When any child dies it is a loss of grave proportion that most families will struggle with to understand no matter what the circumstances. We know loss brings physical, emotional, social and spiritual processes of grief like crying, sadness, anger, isolation, activism, and questioning or relying on faith to heal among other things. How we grieve may vary widely depending upon the person and it is important to allow that process to run its course. When the process of grief involves a racism-related death its impact can go beyond the typical or atypical response to death we may have.
Racism has many varied and debated definitions, yet it can be thought of in terms of its individual, cultural or institutional contexts--that is prejudice, discrimination or bias based on a real or perceived power differential by a single person, in group based cultural and social practices, or in the institutional practices of an organization. With the loss of Trayvon Martin all three contexts are potentially at play to affect the emotional and psychological grief processes that the victim's family and countless others may experience. On top of the expected grief process from such a loss there is the potential for a psychological impact on a person given the context of the individual, cultural or institutional racism-related dynamics.
Individual - Psychological response based upon the actions of the perpetrating individual
- Overall distress and anxiety about your personal safety
- Fear that the perpetrator will strike again (e.g., fear he will act with racial bias or kill again)
- Fear that one is not safe in situations with other individuals (e.g., being afraid of people that are similar or reminiscent of the perpetrator based on race or gender)
- Anger toward the prepetrator and a wish or preoccupation to inflict harm or revenge
- Being suspicious or mistrusting of other individuals
Cultural - Psychological response based upon the cultural or social bias of the situation
- Self-loathing or preoccupation about your skin color making other people uncomfortable
- Self-loathing and questioning that you do not belong in certain communities or neighborhoods (e.g., questioning yourself about being Black and where you choose to live, work or play)
- Fear and anxiety over how you dress (e.g., wearing a hooded sweatshirt may draw suspicion of you as criminal or deviant)
- Anxiety about being in environments that are unfamiliar or where others are culturally different from you (e.g., being afraid that the way you dress, talk, or wear your hair may draw threat or harm)
- Anger toward other cultural values and norms
Institutional - Psychological response based upon the institutional practices of an organization
- Fear and on-going worry that law enforcement will not protect you because of your skin color
- Fear and on-going worry that law enforcement will ignore your pleas for help because of your skin color
- Anger at the justice system for instituting potentially racially biased laws (e.g., wondering if most people killed under the "stand your ground" law are people of color)
- Confusion about what is justice and the purpose of our justice system
- Anxiety and hesitation to report concerns to the police or the criminal justice system
- Mistrust of social and helping institutions and the people that work for them (e.g, mistrusting all police officers and representatives of the justice system)
Thankfully, there is strength and resiliency to be found in this tragedy. The voices of this nation are speaking out to call for justice and to come together to support and heal Trayvon's family and ourselves. The remarkable thing is that Trayvon's spirit is impacting the world and doing great things in mobilizing others to act for justice. We all have divine purpose in life. For some of us it is not manifest while we are living, but because of the power of our spirits we have the capacity to impact other people and social systems well beyond our physical time on earth. May God Bless Trayvon Martin, his family and all of us. Let this tragedy be a blessing and a lesson for those of us who will remember him and do something to let his spirit live on.
Ma'at E. L. Lewis, Ph.D.