She was ok with receiving her massage from a man…just not a black man.
Last September, I was teaching a continuing education class on ethics to a roomful of professional massage therapists. I’d invited people to talk about challenging incidents from their own careers. In the back of the class, a handsome, poised, smartly dressed middle-aged man I’ll call James quietly raised his hand.
I called on James and he paused for a moment, looking like he was organizing his thoughts. But when he started to speak and I heard the tentativeness in his usually confident voice, I realized he’d actually been mustering his courage.
James works for a practice where there’s more than one therapist, and when people call to book an appointment, they don’t know who they’re getting unless they ask for someone specifically. The receptionist asks clients if they have a preference for a male or female therapist. The client expressed no preference, so she was booked with James.
James stood at the front desk, clipboard in hand, waiting to greet his client. She walked in the door, gave her name, and the receptionist directed her to James, who smiled and extended his hand.
The client stopped in her tracks. She turned back to the receptionist and asked if anyone else was available. The receptionist said no, and without looking at James again, the client said she would have to reschedule, then left.
James had tears in his eyes at this point. “Apparently she was okay being massaged by a man,” he said, barely audibly, “Just not by a black man.”
The room, which had been buzzing with lively exchange just minutes before, fell dead silent. I felt my throat tighten as my own eyes became watery. I felt the energy in the room swell with compassion as we formed an energetic circle around James and embraced him with everything we had in us.
Finally, after a good 30 seconds of silence, I realized that as the teacher, it was my place to say something. But how could I respond to that?
The first thought that crossed my mind was shock that this still happens in this day and age. It was quickly booted out of the way by the second thought, which is that of course it does. As a woman married to a woman, I understand discrimination. As a white person I will never understand it in the way James has experienced it, but I know that ignorance and judgment do not give ground easily.
I thanked James for sharing his story and told him that I was so sorry that he had that experience. And I fell back on something I say a lot as a teacher—that this work requires compassion, and when you think you have a lot of it, a situation will come along that requires more than you think you can find.
As my wife (who is also a bodyworker) says, sometimes there are moments when a client hits you with something and all you can think is, “I’m going to need a bigger boat.”
Even though that woman didn’t end up being his client, perhaps there was something he could gain from the experience in terms of learning even greater depths of compassion. After all, it’s easy to hold space for people we like. But when you’re really challenged, just how big can your boat get?
Then others in the class started sharing stories they’d never told anyone about before. An older man said that sometimes clients ask for a different therapist because they’re worried he won’t have the physical strength to give them a good massage because of his age, and it makes him feel like people think he’s useless. A few of the smaller women in the class chimed in with similar experiences, saying clients didn’t want to work with them because they “probably weren’t strong enough” to be good therapists.
We talked about different ways clients have insulted us, intentionally or not, and how we’ve struggled not to take it personally. Because in the end, even when it’s personal, it’s not really. What clients do and say in these circumstances is reflective of where they are in life. In a professional community comprised primarily of people who are generous of heart and who want to help others heal, we sometimes focus so much on seeing the best in people that we can get blind-sided by their worst.
At the end of class, we did what we do best—we offered one another healing through touch, by hugging one another goodbye. James approached me and said he enjoyed the class. I didn’t say anything, just opened my arms wide, and he walked right in. We lingered in that hug long enough for our breathing to fall in unison. I felt myself flood with love and appreciation for James and somehow, as if we’d gotten the same signal, we both sighed.
When he stepped back, James as wearing that broad smile that warms me inside. Healing had begun.
There was no way to erase the hurt of that situation for James. But through our presence and touch, we could at least help the scar tissue form in a way that wouldn’t leave him always feeling it in the same way. The laying on of hands has the power to do that.
After the class left, I thought about who else could have used some healing touch—the client who had walked away. Whatever hurt she is carrying that she apparently assigns to people of color—or maybe it’s just black men—is keeping her in a pain space. If she had given James a chance, it could have been a life-changing experience for her.
It is undeniable that when any two people are present with one another and positive physical contact is made, healing begins. It cannot help but happen because in the laying on of hands, grace is exchanged.
And that client, because of her limited worldview, lost out on that. She lost out on the opportunity to feel and actualize that truth—to co-create a reality where color isn’t a divider, it’s merely a reminder of all of the beautiful ways a person can manifest in this world.
We could speculate endlessly about what that one client’s individual history might be. So here I will add that James told us this wasn’t the only time that had happened to him—that a new client had seen him and then asked for another therapist.
So many people choose to live in fear. Our minds, whether through memory or invention, strive to protect us. We calculate risk. We worry. We make judgments. Our minds emphasize our differentness, our separateness. It is our hearts that harbor the deep knowing of our connection to one another. It is from heart space that we give and receive touch. And it is in this space that the deepest healing can happen.
What do you think? What would you say? Please comment below.
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Photo: Nick J. Webb/Flickr