Living With Whiteness: 3 Ways to Cope with Racial Trauma (June 2019)

Oct 22, 2020
This month’s topic is:

Living with whiteness: 3 Ways to Cope with Racial Trauma


BGCC Retreat Attendees - Photo Cred: Joy Harden-Bradford

If you follow me on IG you know that last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural Black Girl Clinician Collective (BGCC) retreat in Charleston, South Carolina hosted by Dr. Joy Harden Bradford of Therapy for Black Girls. BGCC is a group of therapists who are Black women, Therapy for Black Girls is a directory of clinicians and a podcast that are designed to speak to the emotional health needs of Black women. Listen, we had a blast together. As you may know, I am an advocate for community and personal/professional development. This weekend embodied all of that. Along with professional seminars, there were group activities designed to allow us to get to know each other better and build connections. The work/life balance of a therapist and business owner can get tough. Being around other like-minded women, with similar experiences is always refreshing and empowering. 

Godfrey Khill amazed at a bus full of Black women with natural hair -
Photo Credit: Yunetta Smith

On the 2nd day, we went on a tour with Gullah Geechee Tours, led by Godfrey Khill. While I thought I was going to simply learn about the history of Charleston and maybe get more information about the Gullah Geechee people, Mr. Khill’s tour reminded me what it is like to live in a country that is built on the foundation of, and serves to protect the privilege of, whiteness. Seeing blocks where enslaved people were auctioned for sale (now called carriage steps), the chains where enslaved people were lynched still present on the outside of homes, barracoons, slave quarters and the celebration of confederacy all felt very sobering and overwhelming. My 11 year old daughter was with me and she said she could not stop thinking about it as she went to sleep that night.

Touching an auction block - Photo Credit: Melissa Ifill 

Here’s what really resonated with me as I sat down afterwards. How many times do people who live in Charleston pass by symbols of slavery and really let it sink into their spirit what they are seeing and experiencing? What does a person have to do in their psyche every day to live (not just exist) with this understanding and not be filled with emotional pain? How do you ever feel free with these constant reminders?

Babygirl was amazed at what she was hearing - Photo cred: Yunetta Smith

Then this hit me: all Black (and brown) people live with reminders every day that we are not really free. When you live in a society that broadcasts and replays the police shootings of Black people on the news and social media, you know you can be lynched at any time. When you look around you and see so many of your family members and neighbors engaged in the prison/probation/parole system, you know you can be sold at any time. When you feel that in the presence of whiteness you have to watch how you speak, pay attention to what you speak about, and be mindful of what you do, you feel like you are still commodity constantly on display and judged all the time. 

Chains where enslaved were lynched - Photo cred: Melissa Ifill 

The privilege of whiteness is never having to consider these things; if you do, it is not contingent on other’s perceptions based on your race or cultural identity. The impact of racial trauma is always having to consider these things and knowing that it is rooted in your racial identity. 

A lot of the work that I do with clients really investigates their position in spaces of work and/or interpersonal relationships and issues related race always come up. The overarching themes are hypervigilance, the desire to over perform and racing thoughts about perception and potential consequences. These thought patterns are the symptoms of anxiety stemming from traumatic experiences. Here, the anxiety is linked to racial trauma and the repeated experiences that serve as reminders of our place in this country and the distance between our current experience and true freedom. This level of anxiety creates increased stress which has dire outcomes for our physical and mental health. The impact of racial trauma is linked to some of the poor outcomes related to health disparities in the Black community. 

In order to combat these feelings and the fatigue that occurs here are 3 ways I recommend to cope with racial trauma.

  1. No Code Switching:I don’t know (or care) who will be mad, but all people, languages and ways of being are created equal. Changing how you speak to appease any individual is sending a signal to them and to your inner spirit that your truest self is not enough. There is no monolithic way to be human. There is no monolithic way to be professional . There is no monolithic way to be a professional person of color. The goal is to make sure that you are understood. But trust and believe, there is enough engagement across cultures that most people will understand you. If they don’t, it is for them to ask, not for you to assume that they won’t get it because your natural way of being is not enough. Stunt on them with the quality of your work! Wow them with your knowledge! Show up as you! We need to demonstrate and embrace all of who we are so that other people can get used to it and so that we can learn to feel comfortable as ourselves in all spaces. 
  2. Know your triggers:There is a lot going on this world that can be emotionally overwhelming or just piss us off. Understand what they are, acknowledge them and process those emotions. Sometimes it is easier to be able to ignore what is happening to avoid the feelings. But knowing your triggers and having a way to manage those emotionis critical to being able to understand the impact of racial trauma and engage in social advocacy. Of course, I will always recommend therapy as a way to unpack and cope with traumatic experiences. But socio-emotional support groups, meditation, journaling and engaging in activities that bring joy can also be ways to work through moments when you are triggered.   
  3. Messaging is important:All too often we internalize racist ideas and pass it on to others. Whether we are talking about ways of speaking (saying no to ebonics or patois), ways of dressing (my hair must be straight or “neat” i.e. no locs or braids) or ways of being (watch those neck and hand motions) passing on ideas that how “we” are isn’t proper or correct is a form of racist ideology. We have to always be ready to question what we think we know about social constructs and how we play into them. We have to always be prepared to dissect messages before we pass it on to the next generation or judge our peers for showing up fully as themselves. Understanding and leaning into all of who we are as a people and the diversity within that without judgement is one way to release your brain and body from the stress of racial trauma. 

Coping with the emotional and physical strain of living in a world where racial trauma impacts so many aspects of our lives can be challenging. My hope for you is that you understand that you always get to choose how you engage with the things designed to bring you pain. You get to choose how to navigate in a world that will try to teach you that your feelings do not matter. Developing the tools needed to show up as yourself, cope and teach others to do the same is a true act of resistance. When we are able to fully embrace all of these things, we can really engage in our freedom.



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