Korryn Gaines was killed by Baltimore, MD law enforcement on Monday, August 1, 2016. Since then, several articles and discussions have occurred about her life and the circumstances of her death. Noteworthy is the fact that Korryn is documented to be the 9th Black woman to be killed by American law enforcement this year.
There are many things I do not know about Korryn, and the information I do know is limited to social media, news outlets, and remnants of her own social media posts. With that, there is a lot to be said about the circumstances of Korryn’s death, however so much is unknown and may never be known.
Some time has passed since this incident. I wanted to give myself time to gather information, and ponder over her life and the resulting circumstances before drawing any conclusions. However, it didn’t take long for me to see that mental health has played a major role in the unfolding of events and circumstances. Unfortunately what really prompted me to write about Korryn was the amount of blame attributed to her for her own death and injury of her son. Many believed her actions to be less than ideal and unrespectable. Therefore, many blamed Korryn for this incident because her action did not represent what most of us believe we would have done.
With that, I don’t have the answers, however I am hesitant to place blame on Korryn for her death. Rather, I want to provide a different perspective for what could have happened; one that involves a recognition and understanding of mental health, and more specifically, a framework for understanding how trauma and other stress-related incidents impact our worldview and influences our interactions within society.
What is Trauma?
*Image source unknown
To begin this discussion, we need to be equipped with a basic understanding of trauma and traumatic stress. Trauma and traumatic stress occur when one is exposed to stressful, dangerous, and/or life-threatening events. Traumatic experiences have the ability to impact social, emotional, and cognitive development, and leads to impairments in the way we socialize, understand our emotions, express our emotions, and interpret the intentions and actions of others. Traumatic experiences alter our entire understanding of what happens around us and has consequences for how we then function in our lives. This is intensified when these experiences occur during childhood and when there are multiple and continuous events (i.e. living in poverty, experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, witnessing domestic violence, etc.). Individuals who have experienced traumatic events are more likely to experience mental health challenges, such as anxiety, depression, loneliness, social isolation, paranoia, and even early death.
*Image source unknown
What is Racial Trauma?
To deepen this discussion, there also needs to be an understanding of racial trauma. Racial trauma can be understood as a subset of trauma, as it specifically addresses traumatic experiences that are related to race, racism, and race-related stressors. Therefore, racial trauma can be defined as racial experiences of real or perceived threat or danger. These experiences can be directly experienced or the witnessing of someone else’s experience. This can also be triggered by hearing about the racial experiences of others. These racial experiences often cause feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, fear of safety, and perceived shortened live expectancy (i.e. “I may not make it to 25 years old.”). Racial trauma rarely involve a single event, and is more likely to be a culmination of racial experiences, resulting in insidious and chronic stress. These racial events include individual racist events, consequences of institutional racism, effects of cultural racism, daily microaggressions, and perceived racism.
It would be difficult to find any person of color who lives in America who has not experienced some sort of racism, or race-related stressor. Therefore, it is likely that many of us experience and are impacted by varying levels of racial trauma. Likewise, it is common to encounter individuals who have experienced other traumatic events at some point in their lives. More frightening is the idea that there are many people of color who experience racial trauma, in addition to other non-racial traumas. This means that there are even more disturbing consequences for their lives.
Was Korryn impacted by trauma?
Based on the small amount of what I have learned about Korryn’s life, I feel comfortable understanding her life as one that may have been impacted by several traumatic events (both racial and otherwise). When I know that someone has experience assaults on their livelihood and experiences that have the potential to alter their ability to live, I begin to have a different level of empathy for their life. This is because trauma is unfair and often unfixable.
It wasn’t fair that Korryn may have been exposed to lead early in her life that had the potential to damage her cognitive and physical livelihood. It wasn’t fair that Korryn was born into conditions that even had the potential to expose her to lead. It wasn’t fair that Korryn felt that her life was in danger and that she needed to protect herself and her family. It wasn’t fair that Korryn was possibly the victim of domestic violence. It wasn’t fair that Korryn may have had a miscarriage while she was in jail. It wasn’t fair that Korryn experienced oppression and felt victimized by law enforcement for being a Black Woman. None of this was fair and all of it was traumatic for Korryn.
It is easy to blame Korryn for the events that led up to her death, but who do we blame for the conditions and experiences of Korryn’s life that altered her physical and mental livelihood? The same behaviors and actions that make it easy for us blame Korryn for her death and injury of her son are directly related to the traumatic experiences that led Korryn’s perception of her environment as one of danger, injustice, and impending doom. There is no one way to respond to traumatic experiences and there is no right reaction to abnormal circumstances. Therefore, I cannot blame Korryn for her actions and reactions to the threatening events and circumstances that occurred within her life.
When I consider the environments that contribute to experiences of paranoia, anxiety, and fear of law enforcement, I realize that society has failed Korryn. When I think about the potential lack of mental health resources afforded to Korryn and people like her, I realize that the mental health profession has failed Korryn. When I considered the reality of thousands of people who are not able to empathize with Korryn’s logic and reasoning, I realize that we continue to fail Korryn and people like her. I wonder how her life would have been different if more people were around to identify and name her mental health symptoms, rather than ignore them. I wonder how her life would have been different if more people were around to validate and support her through these experiences, rather than harass and antagonize. I wonder how Korryn’s life would have been different if the world we lived in was just a little bit better, so that she would not have experienced traumatic stress and alterations in the way she perceives her world. If our world was just a little bit better, she would probably be alive today.
