The Work World Is DEMANDING That Black Folk Seek Therapy

Okay, I have talked about family. I have talked about school. This week, I want to talk about Black folk and work. Most of us work between white supremacists and Black narcissists. That’s bad enough, but to compound the problem, Black folk are entering arenas where we have not been traditionally represented; therefore, we lack proper mentorship and personal investment in our success as graduate students and employees. Second, most Black folk know absolutely nothing about narcissists, how to properly spot/vet them, and how not to react to them. This is playing out at our jobs and causing us distress.

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This t-shirt resonated with people. From the moment that this expert of Black narcissism, Mr. Leonard Sturdivant, posted this picture in a graduate student group, folks laughed and laughed. They asked him for a copy of this t-shirt. Apparently, this picture is still resonating with Black folks. It has made it’s rounds around the web, though there are other, more professional representations of Mr. Sturdivant out there like the one posted below.

Sturdivant at the same website: though this picture has not made as many rounds.

The aforementioned picture has made its rounds, I believe, because today’s work world DEMANDS that Black folk seek therapy. Today, many of us work between the white supremacist and the Black narcissist. While many of us are prepared for white supremacy, we are left in the dark about Black narcissism. And rather than being proactive in the workplace, we find ourselves reacting our way right out of a job. To be transparent, not just Black folk are feeling the pinch of workplace narcissism. One of the major reasons for the post-quarantine worker shortage is “management style conflicts” or people who say that their bosses were just plain assholes. As I look at these reports on the news, I know that the term that most people -whether they are Black or not- are searching for is “malignant narcissism.”

Before truly getting into this post, I would like to stop and define what a narcissism/Narcissistic Personality Disorder is. Seriously, have you heard the word, “narcissism” lately? The name itself has gone from being argued about in the professional psychology/psychiatrist world, to someone saying the word on television every day. Just a few years ago, mental professionals were trying to decide whether they should include narcissism and/or Narcissism Personality Disorder (s) (I place the “s,” here, because malignant narcissism is part of a cluster of personality disorders, and every day more facts are being revealed) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (this is the medical book, published by the American Psychological Association, for all mental health professionals. It is now on the fifth edition). There was an uproar in the community, but when Trump became president, this debate was settled. We woke up as Americans and realized that we were a bunch of individuals who felt no real social responsibility. We had become that society of narcissists that cultural historians warned us about!

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Now, though I am very happy that the dust has settled around the narcissism debate, something else alarms me. Nobody, in all of American media, has asked an actual psychologist/psychiatrist to sit with us and define the term for us. Mary Trump, during a few appearances in the run-up to her book, explained the term fairly well. But this conversation was framed around her uncle. Now, Mary Trump is a clinical psychologist. I would giggle like a school girl for someone to have a narcissism show…not a former president or a family dirt show, but a whole hour devoted exclusively to narcissism.

Verily, verily, I say unto you, though, Dear Reader, that an hour would not be enough time to completely analyze/synthesize the ins and outs of narcissism (I am using this interchangeably here to mean a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder), but it would give us a working definition of what we face as the working American public. But for now, Reader, you are stuck with me…an English professor with a second Bachelor’s in psychology. From the Mayo Clinic, I give you a brief, clinical definition of what Narcissistic Personality Disorder is: “Narcissistic personality disorder — one of several types of personality disorders — is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.”

I would like to share an extended definition with you, Patient Reader, from one of my favorite publications, Psychology Today:

Patient and Most Gracious Reader, by now you are wondering “Jeff-James, what does this have to do with Black folk?” I am glad you asked, because quite frankly, I did not have a good segue here! In today’s world, Black folk are breaking grounds in areas where we have not been traditionally represented — and it feels good! I see us in politics/government, in front of and behind the camera in Hollywood, managing Fortune 500 companies, and becoming presidents of major bell-weather institutions. And I LOVE it. However, (Jeff-James always has a “however”), I am concerned. Because people of color are under-represented in many of these areas, it is safe to say that we have had/receive no mentoring. We had to scrape to get where we are. We had to burn the candle at both ends. We had to be self-starters. We had to demonstrate Black excellence in the face white mediocrity. If we are women, we had to face sexist and elitist criticism on top of it all.

