Kenneth V. Hardy on Multiculturalism and Psychotherapy

Kenneth V. Hardy on Multiculturalism and Psychotherapy

by Randall C. Wyatt
Hardy discusses diversity, multiculturalism, and social justice in psychotherapy...and how he was trained to be a "pretty good white therapist."


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Trained to be a "pretty good white therapist"

Randall C. Wyatt: Hi Kenneth. Today I want to talk to you about your work in ethnic studies, diversity, and social justice with a particular emphasis on how that impacts the work we do in psychotherapy. But I want to start with something basic: What originally got you into the field of psychology and diversity?
Kenneth V. Hardy: Good to be here Randy. Well, at a very early age I started noticing differences in human beings and mostly my own family. I became intrigued just by how was it that my brother and I could grow up in the same family, two years apart, and yet be so incredibly different. I think some piece of that curiosity extended to things like these broader social concerns. I have vivid memories of going home in Philadelphia and asking my parents and my grandmother why there were so many people sleeping on the streets. Despite their best efforts to provide me with what they thought were pretty cogent answers, the answers they gave me didn’t make much sense. I had this insatiable curiosity about how we ended up in circumstances in life. Long before I even knew what to call it, I had some passion for it. I just knew that I was interested in this unnamed discipline that would help me understand human beings better.

RW: Where did you end up going to school to get your psychology degree?
KH: I did my undergraduate work at Penn State University, a Master’s degree at Michigan State and got my doctorate degree in clinical psychology at Florida State. So I did a little bit of globetrotting.

After getting my PhD, I hung around in Tallahassee, Florida for a bit, worked, stayed on at the place where I’d done an internship. Left there, took a job in Brooklyn, New York, at an outpatient psychiatric clinic, and there some of my interests around issues of diversity and race began to crystallize.

I realized after working at the outpatient psychiatric clinic that
my training had prepared me in a way that I was a pretty good, decent white therapist
my training had prepared me in a way that I was a pretty good, decent white therapist. I was in NY and there was great diversity in the clients I was seeing: immigrants, African Americans, poor, and so on. I realized at that point that I was poorly trained and oftentimes challenged very directly by clients of color about the ways in which they felt I was not understanding or appreciative of their experiences; that was very enlightening for me.
RW: Say more about what you mean when you said you were a “pretty good white therapist.”
KH: What I mean is that I had gone to predominately white schools. I struggled with how to take the theories and conceptual models I was exposed to and massage them to apply to individuals and families of color; I was pretty much left to do that myself. There wasn’t someone to oversee, guide, and mentor me for that. I was introduced to ways of thinking, ways of conceptualizing human behavior, problem formation, and solutions from a more Euro-centric point of view. And I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with Euro-centrism. It’s just that not everybody is of European descent.
RW: Much of your career has set out to change that emphasis and broaden what psychologists and psychotherapists study and who they work with. We will get to more of that in a minute. What did you do next in your career?
KH: I left New York and took a faculty position at the University of Delaware for a short period of time, and then I then went to Washington DC to work for the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy as a senior executive. I also worked rather assiduously there to keep my fingers in academia at Virginia Tech on their campus in Fosters, Virginia. And then after almost ten years at AAMFT, I left to go to Syracuse. There was a program specializing in family therapy and social justice that drew me there. I helped to get the PhD program started and to help solidify the emphasis of diversity and multicultural social justice.

I recently moved back to a program in Philadelphia Drexel University where there is a strong emphasis around diversity and social justice. And my last book was on youth and violence (Teens Who Hurt: Clinical Interventions to Break the Cycle of Adolescent Violence) and sadly and unfortunately, Philadelphia has a major problem with violence, in particular, youth violence, and so it’s an important place to continue my research in that area.

Social justice and diversity

RW: How do you describe and differentiate diversity and social justice?
KH: I’m glad you ask because lately in lectures I’ve been suggesting that we as a discipline need to tease out a bit some of the nuances and distinctions that exist between diversity and social justice. I think that they’re first cousins but they have different emphases. With diversity, it means acknowledging and finding ways to appreciate differences. How do we include? How can we be more inclusive?

Social justice has more to do with critiques around power and the inequitable distribution of power. The more diversity-oriented orientation would be one that would embrace some piece of the ideology, “I’m okay, you’re okay.” This presupposes that we’re all situated equally. I think a social justice perspective, while it appreciates differences, also attempts to look at the ways in which we are situated differently and the ways in which everyone possesses power but not everyone possesses it equally. Social justice is about, in one sense, rectifying fractures and ills that may be attributable to the inequitable distribution of power. Social justice is about recognizing that some voices are louder than others, that some people have greater access to power than others, and then what do you do about that. What is your resolve to alter that?
RW: Can you give an example of social justice from something that’s happened or that you’ve noticed?
KH: At this workshop I was just doing here in Berkeley on various isms (Building Inclusive and Multi-Culturally Competent Health Organizations: A Healing Approach to Addressing the Isms), we’re thinking about how to bring people together across any kind of divide—whether it’s race or gender, sexual orientation, class, blue states and red states. We are bringing people together to constructively engage and question the conventional wisdom predicated on the notion that everybody has equal opportunity, equal voice, equal power. I think that’s a fundamentally flawed position, because I think when you bring people together, for example, people of color and whites, there’s a way in which people of color and whites are not situated equally in those situations. It may be an equal resolve to have the conversation, but one group historically has had more power, has enjoyed more privileges and had greater access to resources than the other. So to freeze frame it in this moment and treat it as if everyone is equal, I think disadvantages the group that’s been historically disadvantaged.

