There is an old saying within the Black community that when white America catches a cold, Black America catches the flu. As the latest reports emerge on the Omicron variant, there is every reason to fear its effects on Black people, including more deaths and worsening mental health. Already, the surgeon general’s recent report on the mental health of our young people included the alarming statistic that Black children are nearly twice as likely to die of suicide as compared with white children.
As I continue to keep an eye on the statistics of deaths, prolonged illness and mental health crises brought on by COVID, I am reminded of why I began studying interracial trust.
We know that Black people die every day because of substantial health inequities within the medical system. The mortality rate of Black women giving birth and Black newborn deaths while in the care of white doctors is more than enough to justify racial mistrust. But we also know that many Black persons die of preventable illnesses due to mistrust of the health care system — more specifically, mistrust of white people who are the majority in the system.
So, over the past five years I have conducted interviews and given surveys to over 600 Asian, Black and Latino persons of color who trusted white therapists, teachers and supervisors enough to share their experiences with the pain of racism. My main question was always the same: Given that you’ve experienced such hurt, why did you choose to trust this white professional?
Sharing the journey
I found the reasons for risking trust in a white person were similar, across all the participants in this research.
Black people are more likely to trust white people who are transparent and share some of their own journey regarding racial identity, awareness and privilege. Many of these white people who were trusted initiated conversations around race and white supremacy on their own, without putting the onus on the Black person to disclose what they believe about racism.
White people who are trusted also tended to be cognizant of the power dynamics inherent within their relationships with a student, supervisee or mental health client who is a racial minority. Ultimately, these white persons showed a radical respect for the struggles of racial minorities because they recognized the numerous ways that systemic racism can undermine the goals and well-being of Asian, Black and Latino people. For this reason, trusted whites tended to have less rigid professional boundaries. Instead of limiting the conversation to their professional expertise, they took the time to inquire about the overall well-being of the client, student or supervisee — including loved ones, their system of support.
At the heart of interracial trust is the question: Is this a white person I can share my experiences of racism with, who will not attempt to explain it away? In fact, trusted whites bore witness to the prejudices and biases experienced by people of color. Instead of gaslighting, these white people functioned more like smoke detectors.
I’ve had white people tell me they feel they should be judged individually rather than mistrusted as a group. But psychology has shown that this is not the way the mind works. When you and your family have been repeatedly hurt by a group of people, it is natural and protective to be guarded toward that group. Scholars in numerous fields agree the general mistrust of white persons among people of color is adaptive and needed as protection from the intractable nature of racism.
Given all that Black people have experienced, trusting a white person at all can seem foolish at best. Yet I know relationships exist where such trust is warranted. Though I credit the bulk of my success to my Black parents, the Black church in which I was nurtured and several Black mentors, I wouldn’t be where I am professionally if it weren’t for key white allies who came into my life at critical moments. I know this to be true as well for other people who are racial minorities.
If white people want to create a more equitable society, building truly trustworthy systems and training white professionals in how to gain the trust of racial minorities is essential.
Without that trust, we cannot achieve health care equity.
Eric M. Brown, PhD, LPC, is an assistant professor of counseling at DePaul University.
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