Our vindication shouldn’t come at the expense of our mental health
Yesterday, I played hopscotch down my newsfeed. Ducking and dodging auto-plays of the excruciatingly violent execution of 25-year-old Georgia resident, Ahmaud Arbery, at the hands of a racist daddy-son duo, Gregory and Travel McMichael. I squeezed my eyes shut in an attempt to squish away what I knew was playing beneath them, too tired to post a paragraph begging other Black men and women to think carefully before clicking share. We’d seen far too many of these videos already, yet, word of the very graphic nature of this one caused it to spread, and with speed, I hesitated to surmise why. And as details surrounding Arbery’s murder crept into our morning coffee, his spirit’s cry for justice grew inconsolable. I had honestly witnessed enough lynchings for a lifetime. I had no interest in seeing another Black body blown into the wind.
America has done a great job of throwing her rocks and hiding her hands, then helping you look for who hit you. Not only has this country orchestrated the camera’d chaos that is the terroristic treatment of its Black citizens, but it has also gone on to live in a perpetual state of dismissal and denial. There’s something about having to prove the rawness of your lived reality that makes you reconcile with that rawness for the sake of convincing your naysayers that it’s real. But what honestly does virally sharing this courtroom evidence turned trauma porn do? But if anyone doesn’t believe in all of the evidence of the systemically unjust treatment of Black people in this country by now, what will one or two videos do? (The answer is nothing.)
Despite seeing photos of Black men swinging by their throats while White families ate picnic sandwiches beneath their feet, we choose to hold out hope. Despite all of the evidence, we choose to believe that the right amount of bluffing and blood will appeal to the sensibilities of racists. We want so badly to believe that literally seeing our pain will move these people to compassion, that one day they’ll no longer delight in the loss of Black life. But history tells us that racism doesn’t make room for condolences, nor can racism be cured by appeals to the moral compass. Why? Because racism can only exist in the presence of moral absence. It is a requirement for racism that you overlook the humanity of your fellow human, you cannot hate mankind lest you fail to see them as a fellow man. So while we’re exhausting our energy trying to petition the souls of the soulless, let us not forget who’s really impacted by videoed violence against Black bodies. We are.
Writer Anäis Nin once said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are”. No truer words have ever been spoken, especially as it relates to the racist ideology. Simply put, racism isn’t something the world can fix because racism is a dedication, a day to day devotion for the racist. Racism is a choice made by a living, breathing individual experiencing this same world with you and I, right here in this historic time. We cannot change the racist, the racist changes the racist. That doesn’t mean we stop making strides to expose and expunge racism within our institutions, but it does mean acknowledging that conversion therapy won’t do much to further our efforts. And that’s not because racists cannot change, it’s because racists cannot be changed by you and me, there is a distinct difference, and here’s why.
Despite the constant correlation between the two, prejudice and racism are not one and the same. Prejudice, which is any preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience, is actually perfectly normal. Temporarily ignoring power dynamics, prejudice is a normal human response to physical, social, sexual, and other forms of difference. Prejudices are formed unconsciously which means they can conflict with our conscious values and when they do, our conscious mind steps in and “checks them” so to speak. For example, I may be an HR manager who unconsciously believes that all Asians are naturally scholars. Now, when faced with the decision to hire a Hispanic candidate with 20 years of experience and a stellar track record or an Asian graduate with a babysitting background and 2.4 GPA, I can either rebut my ignorance and hire the better fit for the job or reinforce it through discriminatory hiring practices. This internal system of checks and balances keeps prejudices from becoming permanent fixtures and impacting our behavior as we interface with the world. In other words, prejudice alone does not constitute racism.
So what happens when unchallenged beliefs start to seep into our conscious mind? Well, a little something called Triadic Reciprocal Causation. Picture a triangle, at the top of that triangle, are your beliefs, the bottom right corner houses your behaviors and the bottom left corner houses your experiences. Now meet Cathy, an imaginary white woman who believes that Black people are inherently dangerous. One day, she walks into a bank to speak with a teller. As she gets in line, two Black men enter the bank and stand behind her. Without provocation, Cathy assesses that she is in danger, clutching her purse tightly and repeatedly glancing over her shoulder to gauge the potential threat.
