“I can’t breathe”. Not only the last words of George Floyd but also the overwhelming feeling that black people have been experiencing recently. A quiet determination to exist and thrive within the confines of systematic racism has been exchanged for a cacophony of anger, sadness and all the in between. The black community has been, and continues to be, oppressed both in the United States and the United Kingdom. The murder of George Floyd and the prosecution (or lack of) of those responsible has sparked outrage across the world whilst also having an impact on the mental health of those in the black community.
As a mixed race woman with both African and English heritage who passes for white, I can only speak from my experience and those of whom I am privy to listening to. I identify strongly with my black community and experience both the trials of being black and the privileges of being white. Even being mixed race and living in the UK, I still feel the pain of George Floyds murder. With death and organised discrimination comes a myriad of issues concerning our mental health.
A sense of guilt may be more reserved for those of us who are white passing and enjoying the freedoms this brings. You may feel guilty for living in a country where guns are not commonplace. You may feel guilty for living in a society where your skin colour is favoured over your neighbours. You may feel guilty for living in an area where your race has never impacted your safety.
I felt guilt for a few days. A massive amount of it. Firstly I felt guilty that I am white passing and have only experienced a small amount of racism in my life. Then I felt guilty that I have always lived in mostly affluent white populated counties where racial tensions were uncommon. Whilst the community I identify with, that I share some struggles with, experiences a different reality to me. We are the same, yet so very different.
The issue with guilt is that if you don’t speak about it and reflect upon your feelings, it will eat away at you. It will tell you you do not deserve the life you have. That to feel safe in your neighbourhood is a luxury. It is not. It is a right to be safe from harm. No human should feel fear walking down the street, especially due to their skin colour. The position I have, of being safe, heard and seen, is one that the whole community should have. This guilt will make you resent your life instead of powering you forward to give the same life to others.
If you’re experiencing guilt for your privilege, use it to fuel your activism. You have nothing to feel guilty about.
Whilst I was training to be a teacher, I came across some literature regarding how to teach children about the Holocaust. A key term stood out to me: Collective Trauma. Collective trauma is the trauma experienced by a specific group of people due to the persecution of one another based on who they are. The concept is that if you hunt one of us down, you hunt us all down and we all feel it. Currently the black community is experiencing this collective trauma, similarly to how the Jewish community experienced it in Nazi Germany.
In the UK Radio 1 presenter Clara Amfo expressed this as she signed off work sick last week to handle her mental health. She returned the next day and stated whilst fighting back tears on air that it felt as though society wants black culture, such as its music, clothing, hairstyles and food, but not the people.
As trauma affects everyone differently, it is important to reflect on your own emotions and what is normal for you. If you find yourself feeling more tearful, restless, unmotivated and helpless I would urge you to speak to someone. There are online counsellors available through apps and websites or speak to friends and family members to work through how you’re feeling.
Although this is a challenging time, let me share with you something that I found hope in. When the 9/11 attack happened, the United States experienced collective trauma. This collective trauma turned into positive action and led to changes in travel procedures and policies that are still seen in action today to prevent anything like that occurring again. We can have this hope that similar policy changes will come as a result of the collective trauma we experience today. We must never lose hope that change can happen.
Over the last two weeks more and more people have been open to listening and understanding the realities of being a black person in the 21st century. Thank you to those of you who are standing with us and thank you for allowing us space to process, heal and reflect on our lives and share this with you.
If you as a black person do not feel comfortable sharing elements of your life you do not need to. You have the right to remain silent if that is what you need to do to navigate this time. Your mental health matters and there are plenty of writings, studies, podcasts and interviews out there to educate those around you without risking your mental health. You do not owe anyone your lived experience.
A lot of documentaries people are signposting others to are incredibly triggering if you yourself or a close relative have experienced institutionalised racism or police brutality. You do not need to watch these to educate yourself if they will trigger you. They are heartbreaking. What we need in this world are individuals that are prioritising their mental health whilst battling for freedoms.
If you are anti-racist you have a fire inside you that burns for justice, equality and liberation. By caring for your mental health during such a difficult time, you are placing walls around your fire to keep it burning brightly even when the winds of brutality, injustice and ignorance come. Because unfortunately that is what we are up against. Protect yourself because the world needs your fire.