When I work with black teens in trouble, why should they open up to the clueless white lady?

July 22, 2013
barak obama
(AP)

The word “hope” does not appear in the transcript of President Obama’s remarks on the Trayvon Martin verdict, which he delivered unannounced from the White House on Friday, but that does not mean that hope was absent from his message.

The president’s measured reflections on the challenges of being a young black male in today’s United States were reminiscent of the deeply personal journey he chronicled in his memoir, “Dreams from My Father.”  Clearly, the president can provide powerful personal witness on issues having to do with race in America when he feels called to do so. Listening, I felt both grateful and relieved that he managed to address the hard truths about racial disparity, while also summoning reasons for hope.  “I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better,” he said.

Like so many others across the country, I was disturbed by the circumstances surrounding the killing of an ordinary teen walking home from a convenience store. But I also felt oddly affected, as if I had known Trayvon and his family or had had a personal stake in the trial. Although I am the mother of two young adult sons, I recognized that I was not reacting primarily as a mother to the loss of a son.


Trayvon Martin (Martin family via AP)

Yes, I tried to imagine the grief that Trayvon’s parents have and will continue to endure over his absence from their lives. But there was a shadow of hopelessness cast over my empathy, a sense that Trayvon’s story could be any black male teen’s story, and that no trial will put an end to that narrative.

I am a clinical social worker who works as a therapist with children and families in the child welfare system. Among them are teens involved in the court system. These adolescents may end up in court due to truancy or “beyond control” status offenses; they may have been arrested on drug possession or assault charges. Regardless of the reason, they are juveniles who are acquainted with judges and lawyers and perhaps even the local juvenile detention center.  And some of them are black males.

The first time I was assigned as the therapist for a black male adolescent, I initially grabbed onto the subject of college basketball as my desperate life raft as we navigated the choppy waters of “rapport-building.” (I was grateful for my exposure to my younger son’s obsession with the sport.) In time, however, there was no way around the truth: I didn’t really know or understand much about this boy’s life, and he knew it.

Why should he waste his time talking to a (not very street-wise) white lady every week? We both knew that this was the unspoken question on the table.

What could I do? I realized that my only resource was honesty. I asked him what it was like for him to have to meet regularly with the white lady who needed him to translate his slang, who didn’t know his music, who had never hung out on the street. And, remarkably, he told me.

I learned that my white middle-aged cluelessness earned me a kind of pass in his book.  I was too unthreatening to be equated with the authority structures that he routinely defied. And since we both knew that I couldn’t understand him or his life experiences without his consent — it was up to him whether or not to open up and share his story with me — he held all of the cards.

And so our relationship began. I worked with him for almost a year, and during that time he was under suspicion for a burglary, he performed poorly in school and he continued to associate with the wrong crowd of peers and neighborhood dropouts and drug dealers.

When I read my local newspaper in Lexington, Ky., I am always half on the lookout for his name, and the name of other clients who may or may not make headlines. Anything is possible; he may be doing fine (graduated from high school, employed, no drug involvement) or he may not be.

At one point, after many months of meeting with him, I tried to explain to him the risks of being a young black male in contemporary America. (I also met with his father and asked his father to explain this to him.)

I engaged this young man in role-play exercises, coaching him on how to carry himself and interact respectfully in the wider community — make eye contact, but don’t stare aggressively; hike up your pants (you can always pull them back down again later); speak clearly/don’t mumble; be polite. Then we would role-play the same scenario, but he would be free to behave however he wanted to, as if he were among friends. We then discussed the differences between the two styles of interaction. I don’t know if he ever chose to apply those practiced social skills, but I felt it was the least I could do to try and help him stay safe.

Was I hopeful about this young man’s future when I parted from him after nearly a year as his therapist? The answer is both yes and no. Yes, in the sense that despite a diagnosis of ‘conduct disorder’ and a history with the juvenile justice system, he complied with the treatment program and was released from court involvement.

Yes, in the sense that he and I developed a genuine connection. Yes, in the sense that he talked freely with me and helped me understand his world. But at the same time, I was fully aware that he might still find trouble around the nearest corner, egged on by his peers. I fear that, now at age 19, he’s vulnerable to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, pants sagging, mumbling, not making eye contact. Or maybe, like Trayvon Martin, wearing a hoodie in a strange neighborhood on his way home.

And so reading the newspaper for me has become a strange form of vigilance: I search for names, hoping not to find them. This is my ongoing exercise of hope. And this morning as I practiced this routine, I was fortified by the president’s words: “Things are getting better.”

Lynn Joyce Hunter

Lynn Joyce Hunter is a therapist who works with low-income children and their families in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky.

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