Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Psychological Impact of a Walking While Black Death

On February 26, 2012, seventeen year old Trayvon Martin was killed, essentially walking while Black by a man named George Zimmerman, the admitted shooter who has yet to be arrested.  The news reports lay out this tragedy that potentially has profound emotional and psychological implications for Trayvon's family and countless Americans, particulary Black individuals across this nation because of the racism-related dynamics involved.

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)
These potential psychological responses are of concern because they not only create short-term distress, but can lead to chronic stress that affects mental and physical health.  When Trayvon's shooter is arrested and prosecuted, it may address and sooth some of the distress in the individual context.  For example, the family and community may feel some reduction in fear and anger that the perpetrator will kill again. However, as a direct result of the impact of this loss, the family and others may maintain anxiety and fear about the environments in which they live, their choices for dress and cultural expression, and the color of their skin being a justification for threat or harm against them. This is in addition to the basic grief of losing a son, family member, friend or a member of one's racial or cultural group and humanity. Moreover, the psychological impact of the institutional racism will potentially haunt many of us for years to come as this cases plays itself out and as we will continue to have interactions with the very law enforcement and criminal justice institutions implicated for not acting justly in this tragedy.

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.


Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ma'at E's Mental Health Message

No matter what you think is true, there is always another perspective!  Although it may seem far from reach now, another way of thinking and living is possible. Sometimes we get trapped in a pattern of thinking that we come to believe is true. For example, we tell ourselves we are sick, weak, unlovable, unmanageable, not fit and so on. These message we tell ourselves can take on a life of their own and we start to believe they are true. Everyone else may see things differently, yet in our own mind we are trapped. Challenge yourself to consider that there is another perspective. What you think especially if it makes you less than the Divine spark that you are can be thought of differently. To help change your thoughts start challenging every negative thought with the thought that it may not be true or that there may be another perspective. You don't have to prove it yet, just start the challenge. Over time new truths will present themselves because you allowed a space for the ideas to come in. Have a peace filled day.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Spend time controlling your own thoughts verse the thoughts of everyone else.