“Tell Real Stories”: Shawn Utsey on Racism and Psychotherapy

This is the fourth installment of Freedom Education, a seven-part series of conversations between graduate students and luminary scholars. Presented in partnership with Johns Hopkins University’s Program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship, this series considers reading, learning, and writing as politics. Read series editors Stuart Schrader and Nathan Connolly’s introduction here.
“Liberation begins in the mind… Black folks have never been given the opportunity to define our own reality.”

Dr. Shawn Utsey is a professor of counseling psychology and African American studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

I came to Dr. Utsey’s work through my dissertation research, which explores property from a psychological perspective heavily indebted to the insights of psychiatrist and decolonial revolutionary Frantz Fanon. Investigating how other scholars have taken up Fanon, I came across an extraordinary 2001 paper by Shawn Utsey, Mark Bolden, and Andraé Brown, who outline a model of antiracist counseling psychology from Fanonian premises.

Psychotherapy—with its alleged commitment to political or moral neutrality—generally offers conventional approaches toward racism. Yet these approaches, Utsey, Bolden, and Brown emphasize, do little to adequately address the problem. Psychotherapy often treats nonwhite individuals (who are continually injured and disempowered by racism) by focusing on reduction and management of symptoms. This naturalizes racism, a fundamentally social phenomenon, and implies that nothing can be done (at least in the counseling room) to resist or transform it.

What is required for the successful treatment of racially oppressed subjects, the authors argue, is the therapeutic naming and targeting of white supremacy. Through better comprehending a dominant cause of trauma, clients might be helped to act consciously and collectively to overcome racial oppression, enacting both resistance and self-fulfillment through cultural empowerment and mobilizing for self-determination. With this paper, Utsey, Bolden, and Brown rethink the nature of counseling itself while simultaneously suggesting the remarkable possibility that therapy can play an important role in enabling antiracist consciousness and directing energies toward transformative social change.

Aside from greatly influencing my work and my understanding of racism, this paper led me to explore more of Dr. Utsey’s prolific research output, which includes, among other things, a number of masterful self-produced documentary films. Thanks to the support of Johns Hopkins University’s Program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship, I was able to sit down (over Zoom) to ask Shawn Utsey more about his story, the stories he tells with his work, and how Black empowerment and liberation transpire within the counseling room and beyond.

Elliott Schwebach (ES): To begin, I want to draw attention to the wide-ranging nature of your work, which draws upon such varied elements as clinical psychotherapy, statistical analysis, political philosophy, and feature-length film production. What would you say are the core or unifying elements of this diverse output?


Shawn Utsey (SU): The core of my work is the liberation of Black people. That undergirds everything I do.

I look at the impact of race-related stress. Then there’s the role of culture and the resilience and coping of African Americans. And then there’s my film work. They all seem to be disparate, but they all really lend themselves to the liberation of Black people.


ES: How did this core focus develop?


SU: I found myself as a grad student at NYU, working on my master’s in rehabilitation counseling during the height of the crack epidemic. I was doing my internship at a drug rehab program in Central Harlem. And we had to create a research project.

In talking with the residents of the program, I noticed that they had severe trauma, lots of life stressors and so forth, that probably had something to do with their self-medicating behaviors that landed them in rehab. And so I set about designing a study that would examine life stressors in relation to the onset of a substance abuse disorder.

I noticed in the literature that conventional models of life stressors chronicled experiences that were really foreign to my clients. Things like getting your first mortgage, seeing your child off to college, getting a divorce, getting married, taking a vacation, planning a vacation … And I’m thinking, these don’t seem to be in the realm of the reality of my clients. What about being followed in the store? Being stopped by the police? Being profiled?

Keep in mind, this was in the ’90s, in New York City. This was the era of the Central Park Five; of Yusef Hawkins; of Abner Louima; of Bernhard Goetz, the subway shooter; of Eleanor Bumpurs, the woman who was shot in her Harlem apartment.

Every week—like we see now, maybe even more frequently—there was some unarmed Black person being shot by police, or by citizens. It was really, really, really tense in New York at the time I was in grad school. And racism, or race-related matters, was a big part of that scene. And I know personally that I was stressed.