I hope that this perspective of Korryn shifts the conversation from blame to caring, empathy and more advocacy for accessible mental health service. I hope this contributes to increased education about mental health so that we are able to identify the signs and symptoms within ourselves and our loved ones, before it’s too late.
Earlier this week, I was blessed to receive an email titled "Open Letter." To my surprise, it was (in fact) an open letter written by one of my favorite psychologists, Derald Wing Sue. Much of my psychological and theoretical approach has been influenced by the great works of Dr. Sue. Surprisingly, this open letter is one that I had not read until recently. Today I wish to share this, in hopes that it will encourage and inspire someone else to persevere in spite of injustice, cultivate passion, strive for greatness, and achieve excellence.
Dear Brothers and Sisters of Color:
I write to you and to those white folks who have marched with us against racism and shown that their hearts are in the right place. Throughout our people’s histories, we have had to contend with invalidation, oppression, injustice, terrorism and genocide. Racism is a constant reality in our lives. It is a toxic force that has sought to
Attempts to express these thoughts have generally been met with disbelief and/or incredulity by many of our well-intentioned White brothers and sisters. We have been asked, “Aren’t you distorting the truth? Where is your proof? Where is your evidence?”
When we attempt to provide it, we are interrogated about its legitimacy, told that we are biased or paranoid, and accused of being dishonest in how we present the facts. After all, they say, “Our nation is built upon life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It was founded upon the principles of freedom, democracy, and equality.” Yet, these guiding principles seem intended for Whites only. In the classic book, Animal Farm, when the issue of inequality arose, the character in a position of power justified the treatment by stating, “Some are more equal than others.”
Rather than offer enlightenment and freedom, education and healing, and rather than allowing for equal access and opportunity, historical and current practices in our nation have restricted, stereotyped, damaged and oppressed persons of color.
For too long people of color have not had the opportunity or power to express their points of view. For too long, our voices have not been heard. For too long our worldviews have been diminished, negated, or considered invalid. For too long we have been told that our perceptions are incorrect, that most things are well with our society, and that our concerns and complaints are not supported. For too long we have had to justify our existence, and to fight for our dignity and humanity. No wonder that we are so tired, impatient, and angry. Yet, as people of color, we cannot let fatigue turn into hopelessness, nor anger into bitterness. Hopelessness is the forerunner to surrender, and bitterness leads to blind hatred. Either could spell our downfall!
It is important for us to realize that despite these indignities, we have persevered and become stronger. We have survived through our collective strength. We have survived through our heightened perceptual wisdom. We have survived through our ability to read the contextualized meanings of our oppressors. We have survived through our bicultural flexibility. We have survived through our families and communities. We have survived through our spirituality and our religion. We have survived through our racial/ethnic identity and pride. We have survived through our belief in the interconnectedness of the human condition.
Unlike many of our White brothers and sisters who are untested, we have demonstrated superhuman resiliency in the face of adversity. Our perseverance in battling the forces of racism comes (a) from understanding the strengths and assets developed by our ancestors as they fought oppression and (b) from our cultural values, mores and traditions.
As persons of color, we have been subjected to inhuman stressors in our lives: (a) poverty, high unemployment rates and lower standards of living; (b) conflicting value systems imposed by a White EuroAmerican society; (c) a history of broad governmental actions that have led to the enslavement of Black Americans, the internment of Japanese Americans, and the colonization of Native Americans; and (d) constant microinvalidations and microaggressions that strike at the core of our group identities.
In light of the historical and continuing experiences of oppression, even I marvel at our ability to continue our lives in such a normative fashion. It seems that White America exhibits minimal appreciation for the incredible strength and resiliency that we have shown in surviving and sometimes flourishing in the face of racism. Our experiences of oppression have required us to sharpen and hone our survival skills to such a degree that they now represent assets. We have learned this through the courageous and undefeatable actions of our ancestors who showed us the way. It is ironic that overcoming adversity has led us to develop an ability to understand the minds of our oppressors with astounding clarity.
So, when we begin to become tired and discouraged, when hopelessness seems just around the corner, and when we wonder what good our actions are doing, we need to remind ourselves of the strengths and assets we possess; many of them taught to us by our ancestors. We need to take pride in the fact that our heightened perceptual wisdom, ability to rely on nonverbal and contextual meanings, and bicultural flexibility has proven keys to our survival. We need to listen to the words and wisdom of Maya Angelou from her poem, Still I Rise:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt,
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
-Adapted from: Sue, D. W. (2015). Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley
The other day, someone asked me “Should I celebrate the Fourth of July?”
My immediate response was “I believe you should do what makes you feel comfortable,” with a promise to give further explanation later. So in my further consideration of this question about whether one (particularly one who is POC in America) should celebrate America’s independence from British reign, I was reminded of a portion of “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” by Fredrick Douglass.
