The horrific deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd didn’t make me cry.
I’m past tears.
I’m hollow. I’m afraid to leave my apartment because of a deadly virus. The twin demons of violence and racism are plundering through my city. My heart is afraid. My soul is angry. I feel hopeless. I hide my emotions so not to offend people — especially white people.
These are new emotions.
“Black people are experiencing unprecedented trauma,” said Ebony White, an assistant clinical professor of counseling and family therapy at Drexel University, who is African American. “When we see these injustices happen over and over again, we are seeing ourselves. Black men see themselves in George Floyd. Black mothers see their sons in Tamir Rice.”
Floyd died on Memorial Day when a Minneapolis police officer choked him by kneeling on his neck. Rice is the 12-year-old boy with a toy gun in his hand who was shot to death in 2014 by Cleveland police.
We are on the brink of a fiery change, yes. But it’s a lot. Black people: We have to take responsibility for our mental health and put our feelings first in these trying times. Here are some ways to do that. And ways for allies to support us in the struggle.
Black people have been living with this country’s unique brand of racism since we arrived here in 1619. We’ve endured bondage, had our livelihoods destroyed during and after Reconstruction, and fought our way out of a segregated society. Clearly we are a tough people who can handle this upheaval, right?
Wrong, says Richard Orbé-Austin, a New York-based psychologist and black man. “There are so many ways in this current moment that we’re fearing for our lives," Orbé-Austin said. Not to mention, we are feeling isolated with social distancing because of coronavirus that is killing black people at alarming rates. “The way we celebrate, the way we bury our dead. This is how we have traditionally built our resilience. We haven’t been able to do that.”
We have to give ourselves a break, Orbé-Austin said. “We don’t know what to do because we’ve never done this before.”
Allies: You need to keep this in mind. “You have to assume that your black friend or colleague is managing a lot and they are working through new pain points,” White said. If you want to show empathy, tell your black friend that while you can’t understand all they are going through, you know it’s real and you stand with them. Tell them what you are doing to support issues of injustice and ask them how you can support them.
Required reading: The 1619 Project: The New York Times
Black people understand the rage behind the destruction. That doesn’t mean we condone it. We are not happy that grocery stores were destroyed, our pharmacies were cleaned out, or that clothing stores were looted. Still, black people don’t have to apologize for being angry. “We are taught from an early age that not only will we be subjected to racism, bias acts, and police brutality, but that we should get used to it,” Orbé-Austin said. “We are socialized to recognize that we have to tolerate being uncomfortable.” That means swallowing our anger for our survival. But a kettle left on a raging fire will always boil over.
Allies: Remind your white friends and family of the reasons behind the protests. “When you point to the looting, you are in your own way discounting the rage because you are making it more about the looting than centuries of oppression” White said. A better question to ask is: How did we get here? While we are on the subject, here’s another question from which to steer your curious well-meaning white friends: Why is there no outrage regarding black-on-black crime? Because if they knew at least one black person, they would know there is plenty. Period.
Required reading: Between The World And Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
There may be days when black people are going to feel so sad that we won’t want to get out of bed, said Zakia Williams, cofounder of the Philadelphia-based nonprofit, Black Men Heal. Black people are rarely afforded the luxury of showing sadness. “You may not have an answer for an ally who genuinely wants to know how you are doing and that’s OK," Williams said.
Sit in your emotion. Be with your pain. Don’t try to get over it or distill it into inoffensive sound bites. And don’t let white people off the hook. “You don’t have to have a quick answer just to make them feel comfortable,” Williams said. “This is about your pain.”
Allies: Don’t secretly hope your black friend, coworker or family member will absolve you. “Don’t expect black people to do your emotional labor,” said Vashti Dubois, founder of The Colored Girls Museum in Germantown. “Do your own work. Reflect on your white privilege. You will intuitively know where you can do better.”
Black people don’t have to be quiet because we are afraid anymore, said Orbé-Austin. We can take agency in the process by calling local officials, voting, participating in peaceful demonstrations. And straight up telling people you refuse to tolerate their racism. Keep talking. Use your voice, tell people their behavior is unacceptable, Orbé-Austin said.
Allies: We need you to use your voice. When you hear friends, family members or colleagues make blatantly racist comments, this is where we need you to speak up. Don’t just speak up for black people, speak up for you. “Don’t work toward an antiracist world just for the benefit of black people,” Dubois said. “If you are doing it just for us, stop now; it’s not sustainable and it’s not real. Do it for yourselves. You should want to live in a world that makes people feel like human beings.”
The images of Floyd taking his last breaths are seared in our minds. We want to blame the media, but there was a part of us that couldn’t stop watching because it was so unbelievable. It’s important that black people turn away, Williams said. “Seeing it happen over and over again causes a primary response trauma because we relate so deeply to the victim," Williams said. Reliving it over and over again is unhealthy.
Allies: You may not want to watch the videos over and over again either, because those empathetic to the cause will be as equally jarred. But these videos can be useful to point out that racism exists to those in your life who try to explain it away.
What to do when you’re not scrolling: Read the trashy novel by your nightstand, meditate, go outside for a walk. Practice breathing exercises.
Let go of the narrative that black people don’t seek mental health. It’s very important to our survival, said Williams. In recent weeks, through Black Men Heal, Williams has a virtual meet-up space for black men. Many therapists and psychologists are taking appointments through teledoc programs. If you fear a true mental health crisis is underway, call the city’s 24-hour crisis hotline at 215-685-6440. You can also call the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Hot Line at 800-273-8255. Other helpful resources: The Association of Black Psychologists.