Am I the Only Black Kid That Comes Here?

Warren Spielberg

Warren Spielberg, Ph.D., Fulbright Scholar, psychologist, psychoanalyst, is co-author of The Psychology of Black Boys and Adolescents. He consults on issues on boys and men worldwide. In his Brooklyn Heights private practice, he works with children, families and adults.

“Am I the only black kid that comes here?” asked David, an 11-year-old African-American boy who had been referred to me because of behavior problems.

The question caught me off guard and made me anxious. I reverted to the usual, “I am glad to answer your question, but perhaps you can tell me why you are asking?” He answered with silence.

A few minutes later, he said, “I like your chair. Can I sit there?” I thought about it. I liked my chair too. But I was trying to build a relationship with a child who did not trust me.

“OK, you can sit there for a while. But eventually I would like it back.” I got up and he settled into my big comfortable leather chair. I sat on the smaller chair that was reserved for the children who came to see me.

“Why do you think your mother brought you here?” Again he did not reply. I waited a minute, long in therapeutic time. Eventually, my annoyance gave way. “Did you hear what I said?”

“Yeah, I heard you. You know why I am here. Now stop bothering me.” He moved the chair over to examine my toys.

He had a point. I did know. He had been suspended from his public school for “defiant behavior” and was now enrolled in a private parochial school. Like so many boys of color, David was not thriving in school.

For our two-volume book, The Psychology of Black Boys and Adolescents, Kirkland Vaughans and I interviewed over 50 boys and young men about their school lives. Most felt uncomfortable with their teachers. Many reported being singled out for discipline and being asked to sit in the back of the class. However, most were unable to voice their feelings about these experiences. If they do allude to it, it is with much uncertainty and hesitation. Most of the time, they “try not to know” they are the objects of fear or dislike, because this would be unbearably painful to acknowledge. Although they are unable to discuss their feelings and fears about school, they readily enact them. Many use their defiance or their withdrawal to protect themselves from their fear of rejection. Sadly, many blame themselves. By third grade, school participation and achievement among black boys begin to decline, a process that will continue through high school.

I believe the “mentalization” capacity of boys and adolescent males of color becomes compromised in school. Peter Fonagy (1997) has discussed the relationship between the hostility of authority figures and the inability of children to develop self-awareness and advanced cognition. This is an adaptive strategy on the part of a child subjected to deprivation or rejection, as to recognize the hostile thoughts of a meaningful adult would be too frightening and painful. However, as black boys close their minds to important adults like teachers, they also become afraid to think about themselves. They become unable to use what is in their own minds to create and achieve.

The current cultural climate of most schools undermines the developing capacity of the black boy to see himself as cherished in the minds of teachers. In my view, the “achievement gap” reflects a “relational gap” between boys of color and their teachers. Many more white teachers than black teachers describe boys of color as larger physically, less innocent and more delinquent. When some do well in school, they are accused of cheating as their success runs counter to implicit stereotypes. Their positive qualities and selves are “invisible” to others, as A.J. Franklin has noted. They are not seen when they are gifted, intelligent, helpful and decent. Even when they do well they are often accused of cheating or having an unfair advantage. This trauma of non-recognition leads to a lifelong feeling of jeopardy if one tries to be seen.


Jared, a tall handsome young man we met in Montclair, remarked “I stay in the middle. I won’t do badly in school, but I don’t want to stand out either,” echoing a common sentiment we encountered. To stand out or to do too well will lead to some kind of targeting. Black teachers and boys also experience ruptures based on clashes in culture and class. Boys and young men of color are suspended and expelled at six times the rate of their white counterparts. Once suspended, the graduation rates for black boys decline by 30 percent. This sets many of these young men up for a life in the streets and involvement with the criminal justice system.

David could be defiant and uncooperative, but underneath he was frightened of being thought to be stupid and fearful of being punished. And now he was required to be in therapy. In treatment, he seemed to be treating me as one more demeaning authority figure. But now he was in the driver’s seat (my chair had wheels) and I was the one in an inferior and more vulnerable position.