Many people have varying opinions on the meaning of Fourth of July for POCs in America. However, on this day, I want to acknowledge and validate the experience of one to feel pensive or even skeptical about the celebration of Fourth of July. While the Fourth of July is a day of pride and festivity for many, it may also be a day of somber contemplation, resentment, or even rage. For many, this day represents strides made for the advancement of all men for freedom and liberty. For others, this day represents moments in which freedom was not a liberty granted to millions.
For many POCs in America, the suspicion, rejection, and criticism of the Fourth of July is healing. It’s therapeutic, and a healthy part of a life-long process called racial identity development. In this process, it is common for POCs to gradually become disillusioned with what it means to be American, to begin to notice distinctions between themselves and “traditional” American values and standards, to become immersed into their own unique cultural, ancestral, or indigenous heritages, and then to determine for themselves at what level they prefer to integrate or blend their cultural identities with their American nationality.
Racial identity development is important and necessary for adequate and authentic personal growth and mental health. Therefore, the choice to not celebrate America’s independence should not be shamed, judged as unpatriotic, or viewed as negative. This should be validated as a real choice and a valid experience for millions of American citizens.
There is room for varying perspectives and experiences of the Fourth of July in America. This is one that deserves a voice too.
This morning I woke with this song on my mind:
“Freedom! Freedom! I can't move
Freedom, cut me loose!
Freedom! Freedom! Where are you?
Cause I need freedom too!”
- Freedom | Beyonce ft. Kendrick Lamar
At times, the plea for freedom may sound ridiculous to those who do not understand the meaning of this sentiment. While I benefit from and appreciate a great deal of freedom as an American citizen, I often continue to yearn for a certain level of freedom that is often not guaranteed for many POCs in this country. This is a sentiment that has been particularly enduring for Black Americans.
Because of systemic, institutional, and cultural racism, Black Americans have continually received messages indicating that being Black is not acceptable. This is detrimental to well-being and mental health. The experiences of stereotypes, prejudice, and oppression are daunting and can trigger depressive, anxious, and other mood symptoms. When people are discouraged from embracing their heritage and told to fit into a standard that is not authentically themselves, the outcome is generally problematic.
The quest for freedom resonates in both my personal and professional lives. Anytime anyone asks why I wanted to become a psychologist, the answer always goes back to me simply wanting to know why being Black seemed to be so hard. As a child, I didn't have the words or understanding to explain what I noticed or felt, but I could sense a heaviness and sadness in my school, neighborhood, and in the people around me. It bothered me and I was determined to figure out why our lives seemed to be so hard.
Now that I am a psychologist, I know the answer. I learned about oppression and privilege, and how it impacts worldview and overall mental health. I know things like multicultural and feminists theories. I can even talk about oppression and privilege outside the context of race and ethnicity. But it honestly wasn't until 2012, when I said no more chemical relaxers and cut off all my hair that I really learned the answers as to why it all felt so heavy. Because not only had things been happening TO me and people like me because we are Black, but I had been doing these horrible things to myself! I, too, had internalized the horrible beliefs that had been told about me and my hair, believing that it was bad, ugly, and not suitable to be worn naturally. I had internalized a great deal of negative and dismissing views about my culture, and I was devastated to learn that about myself. It was deep within me, and even with all the knowledge, theories, and education, I still had a lot more to learn about the real reasons for why being Black was so hard.
Now I know that living and being Black in America means that at some point during your lifetime, you will be told you are not good enough, you are not smart, you are not beautiful, and you are barely human. Being Black in America means that you will eventually believe horrible things about yourself to be true, because you are Black. Being Black in America means that you need to straighten your hair to be accepted and you may not even know you have curly hair well into your 20s. Being Black in America means that you can't wear hoodies and Jordans without being judged as less than and threatening. Being Black in America means that you have to speak American Standard English or else you will be viewed as incompetent, no matter how many degrees you have. Being Black in America means that you will be watched, given less than ideal service, but you still have to tip more than usual to prove that you aren't a stereotype. Being Black in America means that you have to work harder just to be seen as equal to people who are less qualified than yourself. Being Black in America means that Jesus Christ and Santa Claus look just like the people that forced your ancestors into slavery. Being Black in America means feeling awkward in your history class during discussions about slavery. Being Black in America means that boys become men at the age of 10 years. Being Black in America means that girls have “attitude problems” without any consideration for what that could imply about their mental health and well-being. Being Black in America means that going to the movies and seeing only White people in the movie is normal. Being Black in America means that you don't always have a voice, and when you do, it needs to be approved by someone else. Being Black in America means that police are scary. Being Black in America means that if you misstep, you could lose your life.
What is freedom?
Being Black in America is hard and these are the reasons why things looked different to me as a child. This has changed my entire perspective on what it now means to be a psychologist. Because of that, I push myself a little bit more every day to be a psychologist who is also extremely unapologetic about who I AM. I strive to be a psychologist who has attained freedom and who is able to help lead others to their freedom too. I am and forever will be a Black Woman who is proud of who I am and continuously striving to become even more of WHO I AM, while pushing others to do the same.
No fear, no apologies, and no turning back.
