Last semester, I was seeing a psychotherapist in South Amherst. I wanted a professional to help me work through my own childhood trauma. We had three sessions before they accidentally stood me up on Valentine’s Day. Yikes. In those three sessions, we covered a lot of ground and I opened up a lot. But after that missed Valentine’s Day date-appointment, and canceling on me the following week because of a scheduling error (they’re either exceptionally unprofessional or I’m simply repulsive), I decided to cut ties.
It wasn’t until the beginning of the summer that I started seeing a psychotherapist regularly again, this time in downtown Amherst. Thankfully, they never missed an appointment. At that time, I was less focused on dealing with my childhood and more interested in the intense highs and lows I had been feeling at the time. I remember they started our fourth session with a joke about it being the “make it or break it” session, a joke reference to the previous psychotherapist. Good one.
During that same session, in my update-spiel, I briefly mentioned that I felt defeated in my study abroad search. After Google searching identity in various countries and reading program evaluations from Amherst students, I came to the conclusion that being black abroad wasn’t ideal in a lot of countries. Being a dark-skinned black person and a woman seemed to be even worse. Good thing I’m a dark-skinned black woman!
Of course, I realized relying heavily on what I was reading wasn’t wise. I knew that if I was outside of the United States and read about race relations here via Google searches, I would absolutely, one hundred percent, no doubt at all, indefinitely refuse to travel here. But I’m managing here and there have been millions of moments when I’ve felt filled to the brim with pure happiness. Even so, I wasn’t able to completely dismiss the experiences I had read from the people in the various study abroad programs. After all, they were very real experiences.
But in this session, I had moved on from this topic and onto familial updates. After the complete update-spiel, my psychotherapist decided to ask a question inspired by that brief study abroad mention: “You’ve talked a lot about self-hatred during your low periods, how much of that do you think is influenced by your identity as a black woman?” I remember sinking into the sofa with a relevatory smile on my face. Psychotherapists are phenomenal, really. Clever folks. As I sat back, I remember repeating in my head “How could you have possibly missed this?”
Seeing countless videos of black people being harassed by law enforcement officers, without valid explanation, obviously has an effect on a person, especially when that person is black. Noticing your non-black acquaintances eagerly acknowledge you during the day but seeing those same people divert their eyes, when they pass you at night, and feeling their fear and discomfort, has another effect on a person, especially when that person is black. Realizing that the white sales clerk really is following you in a shop in Northampton has an effect on a person, definitely when that person is black. Of course my blackness plays a role in my psychological well-being!
While I felt that my new psychotherapist and I pinpointed one major source for my depression, we weren’t able to work together to find real solutions. Instead, the sessions turned into me explaining concepts like double consciousness and institutionalized racism to them, a white man. While I appreciated, and still appreciate, their open-mindedness and willingness to understand my experiences as a black woman, I felt that these sessions weren’t supposed to be teaching sessions.
I was respectfully direct with this psychotherapist about the blatant disconnect of experiences and so I began the search for another new psychotherapist in the area, this time one of color. Eventually, I found myself back in the Amherst College Counseling Center with a black psychotherapist that I had seen during my first-year here. I had stopped returning during my first-year because I wasn’t able to be seen on a regular basis, something that I needed and still need. This time around, I’ve been guaranteed long-term help. The counseling center is improving or I’m very mentally unhealthy. It’s likely both.
With this new psychotherapist, there was an immediate line of trust stemming from our shared blackness. I spoke more freely. I paused to explain less. For example, when I walked into my last session, this psychotherapist noted my hairstyle change. I’m currently wearing my hair in kinky twists. I remember saying, out of habit, “Yeah, it was a seven hour-long process!”. Their response was “I know!”. Even this little bit of understanding makes a difference. Whenever a non-black person commented on my braided or twist hairstyles, they almost always followed up with a question about the process. I remember laughing to myself because I was still in explanation-mode. The more sessions I have with explanation-mode off, the more I realize how important it is to have people to talk with, especially people with a shared background. It’s good to relax and let one’s guard down. It’s freeing to take a break from being doubly-conscious. Some may say it’s even therapeutic.
The bottom line is explaining gets exhausting. During much of my first two years here, I remember being infuriated by students of color that refused to take the time to explain cultural differences to white students specifically. Countless times I thought to myself: If we don’t teach them, who will? Wasn’t that the purpose of bringing students from diverse backgrounds to Amherst? So that they could teach each other? That’s definitely the purpose on paper, but on the ground it oftentimes translates to students of color occupying a space where they have to defend their very experiences to, usually, white students.
It’s never enough for students of color to state their discomfort. We have to come prepared with a ten-page analytical paper with an annotated bibliography to support those feelings and experiences. People who have never broken their arm don’t approach people who have just broken their arm and say “I hear what you’re saying and see that you’re hurting but I really, really, really need you to explain EXACTLY why it hurts, with medical terms.” Yet, the very real lived experiences of others are analyzed objectively. It’s agonizing to be on the pained side. Those with experiences considered the “norm” don’t have to explain. Their words are taken as is, sans the ten-page paper. That’s a form of privilege. But pain felt by another, that has not been felt by oneself, is still pain. Refusing to acknowledge, and refusing to attempt to identify with that unfamiliar pain, is to be severely lacking in emotional intelligence.
There comes a point when we, members of marginalized groups, grow tired of writing these figurative analytical papers for the emotionally unintelligent. There comes a time when we realize that we’re arguing for our very humanity. Yes, our very humanity. Being asked to prove that our life experiences are real is fundamentally being asked to prove and defend our humanity. It’s exhausting. It’s insulting. It’s hurtful. But I’m realizing now that I don’t owe anyone a defense of my lived experiences. As Crissle, one of the hosts of The Read podcast, has said,
“Let me tell you one thing: teachers get motherfucking paid…I am not going to be out here holding white people’s hands helping them get to the Promise Land of Understanding Racism without y’all cutting me a goddamn check…” (Episode “Hazed”, June 4th 2015)
Cut me a check if you want me to sit down and explain to you the validity of my lived experiences and my emotions. I am not saying that I’m not open to conversations on race with non-black people or non-people of color, provided that those people are receptive and emotionally intelligent. Some may be thinking, “Well, she’s acting as if she doesn’t have a thing or two to learn about white people. Everyone has something to learn from each other, including from white people”. I concede, there are definitely some aspects of white experiences that I just don’t know about. But let’s not forget that white experiences are literally and sincerely and indefinitely more than the majority of what we see. White experiences flood television shows, movies, magazine covers, magazine articles, fiction, nonfiction, memoirs, general academia, and more. Information about white experiences is omnipresent. To be honest, I feel that I have enough in my knowledge bank right now.
Having to explain nonstop one’s existence dismantles one’s sanity. Taking a break here and there is a good way to preserve that sanity.