Now, I used people of color and whites in my example, but I certainly could argue that the same would be true if we were trying to cross a gender divide.
RW: How does it take shape with men and women?
KH: Men historically have had more power than women have. And so that if you’re trying to problem solve, it doesn’t make sense to start from the point of view that presupposes that men and women are on equal footing. That is in keeping with what I think the social justice position would be. What it means is that power and distribution of power is being factored into the analysis of relationship dynamics.
RW: I can see what you are saying and it makes sense - the importance of taking power and history into account. How then does an awareness of that different distribution of power make a difference in a conversation between people?
KH: It can play out in many ways, but I think that what the whites would refrain from doing is turning to people of color and asking them in those settings to teach them, forgive them, accept that they’re unique or whatever.
RW: Like, "Hey, accept that I'm the good white guy."
KH: Yes. What that does is draw upon these narratives from history, which is what the person of color is in—same would be true for a woman—that they almost immediately get into sort of a caretaking role. And so, like what I would expect from you as a conscientious white person, who’s aware, that even if we were in a group together and you saw me beginning to do this thing, which is caretaking of you, that you would have some consciousness about what’s going on and use yourself in a way that you didn’t collude with me around that.

I’ve developed this model which outlines what the tasks of the privileged are in these conversations and what the task of the subjugated are.
RW: So let's hear your basics on what these tasks are.
KH: If you’re in a privileged position—and it doesn’t matter to me by virtue of what race, class, gender, sexual orientation—I find a much more useful way to have these conversations than to get bogged down in the fine distinctions between these issues. The underlying process is the same no matter what the context is, whether I’m in an organization talking about how to bridge the gap between senior management and laborers, it’s the same process. They’re privileged; they’re subjugated.

So one task of the privileged, for example, is to make a critical differentiation between intentions and consequences, because I believe that when one is in a privileged position, one almost invariably talks about intentionality.
RW: “I meant well” or “I was trying to help, trying to do the right thing.”
KH: Exactly, that’s right. You can mean well, have pure intentions and still do harm. And so, conversations between the privileged and the subjugated—whether we’re talking about blue states and red states, or men and women, or poor and wealthy, or races—break down when the person or group in the subjugated positions is principally concerned about consequences where the person in the privileged position is concerned with intentionality. And because the person in the privileged position has power, they have a greater opportunity to frame the discussion around the purity of intentions rather than honoring consequences.

So for example, if you said something that I considered racist and I said to you, “That upset me, it was racially insensitive, etc…” This type of consciousness about privilege and subjugation from the social justice perspective would hopefully inform you to address the consequences of what you said rather than providing me with an explanation.
RW: Pay attention to how what you did or said affected the other person versus just defending or explaining yourself.
KH: Yes, I understand how it happens to defend and explain but it’s not a useful conversation. It doesn’t allow for a deepening or an advancement of the dialogue. If I’m stating to you an infraction that I have experienced and your retort is about the purity of your intentions and how I’ve misunderstood it, you see, then that conversation becomes a conversation about what your intentions were rather than a harm that I thought was done to me. Does that make sense to you?
RW: Yes it does and it is quite poignant with significant implications for relations between people and in therapy. Can you tell me why you think this is so crucial?
KH: I believe that an explication of these tasks are important and a necessary prerequisite to bringing people together to have these conversations. I think that these issues around theisms are so explosive and so laden with heavy meanings that it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me that we can simply bring people together who have been in a tense relationship and just suddenly have a conversation because there’s the will to have it.
I think will is important, but I think you have to have will and skill.
I think will is important, but I think you have to have will and skill. And sometimes, even the best of us have will but no skill, or it’s possible to have skill and no desire to do it, a lack of will.
RW: Will and skill, that's nice. Let's go back to the consequence and intention. It seems both would have to be attended to for each person to feel it works in the conversation. The person in power that made the offensive comment or unintentionally offensive comment would have to communicate "I didn't mean to do that and I am sorry that it hurt you." The person who felt hurt, offended, thought it had to do with race, let's say, or whatever, would have to know that their pain and hurt was understood and not dismissed or explained away.
KH: I certainly understand what you’re saying with that, but I don’t think it’s necessary in the midst of an infraction or offense for the person in the privileged position to even get into clarifying intentionality, because that’s designed to take care of them. It’s not on behalf of the relationship. And so when I’m in that position, if a woman is saying to me, “You know, you just said this thing, Ken Hardy, and I’m offended. It did not feel good to me as a woman.” What I need to do is rather than say, “Oh, wait a minute. You misunderstood me. That’s not what I meant. You know, I meant this or that.” What I need to say is, “I’m sorry that I said something that was hurtful to you.” I appreciate the conversation because what I believe is that when you’re in a subjugated position, I don’t think it makes much difference whether it’s intentional or not.
RW: Okay, let’s hear why you think that and why this is so important.
KH: Say that in my haste to go to the bathroom, I step on your foot and break your toe. Your toe is broken whether I intended it or not and that what I need to do is to attend to that first and foremost before I get into any explanations. Let me just think about how ludicrous that would be, that I’ve broken your toe and I’m taking the time to explain to you how it was not intentional and that I’ve never done this before, because what I imagine is that what you’d be most concerned about is getting your toe attended and this whole piece about “I didn’t mean to do it” is not attending to you; it’s attending to me.
RW: This example is right to your point, certainly. I would think it does matter a great deal if a person broke my toe intentionally or not but I would say in support of your point that attending to the wound basically shows that you care about the person and implies that it was not intentional. I'll go with you on that. Historically there has been too much room for explanation of intention and not enough for the consequence. When there is a crisis going on or a person is wounded, such explanations seem almost superfluous or dismissive.
KH: Yes, and especially because of the history of inequities.
RW: So what are some examples of the responsibility or tasks of the subjugated?
KH: One example has to do with reclaiming one’s voice, because I do believe that when one is in a subjugated position, one typically becomes silenced. Say a woman colleague of mine is offended or feels hurt by something I’ve said but she does not say anything to me, and is quietly resentful and that resentment erodes our relationship. So she’s walking around with something that’s developing, swelling up in her for three weeks. Now she is further upset because I am walking around as if nothing happened. Well, from my perspective, nothing did happen. And so she can’t hold me accountable for that, which she hasn’t shared with me. And so, I do think
that part of the task of the subjugated is to give voice to one’s experiences.
that part of the task of the subjugated is to give voice to one’s experiences. The same would go for me if I was offended at something a white colleague said to me. It sounds simple but I think it’s very complicated because I think that the very socialization process of the subjugated is one that orients them toward silence, a kind of voicelessness.