The recent unfortunate events regarding the Orlando 'Pulse' nightclub shooting has me thinking a lot about the very intricate complexities that can be found in various aspects of our cultures. While I often talk about perspectives that involve my own cultural variables (millennial, Black, woman, heterosexual, middle class, able-bodied, American, etc.), I am always intrigued by situations and conversations for which I am an outsider. This event is one in which I am an outsider.
Many communities have been impacted, both directly and indirectly, by this heartbreaking situation. Particularly, LGBTQ+ communities, Latinx communities (in addition to other communities of color), and Muslim communities. From an outsider’s perspective, I found myself amazed at how these identities and cultural groups have seemed to collide in this one very tragic incident.
There are so many aspects to consider…
These are only a few of the aspects one must consider when thinking about the complexities of this event; aspects that require you to step outside of your own worldview to consider the perspective of another. A different perspective.
In American society, -isms are constantly present, and we tend to hear them more during the aftermath of events such as these. –isms, such as homophobia and/or heterosexism, islamophobia, racism, cissexism, etc., are often anger inducing, and full of hate and rage. These -isms can also be scary, particularly to individuals who find themselves to be targets of such hate, anger, and gross misunderstanding. I have noticed the tendency for many to attempt to place blame on one or more of the communities impacted by this tragedy. I have noticed the desire to have these communities fight amongst one another, in the attempt to reconcile what has happened. I have even noticed many who are hesitant to accept the fact that all communities involved in this event are victims and are hurting tremendously.
So what can we do?
If you’re an outsider like me, consider being an ally.
Social Justice Ally: A person of one social identity group who stands up in support of members of another group; typically a member of a dominant group standing beside member(s) of a group being discriminated against or treated unjustly.
Oppressed groups desperately need allies.
Allies are invaluable in the fight to dismantle dominance, privilege, supremacy, and reducing the amount of oppression that these less powerful groups routinely experience.
Allies are willing to educate themselves about different identities and experiences based on cultural variations.
Allies are able to challenge their own discomfort surrounding differences in culture.
Allies understand the need to explore their biases and privileges.
Allies actively learn and practice the skill of being an ally.
Allies are committed to action that will result in interpersonal, societal, institutional, and structural change.
Will you be an ally?
Learn more about being an ally here, here, and here.
Read more about how to cope with social injustice here, here, and here.
The American Sociological Association has recently conducted a study titled, “’Sorry, I’m Not Accepting New Patients’: An Audit Study of Access to Mental Health Care,” which appears in the June issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. According to the results of this study, therapist are less likely to return calls from prospective patients whom they assume to be poor and Black.
The results presented here provide strong prima facie evidence of racial and class discrimination by psychotherapists. This field experiment largely confirms the hypotheses that help seekers who are black or working class are at a disadvantage with regard to psychotherapists’ accessibility. These results comport with extant studies that demonstrate the persistence of discrimination by health care providers, despite the assumption that those who select such professions have a strong commitment to equity. Moreover, this research demonstrates that audit studies of health care providers can be executed in ethical, precise, and low cost ways; this powerful method need not be relegated to the realms of real estate or labor markets.
- Heather Kugelmass (author/study investigator)
This timeless study sheds much needed light on the racism and classism that still remains within the field of mental health. Not only are the statistics yielded from the study disheartening, but it leaves many (including myself) to wonder “does my mental health matter?”
-ism vs Prejudice
Recently, a student of mine asked me to differentiate between racism and prejudice. From that followed a discussion of whether minority groups could be racist. These types of questions and discussions come up often within the course that I teach, but I know that this continues to be a confusing set of terms for many people.
Prejudice is a bias or preference. This is something everyone is capable of doing or having, including minority groups. For example, I tend to have a preference for engaging in issues and topics that related to race and ethnicity. That is my bias and natural tendency. Likewise, it is quite possible for an individual from a minority group to be prejudice toward another group, which could also result in negative or hateful thoughts, comments, and actions toward those individuals.
-ism (racism, sexism, ableism, classism, heterosexism, etc) ensues when there is prejudice and the power to do something about it. This is not just limited to having a special preference, bias, or hate for another group. This also involves having access to power that can be used to negatively impact the group for which there is prejudice.
So while both prejudice and –isms are harmful and negatively impact a number of individual people, -isms have the power to negatively impact and disadvantage entire groups of people.
What does this look like?
The American Psychological Association (APA) published a graph in their May 2016 issue of Monitor on Psychology. APA pulled data gathered from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, which indicated that of the 2014 recipients of psychology doctorate degrees in the United States, approximately 20% were racial/ethnic minorities. While APA was enthused by the “growth” of racial diversity within the field of psychology from 2005 to 2014, I was more alarmed by the huge disparity in representation of White vs non-White recipients of psychology doctorate degrees. This is in addition to a 2013 statistic that indicated only 1.5% of the American Psychological Association membership were Black psychologists.
Considering the research statistics, the makeup of psychology doctorate recipients and the state of membership makeup within the American Psychological Association, imagine what could happen if some of these psychologists had a tendency to accept clients with “White sounding names” (i.e. Amy Roberts) and decline clients with names that sound more “ethnic” (LaToya Jackson). Or, imagine if some of these psychologists had a tendency to accept cash-paying clients and decline clients with Medicaid. This would create an overwhelming disadvantage for an entire group of people, based on a very specific cultural variable (in these examples, race and class).
