My heart is broken.
George Floyd died Monday May 25th at the hands of a police officer that had an extensive history of complaints for excessive use of force. Since the video of his death went viral, I have felt a sinking feeling in my heart, and a compulsive need to check my twitter or Instagram as if by divine intervention someone on those apps will have the answer to solving racism or oppression. Needless to say, it’s a futile endeavor and all I accomplish is to allow for more hopelessness to set in.
I am a mental health professional and I wholeheartedly believe in the positive impact that psychology can have on issues of social justice. However, psychology has not always been in the right side of history when it comes to these issues. From labeling survivors of sexual assault as hysterics (see the book Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman), to pathologizing sexual orientations (see earlier versions of the DSM), to psychologists using their knowledge to enhance techniques of torture and perpetrate war crimes during the Iraq war.
There are more passive ways in which psychology can mishandle issues of social justice and oppression: for example, the belief that the reduction of symptoms caused by emotions is the true marker of progress and the false pretense that all healing will come from the sole pursuit of individual growth and fulfillment. I don’t want to diminish the importance of managing and coping with feelings, especially when they become too overwhelming. However, telling someone to take some deep breaths and try to relax can be a shallow endeavor when that person senses or knows that there is something bigger at play. We can’t deep breathe our way out of racism and acts of violence perpetrated on someone’s personhood. We cannot use symptom reduction as a pacifier when we know those same symptoms will comeback, because real change has not happened. The trauma, anger, anxiety, sadness, hopelessness, powerlessness and other feelings that arise after witnessing these acts of violence are experienced on an existential level, because they represent a literal existential threat and learning to cope can only take us so far. The individualistic pursuit of healing, although helpful and necessary, is not going to lead to the systemic and structural change needed either. As Dr. Cornel West said to Anderson Cooper on CNN, “the system cannot reform itself.” If we become overly concerned with the individual pursuit of success, this translates into an overemphasis on the individual pursuit of healing, which in turn moves us away from a collective attempt to reform a broken system. Collectivism can be seen as a sign of weakness or a shortcoming, because “you couldn’t do it on your own.” But what do you do when your individual effort is not enough? What can you do with the emotions that are stirred up by witnessing what happened to George Floyd or learning about the killing of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin and so many others? How do you cope?
I can offer the following:
- Understand that what you are experiencing may be trauma. You do not have to be involved in a traumatic situation or be directly impacted by it to experience symptoms of PTSD. A person can develop symptoms of PTSD by witnessing a traumatic event, being exposed to community violence or inherit it from past generations. What does PTSD look like? (1) Hyperarousal, meaning being startled or scared easily, (2) intrusions, especially with thoughts, meaning that often it is hard to focus or move unto other things, because thoughts associated with the traumatic event can flood you; (3) a crippling sense of powerlessness and disconnection that leads to avoidance of situations, people, places or anything that may remind you of that trauma. Psychologist Robert D. Stolorow says that trauma is developed when an experience that causes a “severe emotional pain cannot find a relational home in which it can be held” (p. 10). In simpler terms when someone experiences a traumatic event and they feel like they cannot share it for fear of judgment or shame and guilt, it creates a sense of isolation that only makes the trauma more deeply rooted. Stolorow also mentions that traumatic experiences shatter the illusion of absolutes, trust and safety we all need to avoid living with heightened levels of stress everyday of our lives. For example, going to the grocery store is something that you do without making much of it, but if one day you have a car accident on the way to the grocery store that may shatter the sense of safety that you feel going there. Now imagine how shatter the sense of trust and safety of the Black community is when acts of terror, systemic oppression and racism are perpetrated against them every day. Just existing becomes traumatic and overwhelmingly stressful, and even as resilient as human beings can be there is only so much we can take.
- Therapy can help you understand how trauma impacts you personally and it can allow you to create deeper meaning, which establish the values and priorities that will guide your actions and inform how you take care of yourself. There are therapeutic approaches, such as Radical Healing, that have been created to address the need of communities of color and the disenfranchised. Here is a quote from the developers of Radical Healing, “Radical healing involves being or becoming whole in the face of identity-based “wounds,” which are the injuries sustained because of our membership in an oppressed racial or ethnic group.” Know that you can account for your mental health and work with professionals that are sensitive to the issues of our communities and care deeply about the same issues that you do.
