Your Black therapist is not your Black BFF

and your Black BFF is not your friendly doormat

This year on internship has included many “firsts” for me. My first time working a full-time schedule with clients. My first time being at a Catholic institution. My first time training to become a therapist in the midst of a global pandemic. And my first time being called “Sis” by my white, female clients. RECORD SCRATCH — ERP ERP ERP… WIGGY WIGGY WHAT.

The first time a white GenZer client called me “Sis” was about a month into our treatment together. We were doing all the things therapeutic dyads are supposed to do — getting to know each other; building up trust; talking about the weather for way.too. long. We’ll call this client “Cher” for the purposes of privacy and cultural relevance. Client Cher continues to be one of the funniest people I’ve ever met without ever seeing their elbows. Our entire relationship has taken place over a 20 x 11 inch window, week after week, as we both try our damnest to connect during this unprecedented therapy simulation.

According to Merriam-Webstersis is a derivative of sister that originated before 900 ADSystir, one of many variants, is Middle English. Other variants include zuster (Dutch), schwester (German), soror (Latin), and siur (Old Irish). The most commonly used application of sister is a female offspring having parents in common, but it is also used to acknowledge a member of a women's religious order that includes the Roman Catholic and the Christian church.

Nicole R. Holliday an assistant linguistics professor at Pomona College asserts that while we have a shared understanding of what words mean, we process meaning, especially for things that are more social, in its context. She believes sis—in addition to being a religious title—represents kinship and power amongst marginalized groups, especially in the LGBTQ community.

“For [gay men] it's [sis] subversive because they challenge hegemonic masculinity,” Holliday says. “By calling each other women, they're taking back the power. ‘Well, fuck this structure. We have our own thing.’ It's kind of like the n-word within Black communities or like women calling each other ‘bitch,’” she says.

In its most recent iteration, we’ve seen sis go from a devout term with religious overtone to Black LGBTQ nomenclature that captures a sense of endearment and communalism sacred to the community.

“I think that the thing about the internet and the meme culture is that usually, it tends to try to tackle really, really big subjects with one word like sis, right?,” Myles E. Johnson, Afropunk’s senior content editor tells Broadly. “So I think the real thing that's happening around the word sis is this gender revolution, that kind of non-binary conversation.”

Cher trusts me — she’s told me this many times. She likes the fact that I’m “young,” married with a “fat rock” and that I don’t take therapy too seriously. When I’ve inquired about this perception of me as being nonchalant, she’s brushed it off with a “oh you know what I mean. You’re not like an old white dude. You’re a cool therapist.”

And for the most part — Cher is correct. I am not an old white dude. In our sessions, I remain chill and non-judgmental. Talking to a parent and/or narc is the last thing any college student wants, so I flaunt my tik tok references to let her know I get it. I want Cher, and all of my young clients, to feel comfortable opening up to me about some of their most painful experiences. I am okay with us feeling like *peers*, in the service of the therapeutic alliance. I welcome my clients bringing their full selves, uncensored into the room…

well… perhaps not their fullest, uncensored selves…

By virtue of believing that individual identity is complex and context-driven, and that we literally cannot survive without other people, I lean towards a relational-cultural lens in my therapeutic approach. Relational Cultural Therapy aka RCT posits that people grow through and toward relationships throughout the lifespan, and that culture powerfully impacts relationships. RCT is rooted in cultural sensitivity and humility — asserting that the relationship, not autonomy, is the key to growth.

Following a RCT framework, relational images (internal relational schemas or beliefs about an individual’s relationships) are formed from experiences throughout the lifespan. Positive or negative images form related connections or disconnections within the individual, resulting in the formation of relational images. As individuals move throughout the lifespan, relational images are either confirmed or denied by various experiences. When an event is mutually empowering, it is referred to as a connection. Conversely, when a person’s experiences are in conflict with their relational images or when they are not mutually beneficial and empowering, they experience disconnections (Napier, 2002). Continuous damage to relational images may lead to negative beliefs including self-blame, isolation and immobilization (Jordan, 2001). In session, RCT highlights the importance of mutuality and authenticity between client and counselor, both gaining from shared experiences and leaving with a deeper understanding of themselves and the other person’s perspective.

This mutual growth is all well and good, in theory. However, in practice, things are more complex.

I want Cher to feel comfortable with me, but not so comfortable that she loses sight of the fact that I am, still, believe it or not, her therapist. A portion of the pennies from her college tuition do, actually, go towards my internship stipend aka minimum wage. I am referring to our work as a “case” and I have diagnostic impressions of Cher ready to go at a moment’s notice, should a psychiatrist or other medical professionals need to consult about her mental health treatment plan. All of these factors feel jargony and annoying, and yet, they are a very real part of the work.

