He Cried In Front Of Me Today
He cried in front of me today.
You may think that I get this a lot as a therapist. You may think that I see clients getting emotional all the time.
It doesn’t happen that often, actually. Not for me at least. And definitely not with this client.
My client is a black man. I’ve been seeing him weekly for a year now. He’s outgoing and charismatic, witty and engaging. He’s also thoughtful and introspective. During our sessions, he describes his feelings and, in the process, often comes up with his own insights before I even have a chance to offer mine. I’m okay with that. I ask questions and add my own observations when it feels appropriate, but mostly, I just let him talk and reflect. On a spectrum of cognitive to emotional, our sessions usually land somewhere between Mr. Spock and that voice that tells me how much further to drive before I have to make a U-turn because she didn’t speak up until I was already halfway through the intersection I was actually supposed to turn on.
Today was different, though. Today, my client cried.
He told me about the events of the past week — the ones involving black men just like him. He told me that he’s done being nice. He told me that he’s done always trying to avoid confrontation, always doing his best not to provoke negative feelings in the people around him, always hoping not to be a threat to friends and strangers alike. He told me that right now, he just wants to yell at ignorant white people. He told me that he’s angry and scared — recognizing that he’s been lucky, but scared that all it will take is one unfortunate encounter, and his name too could become a hashtag. He wondered how close has he come to such an encounter, how close will he come over the course of his life. I hope he never knows.
I empathized with him. And I understood. Or rather, I understood as much as I possibly could, having never experienced what life is like as a black man … having never experienced the daily effort he has to put into his mere existence, just so he doesn’t come across as a threat … having never had to consider the need to blend in to protect myself, because my mere presence may be frightening to some.
Hearing his words filled me with emotions that were both overwhelming and indescribable. I felt myself experiencing his anger, his sadness, his frustration, his fear. His helplessness.
I’ve had to deal with my own share of racism in my life. I’ve written about it and taken no small amount of hate for speaking up and expressing myself. Yet, as an Asian man, I realize that the racism I experience pales in comparison to the racism black men deal with on a daily basis. Let’s face it, the stereotype for Asian men doesn’t exactly encompass words like “dangerous” or “threatening” (I mean, unless it’s followed by, “to the grading curve in your math class”).
At worst, I get punched in the face by a stranger crashing my party. At worst for black men … they die. Black men like George Floyd. Black men like Ahmaud Arbery. Black men like my client. George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery are the hashtags my client is afraid of becoming. But they’re far from the only hashtags. Eric Garner … Philando Castile … Michael Brown … Trayvon Martin … the list goes on.
In the end, all I could do was tell him that I understood his anger. But as soon as I spoke these words, I felt the hollowness, the emptiness of my own voice. I felt my own helplessness. As a therapist, I want to help him fix his problems. I just don’t know what I can do to fix the systemic racism he faces. As a therapist, when I can’t help him fix his problems, I want to help him accept and learn to live with them. But how can I in good conscience encourage him to accept a system that sees him as a threat, that renders him far more likely to be killed by someone in an authority position than any other human demographic?
I can support him as much as I can in the time we have together. I can empathize with him and validate his feelings in the sixty minutes I see him each week. But ultimately, the systemic problems are still there. They’re not going away any time soon.
My client is angry, frustrated, sad, and scared. But he’s done feeling helpless. He’s done being nice to everyone for the sake of avoiding conflict. He’s ready to speak up against the oppression he faces. He’s ready to stand up for himself. Maybe all I can do is be his ally and support his desire to fight back for the first time in his life. Maybe these words are how I can help amplify his voice (with his permission), but still respect his privacy.
My client cried in front of me today. Afterwards, I sat in stunned silence for endless minutes.
And then my client made me cry today.