Easing Restrictions to Stay at Home: A Pandemic of Hatred and Uncovering Invisible Tattoos of Trauma
By William D. Parham, Ph.D., ABPP
The COVID-19 pandemic caught everyone off guard, mostly because federal government leaders chose not to pay close-enough attention to existing evidence within the global community attesting to the acute and longer-term consequences of the virus. The substantial costs (e.g., emotional, psychological, economic, etc.) relative to this inattention are still mounting.
The pandemic of racism, on the other hand, did not catch anyone off guard! We have never not been aware of the insidious presence of racism and the psychological toll it continues to have on African American communities and other communities of color. Legendary as well as contemporary historians, Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, artists, educators, ministers, community activists, and politicians have unabashedly asserted that racism, when left unchecked, emotionally pillages the lives of African Americans and countless communities of color. A report of the Office of the Surgeon General (2001) and other scholars (Myers, Wyatt, Ullman, Loeb, Chin, Prause, Zhang, Williams, Slavich, & Liu, 2015) have also been clear in this regard. Racism awakens trauma in African American communities like no other force.
Racism is our nation’s original sin that continues to be infuriatingly normalized. Rooted in false narratives of white supremacy and black inferiority, racism is a cancerous social disease that continues to fester, trigger past traumas, and ravage the moral, spiritual, psychological, emotional, and physical health of our nation. Its metastasized malignancy is evident in the unable-to-be-measured anguish, pain, and heartache of diverse communities of human beings bearing cumulative frustrations, desolation, and sense of despair after decades of disregard, disrespect, and dehumanization.
And, to be clear, the protests showcased through the media in major cities across the United States are not about the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Botham Jean and Tamir Rice, to name only a very few. The demonstrations also are not about the false allegations of threat against Christian Cooper, a black man, by a white woman using the 911 emergency system, who actually was the one violating a law. The aforenamed deaths are indeed tragic. And, it is scary to think what could have happened had the false allegations against a black man been responded to by unwarranted force from law enforcement. When a pebble is dropped in a pond of still water it creates ripples far beyond its point of impact. In like manner, the ripples of grief, torment, emotional ruin, and fear will be felt by family, friends, and American communities for many years to come.
Permit me to also suggest that the still-unfolding stories of protest should not be spun as narratives on “looters,” “thugs,” “rioters” or damaged properties. Properties can be rebuilt. Lives cannot be resurrected. Focused attention on actions perpetuated only by a few represent red-herring distractions to opportunities to expose relationships with the truth: America has not failed at eradicating racism; rather, America has succeeded at maintaining socially sanctioned systems of inequity that perpetuate status quo, have-and-have-not distinctions. Our collective failure to confront the truth about America’s relationship with racial divisiveness places our society at risk for not experiencing necessary healing that has potential to bring about tangible and sustainable economic, emotional, and spiritual health and well-being.
The time for meaningful action has arrived. Talk, conversations, discourse, reflections, contemplations, rallies, and promises for brighter days remain important but are wholly insufficient relative to moving the needle of real change. Histories of lynching, bombings, assassinations, segregation, and discrimination have been encoded in the minds and hearts of African Americans as invisible tattoos, indelibly etched emotional memories of incessant inhumane treatment. And, contemporary expressions of hate and dehumanization are akin to a faded tattoo being re-inked, all but ensuring an image lasting forever.
Now is not the time to “stay at home,” emotionally speaking, relative to condemning systemic racism and xenophobia. Rather, it is a time to “ease the restrictions” on your heart, mind, courage, and consciousness and take a visibly demonstrative stance against racism and oppression, however manifested. Moving forward, four suggestions are offered for consideration. First, do a gut check or honest self-reflection, and assess the degree to which experiences of “privilege,” implicit bias, and stereotype threat interfere with abilities to understand, appreciate, and value relationships across cultures. Be open to what you learn about yourself and remember if you do not like the reflection in the mirror, it is not the fault of the mirror.
Second, complement your honest self-reflection with reading books, or listening to audiobooks, about race and race relations in America. Favorites of mine include “The People’s History of the United States” (Howard Zinn), “Between the World and Me” (Ta-Nehisi Coates) and “The Fire Next Time” (James Baldwin).
Third, translate personal self-reflections and education into active participation in local, regional and national programs advocating for social justice and human rights. And exercise your right to vote.
Fourth, become an ally with corporate companies who are visibly and tangibly calling for an end to racism, racial injustice, and social inequity. The Levi Strauss Foundation is a prime example of an organization making a difference to combat racism by putting their money with their mouth is.
In the words of one of America’s strongest social activist, Martin Luther King Jr.: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends!” On another occasion he asserted, “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right,” An invitation has been sent. Who among us will send in their RSVP?
Coates, T (2015) Between the World and Me. New York, New York: Random House.
Myers, H., Wyatt, G., Ullman, J., Loeb, T., Chin, D., Prause, N., Zhang, M., Williams, J., Slavich, G., & Liu, H. (2015) Cumulative Burden of Lifetime Adversities: Trauma and Mental Health in Low-SES African Americans and Latino/as. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 7, (3), 243-251.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2001)Mental Health: Culture, Race, and Ethnicity: A Supplement to Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD.: US Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services.