A teenage girl came in for psychological services. Like most young people, she was guarded at first but eventually began talking about a difficult past riddled with cruelty followed by abandonment. She cried at times, ensuring to avert eye contact. Teenagers are so hard to reach, I was glad she felt she could share. We laughed together a little near the end of the session, often a relieving sign of a glimmer of hope. But even still, there was something unsettling about her.
She missed her follow-up appointment. I hoped she would return soon. The heaviness she carried shouldn’t have to be contained in such a young life. As weeks passed, I continued to wonder how she was doing and whether anyone was helping her hold her pain, and whether someone, just even one person, told her she was loved.
Then one day, just like that, she was back. As I was scanning the waiting area to check on another client’s arrival, I saw the girl sitting with shoulders hunched and staring into her hands. After wrapping up some paperwork, I headed over to the waiting area to call her in.
But before I could open the door, my colleague, Julia stopped me. “I’m sorry, the client said she didn’t want to see the ‘dark one.'” I’m so sorry that some people are that ignorant.” I wasn’t naive. I was working in the hometown of a former grand dragon of the KKK, but it did feel a little like I was kicked in the stomach.
As I was walking through the waiting area a while later, I saw the young lady standing at the receptionist desk with an older man. He glanced my way and immediately began throwing daggers at me with his eyes, as though he was an automated cyborg ordered to do so. As the girl noticed this silent interaction, she began to mimic him.
But her gaze was unlike his piercing and defiant stare. Hers was filled with deep emptiness. I walked away wondering if she even knew why she thought she loathed me. The lines between sadness and anger, fear and hate are so very thin.
I almost felt defeated. She was too young to despise anyone, but I suppose she was also too impressionable not to. She was vulnerable in many ways, one of those being that she didn’t yet have her own sense of self-worth, so how could she accept anyone else? I say I almost felt defeated because seeing Julia knew exactly what to say, exactly what I needed to hear, was the buffer. It was the hope that one day more people will be reasonable, less intolerant. She validated my disappointment that it’s a tragedy to feel this girl is unreachable right now, she acknowledged that this was a case of hate having had won.
That one statement was a million consoling words for me. Julia could have said, “Oh, that’s just how it is around here,” or “She’s young,” or “She didn’t mean it that way.” But instead, she called it out for the vile thing it was. Hate begets hate.
And what hurt most was that the girl was somewhere around 15 years old. She wasn’t 70 and stuck in a different era, still calling people of color negroes or coloreds like some of my patients had. This was taught to her, passed down from those 70 year olds, and onto those 40 year olds, and now onto her impressionable young mind, once pure, as God created it. Through generations, she was given the gift of hate.
Although it was disappointing, it was a little easier to face knowing Julia was aligned with me. She was aligned despite it not happening to her, despite having no direct impact from it, despite her being white and being completely unaffected, if she chose to see it that way. But she chose otherwise. She didn’t have to sacrifice anything to align with me. She didn’t have to move aside and relinquish her privilege. She was simply human in all its beauty – willing to hold my disappointment with me.
And this is what sharing privilege looks like.