Another task of the subjugated is to really overcome having to take care of the privileged in very sophisticated ways, often involving self-sacrificial behavior. “I’m not going to say what I believe and I am not meaning what I say,” for example, would be a way in which I sort of protect the privileged because I don’t want to be thought of in a certain way, and so that I end up compromising myself.

I always know that if I’m doing a workshop and if there’s what some might call a “radical militant gay person” in the group who’s challenging heterosexism in a way that makes straight people feel uncomfortable. Invariably what happens is, there’s usually another gay person in that group that’s going to challenge the more radical, outspoken gay person.
RW: Interesting. What do you think is behind this reaction and what are you getting at here?
KH: I see it as a very sophisticated form of taking the privilege. I think dynamically that there’s some inherent fear that people in the subjugated position have about the privileged being taken to task. Sometimes bad things happen when the privileged get challenged. I think historically whites have done that with people of color. I think men have done that with the woman who says more than we think she should say. And so it’s not like it’s necessarily something broken in subjugated people; it is a reflex reaction. It is learned behavior that has to be unlearned in order to be able to constructively engage in these discourses in a way that I think is necessary to move forward.
RW: I get how the one gay person may speak their truth, their experiences and…
KH: Can I interrupt you for a second? Because for me, it’s “radical gay” in quotes. It may not be a person I necessarily consider radical but is being perceived in the group that way.
RW: Okay. I would think if the second gay person was trying to help them be more constructive, that would be valuable. But my guess is you are speaking of times when the second person is trying to soften the blow, to make nice, to avoid the issue, so to speak. Is that it?
KH: I am glad you said that, yes. When one person is trying to almost undo what the other subjugated person has said. I do also think that when you are suffering from ways in which your voice has been muted and when you are in a process of coming to have your own voice, that the voice that you are evolving toward is a very primitive unrefined voice. It’s raw.

Silencing rage versus giving voice to rage

RW: That is a powerful distinction, that the person whose voice has been muted, historically silenced, is finding their voice, and an expectation of some super constructive expression is unrealistic and not really looking at the reality of the situation.
KH: And also, in the interest of the relationship, I would hope that the person in the privileged position—in this case, me—would be able to hold that sometimes-belligerent raw voice, to not issue preconditions, because there’s something about the issuance of preconditions that has the net effect of silencing again.
RW: I'm reminded of a client, an African-American male, who came in with his white American wife because their child had been kicked out of school for fighting. And the father had gotten in trouble for spanking his kid, CPS had been called, and they'd been referred to me. The mother came in quite calm, wanting to know what to do differently. The man was quite angry, very angry and the wife was getting very uncomfortable, trying to calm him down: "You're in a professional office, and CPS is after you. Bring it down."
KH: That’s a tough situation, what did you do?
RW: Now what I did, and hopefully I was getting at what you are saying, we'll see what you think. I said to her, "Why don't he and I meet together for awhile?" Because he was going off and I had not made much of a connection to him yet. And so she left and he kept going on, so I thought I'd kind of join with him instead of trying to silence him, by saying, "It sounds like you're furious at this situation that's happened, you're tired of it." And trying to get his voice to come out more rather than less.
KH: Right. That’s right. How did he react?
RW: He seemed to appreciate that. I brought up the issue that I was a white male and how he now was sent to see the man. I asked him, "Do you have any thoughts about that?" He said, "You seem okay, but you know, yeah, you're right. I didn't want to come here." And then the third thing I tried to do was kind of even go one more step, which felt a little risky, but I said, "I'm wondering, you know, what's going on with you disciplining your kid and they're saying you're too much, that you're out of control - I'm wondering if you're trying to protect your kid from getting in trouble. That's why you're doing this. That you see what is happening with so many black kids and you don't want that to happen to your kid." And he said, "Yeah, I'm spanking him more for a reason. I don't want him to get into fights and like a lot of black men end up in jail. I don't want my kid to go through that, nothing scares me more than that. " I felt I was out on a limb in a way, but it felt right and he softened and we went deeper in the session.
KH: That is precisely what I’m getting at, with his anger and his rage—it was counterintuitive—that rather than try to cap it, you moved toward it almost implicitly, encouraging him to go there. I think it did a sort of counterintuitive thing for him; he actually calmed down. I think if you tried to suppress that affect by sitting on top of it [pushes hands down] you press down, it goes up.

You know, what you did was,
you were able to sort of get him to calm down by basically almost encouraging him to sort of rage in your presence, and that’s precisely what I’m talking about.
you were able to sort of get him to calm down by basically almost encouraging him to sort of rage in your presence, and that’s precisely what I’m talking about.

And I think that that type of intervention or technique if you think of it that way, I think is within the province of the privileged to do that. I think that when I’m situated in interactions where I have the power and privilege to do that I want to do just that.

