A Black Psychiatrist Tells you the Truth

An Open Letter — What Racial Trauma Looks Like


A prominent leader in the Psychiatry field in Atlanta wrote a private letter to his colleagues in the field; one must presume a majority of whom are white.

With his permission, but protecting his identity, I am posting his words in my blog space this week. His personal experiences indict what we’ve all come to know as systemic racism.

And as member of the Christian faith, he and I share our great displeasure — probably should say — great disgust at the behaviors of so many who proudly go to church on Sunday, but have no idea what it means to live a life patterned after the teachings of Jesus.

An Open Letter — What Racial Trauma Looks Like

My 35 year old son and I had a painful discussion last night.

He discussed how he feared at times for his life, in light of the recurrent instances of AA men dying at the hands of people in authority. He discussed his fears for my grandson, who is growing up in a world where our lives are not as valued by some because of the assumptions that are accrued to the color of our skin.

I wanted as a parent to dismiss his fears, but could not because I share them.

Most of you know me as a physician who has a passion for mental health advocacy. However when I moved into my current neighborhood, some of my neighbors welcomed my family by egging our house and toilet papering our trees.

When I bought my son a used Honda Accord as a present in high school, he was stopped and asked to provide proof that he had not stolen it.

When I bought my wife a luxury vehicle when she turned 50, I was stopped and questioned as to whether I had drugs in the vehicle and asked to search it.

When I applied for a leadership position at a local hospital, I was told later by a decision-maker that they were afraid to hire me for fear that “White people with good insurance would not come if a Black doctor was in a leadership position.”

My response to this sampling of personal experiences has revolved around the words of my grandfather who told us that we would have to be twice as good at our work to get the same credit. He told his daughters this and they overachieved and did quite well. My mother was one of the first African American faculty at a major university in the South in the sixties. She was very proud until she found out by accident, that she was paid 20% less than her white peers with the same academic rank. I took his advice and over excelled in my medical training, despite repeatedly being assumed to be part of the custodial staff at Duke University — despite the white coat and stethoscope. It was a common occurrence for docs who looked like me.

However, I thought that my professional life would be safe if I did my work to a high level of excellence. That expectation was shredded one evening while I was seeing a patient in my office. There was a knock at my door. Two policeman were standing there investigating a burglar alarm that had gone off in an office in my building. They immediately asked for my identification to prove that I (with a suit on and legal pad in hand) was not the suspect. My white patient became livid and demanded to know why they did not ask her for her identification. A tense situation escalated as she called them some choice names and I quickly had visions of how badly this could end for her and me — IN MY OFFICE.

Now my office was no longer a totally safe place.

I have a wealth of stories of traumatic events that have happened to me and people that I love simply because of how we look. Trauma is trauma and as therapists we know what happens when trauma is ignored, discounted, not listened to or told that it does not (or should not) exist. This leads to a pathological silence that seeks unhealthy ways to gain a “voice.”

As mental health professionals, we know better than to simply focus on the behavior that acts out the feelings, but instead to seek to address the underlying issues — such as fear, anxiety, anger, depression and a sense of never being good enough. Trauma does not go away and unfortunately can lead to traumatizing others. As Christians, we say that Christ is the answer… but to truly apply the “answer” we must be willing to listen to the trauma questions that are being asked.

Yesterday I got up early and moved one of my daughters out of her apartment with a U Haul truck. Once we loaded it, I began to drive solo to the town that she was moving to. I passed a fast food restaurant and craved junk food as I was tired and hungry from my “Dad duties.” The truck was too tall for the drive-thru and the lobby was closed due to COVID 19. An employee at the dumpster told me to walk through the drive-thru line. So I, a Black man with a mask on, dirty and smelly from moving, thought about whether I was hungry enough to risk being profiled as a car-jacker by doing this. If the person in line behind me was like the lady in Central Park last week, she could call the police and report me. Was I that hungry?

The fact that I had to think about this is the reason why I wrote this open letter. This is the norm for my life simply because of how I look and what that will mean to some people. You will have patients who ask these questions, that you may have never considered, if they see you as a safe person to confide in. Please hear them out and seek to understand them. They may be a patient, a friend, a co-worker or a member of your church or community.

As long as humans have a spiritual disease called sin, there will be relational problems based on gender, age, economics, and race. If these are the questions, how will Christ be the answer?