Race, Racism, & Mental Health | School of Behavioral Health | Loma Linda University
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Marquita LaGarde, MSW, ASW
By Marquita LaGarde (Associate Clinical Social Worker and MSW Class of 2017) - September 22, 2020

Collective Trauma

Collectively we have been experiencing trauma. Coronavirus has shifted us away from our norms, and the way things used to be are no more. Sitting at home beginning in March we all felt that we had a common enemy, defeating this virus and slogans like “we are in this together” truly felt like the fight was a collective fight. Then the names begin to ring out—Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd—and reality begins to hit the Black community again, maybe the “we” isn’t collective. Once again the Black community has to see faces and names that remind us of the intergenerational traumas experienced in America by Black bodies. These moments reminded me of the history of not just my generation, but the many generations that have come before me. A painful reminder that as much as we believed things have changed, maybe the change really has not come. How does this trauma impact me and my community? How do we navigate moving forward and ensure that future generations don’t have to continue this fight and endure racism?

A Black Girl in America

As a Black woman in America I can recall my first experience where I felt I didn’t belong in this country and I couldn’t trust the lens that was being imparted on me because it didn’t reflect who I was in an objective light. It was in the 3rd grade and I could recall it so vividly, my teacher saw my young outspoken ways as a threat to the management of her classroom. I could recall an interaction while in class where the teacher instructed us to get some writing done. As I prepared for this writing activity, I began placing my pencil boxes on my desk. This was a habit of mine in order to feel fully prepared and focused to start my day. When I completed my writing and turned my assignment in, the teacher looked at me and said, “Are you going to continue to set your desk up like it's some office? No one wants to be bothered with all of those things. Your writing is too small for me to even read, how are you even done this fast?” My heart sank because these types of microaggressions can shape us before we even realize that they are happening. As a third grader who naturally was an introvert I froze, she continued to poke and probe and eventually I broke. I responded in a snarky way, it was my fight response an attempt to protect myself. After this interaction, we became sworn enemies and I was written up for non-compliance more in a single school year than I had ever been before. 

When my mother arrived to school one day to discuss these write-ups and detentions the teacher's response was, “I have never experienced a more difficult child, she thinks her desk is her office, she always has a rebuttal when I am engaging with her, why can’t she be like her cousin, ‘nice, quiet and compliant’?” Instead of getting to know me and trying to understand me she punished me for not meeting the mold she had set in her mind. She did not care to know the little girl who had just lost her father, had already moved at least five times within the last two years, and was now residing in a shared home with all of her cousins, aunts, and uncles. That little girl could have used a little compassion and understanding. Instead, these negative interactions continued for the remainder of the school year. This would begin my distrust for those in places deemed safe. The targeted interactions imparted upon a 3rd grader by an adult (in power) should have never occurred and yet this remained my experience until I left her class. It was the beginning of many other negative interactions, simply for being an expressive Black girl and later a woman. 

These experiences, whether they occurred in school, work, or in my community, caused deep-rooted anger, sadness, hurt, insecurities, anxiety, and bouts of depression that I was not sure how to unpack for many years of my life. Never fully grasping why it occurred but understanding that these experiences were very real. The same feelings came rushing back when political entities group Black people in this country as monolithic. The generalization is that we are all lazy and ungrateful for what we “have” in this country. The anxiety began to build weekly from what was being portrayed on television and the feelings I had as a 3rd grader with little to no control caused sleepless nights due to racing thoughts. In this context, the protests and different names brought to the forefront, the shared experiences of injustices in all facets of life caused me to cry more than I have cried in the last year. At 31 years old, I try not to lose hope; as a therapist, I have found ways to manage my emotions and speak to my own therapist about my traumas. My grief isn’t just for me, it’s for the next generation that comes after me, it’s for my people currently in the fight.

Black in America

Being Black in America has been a traumatic experience for over 400 years. Police brutality, Black maternal mortality, work discrimination, economic and education inequality, and the criminal justice system are just a few ways and spaces where Black Americans experience trauma. Whether it’s seeing another Black body lay lifeless in the streets, being told you aren’t beautiful or desirable based on the natural features you were born with, being paid less and not given the proper tools to obtain and actualize the American dream, or losing your freedom in the criminal justice system for doing something your White counterparts would have been given grace. Forced to labor for a country that only saw you as 3/5ths of a human, never fully giving you access to the dreams of the founding fathers. Finding ways to oppress Black bodies through over policing and criminalizing Black culture and communities in ways never seen in White communities.  

