SPECIAL SECTION: CONVERSATIONS ON PSYCHOANALYSIS AND RACE

On Racism and Being White: The Journey to Henry’s Restaurant

Richard Reichbart

Richard Reichbart, Ph.D., is past president, fellow and training analyst of the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research (IPTAR) in Manhattan; executive director of the PEP video Black Psychoanalysts Speak; co-executive director of the PEP video Psychoanalysis in El Barrio.

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Richard Reichbart

My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself … as a participant in a damaged culture.

Peggy McIntosh,
“White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” 1988

I am sitting at Henry’s restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with the group of psychoanalysts from Black Psychoanalysts Speak, the PEP video for which I wrote the grant, and which followed upon two conferences of the same name. (The psychoanalytic conferences were unique because the audiences were predominantly people of color). I am white, as is Michael Moskowitz, who envisioned these conferences, and Alexandra Woods; but everyone else—Kirkland Vaughans, Annie Lee Jones, Craig Polite, Kathy White, Janice Bennett, Anton Hart—is black. There are a number of other black analysts who are not present (Cleonie White, Dolores Morris, Dorothy Holmes, Cheryl Thompson) and subsequently there will be two added to our group (Dionne Powell, Beverly Stoute). I am relatively quiet. In fact, after our dinner, Annie Lee emails me and asks: “Why so quiet?”

I sidestep by saying I have been preoccupied by being president of my institute, IPTAR, but in fact her question gives me pause. Here is my extended answer.

I need to listen. I have to listen. Yes, I have a history of being involved, of committing myself to the importance of culture and doing so passionately, of advocating for justice—actually of unknowingly for years metaphorically searching for the black maid who left our family precipitously when I was four years old (a dynamic that I understood as a result of my first psychoanalysis). I was arrested in the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964 in protest against the University of California’s forbidding solicitation by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) on campus; I worked for Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference as a civil rights worker in Georgia and Alabama in the summer of 1965; after Yale law school, I lived and worked on the Navajo reservation in Arizona and New Mexico as an Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) legal services attorney for Dinebeiina Nahilnabe Agaditahe (attorneys who work for the economic revitalization of the Navajo people); and subsequently I represented Native Americans who sat-in at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) office in Littleton, Colorado, and were accused of trespass. I successfully defended them before an all-white jury by introducing cultural testimony that touched on Native American practices—from the invocation of tribal elders to the preparation of berry soup—showing they had no intent to trespass, were not “wild Indians” but were families who brought food and ceremony to the BIA, which accepted them as guests before their sudden and unexpected arrest.

The fabric of cultures, the texture, the theories of causality that are embedded within them, fascinated me. Thus, I wrote about the nature of Navajo thought as revealed in its healing practices. And as a civil rights worker, I learned the wonders and beliefs of black culture, the back and forth of congregants and preacher at church, the power of gospel music. I applied my knowledge to one of my first clinical psychoanalytic papers, to show that the folk belief system of the Southern mother of a black 12-year-old boy was central to understanding the way in which her child’s emotional problems were formed and expressed. It should not be surprising that my early psychoanalytic heroes include George Devereux, Geza Roheim, and Weston La Barre; or that I believe psychoanalysis itself should struggle with the same racial issues as have our great American authors, each in his own way: Ellison, Melville, Faulkner, Twain, Wright.

In a visceral way, I can remember living with Vivian Prater and her family in Fort Valley, Georgia; the safety of being on the unpaved red Georgia clay black side of town; of dinners of collard greens, fried chicken and grits; of learning about the importance of church and song. But the fact is, in all of these situations, my skin offered me a magic protection. I might not be safe on the white side of Fort Valley—it was indeed dangerous back then—but my skin was my passport and permitted me always to leave for home, for a place where I was safe.

So, yes, I know about the concept of “white privilege” introduced in the work of Peggy McIntosh, which every psychoanalyst should read, defining racism not as invisible acts of meanness but as an invisible system that confers dominance, and the 50 very simple but poignant examples McIntosh gives of the “daily effects of white privilege,” such as “If a traffic cop pulls me over, I can be sure I have not been singled out because of my race” or “I can choose bandages in flesh color and have them more or less match my skin” or “I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who do not like them.”

