A young black man, Ahmaud Arbery, out for a run, is pursued and shot by two white men. A black woman, Breonna Taylor, asleep in her bed, is shot by police officers conducting a search warrant. A black birdwatcher in Central Park, Christian Cooper, asks a white woman to obey the law and leash her dog. She calls 911 and, falsely accusing him of threatening her life, pleads for the police to come and protect her. A white police officer kneels on the neck of a black man in his custody, George Floyd, killing him by cutting off his air supply. Three other officers stand by and watch.
As many have pointed out, these egregious events are not new. We are galvanized and are rising up in response to them because they were recorded, because we can see and are sickened and infuriated by the brutal rawness of them. But they are not new. Nothing has changed since 2015, when Sandra Bland, a black woman stopped for a minor traffic violation in Texas, was arrested and died three days later in police custody. Not since 2014, when Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed in Ferguson by a white police officer. Not since 2012, when Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch coordinator.
These are just a few of the names that have made it into recent headlines. But as people of color have always known, the violence of racism is stitched into the history of this country. White Europeans colonized North America by enslaving black Africans and conducting genocide against brown indigenous peoples. The attitudes and assumptions of white superiority and privilege that made such violence politically acceptable and economically lucrative have been passed down, generation by generation. Today, they remain entrenched in our laws, in the policing and disproportionate imprisoning of black and brown people, in the rhetoric and decisions of politicians and institutions, and in the barriers to physical safety, personal dignity, educational opportunity, and economic stability experienced by Americans who are not white. They are infused in our culture, economy, language, and choices.
As family therapists, we are trained to recognize, witness, and make overt the covert attitudes and beliefs that tear families apart. We are also trained to attend to context. The pain, suffering, trauma, and problems that happen within families must be understood within the context of the communities in which they live. This informs our commitment to social justice, but it also reflexively affects our recognition that we, too, live, breathe, think, and speak within the pervasive racism of our society. We must not only identify the violence that others are perpetrating, but also what we, however unintentionally, are capable of, as well. Postmodern family therapists have helped us recognize that we are inescapably part of any system and thus any problem we attempt to address and redress, so we must attend carefully to the ongoing potential for our inadvertently contributing to the very injustices that we seek to remedy and ameliorate. The responsibility is significant, but the solution is not to retreat into the seeming safety of doing and saying nothing. As the MRI folks espoused, we can’t not communicate.
So as we make our way forward, we recognize that a commitment to “first do no harm” is not as easy as it sounds. Family therapists, trusting in the strength and resilience of those who are suffering, commit to deep and abiding respect; to clear, unflinching self-reflection; to flexible, clear-eyed responses to the provocations of others; to not presuming that we have answers that merely need to be imposed; to creative, therapeutic curiosity; to empathic understanding and compassionate action.
The logic of racism, indeed of all forms of violence, is the logic of division—of relationships threatened, undermined, destroyed. The logic of therapy and healing is the logic of connection, of love—of relationships formed, nurtured, protected, mended.
We are a diverse group and thus we are differentially affected by the racism undermining our country. But we come together as one to meet and respond to injustices and inequities, offering our love and shared outrage to our students and their families, to our colleagues and their families, and to our communities. And we offer our commitment to infuse our systemic, therapeutic sensibility in the choices we make as professors and mentors, as family members, as partners and parents, as concerned community members.