I am so conflicted with how I want Cher to interact with me in the room. I want us to be friendly, but not too friendly. I want us to make jokes, but also recognize that humor can be cruel and used as an avoidance tactic. I don’t want to be called “Doctor” because I’m not one (yet) and also because that feels distancing. At the same time, without some delineation between us, our relationship becomes muddled and confusing. I can completely understand why Cher would see me as more of a friend than a therapist — because, well, I am acting that way a lot of the time. And yet, just because she sees me as a friend, does not mean we are actually friends. Cher and I are not friends. I am her Black therapist; she is my white client.

With all of my clients, I like to start off our first session introducing ourselves and naming any identities that feel important to our self-definition. When we get to our racial identities, most of my white clients will say something like, “Well… I’m obviously white” to which we will both laugh. However, I’ve started to wonder if that introduction “I’m obviously white” is used as a tactic to move away from discussing race in a meaningful way. To be “obviously white” is a simplification of the layered complexities of white identity. And this phrasing already sets up whiteness to be viewed as a joke in the room — an element of entertainment, and at times, something to roll our eyes at.

As a person who often feels like I carry whiteness internally and blackness externally, when I am meeting with a white client, I can sometimes forget about my proximity to them. I am not white. I will never be white. I move through the world as a Black woman. However, I can relate to some of the tendencies my white peers have to minimize their whiteness. To pretend like it is not constantly influencing their decisions, interactions, privileges and pain. There is a level of responsibility and shame that comes with carrying whiteness — whether internally, externally, or both. And the shame, if not properly metabolized, sits in the gut and festers.

The first time Cher called me “Sis” was towards the end of a session. I was nudging her, for the third session in a row, to admit she was hurt by an ex boyfriend’s actions. She shook her head in defiance, repeating “Nope, not gonna do it” before leaning into the screen and saying:

“Sis just stop already, you are so CRAZY!”

From the tone and context, I knew that this gesture was meant to be playful. And it felt that way… mostly. And yet. And yet. And yet.

As I instinctively do with white women who co-opt Black culture without second thought, or assume a familiarity with me that was never granted, when I heard the word “Sis” come out of Cher’s mouth, I did a quick internal calculation of all the reasons I should not be offended by her. This is just the way young people talk. She means it in an endearing way. I’m sure she wouldn’t say this if she knew it was offensive. I am constantly holding up the “well meaning intention” of white women’s words as some consolation prize for them only slightly puncturing my already peeling skin. But this shit burns.

It burns because a part of me is not surprised by it. It burns because a part of me is only surprised not offended by it. It burns because I don’t have the proper antidote to soothe it. It burns until it eventually blisters.

In a recent podcast episode of Black Folx, actor, writer, activist Brandon Goodman sits down with entrepreneur and educator, Gloria Atanmo, to discuss the problematic nature of white people referring to Black people as “Sis.”

Atanmo: A white person calling me sis is not okay. It doesn’t sit with me.

Goodman: It doesn’t sit. I don’t hear it often. You know my gay friends we say like sis whatever. But I don’t hear it from white people often, but my equivalent is “Yass!” or “Hey Queen!” or “Wassup girl.” White people be like “Hey girl” and I’m like Oh my god, what? I don’t understand. My brain short circuits, and… that’s not for us. It’s not for us.

Atanmo: It’s like… cause there are things that our communities do use and say to build sisterhood, brotherhood, like. It’s For Us, By Us. That FUBU mentality. That you cannot co-opt every saying that you think is cool. Every phrase you’ve heard in a rap song. It’s triggering, honestly.

Goodman: It is. And they do. They do it, and they’re not stopping anytime soon.

The “Black BFF” trope is nothing new for Black women who grew up in the 90s. See: Becky from The Little Princess; Lavender from Matilda; Jessie from the Babysitter’s Club; Nebula from Zenon; Angela in Boy Meets World; Dionne from Clueless, etcccc. And while many Black girl characters could be multidimensional and largely viewed positively, they were still in a supporting roles — the sidekick to white women’s adventures. So while being put in this supporting role is nothing new for us in our every day life, to have it occur in the therapeutic context still has me saying Zetus Lapetus!

When my white client first called me Sis, I wondered if this was a #mixtgirlproblem. My insecurities surrounding my Blackness took me for a spin around the idea that, perhaps, my client did not see me as really Black, and that was why she was calling me Sis. As if …. Just in case it is not abundantly clear — this is a way I have been taught, as a mixt, Black person, to uphold white fragility. To turn the anger inward, towards myself. To convince myself that I must have some inadequacy that caused another person to treat me this way. To “take one for the team” and internalize white shame.

