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Frequently, clinical students broach the topic of silence during therapy sessions that they have conducted, and ask how they can avoid uncomfortable silences in the future. I tell my therapists in training that silence is not something to be feared, In fact, in narrative therapy terms, it represents a potential ally in the therapy room.  If we welcome it as such, it can do a lot of heavy lifting for us, and we can avoid a lot of aches and pains as we exit stage left after our sessions.  Silence can be our friend, allowing space and time for people to think through, and feel through, things they haven’t processed fully. But silence can also whisper to us: “Your clients are waiting, and they think you don’t know what you’re doing.” Similarly, in intimate relationships, silence can kill the sense of connection, and intimacy. It can whisper to either partner: “S/he doesn’t get it; she'll never understand.”  Or, “He doesn’t care about what you've just shared with him.” Silence can shake the foundations of trust between partners. This posting looks at the impact of silence in the case of interracial couples and multiracial families.

The explicit decision to cross the border of race in forming intimate relationships clearly has an impact on interracial relationship processes, regardless of how much race is de-emphasized as a factor by some partners that I interviewed for my book. While addressed more fully and powerfully in the context of individual interviews, racism and racial and ethnic differences did appear to be a source of tension and a topic avoided in many of the conjoint interviews, especially by couples whose communication featured a great deal of conflict and who appeared uncomfortable discussing differences in general.  Some partners may have chosen to eschew discussions of their everyday experiences of prejudice and racism for a host of reasons.  Both male and female black partners may adopt a code of silence out of family allegiance or loyalty (i.e., “some things just aren’t talked about”, especially in “mixed” company) or concerns that their partner may not be empathic to their experiences.

When a partner of color experiences racism, a white partner’s silence, or lack of affirmation, may serve to reinforce the learning that some people do, and some people don’t understand the myriad ways racism manifests itself in everyday interaction, ways that are sometimes subtle (microaggressions), sometimes obvious (macroaggressions), but always powerful.  In light of white partners’ tendency to “not notice”, or be “oblivious” to negative public reactions towards the couple or to the partner of color (Killian, 2013), black partners can remain silent about their daily experiences, or take on the task of directing attention and making their case as each event or experience occurs. Whether or not they are successful in opening dialogues about suspected racist incidents with their partners, black partners will continue to adopt a stance of vigilance, to invest considerable energy to monitor incidents, and to tolerate ambiguity in the face of the many small, sometimes subtle acts of hostility that occur in a racist society. Indeed, such microaggressions can occur in a variety of contexts, including the therapy room (Constantine, 2007).  Thus, while constant vigilance can lead to stress and exhaustion over time, black partners see it as a sound strategy and a correct reality orientation, whereas whites may see it as “hypersensitivity” (shout out to Elaine Pinderhughes). Clearly, these silences can hinder or impede the level of connection and intimacy in the couple’s relationship. Next blog I will address what clinicians say, and do not say, that can reproduce the sound of silence, or, alternatively, offer opportunities for transformation in therapy.

Kyle D. Killian, PhD is author of Interracial Couples, Intimacy & Therapy: Crossing Racial Borders from Columbia University Press.

References

Constantine, M.G. (2007).  Racial microaggressions against African American clients in cross-racial counseling relationships.  Journal of Counseling Psychology, 54,1-16.

Pinderhughes, E. (1989). Understanding race, ethnicity, and power. New York: Free Press.

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