Fear and Stereotypes: It’s Not (Really) About You

 

I was drunk. Stoned, too, and feeling sorry for myself.  I wanted to die.  So I set my black ass on fire.

-Richard Pryor, Comedian

 

It’s like a dark cloud moving in, and it’s not something you can say “Snap out of it” to.

-Beverly Johnson, Model & Actress

My Dear Readers,

As I was leaving my local post office the other day, I noticed four white males, approximately in their 40s and 50s.  As I drove by them, I eyed them with suspicion, believing that they were up to something.  They seemed out of place in this part of town, and I’d never seen them before. For a moment or two, I wondered if I should contact the police and inform them of my concerns.

The police would probably ask what the suspicious behavior was, and I would simply say that they just looked suspicious.  I wondered, given the number of them and how dangerous they looked, whether the police would send several patrol cars and be ready for any trouble.  Not sure of what to do, I drove away…. cautiously.

Sounds silly, right?  Not only is it not silly, it can be very dangerous and traumatizing when three police cars rush up to you and your friends while you are just walking in the neighborhood.  Such an incident occurred when four of us, black men in our 40s and 50s, were walking recently.   Someone driving by evidently did not recognize my friend (he and his family had recently moved into the neighborhood) and called the police to notify them that “suspicious characters” as we were called, “were roaming the neighborhood looking for homes to burglarize.”

Following a few tense minutes, we showed our identification, which brought a look of embarrassment to the officers’ faces and after that, they quickly left. One of the four of us was a trial court commissioner.  The other two were a dentist and university professor, and of course, I am a psychologist.  On our way home in silence, one of my friends commented that perhaps the next time we go walking, we should wear signs saying “WE ARE THE GOOD ONES” and go door to door introducing ourselves.  This was followed by laughter and a few choice words that I dare not repeat here.

My point is that simply by being black men, we are held to deep-rooted stereotypes.  This experience further shows us that all black males, regardless of age, clothing, income and social status, are at risk at being stopped and questioned simply because of the way that they look. The passersby would see the white males holding a group discussion as “white males holding a group discussion,” instead of attributing any motive to them. What separates us from them is they have the privilege of not being assumed to have ill will, and when it comes to us, it just depends on how whites view you.  Are you a good one or bad one?

And then there are the stereotypes or beliefs that can destroy a person’s career, hopes and ambitions or simply drive a person to sit at a bar and down shot after shot of alcohol.

Below is such a story…

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Dear Dr. Kane:

I am frustrated.  After numerous attempts to stop a false allegation against me, I feel like I’ve been hit by a brick.  I am now sitting here wishing I was drunk and trying to figure out what I am going to do.  My wife called me from her bed at the hospital and suggested I take some time away from drinking, collect my thoughts and write you this letter.

I am 42 years old, African-American, and an attorney, originally from a small town in the southern United States, now living in a city in the Pacific Northwest.  My father brought the family to the Pacific Northwest to escape the overt racism and the segregation (which still goes on to this day) in the area in which we lived.  When we were kids, our father used to force us to watch movies like Roots and Mandingo.  There would always be the stern warning to “stay out of white folks’ mess” and to steer clear of white women.   We were young and really didn’t understand what he meant, and he never explained it. We were just to obey him and never question him.

I graduated from college, got accepted to law school, where I was selected for law review, and I graduated at the top of my class.  I became the first African-American male to join my law firm, and I excelled. My senior partners often hinted that I had a place permanently within the firm if I wanted it. I had been there for ten years. I really thought that I’d “made it.”

Then one day, the senior partners asked me to join them in the main conference room.  They had a serious look on their faces.  I thought I had messed up on a case and was about to be chewed out.  Instead, in very serious tones, they said that they’d been hearing comments from the other associates that I was sexually harassing the female staff members.

I was shocked.  I thought it was a misunderstanding then I realized that depth of trouble I was in.  When I asked who I had allegedly harassed and about the associates making these false statements, I was told that the information was confidential.  They refused to disclose any of the details of my transgression to me, saying that they had to protect the identities of the victims and informants.

I vehemently denied the allegations, reminding them that I was happily married for eight years and had two young children, but it was clear by the looks on their faces that they either did not believe me or didn’t care about what I had to say for myself.  One of the senior partners stated that the firm had already went through a costly lawsuit over sexual harassment and therefore did not want to be associated with another.  Another partner indicated that although no formal complaint was being made against me, the people who brought this situation to their attention wanted to give them and me a “heads up”.

