I remember sitting in a class in graduate school taught by an older white male professor. Someone had asked him whether he marketed himself as a Christian counselor or not. His response was, “I am white, and I am a male, but I don’t market myself as a white male counselor. My job is to empathize, but who I am will ultimately come into the room.”
I felt a lot of freedom after that class; freedom to be myself in the therapist’s chair, and not feel like I had to relate to every person who walked into my office.
That changed, however, when I started working with clients from different countries and different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. I found myself overcompensating for my “whiteness”; for my middle-class, educated, privileged-ness.
So then I had to come to terms with the fact that I can be comfortable in my own skin and my own experiences. I have my own story, and it can’t be compared to anyone else’s. I found freedom again in encouraging others to explore their culture rather than apologize for it. I became curious. I asked a lot of questions. I learned a lot when I asked questions. So I asked more questions.
Over the past several weeks, I have had many conversations with black men and women about what it is like to live in between two different worlds and not have a place to land. The more I listened to stories, the more I realized many young black men and women are stuck in a very isolated place. These men and women I have talked with don’t relate, or don’t identify, with their families of origin, nor do they identify with their white classmates and co-workers.
In these conversations, I am told what it is like to “black it up” around family and friends and then “white up” for work and church. Home isn’t family or social circles. Home, or a safe place to land, doesn’t really exist.
I’ve never had to get dressed in the morning and wonder whether I look too white or not. I just wake up, shower, make my coffee, get dressed, and go on with my day. I’ve never had to wonder if I will fit in based on how I act, talk, dress, or fix my hair.
After one conversation about isolation between worlds, a young woman encouraged me to watch the movie “Dear White People” on Netflix. The movie is set on the campus of a fictional Ivy League school and it gives a more than honest portrayal of what happens when individuals lose their sense of identity and, ultimately, their sense of self.
During one particularly painful scene, a predominantly white dorm on campus throws a black-culture-themed Halloween party. No one throwing the party knows that the ad was written by a black student activist, and dozens of white students show up in black-face and gang colors, boasting their fake guns, gold grills, cash headbands, and Obama family masks. A black female student shows up in a blonde wig to emcee the event and asks the question, “Why do white people try so hard to be black? And black people try so hard to be white?”
An onslaught of racism, rage, homophobia, alcohol, and violence ensues, and lines of all colors, classes, incomes, and beliefs are crossed. This movie forced me to look at all of the times I have boasted that I am from Memphis so I am “black on the inside”. I wish I could tell you I have never said that, but I would be lying. I have crossed the line between appreciating another culture, and unfairly adopting someone else’s truth as my own.
I don’t have any answers. All I know is that these conversations have encouraged me to stop trying to be someone else and to be myself. They have also helped me lead others in discussions about who they are rather than who they let define them. I have learned so much by asking questions, and I hope I never stop asking.