ES: Wow.


SU: You had to get your mind right just to ride the subway in the morning in New York. It was often an opportunity for interracial conflict to arise. Sometimes overtly, sometimes in ambiguous ways. People would step on my foot and not apologize. Brush right past me and not apologize. Step in front of me in the line at the checkout counter at the store and not even acknowledge my presence.

At this time, I was watching the literature on stress, and an article came out that said the life expectancy of Black men in Harlem was shorter than that of men in Bangladesh, a country that was already on the low end in terms of life expectancy. So I put two and two together and hypothesized that racism, the chronic exposure to insidious forms of racism, must have some impact on that life expectancy.

I then went further in my graduate studies to develop a measure of race-related stress that would become a tool to allow us to assess that contribution to health disparities in Black populations. And it continued from there.

They said, “Let them know that we stayed.” Their story was about resilience.

ES: What do you ask yourself as you begin a new project?


SU: I have philosophical debates with myself about how to address the concerns and the liberation of Black people.

Somewhere along the way, I felt that perhaps there was too much focus on the pathology of Black people. I felt uncomfortable with that approach. I began to notice that too much attention was being paid to the psychological consequences of racism for Black people. And no one was asking, “What makes white folks behave in this fashion? Many times unprovoked?” And so I thought it was proper to have a more balanced approached to my work and began examining race-related anxiety in white counselors as well.


ES: You are referring to your focus group research, about how racial anxieties arise in supervision and treatment even for those who consider themselves to be personally nonracist?


SU: Yes. Man, that article right there took about five years of my life. I was at Seton Hall University at the time, a blue-collar, Catholic university, without a lot of Black people in the program. I was new, [there] about two or three years, and wasn’t tenured.

I had a few progressive white students on my research team, and I had one particularly progressive white woman who volunteered to conduct the focus group. Something happened in the focus group that caused reverberations throughout the program.

In the focus group, we would tell vignettes to create anxiety, so as to see the subjects’ defenses. One of these vignettes was: You’re working with the son of a Muslim family, and your Black male supervisor has instructed you to go to a Farrakhan/Nation of Islam rally, so you can understand their worldview better. What would you do?

For some reason—well, not for some reason—that question caused a participant to impulsively blurt out: “I wouldn’t … I would never … I wouldn’t take the … I wouldn’t follow … I wouldn’t take advice from a Black man anyway!” [laughs].

To my student’s credit, she met with the participant afterward to debrief her. To say that nothing was being held against her, and to explain and talk about the research that I was doing.

Doing that study was really difficult because I had to put out fires. But I love stuff like that. I don’t take it personally, I love that kind of stuff. That’s the kind of stuff I’m looking for.


ES: Tell me more.


SU: I learned in grad school that you should never select a topic for your dissertation that’s personal. But like everyone else, I ignored that. My dissertation was on coping with racism. It wasn’t a mistake, but I paid … there were consequences for that. Because it became fodder for the unconscious racial dynamics of my advisors and other white folks on my committee to act out their passive-aggressive resistance to this narrative that race matters.

One of my advisors, for example, asked me to take out about seven pages that talked about racism as a function of white supremacy. And he literally said, “When I think about white supremacy, I think about skinheads.” This is a man with a PhD. Professor, full professor, of fifteen years at least. And he couldn’t get it. He didn’t understand it.


ES: How do you push past this resistance?


SU: One way is my filmmaking. My filmmaking gives me freedom beyond academia. It lets me be who I am, it lets me be a psychologist, it lets me be a theoretician, it lets me be an activist. And my job as a filmmaker is to get you to engage [with] my reality, and to even begin to merge it into your own reality. When I discovered the power of filmmaking, it transformed me.

Now, I have to be honest, in academia, I’ve always been vocal. I’ve had other colleagues who were Black whose approach was more stifled. They were afraid, and rightly so. But I learned that in a strange way, my value as an academic was in my willingness to voice or speak truth to power. People began to respect that. And they expected it from me.

I try to remind myself of my responsibility. That I’m not where I am on my own—at all. I’m not that smart to be where I am on my own. I’m only where I am because others sacrificed in ways that I don’t even realize or don’t know.

