wasn’t a manual as to how to act and I had to endure the humiliation of not really knowing how to act in the white professional world.
One of the reasons why there are so few people of colour, so few African-Americans in the field of family therapy, is because family therapy has been a somewhat marginalised discipline in comparison to mainstream psychology or psychiatry. It’s very difficult for those of us who have membership in devalued and marginalised groups to invest heavily in a profession that’s in some ways marginalised and devalued. There’s something about getting educated and finding the right job as an African American that’s supposed to be freeing. There are meanings involved in employment and education for African-American people that are different than for white Americans.
For African-Americans to engage with family therapy it requires us to practise unrequited love. It requires people of colour to love family therapy more than it seems to love us! The curriculum in universities is not designed to look at marginalised experiences so I had a lot of discouragement along the way. I recall in Graduate School a Professor saying to me, ‘Maybe you should look at some other area because white families probably won’t think about going to see a black therapist, and a lot of black people don’t believe in therapy.’ I had my own ideas about this however, and if I had my life over again I would live it the same way. I’d be a family therapist.
DCP: Much of your work has involved trying to articulate the skills and steps required in healing relationships, especially those affected by differences in power. Can you speak a little about this?
In terms of healing any relationship, I believe there has to be some willingness to look at dynamics of power. Power is an integral part of our relationships and until that’s acknowledged it is often very difficult to move forward. Once there is an acknowledgement of the relevance of addressing issues of power, I am interested in drawing distinctions between those who are privileged and those who are subjugated. I think that while both have responsibilities in relation to healing relationships, the responsibilities are not equal. In situations where a relationship has broken down, I’ve attempted to define what some of the different tasks are for those in privileged positions and those in subjugated positions. Of course, I don’t think these categories of privilege and subjugation are absolute. The same person can occupy positions in different categories on different issues – eg. culture, gender, class, sexuality. And yet I have found it helpful to try to articulate what the different responsibilities might be for those in privileged positions and those in subjugated positions in order for relationships to be healed.
One of the first responsibilities for the privileged is to overcome mistaken notions about equality and inequality. I believe it’s customary for the privileged to just assume that everyone and everything is equal. One of the privileges of the privileged is to be able to be oblivious to the life experiences of the subjugated. I don’t believe healing can take place in a context where the privileged have not come to terms with the existence of inequality. Not only must the privileged acknowledge the existence of marginalisation, they must find some way to appreciate the inequality and the suffering of the subjugated.
There is also a critical distinction that has to be made between intentions and consequences. In my experience, the privileged almost always deal in the realm of intentions, while the subjugated almost always deal in the realm of consequences. Often this means that there can’t be a dialogue between the privileged and the subjugated because their reference points are so different. It’s important to realise that you can have pure intentions that render very damaging consequences. In order for healing to take place, the privileged must stop routinely using their position to clarify their intentions in ways that disregard the very real effects of their actions.
Furthermore, it amazes me when people of privilege say, ‘I tried to reach out to this group of people but they were so hostile and angry that I just can’t do it anymore’. I think that such statements are an expression of privilege. They are a cop-out. I get frustrated because I think that sometimes privileged folks, whether it’s men, or white people or heterosexuals, seem to require a manual before they will take action. They want to know how to approach these issues in ‘the right way’, a way that involves the least amount of risk to them. Perhaps they are used to being guided through life, perhaps they are used to being able to follow guidelines that are set up to enable them to progress through life. This is not true for people in subjugated positions. We are familiar with the feeling of not knowing what to do. We are used to facing hostility and anger when we step into unfamiliar territory. If relationships across difference are to be healed then people of privilege cannot turn away at their first experience of rejection or hostility. If we, as members of marginalised groups, gave up when we experienced hostility we would get nowhere in life.
For the subjugated, there are different responsibilities. The most important of these is to find some way to regain one’s voice. One can not experience domination and subjugation and retain the whole strength of one’s voice, it quickly becomes compromised. I think that there has to be a concerted effort to regain that which has been taken away, that which has been lost. There have to be steps taken to reclaim one’s voice, one’s heritage, one’s history.
I think another major task for the subjugated is to find a way to have some willingness to allow the privileged to come to terms with their participation in injustice. It is very difficult for gay and lesbian people to sit there and watch a heterosexual get agitated or upset in relation to issues of heterosexual dominance, because most gay and lesbian people know that if heterosexual people get angry it can culminate in some form of violence. It is very difficult for African-Americans or people of colour to sit there and watch a white person get agitated and upset, because we know that horrible things often happen when white people get mad. It is very difficult for the poor person to sit there when a very wealthy person gets upset, because they know the person with wealth will have the resources to get them withdrawn from the situation if they decide they have had enough of the uncomfortableness.