I would say that I’m not one of these folks who are out trying to eradicate the world of privilege and dismantle all privilege, because I don’t think that privilege in and of itself is necessarily a bad thing in all circumstances. I think what we ultimately do with privilege determines the valence that’s attached to it, and so that I think it’s possible to have privilege and use privilege responsibly. I think it’s possible to have privilege and use privilege abusively.
RW: I like that you don't divide people into such either/or categories in that it depends on the situation. Would you say that you're privileged as a therapist, as a professional, a doctor?
KH: Absolutely. As a man, as a heterosexual, in many ways. And so what I hope for myself is that I use the privilege that I have in a very conscientious, respectful way that helps to promote the kind of change that I hope for rather than using it to exacerbate preexisting differences.
RW: Silencing.
KH: Yes.
RW: Now I want to go back to something you said because I want your take on it. You said that what I did was a good technique, how I got him to express his rage and I gave voice to it and it counterintuitively calmed him. I would have to say I thought he had some valid points, and some of his rage was valid, that yeah, "There's a reason you're really trying to manage and help your kid. Maybe you're going overboard at times but I can see how much your care about your kid." I didn't think, "Oh, I'm just going to do this to calm him down." This is not a technique to appease him, it's vital and real. I meant it.
KH: Right. Yeah, I appreciate that. There’s no way for you to know this, but just yesterday in my workshop, I’m saying to folks what I believe is exactly what you’re saying. That there’s a piece of what I’m suggesting that looks like a technique although I don’t think it is simply exclusive technique. That if that were just a technique for you, it probably wouldn’t have worked. It was as much ideology as it was technique—there was a way in which you looked at the world that helped that technique to be effective. Even to the point where you say, “I wonder if you’re concerned about your son out there.”

Now, I’m telling you, any time any white therapist says that to a black male client, it says so much more than those few words state.
If you’re saying that to me and I’m your client, what I’m thinking is, “Damn. He understands. You know, he understands the reality of the world out there.”
If you’re saying that to me and I’m your client, what I’m thinking is, “Damn. He understands. You know, he understands the reality of the world out there.” I mean, you didn’t have to name it anymore explicitly than you did, but if I’m that client, I’m thinking, “He gets it.”

That’s the part that has virtually nothing to do with technique as such. It has to do with a piece of consciousness, a piece of a world view that you have that you bring to this, and I think that, when I talk about the task of the privileged, responsible use of privilege, that that would be the embodiment of it.

Talking about diversity concerns in psychotherapy

RW: Let's go to psychotherapy specifically. You started out by saying you were trained to be a good therapist for white people. What is the difference between a therapist practicing therapy as usual versus a therapist practicing therapy informed by racial sensitivity and multicultural concerns?
KH: Well, I think the major difference is that psychotherapy as we’ve known it, as we’ve practiced it, has been one where the focus has been around the, for lack of a better term, the psychology of one’s being… to look inside of me and make some broad generalizations, determinations about what’s broken inside of me. The unit of inquiry really centers around the individual, the intrapsychic processes, and maybe one’s interpersonal processes depending on what you’re doing.

I think operating from a culturally informed, multicultural perspective is the recognition that psychotherapy is not just about one’s psychology but also, broadly speaking, about one’s ecology. I’m not just concerned about how is it that this person’s family of origin impacts the client you talked about earlier. There’s a difference between looking at how his family of origin impacted his parenting practices and what society would consider abusive discipline habits—that’s one way of looking at it.

The other way of looking at it, for example, would be to raise questions about what impact his lot in life out there in the world as a black man has on his parenting practices, in addition to his family background and inner world. I’m as interested in one’s ecological context broadly defined and how it shapes behavior, as I am about one’s intrapsychic, psychological processes. So I think that the point of examination is a wider lens.

And I also think that the other piece of it is that it’s not just about having capacity to see it and conceptualize it, but also having a requisite skill to talk about it.
RW: In your experience, how does it play out in talking about diversity and culture in therapy?
KH: In any number of ways. I think in having the willingness and the foresight and the skill to name it. I’ve had people watch me do therapy and be very critical of the way I do therapy. Let me give an example from one of the Psychotherapy with the Experts therapy videos1 with an interracial couple. She’s Chicana, he’s African-American and a stepfather to her two boys by a previous marriage, also an interracial marriage. The boys who are his stepsons, are failing in school, and are into rap music. And he really struggles with that. Now part of my hypothesis is that he may struggle with this because they are more identified with urban black hip hop culture than he is comfortable with.

Afterwards some of therapists watching this session say, “It seems like there’s a lot of discussion about race and I don’t know why that was necessary.” And so that to me, that’s a difference in their perspectives and I think that’s how it translates in therapy.
There’s a wilderness of creative space in the therapeutic dialogue for the recognition of race and class, how they inform who we are, decisions we make or decisions we fail to make.
There’s a wilderness of creative space in the therapeutic dialogue for the recognition of race and class, how they inform who we are, decisions we make or decisions we fail to make. Because there’s no aspect of our lives that aren’t, I believe, shaped by the nuances of all these issues—race, class, gender, all of those things.
RW: Why not? I mean, you can almost turn it around and say these are part of the fabric of life, the threads, so it would seem unusual or troubling to not be noticing their relevance. Yet, for years we didn’t.
KH: That’s right. And some today still don’t because they don’t see the utility of doing that.
RW: Let's say, some may not see the utility, but maybe many also think there's a danger or a fear, or that it could be offensive, or that it could stir up things and cause a greater problem.
KH: Yes, I think that is true. I think that these fears are impediments to talking and yet I think there’s a greater likelihood to be a problem when it doesn’t come up than when it does come up. And I’m not just talking about bringing up race with clients of color. I’m not just talking about discussing gender with women. I mean, I think it’s important for us to have these conversations with clients across the board and have an openness to look at them. See, I guess that’s the difference. I’m keenly interested in knowing how one’s life and relationships are informed by all of these issues, no matter who’s sitting in front of me. Because I think they do inform our lives though we may not always be conscious of it.
RW: If they are brought up in a constructive way, people seem to love to talk about such things and it brings more meaning to the conversations.
KH: That’s right. And particularly people for whom it’s a major core aspect of their identity and their lives, I agree with you. I think, when properly executed, it does provide a deeper level of richness to the conversation and to the relationship.
RW: I mean, I come from an Italian-American background and if my therapist didn't know that my grandfather came from Italy, I would feel like he didn't know about me.
KH: That’s right. I, as your therapist, after having that piece of information would then be curious about your name.
RW: My last name is Wyatt, which is my father's name. His family came out west from Missouri in the dust bowl and he was mostly English and some Cherokee Indian. My mother's maiden name is Acquistapace which is Italian. So if my name was Acquistapace, people might see me differently.
KH: That’s absolutely right.
RW: So many people say, "You can't be Italian."
KH: Right. They’ll tell you.
RW: Which I'm sure comes up even more so for mixed race, black/white or other mixed race folks.
KH: Yeah, it’s the audacity of it that people can make a claim on somebody else’s identity, and that’s why what you said just cracks me up because I’ve heard so many times, “You can’t be that!”