It was suggested that I leave the firm with the understanding that I would be provided a reference.  Faced with no support from the senior partners and now clearly being given the message that becoming a junior partner was out of the question, I quietly resigned.  I have been seeking positions with other law firms in the area and so far, no one is returning my calls or answering my emails.

Not knowing what else to do, I emailed the managing partner of my previous firm requesting a written statement affirming no support for the allegation against me.  I was stunned when he replied that as agreed upon I had been provided a reference and the firm considered the matter closed.  Closed? What the hell is he talking about? Closed?  This is about my livelihood, my career, and my ability to provide for my family.  And he considers the matter closed?

Now I am sitting in a bar with my laptop writing to you. I never saw this coming.  All I have done is excel.  Is that wrong?  I am not a criminal.  And yet, I feel as if I am being treated like one. It is hopeless.  There is nothing I can do.  The only thing I have faith now in are my friends, Johnnie Walker and Jim Beam.  At least they don’t doubt me.

Stepped On, Can’t Man Up, Oregon

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My Dear Man,

Please humor me and affirm that the buddies you are referring to are not Johnnie Walker Scotch or Jim Beam whiskey.   Your wife is in the hospital recovering. Who is looking after your children while you are at a bar getting drunk?

In my clinical practice, I have a firm rule about not interacting with or responding to those who come to the therapeutic session either drunk or high on drugs.  However, for the sake of your wife and children, I am going to make an exception.

I have several questions that I would like you to consider:

  • If the situation is so hopeless, why are you writing me?
  • What are you going to accomplish by downing shot after shot of Scotch?
  • Your spouse is in the hospital recovering. She’s in this mess with you.  Do you realize the steps of abandonment, neglect and abuse, which you are beginning to take?
  • What about your children? Need I say more?

My Dear Man, I am not going to provide a pep talk or suggest that you “man up.” Yes, you have been stepped on.  The question is, are you willing to empower yourself to remove that foot from your back? If you are willing to do so, then say farewell to your so-called friends.  Consuming alcohol while you are in despair is really a simple way to medicate the emotional pain that actually wreaks more havoc in your body and the psychological self.

There are times where unintended words or actions can lead to misinterpretation. Sometimes this results in the allegation of improper behavior.  Should this happen, it should be immediately clarified so that such action does not occur again.

There are several questions that can be generated from your writing:

  • Why did this happen to me? What did I do? I am not a criminal
  • Why won’t the former organization assist me in proving my innocence and clearing my name?
  • What can I do to stop these allegations which have now turned into gossip and rumors?
  • Should I relocate to another city, county or state?

(1) Why did this happen to me?  What did I do? I am not a criminal. All I did was to excel at my work.

First, three things your detractors are going to say to justify their behavior and relieve themselves of their guilt are:

  • “This isn’t personal
  • “It simply wasn’t a good fit
  • “It was done for the good of the organization”

They are lying to themselves and anyone who is listening.  The brick that hit you did not just fall out of the sky.  It was intentionally tossed by your haters. They struck you while your spouse was in the hospital, knowing that your attention would be focused on her and your children during her absence.

It’s also true that it wasn’t a good fit…. for your detractors.  It may have frightened them that you were getting too close to the senior partners.  The law firm reached out to you, the first African-American associate to be hired.  It was done for the good of the organization, which was doing just fine without adding “diversity”.  Clearly they were not interested in leading the singing for Michael Jackson’s “We Are The World.”

Why did this happen to me?  What did I do? I am not a criminal? 

This is happening simply because in your ability to succeed, you became a threat to the status quo.  This is not about what you did.  It is about what you failed to do; you failed to maintain your place in the pecking order (e.g., them first, you last).  As for not being a criminal, you are the next best thing:  a living, breathing, black, male = FEAR.

Racial codes have been an integral part of maintaining order in the United States.  As racism grew in the 19th Century it was accompanied by racial stereotypes and myths.  Among such stereotypes were the following:

  • Black men are well endowed
  • Black men are extremely sexually virile
  • Black men have lustful desires for white women
  • Black men love rough sex/thug passion
  • Black men are players and have lots of women

Among the most pervasive and strongly believed stereotypes is the black man as a rapist of white women.  Historically, black men are given the death penalty more than white men.  Regardless of the law, a black man could be arrested at any time and lynched without trial simply on the word given by a white man.   Such allegations were often used against troublesome blacks or blacks who were in position of leadership.