In many instances, after overcoming the educational hazing and the slow ladder-climb to where ever the rungs lead us, we are the only person of color in the room. While the national conversation centers around gross injustices of racism such as the George Floyd case (and they should), we experience what is called, “daily micro-aggressions.” Though the prefix, “micro” implies something small and unimportant, what minorities in majority environments face are no minuscule blips on the radar of humanity. These actions have grave consequences for many people of color every day. All too often, they are life-changing and catastrophic. And since they occur on the individual level, they go unreported and unrecognized. Don’t believe me? Here are just a few examples. 1.)Some Black graduate students have been academically hazed right out of their programs. They have wracked up sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans, performed well in their classes, had absolutely no discipline record, and are dismissed from programs with no real reason. They leave with no degree and are sometimes black-balled in the academy. This makes it difficult for them to enter other programs. 2.) Some Black graduate students receive no mentoring whatsoever and are left on their own while some professors received overage pay for that student’s mental labor. 3.) Some minorities in corporate and medical America face all-out mobbing -not bullying- from their coworkers. At every meeting/presentation, they are second-guessed and made to look incompetent every time they open their mouths. 4.) I have even personally seen a teacher put on an improvement plan because of a comma splice. A comma. Meanwhile, her colleagues were on Facebook violating the FERPA law by openly discussing student performances and talking about student attire. Nothing was done to them.

And I could extend this list indefinitely, but I think just one more example suffices here: Nikole Hannah-Jones. As a professional in higher education, I can say that this whole fiasco was…I am not in the backwoods of Mississippi….what’s another word???? Does anyone know the word that I want to use? Her credentials were impeccable. Her teaching record was commendable. Even her promotion portfolio was neater than most folks’ (I do not even know where mine is at the moment). What was the problem? She wrote something that board members were uncomfortable with? Most professors write and say things that the public-at-large is uncomfortable with. How about evolution? How about the Big Bang theory? How about research on stem cells? How about the entire gender studies department at any research institution in the American South or Midwest? That is why we are professors and not entertainers: we get paid to tell people the uncomfortable truth and we cannot always care about your feelings. Your feelings are not the primary concern of the higher educational professional: your capacity to think critically and weigh two -sometimes three, four, and five -sides of the complex debates/issues that face a democratic society are. That is the role of the university system in a free society, and if university professionals are not allowed to carry out their roles in our society, then democracy itself becomes feeble and unstable. A free university system is as pivotal to the function of a democracy as the free press, because critical thinking empowers the public to think through their own lives and make decisions accordingly. And no, not all of us should be teaching STEM or business: somebody has to teach journalists how to write, theatre students how to properly entertain, philosophy majors how to properly codify business/legal/medical ethics and standards (though, after we all swallowed the bitterness of Reaganism, I am not sure if anyone cares about ethics anymore. Surely, nobody seems to want to major in philosophy, and philosophy professors, like the rest of us in the humanities, struggle to find tenured positions with decent course loads. These are not the glamorous or highest-paying positions on campus, but we do them because we believe that we are integral to a functioning America.

Read all about Hannah-Jones’s denial here, by the way:

Did I fail to mention that Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer? A Pulitzer-prize winning author does not have to teach. With that said, it is safe to say that America at large is not comfortable with intellectual capability and competence from minorities — particularly Black people. For a while, many white Americans stood behind the excuse that their minority coworkers were just “tokens” who snatched a good job away from a qualified white person through affirmative action programs. For a while. The term, “affirmative action hire” became a water cooler/faculty lounge quip to hide the resentment towards the coworker/Ph.D. candidate and another way to self-soothe as these folks deliberately set out to destroy anything in that “token” that looked like independence and actual capability. At the least, the daily microaggressions lead to us being put on constant improvement plans and left out of pivotal discussions. At the worst, people of color are ROUTINELY fired for nit-picky offenses, dismissed from graduate school programs with no clear reason for our dismissal, are made to linger somewhere between passing written and orals and being All But Dissertation, are reprimanded for things like comma splices on a report while we watch our white counterparts receive chuckles for egregious offenses — things that, according to the employee handbook, constitute dismissal. All the while, we are made to feel that we are the problem. We are the cause of our own abuse. This type of daily white supremacy — the kind that invalidates our talent and tries to subordinate our intelligence -takes a toll. It is a slow wearing down.