So it would be unconscionable for me to get where I am and sit back, collect my check, and just roll up the hierarchy, and get fat and wealthy. Somehow, in my heart of hearts, I feel like the universe would punish me for that. Because I stand on shoulders … I have to take risks.


ES: I really admire that perspective. How do you understand your personal responsibility?


SU: A big part of it is the necessity of storytelling. When I was at Howard University, before I came to VCU, I took a group of grad students to Tulsa, Oklahoma. We went to interview the survivors of the Tulsa race riot of 1921. They’re all deceased now, but this was the late ’90s, so we went down there and I interviewed about 12 survivors and about 15 or so of their descendants.

I have to say, what I left with wasn’t what I expected to leave with. It was really life-changing, my work in Tulsa. Because the people, when I asked them, “What do you want the world to know about Greenwood?” [the section that was burned], they said, “Let them know that we stayed. We didn’t run away. We stayed and we rebuilt.”

And so, as I’m telling you now, I always find a way to sneak this in and to tell the world that these folks—their story was about resilience. It wasn’t about no riot or the massacre or Black Wall Street burning down. The story that they wanted people to know was resilience. And now you can pass this on, and then it’s told again. This is how you begin to change the narrative.


ES: I see.


SU: I’m working on a new filmmaking project, about the Central State Lunatic Asylum for the Colored Insane. It was the first mental hospital, or psychiatric or insane asylum, in the world exclusively for Black people. It opened in 1868, in Petersburg, about five miles from my house, in the wake of the Civil War.

We have over 30,000 photographs from this place, we have the admissions records, we have the treatment records. You wouldn’t believe the kind of things that Black people were admitted to a psychiatric institution for after the Civil War.

Or even their approach to treatment. For the Black patients, they had them working like servants, or in the field. Because they thought that was therapeutic. If you could return people to their prior functioning, whatever they were doing, that was supposed to be therapeutic.

You can see how excited I am about this. Because I’m about to tell a story that many people don’t know about. A story about the Black experience and Black mental health. Many of us have heard about Samuel Cartwright and the idea of drapetomania, which was assigned to enslaved people who ran away.

That was a mental disorder—running away was a mental disorder. There are things in these files that don’t get the same play but are still relevant today, when it comes to how Black people are diagnosed and treated in mental hospitals.

So this is my method. And I’m enjoying filmmaking because I’m doing the research, like I normally would; I’m in the literature, I’m talking to people … but now I’m capturing it, and I’m constructing a story to tell others.

ES: We have touched a bit on racism, so I think it is a good moment to ask you about liberation. What is a psychology of liberation? What does that entail?


SU: It’s my conviction that liberation begins in the mind. There’s a theory of power, that power is the ability to get others to accept your reality as their own. This is the struggle of Black people right now. We have accepted the reality of others as our own.

Black folks have never been given the opportunity to define our own reality. But I can give you an example of how we have started to do this. Black people have gone through several iterations of identity, from African, to Negro, to Colored, to Afro-American, and now African American. At first, Black people said, “We Afro-Americans.” But then, “You know what, we don’t have an afro, and we come from Africa, so we’re African Americans.”

That’s an example of how Black people have said, “This is our reality, and we insist that you adhere to it and accept it as your own.” And it worked, right?

Kwanzaa. Black History Month. The Black Lives Matter movement. Hairstyles. There are actually laws now that say you can’t fire Black women who wear cornrows and braids, but just a little while ago you could. So this is another example of how we’re changing the reality. If we realize the power we have in this, we can do more.

Even reparations are becoming a real discussion now. Before, it was a fringe discussion. Now even middle-class Black people—who were always the ones who were nervous to upset the power structure, to upset their little, comfy world—are talking about reparations.

So this is the blueprint to liberation. It starts in the mind. We have to first create this reality and then begin to put it out there, to make demands on others that they accept it for what it is.

Now, here’s the problem. Black folks can be the most agreeable and forgiving people on the planet, and oftentimes it works to our disadvantage. But that’s how liberation happens. You begin to create a reality that belongs to you and get others to accept it. So it’s really not that complex, or not that difficult. It begins with a view.