The psychotherapist as the broker of permission

RW: Can you talk about other ways that discussing racial issues can play out in therapy? Let's say you're seeing a white client. Usually most of the books on multiculturalism and psychotherapy are written to the white therapist and say how we can be more informed about ethnic minorities. So very few books are written to the black therapist or the Asian therapist or the gay therapist about how that therapist can work with cross-cultural issues. Yet, since people from diverse groups and identities are becoming therapists more often now, that is changing some. What goes through your mind when you see white clients? What issues have come up for you?
KH: First, as you said, there is a dearth of information about therapists of color with white clients, I think that needs to be addressed more. I also think part of the reason is because it’s part of the psychology of being a minority. When you’re a minority, you have to know about the majority group, so I think that’s part of the reason why that gap exists there.
RW: That minorities live in two worlds.
KH: And where your very survival is predicated on your knowledge of the dominant group, to have to know what to say, when to say it, what not to say.

But to come back to your question about therapy. My guess would be that you could interview 100 therapists of color and 90 of them would report anxiety and discomfort about that walk to the waiting room for the first time seeing a client—it comes up in workshops all the time. I’ve experienced that when I have white therapists who refer white clients to me they find it necessary to let them know I’m a therapist of color. So they’re forewarned about that.
RW: Before you go on, it's fascinating that you mentioned that. When I told people I was interviewing you, one person brought up the question of therapists notifying the client about the therapist being Black. I wondered if this was as common as he thought it was.
KH: It happens all the time. For some therapists I know they routinely and naturally describe people that way, their gender, race, etc, which I don’t have a problem with. But, if it is selective for one race that is problematic. I’ve found myself anxious about what reception I will receive and I don’t think that would be true for you. So either the client is already forewarned that they’re going to see a black person: “You need to know this before you go” or they are not told and are surprised to see me.
I’ve watched clients get paralyzed. “I’m Dr. Hardy, your therapist,” and they cannot move; they are so utterly shocked by it, by the whole race thing.
I’ve watched clients get paralyzed. “I’m Dr. Hardy, your therapist,” and they cannot move; they are so utterly shocked by it, by the whole race thing.

I also think that in situations like that, when it’s cross-racial therapy, it’s really important to me to name race very early in the process, which I often do. I’ve written about the importance of the therapist being the broker of permission. And I think that that permission to acknowledge and talk about race has to be given before it ever happens because the rules of race in our society is that we don’t talk about it. So I use myself to do that. I will make reference to myself in therapy. “Well, as an African-American” or “as a black therapist,” which is my way of saying to you, the white client, “I’m okay acknowledging race. I’m even okay if we talk about it.”
RW: The way you introduced it there was in a subtle way, putting it on the table.
KH: I believe that permission granting maneuver requires some subtly.
I don’t agree with the strategy where white therapists ask clients of color, “How do you feel about being in therapy with me?”
I don’t agree with the strategy where white therapists ask clients of color, “How do you feel about being in therapy with me?” I also don’t agree with me asking a white client that because of power. While I believe the white person is generally in the racially more powerful position, in that context of therapy, I’m in a more powerful role. And so I would be asking this person to engage in a level of self-disclosure about a very difficult topic while I’m not revealing anything about myself. And so I think—again, back to social justice—your privilege also brings a greater responsibility.

It’s my job, the way I see it, to put my views out there about it and not require an answer. It’s up to the client if they want to pick it up and go with it. But my putting it out there is not contingent on them picking it up and going with it. So it’s not like a chess game.
RW: It's an invitation. It doesn't need a response, but it's there.
KH: Absolutely.
RW: Your approach adds a different way of looking at why these types of questions often backfire. I'm glad you brought that up because a lot of cross-cultural psychotherapy books and supervisors across the country are saying to their white interns, you know, Ask the client, "How do you feel about me being white?" or "You're black, and I'm white." Or "You're this, and I'm that, how does that make you feel?" I don't think it works well that way.
KH: To take the race risk, no it does not work well in that way.
RW: It reminds me of former colleague of mine, John Nickens, an African-American man who was going for his postdoc in psychology after a successful career in management. He went for a group interview and the white interviewer said, "Well, we're wondering how you feel about coming to work here with, you know, mostly white therapists." And he said, "I want to work here. I'm wondering how you feel about having me here. I'm okay with being here, that's why I applied." I think they were trying to be sensitive but it did not make him feel comfortable. John has a way of cutting right to the chase on these matters.
KH: I personally don’t think that it’s a useful strategy where I’m asking a person to disclose to me because I think the conversation’s too volatile that way. There’s an inequity of power. So you were asking earlier about social justice; that would be an example that’s informed by this difference in power between client and therapist.
RW: Can you give an example with a white client when they did talk about it, when a difficult issue came up?
KH: Well, I am reminded of a young nine-year-old white child who I wrote about. He did not want to continue with me because he believed that white therapists were better and smarter than black therapists. He felt like he was being shortchanged by having me as his therapist and essentially told me that. I first tried to deal with it clinically, but it just exacerbated the situation. He became more egregious and more insulting and assaultive in his interactions with me. I think he was pissed off that I wasn’t releasing him from the therapy. And, he had these well-developed emotions about why it was unacceptable to him to have a black therapist. It had to do with somehow he was being disadvantaged by having me as his therapist.