Even when we assume that these tendencies are without malice and unintentional, the impact continues to be tremendous. What may start out as an “innocent prejudice,” “unconscious bias,” or simple choice based on “personal preference,” quickly becomes a huge disadvantage for an entire group of people. Even the most well intended professionals still have the capacity and, more importantly, the power (of representation) to make decisions that result in grave consequences for disadvantaged and marginalized groups.
While this research specifically involved classism and racism present within the mental health field, consider the lack of representation afforded to other minority groups, including LGBTQ+, religious minority groups, individuals with visible and non-visible disabilities, older adults, and immigrants and refugees. All of these groups are overwhelmingly underrepresented in the field of mental health and psychology. Therefore, how can we ensure that voices are heard, needs are met, and resources are provided with both empathy and equity?
The current problem with the majority of diversity and multicultural training is that it often excludes the most important part: awareness, ownership, and understanding of one’s own cultural identity and resulting position of power in society. Often times, we are taught that one must learn about the cultures, habits, and behaviors of others in order to reach an optimal level of cultural competence. It’s very common for White racial identity and other “normative” or privileged identities to be excluded from multicultural study material (i.e. Why do we learn about Black, Hispanic, Latino/a, and Asian cultures in diversity courses, but not White culture? Why is White culture so commonly synonymous with American culture and therefore not counted as a diverse group?). However, it seems that these discriminatory practices within the current field are caused by implicit biases, which can only be uncovered and reconciled through self-reflection and understanding of one’s own identity, cultural makeup, innate biases, and power and privileges afforded because of one’s own status within the context of their society.
It simply is not enough to learn about the differences between ourselves and others. We must truly understand our own identity, culture, biases before we are able to assist and positively impact others. Without this understanding, implicit biases and “innocent personal preferences” will continue to disadvantage entire groups of people for many generations.
How can we further dismantle –isms and supremacy within the fields of mental health and psychology?
Imagine all that we could do if we are first just comfortable in our own skin.
- Amandla Stenberg
Recently, I watched a video of Amandla Stenberg explain that “My Authenticity is My Activism.” As soon as I finished listening to her message, I was amazed at the wisdom and beauty of this 17-year-old young woman. I immediately started to wish that I had a friend like Amandla when I was 17-years-old; a friend who would encourage and reassure me to be my true self. I can only imagine how different my life would have been at that time, and the years to follow. Simply put, Amandla described how she has become a social activist, and that it primarily involves pushing herself to be none other than her true self. At first, this may not sound like a radical idea, or something that should be considered “activism,” however I would argue otherwise.
The Miserable Pressure of Social Norms.
Believe it or not, there is a pressure must of us feel daily that comes from social norms. These norms tell us what to do, how to dress, what to say, and attempt to define who we should be. Social norms are everywhere, and can be drastically different based on social and cultural context. Sometimes, social norms become rich traditions that are reverenced and celebrated. Other times, social norms become inflexible and limiting. Depending on who you are, different social norms may have a different impact on you and your life.
Because social norms (which often align with the voice of the majority) are so powerful, you’re less likely to experience backlash or resistance from society when you “fit in” or follow along with the decided norms. However, that does not take away the pain and despair that comes with attempting to be someone you’re not.
Using Yourself as a Form of Resistance.
One portion of Amandla’s message that I found myself identifying strongly with was her relationship with her hair.
I’ve realized that loving myself has been a gradual process. Coming into myself as a Black person and as a woman has been a gradual process. When we grow up as Black girls, we are told we should be ashamed of our hair, we are told we should be ashamed of our bodies, and that we should be ashamed of our voices….We’re fed these advertisements that tell us to straighten our hair, as if, if we straighten it, we’ll be more civil, which is just another way of saying more White.
While this part of Amandla’s message may appeal specifically to Black Women, the overall idea is that oppressive social norms and standards often limit the expression, potential, and happiness for millions of people from various cultures, every single day. This is because these oppressive social norms often say, “your true self will not be accepted here, and so you must change.”
However, choosing to resist those social norms, and resist the pressure to fit in or conform is courageous, inspiring, and healing. These are all adjectives I would use to describe activism. Choosing to be yourself in a world that often tells you otherwise is at the core of what it truly means to be an activist. Let your true identity be your resistance. Be who you want to be and be proud of it. Then, your activism will become authentic and will speak for itself.
It’s okay to exist as yourself. Be the very best version of your true self.
How can I be an activism in a society that disparages me? ...Just by choosing to love myself, choosing to honor myself and being comfortable with my identity in a society that tells me I shouldn’t, I am starting a revolution.
Thank you, Amandla!
I've recently been exploring and researching more into the idea of Black Woman Identity Development. One theme I've always been bothered by and continues to come up is the tradition of Black women being asked to "protect" the integrity of Black men, for the greater good of the Black race. This is unique because while women in general are often told their issues are less significant, within the Black community there is pressure placed on women to diminish themselves in order to protect an entire race of people. So in a sense, asking Black women to forget that they are women, to uphold the Black community. As I personally begin to understand the significance of my womanhood and its impact on my identity, this becomes more and more problematic for me.
