OPINION: On the psychological toll of racism

By Sharlene Kerelejza

In the face of yet more Black lives lost too soon in the face of violence and aggression against them, and during Black History Month, I ask us all to recognize the psychological toll of racism on the everyday lives of Black, Indigenous and other People of Color (BIPOC). The lives and bodies of Communities of Color often experience heightened fear, hypervigilance, and self-doubt as they navigate their everyday lives in the hopes of maintaining personal safety and safety for their loved ones. Racism is not widely recognized as a precipitant to post-traumatic symptoms such as heightened anxiety, scanning for danger, anticipatory defenses such as withdrawing/isolating, and more. However, it needs to be, and more awareness is growing of the collective impact on Communities of Color of experiencing, witnessing, watching video replays, and hearing about acts of racism.

We have the choice and opportunity to recognize the traumatic toll of both intergenerational and daily racism on our community members of color.  I once had an amazing social work mentor say to me, “there’s nothing we can’t understand if we don’t listen long enough, and deeply enough.” Yet, we are tired of talking about racism before we ever truly engage in the conversations. Instead of pulling away, we can recognize that not everyone’s experience and reality is the same. The reality of systemic, intergenerational racism does not challenge your individual goodness. What it highlights is a system built over hundreds of years that has had and continues to have profound impact on opportunity, physical and financial security, health and longevity, and even the right and ability to drive while feeling and being safe.

It’s okay to be uncomfortable, awkward, klutzy and imperfect. All it takes to begin is a commitment to validate someone else’s experiences and perceptions of racial pain without minimizing or silencing them.  From there, we can choose to see and acknowledge the negative ways our systems impact Black and Brown lives.

Early in my social work career I spent several years working as a counselor and clinician with children and youth.  One of the hardest things about my job was that while I often could help those I served feel safe during their time with me, at times their family systems refused to change. Too often, I had to send them back into chaotic, unstable and sometimes abusive households.  Being kept in that disorganized state of fear and/or stress meant they couldn’t integrate and practice the coping strategies I was hoping to help them with.  Sometimes with older teens, I would acknowledge that problem, and share that since we couldn’t change the system they were in, our job was to help them “cope to reach adulthood,” when they could begin to exercise the rights and agency to choose how they would continue to engage with their families, take some distance if needed, and spread their wings.

One of the problems with racism is that it’s not over.  There’s no way for BIPOC individuals and communities to escape its insidious persistence.  There’s no “coping” until it’s end. We have the choice to accept this reality and join forces in its elimination.

There is no such thing as neutrality in face of racism and disclosures of racism.  Neutrality and silence diminish the experience of those courageous enough to share with us, obstructs feelings of being safely received and heard, and prevents change. As individuals, we’re not being asked to take responsibility for the whole of the horrors of over 400 years of racist systems, we’re being asked to say, “I hear you saying…. I’m sorry.  How did that feel?  Is there more you’d like to share?”  We’re being asked to accept and believe the answers.

Perhaps this month, for one person, perhaps two, you can be a space where a person of color does not have to silence their hurt, censor their story, or put on their armor to hide their reactions.  You can listen to understand, not to respond. As states around this county take measures to silence conversations about race, we have a choice. We can face ourselves, or forsake ourselves. I invite you to take the courageous step. 

Meriden resident Sharlene Kerelejza is a social worker who works as a clinical assistant faculty member at the Sacred Heart University School of Social Work. She is a member of the city Democratic Town Committee.


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