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Almost one year ago, on May 25, 2020, George Floyd gasped, “I can’t breathe,” as he laid face-down, handcuffed, and suffocating against the raw pavement under the knee of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Like everyone else, I watched that video in disbelief, cringing at times by the inhumanity of what I was witnessing: nine minutes twenty-nine seconds of terror. Although I was outraged by it, it didn’t surprise me.
That’s because growing up Black in the United States, you hear about the stories — someone’s cousin or family member who was followed, frisked, handcuffed, or even sent to jail when perhaps they should not have been. Instances where fear, confusion, or intimidation caused them to react or fight or run and all too often the outcome led to yet another statistic.
As a Black boy, you quickly come to understand that within our institutions, racism is an unfortunate part of our reality. Yesterday’s verdict wasn’t surprising either, but I also wouldn’t have been surprised if it went the other way. I’m almost ashamed to say that.
For so long, justice has worked not for, but against Black people in the United States, from the death of Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin. Flip a coin, roll the dice, and if the stars align just right, maybe justice will protect us, maybe the people who hurt us will be put away, and it will allow us to take a collective sigh of relief — and to breathe freely again.
Yesterday, justice was on our side, but a guilty verdict doesn’t mean the work ends.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that the hard work is just beginning. Racism is an insidious disease that if left untreated can metastasize and overtake you. In fact, two weeks ago, the Centers for Disease Control declared racism as a public health threat. That’s how important it is.
Getting healthy and staying healthy means doing what you can, no matter what you look like, to make sure that no one has to live in fear. Victims of racism aren’t only limited to those who die by the hands of police brutality—it’s also the victims of so-called microtraumas. Those who are on the receiving end of derogatory comments passed off as unappreciated jokes, or complimented in the workplace for meeting the lowest possible expectations. Racism in any form, is associated with physical and emotional stress. It can lead to an increased risk for developing conditions like high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease that could potentially lower life expectancy.
I often tell my patients at the end of an appointment, “Real therapy begins now.” It’s not the time they spend on the couch talking to me that’s most valuable, it’s the time in between visits. That’s when they get to apply the lessons learned. Last summer taught us that racism is very much alive, and yesterday’s verdict taught us that progress is possible. Now it’s time to apply what we’ve learned.
Here are some ideas to keep in mind as we continue to move forward.
At the end of last summer, we were learning about how to have difficult conversations about race. George Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests ripped a Band Aid off of a history of racism in the United States dating back 400 years. We all saw the video, so it was difficult to sweep the truth under the rug and pretend it didn’t exist. When we genuinely want to understand each other’s differences and ask questions before we judge, we become closer. Personally, I had not had as many conversations about race with people who don’t look like me until after George Floyd’s death. And one of my biggest fears at the time was that one year later, we would’ve forgotten the lessons from the classroom of the summer of 2020. That we’d no longer be having these important conversations. George Floyd’s legacy lives on because we are still talking, but we have to keep talking — with our family and with our friends. Ignoring racism doesn’t solve the problem. Acknowledging it, trying to understand where it comes from, and then working together to combat it does. That’s moving forward.
Tap into your diverse community
I spend a lot of time discussing the benefits of self-care. As a psychiatrist, I can tell you how important just feeling connected to your environment is to overcoming depression, or anxiety, or emotional stress. Connecting with your community is actually a form of self-care. Last summer, at the height of the protests, patients were asking me: What can I do? How can I help make things better? I didn’t know what to tell them, because I was still trying to figure out what I should be doing. But over the past year, I’ve been reminded that we live in a beautifully diverse country where there are so many opportunities to learn about people who are unlike us. I’m always surprised to learn that some people don’t have a single friend who looks different than they do, or that they’ve never tried food that’s unfamiliar. Combating the disease of racism means being willing to explore your environment, and then connecting with it. Visit a church service with a co-worker, invite someone who looks different than you to your house for dinner, or read a good book about the history of a different culture. These are good places to start.
Get comfortable being uncomfortable
Growth can be uncomfortable and it can be painful. When working with trauma patients in my office, for instance, often they’ll get worse before they get better. That’s because it’s easier to repress traumatic events, to put them away, and pretend they don’t exist at all. It’s just more comfortable. The problem with this is that repressed trauma in some cases can harbor further misunderstanding. Getting comfortable being uncomfortable means acknowledging that some of your interactions with people and the conversations you have about race will be a little awkward and a feel a little weird. They can make you feel uncomfortable, and you might be tempted to just go back to how you were. To play it safe. That’s a normal feeling to have. But resist that urge, because just as adding more weight in the gym is required to build muscle, our growth in combatting racism requires pushing the limits and embracing discomfort.
If we all work together to learn as much as we can about each other, I do believe that with every passing year, we’ll move a bit closer to a unified rebuke against racism. There’s still much work to be done, but I’m encouraged that at least for now, we are headed in the right direction.
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