Black women acknowledging issues of gender-related oppression is not "Black man bashing." Bringing attention to Black women and girls should never been seen as a personal attack on Black men. It does not take away from or diminish the love and power apparent within relationship between Black men and women. It is in no way meant to demonize or diminish the character and integrity of Black men. It's simply Black women asking for recognition and protection that should innately be present, because we are human. Neglecting to understand that within the Black community still exists oppressive acts and ideologies based on gender, sexual orientation, ability status, age, SES, religion, nationality, etc. is absurd and something that I hope we can continue to illuminate.
The Black community is not a monolith, and it is possible for us to be unified while at the same time address issues that impact our lives in different ways.
What do you think? Share your thoughts!
When I was a teenager, I would fantasize about growing up during the 1950s-60s. For me, there was something very glorious, epic, and striking about being a part of the Black Civil Rights Movement. I romanticized that time period more than any other because from it I have gathered strength, determination, courage, empowerment, and inspiration. From this time period, I have learned that activism is revolutionary, appealing, effective, and extraordinarily powerful. Still today, I believe that being an activist, especially one who is willing to give your very life for a cause that is much larger than yourself, is the noblest idea I have ever known.
I have grown since then, and so has my romanticized perspective of the Civil Rights Movement. As my life evolved, so did my ideas and my understanding of activism. Now I’m able to see all the other pieces of activism that I was unable to notice before. Now, I can’t help but to notice the heaviness of rage, or how isolated one can feel within such an immense movement. The hopelessness one may feel as they attempt to fill others with hope and encouragement and the sheer hurt that comes with realizing that one’s own worth and value is conditional, are both unsettling. As said by the great James Baldwin, to be Black and relatively aware in America is to be in a constant state of rage. With that, activism isn’t so glamorous.
I was asked to write this piece as my psychologist self, to address the mental health needs of Black millennials who are dedicating their lives to the “good fight” that is so reminiscent of sixty years ago. Yet, as I write and think about this group of individuals, #blacklivesmatter, and the recent death of MarShawn McCarrel, I can’t help but to see myself as a member of this prestigious yet demanding group. So in a way, I am not only offering up advice as a psychologist to a vulnerable group, but more so attempting to see that my brothers and sisters are taken care of, as we journey down this necessary, noble, yet daunting road called activism.
What is Mental Illness?
I typically do not like to talk about “mental illness” without first addressing mental health. Mental illness is a term that many find intimidating because it implies that something is wrong, unnatural, or “crazy.” Instead, it’s much easier to talk about mental health. Why? Because mental health is natural, something everyone has, and something everyone should prioritize. I like the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition of mental health, as it states:
“Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
In contrast, mental illness can occur whenever one’s mental health is assaulted or compromised in any way. Based on WHO’s definition of mental health, it seems relatively easy for one to experience some sort of mental illness (ranging from relatively mild to severe) at some point in their life.
Unfortunately, mental illness is something anyone can experience, yet something that most are afraid to discuss.
What are the mental health consequences of being an activist?
Remember what I said about activism not being so pretty? Part of that includes the threats to one’s mental health that can result from involved activism. It is difficult and uncommon for one to dedicate a considerable amount of their thoughts, actions, and resources to fighting incredible injustice, yet that is exactly what several of us who are fighting the “good fight” do, constantly. Many people choose to remain unaware or oblivious, because it’s much easier to remain “asleep.”
It’s undeniable that activists are strong and incredible people. However, in regards to mental health, we are vulnerable and are more likely to have our mental health compromised due to the tremendous commitment that activism requires. Likewise, the presence of certain risk factors will put us at even greater risk. These include (but are not limited to):
So what does this look like?
Most of us are familiar with terms such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or even post traumatic stress syndrome. However, it’s very common for mental illness to manifest in ways that are not always easily identifiable. This is particularly true for children, men, and ethnic minorities. So how will you know when you or a loved one may be burnt out? Look out for the following red flags:
How to incorporate self-care into your lifestyle.
This does not mean to no longer fight for what you believe in, but to consider how you may modify your life purpose to protect yourself and preserve your mental health. This can be difficult and take some thought, but I was able to do so in this way: One of my greatest passions is the advancement of Black American, which is a large feat. However, to make it less cumbersome, but my ultimate purpose is to inspire others to feel empowered to live their best lives. I do this simply by living my best life and letting that be an example. This is only one of many ways to refine your purpose so take your time and consider what fits best for you.
In the words of the great Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” Remember this very important part of your activism. Take care of yourselves.
“How do I deal with all the horrible things going on?”
This is a question I am asked a lot.
What exactly does that mean? Well, stop for a minute and consider what comes through your Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds. New engagements, new baby pictures, someone has a new job, someone is relocating, in addition to tons of articles and videos about #blacklivesmatter, #oscarssowhite, lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan, Syrian refugee crisis, tampon taxes, no indictment in murder of Tamar Rice, more #islamaphobia, another death cause by excessive police force, and outrage over Making A Murderer.
The list could go on and on but the point is: This country and our world is a very troubling place and it has become more apparent than ever before.
Social Media is BOOMING!
