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.
Dr. Amber Thornton
Clinical psychologist with a passion for family, community, culture, and diversity.
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