Oh, the joy of being validated by the New York Times: Racism’s Psychological Toll.
I’ve had numerous conversations with friends and colleagues who are stressed out by the recent string of events; our anxiety and fear is palpable. A few days ago, a friend sent a text message that read, “I’m honestly terrified this will happen to us or someone we know.” Twitter and Facebook are teeming with anguish, and within my own social network (which admittedly consists largely of writers, academics and activists), I’ve seen several ad hoc databases of clinics and counselors crop up to help those struggling to cope. Instagram and Twitter have become a means to circulate information about yoga, meditation and holistic treatment services for African-Americans worn down by the barrage of reports about black deaths and police brutality, and I’ve been invited to several small gatherings dedicated to discussing these events. A handful of friends recently took off for Morocco for a few months with the explicit goal of escaping the psychic weight of life in America.
It was against this backdrop that I first encountered the research of Monnica Williams, a psychologist, professor and the director of the University of Louisville’s Center for Mental Health Disparities. Several years ago, Williams treated a “high-functioning patient, with two master’s degrees and a job at a company that anyone would recognize.” The woman, who was African-American, had been devastated by racial harassment by a director within her company. Williams recalls being stunned by how drastically her patient’s condition deteriorated as a result of the treatment. “She completely withdrew and was suffering from extreme emotional anxiety,” she told me. “And that’s what made me say, ‘Wow, we have to focus on this.’ ”
Seriously. It took almost a year of therapy before I was even ready to get into racism. When I did, I had to find a new therapist, because she wanted to dispute things like “white people are so shameless that they’ve used the legacy of Martin Luther King to prevent documenting racism.” She thought she was doing CBT and challenging my delusions, when really she was being a bitch with unresolved race issues. She insisted politics was “outside the scope of therapy.”
An accurate description of how intense it is to live under racism overwhelms white people (in general). When I was going to school with “diversity funding,” I felt guilty about it, because “I’d never really experienced racism growing up.” What changed with therapy is the realization that many other people’s childhoods are basically secure, because their parents weren’t victims of intense racism. I just took a bunch of fucked up things for granted. Overwhelming.
From the time I was born until he died, literally the entire time, my dad was in danger of either dying or losing his job due to racism. That’s an actual statement of fact. He suffered from an enormous number of medical problems caused or exacerbated by racism.
He didn’t get any medical care in childhood, being in a sharecropping family. An untreated urinary tract infect left him with urethral scarring that affected his entire life. The urological problems got worse after the prostate cancer and radiation treatment. He couldn’t sleep through the night because he had to get up and use the bathroom constantly. In high school, he had some kind of urological surgery at a military hospital that was botched, and my understanding is that his penis was somehow mutilated. Either way, I can remember a couple periods of him sitting around the house in misery on an inflatable donut with a catheter up his dick for a week or two. He had funny stories about the hospital, like the time he told the doctor “I can’t hold no 300 cc’s!”
There was something a bit off about my dad, some kind of learning disability that was never diagnosed. He didn’t have proper schooling during childhood, so that he could work on the farm. My mom recently made the observation that he was exposed to airplanes spraying pesticides on the fields as a child. She speculated, and I think she’s right, that he probably had some form of traumatic brain injury. He had a gnarly scar going across his forehead vertically, which she assumed had probably been a skull fracture. He’d stepped on a rake, and the handle came up at high speed and hit him in the face. I started thinking about this because she was describing his inability to copy written text verbatim. Oh, shit, that’s like a neurological exam…
Very frequently, to the point that it was ridiculous, he mixed up my name with my brother’s name. In practice, I often went by “[my brother’s name] [my name].” He’d joke about it sometimes, like “Boy, what’s your name?!” I found this troubling as a child, but it looks different after learning all the brain stuff. He couldn’t pronounce “che ora es?” correctly in Spanish. He had trouble focusing his eyes when reading.