David held my chair hostage for a few months. Often I was “forced” to sit in a smaller chair. I would request the chair back. But he would not relent. Sometimes I would make a mock run for the chair before he could get into it. But he was much faster and more motivated.

Meanwhile I would speak to him of my frustration, longing and helplessness about losing my chair. I wondered aloud, “What have I done to deserve being ripped off in this manner?” Once after a few months, he said, “You don’t deserve it.”

“Why” I asked. No answer. He went back to building a large Lego structure.

At the end of the session, I commented, “You are very creative, but many people in your life have never noticed.” He nodded.

The next session he observed, “You’re being nice to me because you want your chair back.”

I replied, “I can understand why you think that, but I really do admire you. But yes, it’s true I would like my chair back.”

“You don’t deserve it,” he replied, “because you have not been honest with me.”

How so,” I asked.

“Every time we play checkers, you pick the white pieces. Not the black.”

David’s comments took me aback. Although he was much softer in his tone and attitude, he put me on the spot. Despite my anxiety, I tried to be reflective. Had I really chosen the white pieces purposefully because of my own racial preference? Further, what did my choice mean to him and why did he focus on it? My thoughts broadened. I remembered a piece of history. There was a time in many Southern states when blacks and whites were not allowed to play checkers together. His mother came from South Carolina. A deeply religious and somewhat distant woman, she was typically deferential. But she could be angry and mistrustful with David and with me. Perhaps he was also expressing her mistrust and doubt about my dedication to David. Perhaps both wondered if I could love him as much as he needed despite my being white.

I also began to think of my own racial history, of my own fights with boys of color who bullied me when I was growing up in a very polarized city. Although I was fortunate to have very close friends from other ethnic and racial backgrounds, I had also experienced the violence that lies in the transitional space between blacks and whites. Was this contributing to our impasse? These reflections penetrated my consciousness, and I began to see our conflict in the context of a larger struggle.

But after six months, David had directly addressed what he felt and feared to be my racist attitudes. I took his directness and courage as a positive sign that the trust between us had grown allowing for new forms of authentic relating. I had begun to feel for some time that there was a growing mutual warmth between us, that the space between us was becoming less charged even though our conflict over the chair had not abated. He had sometimes smiled and began to enter the room on time instead of stalling outside. For my part I had moved off the chair as the essential place of inquiry. Our relationship felt less coercive overall and I became more aware of his other attributes.

I chose to respond to him as honestly as I could. I said, “I was not aware of choosing white pieces, but perhaps it was possible,” particularly in that we seemed to be “in some sort of war” most of the time. I also added that I wanted us to be “closer” and I was hoping he could trust me enough to help him.

He listened without comment as he played with Legos. I felt he would continue to wait and see if I would be true to my word.

In therapy, like life, race is difficult to discuss in an intimate fashion. There is a gulf of silence between blacks and whites that affects us both personally and politically. In cross-racial therapeutic encounters both participants can be uncomfortable. The patient fears alienating his therapist and undermining his treatment if he talks about race. The therapist may be afraid to stir up difficult feelings or saying or doing something with racial overtones. And at the same time it is crucial that we try to have these discussions even when they are painful and awkward. In therapy, racial differences can be a barrier to growth and intimacy in both the patient’s treatment and in the growth of the therapist. In our communal life the harsh division between blacks and whites underlie deep divisions in policing, education and law enforcement. These issues are front and center today. But the psychological dynamics that propel these conflicts are largely hidden.

The problem of the chair remained between us. He continued to want exclusive control of this prize. Although I was more open to accepting and embracing my own feelings of helplessness to allow him the power and the throne, I was still hoping he would be more generous with me.

Nevertheless, in the following session, I remarked, “We both know I want my chair back. But my relationship with you is more important. Why don’t we just agree that it’s your chair to use whenever you want from now on.”

He did not respond, but over the next weeks the atmosphere continued to change. I had accepted my vulnerability. He in turned seemed more open. Once when he came in, he asked me how I was. Our discussions broadened. We began to talk more about race and about his experiences in school and in his family.

The treatment lasted two years. I never did get my chair back. But I got something more special and rare in our culture: A closer, more real relationship of equality, love and healing.