ES: How does liberation, understood this way, look in terms of counseling psychology?


SU: I’ve always struggled with this. I remember when I was an intern at a college counseling center. And a Black client, who wasn’t Black-identified … she was Black, but never talked about issues of race in therapy; it wasn’t important to her. All of her friends were white, and she was happy with that.

One day, she came to me and reported that before she came to the classroom, somebody in the class had written “nigger” on the board, knowing she was coming in. When she came in and saw it, she was quite upset. She came to me in tears.

I was upset as well. You know what I’m saying? And I said, “Either you, or you and I can go and talk to the professor to address this.” And I didn’t say this to her, but I realized something then: simply helping her to deal with her distress wasn’t going to do anything to dismantle racism and white supremacy. In fact, it was going to help it, because now you got one person who’s not pushing back. At least. Right?


ES: Wow.


SU: If my job is to help people to not push back, to accept racism, all that does is make it pick up steam. So I learned kind of haphazardly that the best way to address racism is to address it. Some things we can address.

But I’ve talked about this in class, and student trainees are still overwhelmed by the idea that we can dismantle racism. If we shouldn’t accept it, then why would we help our clients adjust to it, right? We should help them to dismantle it.

Everybody is compromised by racism and white supremacy. It’s a process to dismantle it. But you can chip away at it. And even chipping away at it, in the Fanonian sense, is therapeutic.

That’s an example of how Black people have said, “This is our reality, and we insist that you adhere to it and accept it as your own.”

ES: Can you expand upon racism and white supremacy as they operate psychologically?


SU: There’s a very, very powerful scene in the docudrama Roots. When Kunta Kinte was caught on his third time running away, they had him tied up, ready to beat him. And if you notice in the scene, there was another Black man who was beating him. That was quite common. There was a head slave who was responsible for distributing punishment. And they were beating Kunta Kinte, and all the other enslaved Africans were made to come out and watch. They were going to beat Kunta Kinte, and they were going to make him say his name was Toby. That was the whole point of this.

This was a struggle for the identity of Black people. This is where it happened in history. The struggle began with, “You are who I say you are. You’re not who you think you are. You are who I say you are. And I’m going to show you and everybody else that I have the power to make it so.” That’s where it began, right there. And so they beat Kunta Kinte, and he kept saying, “Kunta. Kunta Kinte.” He was hardly alive. “Kunta Kinte.” And they showed the faces of the people watching. And then he finally said, “Toby.” I remember as a kid, how my heart sank when he said “Toby.” God damn.

When they showed the faces of the people, the Africans who had come out who’d been made to watch, you could see the defeat in their faces. But that’s who it was meant for. Kunta Kinte was just an instrument. The message—this is why it was terrorism—was meant to strike fear in the people who were watching. For them to understand that “You are who I say you are, and no more.”

And so this loss of identity for Black people, and their struggle for identity, has been really critical in my understanding of treating oppression.


ES: This example from Roots is such a great example not only of racism as it operates psychologically but also, with the enslaved Africans being made to watch, of its collective or social nature.

It implies that resistance to racism, to be effective, must be pitched at the level of society as well. You mentioned Fanon; should we pause for a moment to discuss his work? I am curious to hear how you approach his theory of violence, this being a controversial but really important aspect of his model of healing.


SU: I wouldn’t know where to begin. I do think that people think about it as controversial and might want Fanon to take it back if he could, or they want to explain it away. But I think it’s important to know that violence can be defined in many forms and fashions.

This includes violence, of course, in its most extreme, physical, deadly manifestations, which still serve a psychological outcome. And even though it may be dysfunctional and ultimately disordered, violence is still having some cathartic effect in the moment.

Now, we can put judgment on this later, or debate its long-term effectiveness, but the same thing would be true in any expression of violence. And violence doesn’t necessarily mean physically harming someone all the time. Many of the great psychoanalytic thinkers talk about innate violence or aggressiveness in humans. … Even things we think are pleasurable, like comedy, can be seen as an act of violence in some psychoanalytic circles.

So violence is a really interesting phenomenon, and I don’t think we’ve studied enough to judge Fanon’s approach. It’s very difficult to judge what Fanon was talking about and what he meant.


