The Impact of Race-Based Stress on Black Bodies
I was hosting a Black student discussion when an attendee shared this statement:
“My generation is being raised in a time when we are seeing people who look like us killed all over social media…it will traumatize our minds.”
Discussing the brutal and unjust murder of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery by Gregory and Travis McMichael, it took little to no time for the conversation to shift to the weight of race-based trauma on the black millennial mind. Similarly, watching the murders of Sean Reed and Philando Castile on Facebook Live, along with clips of Korryn Gaines and Alton Sterling’s deaths, has produced excessive black trauma. Presenting at the Center for Global Humanities, Dr. Françoise Hamlin, Associate Professor of History and Africana Studies at Brown University, says, “with cell phones and body cameras we see [black] people die everyday…we are all witnesses. And every death cuts deep as though one of our own kin had perished.” She further suggests that in spite of such a national, and even global viewing of state sanctioned violence, there is a denial of black trauma.
A denial of the psychological impact of racism on black people is a practice that has gone on for centuries. In fact, the long term dehumanization of black bodies has cemented a narrative of inferiority, unworthiness, and shame. Such trauma is why black people’s intrinsic humanity and the concept of mattering is a notion that has never been extended to black people.
This history of abuse, exploitation, and murder leaves many asking, “Where do black persons with deep-rooted historical experiences of trauma, discrimination and oppression take their pain?” This denial of black trauma within society at large has spread to the mental health field perpetuating the belief that black people’s humanity, emotions, physical and mental distress does not matter.
Much of black trauma is directly linked to racial trauma or race-based stress. According to the American Counseling Association, “racial trauma or race-based stress comes from dealing with racial harassment, racial violence, or institutional racism.” Such experiences carry negative psychological, emotional and an overall mental impact on the parties experiencing the violence or discrimination.
This legacy of trauma reached it zenith last year, as August 2019 marked the 400th anniversary of the selling of African people on American soil. Black Americans painstakingly recalled how they were captured and carried into indentured servitude and ultimately chattel slavery. They remembered how this strange land forced upon them segregation and Jim Crow laws. But this troubling anniversary also forced an entire nation to reckon with how America maintains its dehumanizing dominance over black bodies through mass incarceration, redlining, poor economic infrastructure, educational inequities, voter suppression, political exploitation, and race-based police violence. The on-going narrative of racial trauma against black people in this country causes them to daily face the harsh reality of learning how to be black, but still live, cope and function.
Weathering and Black Mental Health
This is a difficult and daunting task for many black Americans. Dr. Arline T. Geronimus, seeing the mental and physical toll racism was having on black bodies and black minds, thus coined the term “weathering” to describe it. Studies like hers and others have shown that race-based stress over time causes black people to have shorter lifespans, their bodies display the wear and tear compared to that of white persons up to ten years older, and they report higher levels of psychological distress. In fact, research shows that blacks have twenty percent higher levels of mental health problems when compared to white individuals, but access treatment at much lower rates.
Unfortunately, the ongoing stigmatization of mental health in black communities aids in preventing many of them from seeking the mental healthcare they need. Furthermore, it stifles mental healthcare workers from properly exploring, assessing, and treating the very specific mental health needs of black people. But the research we do have is clear. The impact of living in a racist society has led to heightened anxiety, stress, hyper-vigilance, depression, and on occasion suicidality. In fact, the allostatic load of racial trauma increases black people’s predisposition for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, cardiovascular issues, and other concerning medical conditions. Furthermore, stress generally, and race-based stress in particular, impacts the immune system. In other words, black bodies continue to exist in social spaces that are undoubtedly leading to a faster death. In short, racism is killing us.
Black Women and Police Violence
And while black mothers mourn the death of their husbands and sons, we must remember that race-based violence does not see gender. State sanctioned violence is taking the lives of black women and girls as well. In fact, before we could reconcile our anger, fear, and distress regarding Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, before we could untie our laces after joining in the #IRunWithAhmaud campaign, blacks faced yet another killing. This time, a black woman died at the hands of police. On March 13, 2020, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was fast asleep in the comfort of her home. Just before 1am she was slain with a minimum of eight bullets during a misplaced police drug-raid. The general public has since learned that not only had the police been dispatched to the wrong home, but the suspect police were seeking was apprehended only one day earlier.
This is no anomaly. Black people across this country can identify the names of many others whose lives were prematurely lost within the last few months. As we say their names and share their stories, we are faced with the reality that black people never get a chance to fully recover. Oftentimes, immediately after hearing of one death we are thrown into the woes of another racially motivated killing. In fact, according to Mapping Police Violence, black people are three times more likely to be killed by the police and comprise approximately twenty four percent of police killings, while making up only approximately thirteen percent of the population.
The Cage of Black Trauma
An exploration of racial disparities in the criminal justice system during Covid-19 has shown that, in New York City alone, more than eighty percent of those issued social distancing summons and arrests were people of color in comparison to those handed out by the same police department to whites. Our minds and bodies never experience restoration, rejuvenation, or reprise; even during a global pandemic.
Black trauma is the cage in which we live daily due to white supremacy, privilege, and systemic racism. We have to raise our voices so that black people have a chance at the quality of life all humans deserve.
On May 7, 2020 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) launched the #WeAreDoneDying campaign in an effort to continue the fight for social and racial justice. Society may never acknowledge or validate the racial trauma of black people, but it does not mean we cannot do so ourselves. Black people must create spaces for themselves, and those within their communities, to name and process racial trauma. We must be proactive about saving black lives.
Solutions to Save our Communities
Black churches and organizations are essential to the mental healing of black people. For example, black churches can partner with faith-based and non-faith-based organizations to hold support groups for community members. These groups can help community members to find camaraderie within their struggle, while teaching them the skills they need to cope during moments of hopelessness. In addition, black mental healthcare workers must take responsibility for including the realities of race-based stress in their clinical treatment of black people. We must begin to affirm the traumatic imprint of racialized trauma on a person’s overall health. Furthermore, black clergy must utilize the pulpit to speak hope, life and power while calling congregants to action. Clergy should deliver messages like the one Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III delivered on May 17, 2020 as a requiem for Ahmaud Arbery.
Addressing the structural system of racial trauma is not only a social justice issue, but a public health concern, and we must all do our part. History tells us that our ancestors, particularly the medical practitioners of ancient Egypt, when exploring mental health, encouraged people to dance, sing, and lean on music to relieve stress. In other words, music has always been the soundtrack to the black struggle. The caged bird has always sung. However, I encourage us all to not only sing, but speak, process, advocate, and heal.