Other times issues have come up where I’ve had a client who has used a word like “nigger” for blacks or “spic” to refer to Hispanics, not just Puerto Ricans but Hispanics. When I address that, it’s almost like it’s a wake-up call to them that I’m a person of color. And it’s, “Oh, well…” It’s like they sort of excuse me because I’m a therapist, but I always feel it necessary to raise issues like that anywhere they come up and sort through them.

And then there what I consider subtleties of race, microaggressions, where my clients talk about not wanting their daughter to date a black guy. And they say to me, “It’s nothing personal, Ken. It’s just too hard out there. You know, I worry about her.” So those conversations eek up in therapy a lot, and it’s almost like sometimes with white clients, it comes out before they realize it. And it’s, “Oh my, he’s black…”

Doing work with adolescents, I often get referrals from white families who are referring their children to therapy, mostly boys, because they think they sometimes act too ethnic. They say their white sons act too black, so they send them to me to help them with that.
RW: And how do you think about and approach these situations with clients?
KH: Well, for the family that refers them for acting too black, I’m always curious about what that means. What does it mean to act black? And I have my own thoughts about that, so I don’t pretend. I engage the parents in, “What is the difficulty with some of this behavior that’s being so pathologized?” because I do believe that in our society when kids of color act white, they’re considered good kids, and when white kids act like kids of color, they need therapy. And so, I try to make that part of the conversation.

With the father who didn’t want his daughter dating a black guy, my general approach in therapy is to try to open up the conversation and dialogue with him. I think that we often times, in and outside of therapy, so quickly move in ways that we shut conversations like that down when I think we should be opening them up. I try to respond in ways so I don’t go into the challenge of, “Why? Why not? What’s wrong with you!” I try and get into their world and understand how they’re putting all this together that it gets him to this place where he has a well-developed position against his daughter dating an African American.
In working with racial or cultural issues, I think it’s important to create a space for a conversation rather than me issue a cease-and-desist order.
In working with racial or cultural issues, I think it’s important to create a space for a conversation rather than me issue a cease-and-desist order.
RW: Instead of silencing them. Because that person could feel silenced, too.
KH: Absolutely.
RW: I think white people ”I don't think it's the same thing as silencing a subjugated group” but I think we should address it. I want to hear what you have to say about the fear of being called a racist. It's a Catch-22 in society and especially in forums where diversity and racism are discussed. On one hand, let's be open about racial issues, let's talk about ethnicity, about that it's a culture with racism in it, and people should be aware of their own prejudices and privileges. Yet if somebody is defined as being racist, they'll get really defensive, they may lose their job, other people will see them as really out there.
KH: Well, that’s why I try not to ever use the term “racist” to apply to someone or to refer to someone. I personally don’t find it useful, and I think that it’s a conversation stopper, a conversation blocker. It doesn’t facilitate, because it’s so totalizing in a sense. I was consulting to an organization that was already one year into an anti-racism initiative. I was never quite comfortable with that term because it has a way of implicating people in a way that it doesn’t allow for some wiggle room with people who are trying to find a way to grow.

 More often than not what I see is that the person who’s been called a racist gets into defensive mode about why they’re not a racist, and that becomes the conversation rather than this belief I have about why my daughter shouldn’t date a black man or whatever.

Of course, white therapists can be challenged with things from clients of color as well. The question is, how to deal with those issues from a curiosity mindset instead of becoming defensive or pathologizing, and how to bring them up in a way that allows for discussion.
RW: I am thinking of one situation where the issue of race came up but in a indirect but powerful way. I remember one time a black woman client of mine was very upset because she was being discriminated against at work, mostly by white supervisors. And she said she felt very angry about white people and saw white people on the train and looked at them very intently as if to look right through them to scare them. So at a certain point, I said, "Well, you know, how does it feel you telling me ”I'm white, you are feeling lots of anger toward white people, how does it feel to tell this to me here?" And she talked about it very freely as we had a strong trusting relationship. In that state of hurt and anger that she was in, she generalized beyond those who had hurt her. She said she struggled with that because it didn't make sense to her. She didn't hate white people. She had grown up with many friends that were white and appreciated people of various backgrounds. But in that moment it transferred there.
KH: Yeah, absolutely. Yes, it makes. Where did this lead you in term of your relationship and your work with her?
RW: I saw her for years in therapy and years later she told me, "When I first came to see you, I didn't think you could understand my culture, my life, but I gave you a try because they referred me to you and I like to give people a chance in life." She said that over the years her view of me had changed, "First I saw you as a white guy. Then I saw you as a doctor. Then later I saw you as a pretty good doctor. I came to see you as a friendly doctor, and then I saw you as a person and a friend who was a doctor." And that kind of blew me away and sticks with me to this day.
KH: Wow. That is profound. And it seems to be reflective of just, I mean, the incredible piece of work you’ve done with her, the deepening of the relationship together. I mean, it says it all. You know, you’ve gone from “white person” to “person and friend who happens to be a doctor.” I mean, that’s so amazing.
RW: So much so that when my father died, she wanted to pay her respects to my mother. She said it was just what people did where she was from. She had also heard stories of my father and what a fair man he was. She let me know she was going to contact my mother since my client was in her town on business. At first, I was fairly reticent due to unusual nature of this request in our traditional therapy culture. I consulted with a colleague, raising the questions of her interests, cultural background, and potential therapeutic benefits and drawbacks. After discussing it more with her, I decided to let it take its natural course, since I also trusted both of them implicitly. She then called and visited my mother who is a very warm welcoming person as well. They visited for a bit and hit it off and both appreciated the visit. I was touched myself by her grace in the matter.
KH: Amazing. That’s unbelievable. Did it fit in any way that you understood her background and culture, I am just wondering.
RW: It felt like it was culturally congruent with her background. She was from a big close knit family back east, one of many siblings, the oldest so she had a lot of responsibility. And every year she'd have a pie for a holiday or something for my family. After her visit, there was no fallout. She appreciated and enjoyed paying her respects, honoring what happened, as she called it. She came back and told me the story and then it was part of the background and a good experience.
KH: Perfect. Looks like a match made in heaven. I struggle with this stuff because I just think that somehow, sometimes the work that we do is so incredibly boundaried that it blocks, or at least minimizes our capacity to promote healing in clients. I mean, like who’s to say that her doing that wasn’t as healing, transformative, therapeutic as anything you’ve ever said to her sitting in the office? If she gets to reach out to your mom and felt like she was giving something back, maybe that interaction was transformative for her.