I think that part of the socialisation process for subjugated peoples is to be trained into finding ways to take care of the privileged. That is just a part of our experience. You look at those who shine shoes in the airports, those who make the beds up in hotels, and those who drive cabs, they are all people from subjugated groups. One of the dominant stories of our lives involves taking care of the privileged, doing this well and doing it in self-compromising ways. When we are trying to address injustices in our relationships this is something the subjugated have to come to terms with. We have to deal with our tendency to instantly take care of people from privileged positions. We have to enable privileged people to engage with these issues and come up with their own responses. Members of subjugated groups must find ways through this without responding to privileged people’s uncomfortableness in self-compromising ways.
The other experience that the subjugated have to come to terms with is to find some channel for rage. For many people, experiences of subjugation and domination are accompanied by rage. Rage is not anger which an be an immediate response to a particular situation. Rage is historical and it’s tied to experiences of domination and subjugation. There is nothing episodic about rage; it’s long term. I believe that subjugated people’s experience of rage can contribute to the short life expectancy of our people. We need to try to understand our rage and to find ways to use it which are constructive both for individuals and our communities.
We have to find better ways to help those who are subjugated to channel their rage because the alternative scares me. In some ways I can relate to the stereotypic menace to society on the streets of New York who is mean and angry and waiting for his next victim. Sometimes I think that the difference between my life and his may not be as great as it seems. Maybe the difference is that I have found some way to channel my rage. This discussion is a chance to channel rage. I have speech, I have writing, I have my work with people. These are all ways in which I can engage with my rage that are not destructive of myself or others.
DCP: In Australia at the moment there is considerable discussion about the place of apologies in relation to addressing historical injustices. What is your view in relation to this?
There are three key steps the privileged can take in relation to past injustice. Firstly, there has to be a meaningful acknowledgement of the injustice. Secondly, there has to be an apology for the injustice done. And thirdly, there has to be a request for forgiveness. With anything short of this it’s very difficult to heal.
You have a large group of African-Americans in this country who remain very angry, in a way that white people can’t understand, because there’s been no formal acknowledgement and apology in relation to slavery. I think an apology would go a long way towards collective healing. And yet somehow we haven’t got to that point. There are examples of ways of relating to past horrors that we can learn from. You can go to Washington DC, for example, and hear about the horrors of the Holocaust but there are no similar museums dedicated to honouring the massacres and genocide that happened on this soil. To this day we have the most alarming rates of alcoholism and suicide on most First Nations’ reservations and the reaction from the mainstream is, ‘Why won’t those damn Indians stop drinking?’. People don’t say, well that’s because their whole lives, and their children’s lives and their parents’ lives and their grandparents’ lives have been assaulted by this country. You don’t hear those parts of the story. I think an apology to the indigenous people’s of this land, and a formal apology in relation to slavery would go a long way towards healing the psyche of this country. Clearly there would need to be powerful acts of acknowledgement around this apology, and a request for forgiveness. If this occurred I think it could be transformative for this nation.
DCP: How do these sorts of considerations translate into your work as a therapist with families?
Part of my frustration with our field is that we seem so determined to locate human suffering narrowly while ignoring broader ecological perspectives. In family therapy we pride ourselves on having a systemic understanding of problems, that we need to look not just at the individual but at the whole family. But in some ways this is still very narrow, because the family exists in a broader socio-cultural context. Because I am interested in the effect of this socio-cultural context on those with whom I meet, I’ve had colleagues seriously say to me, you’re not a therapist you’re a sociologist, or you’re an anthropologist. This is not an insult to me. I’m pleased to hear such remarks. What they mean to me is that in therapy, I’m always looking for connections between what’s happening in this micro-systemic relationship and how it’s tied to one’s experiences in macro systems of culture.
Just a couple of days ago we had a Russian couple come in, who had recently emigrated to the USA. They have a very volatile relationship and are in the process of destroying each other. Small things trigger huge arguments, such as when she says to him, ‘Can you take your shoes off when you’re walking on the carpet?’ How are we as therapists to approach such a circumstance? We could focus on their communication and their need for anger management, but I’d prefer to explore what it means to be a Russian who lives in the United States. I don’t know what it’s like to be a Russian who lives in this country but I do know what it’s like to have membership in a group which relentlessly receives very powerful messages about being less than. My understanding of this couple dynamic is that some piece of what we’re dealing with is within their relationship, some piece has to do with some critical, domineering parenting pattern, but another part of it has to do with the way they feel very profoundly disrespected in this society as Russians. There is a way in which they have been so profoundly devalued that it has altered their understandings about how to act in order to achieve the respect of each other.
Most of the ways that people approach therapy don’t even begin to consider matters of ethnicity and culture of origin. Most therapies don’t even begin to wonder about the impact of the minute everyday cultural practices on the experiences of individuals and families. I want to expand the dialogue so that therapy is not seen as being restricted to conversations about a particular problem that someone may be experiencing. In society, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and other dimensions of diversity are always a part of our interactions. There should be some opportunity to talk about these issues in the therapy room because otherwise the conversations may not be acknowledging significant realms of experience.