The allegation of rape against a white woman was also a means to steal a black’s man property.  Once the allegation was made, the accused was either given time to “disappear” or left to waiting for the lynching.  Very little has changed today when the allegation of inappropriate sexual behavior has been made against a black man.

Today’s “disappearance” occurs in a form of a quiet resignation from the organization.  One day the person is at work, and at a moment’s notice, without any reason provided to his or her co-workers, the offending person is gone or has disappeared.  Lynching today has been replaced by gossip and rumors, which serve to either prevent any possibility of resuming one’s career in another organization, or a swift termination and disappearance.

In this situation, your detractors succeeded in two ways: forcing you out the organization quietly, and killing your career so that you can no longer be a threat.

Why won’t the former organization assist me in proving my innocence and clearing my name?

The answer can start off by the following question “why should the organization assist you?”  Should they assist because you’re innocent?  Or because it’s the right thing to do?

The key and unmistakable word is former.   As far the organization is concerned, they have kept their word by providing a reference and not “formally” disparaging you as you seek employment.  Therefore, having done their due diligence, they simply want you to go away.

Simply put, the organization is a business that must go forward.  The senior partners may acknowledge privately that forcing your exit was wrong, but they will never publically acknowledge this.

What can I do to stop these allegations, which have now turned into gossip and rumors? 

Nothing.   Gossip and rumors serve other purposes besides ruining your professional and personal reputation. There is a need to keep the remaining workers in the organization in fear of losing their jobs.  The message is clear: get out of line, and you too can one day disappear. The fact that you are married, have two children, have high ethical standards and most importantly, never had a history of such inappropriate sexual behaviors means nothing when it comes up against deeply held beliefs, myths and stereotypes about black men.  Besides, they believe that even if you didn’t do it, you were probably having fantasies about doing it.  So at the least, getting rid of you was a “preventive measure” to protect the organization.

Should I relocate to another city, county or state? 

Why bother to relocate?  If the gossip and rumors aren’t waiting to greet you at your new destination the allegations will not be far behind.

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Concluding Words- Dr. Kane

Instead of focusing on the organization to assist you, focus on your own empowerment.  Be willing to advocate for yourself, find balance within the psychological self, and seek calmness in your external world.   Sitting at the bar downing shots of alcohol will only serve to further disempower you as well as move you away from the goals of maintaining a meaningful marriage, providing for your children and moving upward in your legal career.

Seek empowerment through following the clinical model of the Five R’s of RELIEF below. In following the model, seek to do the following:

  • Respite (time out): Find an environment in which you can rest as you endure the trauma that is before you. Breath so you can relax, relaxes so you can think and think so you can take action.
  • Reaction (own your feelings): These are your feelings. No one knows the fear you are experiencing like you do.
  • Reflection (process feelings and thoughts): Embrace your fear. Become aware of its discomfort.  Discuss your situation with supporters and consider the options before you.
  • Response (actions taken) Hold your reactions within while you share your actions with the external world.
  • Reevaluate (evaluate) Take time to review the actions you took. Identify what you learned and what you would do differently if you were faced with this situation again.

 Learn from your previous actions

Only you can decide your next move.  It is for you and no one else to choose which path to take.  The signpost on one path refers to the same old thing: drowning yourself in misery with your friends Johnny Walker and Jim Beam.  The other path indicates something new and different. You already know what alcohol has to offer.

Alcohol and other drugs may make you feel good or relieve the pain momentarily, but these are nothing more than poisons that you are putting into your body.  As you continue this behavior, you give up your power to be that successful black man that you have the capacity and the desire to be.

Remember that you are not the first black man to be falsely accused of wrongdoing by those who conspire against you.    Rather than focus on attempts to refute the allegation, identify worthwhile strategies to empower yourself so that you can make the best choices for your mental, emotional, and psychological health, and that of your family.  Define the goals, to be achieved. Identify the objectives (means, methods) to be utilized in achieving your intended goal.

There will always be haters placing obstacles and barriers in front of you as you seek to fulfill your goals along the journey.  Each time you succeed by moving past the object of contempt, you add strength and empowerment to your foundation.  The truth is that they cannot stop you or deny your success.  The haters cannot take your empowerment away; you can only give it away by surrendering yourself to drugs and alcohol and not accomplishing your goals. 

Be committed to doing “good works” and let these actions speak for you. 

 

“To err is human” is a common expression, but we should not believe there is always room for error. In some cases there is no room for error. None.

-Ten Flashes of Light for the Journey of Life

 

 Dr. Micheal Kane….The Visible Man

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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