I remember I had a client, a poor black woman I was treating, and she had very few marketable skills as society would record them, but she was an avid baker. And I remember I happened to mention in passing one day my love for brownies, and so around the holidays she brought a dozen brownies. And she said,
“I baked these for you,” and her hands were literally shaking because she wasn’t sure about the appropriateness of it and was worried that I was going to reject it.
“I baked these for you,” and her hands were literally shaking because she wasn’t sure about the appropriateness of it and was worried that I was going to reject it. And when I took the brownies and ate one in front of her, her face lit up in a way I’d never seen before and she sat there, teared up, “Dr. Hardy, a doctor eating my brownies…”

You could tell what that meant to her. I thought about the depths of her own sense of devaluation, the fact that this powerful figure in her life could find something valuable that she did, I thought was important to her.

And despite all the worries in psychotherapy and the caution about that, there was no spillage over into other parts of the relationship. I mean, it was, you know, it was simply that she brought in the brownies. I accepted and appreciated them. We moved on. I mean, I thought trust was built in our relationship. It wasn’t anything that I usually read about in books where you take the brownies and next the person brings you a Rolex watch or keys to a Jaguar. The drama didn’t play out that way at all.

Are we not all just basically human?

RW: I teach diversity and clinical psychology myself and a common refrain that's a challenge to diversity studies is "It's good to study about ethnicity, race, prejudice and racism, but are we not all just basically human? Shouldn't we be focusing on what brings us together and makes us all human? Isn't that the way to bring justice and peace to the world?"
KH: Yes, it’s true, we’re all human. But we are so many more other things than just human, and so, yes, I want us to appreciate and hold our humanness but I also want us to hold all the other threads of who we are. So, no, we shouldn’t take that view. I think that’s something that romance novels are made out of, that belief, that ideology.

I don’t know why this is a common belief that our humanness should trump all the other places and spaces where we stand to give meaning to our lives. And even what makes us human. I’m not so sure it is the same thing for each of us. Because I would say that the pain and suffering that I have experienced in my life as an African-American has helped to tremendously, significantly humanize me, that there’s a piece of my humanity that is specifically borne out of my suffering and that piece of suffering is inextricably connected to being black in this society.

I’m not convinced that we could all get together and come up with some uniform answers as to what makes us all human, because I think we’ve all traveled different paths and those paths have been significant.
I’m not convinced that we could all get together and come up with some uniform answers as to what makes us all human, because I think we’ve all traveled different paths and those paths have been significant.

And so I don’t think that the problem is paying attention to differences. I think the problem is that we—as we often do in our society—attach differential values to differences. And so the problem is not with diversity. The problem is with hierarchical dichotomized thinking, I think, that one group of people is somehow better than another based on color, gender and so on.
RW: What about the flipside, which you hear in multicultural studies where it is, explicitly or implicitly, stated that "race, ethnicity or the color of one's skin is the most important factor and life and power should be always looked at through the lens of race, ethnicity or color."
KH: I think those issues are contextual. I think that race has greater salience in U.S. culture in particular. But I don’t necessarily agree with that sentiment in totality. I believe that we all have multiple threads of diversity that makes us who we are, that we have to pay attention to all of them. And within any given moment or a freeze frame, it may be that race is more salient than some others. I would say race and gender, women and people of color were the only two groups in our society that historically weren’t born with the right to vote, and other built-in forms of racism and sexism, which elevates those issues to a whole different level of significance.

But I generally don’t like to even get in conversations that rank isms. It’s enough to recognize that all these issues are all valuable in their own ways.
RW: You've done dozens of diversity trainings and a videos, including Psychological Residuals of Slavery. How do people take to your ideas? What's your general take about what people take well to and where there's some resistance or tentativeness or anxiety?
KH: I think that what people generally appreciate is the opportunity to discuss these very complex issues. There are very few venues in society where we can get together in cross-racially, cross-cultural, heterogeneous groups and have open, candid, in-depth conversations about things that really matter.
The anxiety is about having the cross-cultural conversation, so I think people find the greatest gift of it, the greatest attribute, is also the thing that’s most anxiety-producing.
The anxiety is about having the cross-cultural conversation, so I think people find the greatest gift of it, the greatest attribute, is also the thing that’s most anxiety-producing.
RW: Let's take whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics. What might their anxieties commonly be?
KH: I think that whites, some whites have anxiety about being blamed, being called racist, saying the wrong thing. Those are always concerns that whites have. They come, but some whites worry that they come to be dumped on. That’s the anxiety of whites. Blacks tend to have anxiety about having wounds reopened, being on display and at the end of it, nothing changes.

And I think Asians and Latinos often have had anxieties about the binary notions of race being so rigidified that there’s no place in the discussion for them, that somehow the conversations get calcified, if you will, around black/white issues and they’re left somewhere in between.