These experiences become a collective trauma imparted onto our community and the allies that stand with us who understand the serious impact race and racism have on our ability to function and navigate in this country. These experiences do not begin and end with police encounters and brutality. Racism and the values of those who oppress Black communities hold spaces in all facets of life. They are business owners, teachers, lawyers, doctors, and politicians. We are under-represented in positive spaces and over-represented in negative spaces due to the deeply rooted systemic racism that this country was built on and the values tightly held by those who hold the power. Racism on an individual level does harm, but it is the systemic racism that has a generational impact on how we are able to thrive in this country.

Intergenerational Trauma

Intergenerational trauma can negatively impact families as a result of unresolved emotions and thoughts about a traumatic event. Intergenerational trauma is the understanding that even though we all have not experienced a trauma, in the case of the Black community slavery, we continue to experience the effects of that trauma. History shows that the trauma did not end with slavery and our freedom did not come with the 13th Amendment. It continued with the trauma of the civil rights movement, being hosed and attacked by dogs. The fight continued into the 80s and 90s with the war on drugs. These generational events continue to plague and haunt the Black community today. The effects are seen in the prisons and rapped about in the songs that we all listen to. Fighting for continued freedom and never being able to actualize that freedom. “And if this bottle could talk *gulping* I cry myself to sleep” – Kendrick Lamar (2015). It all resulted in us building a community on pain, and due to the history and personal experiences we have with systems, some seek support with the church or engage in unhealthy coping strategies. Escaping from problems by suppressing them with substances, violence, or some form of spiritual connection. This is the harm being caused. To a resilient community it over time can destroy from the inside out. For many, religion is the escape needed in order to survive the daily racism and trauma experienced.

A Call to Action

Where do we belong in this change process as professionals? The social work profession has values that hold us accountable in times like this. The main three relevant to this are service, social justice, and dignity and worth of a person. Being of service to the Black community is a great place to start. As I have highlighted throughout this, the trauma is generational and deep-seated, and the Black community needs strong and understanding professionals to engage them from a place of humility and understanding while utilizing a humanistic approach. We are not expecting you to know everything, but we do value relationships and respect for our culture. Social justice does not just involve public protest. It is important that we challenge social injustices in the places we navigate on a daily basis, whether this is in your church or on your job. In order to address racism, the Black community needs allies who understand the harm racism causes. It needs allies to speak out against injustices and hold space for those who have experienced these injustices. Finally, dignity and worth of a person means being willing to truly seeing us, in our Blackness, and getting to know us as individuals and our cultural diversity. Embracing those differences and understanding that our differences are what makes this country beautiful.

I want to challenge schools and employers to improve their diversity by recruiting and hiring persons of color in the mental/behavioral health field. Representation matters and if we are truly in a space of ending racism and valuing Black lives, that begins by including Black lives fully in your communities. This is the beginning step to repairing the mistrust by the Black community when it comes to mental health. Seeing a face like theirs can begin the discussion about the importance of mental health and healing mentally. “Daring leaders who live into their values are never silent about hard things.” -Brené Brown

How to Heal

The healing process begins with us, accepting these challenges and using our privilege to make the changes we want to see. Not dismissing the experiences of systemic racism or centering oneself in these interactions, believing that your privilege is non-existent, when in fact your privilege has assisted in you avoiding oppression solely based on the color of your skin. Acknowledge that and take up the charge for progress. If we are in this together, we have to be in this together from all facets of experiences in this chase for the American dream. Zora Neale Hurston stated, “If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it." Now that you have heard the call to action, take the necessary steps towards change. Hear our voices, understand our concerns, and stand beside us and fight for a better future.

Follow Marquita's @BLKMHC account on Instagram to engage in the conversation about Black values, strength, and concerns from the lens of a mental health professional utilizing strategies and topics to begin the healing process.

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