- If you feel strong, ready and willing to take action, do so. Taking action can look different for everyone. Volunteer your time or money to an organization that furthers the cause you are passionate about. You can search information on community organizers in your neighborhood that have been working for causes and ask them how you can help. If you know of events promote them. Talk to the people you know about these issues. Taking action can help restore that sense of power that the perpetrators of violence and trauma seek to strip away. Finding organizations and movements can introduce you to people who are passionate about the same issues you are, and it can help reduce the feeling of isolation caused by trauma.
- Educate yourself on the issues that you are passionate about and feel personal to you. Knowledge is power and issues of oppression are so intertwined in the fabric of our society that it can be difficult to identify how oppressive symptoms work, how they impact us and at times how unknowingly we continue to empower these systems. Knowledge and education can help you be intentional about your efforts, teach you what to demand from these systems and be aware when what is given is not enough. If you do not know where to start I can offer the work of people like Ibram X. Kendi, Michelle Alexander, Robin DeAngelo, Mikki Kendall, Bettina L. Love and Charlene A. Carruthers as an introduction to people who articulate the struggle of people of color and are doing the work to educate us.
- Creating boundaries: Laura van Dernoot Lipsky and Connie Burk in their book Trauma Stewardship talk about how caring for others and experiencing vicarious trauma can lead to burnout. Five helpful suggestions that they give us are the following: 1) create space for inquiry, meaning that you should ask yourself frequently “Why am I doing what I am doing?” and “Is this working for me?” These questions can help you renew and reaffirm your purpose while keeping you open minded to the possibility that your approach can change or grow; 2) choose your focus, if you are going to take action create boundaries. What are you going to work towards? What is the cause you are going to focus on? It is important to be informed about issues and how they intersect with the causes you are working for, because we cannot perform advocacy effectively if it comes at the expense of other worthy causes or your own health. You should know where your limits are and although it can feel like there is an insurmountable amount of work to do if you take on too much you run the risk of burning out.; 3) build compassion and community, showing compassion for yourself, because you will not see progress every day and there are going to be setbacks. If you do not have compassion for yourself, you may feel unfair accountability or start to wonder am I doing enough and that can create discouragement and hopelessness; 4) find balance, there is life outside of the work and causes you dedicate time to. Take care of yourself, exercise, eat healthy, socialize with loved ones around relaxing activities; 5) practice centering yourself, which reinforces the importance of self-reflection. For centering yourself, van Dernoot Lipsky and Burk suggest the following three strategies a) when your day begins “close your eyes, take several deep breaths, and ask yourself ‘What is my intention today?’ b) at the end of the day ask yourself ‘What can I be done with?’ ‘What don’t I need to carry with me for another day?’ c) designate a day of rest.
- Allow yourself to mourn: Remembrance is a form of mourning. When we witness dehumanization and experience loss it is important that we remember. Mary Watkins and Helene Shulman authors of Towards Psychologies of Liberation state that “Those interested in mourning and memory are accused of being fixated in the past, unwilling to move forward into a brave new world…” (p.119). They warn us that we must refuse the “blank slate of an ahistorical present” (p.120), because we run the risk of losing the truth and open the door for those who benefit from oppression to attempt to erase or rewrite history. Be aware that mourning is an important part of this journey, we mourn lost loved ones, we mourn innocence and the loss of idealistic values that feel unrealistic in the face of oppression.
- Find a liminal space: Where you mourn is important. Mourning requires being vulnerable and permission from your surroundings to, “become the sufferer” as Watkins and Shulman put it. When we feel strong, when we use our voice or carry the pain of others it becomes hard to admit vulnerability. However, in order to know what makes us healthy or unhealthy and how we are affected we must remain in touch with our emotions and with our suffering. This is a practice that requires vulnerability, but as I established earlier trauma can shatter our sense of trust and safety, making vulnerability feel too risky and unsafe. A liminal space is a space where you can restore and feel that sense of safety. Your liminal space can be different than the place where you do your work or volunteer at. It can be a friend’s or a loved one’s home, it can be your church, or a place that has historical significance for you or your community. It is a place where you feel safe to let your guard down without fear of repercussion, judgement or mistreatment.
