Sound Stories. Sound Voices.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
You are on the KUOW archive site. Click here to go to our current site.

Racial stress: What 3 Seattle therapists are seeing

Jennifer Henderson, a Seattle mental health counselor whose grandfather was killed by police outside of Ferguson in 1925. Trauma can be passed down through generations, she says.
KUOW Photo/Isolde Raftery
Jennifer Henderson, a Seattle mental health counselor whose grandfather was killed by police outside of Ferguson in 1925. Trauma can be passed down through generations, she says.

In downtown Seattle, therapist Robert Gant heard from a father who felt hopeless.

The man had told his sons, ages 12 and 9, that they should obey police. “Whatever, Dad,” the boys said. “They’ll still shoot you.”

In Green Lake, LaVonne Dorsey counseled a biracial couple – the husband, who is black, said he feared for their children. The wife, who is white, didn’t understand why. 

And at King County’s juvenile court, Jennifer Henderson, a mental health counselor, saw firsthand the effects of police violence on black youth. Boys would hold out their wrists to show her the scars from when handcuffs had been left on too long.

Therapists work with patients as individuals, but black therapists with black clients are dealing with something much larger – generations of racism that have resulted in what psychologists call “racial stress and trauma.”

“The Black community has been through a lot lately,” reads a statement from the Association of Black Psychologists. The association was referring to the killings of dozens of black men by police.

“These events are just the most recent in an ongoing assault on our humanity that began more than 400 years ago in enslavement,” the association continued, “with the telling of the poisonous lies of White superiority and Black inferiority.”

Below are edited and condensed excerpts of interviews from three Seattle therapists.

Jennifer Henderson, King County Juvenile court

I have a 13-year-old son. He has a darker complexion than I do, and I’m struggling with letting him be a carefree kid while teaching him to be safe in his encounters with police.

He doesn’t know how to comprehend it, really. We might watch the news. We’ll talk about it, but he doesn’t seem to be hearing about it at the level that I am – riveted to Facebook, seeing the videos. He lets it wash over him.

My grandfather was murdered by police outside of Ferguson in 1925. He was oldest of 13 children, the breadwinner, manager of a Negro league baseball team and a brick mason.

He was traveling in a brand new Buick in the middle of the night, from Chicago to Missouri, with the team, and he was pulled over for speeding. It was bumper-to-bumper traffic, so he couldn’t have been speeding. He was yanked out of the car, accused of stealing the car, and he said something back.

He was called uppity. They beat him to death and threw him in the ditch. The car was spilled with blood and the officer went for a joyride. No charges filed, of course.

My mom never spoke of it; she held that trauma inside of her. We’ve seen the emotional impact of this trauma trickle down through her parenting style.

My mom was so emotionally cold and had problems with many of her relationships. When I read about what happened, I was able to sit with it and envision what that meant for her family, how it must have been like at 8-years-old, given the time and the racism, to have your dad killed.

It gave me empathy for my mom. Once I was able to have compassion, I was able to forgive her.

These things affect generations afterward. They affect society – it’s a ripple effect that’s really huge.

Robert Gant, private practice, Urban Life Therapy LLC

I have to be careful, because I get triggered. I’m hurting as well.

It’s been going on forever, but since Trayvon Martin, I’ve noticed that parents – particularly African-American parents – are more willing to seek out help through therapy. There’s often stigma in our community around therapy.

I’ve also seen an increase through the employee assistance program – I’m getting more referrals. People are hypervigilant; they’re trying to find ways to speak to that in a work setting and still have a job.

I do have a number of white clients as well who wonder, “How do I speak up?” To support a coworker or friend – they don’t know that boundary, so they stay mute.

My response is that I would like to believe that people are a good judge of character, and if someone is being authentic, if someone is stepping to me in trying to support, I’ll always be open to that. But there are people in the black community who may not be as open to that.

I went to Leadership Tomorrow Seattle – there was another African-American male, and we stayed in contact. He messaged me on Facebook recently saying he’s really struggling with his 12- and 9-year-old boys about how to have this conversation about what’s going on.

What I gathered was that he was in such a bad place himself, he couldn’t find the words to talk with his kids. He felt hopeless in that. He started questioning himself.

In years past, he would have those conversations – “You need to obey.”

His kids are saying, “Whatever, Dad, they’ll still shoot you. I could do all that and still get killed. What do you say to that, Dad?”

We have to acknowledge that yes, you’re right. But we still need to do the right thing. As opposed to don’t do the right thing – then you’re definitely going to pay the consequences.

When a person feels hopelessness, they just don’t care. Trying to instill that hope is a key.

LaVonne Dorsey, counselor and executive coach

My practice is 75 percent people of color. They’re specifically looking for a counselor who understands their plight. It can be damaging trying to explain something to someone who doesn’t get it.

On the counseling side, the clients that I’ve been working with come in for other things – for stress, anxiety or depression, life transitions, but there’s this other layer.

I have a dear colleague I’ve known for many years, a black male who lives in D.C. He told me, “You know, I haven’t driven at night in 12 years.” He had dinner with me a couple nights when I was in D.C.; he took a cab. I thought it was because of traffic and because parking is a challenge.

I have a couple that I work with – they’re a counseling couple. They’re biracial, and the male grew up in the U.S. He’s being hit by this as a black male. The wife does not see why it’s a problem. Then they’re raising children – there’s that fear.

In workplaces, people are starting to speak up. They may have been in denial before. It’s a protective mechanism – “If I said this was racism, how can I be here and be successful?”

They’re discovering that, “I can’t stand back any longer, I’ve got to speak up. I’ve got to say something.”

My advice is to find affinity groups. Find communities where you can talk. Don’t make it crazy-making for yourself.

Psychologist toolkit

In July, the association released a toolkit for psychologists and patients. Among the tips from the Association of Black Psychologists are to “stay informed but monitor how often.”

“Periodically turn off the news and tune into self-care. Pace yourself between low and high-stress activities.”

The tool-kit advises being gentle toward yourself and others: “A mind, body, spirit and soul overburdened and taxed by racial stress and trauma will turn action into inaction and burnout.” 

This story was originally published October 3, 2016.