Microaggressions

In the video, Black Psychoanalysts Speak, Kathy White poignantly asks whether any white person could conceive the effect of or even tolerate the daily “microaggressions” (Janice Bennett has referred to them as “microassaults”) to which blacks in this culture are subject, without terrible rage, without in effect “losing it.” I would like to suggest that embedded in a culture that favors whites, there is something analogous to microaggressions that blacks encounter that takes place for white people who are aware of the racist structure of our society. I do not mean the obvious discriminations, nor the awareness of different ways in which one is privileged as white that McIntosh reports, but the daily things that happen to each white person that can invoke the commonality of one’s white body at a price.

They could be labeled “microchallenges to one’s integrity.” White people do not talk about how we constantly come across these things. Yet every white person knows them. Let me give some examples: I am having a root canal by a skilled Asian dentist in my suburban largely white town. The dentist expresses fondness for other members of my family he has treated, and I make some remark, just as he is about to drill down, about diversity in the suburbs. It is clear, however, in his reply that he thinks of diversity differently than I do, and places blacks in a different category and—because I am white—he assumes my agreement. Mouth open, vulnerable, I tell myself this is definitely not the time, but afterward I am still silent. I think, what is the point? But at what expense do I think that?

…they are saying…if one is active in trying to change the culture of our institutes, one is not a good analyst; that psychoanalysis is directed at attempting to change oneself as opposed to society, as if the two are incompatible and the revolutionary core of Freudian thought…never existed.

Or again: We have dinner with a couple, a friend of mine and his wife to whom I have turned at difficult moments in my life and whose career has brought him into intimate contact with blacks in the music world. To my complete surprise he tells me, despite the fact that he knows I have worked on Black Psychoanalysts Speak, that blacks do not have the abstract reasoning power to be psychoanalysts. Stunned, I disagree with him, but this does not reflect fully how I really feel. What I am thinking is that it will be difficult for me to enjoy a social occasion with him again. I probably have lost a dear friend, although he does not realize it. My heart is aching. Should I thrash it out with him? I do not, I let it go. But at what expense?

Close to Home

Let me bring this even closer, to white psychoanalysts at my institute, wonderful analysts from whom I have learned, who in their comments to me sometimes create the same internal sinking feeling I experienced with my friend. Not as obvious sometimes, but still, from my perspective, they too often exhibit a lack of understanding of the pernicious nature of our white privilege. They say such things as “Very few members of our institute have blacks in their practice. How many have applied to our institute? Our focus should be on helping members with their practices and keeping a psychoanalytic stance.” They say these things to me as if I should agree as their white president, even when they know something of my personal story, and that I am trying to change the demographics and culture of my institute. And, of course, they are saying, as subtly implied in this construction, that if one is active in trying to change the culture of our institutes, one is not a good analyst; that psychoanalysis is directed toward changing oneself as opposed to society, as if the two are incompatible, and the revolutionary core of Freudian thought, as shown so ably by Elizabeth Danto in Freud’s Free Clinics, never existed. Are our institutes to remain unaware of the cultural ocean in which we all swim and are we not to say that our white skins lead to our constantly being confronted with these microchallenges to our integrity? On another occasion I will expand this to show how these microchallenges play out in the analyses of our white patients.

Annie Lee Jones, in a prose poem, tells the story of watching a white policeman manhandle a black adolescent at a bus stop, and being paralyzed, not able to do anything, distraught, but for one moment making eye contact with one of the policemen. In that moment, that “crack in time,” they shared their humanity, seemed even to understand, and then it was over. As a white man I feel in these microchallenges that I—in the white body that has been my protection and that I have in common with the aggressor—am in danger of being like the perpetrator and in danger of being paralyzed as well. All I can think is: if Annie Lee were there, if any of the black psychoanalysts at Henry’s restaurant were there, will I prove worthy of their gaze? Or will I use the magic talisman of my white skin and compromise my integrity?

So I have to listen to Black Psychoanalysts Speak analysts at Henry’s restaurant to hear the personal stories they tell: How you protect your black son who wants to drive your red sports car for the first time and will be stopped by the police; how the white analyst, knowing nothing about black hair, has no idea why a black woman is reluctant for years to put her large Afro on the analytic pillow and attributes her reasons to be characterological. I need to hear that give and take that occurs at Henry’s restaurant, that kidding, that humor and sadness, that insight into the dark heart of our culture, and that daily shared bravery and determination among these black analysts, from which (strangely) I learn about myself.

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