THE BLOG
08/26/2016 01:52 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2017

It's Called "Battered Race Syndrome." Or, Something Like That

Andrew Bret Wallis via Getty Images

We are ridiculed for being angry
We are pressured to quietly pacify our pain
We are mocked for feeling victimized
We are urged to 'forgive' in the face of incessant wounding
Our hearts hurt. Our souls weep.
And our minds whisper: Stay woke. Still rise.
 Imani Michelle Scott

"I asked an African American man: 'where does a black man with a gentle heart go for support?' And he burst into tears." - Ms. Vanessa Jackson

We have not reached agreement on what to name it, but we don't need to name it to know that it exists.

  • Dr. Joy DeGruy calls it Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.
  • Author and attorney Barbara K. Ratliff refers to it as Battered Race Syndrome, an expression also frequently used by the Reverend Dr. Al Sharpton.
  • In the book, "Crimes against Humanity in the Land of the Free: Can a Truth and Reconciliation Process heal Racial Conflict in America?" Dr. Trina Brown and Dr. Bentley Wallace call it Collective Neuroticism.
  • Some call it Emmett-Tillism, referencing psychological reactions to the 1955 brutal murder of 14 year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi.
  • It was officially labeled: Continuous Traumatic Stress Syndrome by the mental health community in Apartheid-era South Africa.

Ultimately, the label matters far less than the experience. For determinedly, what each marker attempts to verbalize is an appropriate characterization of the trauma-like responses endured by persons of African ancestry as consequences of long-term exposure to state-based tyranny. In the United States, systemic racism and overt injustices along with the near daily police-involved slaughter of unarmed African Americans at the hands of state actors equates to state-based tyranny. Add to that, the violent imagery documenting police killings multiplied by the repeated exoneration of those who kill and it should be apparent how these circumstances combine to evoke Continuous Traumatic Stress.

In my quest to better understand the dynamics of Continuous Traumatic Stress Syndrome, on August 7, 2016, I spoke with three distinguished African American mental health care professionals:

  • Dr. Monnica T. Williams, Associate Professor and Clinical Psychologist, University of Connecticut
  • Ms. Vanessa Jackson, Psychotherapist and Owner, Healing Circles, Inc.
  • Dr. Matthew Smith, Licensed Psychologist, Atlanta Consulting and Psychological Services, LLC

Below are selected excerpts and paraphrased comments from our discussion, which can be listened to in its entirety at: www.blogtalkradio.com/gumboforthesoul -- select: OnDemand, then "The 411: Conflict Transformation."

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"It's totally natural and normal for us to be upset, confused, [and] scared about what's going on in our society and what we're seeing." - Dr. Monnica T. Williams

Q: What does the pain of living in a perpetually racist society feel like to the oppressed?

Typical emotions involve feeling:
  • Alienated. Angry. Outraged.
  • Overwhelmed. Confused. Unfairly Treated.
  • Battered. Abused. Constricted.
  • Depressed. Traumatized. Grieved.
  • Anxious. Fearful. Deceived.
  • Guilt -- about any or all of the above.

Q. How do we know if our responses are unhealthy?

"The concept of 'healthy' in a fundamentally toxic environment? I'm not even sure what that means." - Ms. Vanessa Jackson

Problematic and unhealthy responses could include:
  • An inability to be optimistic or function well enough to find joy and happiness.
  • Hypervigilance.
  • Sleeplessness and low energy.
  • Fear of going to work.
  • Anxiety about interacting with white people.
  • Internalizing painful emotions.
  • Withdrawing inward.
  • A tendency to "stuff anger" (a habit proven to contribute to the higher propensity for hypertension, diabetes, stroke and other illnesses).

Q. Is there a higher expectation of resilience for African Americans than there is for members of other groups?

"Absolutely ... The trauma proposes survivor skills that we absolutely must have and must enlist." - Dr. Matthew Smith

  • There are racism-related resilience strategies that are passed on to our children for their survival.
  • The "double-consciousness" coined by Dr. W.E.B. Dubose is a legitimate part of our resilience toolbox.
  • We must continuously assure our children that they are strong and resourceful enough to overcome a deck stacked against them.
  • Trauma genes are genetically transmitted from parents to unborn children as survival mechanisms (see The Grady Trauma Project).

Q: Why are we made to feel guilty about being angry?

"I am unapologetically angry ... I don't have a problem with it. I don't feel guilty about it. I am all for 'righteous rage' ..." - Ms. Vanessa Jackson

  • Stereotypes of the angry black woman and angry black man are projections that white people put on us to control us and validate their violence against us.
  • Anger is a survival skill. Sometimes, to survive we draw on anger as a tool.
  • There is no evidence that black people are angrier than white people or any other group.
  • We have a right to be angry.

