Growing up as a black boy who frequently exhibited behavioral issues within a predominantly white Long Island school system—uprooted from the black Brooklyn neighborhood I was previously accustomed to—I often found myself in mandatory counseling sessions, already feeling like there wasn’t much the white adult in front of me could tell me about why I found my transition to the suburbs so difficult, or which parts of that difficulty were and were not my fault. I recognized them as oppressive—even the professionals who claimed they meant no such harm.
In hindsight, I also recognize that even certain black men in my life enabled shitty responses to shitty circumstances. Whether it be the men in my family or the security guards on campus who watched me avoid class, fight after school, and assert myself in all sorts of other counterproductive (and sometimes toxic) ways, there was never a shortage of black men who “understood” my actions and thus mishandled opportunities to correct them. Whenever someone spoke in a language that managed to console but also improve me, the person was usually a black woman.
At 25, not much has changed on that front. Today, I find myself most often seeking the perspective of black women, as they’ve largely been the only people who have empathized with my plight while also holding me accountable for my own shortcomings. I imagine that has something to do with their inherited task of accepting black men as a part of their community, while still accounting for the fact that we’re also a part of their oppression at times. As I search for a mental health professional for the first time, I feel that one that’s familiar with that task might do the most effective job of helping me unpack my own complex relationship with race, gender, and identity.
Black feminist scholars such as bell hooks routinely note that white supremacy doesn’t exist in a vacuum—it’s inextricably tied to and enforced by imperialism, capitalism, heteronormativity, and, most prudent to this discussion, patriarchy. So however valid my accrued trauma may be as a person of color navigating racism, the fact that I’m a middle-class cis/het man comes with its own privileges that are hard to divest from. Knowing this, a mental health professional who experiences similar privileges would only serve me but so much in therapy.
I’d argue that a therapist who identifies as a black woman may be able to offer more effective healing and treatment options. As a black man considering therapy, I fear I’ll wind up with a therapist who is in some way beholden to passed-down tropes of masculinity, sexuality, respectability, etc.—someone who perpetuates the privileges I’m actively trying to unlearn for the sake of my own mental health and the well being of the people around me.
I suppose what I’m hoping for is a therapist with some elevated, intersectional, enlightening take on black manhood. This could possibly be an undue weight to place on the shoulders of black women studying psychology (especially given their own needs are rarely ever met due to a lack of representation in the workforce), but whether or not a person seeking resources should consider how burdensome that search is feels like a separate conversation.
When it comes to whether a black woman therapist would benefit me more than a man or a woman of another race, it all depends, says Danielle Dickens, an assistant professor of psychology at Spelman College—a historically black women’s university. “There are certain therapists who, even though they identify as black women, may not be equipped to speak to those ideas,” she tells me. “There is a type of therapy called feminist therapy. I would say for those practicing that type of therapy, I can see them being very useful in terms of being able to help their [male] clients deconstruct certain attitudes.”
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According to Natalie N. Watson-Singleton, another Spelman professor of psychology, deconstructing those attitudes starts with “being able to have genuine relationships with black women that aren’t based on sex.” Connecting at that deeper level is a way to challenge toxic masculinity, she adds. “With toxic masculinity, the primary reason to engage or interact with women who you’re not related to is sex, and here you are, with an opportunity to engage in a very meaningful relationship that’s not based on that, that’s ultimately based on healing.”
Alluding to the strain of gender roles even the wokest among us feel restricted by, Singleton asserts that “one of the things toxic masculinity does is it really puts men in a box. It really limits men’s expression of their identity—who they can be with women, who they can be with other men, what that means for their range of emotional experiences." She adds, "And so by unlearning that socialization, it opens up additional choices and options for men to be able to define who they are on their own terms.”
She adds that having a black woman therapist “could provide an opportunity for empathy and perspective on the part of the client.” While learning from a black woman how to empathize with other people’s perspectives would certainly improve a black man’s relationships with other black women, I imagine that to be a skill that could easily be employed in other areas of life—namely, navigating a cultural and political climate wherein your mental and emotional tasks for the day include asserting the idea that your black life matters to begin with.
Although there are opportunities for black men to develop actionable life skills when being counseled by black women, Singleton says there would certainly also be challenges. “There’s some really interesting research about ‘the cool pose’—the way in which black men embody black masculinity,” she explains. “‘The cool pose’ is all about making it seem like you have it together and having a limited range of emotional expression—just maintaining a sense of cool. That makes me think about the extent to which black men in a therapy context with black women may feel additional pressure to maintain a certain posture.”
Extending past a psychologist’s office, this thread of the conversation seems to speak to particular ways in which black women have historically counseled black men in their day-to-day lives for centuries, exercising sometimes an uneven amount of emotional labor when discerning how and how not to call things out. To that point, Singleton notes, “I think it’s a part of our socialization processes. Think about the way patriarchy works. There are ways in which black women are socialized to be independent and take care of their own stuff, but also engage in extraordinary or excessive caregiving.”
Whether therapy will be successful for me remains nebulous. But after considering the possibility of better understanding how to heal my own trauma through her guidance, I pause before paying anyone who doesn’t identify as a black woman to diagnose or treat me.
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