And then if they’re Asian or Latinos or others who are not U.S. born, they tend to have some anxiety about where they fit into this conversation because you have people coming here from countries where they were not thought of as people of color and come here and become a person of color.
RW: So it becomes important to facilitate Asians, Latinos and other minority groups to feel they have a voice and are part of the dialogue beyond the white/black focus.
KH: That’s right. And it creates a space for them to externally explore what feels internal, because to express one’s experience and have other people hear it and validate it is liberating and uplifting.

Cultural genogram

RW: Can you talk about the cultural genogram that you've developed and the role of that in diversity training and other groups?
KH: I took the standard genogram which is usually a three generational diagram that’s focused around family of origin and modified that to a cultural genogram. And so the way it’s set up is that the therapist, trainees, and participants use colors to depict the various ethnic, racial groups that comprise their family of origin and their three-generational family.

You mentioned earlier that you were Italian, and so that you might say, “Well, I’m going to give Italian red.” And then, you know, if your dad was English and Native American, and your mom was Italian, then they would get different colors. So you see all these colors on the genogram, which depicts the various ethnicities that comprise a family.

So if you were doing one, as an Italian, what are the major organizing principles in Italian culture? What are the things that comprise core values for Italians across the board? What makes you most proud as an Italian, what are those things? What are things that make you feel shame about being Italian? List all of these on the board. And so the idea behind it is to help each of us become more acutely acquainted with our cultural selves, what we’re proud of and what we feel shame about. I think that, particularly for us as therapists, when we have parts of ourselves that we attempt to disavow because of shame, they inevitably come back to haunt us therapeutically.

I’m also thinking with the cultural genogram that it’s a way for every trainee to practice talking about race, class, gender, ethnicity, all those things, because all those have to be depicted on the culture genogram. And then, it’s helpful, finally, to help the person trace generational patterns that are informed by culture. So it really is designed to help the person become more knowledgeable of who they are as a cultural being.

The personal and the professional self are one

RW: You make a point in your writing to emphasize the importance of developing skills and ways to approach diversity and social justice concerns, but also personal growth and self awareness. To quote your writings: "It's hard to separate the personal from the professional lives of the therapist, that the process of becoming sensitive begins with how each therapist lives his or her life. Once change occurs on this level, it will be manifested within the therapy process." You said it so well there that I don't know if you can elaborate, but can you?
KH: I solidly reject this notion that this is me out there, this is me in here. I think that we are who we are. I always tell therapists that I’m training and in my role as a professor that what we’re doing here is training you, teaching you how to be a different kind of human being and if we succeed in that, you’re going to be fine as a therapist. And so, it’s how do you embrace your own sense of humanity. Doing that is the beginning of embracing the humanity of others as a therapist and a person.
RW: Indeed, that is a lot of what psychotherapy is about. It really is foundational.
KH: Yes it is.
RW: Kenneth, I want to thank you so much for having this conversation and sharing your ideas and challenging us to go beyond the expected in therapy and life, professionally and personally.
KH: Thank you Randy, it has been a great pleasure. You brought out nuances of these questions that have made me think about them in new ways.

Copyright © 2008 All rights reserved. Published June 2008.
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Kenneth V. Hardy Dr. Kenneth V. Hardy is a Professor of Family Therapy at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and is also Director of the Eikenberg Institute for Relationships in New York, New York. Prior to joining the faculty at Drexel University, he was a Professor of Family Therapy at Syracuse University where he also held positions as Director of Clinical Training and Research, and Chair of the Department of Child and Family Services. He is the former Director of the Center for Children, Families, and Trauma of the Ackerman Institute in New York City.

Dr. Hardy presents workshops and provides consultations nationally and internationally on issues of diversity, multiculturalism, and cultural competency. He has provided training and consultation to an extensive list of Human Services agencies and School Districts devoted to providing culturally competent services to children and families. Some of his clients have included the Children's Defense Fund, The United States Department of Defense, the Menninger Clinic, the New York State Office of Mental Health, Harlem Hospital, the Washington D.C. Superior Court, Philadelphia Department of Human Services, Allegheny County Department of Human Services, the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, the Westchester County Department of Human Services, and a host of Colleges, Universities, and Post-Secondary Institutions throughout the United States.

Dr. Hardy has published extensively in the area of diversity and has earned considerable public acclaim for the contributions that his numerous publications and videotapes including Psychological Residuals of Slavery and the Experts series which have made great strides toward challenging our society to think critically about issues of diversity and oppression. His recent book, with Tracey A. Laszloffy, is Teens Who Hurt: Clinical Interventions to Break the Cycle of Adolescent Violence. He was co-editor with Monica McGoldrick of Re-Visioning Family Therapy: Race, Culture, and Gender in Clinical Practice (2nd Edition).

In addition to his own writing, he also serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, the Journal of Family Psychotherapy, the Journal of Divorce, the Journal of Couples Therapy, the Psychotherapy Networker, and the Journal of Family Counseling. Dr. Hardy is a frequent contributor to the print media such USA Today, Jet Magazine, and Good Housekeeping, and also has been featured in the electronic media having appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Dateline NBC, PBS, The Discovery Health Channel, and ABC's 20/20.

Books by Hardy

Re-Visioning Family Therapy: Race, Culture, and Gender in Clinical Practice (2nd Edition)

Teens Who Hurt: Clinical Interventions to Break the Cycle of Adolescent Violence

See all Kenneth Hardy videos.
Randall C. Wyatt Randall C. Wyatt, PhD is a practicing psychologist in Oakland and Dublin, California. He specializes in working with post-traumatic stress, cross-cultural therapeutic relationships and couples therapy and has extensive teaching experience.

CE credits: 2.5

Learning Objectives:

  • Discuss Hardy's application of social justice to the practice of psychotherapy
  • Describe Hardy's concepts of intentions and consequences in psychotherapy
  • Apply Hardy's key tools for working cross-culturally to your own practice

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here