But racism doesn’t pay close attention to the details. A few weeks later, when my Black colleague told me a similar story of a client calling her “Girl” and using anti-Black racial epithets in session (quoting someone else using the words, of course) I realized we had some even bigger white fish to fry.

Women throughout history have been mistreated and abused, but to ignore the specific misogyny Black woman and experience within, and outside of the medical institutions of the United States, is to erase the history of pain and disrespect Black women’s bodies experience every day.

There are literally a million factors converging at once right now that are stretching Black women working in the mental health field thin. It’s not just the physical pain of Black women that is completely overlooked, but our emotional distress is continuously ignored and belittled. And while Mixt, Black women may not be as neglected as the monoracial Black woman, we too, are often erased, tokenized and made to feel illegitimate in our bodies.

The invisibility and dehumanization that Black women experience on a daily basis and the psychological and material harms that result are astounding. In “Aggressive Encounters & White Fragility: Deconstructing the Trope of the Angry Black Woman,” Jones & Norwood (2017) wrote:

It is about how society does not recognize these injuries and therefore leaves Black women without any form of redress.

It is about the complexity of that fleeting moment when Black women must decide whether and how to challenge another’s assumptions about Black women’s status and “place.”

It is about the consequences of exercising voice, whether in angry or moderated tones, and how that exercise can render one hyper visible and threatening.

It is about the phenomenon of displaced blame and how any response to an aggressive encounter immediately risks deflecting attention from the aggressor and placing blame squarely on the target.

It is about how in an instant, a reasonable Black woman, who is just going about her business, gets transformed into the trope of the Angry Black Woman.

It is about intersectionality and what Black women, because they are Black and female, experience at the hands of White men, Black men, and White women.

It is about White fragility and how very far the United States has to go to escape the shackles of patriarchy and White supremacy.

Black women in professional positions are frequently assumed to be secretaries, clerical assistants, or service personnel in professional settings. And yes, it can be seen as elitist to view it as an “insult” to be assumed to be the assistant when you are really the bo$$. But I think that moves us away from the main point, which is: Black women’s hard work and professional accomplishments are not being seen and appreciated fully.

There are also stories of court clerks and security guards, who assume that the Black woman in a suit standing in front of them could not possibly be a lawyer, and of flight attendants who refuse to believe that a Black female responder to a call for medical assistance might actually be a doctor. This refusal to see Black women as professionals happens regardless of how they are attired or the activities in which they are engaged. Race and gender seem to trump all other indicators of professional status.

Even when their professional status is clear, Black women’s credentials and intellect are often questioned. We are frequently seen as the friendly, funny side kick; rarely the complex, multilayered main character.

I am far from done reflecting on all of this, but what I will say is that I have come to recognize that what is missing from my therapy with clients like Cher is a full embrace of who I am as a Mixt, Black woman. To bring up the “Sis” comment in our therapy feels annoying and frustrating, but it also feels scary. For me, there is some fear around how this client will receive my confrontation. Part of this is my being a Black woman, fearful of being pigeon holed into the aggressive, angry trope. But it doesn’t stop there. Another part of my hesitance to bring up racial dynamics in the room comes from being Mixt. To meaningfully bring up the racial dynamics in the room means to own the parts of myself that relate to my client. The internalized whiteness that tries desperately to move on from conversations that force me to confront the role I’ve played in racist systems.

I have been playing the part of the Black BFF to white clients in the therapy room, there for moral support and cheap laughs. For far too long, I have tried to be what I’ve been taught a Black woman should be — the sidekick, supporting, passive character. But that’s not me. I am a complex, weird, active, vibrant Mixt, Black woman. While all of this is true, I do also recognize that in the therapy room, I carry a level of authority and proximity to whiteness that I believe causes me to be uniquely positioned to process racial material in the room with my white clients.

For my white clients like Cher, I want to start bringing up the cultural relevance of the words used in session — to have a real conversation surrounding why she is using terms like sis and the impact they have on me and our dyad. I am also going to open up more conversations about race and cultural appropriation, and the influence of Black culture on American culture.

This conversation feels incomplete, because it’s complicated and far from done. Does it feel like a burden? Sort of. But it also feels like part of my job — not as someone’s sister or their friend, but as someone who cares about my clients and wants them to develop stronger, cultural sensitivity and mutuality in their relationships. This is in the service of the therapeutic dyad; the alliance; and collective growth.

special thank you to my colleague and real life Black BFF, Candace, for coming up with the title of this post and keeping me sane during this journey towards selfhood.