Q. How are our children impacted? How do we support them?

"... Talk to our kids ... [or] they will make up their own stories ... Often, [their] take aways [are]: people like me are being shot and killed and nothing's being done ... I am not a worthwhile person ... I can't count on anybody ... my life is meaningless ..." - Dr. Monnica T. Williams

  • Our children's mental health is impacted by all aspects of racism in our society.
  • Young black men may hide emotions under the veil of hypermasculinity.
  • Our children feel they don't have traditional opportunities to connect, so they do things like joining gangs to have a sense of belonging; this ends up creating more opportunities for trauma.
  • Parents must "control the narrative" by contextualizing the violence and creating safe zones for children to talk about their feelings.

Q. What are the roles of spirituality and religion in supporting emotional and mental health to deal with the pain of racism?

"The black church is a place where people can get their spiritual nourishment ... and feel good about themselves ... " - Dr. Matthew Smith

  • The church in the African American community is a safe haven and pillar of support.
  • Because many pastors are not licensed mental health care professionals the amount of care they can offer is limited.
  • Many churches are developing mental health care centers as a part of their offerings.

Q. Why is there a stigma about seeking mental health support in our community? How can we overcome it?

"Society has beat us up so much, you definitely don't want to [go] into someone's office and feel that you are even weaker now by talking about issues that are beating you down or breaking you up." - Dr. Matthew Smith

  • There is a fear of being perceived as "crazy" in a world where blacks are historically more likely to be forcibly institutionalized and more likely to be overmedicated and diagnosed with a psychotic disorder than non-blacks.
  • There is the fear of appearing weak in a society that only rewards the strong.
  • There is a long-standing belief within the dominant community that black people do not have or feel pain

Q. Are there any mental health challenges that whites face as a response to living in our racist society?

"[Some] white people do feel a lot of guilt about their culture's racist legacy ... they don't know what to do with it because white people are socialized to not talk about being white and the privileges it affords ..." - Dr. Monnica T. Williams

  • Well-intentioned white people try to work through their guilt. But sometimes the guilt may lead them to do things that are not good for the community or healthy for the person.
  • A clinic in Washington has just been opened to help white people work through their racial biases.

Q. What types of mental health or emotional challenges are you aware of that African American police officers encounter during these times?

"Can you imagine going to work every day with people who are armed, who you know are racist ... and counting on them to back you up if something happens to you ...?"
- Ms. Vanessa Jackson

  • Former and current African American officers have spoken about the racism they experience as an officer.
  • Many feel pressured to maintain the status quo to save their jobs and their lives
  • Black veterans of war have spoken about the racism they experienced from their comrades; some say it was worse than the trauma they face on the front lines.

Q. What can we do to positively cope?

  1. Allow ourselves to "be human" and to experience the full range of emotions that come with that allowance.
  2. Detach from media and external stimuli to periodically reboot.
  3. Seek social support from persons who empathize with what we're feeling.
  4. Involve ourselves in targeted self-care and pampering moments (e.g., meditation, massages, exercise, and yoga).
  5. Link to safe spaces like churches and community groups.
  6. Establish and/or participate in peer support movements (e.g., soul and healing circles).
  7. Join an activist group whose values and goals align with our own.
  8. Give ourselves the "right to pull out" of activism when it becomes overwhelming.
  9. Permit ourselves to work through our personal experiences of emotion without judging or timing the process.
  10. Allow ourselves "righteous rage" and other emotions to the degree that we don't hurt ourselves or others.
  11. Contact a mental health care professional. The Association of Black Psychologists is a good resource for African American practitioners.
  12. Encourage the study of mental health; there are far too few African Americans in the mental health field.

To summarize, many African Americans are fully aware that but for the grace of God our father could be the next Eric Garner, our brother could be the next Laquan McDonald, our sister could be the next Sandra Bland ... and we could be any of them. Our angst is only exacerbated when we see the men caught on video assassinating those who look like us and our loved ones not being held accountable by a seeming "injustice" system. It all hurts, very deeply.

I am hopeful that what I have shared through this article and the radio broadcast will offer support to those experiencing grief, hypervigilance, anxiety, and/or other painful emotional responses to the agony of living in a society where black lives too frequently seem not to matter. And for the record, there is no such thing as a "blue life". Police officers are individuals who choose a profession. We who are black do not choose -- because of the innate melanin in our skin, to be hunted, haunted and killed by those in that profession.

So our minds whisper: Stay woke. Still rise.