Sometimes, my mom couldn’t handle helping him with writing letters, and she’d have me do it. I understood why she avoided it, because if you genuinely couldn’t understand what the fuck something meant he got angry about it, because it was touching on such a deep source of shame and anxiety. It’s really sad to think about. He was obviously really proud of me for doing well in school, but resentment came out in other ways.
Naturally, this would’ve made it hard to keep a social work job without supervisors like the one who ran out the last black guy (perfectly literate). There were lawyers and stuff, and I have some memories of my dad’s heart attack, I think the second one. He couldn’t really run around and explore with us when we visited places, because of chest pain and shortness of breath. He’d sit so patiently and wait. This led to petty drama, like the time we went to a national park, and all the trails were steep. He waited around the car, and I went hiking with my mom. We were conscious that we couldn’t keep him waiting for too long, and I wanted to get as far down the trail as possible. My mom couldn’t keep up, and insisted I slow down. I guess other families can just hike for a couple miles together? I remember that my dad tried to keep up with me jogging once, and he was out of commission for days. Triple bypasses. Keloid scars. Angina and nitroglycerin. Sarcoidosis and pernicious anemia. It was worse for my siblings when he was on prednisone for the sarcoidosis. Glaucoma and Type II diabetes, too.
Germany, with heart attacks and guy trying to get him kicked out of the civil service. Washington, with relatively good health but a ton of work stress he brought home. Italy, which was “fight for your job, the sequel,” along with the cancer and the anemia. An angioplasty, maybe? Return to Washington, where he took an early medical retirement to escape the drama. He was really depressed after that. Also, the triple bypass, the urological catastrophe, the diagnosis of diabetes. I don’t remember when the glaucoma was diagnosed.
I got bullied about my hair a lot.
I guess it was all too much, so it was easier to avoid thinking about being black and deal with my survivor’s guilt by saying I’d “never really had racism happen to me.” I guess I did have to deal with subtle hostility from people for having better funding “because I was black,” while “doing a bad job” in the lab. There was a lot of stereotype threat involved, which sucked.
Since I was good at school, keep in mind that I understood very well for my age what would be expected in a bureaucracy, and how it was inconceivable the records were in order. So I was fully aware of how serious it would be if he lost his job, and I knew his ass wasn’t covered, so I had “adult” anxieties about it. It was a poor choice of career in some ways, enabled by my mom, but the root problem of functional illiteracy was deliberately inflicted on him by racists.
I’ve suffered negative social consequences my entire life for being “too dark and negative.” I know that a good number of the people I meet would have no empathy for my dad whatsoever. Friends used to tell me that they couldn’t understand my dad on the phone, and I was later amazed when my ex had a hard time following the dialogue on The Wire. There was the ex in college who couldn’t introduce me to her dad because I was black (Persian family).
Cumulatively, it’s pretty heartbreaking. I respect my dad’s character a lot more than the majority of people I meet, and he was ground the fuck down, tortured, and humiliated by actual vicious racists for no reason. They tried to stop his marriage. It’s like this giant black hole of badness that lives in my head and gets aggravated by daily life.
A lot of white therapists actually have a mental block against feeling my pain. They don’t want to believe that racism does that to people. At least the New York Times is writing about this.
On your blog, you chronicled the experience of a woman who encounters a therapist who dismisses her fears about racism. Is one barrier to treatment getting the medical community to acknowledge that racism exists?
Yes. A lot of people in the medical community live very privileged lives, so racism isn’t a reality to them. When someone comes in and talks to them, it might sound like a fairy tale, rather than a real daily struggle that people are dealing with. Research shows that African-Americans, for example, are optimistic when they start therapy, but within a few sessions feel less optimistic and have high early dropout rates. It could be that clinicians don’t know how to address their problems, or they may even be saying things that are subtly racist that may drive their clients away. If the patient feels misunderstood or even insulted by the therapist and they don’t go back and get help, they end up suffering for years or even the rest of their lives for something that is very treatable.