AN INCLUSIVE TABLE | The psychological impact of racism

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I am unable to watch the video of the murder of George Floyd.

I cannot stomach seeing it and have asked my family, friends and acquaintances to not send me videos or images like it.

These videos of violence aggravated by the undertones of racism saddened the world for me and many African-American people. And they serve as emotional and psychological triggers. 

I was working with a local organization as a communications specialist when John Crawford III, an unarmed African-American man, was fatally shot and killed by police officers in a Walmart in Green County after allegedly refusing to drop an air rifle. I led the strategic communications efforts to draw national and local attention to the situation, which included watching the incident as it was presented to the grand jury in Xenia.

A special grand jury would decide if criminal indictments would be returned as a result of the incident. None were. But, for me, it was the day I realized that the consequences of racism are not merely a lack of access, but a system that ruptures the emotional and psychological fabric of those it is enacted upon.  

Consistent experiences of mental, physical and visual images of violence against African-American people leave a lasting impression. In her book, “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury And Healing,” Dr. Joy DeGruy describes 12 years of research identifying the lingering impact of years of slavery on African-American people across the world. According to Dr. DeGruy, PTSS is defined as a condition that exists as a consequence of multigenerational oppression of Africans and their descendants resulting from centuries of chattel slavery.

The result includes induced vacant esteem or a general self-destructive outlook, violence and racist socialization, or internalized racism.

More recently, a grand jury was selected to prepare for an upcoming trial of the fatal shooting of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot on Feb. 23, 2020 in the Satilla Shores neighborhood in Brunswick, Ga. Footage emerged about two months after the shooting showing a seemingly unarmed Arbery jogging just moments before an eruption of gunfire at the hands of two white men, Gregory McMichael, 64, and Travis McMichael, 34.

The incident did not result in immediate arrests and that only added fuel to the fire. The fatal shooting is yet another example of psychological, traumatization for many African-Americans, who are accustomed to being the subject of racially-motivated violence in America.

According to CNN, Greg told authorities he and his son grabbed their guns and chased Arbery because they believed he was responsible for several burglaries in their neighborhood. This rhetoric is not new. Its racist undertones have historically been the justification for the assault on African-American people.

It is present in the case of Trayvon Martin whose only weapons were Skittles and Arizona Tea when he met his demise by a fatal bullet from George Zimmerman in 2012. If we look back a bit further, we can find it in 1955 in the untimely death of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Money, Miss., killed by two white men who accused the teen of whistling at a white woman. 

Aside from the obvious, what all these tragedies have in common is the long-lasting impression it has left on the minds of African-American people. According to the National Library of Medicine, research suggests that racism is significantly linked to depression and mental health challenges. Additionally, on a psychological level, it desensitizes us to our human and civil rights. It induces feelings of hopelessness and it re-traumatizes us every time we see ourselves on the tale end of violence with no kind of accountability, which reinforces fear, anxiety, emotional distress and depression. 

Just as I felt the day I watched Crawford’s fatal shooting, I am emotionally invested in the outcome of the Arbery case, but to maintain emotional equilibrium, I will refrain from viewing any footage of his death. I have made it a practice to take a step back when needed to protect myself emotionally. 

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