Part 2 – Racial Reconciliation: Inviting Curiosity to Resist Unintended Racism

Curiosity has served me well in my relatively short career as a social worker. Whenever I find myself deep in the mud of bias, it is a kind way back to the Rogerian stance of “unconditional positive regard.”   When practiced curiosity keeps me out of judgement. Recently, I stumbled upon the concept of the Curiosity Quotient (CQ), as compared to the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) and Emotional Quotient (EQ), it has been a helpful framework as to what was missing among my colleagues while we were discussing racial bias and white privilege.  According to Dr. Thomas-Prezuic, a business psychologist,  people with a high Curiosity Quotient (CQ) are characterized with having a “hungry mind,” and  are open to new novel experiences. These people are better able to hold ambiguity.  Dr. Thomas-Prezuic asserts that we can encourage others to develop their CQ, over EQ or IQ.

As part of a workshop, I sat in a presentation titled “Culture-Based Countertransference” with one hundred other social workers and a few other allied professionals. To call this a presentation would mischaracterize it. For the depth of our exploration, and the visceral reactions that were induced went far beyond a few PowerPoint slides with bulleted texts.  Dr. Jacalyn Claes, LCSW, a white woman, and retired social work professor, unassumingly sauntered throughout the conference room, as she provoked us to process both individually and collectively the rules and messages we had been socialized to internalize. We sat and considered how our individual culture, —learned perspective, as it was defined—had been instilled by our families, churches, communities, schools and then finally our social work profession. We were invited to consider how these conscious and unconscious views create, “cultural tunnel vision.”  We examined how this countertransference due to this tunnel vision interweaves both–positively and negatively–with our assessments and interventions with our clients.   At this point of the dialogue, the conversation was benign, non-threatening, yet engaging.

As Dr. Claes advanced to the next slide to reveal the title—Unintended Racism, there was an immediate shift in the room. Immediately nearly everyone felt tense, defensive or avoidant. Somatically, my chest began to brace itself, and my breath became shallow.  It was as if empathy itself had been literally vacuumed out of the room. Mostly, what was left was heightened threat and aggression. We were now walking on uneasy ground. The benign dialogue was no more, as we stood with our activated central nervous systems leaving us confused, guarded, aggressive in our racialized tribes. Some spoke with passion of their fears and rage.  Some remained silent, and withdrawn. Vocally, I made the reflection, “Look at how this room just responded, and if we, as social workers cannot have this conversation, how can the general public?” The saddest aspect that was raised was that clinicians of color often do not trust that they will be met with empathy from their white counterparts.

I am afraid many of us social workers are ill-equipped and inadequately prepared for these conversations. Not only do we not have the language to discuss systems of oppression and interpersonal race relationships, but also we have our own experiences of race and identity traumas that have left us wounded. And like all traumas, our ability to be vulnerable with each other has been diminished. What comes rushing back is past failed attempts of having a redemptive experience.

We can easily form a room of seasoned, experienced social workers who are practiced in creating empathetic spaces for a myriad of distressed peoples. The irony is, it appears, we cannot as a collective community of professionals discuss racism, white privilege with an equal amount of poise and equanimity. While with our clients, we are tasked to be able to hear the subtext from clients in the midst of their suffering–teasing out the difference and nuance between a threat and venting. What would it be like to bring the same amount of grace to these conversations with our colleagues? Personally, I wish we paid conversations about race and privilege an equal amount of deference.

One of the things that I most appreciate about the psychodynamic tradition is the insistence of the “analyst themselves becoming analyzed.” After social work school, many of us have not considered how issues of racial equity and equality intersect within clinical work. Those clinicians most likely to be well-steeped into these matters do so because their psychological and physical safety depends upon continuing this process of education. When was the last time you saw an unconscious racial bias training advertised for therapists, or was that all supposed have been “figured out” in school? How many post-graduate continuing education opportunities have we thought to create to continue this vital conversation? Few and far between.

We continuously seek the latest research about a range of subject matters including substance abuse, mood disorders, trauma therapies, how to support folks aging, or anything else about the human experience. When it comes to clinical training, we work under the assumption that the work is never done–always more to learn. However, I am not sure we are as equally as curious about social justice issues such as intersectional identity development, the harms of microaggressions, or undoing white supremacy, although, these issues affect every practice setting and nearly every population.  When it comes to our clinical work, it impacts the ways in which we receive and respond to our clients on a daily basis.  It was evident judging by people’s comments, those who are curious about this and those who are not.  Those who had been curious who were least aggressive, defensive, guarded, or withdrawn. Curiosity is central to many components of our work from assessment to treatment.  Not only is it central to understanding our clients but it is central to understanding ourselves both inside and outside of the room.

If people are having similar reactions reading this as they did to Dr. Claes training, I imagine white clinicians are feeling on-guard and defensive, with Clinicians of Color, having a host of emotional reactions. Curiously, I am wondering how we can ease defensiveness and soften into a place of deep listening and non-reactivity with these issues? I, for one, am not entirely sure we can—there are no canned answers here. Doing this kind of work in any setting, one on one, small or large group from my experience, has been difficult, hard, and anxiety provoking for everyone involved. What I do know is that sheer, well-grounded curiosity is a start especially when coupled with some good ole’ fashion mindfulness.  In the words of Dr. Brene Brown, “Curiosity is a shit starter, but that’s ok, sometimes you have to rumble with a story to find the truth.” This means we cannot be tied to the outcome of what our collective and individual questioning will uncover.

I offer you a few questions to help examine your practice:

  • What personal prejudices and biases might I become more conscious of? What harms have I unknowingly caused?
  • How has my practice settings disregarded the needs and pains of those most marginalized?
  • What can I do to own these findings to create a more welcoming space for all who I encounter?

In my inquiries, I just might find the key ingredients for me to become a more non-defensive clinician and a fiercer advocate and ally.  For me in my cis-gender male body, this curiosity often yields a more attuned space for the trans folks and women in my life when they share a personal narrative of how someone like me has offended or hurt them. Rather than stiffening my heart with fear of offending or being offended–it opens the opportunity to become more compassionate, to delve more keenly into their suffering.

If more of us within any segment of the helping profession rumbled with this systemic racial tension and our own personal stories of race, the more able we would become to sit with this difficult topic in racially heterogeneous groups. For it is only, through courage and curiosity that we can hope to find some sort of “corrective emotional experience” for the pains of racism. It is also in that space where there are real solutions to this ill and where we can create authentic healing interracial relationships.

This is part two of a three-part series exploring race, belonging, and the clinical encounter.

Hayden Dawes, LCSW, LCAS-A, has been a member of the Clinical Society for over three years and currently serves as Vice President. He enjoys working with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures. He is passionate about assisting people in navigating relationship difficulties, trauma, depression, anxiety, and addiction. His clinical interests include sexual orientation (GLBTQ+) and gender identity issues. Hayden currently works as a clinical social worker at a hospital in the Triangle and in private practice at the AHB Center for Behavioral Health and Wellness.

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