Did you know that approximately 70 out of 100 people who live in North America access the internet? There are more than three billion internet users worldwide, which is almost three times more than there was in 2005. The internet has undoubtedly become the pinnacle of communication for millions of people. Let’s be honest: the internet is amazing! Because of the internet, we are able to communicate with friends and family from all over the world. We can learn about new trends in places we’ve never even seen. We are able to access more information than our brains could ever handle. The world is literally in the palms of our hands every single day.
However, with the increased access to information, and more visibility of the world around us, we are also realizing that maybe the world is not as comfortable as we once assumed. More so than ever before, it is easy to access videos of violent deaths, and horrible traumas. Because of the wealth of knowledge that surrounds us, there are thousands of articles, blogs, and podcasts that thoroughly articulate concepts such as cultural appropriation, White privilege, institutional oppression, economic disparity, gentrification, colorism, and microaggressions. These pieces of information are stimulating and fascinating, especially for those of us who identify as allies, and social activists who hope to make a change in the world. At the same time, this information is intrusive, overwhelming, anxiety-provoking, agitating, and downright depressing.
Remember how I mentioned that the internet is literally everywhere? Well, because of that, everyone is vulnerable to some of the negative impacts of continuous internet access. I imagine that this is something that no one anticipated before the internet existed, or even prior to the internet reaching its peak. Now, fatigue and distress surrounding the visibility of social injustices in the media is becoming more common. If you are suffering, you are not alone.
When I say that you are not alone, trust me, you are not alone. I have to be honest and say, part of me enjoys (don’t judge me) when I have people ask me about this very topic, because it also reminds me that I am not alone. The distress of social injustices began to have a significant impact on me at the time Trayvon Martin was murdered. For whatever reason, his death took a huge toll on me and I started to become angry. By the time that George Zimmerman was acquitted of charges associated with Trayvon’s death in 2013, I was living in Oakland, California and worked on the same block of the BART station that Oscar Grant had been killed just four years prior. In my eyes, racial injustice was everywhere and I had become hypervigilant of my surroundings, the people around me, and how people treated me. I was reading and Facebook sharing every article I could get my hands on about racism, oppression, police brutality, etc. I felt it was my responsibility to be aware of every single event, killing, and act of injustice that occurred.
I began to learn so much, and even had become known as the one who was the most informed of culture and social injustice amongst my friends and colleagues. I enjoyed learning new information, and really enjoyed sharing it with others. It was very important for me to know that I was informed and able to inform other people of what was happening in the world around us. However, at the same time, I was silently falling apart. Over the next year or so, it became difficult for me to focus at work, I had trouble building new relationships with other people outside of my culture, and I did not feel safe in my world. I felt incredibly isolated, overwhelmed, restless, and I constantly asked myself, “How can I make a difference?” I never felt as if I was doing enough, and started to feel guilty about even considering the idea of taking a “break” from the injustices of the world.
Steps Toward Self-Care.
While the intake of information regarding social injustice was intellectually stimulating and activated my passions for social justice, I quickly became depleted and exhausted. I had not set boundaries for myself, I had little awareness of what triggered me, I had not yet learned how to fuel my passions in more adaptive ways, I made little time for joyous moments in my life, and I neglected my spiritual well-being. It was as awful as it sounds, but luckily, I have learned a lot since 2012 and have begun to make some changes.
The most valuable lesson I have learned is that self-care is essential. You know the saying, “You can’t pour from an empty cup,” or when flight attendants urge us to put on our own oxygen masks before helping others? It all sounds cliché, but it’s all very true. How much are you able to give to others when you are absolutely depleted? How can you possibly make a change in the world if you are not energized and nurtured? What impact will you have on the world if you are angry, anxious, depressed, and full of resentment?
Gradually, I understood that I was not making the impact I had hoped for, but instead may have inadvertently spread anger, fear, and resentment. A turning point in my life came when I began to internalize the ideas of Howard Thurman, as he said, “Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” With that, my focus shifted from what I felt was lacking in the world around me, to what I felt was lacking within myself. It wasn’t long before I changed my eating habits, began practicing yoga, started a meditation practice, and read tons of inspirational books, with the purpose of improving my own mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being. I was beginning to replenish my cup and it felt good.
"What should I do?" Using Identity Salience.
First I want to make sure everyone knows that I am not advocating for you all to start juicing, going to yoga, and meditating every day. That is what my process involved, but your process could (and maybe should) be a lot different. Second, there is a formula to understanding the tips I am about to suggest, and I hope it is not too complicated. The formula involves identity salience, and how to use the salience of our identities to find the best approach to our self-care. Here’s an example:
I identify as many things: I am Black. I am a woman. I am a young adult. I am extremely spiritual, but I do not identify with any one religion. I am heterosexual. I am upper-middle class. I am able-bodied. I am American. However, most days, if I were asked to quickly sum up my identity in a few words, I am a Black woman. That is not all that I am, but it encompasses my most salient identities. As we know, being a Black person in American is often synonymous with experiences of oppression and of being part of a minority group. The same can be said for being a woman. Therefore, much of my identity is linked to my experiences and perception of oppression, lack of privilege, and feeling like a minority.
On the other hand, I cannot deny that I am a part of many privileged groups. I identify as being heterosexual, able-bodied, upper-middle class, and I am American. Therefore, those parts of my identity are mostly linked to experiences of privilege, dominance, and lack of awareness of individuals who do not belong in my group.