ES: I agree with you, and I also think the word “cathartic” goes a long way toward teasing out why violence is therapeutically important for Fanon. I like that you brought that up. I am thinking about your earlier clinical example of the girl who you helped confront, who was it, the teacher of the class? Was that, for the client, a cathartic act in some way?


SU: Absolutely. That was the intention. Not only for her but for me. Right? Because racism is not just personal. Even though she experienced it, I was offended by it. So we both needed therapy in that moment. We both needed a cathartic response in that moment.

So, we’ve got to stop looking at racism as personal. If a client comes to me and I respond, “Well, that’s your problem. I’ll tell you what I would do if I were you, but …” What? No! Same thing if my wife or my son comes home and tells me about racism they’ve experienced. What? Let’s go! C’mon!

I’ve had that happen. I’ve had to go to my son’s school before, about something a kid said to him, and the teacher never told me. When my son told me, I said, “When did this happen?” “A month ago.” “What? Nobody called me?” I went up there and I raised holy hell. Because this became me now. And that really is how racism and white supremacy have to be addressed. It’s not personal.

As a clinician, if my response was, “That’s on you. I can tell you to take some deep breaths, meditate, avoid the person in the future, come up with a list of things you might …” No! We gotta deal with this. Let’s figure out how to deal with this.


ES: It makes me wonder what the consequences would be for your mental health, and for your son’s mental health, if you didn’t …


SU: If I didn’t! Think about the message he gets! If I said to him, “Oh really? That happened? Eh, ignore them,” he would think that that’s okay. And this is how racism/white supremacy perpetuates itself—people become okay with it. Comfortable with it. No.

ES: In your work, you have engaged with the community a great deal beyond the walls of the classroom. Would you be willing to share some moments when your career as an educator put you once again in the position of student?


SU: The community is important to me. When I was a grad student, I was doing my externship in Harlem, in a foster care agency. When I graduated, I stayed working in that same community, and that shaped my approach to the world.

Even though I was being trained in talk therapy, I was doing a group. A therapeutic group with boys who were in foster care. Not only were they in foster care, they had been referred to the mental health unit in foster care. That’s like … you’ve got some concerns, right?

And so, I began to discover by accident that these kids were street savvy, that they had been poked and prodded their entire lives by mental health professionals and others, trying to find the key to unlock their problems. They would run circles around me and others who would try to do that. At some point, I just watched them. I just sat back and watched them, and let them go at it.

Thirty minutes before the group had to end, we’d walk down to the gym, and we played basketball together. And I just watched them. At some point, they’d forget I was there. I was like an anthropologist. I was just immersed in the culture, and they didn’t even know I was there anymore.


ES: That’s really interesting.


SU: All the problems I was trying to uncover, I was now seeing them unfold before me. And that taught me that you have to be a student. You have to listen more than you talk. Especially with Black folks, who are suspicious, and rightly so. They are suspicious of the establishment that has historically sought to marginalize them. You can’t just approach them simply because you are also Black. It doesn’t work. When I go out into the community, they see me as a professor from VCU.

My university doesn’t understand why I’m so hard on them about what they do. The people that I represent can’t take them to task, so it’s my job to take them to task. And I think I’ve gotten some respect for doing that. So I can go into the community and put something together on a moment’s notice. I can make phone calls … you know, it’s earned. But people are watching me. To see who I am, what I’m about.

I feel comfortable in the community because I have a responsibility to draw upon my privilege, and my opportunities, that others from this collective sacrificed so I could have. It’s not for myself but for the collective. I would be derelict in my duties if I just stayed in my office and did research. Even on topics about Black people, but not with Black people.

I think that the community has been good to me, and I have a responsibility to give back. And I learn a lot, I really do. And in fact, I’m convinced that I can talk and converse with people in ways that they think is enlightening, but it’s not because of anything I’ve done. It’s because I’ve been able to stay grounded. I can tell real stories, and people can connect.


This article was commissioned by N. D. B. Connolly and Stuart Schradericon

Featured image: Shawn Utsey. Photograph courtesy of Shawn Utsey.