Innocence, African Americans, and Couples Therapy (part 2 of 3)


As we discussed in the latest post, Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff of UCLA led four different studies that evaluate how race affects the way we ascribe traits of innocence to people, particularly children. (The Wire provides an excellent summary of Goff’s research procedure and results.) In one of the projects, Goff tested two pools of people: mostly-white university students and police officers. The research team discovered that both test groups perceived Black children as approximately four and a half years older than their actual age. It’s one thing for idealistic university students to create this perception about people only a few years younger. The stakes increase when authority-wielding police officers carry the same perception.

Let’s say a 15-year-old African-American boy is caught shoplifting, and the store owner decides to get the police involved. If this study is true (Goff evaluated over 100 police officers, a moderate pool sample, and remember, 4.5 years is an average overestimate, which means it’s possible that some police officers may have assumed Black children were six or seven years older), the police officer assumes that the Black teenager is no longer a minor. The teenager lacks protection that minors receive. Perhaps the police officer addresses the teenager with more assertive, aggressive non-verbals that he/she would use with actual adult offenders, rather than a parental tone of voice. Perhaps the police officer is more prone to using physical force or stricter punishments; after all, we’ve learned that approximately 60% of children sentenced to adult facilities are African American.

The Department of Education reached similar conclusions about teachers in a 2012 quantitative study involving data from 72,000 schools: 46% of students who have been suspended more than once and 39% of students who were expelled were Black children. (Black children made up 18% of all children in this study.)

One could make the argument that Black children are more likely to come from families in which chaotic, abusive interactions reign, developing a more intense anger which transfers into relationships with peers and authorities, resulting in harsher forms of punishment.

Regardless of the reason, Black children appear to lose the perception of themselves as innocent through familial and larger systemic interactions. Anxiety seems to coincide with the recognition of lost innocence, including increases of anger, defensiveness, and “defiant” behaviors throughout adolescence and adulthood. This creates a significant challenge for Black couples.

Most relationships begin with a clean slate–partners connect with greater ease during the initial relationship stages due to an increased sense of innocence and security in the other. Attachment theory suggests that couples develop problematic interaction cycles as they learn/perceive/fear that their partners are untrustworthy. Partners are viewed as no longer innocent, but as guilty of numerous transgressions, and partners will either distance themselves (i.e. shutting down, limiting communication) or overpursue their partners (i.e. criticism, nagging) as a way of rectifying this internal conflict. Couples therapy involves re-engaging the distancing partner and softening the stance of the pursuing partner through the process of witnessing emotionally vulnerable moments and reestablishing a sense of understanding and innocence in the other.

What if you enter a relationship lacking that initial sense of innocence? How many Black people enter romantic relationships with the notion that others perceive them to be guilty of something? (If we follow the conclusions of Goff’s study, we can logically assume that a significant number do.) If larger systems (schools, law enforcement, etc.) perceive that I’m inherently guilty of something, how long is it going to take before I believe that my romantic partner will perceive the same?

I explain to my couples, “Some of the issues have everything to do with your relationship and some of the issues have nothing to do with your relationship, they just get superimposed onto your relationship because of proximity.” Black couples have chapters in their stories that white people seldom confront: the legacy of racism.

Many Black individuals seem to survive this legacy with language of strength–I’m going to fight through these injustices, or develop a thick, impenetrable wall around myself that lets you know I won’t be bothered by racist rhetoric. I’m wondering if couples therapy can do the opposite: if it can provide a safe place to explore and share narratives of systemic injustices with the goal of identifying the other as vulnerable, emotionally weary from the experience as “Other”, and ultimately, innocent. In the next blog, we’ll explore some ways this can happen.


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