Here’s where we need support, and since we are the only person of color in the room, we find none. Not even the wisdom of our elders can help. Sometimes, talking to them makes us feel worse. We try to talk to them about our situation, and they go back to sharecropping. Some of them make us feel guilty about not picking cotton and feel that we should forever be grateful to have an office job with air conditioning. Wrapped in their own memories, they cannot see how being called, “stupid,” or having your dissertation topic dismissed as “irrelevant,” is devastating. And I am not harshly criticizing our elders here. No, ma’am. A good, Southern woman would never. What I am saying is that they did the best they could with what they had, and for the white supremacists in the classroom and the office, our elders do not have the tools that would help us right now.

In that case, Black folk, go to therapy. I have a colleague, Leonard Sturdivant, who is an expert in daily microaggressions and the kind of post-traumatic stress that it brings on. He coaches people on how not to react to the passive aggressive remarks, the thinly-veiled emails that you receive, or the notification that in spite of your hard work, you are being placed on an improvement plan. As a graduate student who was hazed in TWO separate programs at two separate institutions, he knows about that, too.

On the one hand, many of us are prepared for this kind of veiled white supremacy. If we were not thoroughly prepared, we knew what to look for. On the other hand, how many of us, Reader, are prepared for the Black narcissist who works in the cubicle next door? You know the one. The one who, in spite of it being only two of you who work at the company, tries to make you look bad in front of the other white people? Or the one Black superior who you went to for help and advice and they distanced themselves from you? Let me go back to the backwoods here: You know that Black superior who you thought would help, but ran away from you so fast that you couldn’t see nothing but the whites of his eyes? The one who ain’t finna mess up her position helping you? Were you prepared for the Black straw boss who was more low-down to you than the white folks…almost like he/she was trying to “prove” that he/she can be just as hard on the “darkies” as a real white man/woman? Were you ready for that? Were you ready for the Black respectability politics of graduate school that laughed at your “country” accent and your clothes, because you were not urban enough and how the Black people worked to keep you out of tenure, because you didn’t represent them well enough? Doesn’t that Black, boot-licker next to you work your nerves nit-picking at you right alongside the white folk? You don’t see the white folk nit-picking with any of theirs. Why we got to pick on ours? Didn’t that Black man, who wears African-inspired clothes, work to put you in your “place” as a Black woman every time he thought white folks would give him a pat on the head? Doesn’t that just chap your behind to the point where you need Desinex?

Reader, you don’t need diaper rash cream. Again, you need support. You need somebody that you can talk to. You need a strategy. First of all, you need to know how to recognize the Black narcissist. Second of all, you need to know how to deal (or not deal) with him/her at work. And I am suggesting Leonard, not just because he is my friend, but he is the only expert on Black narcissism and how it affects us as individuals, families, communities, and employees that I know! And when I say expert, I mean he is All But Dissertation. He has more than 100 credit hours, a myriad of experience, and the depth to help you. He also passed his licensing examination, but chose the coaching route instead. In other words, this brother is not playing around with narcissism and how it can ruin lives — individually and collectively. Now, I have searched and searched, ya’ll. Mr. Sturdivant is it. However, if you are reading this and you are a narcissism expert, let me know, Reader. If you know of another expert on Black narcissism, let me know. You all leave me a comment and I will do a follow-up post.

Sadly, many Black folk are married to people with Narcissism Personality Disorder. They love-bombed the Hell out of you, then turned on you like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. You are waiting on that first person to show up, but…I will let Sturdivant continue that. We are in families where someone has NPD and he/she makes every family gathering uncomfortable. This sibling takes/takes/takes from our parents and never give back. Did I mention that every time their lips move, they are lying? We have helped folks and when they got on their feet, they kicked us in the forehead. Or, our spouses are perfectly happy to let us spend every dime of our money on the house and hide their money in a separate bank account. Some of us had narcissistic parents. Some of us have narcissistic pastors. Because we do not know what this is, we spend a lifetime reacting to it! Stop. Arm yourselves. Though it is my desire that all of us spend at least one session in front of Mr. Sturdivant, many of us either cannot or we are yet uncomfortable with therapy. Until we all get there, Reader, let me suggest an accessible book on Narcissistic Personality Disorder and abuse. It is easy to read and you know what, Reader? The writer keeps it 100% real.

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Now, this does not come from my teaching binder. This is from personal study/experiences.



LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. Welcome! The professor is in! Come in and stay a spell. Let’s discuss and learn from one another.

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