What I have learned is that different parts of me are triggered by different stimuli within my social and digital world. This also means that different parts of me need different approaches to self-care. However, no matter the salience of your identity, there are steps you can take to reduce or alleviate your social media fatigue.
Self-care for Oppressed Groups.
1. Take a break from social media!
What it took me awhile to realize was that my force feeding news and articles about the injustices of our society did not really enhance my knowledge of what was happening. It just reinforced my own experiences of oppression that I had felt and been well aware of for most of my life. So no wonder it causes immense anxiety, anger, and agitation. It’s somewhat like continually opening a wound that wants to heal. It slows the healing process and can be painful.
But beware, guilt well follow and come in the form of thoughts such as “…but I need to know what is going on,” or “I need to help others know what is happening.” Trust me. You know what is going on, and so do we. Allow yourself to take a break.
2. Take care of yourself.
Allow the healing process to begin. Oppression and its negative effects can gradually take its tool. It’s normal to want to fight these experiences but it’s also very necessary to make sure that your mind and body are healing from these various assaults and daily microaggressions.
So take the time to figure out what makes you feel good! Is it a good book? Maybe spending time with friends. Maybe it could be enjoying really good food or finding time for more naps. Whatever it is, do it and commit to doing it every single day.
3. Internalize one important belief.
As I mentioned previously, shifting one’s perspective from what one can give to the world to what one can give to oneself, is life altering. While there is no problem with wanting to give of yourself to make a better world for others, there is something insanely reassuring about knowing that I can also do that simply from taking the best care of myself and doing what makes me happy. It is rare to know individuals who are truly living, rather than existing. It is a gift and one of the utmost pleasures to be able to come alive in a world full of troubles.
So remember, “Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman.
4. Live your best life!
Once you make self-care a priority, and begin to live a life that makes you feel whole and complete, life will begin to feel pretty good. The goal is to stay in this moment, and to continue to live the best life you possibly can, despite the circumstances of your environment. This may not feel possible every day, but it should always be the ultimate goal. You may be surprised at how much simply taking care of yourself and living your life fully will encourage and inspire others to do the exact same thing, which is exactly what the world needs most.
Self-care for Privileged Groups.
1. Take a break from social media!
Ironically, this is also the first step toward self-care for members of oppressed groups, but this is important for you as well. You may believe that you need to take in this information to understand what is going on in this world, but it actually may just be causing more anxiety, hopelessness, guilt, and shame. It’s likely time for you to step back, to ensure you are truly ready to take in such demanding information.
2. Cope with feelings of guilt and shame.
Something that is not so often talked about but that is extremely common is the experience guilt and shame when you are a member of a privileged group. The guilt and shame that comes from knowing that you are benefiting from having certain things or characteristics is unsettling. It’s even more unsettling to understand that people who do not have these things and characteristics seem to be suffering because of it, while you are able to live and not even think about them.
Yes, it is tempting to avoid talking about these benefits (also known as privileges), and to ignore these horrible feelings, but it is not a healthy way to cope. Pushing this away will only exaggerate your feelings and could cause reactionary actions that you do not anticipate, such as finding reasons for why you “deserve” such privileges, or reasons for why “those people” don’t have them. These reasons (mainly excuses) make us feel more comfortable, but are false and will continue to perpetuate negative beliefs and stereotypes about both privileged and oppressed groups.
Coping with guilt, shame, and other uncomfortable feelings associated with being a part of a privileged group is one of the very first steps to becoming a whole person. It is absolutely possible to make a positive change toward reducing social injustice while being part of a privileged group, but it is not possible without completing this step first.
3. Set limits and boundaries around your education.
For some people, learning about social injustice from social media is a great way to expand their knowledge about what is happening in their world. For others, it can feel aggressive, overbearing, intrusive, and anxiety-provoking. This can also lead to resentment and horrible denial. If this is the case for you, it is a good idea to set limits and boundaries around the education you choose. Yes, it is very important to provide yourself with education about the realities of the world and lives of other people, but there are very many ways to do this. Make your education process fit your own curiosities and lifestyle. Choose a topic you want to learn more about, then determine the speed at which you will consume this information. Once you feel comfortable, begin to challenge yourself with other topics that may be slightly out of your comfort zone, but remember to pace yourself.
4. Ask questions.
With learning new things, there will always be a time when we do not completely understand the material. When that time comes, do not be afraid to ask questions. If you have friends, family, or loved ones who are members of oppressed groups, I encourage you to share your process with them and ask if they are comfortable with your questions. Be open, honest, and transparent about your process and you will be surprised at the positive response may will receive.
5. Share your process with family and friends.
Similar to the previous step, I encourage you to continue to share you process with the people you care about, especially those who are members of privileged groups. This will help you continue to grow and because a more whole individual. You will begin to build stronger connections and relationships with people you may have felt isolated and disconnected from previously. You will also be able to lead by example, encouraging and inspiring others to challenge themselves as you have done through your process. You will soon begin to notice your growth and see that continued growth is possible and worthwhile.
Good luck on your journey! More questions? Let me know!
Dr. Amber Thornton
Clinical psychologist with a passion for family, community, culture, and diversity.