For those who consider themselves as allies:
- If you are a person of color, but you are not Black know that just because you too suffer marginalization and oppression it does not automatically make you the perfect ally. Blackness in the U.S. is policed, targeted, judged and oppressed in a different way than us and although our experiences with racism gives us the understanding of lived experience it isn’t always enough. This difference does not invalidate our own fight for equality and justice but know that it can be weaponized to break solidarity among racial minorities and used to foster anti-Black sentiment. This happens through the stereotype of “the model minority” or in the Latinx community with the false promise that we can pass as White and benefit from it. As Dr. Nayeli Y. Chavez-Cuevas stated on twitter: “To my Latinx community; we must stop being accomplices to & perpetrators of anti-Blackness. Silence is betrayal, denial of privilege is betrayal, inaction is betrayal, conditional support is betrayal. We must fight for the protection of Black Lives.”
- If you are a White person reading this and you consider yourself an ally, I want to relay advice, from Dr. Bettina Love, Ph.D., an educational researcher. In her book, We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom, she addresses the role of White people in the fight against racism. Keep in mind that her book has to do with education so in the quote I am presenting she is addressing students and teachers, but it is applicable to any and every White person, especially those who come in contact, are associated with Blackness and those who consider yourselves allies:
“…White liberal teachers who think racism is something singular to the far right. Racism is not exclusive to one political party or a particular type of White person. White, well-meaning, liberal teachers can be racist too. Therefore, understanding how racism works and understanding how White privilege functions within our society does not bring us any closer to justice, and it certainly does not undo the educational survival complex. Knowing these truths is the first step to justice, but it’s only a start.
Too often we think the work of fighting oppression is just intellectual. The real work is personal, emotional, spiritual, and communal. It is explicit, with a deep and intense understanding that loving Blackness is an act of political resistance, and therefore it is the fundamental aspect of teaching dark kids. I do not mean to teach them to demand what Anna Julia Cooper called “undisputed dignity.” To call for “recognition of one’s inherent humanity” with the courage, persistence, vigilance, and the visionary imagination of an abolitionist (p.51).”
Privilege is an abstract concept and often we are born into it (e.g. being born male, straight, body-abled, etc.), you can’t renounce your privilege and it can feel like there is not much that you can do with that. Think about it this way; privilege grants you power and power can help you accomplish things. Next time someone tells you to check your privilege that person is asking you to think of the ways you are using your power. Are you using your power to police people of color that are not guilty of anything other than being people of color? Are you using your power to make your female coworker uncomfortable? Are you using your power in ways that furthers the marginalization of the LGBTQIA+ community? Or do you use your power to embolden others by using your privilege to shield and protect them? You can use your power to give a platform to someone you notice is suffering and does not have the platform to voice that suffering. And there are many other ways in which you can use your power and privilege to be an effective ally.
- If you consider yourself an ally be mindful. Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed warns us that in our desire and conversion to allies we bring with us the marks of our origin. In other words, we still carry our “prejudices, lack of confidence in the people’s ability to think, to want and to know.” (p. 42) The ally or “the convert who approaches the people but feels alarm at each step they take, each doubt they express and each suggestion they offer, and attempts to impose “his” status, remains nostalgic towards his origin.” (p.43). You may like the idea of change but are not ready to embrace real change. This is not to discourage those who wish to be allies, but to raise the bar, demand more and establish that it is not enough to say that we stand with the Black community. We need to grapple with the fact that we have been indoctrinated and socialized in a culture that devalues Blackness and it takes humility to look inward, ask ourselves tough questions and realizing that we may see in ourselves things we don’t like and at the same time it does not mean that the opportunity for change and growth is not there.
- Understand and respect black culture – all of it! do so in a non-voyeuristic and appropriative manner. Meaning that if there are lessons to be learned, aspects of it to embrace and to take from pay homage and make sure that you give credit where it is due and acknowledge where it comes from. Understanding, respecting and being exposed to cultures different than our own helps us understand others as whole human beings, because we are more than our suffering, we are more than stereotypes will have you believe. As Dr. Bettina Love says, the hashtags #BlackGirlMagic, #BlackBoyJoy, #BlackJoyProject are not gimmicks or trends, but needed for healing in the midst of pain and trauma for the black community and White people can “embrace Black joy by helping, advocating for, and wanting Black folx to win.”
My heart is broken. It breaks for the Black community and the human rights violations they experience every day. I mourn as I witness these indignities, but I will not do so in silence. I will use my privilege, knowledge and expertise to contribute in whatever ways I can – to in the words of Dr. Love see Black folx win. I hope that those who read this choose to do the same, because that existential anxiety that many of us feel is not going anywhere if we remain silent in the face of a broken system, injustice and oppression.