Vicarious Victors

From the Writers Perspective | Mental Health

When I learned that mental health was one of the topics for this series, I didn’t know if I could write about it in first person. I’d subconsciously limited mental health concerns to things like extreme depression and suicidal thoughts. I didn’t know if I could classify feelings that I’ve had and that have been magnified over this past year as mental health issues, but I realize that this is part of the problem. The stigma and nescience associated with mental health prevents many African Americans from recognizing concerns, let alone treating them. We as black people aren’t often given the freedom or language to describe what’s going on in our minds, so generally, we don’t try. 

In June of 2020, after watching as much as I could stomach of the murder of George Floyd, I didn’t have the verbiage to know that what I and every other black person I knew was feeling was vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress.

Sheila Wise Rowe helped me to articulate those feelings through her book Healing Racial Trauma, as she described what happens to our collective community as we watch unarmed, Black men and women murdered at the hands of law enforcement day after day.  The hypervigilance we experience, feeling like death is imminent, and the anxiety that comes with that paranoia; the post-traumatic stress we grapple with, remembering how Floyd’s cries or the shots that struck Ahmaud Arbury sounded—all of these are part of the long-lasting footprint left on our psyches. “Our memories may forget but our bodies don’t,” Rowe said. 

The second-hand trauma she mentions in her book, describing the impact of Tamir Rice’s death— the 12-year-old boy gunned down by Cleveland, Ohio police in 2014—is all too familiar. It’s what causes that knot in my throat every time my husband accidentally leaves the house without his wallet. That second-hand trauma reminds me that we are killed for less.   

Maybe we cried for Tamir Rice because his story reminds us too much of Emmitt Till’s, and we realize just how little we’ve progressed in 66 years. Since starting this article, 20-year-old Daunte’ Wright and 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant were killed by police officers. The list of names seems to never end. 

Maybe we wept for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor because their faces look a lot like Sandra Bland’s, Mike Brown’s, and Eric Garner’s.  Or Elijah McClain’s, Atatiana Jefferson’s, Philando Castile’s and Walter Scott’s. They look like our cousins, our nieces and nephews, our siblings. Maybe we cry because we know that on any given day it can actually be them, or us, too. 

Rowe helped me learn that what we often feel in our community is “racial battle fatigue”, a term originated by Professor William Smith of the University of Utah. She says “his studies show that the mental and physical stress people of color face from racism is similar to what soldiers experience in battle.” That’s exactly what that hypervigilance, paranoia and anxiety feels like—a  battle, every single day of our lives.  Fighting to prove our value and worth to this country, to this world. Fighting to simply make it home at the end of each day, and we are all tired. Tired of feeling like we just can’t catch a break.  

We learned of Ma’Khia’s untimely death minutes after hearing the guilty verdict of George Floyd’s killer, former Minneapolis police officer, Derrick Chauvin. The relief the Black community felt in the rare occurence of finally winning a battle after over 400 years of fighting, was short-lived as we were swiftly reminded that we are still losing the war. We are tired, and Rowe informs us that “fatigue is the way our bodies alert us that we are depressed and in need of rest.” 

But what do we do when rest is triggering? How do we sleep comfortably knowing that Breonna was murdered doing just that?  What is our method of release when going for a jog can be a death sentence for us? And where do we run for solace in this pandemic when our churches are closed? All of our basic coping mechanisms were challenged, even down to the hug from our mamas and grandmamas that makes everything better. What a year this has been for Black folks. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently declared racism a public health threat, providing, I suppose, some level of legitimacy to what black people have been saying and demonstrating for centuries. Finally, a source more trusted than us is offering evidence that structural, institutional and systemic racism “have life-long negative effects on the mental and physical health of individuals in communities of color.”

How monumental for the adverse impact of racism to be backed by science. Only time will tell what difference, if any, this will make, but we won’t be holding our breath—it’s proven to be far too precious a commodity for us.

We need all the mental and physical capacity we can muster to fight against racism, but we are also living (or trying to) through a global pandemic, a deadly virus that, too, is disproportionately killing people of color.  

I’ll never be able to fully express what it was like hearing back-to-back breaking news stories, all illustrating how dangerous it is to be black in this country, either for risk of being killed by the very ones we pay to protect us, or by a vicious virus that has ravaged our communities. Perhaps the real root of my inexpression is knowing that both dangers have the same origin: Racism.  It is racism that allows Black death to have no justice time and time again, and it is racist systems that allow Black communities to have less access to healthcare, proper nutrition, income, education and more. Self-care for black people, often means turning off the news. 

As if police brutality and a life-threatening disease weren’t enough, 2020 also ushered in heightened unemployment rates for communities that were already bearing the brunt of joblessness. Economic insecurity can bring about a level of anxiety and depression that when coupled with racial injustice and health challenges is just too much to bear. 

The full, mental and physical impact of this year may not be felt until years from now, when the kids who watched a man be suffocated to death by police become teenagers and young adults remember what that imagery taught them about themselves. Or when it hits some of us that we didn’t get to say final goodbyes to our loved ones due to restrictions on gatherings. Or when the setback of unemployment from this year is fully realized.  “Normal” may never return for many of us.

Black people all over the world may be feeling racial battle fatigue, but we must remember that we’re still in the fight. Victory may never come in the form that we hope in this evil world.  We may never get a post-racial society, but success for us may be much simpler. Our win in this life may mean maintaining joy despite every attempt to take it away. Triumph for us may look like keeping our heads high in the face of all that tries to bury us in shame. Our conquest may be holding on to the things that make us feel whole, healthy and loved.  Until true unity exists in our world, it must exist in our minds. If the truth of these positive, affirming voices are the loudest in our heads, and if we can end each day knowing that we are valued, honorable and made in God’s image, then we, my fellow soldiers, will have won.  

Joya Matthews is an energetic communicator and writer in Washington, DC. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Public Relations, and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Memphis. She is currently the Associate Director for the Mayor’s Office on Women’s Policy and Initiatives where she connects District women to resources and opportunities designed for them. She is a writer for ESPN’s The Undefeated, where she regularly produces original stories on race, sports and culture. As a past local television host of “Another Perspective,” she is adept at communicating with various audiences and relaying appropriate and specialized messaging.

Edited by Panama Jackson

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