I couldn’t trust a therapist I was seeing who didn’t talk about my experiences as an African-American. If I couldn’t do that it wouldn’t be therapy worth believing in. Being African-American is such a core piece of my identity. And yet I wouldn’t expect my therapist to raise the issue for the sake of raising it. Instead, I’d expect him or her to be a good seamstress in the ways they assisted me to see how the issues of my life are stitched together, how my experiences of life are linked to broader histories and the wider ecology.
DCP: Can you expand on the metaphors of ecology and how such a metaphor influences your thinking and your work?
One of the struggles in my life is to resist the temptation and seduction of simplicity. There are lots of opportunities in a technologically advanced society to make our lives simpler. Yet what feels more meaningful for me is to keep struggling to understand my life and the lives of others in all their wonderful complexity. My own life, in hundreds of ways each day, is shaped by relations of gender, race and religion. How I understand a particular situation is influenced by so many histories, it’s just that we are not trained to see this. We are not encouraged to make the links between how we understand our lives and the broader relationships of culture, gender, class and sexuality. In fact, this is often actively discouraged to the point that we cease to look for or to realise what significant factors these broader relations of power have in our daily lives. Segregated thinking is such a cancer in our society.
Let me give you an example from my own life. If I was to measure myself against a psychological scale in relation to paranoia, I think I would rate so highly that I would be off the scale! Yet I think it would be a mistake to interpret such a result as simply an indication of my craziness. When I get stopped by a policeman because of my membership of a group that’s systematically targeted, paranoia is a logical response. What is seen through one lens as psychological paranoia, in another can be seen as a logical result of discrimination and racism.
In this context, ahistorical, non-ecological approaches miss so much. If I was to understand my experience by thinking, if only I could trust more, if only I could take a pill to get rid of this paranoia that is inside of me, then I would miss the opportunity to take meaningful action to challenge the relations of power that are discriminating against me. I think therapy, that is to say therapy built on ecological understandings, therapy that makes the links between people’s experiences of life and the power relations of the society in which they live, goes hand in hand with activism.
There are those therapists who believe family therapy has gone too far in terms of its involvement in human rights issues. They say we can’t be an ‘Amnesty International’ for families, that we should just help couples navigate the stresses of their lives. But from my point of view, we have an obligation to change the world. Our job is to serve families, indeed to serve all families, not just the wealthy and those who speak a common language, but those who aren’t even sure what language they speak. It’s our responsibility to make the links between the issues families are facing and broader relations of power. And it’s our responsibility to take some action in relation to redressing injustices in the culture in which we live.
DCP: One of the realms of injustice that I know you are constantly speaking about involves the effects of the criminal justice system on families and communities of colour. Can you say a little about this?
Even if you go to places in the USA that don’t have a high African-American population, when you look inside the prisons there you find disproportionate numbers of African-Americans because they’re shipped in from other states. The current over-policing and imprisonment of African-American people is a form of ongoing colonisation. In my more melodramatic moments I say it’s the new slavery. We’ve replaced chains and plantations with bars and razor wire. In some ways the phenomena is exactly the same.
The great sadness is that the general population assumes that it’s just, that ‘they wouldn’t be there if they didn’t deserve to be’. But the laws in this country aren’t equally applied. If you look at those who receive the death penalty in this country it’s mostly the poor, mostly people of colour. The injustices involved in policing and imprisonment in this country at present are overwhelming and they are devastating families and communities of colour.
This issue even spreads beyond the issue of incarceration. I think our society in the United States is becoming increasingly punitive in many arenas of life. What’s more we are becoming more comfortable with the fact that those who are receiving punishments are disproportionately children and disproportionately marginalised people. As therapists I believe we have to initiate a dialogue about punishment and about prisons. We have to put these issues on our agenda. I don’t even think they are on the agenda of most therapists at the moment.
DCP: I know that in the past you have said that one way of looking at family therapy is to see it as a response to human suffering, can you say more about this?
Even if I believe my job was limited to helping families deal with their distress, there’s something about poverty and racism that’s very distressing and that infiltrates every aspect of life. I can’t see the world in a fragmented way. I’m not just saying that, I honestly can’t, for the life of me. I keep saying to the students that I’m training that what I’m attempting to do is to help trainees become relationship experts. What I believe we should be concerning ourselves with is trying to address human suffering in whatever manifestation it takes place. So whether it’s dealing with heterosexual married couples who love each other but can’t find a way to be with each other, or whether it’s dealing with the First Nations people and their efforts to convince white European Americans of the ways in which they have been oppressed, I believe we need to be learning how to heal strained relationships. We need to be determined in our efforts to find ways to help people come together. I know this may sound grandiose but that’s what I believe. We cannot afford to turn our eyes away from any form of suffering whether it affects us directly or not. We must find ways to play our part in responding. This, to me, is the role of the therapist.
Copyright © 2001 by Dulwich Centre Publications Pty Ltd