Seal Background.2

Investigating the Silences of Race

As a child, Cherie Bridges Patrick was aware of racial categories in American society, and she knew that she and her family were Black. But in some ways she was sheltered by the church and the religious practice she and her sisters were raised with, which didn’t make a point of acknowledging race and racism. There was, she says, “an absence of a countering message about the cruelty of a society structured in the false hierarchy of race.”

But as she grew up, Patrick couldn’t help notice the cruelty and shape and various incarnations of this structure—racism. Eventually, racism became not just part of how she understood the world but also central to her work.  This is the background that led Patrick to write her PhD dissertation about the silences of racism—it is titled “Navigating the Silences: Social Worker Discourses Around Race.” And it informed all of the work she did in Antioch’s PhD in Leadership and Change.

Throughout Patrick’s career—as a counselor, psychotherapist, professor, racial justice consultant, leadership coach, and clinical social worker—she’s observed how the spaces she inhabits blind themselves to racial injustices and dynamics. This has led her to ask questions like, How can colleagues with different experiences, with different unconscious emotional responses to ideas and tone, talk productively about race? Patrick identifies problems but also believes in the necessity of communication. As she says, “We can really not like each other, but there’s a way that we can communicate with one another, that allows us to leave a conversation with dignity intact.” This dignity, and understanding, is especially important. The issues Patrick describes—of race, hierarchy and trauma—often go invisible, sometimes by design. Left unchecked, they lead to their own perpetuation, to further harm. Patrick has experienced this in her own life. Her work is to give these unspoken damages a name—then the healing can begin.

From Church to Social Work

Patrick spent her childhood in Oberlin, Ohio. Her family was religious, and she grew up in church. Her mother was determined to instill in her the sense that God loved everyone the same. In restricted, bordered environment, she felt safe and free. But at the same time, as she says, “It absolutely was sheltered, in a naïve kind of way. Because the real world doesn’t care about God, and you’re slowly moving into that as a racialized Black person.”

After she graduated from Oberlin High School, she went to work as a secretary. She worked for different organizations, and eventually developed years of corporate administrative experience. But ultimately she decided to return to school, get a college degree, and change careers, entering social work. After making this decision, it took Patrick twelve-and-a-half years to get her undergraduate degree. During that time she had three young children and also went through a deeply traumatic divorce. “Trauma was my life,” she says, describing that period. It was “an onerous journey of self-identity.”

Ultimately, though, these experiences fortified her interest in social work. And she came to see this fieldas grounded in an instinctive sense of spiritual communion that connected her back to her childhood. After finishing her undergraduate degree, she remarried, and she quickly earned her Masters of Science in Social Work from the University of Tennessee.

At this point Patrick began working in community mental health. She specialized in working with foster and birth families. Her experiences were wide-ranging, extending over several states and many organizations. The majority of her work was related to children, families, and trauma. She worked in Tennessee with biological and foster parents, then went to Indianapolis where she worked as a Mental Health Therapist while earning credentials to become a Licensed Independent Social Worker with Supervisory Designation.

Through all of this, Patrick began to notice iniquities in the treatment of foster children and in the attitudes and actions of her colleagues—and specifically she saw how these inequities were racialized.  She wanted to articulate it, but, as she explains, “When I did bring it up, you could feel the shift in the room. People were silent.”

This dynamic was perhaps most present when she found herself facilitating biological parents and foster parents, where one was Black and the other white. In these situations, Patrick encountered racial abuse and mistreatment that she was unable to discuss with her co-workers. She felt this silence served to perpetuate trauma. “As my own awareness and consciousness grew,” she says, “I gave more attention to how race and racial dominance silently operated while it created so many wounds.”

Working in the Silences of Race

Patrick always found social work compelling. As she says, “It’s hard, hard work that I loved. I loved that world.”

But at the same time, she couldn’t ignore the accumulating problems that she saw in this line of work. It wasn’t just that people couldn’t talk about race—often they didn’t have the energy to do so. This was built into the work itself. Patrick spent a lot of time on call, alone, driving to clients—foster parents with disputes, foster children suffering from mental health crises—and she felt little support from her agency. There were also productivity requirements. As Patrick says, “There was a disconnect between caring for people and having to fulfill productivity requirements. I didn’t have time to reflect on on what I was really doing.”

Over time, Patrick found that this productivity-oriented culture prevented an awareness of race and deeper sources of trauma. It only looked for the most immediate problems to solve. Says Patrick, “We didn’t look at the source of of the harm, we only looked at the impact…we were coming in with a lens of lack.”

The people Patrick was trying to serve often existed within hostile social systems, and the guidelines she received as a social worker made it difficult to address this. They were seen as not having jobs, not having education, not having healthcare—this was the “lens of lack.” As Patrick says, “It’s this very negative lens, and you don’t really know it, because it’s what you’re trained to do.” The increasing needs of the agencies she worked for created an environment where it was impossible to address this. As time went on, says Patrick, “It was challenging because there were huge productivity requirements, and those requirements became even more stringent…We were hustling.” So there was silence.

