When a white colleague reached out to Tiffany Younger, a Research Fellow at Cornell Medical College, asking what nowadays has become a common refrain from white folks who somehow find allyship confusing—“How can I support you during this time?”—Younger responded in a way I’m sure the colleague never expected. She sent the woman a copy of her co-pay invoice for therapy. For Younger, the emotional labor she’s expended over the last few months and the toll regular exposure to traumatic events has taken on her wellbeing has added up. She is no longer playing around with all the demands for more engagement by the well-meaning white people in her circle of influence. To the colleague’s credit, she agreed to pay the invoice and committed to covering the remaining co-pays for the month.
Many of us may need to take a cue from Younger. Whether it’s on the front lines of a protest directly engaging police, challenging clueless political officials, and confronting racist counter protestors, or through advocacy and letter writing or paying into bail funds, we are all fighting the good fight; yet, what we aren’t often dealing with is the impact of this constant trauma on our minds and bodies. Some of us think that ignoring the physical signs of stress will make them go away. It won’t. Others of us clearly feel our health shaking and shrinking but don’t know what to do about it—especially when not fighting isn’t an option. Actor Gabrielle Union, in a recent interview with Trevor Noah on The Daily Show captured the feeling well. In regards to her state of mind and the assaults on Black bodies, she said, “It just feels like terror in my body.”
Terror is apropos. The link between what we are feeling and thinking and what is happening in our bodies is something we must understand. Feeling woozy and off balance? Wondering why your heart rate is ridiculously high? Trying to figure out why you have constant migraines and random pains in places you didn’t before? It’s entirely possible that much of what is showing up in our bodies is trapped trauma as a result of our personal experiences with racism and complicated by the continuous parade of broken Black bodies we see in the media. Not to mention the gaslighting of our political and criminal justice system about why numerous, random lynchings are happening all across the country and being labeled and written off as suicides. Yes, I know. Black folks are resilient. Always have been. Black folks are resilient. Always have been. But we are not always well—and that’s the part that we must face as we continue to demand that our humanity is acknowledged and respected.
This isn’t conjecture. Studies clearly show that trauma in general, and racial trauma specifically, has a serious effect on our mental and physical well-being (including our ability to fight off, say, viruses that impact our immune systems?). A Harvard Medical School study makes it very clear that “the emotional and physical reactions it triggers can make you more prone to serious health conditions including heart attack, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and cancer…”
Yes, I know. Black folks are resilient. Always have been. But we are not always well.
Beth Shaw of Psychology Today wrote, “People living with residual trauma are continually getting ready for the next attack or life-altering event. When someone is preoccupied with a real or imagined threat, the resulting fear, rage, or disappointment will be reflected in the body.” So if we can understand that, then imagine what living as a Black and Brown person is like in a country where you have to be constantly aware of how your Blackness will be perceived.
For example, my partner and I have been trying to put together a socially distant getaway. As we scour the internet for deals on private homes within a drivable distance of where we live, the first thing we ask about every AirBnB listing we review is 1.) Are there Black people in the area? 2.) Have they rented to Black people before? Both questions reflect our sense of not being safe just any ol’ place in this country. It demonstrates how we are constantly on guard at a time when we should be excited and looking forward to some R&R. Often, this shows up in our bodies as anxiety and headaches—and for me, a Fibromyalgia flare, as we pull into the driveway of the place where we are staying and hope that we are safe and welcomed. This is how we begin every vacation in an unknown place, and this is how so many Black people move through the world whether we are walking into a retail store or driving through our suburban neighborhoods.
The terror is real, and so is the toll. That regular state of anxiety triggers an infusion of cortisol and other stress hormones that can impact the functioning of our brain, heart, blood and other organs.
And no, everyone who has a physical ailment doesn’t have that ailment because of racism. But many of us do. And at the very least, our regular encounters with racism, whether it is at the micro-aggressions level or it’s the parade of racial violence flooding our newsfeeds, is certainly an aggravating factor in our health challenges. Bottom line: It hinders our ability to heal.
Tack on the mental and emotional toll of racial trauma and it’s easy to see why we must make wellness a priority. Brighid Kleinman and Eric Russ wrote in a recent article in the Courier Journal: “Psychological science suggests that people who experience race-based stress and trauma frequently have similar experiences to people who have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Distress can include flashbacks, hypervigilance, nightmares, heart palpitations, poor sleep and overall heightened anxiety. But where PTSD can be caused by a single event, racial stress is ongoing, pervasive, generationally transmitted, and affects both individuals and collective communities.”
My small business here in the Philly area, NewSeason Books and Media, is partnering with Black woman-owned therapy practice, The Ladipo Group, to create a fund to help activists and those who have been victims of racial violence to get therapy and other mental health services. But we are not alone. These kinds of projects and funds are popping up all around the country. Personally, after my cousin was murdered in a racially-motivated mass shooting attempt in 2018, my therapists—yes, plural—were a lifeline for me. We want to offer that same lifeline to others.
The terror is real, and so is the toll.
In addition to therapy, there are many more accessible options for managing wellness when things feel out of control. Breathing exercises are great for calming anxiety and bringing heart rates down. Most people are surprised by how shallow their breathing is once they start to take deep breaths on a regular basis. Stretching and moving the body helps. Resting and getting enough sleep is critical. Drinking plenty of water, especially if you are on the frontlines, is a non-negotiable. And yes, unplugging periodically is also necessary.
As critical as it is to keep our foot on the gas when it comes to the fight against injustice, it is also an absolute necessity that we have and use the tools available to us to deal with trauma in whatever way it shows up (panic attacks, mysterious pains, headaches, anxiety, acts of rage), Our healing must be an equal priority—if not, take precedence—in our fight for justice.
Oh and maybe, just maybe, we can all send our bills to the closest self-identified ally. Who said there’s no hope for reparations?