But this odd behavior draws some unwanted attention. The men behind her, as well as the rest of the bank customers, grow suspicious of Cathy who is now sweaty and pale in the face. They peer over at Cathy, who is now watching their every move through her peripheral vision, as their concerns grow. At this point, Cathy is in a heightened state of panic, sweating, and breathing heavily as the line inches towards the teller. Cathy’s heart races as sweat beads form around the nape of her neck, she can feel all of those big Brown eyes just glaring in on her as the panic begins to set in.
Noticing her obvious physical discomfort, one of the Black men behind her, a registered nurse, taps Cathy on the shoulder. “Ma’am, are you feeling alright?” he asks. Concerned that the panicked stranger may be dealing with some sort of health condition, he begins to take a step in her direction. “YOU GET YOUR GODDAMN HANDS OFF OF ME!” Cathy shrieks, as she darts from the teller line and breaks towards the exit door. Fumbling her keys and cell phone in her sweaty fingers, Cathy can’t get to her vehicle door fast enough. Fighting back tears, Cathy dials 911 to report that an assault has just taken place, a distortion of the rigged reality she created all by herself.
Cathy is what happens when unconscious beliefs become conscious bias, and conscious bias becomes racism. As her beliefs affected her behavior, her behavior shaped her experience, and that experience reinforced her initial biased beliefs. The world can’t reprogram Cathy; it’s Cathy who must reprogram her view of the world. Racism isn’t reinforced by what you see, it’s reinforced by what you believe about what you see and this, ladies and gentleman, is why no amount of traumatic footage will cure racism.
We mean well when we work our knuckles to the bone trying to point racists in the direction of the obvious, arguing back and forth about what differentiates resisting arrest from defending oneself, what differentiates threatening another to a physiological response to physical pain. But we fail to realize that our existence IS resistance, therefore we could never be passive enough to warrant liberty in the eyes of racists like Cathy. Our existence is threatening, and not because we actually mean harm, but because a racists’ world view wills it so. Meaning we are the only ones moved by repeatedly seeing ourselves violated, no one else.
Racism isn’t accidental, nor is it fueled by simple cultural misunderstandings. Racism is a choice. And if you can choose to be racist, you have the ability to choose the alternative. I mean, the Civil War was literally a choose sides kind of ordeal, during which racists made their decisions crystal clear. And if there were ever a time where a shocking visual vexed the hearts of white supremacists, it should have been then. But it wasn’t the racist who was forever changed by the sight of Black bodies swinging from branches like human wind chimes, it was us. Public displays of violence against black bodies have always been used as intimidation tactics for Black people, reminders that any one of us can be next. That motive has not changed.
Monnica Williams, Clinical Psychologist and Director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Louisville found that videos of violence against Black bodies, or vicarious trauma, in conjunction with lived experiences can create PTSD like psychological problems in Black men and women. And with a PTSD prevalence rate of 9.1 percent, repeated exposure to race-based trauma only exasperates our condition. Still, the shooting death of Philandro Castillo was shared over 5 million times. Millions of us shared the shocking footage of Alton Sterling taking his last breath. We reposted the murder of Terence Crutcher from every angle imaginable.
And for what, to sway public sympathies in our favor? If seeing a Black man tied to two horses and ripped limb from limb didn’t change the course of history for Black people, what difference will a couple of bullets make? This isn’t to say our collective efforts and activism are in vain. Nor is it a condemnation of our campaign to force-feed racists our truth, as they’re completely undeserving of the peaceful bigotry they so desire. But our vindication should not come at the expense of our mental health, and if we find ourselves exacerbating our suffrage while trying to convince others of its legitimacy, then maybe it’s time we evaluated why their acknowledgment holds so much weight. In the meantime, do us all a favor and think twice before you hit share next time.