As Patrick observed, the form this silence took was constraining race to an abstract category that could be easily managed. “When I was doing foster care,” she explains, “if race came up, it was, ‘The child is African American.’ You get the demographic listing. And it would stop. We didn’t talk about the impact that race has on living.” Patrick couldn’t help but point this out to her colleagues and managers, but it was met with discomfort.

“That silence,” she says, “was consistent in every agency that I worked in. When I brought it up, the tension that followed was always there. The implication was, ‘Why are you bringing it up?’ Because it’s almost like it doesn’t matter. It was a colorblind kind of mentality.” This mentality frustrated her greatly, but eventually it also started to interest her. It was an unexpected, field-spanning impediment to work that she loved.

When she moved away from agency-based social work and entered a new period of private practice therapy and consulting, she found that she still wanted to seriously investigate the silences of race. This brought her, in 2015, to Antioch.

Discourse, Denial and Healing

At Antioch’s Graduate School of Leadership and Change, Patrick’s work focused on race, racism and how social workers talk to one another. Her dissertation, Navigating the Silences: Social Worker Discourses Around Race, published 2020, investigates how social work—which is regularly presented, especially to its practitioners, as a heroic, selfless, and empathetic career—is burdened by a structured inability to acknowledge racial hierarchies. For the thesis, she finally had the opportunity to talk to people about this. She conducted many interviews and explored the ways a racially diverse group of social workers talked about race.

For the most part, says Patrick, “When we did talk about race, it was denied in multiple ways. And that was really the core of my my work.” As a corrollary to this core project, her research naturally led her to investigate manifestations of Whiteness. This was part of the “thematic analysis,” which looked directly at conscious behaviors and interactions. Patrick’s dissertation also used Teun A. van Djik’s general theory of racism and denial, and employed “critical discourse analysis,” a sociocognitive approach to “underlying discourse structures,”  to try to understand the ways a conversation about race can be pre-structured by society before it even happens. She was fascinated by the ways that inherited assumptions could guide and hem in individual thought.

Through the course of writing her dissertation, Patrick discovered that there were vastly different professional experiences between Black, biracial, and White social workers. She also found, overlooked by analyses of social and institutional power, that there were threads of resistance in the narratives of her subjects, similar to her own internal resistance to silence.

Although Patrick’s dissertation focused on social work, she was also interested in the racial blind spots of institutions in general. She looked at colleges, churches, and social justice organizations, and she reflected on her experiences moving through them. As she says, “I wanted to explore the history of all these silences. What’s here? While we’ve claimed social justice? That was the thing for me. We’re saying we’re doing social justice, but we’re not. There’s no justice in this.”

While she studied for her PhD at Antioch, Patrcik also worked on a leadership team for Becoming Beloved Community, with the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio. She helped the organization connect with and serve its community. She was aware there, too, of the silences. As she says, “It’s a pattern I encounter all the time. Teams who are eager to move into racial justice work—they’ve done it without reflecting on their own individual identity, their own individual and collective healing needs.”

Patrick is compelled to speak for the silenced, but she maintains a core belief in the reaching-out of spirit, in finding dignity between two people, in finding what you need to heal.

Her time at Antioch was difficult at first. In her initial interactions, she experienced some of the same silences that she had come to study. However, she built relationships with a previous cohort, which sustained her. It was well worth it. Says Patrick, “The experiences that I had while doing the research really helped move me into a sense of liberation that I had not ever experienced before…because I can see how this operates. I don’t have to be held captive by this notion that I’m lesser because of my race. I’m absolutely thrilled to be the person that I am.” Through research and study, Patrick developed a new framework for awareness that allowed her to move above the difficulties of her experience.

At Antioch, Patrick found healing. As has been the project of her life, she hopes to spread it, and to address and repair trauma. She runs a consulting agency, PARADOX Cross-Cultural Consultancing, which as part of its mission, seeks to normalize “generative racial dialogue” and, ultimately, to address silence.

She has also been connecting neuroscience to racial hierarchy and justice through polyvagal theory, which looks at autonomic responses to environment and social cues. Patrick uses this to articulate the emotional, precognitive impediments to discussions of race. This is a necessarily radical approach; for the healing to last, it must be thorough and complete.

As Patrick says, “Racialization is social trauma. Social trauma is a series of experiences that break our inherent need for safety, belonging and dignity. It leaves a legacy of chronic disruption of connectedness.” This is where Patrick wants to have openness and dialogue. What is the harm? Where does it come from? How can we talk about it? Through her research and work, Patrick seeks above all to answer: How can we heal? As she says, “The thing that’s missing from these conversations is that we’re all being harmed.”

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Hunter Gagnon

Hunter Gagnon

Hunter Gagnon is a freelance writer and the editor-in-chief of Slouching Beast Journal. He lives in Kennebunk, Maine with his partner and two dogs.
Antioch University

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