Shot of a young woman sitting on the couch with hand on her head while suffering from a headache.

When Racism Impacts Your Psychological Fortitude

By Rheeda Walker, PhD, author of The Unapologetic Workbook for Black Mental Health

These days, African American men, women, and children are mistreated and sometimes killed for doing normal things that white people do or could do without a second thought or consequence. In this reality, it is very hard not to feel disgusted, worried, and powerless.

We all witnessed the murder of forty-six-year-old George Floyd as a police officer forced him to the ground, handcuffed him, and kneeled on his neck while he pleaded for help for nearly ten minutes. We have yet to see justice for twenty-six-year-old Breonna Taylor who was killed when police entered her home while she was asleep in bed. The police weren’t supposed to be there and entered the wrong home, but there were no charges for her shooting death. Trayvon Martin walked through a middle-class neighborhood on his way home. He had purchased a bag of Skittles from a nearby store. He did not make it home that night. Instead, he was killed by a neighborhood watchman who had been told to stay in his car and not approach Trayvon. How many times did you watch the video or listen to Diamond Reynolds as she kept her composure while pleading with the police officer, who shot her boyfriend, to tell her that her boyfriend wasn’t dead? My own heart broke even more for her daughter who sat still in the back of the car. You never heard the child scream or cry. At some point, she told her mother, “It’s okay. I’m right here with you.” These stories go on and on because police kill Black people on 300 out of 365 days each year.

There is a sickness in our society that has given you plenty of reason to have low Psychological Fortitude (PF). When the video of George Floyd’s death played over and over in the news, you may have felt keyed up, angry, and at times, sick. As time passed, you may have become emotionally numb to police violence, but when you were subjected to the court trial and the testimony of the bystanders, you relived much of the same intense emotions. Clinically, experts say that your emotional response should be in proportion to the stressful situation. I acknowledge that it isn’t so straightforward and not very easy to explain, but while the threats in our society that make you worry are real, there are ways to cope that can be helpful. You can follow these five steps.

Undoing Racism’s Negative Effect on Your PF

Step 1. Identify the racial situation that is undermining your psychological fortitude.

Step 2. Let it out. Take time to write down your thoughts and feelings about this situation. Otherwise, the thoughts replay in your mind and can intensify.

Step 3. Identify your pain. Ask yourself, “What about all of this is most upsetting to me?” Maybe your heart hurts for the murdered young person’s mother. Perhaps you wonder if things will ever get better.

Step 4. Consider your exposure. If the situation you are upset about is in the news, you may have to begin by limiting your exposure to social media, where the outrageous scene plays over and over. Though it is good to be informed, think about what is in your control and how exposure to senseless violence undercuts your PF. Research shows that Black people report poorer emotional health for one to two months following the police shooting of an unarmed Black person.1

Social media seems to contribute to vicarious trauma. There is research that shows that African Americans have been experiencing trauma-related anxiety in response to chronic media exposure to violent deaths of African Americans. In any one of these unarmed-shooting incidents, we can imagine someone close to us who could be targeted. Each time you hear of another unnecessary murder of an unarmed person, you feel anger and a sense of helplessness. You may internalize the message that people like you do not matter. You may be saddened or enraged. In any case, these are all reactions to an awful and pervasive problem in our society—a problem that has meaningful psychological consequences.

Step 5. Process the pain with action. Join or start an advocacy group that challenges the use of force in policing or join a larger group, such as Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. This was one step taken by Lucy McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, who was killed because he was enjoying loud music with his friends. Mrs. McBath is now a United States congresswoman.

The thing about anxiety is that the actual cause of the anxiety does not matter. What matters is what you do in response to your fear and how you manage your worry.

1. Bor, J., A. S. Venkataramani, D. R. Williams, and A. C. Tsai. 2018. “Police Killings and Their Spillover Effects on the Mental Health of Black Americans: A Population-Based, Quasi-Experimental Study.” The Lancet 392, no. 10144: 302–310

Rheeda Walker, PhD, is an award-winning professor of psychology at the University of Houston, and author of the self-help phenomenon, The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health. She is a behavioral science researcher, licensed clinical psychologist, and has published more than sixty scientific papers on African American adult mental health from a culturally meaningful perspective, suicide risk, and psychological resilience. Walker is a fellow in the American Psychological Association, the leading scientific and professional organization of psychologists in the US.

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